2022 Hyundai Great India Drive: Tucson goes to Kargil | Part 1
“All clear, we are good to go!” yells Rana, our convoy leader, harbourer of encyclopaedic knowledge on the mountains, and t-shirt enthusiast. We are on the cusp of the winter and as it to be expected it has been snowing, particularly heavily over the past two days, so much so that the 2-wheel-drive vehicles in the convoy have had to be left behind at the start of Sonamarg town. The sun is on the home stretch of its race past the horizon, the wind has picked up enthusiastically, monkey caps are being yanked down over our ears and Rana is strutting around in a t-shirt, immune to either the cold or the overpowering sense of trepidation. We should have been in Kargil by now, tucking into a hot soup and steaming hunks of meat, but all we’ve done is lob a few snowballs, down cups of tea and feel the cold slowly, but surely, make its way into our bones. Zoji La pass, the gateway between Kashmir and Ladakh, is snowed in and even though Rana and his crew have successfully got the BRO to mobilise their snow ploughs there’s just too much of the white stuff and the pass has remained, well, un-passable.
Until half past five in the evening. That’s when the BRO gets through to our convoy lead and gives him the go-ahead. That is also precisely 15 minutes after I’ve checked into my room at Sonamarg, kicked off my shoes, and sat down with a piping hot cup of tea. The grown-up in me tells me not to be stupid. Crossing Zoji-La at night is a fool’s errand and you are no fool. But, as always, the 8-year-old in me takes over. Zoji-La at night, opened up just for our convoy, will be next-level spectacular. Luckily for 8-year-old Sirish, he’s in the company of like-minded, erm, kids, and amid the bizarre sight of check-outs happening minutes after bring checked-in, we pile up our Tucsons, take one last picture of the sun dipping behind snow-capped peaks, select Snow on the terrain mode, and start our climb up the Himalayas.
Welcome to the 5th edition of the Great India Drive, and say hello to the new Tucson. 12 Tucsons in fact, all packed to the rafters with equipment, luggage and a full compliment of passengers, what with the support crews also piled into the hero cars. On our first drive, held outside of Bengaluru, many of you asked us about how good, or otherwise, the 4x4 system was. Also how good the LED lights were. Today we are going to find out the answers to all that, and more. I even have the answer to the question none of you asked, how good are the seat heaters? With the temperature dipping to minus 2 degrees I can confirm it works very well indeed. And thus with a toasty back side we climb in formation up the mountains, 12 Tucsons making for a spectacular sight, the tail lamp graphic reminding me of claws. The claws of a snow leopard perhaps? “That’s being too optimistic,” says Rana over the walkies before slamming on the brakes as a Tibetan Fox crosses our path. It’s too dark and the fox is too sly for us to get a picture but Rana, breathless, tells us that sighting this fox is 100 times rarer than a snow leopard. Will have to take his word for it.
What we don’t need his word on is the Tucson’s abilities. Bulldozers have cut a path through the snow but there’s ice, patches of black ice even, and we do not even notice anything. For two hours we climb up to the summit of the pass, passing not one vehicle, the road all to ourselves, an experience that none of us will forget in a hurry. Seventy five million times we told each other what a smart move it was to ditch the warm hotel and head up the icy, craggy, unforgiving and spectacular pass. Also, the ease with which the Tucson deals with, what clearly looks like difficult roads, is as surprising as it is unexpected — a point rammed particularly hard when we come across a convoy of special forces headed the other way, their Light Strike Vehicles all shod with snow chains, yet parked up because they were unsure if their 4x4s would make the climb. We were perhaps a touch too brave to attempt the climb, but the Tucson made the drive easy. The diesel engine has enough and more grunt to climb up even though every one of the SUVs in the convoy was loaded to the gills. The handling is as easy as it is sure-footed. With five on board it’s still comfortable. And they make for a damn good sight, so much so that a 60 second bio-break turns into a 15 minute photography session as iPhones exercise their low-light modes.
For the next hour, descending from Zoji-La, the special forces were the only vehicles we saw, and then on, from the barrier we passed mile after mile after many more miles of trucks backed up for three days waiting for the pass to open and head to Srinagar. We should have got the hint, realised the mess that would greet us the next day, but we’d planned to pay tribute at the Kargil War Memorial and a bit of traffic would be a small price to pay.
God, it makes your hair stand on end. We are at the parking lot of the Kargil War Memorial, and typical of anywhere in Ladakh we’re surrounded by mighty, craggy, imposing peaks with a generous dusting of snow. Oh what a pretty spot we comment to ourselves, before realising we are in the shadow of the very peaks at the centre of the Kargil War in 1999. We have all read about the heroic battles, we’ve driven down this very highway multiple times, but it’s only when the army jawan points out the peaks —Tololing Heights, Tiger Hill, Batra Top (Point 4875), all right there, right in front of us, clearly visible with the naked eye — that you realise just how shockingly close the enemy had come, squatting on the peaks overlooking the vital NH-1D highway, and just how important it was to dislodge them, no matter the cost. One cannot even begin to imagine the severity of the battles, advancing on the enemy sitting plumb on the peaks, right in their line of fire — the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces is just mind-numbing. 559 brave hearts laid down their lives in Operation Vijay, and the Kargil War Memorial pays homage to the ultimate sacrifices of the 33 officers, 23 junior commissioned officers, 501 other ranks and 2 civilians. As we head out the poignant inscription on the archway reminds us, ‘When you go home tell them of us and say, “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”’ It gives you the shivers, but also fills you with pride and deep, deep respect.
In a somber mood we pile back into our Tucsons and drive on towards Zoji La, the peaks of the Kargil battle right there, right in front of us, an unshakable reminder of why these remote regions are filled with army camps and the roads full of army convoys. These are hard, remote, difficult places and in the winter cut off from the rest of the country — but not for much longer. By 2025 the 14.2km long Zoji La tunnel should be complete, cutting the 3.5 hour long drive from Drass to Sonamarg to just 15 minutes. And it cannot come a moment too soon because the traffic jams up on this pass are the stuff of legends. Even though Zoji La has a convoy system where one day traffic goes from Drass to Sonamarg and the next day the other way, the thousands of trucks that were backed up due to the closure over the past 3 days meant a mind-numbing snarl, cars squeezing past the trucks on the rare occasions when the road opened up slightly, everything struggling due to the snow, and the typical chaos of any traffic jam in India. Turned out to be a great opportunity to experience the comfort of the Tucson, the ease of driving, the lovely sound system, the lovely sunroof that lets you admire the snow capped peaks towering above you, the ease with which the AWD system deals with snowy roads, and by the evening the excellent headlights. And it took us till evening to get to Sonamarg, the usual 3.5 hour drive taking 8 long, tedious, frustrating and hungry hours.
Except that’s not it for this edition of the Great India Drive. We get into Srinagar late at night, exhausted I hit the bed without even taking off my shoes, and next day I hand over the Tucson to Aatish who heads back to Zoji La. The theme of this edition of the GID is ‘On Top of the World’ and we’re literally heading to the top of the world, the Umling La pass, the world’s highest motorable road. It’s an ambitious ask, what with the passes getting snowed in, but evo India is all about epic challenges and — up until now — the Tucson has proven to be up to the task. Now we dial things up!
Don’t miss part two of the Great India Drive in the Jan 2023 issue where we attempt to scale Umling La in the winter!