Hyundai Alcazar to the Fotu La pass: Great Driving Roads
I am the kind who likes to take a drive down to a beach, gaze at the sun go down and look at the endless waters of an ocean. That is what motivates me. It gives me ideas and always inspires me to aim for the horizon, my dreams. I am a beach bum through and through, and that is mainly because of where I live. In Maharashtra. We have a jaw-dropping coastline here , and sure, while we also have the gorgeous western ghats and beautiful plateaus to satisfy our mountain cravings, there's nothing as majestic as the Himalayas.
Referred to as the crown of our country, I've always wanted to pay a visit to these mountains, which protect us from our overzealous neighbours and also control the weather of our country. I had heard that this is where people go to attain Nirvana so when the chance came knocking on my door, I was the first person in the boat ready to paddle away!
On this edition of our Great Driving Roads series, we went to Ladakh and found a road that we can safely say is not only one of the greatest driving roads in the country, but also the world. The criminally unknown Fotu La Pass. Nestled in the Zanskar Range of the Himalayas, at an elevation of 4108 metres (13,500ft), this is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway, surpassing the famed Zoji La, and my god it is a hidden gem. A roadtrip like this demands a comfortable car and that is why we chose the Hyundai Alcazar. It took us to the Hampta Pass last year and proved its mettle in the comfort department so we were pretty sure that this trip was going to be a pleasant one.
Now, the most preferred choice of road for people travelling to Ladakh via Delhi, is National Highway 3 because it takes you via Manali, one of our country's prettiest hill stations. But this time around, we decided to take the road less traveled. Delhi to Ladakh via the Srinagar-Leh highway. And this is where the gem that is the Fotu La pass lies.
The entire Srinagar to Leh highway is worthy of being a Great Driving Roads contender in itself, because of two reasons. One, this whole region always astonishes you with its spectacular views, they just never get old. And two? These roads! Oh my god they are just breathtaking. If heaven exists, it surely looks like this. You have tall mountains everywhere around you and the road cuts through them, taking you to the next beautiful setting. You pass through small towns where the locals are friendly and hospitable and you don't have to worry at all because the Indian army has got your back, protecting the area 24x7. But even out here there are some parts that are a bit more than exceptional. Yes, and we are headed to one such place that not only is a Great Driving Road, but also a reward for your eyes. About two hours away from the town of Kargil, going towards Leh, lies a road that took our breaths away. The Fotu La pass is all kinds of mesmerising.
We started our drive in the capital of our country on what was a very hot Monday morning and in true Delhi fashion got stuck in traffic even though we were staying on the outskirts of the city. And the urban jungle is where any Alcazar will spend a lot of its lifetime. You might think an SUV of this size might be a task to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic conditions but that isn't the case at all. The Alcazar has a light steering, offers excellent view of the outer world from inside and things like the 360-degree camera make it very easy to manoeuvre it even in tight lanes and while parking in tight spots. The 360-degree camera also proved to be a blessing even in the mountains when the roads became narrow, requiring us to be on the edge all the time, to let the oncoming traffic pass. Who knew that a feature meant to help you not run into the surrounding cars would also help us not drive off a cliff.
We left the mad scramble of Delhi behind and settled into a nice cruise on National Highway 44, doing what the Alcazar does best, munching miles. All you have to do is put it in ECO mode and let the car do its thing. The engine becomes quiet, the automatic transmission becomes butter smooth, the suspension beautifully soaks up all the undulations and all this while delivering upto 18kmpl. A feat that is truly impressive for a car of this size with a petrol power plant.
The drive till Jammu was hassle free, but what lay ahead was challenging to say the least. We started to climb up into the hills and the roads started to degrade, not to forget the heavy traffic that lay ahead of us, but did we care? Absolutely not, because wherever you look in Kashmir, it is a sight to behold. The Alcazar has a panoramic sunroof, which gave us an epic view of the mountains. It may not be great for handling but it brings in more light, making the cabin seem roomier than it already is, you feel more connected to mother nature, it constantly reminds you of how big the mountains exactly are and that feels special.
Once you cross Sonmarg and then the grueling Zoji La pass, you enter heaven. Just a few minutes into this terrain, I understood what the fuss was all about. Why people come here, travelling thousands of kilometres to do so, is because this region is a treat to all of your senses. We've heard that when it snows here, this whole region looks like something straight out of Narnia, and that will surely be a sight to behold. This is what you've seen in the movies and once you start going into Ladakh, the mountains grow higher and the greenery disappears. The tarmac turns brown and everything opens up. You're many thousands of feet above sea level, but you don't feel it. Once you enter Ladakh, you enter a driving paradise.
The roads become wide and silky smooth, with minimal traffic, encouraging you to channel your inner Michael Schumacher. You've got fast straights, flowing corners, tight corners, hill climbs, descents, this is a place that would definitely make for an amazing motorsport venue. It doesn't matter what you drive here, you are going to enjoy this road anyway. Lucky for us, we had the 2-litre naturally aspirated petrol variant of the Alcazar and with 157bhp and 192Nm of torque this powerplant surely made for a spirited drive. Put it in 'Sport' mode and take control of the transmission, with the paddle shifters provided behind the steering wheel, and you are going to have a ball. Its torque is spread throughout the rev range, so the Alcazar has good low end and it revs nicely till the redline, which is exactly what you need on roads like these, once you start climbing you encounter a hairpin every two minutes later.
I enjoyed the drive up to Fotu La in the Alcazar more than I expected. It has proved to be an excellent road trip machine because of its comfort and features that have kept me entertained. Like the wonderful BOSE sound system and Android Auto / Apple CarPlay connectivity. The roads around here are lovely, but that wasn't the case everywhere. To get to Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh you have to pass the chaos of the neighbouring states where there's both a lot of traffic and the summer heat in abundance. Thankfully the Alcazar has very comfy and supportive seats which means you can do miles after miles without stopping and the front seats are also cooled, which only adds to their comfort level.
Then comes the most important bit on why we chose the Alcazar, because of the roads. No, no, not the good ones, because of the bad ones. You will find some really bad patches when you come to this region every now and then and the Alcazar handled all those like a champ. It has more than enough ground clearance to tackle the potholes or deep ruts. The Alcazar also comes with a unique traction control system that you can use for different terrains like mud, snow or sand that will give you optimum traction whenever needed.
We've really enjoyed our time in the Alcazar and when I say we, I also mean the camera crew. Actually, it is the back seat where you want to be in the Alcazar because of the leg room and the space you've got there to stretch and relax. The Fotu La pass stands tall at 13,500ft and it is easily one of the very best roads in the country. Although it takes a little time to get here, on your next trip to Leh, we will suggest you take the Srinagar - Ladakh highway, and not the Manali - Ladakh Highway for once. There is very little traffic here and you therefore have a lot of time to take in all the beauty. So the next time you plan your Ladakh trip, don't forget to drive through the Fotu La pass. You won't regret it at all. Thank me later.