2022 Hyundai Great India Drive: Tucson goes to Kargil | Part 2
“Zoji La was a mess, just keep another option open,” Sirish told me as he handed me the keys to the Hyundai Tucson. He’d just returned after crossing the pass twice in all of two days and wouldn’t stop — in person or on Instagram — talking about the sheer number of trucks that he had to overtake to get across from the Ladakh side back to Srinagar. I wasn’t particularly keen on attempting to cross it again either. The last bout of snow from a couple of days earlier was bad. Trucks were stranded. The army was working overtime to rescue people from the top, and no one could predict when snow would fall next. What if we crossed without trouble and then got stuck on the other side? The Tucson would be stranded there through the winter! However, getting across Zoji La was our only way to Ladakh. In the summers, the Manali Leh highway was an option but in the winters, the high altitude passes on that road get snowed in. And if you get stuck there, you’re on your own. At least we had the army was around here if things went south.
Another option. We wracked our brains long and hard. What could we have done? Something pretty in the Kashmir valley? Maybe Gulmarg for some skiing? Head to Himachal / Uttarakhand?None of that screamed ‘Top of the World’ as much as the Umling La pass in Ladakh, which was the theme for this year’s Great India Drive. 19,024 feet.The highest motorable road in the world. It had to be done. Attempting to reach the top of Umling La was a hard enough task in the summer. It was a fool’s errand in the winter. Fools we must be, because we eventually came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be able to do this story justice any where else and pointed ourselves towards Zoji La, Leh and Umling La after that.
This was my first time in the new Tucson, and it impresses even before you climb in to it. Looks great no? Like nothing else on the road. It continued to impress when driving. The long legged nature of the older Tucson has been carried forward here — it loped over the roads connecting Srinagar to Sonmarg, flowing with them and getting in to an easy rhythm. The diesel engine lives on and made itself felt with the wave of torque that it delivered when asked. AWD was lurking underneath, but hadn’t been called to the fore just yet. It would, very soon.
We got about as far as Sonmarg when we were forced to stop dead in our tracks. Those trucks Sirish was going on about? About 150 of them were still stuck up there since the previous day and needed rescuing. The army wasn’t letting anyone up until all of them made their way down. We waited on the side of the road in the biting cold till the sun set on the day — which was about 4pm because the mountains around here are so tall — before deciding to call it a night in Sonmarg. Zoji La would be attempted again once more the following day, we decided. If still unsuccessful, ‘another option’ would be considered.
We didn’t need to consider anything because the following morning, the sun was shining, the truckers were rescued, the pass was open and we could cross. It wasn’t easy going. We had to deal with all of the pent up traffic from the pass being shut for two days — trucks, buses, cars and even a few mad bikers — looking to get in to Ladakh. Parts of it were chaotic, with trucks lined up for kilometres at a stretch. Other bits were peaceful, with empty stretches until you caught the next line of trucks. Zoji La literally translates to ‘the pass of blizzards’ and I could see why. It was a clear day and yet loose snow was being whipped off the top of the mountains with the wind. I can’t imagine what a snowy day would be like. We drove slowly, carefully. The AWD system was now working overtime, scrabbling for traction on some of the slipperier surfaces. The mountains are unforgiving, best not be an idiot here. Vikram, a friend of evo India and just as good a friend of the mountains, was with us and he knew a few army men on the way. Tea and and a few laughs were shared in the shadow of a 4x4 truck as we shielded ourselves from the wind. Customary pictures were taken at the top off the pass and we headed down to the other side. Leh beckons!
Believe it or not, over seven years of doing this, of driving cars all over the country for a living, and I had never been to Leh. That automotive pilgrimage that every enthusiast worth the petrol in their veins must make, not made. That bucket list item that we must all do, not ticked. Those tiny prayer flags that everyone seems to come back with, not bought. I was excited, who knew what lay ahead in that magical land? My jaw was on the Tucson’s floor mats the whole time too — the Leh-Srinagar highway is spectacular, and I was ooh-ing and aah-ing every time we came around a corner and a new vista revealed itself. The deeper we got in to Ladakh, we encountered less snow. It went from being all over at Zoji La, to being restricted to the mountain peaks towering over us, far out of reach. After all, Ladakh is a cold desert and precipitation here is far lower than in places like Zoji La. We stopped by the Kargil war museum to pay our respects. My brain simply cannot fathom how a war was fought here. It was freezing cold, the air was so thin than more than a few brisk steps left me out of breath, the terrain was unforgiving — barren and rocky as far as the eye could see. And yet a war was fought here. Our land was defended. The only reason I can use the road I was on that day was because of the sacrifice of those brave souls who fought and beat the enemy. I’m always torn when I visit war memorials — the thought of that degree of violence, those many dead, makes me sick — but I also understand that life would be very different without it.
We drove past Kargil, sitting on the banks of the Suru river. At this time of the year, it is a town of monotones. Brown stone houses sit against the brown stone mountains behind them, the hardened faces of the people here blending in perfectly with the landscape. The trees have lost their leaves and the vibrancy of the summers is lost as they wait for that year’s snows. Winter is coming, I thought to myself, wondering for how many centuries the people have been saying that now popular phrase to each other up in these mountains. The Tucson is a fairly large car but it navigated the narrow roads of these mountain towns well. Good visibility, a commanding seating position, bonnet line that was easy to judge. And then darkness fell.
We got in to Leh after dark. Well after dark — it was almost midnight. It was a ghost town, my eyes taking in only what the Tucson’s headlamps swept past, or what lay in the illuminated pools of the street lights. Streets, walls, cobbled stone footpaths and the occasional string of prayer flags. Like every mountain town, Leh wraps things up early particularly in the winters. Most shops shut past sundown, most restaurants take their last orders at 8:30pm. The lone receptionist was the only person we saw as he checked us in and ushered us to our rooms for the night.
We wake up to snowfall. It wasn’t on the forecast but a light dusting has left the road white and forced cars to navigate the streets gingerly. The streets are still empty, but Vikram is quick to point out that it isn’t this way in the summer. “It’s madness in tourist season,” he says — something I can relate all too well to being from Goa. Just… with less clothes on. The Buddhist influence in these parts is impossible to miss with Gompas and monasteries dotting the hills around here, and plenty of little pieces of architecture within the city as well. Is Leh everything it is made out to be? Well, it certainly is beautiful, what with the peaks in the distance being a constant sight and the unique Ladakhi culture being ever-present. The influx of tourists has left it at the intersection of remote and cosmopolitan — cafes serving up espressos sit right beside traditional thukpa joints. You may not find adventure here, but (unless you’re flying in — boring!) finding Leh is an adventure in itself.
For us, however Leh was the lull before the storm. Our adventure was only just beginning. The first order of business was getting to Hanle, where we intended to stay for the night. The road to Hanle follows the Indus river — a spectacle in itself. Crystal blue waters contrast the browns and greys of the landscape, and breathe life in to this land. This road is also a gradual climb, ascending with the landscape as it rises in altitude. Ladakh is consistently beautiful and this route doesn’t disappoint. Craggy peaks loom over the road that follows the river’s lead through the gorge. The sun dances in and out of sight, the tall mountains blocking it out more often than not. As expected, the road surface is impeccable. Occassianly, you drive through a vast plane. Sometimes past giant sand dunes. One mountain was purple. Purple! The road is phenomenally good — after all, it leads up to the border with China and is ritual to the nation’s security. The Tucson, once again, flows with the road. Comfort has always been its forte and it reinforces that mile after mile we spend in the car. By now, temps are consistently in the negatives, and the heated seats have been called upon more than they have ever been before. There’s a hum from the diesel engine in the background but its mostly just great music pumping from the system right through.
Somewhere along the way, we took a call. We won’t halt at Hanle for the night, but Chumathang instead. The boys behind the camera were knackered from stepping out in to sub-zero temps and back in to a toasty cabin every ten minutes, not to mention all the running around they were doing at over 10,000 feet. At this time of the year, Hanle is freezing cold. And none of the home-stays that were open had loos indoor. A poo at -10 in a dry pit loo? Pass. Oh, and diesel freezes at that point. Not a fun proposition. We stayed at Chumathang instead, a five-star luxury resort in comparison. Basic rooms, but Chumathag sits right along the bubbling hot springs that line the banks of the Indus, leveraging that hot water for its heating and bathrooms. Steaming hot bowls of thukpa were gulped, two stiff ones were downed to warm the soul and we waited for the night to pass.
D-day. Today we climb Umling La. The road to Hanle was dispatched before sunrise and with the sun climbing in the sky, we found ourselves on a nameless plane. Proper rally-road vibes. Dry, dusty flatland stretched to the horizon with multiple tracks of cars gone by. In parts it was soft — a thin, fesh-fesh like dust that exploded in to clouds mud as we drive through them. Speed was embraced — the Tucson showing off its SUV credentials to the fullest, dealing with little bumps and dips completely unfazed. Behind the wheel, it was surreal. No matter how fast I went, no matter how much ground I covered, now matter how long the dust trail in my wake, I couldn’t reel the horizon in. Endless. Limitless. Until the mountain approached. Deceptive from the bottom, it turned out to be a steep climb with surprise rocks hiding under the surface. The soft mud or the altitude didn’t help. The Tucson eased its way up — using a generous amount of throttle to keep it going. The lack of oxygen was making its presence felt, I could feel the engine straining already. Out altimeter indicated something around 15,000 feet. We still had the climb up Umling La to go.
You can’t miss the start of the Umling La climb. The BRO proudly announces what it is — the highest motorable road in the world. I’ve been up high passes before, they have never been easy. This? This was the highest of them all. We’re back on tarmac, it would be near impossible otherwise. The road is narrow, and as it snakes its way up the mountainside, the already steep drops get even more fearsome. There isn’t so much as a guardrail here. No room for error, then.
Slow and steady, I tell myself. We’re in no hurry. This isn’t Pikes Peak. Being measured is key because you never know what may lie around the corner. Some corners were deceptively tight. At some points the road narrowed down. The scariest was when we came around the corner and found ice — a stream that usually flows across the road now frozen over. We crossed, gingerly. Gentle throttle inputs, no slamming brakes. Phew.
From there, the climb got steeper. Switchback after switchback, the Tucson pushed forward. Power was dropping, very apparently now. Not an issue with the car, but anything that runs on combustion will struggle at this point. Heck, even we were feeling the effects of it. I was feeling a little light headed and filmmaker Karan was all but passed out in the backseat. At some point, we passed a board saying that we were higher than Everest base camp. And the road continued to climb. So climb we did.
19,024 feet. We made it! The sign at the top of the pass and the prayer flags were in sight, and the Tucson pushed on towards it. Up here, in the middle of nowhere, there was no one to celebrate this massive achievement. No fanfare. No champagne popping and trophy lifting. Just sombre handshakes and respect for our fellow travellers. No one had it easy, but no one had called it quits. Our jobs were not done yet. We stepped out the car. Strong winds whipped at us, you had to fight it to open the door. Outside, it was violent enough to unbalance a man if they weren’t leaning in to it. It was so strong, that my bald head could feel it cutting right through my woolen cap. The temp guage in the car showed a cool -12 degrees. Harsh doesn’t even begin to describe it. I shouldn’t have expected much else.
“The top of the world,” I said to the camera, my voice obviously quivering what with how cold it was. “We made it!”