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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Expedition Wangdu... The trip is over, but the taste lingers!

The year began with quite a few interesting events; and they left me with a lot of questions about a lot of things. Amidst the windmills of my mind, that lingering thought of a pilgrimage kept surfacing and kept nagging…

Pilgrims walk for miles and endure the hardship that He has to offer, and that itself is a part of the salvation. I decided to do that in my own way; we decided to drive to the land that has been portrayed as retribution to life… Ladakh. And decided to baptize this effort as ‘Expedition Wangdu’.

As we announced our decision, the pilgrimage started turning into a picnic party; one which started looking like a dirty dozen gang. I was happy, as I felt I could open up opportunities for so many people… felt like Capt. Kirk!

Phunsuk Wangdu would be happy.

And so started the planning activity. To begin with I did a lot of reading in various portals, and came across a three-lettered man, whose words were like commandments in the Indian road-space. His journals and recounts helped us draw out our plan. My earlier exposure to travelling in the mountains and especially high altitude areas helped me fine tune and anticipate the worst, and we planned accordingly. The next step was to equip ourselves; a wham-bam trip to Decathlon in Bangalore and courtesy the credit relationship of my Harley-manufacturing Kannadiga Sikh friend, most of us procured most of what everyone needed. And yes, on reconciliation we fine-tuned our list, the objective being that we should be prepared for the worst… and the worst being lost in the middle of nowhere with two days to walk, so that meant ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’. We decided to bank upon the Brazilians for ‘kapda aur makaan’ and our Gujrathi brethren for the ‘roti’. We are now a running Quechua store and the ‘chivda’ refuses to finish.

Once the gear was in place, we figured it was time to test it; more like test ourselves! A tall-fair-smart biker introduced us to www.letscampout.com, and we all decided to spend a weekend refreshing our NCC beguiling-days at Rajmachi. So, we engaged our kids and ourselves in tent pitching and stayed in tents to get a ‘north’ on where we were heading. The learning was immense.

We now knew we could take it, but what would take us there, and hence the scuttle for vehicles. It was very clear that this was going to be a driving holiday, so, one would have to relinquish the existing mental barriers of going to a hill station at 3000ft and then cozying up to the spouse and lazying in the sun and doing abstract photography of distant stars in the middle of the day. We were also sure that the GQ (Golden Quadrilateral) doesn’t run till Pangong Tso, so one would have to have 4X4 SUVs with high-ground clearance.

With 3 SUVs ready, we were good! My Xena ,the Ford Endeavour, Kang’s Fortuner and KKK’s Safari finally got ready; and I allocated others to various cars, with a thumb-rule of at most 4.5 per car, i.e., 4 adults (including driver) and 1 child upto five years of age, in a car. Now that the journey is over, I have redrafted the rule to 3.5 including the chauffeur; the child needs more space than an adult.

While all of the above happened in rapid succession, the next two months were sort of quite n lull, and as in the case of any project; this was also the time when I wanted people to rethink, if they really wanted to go.

About three weeks before the journey we again got active with the preps. The dry food stock was bought, the clothing list was put in place, all the gear need to be re-evaluated, the cars need to be prepared, and the final tuning of the map & itinerary needed to be done.

  • We not only needed food-stuff for munching along the way, but that we also were going to need reserves in case we get stuck somewhere. Infact some people were of the opinion that we should carry butane-stoves (Kevler variety), but then if we were to get stuck, then I don’t thing we would neither have the energy, nor the motivation to cook, even if its Maggi.

  • Clothing was very important. We could not go for the ‘carry-some-woolens’ strategy. The decision had to be made for each day. So, we packed our clothes in two separate packs; one pack for the Mumbai to Srinagar & back journey, and the other for the Srinagar to Ladakh Valley and back block. As we were going to be traveling through the day and stop only in the night, we had to, within those bags, have sets made. The most important bit, which is usually not discussed, is the undergarments. We knew for sure that we might not get a place to wash & dry them, because we were unsure of our jack-point every night. This was taken care of by using disposable garments which are usually given before one gets a massage; Kerala or Thai. They did their job very well. The other important thing, courtesy my prior experience, was that one should always wear woolens in layers starting from the warm thermal inners. Wifey, as I knew it, would get frozen there, considering she gets frozen even with the AC hovering at a two-dozen-degrees. This strategy works very well with kids also; as kids start throwing their fits as soon as they start feeling uncomfortable. Importantly, having decided what to take, we had to decide upon what to take in. We were sure that we would need soft luggage for the freshies and bin-bags for the dirties. For the freshies, we used a Quechua 120lts bag that under dire circumstances could also be slung like a rucksack, apart from using a Delsey 60lts ruck-sack cum stroller and a small backpack. Most of all of this was occupied by our five-year-old’s stuff.

  • Xena was the next big thing on the plan-of-action. I knew that the Ford Endeavour is built to endure, but I needed to be sure; with the incredible inputs from the incredible three-lettered man and those from my previous experience with high altitude conditions, I was sure that we needed to be clear about a couple of things, a) there should be enough fuel, so we needed NATO-style or French Army Jerrycans with sprouts, b) Tyre Inflator & Puncture Repair Kit, c) Fuses & Bulbs, d) Basic Tools, e) Tow-Cable, f) Engine Oil, Coolant & Shampoo, g) Water Can. I also needed to get the car serviced and need to spend some time to build confidence for myself. So, a week before the journey, I got all the necessary equipment barring the Jerrycans, and also spent couple of hours with the mechanics to hear stories from them (which were of great learning). Fortunately, I met up with a Service Manager with Bhavna Ford who had worked at a multi-brand service-outlet in Afghanistan. He was of great help as he had spent three years servicing similar vehicles operating in Ladakh kind of environment… cold, snow, rocky. The help that he provided was to provide a reaffirmation of my thoughts.
    • One of the things which came up was that all vehicles are tested at a certain altitude for optimal performance, and once when we cross that altitude, the vehicle still operates, but it no more remains the ideal condition; for Xena, it was 14000ft, and we knew we were going to be above that for quite a long period of time. In case of Ford Endy, the ‘electricals’ indicator on the dash also glows up to indicate that the car is functioning in sub-optimal environmental conditions. By the way, not many cars provide such a warning.

  • Our in-house quack was made responsible for procuring all the meds. In this too, we had help from the three-lettered man with a list that he has been using. Our quack went ahead and requalified the meds, and finally made her own list, and created two packs out of the same; one to keep with her and the other one to be kept in the boot. The list of meds is available, if you desire so.

Finally, the day came when I bid adieu to my boss and colleagues, and came back home well in time. By this time, our number had shriveled and it was 2.5 of us, another 3 adults who would meet us Jammu and a colleague who would fly in to Leh. Most importantly, it was going to be us alone till Jammu. I have never done such long trips with kids, and I was skeptical.

The night before, we filled the gas, and then started packing up our car. With everything and everyone’s stuff in the car, we started feeling as if we were going to be sitting in the cockpit of a Jaguar; no space to move. We were carrying everyone’s tents, sleeping bags, winter-wear, floor mats, dry-food, meds, folding-stool etceteras, etceteras, etceteras. The packing up & re-arranging took some two-and-a-half hours. The two most important things that we had to keep in mind were that no luggage should be left lose as they could be akin to bullets in case of a screeching halt, and secondly, we needed space for our son to move around. We planned to go off to sleep by 2000hrs so that we could leave by 0400hrs, but the packing project allowed us to pack ourselves for the night only at 2200hrs.

I was going to do such a long-drive after exactly a decade… was a tad nervous!

Day 1: 900Kms – 15hrs 40mins apart from a total of 1hr of break-time
Navi Mumbai – Ghorbunder – Ankleshwar City - Bharuch – Amdavad BP – Udaipur BP - Chittorgarh

While we were up at 0330hrs, we finally left our housing complex at 0450hrs. The drive was not expected to be eventful except for the innumerous diversions on the way to Baroda as the road is under-construction. The Baroda – Ahmedabad toll road is something that we were looking forward to. The one thing that needs to be kept in mind is to avoid the highway going over the under-construction bridge after Ankleshwar. So, go into Ankleshwar town and cross over the Golden Bridge and then rejoin the highway-exit near Bharuch. The Golden Bridge is an amazing one; made in the 19th century, it is still standing strong.

The expressway drive from Baroda to Ahmedabad was wonderful although we got some wrong information and landed up inside Amdavad city wherein we made our first charitable donation of two hundred quid to the Gujarat Police made to the Modi Education Fund for not having known that one needs to have a yellow band on the corner of one’s left headlight. Forty kilometers short of the Paduna Toll near Udaipur we stopped for tea at a dhaba called Charan Kamal; this place seems like a motel for the truckers. We picked up two empty plastic cans as suggested by truckers there, to be used as Jerry Cans. When we were young, one of the constants that I always saw was the ‘chagal’ that used to be hanging outside every Jeep; found one there and picked it up as well. Chagals is used to store water, and then this is hung outside vehicle. The chagal’s porous skin helps evaporation and therefore makes the water cool. In olden times, chagal is used to be made of animal hide, but nowadays, people use canvas. Anyways, in another five hundred clicks I realized that the ‘chagal’ was no good.

My energy levels were high and I was good to run for another 300-odd clicks, but wifey didn’t want to stretch it any further; Jaipur could be done today. It was a marathon, and there was no point in doing a sprint at this stage.

The night ended at Chittorgarh at 2130hrs after a 900kms-drive at Rajasthan Tourism’s Hotel Panna in Chittorgarh. We had walked in with no reservation, and that was the point. The hotel was basic in nature, but gave us a clean room, a clean loo and sorta clean sheets.

Day 2: 701kms – 12hrs 15mins apart from a total of 2hrs & 15mins of break-time
Chittorgarh – Jaipur BP – Rewari – Rohtak – Panipat - Karnal

The first day’s performance strengthened my conviction, and I started the day humming Martin Luther King’s ‘We shall overcome…’ at 0630hrs. The first part of the drive was going to be to Jaipur where we would have a brunch break at my dad’s bosom friend Col. Lal Singh’s house. Col. Lal Singh and we are family friends and our friendship goes back some 35 years; his kids and I were about the same age. But, I was focused on having aunty’s paranthas and mirchi-ka-achaar! Slurrrrp! Our short break there lasted some two hours!!! After a hearty brunch we dashed off towards Delhi.

We had planned to bye-pass Delhi completely. The plan was to take a left turn at Shahjahanpur towards Rewari. One needs to keep in mind that 160kms from Jaipur, just before one enters Haryana, there is a left turn towards Rewari; this turn should not be taken. From Shahjahanpur, take the left turn towards Rewari. Keep going for about twenty kilometers, and short of Rewari town, one needs to take the Rewari bye-pass; this is tricky as the road was completely in ‘construction’ mode and it doesn’t figure on mapsofindia. Keep asking people to reach Rohtak bye-pass and then straight to Panipat. The Panipat – Sonepat portion is unrecognizable courtesy the road-construction happening. I couldn’t recognize the town at all.

Anyways, tried to find Shinghla Hotel in Panipat, only to realize it was a banquet hall, and Nirula’s Hotel next door didn’t have rooms! All this time, since Rohtak, my cousin Shuvendu was supplying me with info on Haryana Tourism’s hotels in Sonepat & Panipat; the numbers that I had were wrong! Finally, at 2045hrs, checked into the Karna Lake Hotel at Sonepat. We used to visit this property was back in ‘80-’81 when dad was posted in Ambala Cantt. It was Nostalgic.

Day 3: 466kms – 8hrs apart from a total of 2hrs & 45mins of break-time
Karnal – Pathankot BP – Lakhanpur – Jammu

Today was going to be a breeze. We left the hotel at 0730hrs in the morning. Xena had already started looking as dirty as a rag-girl, but then if she cleans up, her bruteness goes… so, we let her be. We stopped for about half-an-hour for breakfast at the pit-stop. We were thinking of saying hi to my friend Wg. Cdr. Ajeet Menon at Ambala, but the bugger was on vacation at Bengaluru, so skipped Ambala Cantonment and went past towards our destination.

In no time we were overtaken by the ‘escorted’ Delhi-Lahore bus, and we followed them; they were a little slow, but then they ensured that yours truly had an empty road in front. We parted ways at Sirhind. The pathetic state of the road, by now, we realized was courtesy an expressway being made from Panipat to Jullundhur. 160 kilometers from our start-point, there was this huge eating-complex on the left, and we stopped here for Wifey & Monkey to pick up MacDs and for me to pick-up some Subs! While we decided to have lunch later, but we didn’t want to stop over at any Dhaba; moreover a burger would get me brownie points with my monkey which could be encashed for some peace later on.

We passed Ludhiana aka Lousiana and Jullundhur and Pathankot. At Pathankot, we planned to stopover at an old friend, Col. Vishal Goindi’s , place, but the bugger was at an undisclosed location somewhere; but in his true spirit, Vishal, after a zillion profanities, let me pass through Pathankot with a promise to look him up sometime whenever he is back from his ‘someplace somewhere’. Vishal was kind enough to offer to arrange for all acco in JnK, and God knows how much I would have loved it, but it would not be right. The acco there is meant for officers and soldiers, and I, as a civilian, should not have an access to it. People may call me a fool, but had there been no possibility, then I could have taken the help. Anyways, Thanks, Vishal!

We drove further towards Jammu and had the last pit-stop at Janglot Cantonment another Colonel Sa’ab friend of mine, Sumit. In true fauji spirit, Karishma, Sumit’s wife, had all the necessities of ‘let us meet for tea’ ready; amazing sandwiches… reminded me of my mom’s salami sandwiches. Slurrrrp! We were then escorted out of Janglot Cantonment and rushed towards Jammu.

Our plan was to meet up with Sunil Singh Jasrotia, an old classmate, and currently a SHO at Jammu. Sunil had made reservations for us at Hotel Ritz Manor in the outskirts of Jammu. We stopped over at his home to pay my regards to his father, Col. Joginder Singh, and to meet up with his mom, wifey and brats. I was meeting all of these people after 15-16years, at the minimum.

At the hotel, we were met with our friends who were going to accompanying us ahead; Sarita, her daughter, Richa, and her friend, Sathish. That night, we gorged on Chicken te Daaru, with Sunil.

Lights out that night at half-past twelve.

Day 4: 391kms – 13hrs apart from a total of 2hrs of break-time.
Jammu – Udhampur – PatniTop - Srinagar BP - Sonemarg

The drive today would get us today into the famed Srinagar valley through Jawahar Tunnel. I was excited; I am going to be driving on ‘real’ hills today… unlike the ghats! Gosh! How I have missed them far the past ten years!

The other car which joined us was a Chevrolet Tavera with Sandeep, a young Sikh, on the wheels. We left at 0800hrs and after refueling moved on pour itinerary. 40kilometers from Jammu, we stopped at a Dhaba on the left for breakfast. I am not being able to remember the name, but this dhaba is supposed to be the oldest on this route and is famous for Bread & Eggs, and Fritters aka Pakoras. We went through Udhampur to take a look at this huge clay model of all that we are going to cover-up.

After driving for almost four hours, we stopped at a spot 140kilometers from Jammu to have an early lunch, not because we were hungry, but because we ‘had’ to stop at Shiv Shakti Dhaba at Peerah to have Rajmah-Chawal and the accompanying super-hot chutney made with Anardana Leaves.

The traffic on the route was extremely bad with long serpentine queues. After some eight hours of driving since morning, we reached the two-kilometer plus long Jawahar Tunnel. It was time to stop, and we chose to stop at the Titanic View Point, about six kilometers from the tunnel. It was also time to discuss the route with Sandeep, but after a few minutes, I realized that while the guy seemed to be a good person, but I think I knew more about the routes beyond Srinagar.

Our monkey had his first official non-therapeutic tea at this place. By now, I had noticed that people had started staring at my girl, for she was carrying ‘MH’ plates. In fact, at a refueling station outside Srinagar, a guy walked upto me, and wanted to be doubly sure if I wasn’t lost. It was 1930hrs and I told him that I was on my way to Sonemarg, and not only his, but all others’ jaws dropped too.

Sonemarg was still a hundred kilometers away! To top it all, people told us that the only way to go through to Sonemarg was to go through Lal Bagh, but I knew that there was a bye-pass route, so we started moving on the road to Baramulla, and nineteen kilometers from the Y point we found a right-turn towards Sonemarg which joined back the Srinagar-Sonemarg highway after 34 kilometers. In the meanwhile, we had stopped at a Vaishno Dhaba for dinner, six kilometers short of the junction-point.

This 34-kilometer road is not there on mapsofindia. By this time, it was indeed dark and the only light we could see apart from our headlights, were the sparse hamlets that we crossed. By this time everyone was tired and dreary; the drive was long and we had climbed a lot for a day, especially, because all lest me were new to high altitude.

As we drove, the moonlit night started showing not only the stars, but also the first view of the melting ice; it seemed that a master craftsman had done the ice-carvings. We should have crossed this place in day-light. Pssst! Sunil’s friend’s friend, another SHO, had made reservations at Sonemarg in the Snowland hotel.

We finally reached the hotel at 2300hrs… and boy, was it cold. Grrrrrrrr! The rooms were beautiful, and since the season had just started we there were teething troubles, but the hotel was very nice and comfortable.


Erstwhile Bridge

Le Jam

Nothing to do, so click snaps!

Rajmah-Chawal at Peerha

The First View

Titanic View Point Gyan

The Butt-Snap


The tea-drinking experience - I

The tea-drinking experience - II

The tea-drinking experience - IIII

Sand Model @ Udhampur

Day 5: 124kms – 6hrs 40mins; no breaks
Sonemarg – Doji La - Kargil

We left the hotel at 0845hrs and stopped over for breakfast at the Punjabi Dhaba; gorged on the paranthas with an ample dose of butter, and maa-ki-daal. Slurrrrp!

We left the dhaba in about 45 mins only to be put into a holding pen till 1100hrs because of traffic regulations. This patch of the road had just been opened up after winters, and the condition of the road was pathetic, so there was a specific time-window when vehicles from this end would be allowed. The regulations get relaxed as the ice starts melting. This time of the year is also prone to accidents.

At 1100hrs sharp, the holding pan opened its doors; we were the last one from the pen which must’ve held at least 50 vehicles. The scurry of vehicles reminded me of an old episode of National Geographic on sheep-rearing! Anyways, the road was a living hell; the first five hours, we drove at 10 kmph!!! There was no road at all and the ice-walls looked intimidating. Our target was to hit Lamayuru today, but I didn’t have the strength and the energy to go on.

We stopped at Kargil; and Sathish did the honours of negotiating at the D’Zojilla Hotel. All of us crashed and were happy to get off-the-bumps. That night I took some interesting snaps of the moon. The sky was so clear; one that I had not seen for a long-long time.

I had been missing all this… I need to do this regularly!

The holding pen

View enroute to Dras


The Moon @ Kargil

Day 6: 236kms – 10hrs 40mins apart from a total of 2hrs of break-time.
Kargil – Batalik – Khaltse – Leh

Kargil to Leh was a 7-8hr drive and one usually has breakfast at Mulbek, next to the statue of the ‘next’ Buddha, and then go via Lamayuru to Leh. There is another route that was supposed to be the picturesque one, but it drives almost next door to PoK and hence is not open to public all the time. The road is not that bad supposedly.

We left at 0820hrs and started driving out of Kargil, and I told everyone that we shall take the other route, the one which goes by the Batalik sector. Others didn’t have any clue about what I knew, and that there is a possibility that we would be sent back because we didn’t have the permissions and approved route-map. But, then that’s the adventure!

With some missed turns here & there, we started on our journey on the route. The traffic was low, and the road wasn’t all that bad. It was a single carriage-way, and mostly single-lane, but the tar wasn’t that bad. After about 20kilometers, the traffic weaned to an odd-Yak crossing the road, the mountains looked even more desolate, we couldn’t even find a person to ask if we were on the right road, but I knew that we were on the right road.

The surroundings gave an altogether new canvas for our shutters; and in no time all of us started going click-click. We drove past the famed HAWS!

40 kilometers from Kargil and we came across a large set of loops with an incredible ascent… an irresistible pheromone for climb… for Xena! Would this be her cherry-popper; had to be careful. I just didn’t know whether she would actually be able to do a 35 degree climb with a 20 degree side-way incline, and the entire half-kilometer (or so) stretch was rocky!  I consulted with Sandeep, and he readily agreed to it. The first one on it was Xena with 4X4 engaged at 4L with gear selector at 2, and Xena never slipped even once or showed any sign of trouble… mind it… I have an autobox, so, can’t even play around with the gears.

We reached the top of the passs, locally called Point Zero, at 13920 feet, with not much of an effort. Seemed great, but didn’t feel great. I engaged the handbreak, and got out to see the Chevy Tavera. The Tavera got on to the track, drove for roughly ten feet, and its wheel started losing traction and it also started sliding sideways, and in no time, the car slid down with its wheels still spinning and getting confused as to what they could do to ensure the stability.

Seeing that, I smiled; turned around, looked at Xena, I knew she had passed her first test. I felt like a proud father who’s daughter has just come first in her first sprint. After a couple of minutes, Sandeep landed joined us at the pass. He stepped out and bowed to the lady, as if he was asking her hand in marriage. I was not in the mood; my Xena could only be courted by a LandCruiser or a FreeLander or a LandRover or a Patrol; I am sorry, Mr. Tavera.

In another ten minutes, we got another opportunity to act like Capt. Jean Luc Picard, and we went on a cross country through the valley; if Wordsworth were alive, then he could have written an even better version of Daffodils. This time, I had Richa and Wifey, Sudipa, to be my guide-on-feet, as we also had to do stream crossing, nullah-crossing, avert a burial ground, and take on a four-feet drop as well! All of this and no road, just dirt, gravel and stones before we got on to the road once again!

Our streak of adventure was shortlived in another three-odd kilometers when we were stopped by a Kumaoni Regimental Guard post asking our papers. Some fauji lingo and basic honesty led their off-location Regimental Adjutant to agree. Having taken our details, all of our guys took some snaps with the guards, and we proceeded on our journey. We were stopped like this for a couple of more time, but by now, I knew the CO’s name, the Adjutant’s name, and I was honest enough to accept my ignorance, and we were passed everywhere.

Two problems had started arising… we we re feeling hungry, and Xena was feeling thirsty. The Jerrycans had not be inaugurated as yet! We asked one of the monks on the road, and he said that the next spot to eat or refuel is about 60 clicks away! Xena would have trouble, but fortunately I could borrow fuel from Sandeep; but, what to do about the hunger! Anyways, we had dry snacks with us, and therefore we drove on.

The road was excellent and hence the speed was decent.  40 kilometers from the first time the guards stopped us, as we were crossing a village, I noticed a lady selling eggs and making tea, and we immediately stopped to ask whether she could give us some hot water to make cup-o-noodles. To our surprise, she could not only give us hot water, but also could make Maggi for us and could also give us fried eggs and tea to go along… Now, that was a feast.

This village was known as Hanuthang. So, we let our hair down, and generally chilled, whilst the old lady got her utensils from her home and made us our meal. Whilst waiting there an entourage of 4-5 people entered the shop and ordered for the same as well. We got talking and came to know that the big guy amongst all of them was Dawa Tshering, a councilor with the Ladakh Development Council. Dawa and all of us got friendly, and whilst talking to him, I realized that he & I studied at the same time in Delhi, and I used to frequent his college (Hindu College) and vice-versa… what a coincidence!!!

That was good, but Dawa also broke the news to us that the Ladakhi Taxi Union doesn’t allow taxis from Jammu to operate beyond Leh! So, we will have to hire another taxi for our friends once we reach Leh. Luckily, the next day was a 'rest-day', and so, all of this could be planned out. True to our nature, we didn’t have a lead on a hotel for the night, and Dawa helped us with a name and gave directions. He also offered some fuel, but we just didn’t want to take any more of his gratitude. We were now far surer of what we were going to do. The refueling bunk was at Khaltse, about 50 kilometers away.

Dawa had an interesting story to share and confirm. The villages that he represented in the council are a part of an old clan that are supposed to be direct descendants of soldiers from Alexander’s Army. This was a group that refused to go back, and they had remained tucked away in the history till about 40 years back.

Our excitement about the fuel bunk at Khaltse got dampened once we reached there; the bunk was there, but they were out of stock. We found out there from local drivers that we may get fuel at Saspol ahead of the Alchi monastery crossing on this road (NH1D). Saspol was forty kilometers away, and the moment we landed there at the designated tea-stall, we found some locals ferrying diesel for themselves; good news for us. We ordered tea and start inquiring about the diesel. The tea-stall owner, to our shock, said that he did not have any diesel and all that he had was Kerosene. We started poking around and came to know that our guy did have diesel, but wouldn’t sell it to us. Anyways, after a lot of coaxing & cajoling, he sold the diesel to another shop-owner, who in return sold the twenty litres to us. We poured in about ten litres in Xena, and the rest ten in our jerrycan.

We continued on our journey with the assurance that about ten kilometers short of Leh, we would find another bunk where we could refuel. The sun was about to set , and the magic of light is something we captured in our hearts and in our cameras as well.

As promised, we found the fuel-bunk short of Leh. Filled up the beasts and carried on.

We reached Leh at about 2030hrs and started looking for the hotel which Dawa had mentioned but couldn’t locate it. It was 2100hrs, when we finally checked into Hotel Panorama. This hotel would be our home as & when we touch Leh in the next couple of days. All of us were tired, but more than the tiredness, the sights we captured in our head kept us awake.

Sandeep inspecting the rod to wonder if his Chevy could take it

Day 7

Today, we had to get the permits done, pick-up our last co-passenger from the airport, fix up the other cab and also visit the monasteries. We did all of our jobs, but couldn’t visit the monasteries.

Manas, our friend and an avid shutter-bug joined us today. In the evening Sarita, Richa and Sathish went out to see the Fort of Leh, whilst I chilled out completely. It was the first break-day, and would be only one till we hit back Mumbai. By the evening, Manas had started feeling unwell, and started puking. Sudipa gave him Diamox to counter his altitude sickness and ORS to ensure that the electrolyte balance is maintained. A couple of scolding from the wifey, and a couple of glasses of ORS later, he was feeling better.

Shanti Stupa... This was the view from our room... but, we missed visitng it!

View from our room

View from our room

Day 8: 206kms – 8hrs apart from a total of 2hrs of break-time.
Leh – Khardung La – Hunder – THOISE – Turtuk

Today, Xena shall be tested.

The ascent to 18000+ feet is not what usually cars are tested for and nothing that the engineers at Bhavna Ford, Navi Mumbai have ever seen. Don’t I sound like a guy who is about to make a ‘first contact’ with an alien species; I for sure felt like Capt. James Tigris Kirk, ‘…to boldly go where no man has ever gone before’!

We left at 0910hrs in the morning as we wanted to have ample time in hand to get to Turtuk. The (ill) famed South Pullu – K.La – North Pullu –Khardung Vill. drive took its toll on everyone. From 11400ft at Leh, we went via South Pullu at 15300ft to KhardungLa at 18360ft to North Pullu at 16000ft to Khardung Vill. At 14738ft… 60kilometers in 2hrs 30mins excluding a 45minute break at K.La; it was treacherous not only for our cars, but for everyone’s bodies. My monkey was facing trouble due to the sudden change in altitude and was facing breathlessness, nausea and everything else. Everyone was facing something or the other, but I was fortunate to not get affected.

By this time, the ‘electricals’ light on my dashboard was glowing bright, an indication to having crossed the threshold.

At Khardung Vill. we noticed a dark envelope of clouds chasing us from K.La. Seeing it we made the run and in no time we left it quite behind. The run was for Khalsar now where we had to stop for Lunch. About 10kilometers short of Khalsar, I was tempted at the vast expanse of the valley where I could see all three, i.e., the road I was on, the entire descent and the road at the other end… and we again went for it. So, while all vehicles for going up & down the loops, yours truly was raging down the descent like a mad bull. As I joined the road back again, I realized that not a lot of people liked the idea, but heart-of-hearts I knew that a lot of them longed to do it.

At Khalsar we stopped at the Salt Restaurant, where we had almost everything that we could lay our hands on. Even Manas who had been running on a turbulent gastric situation let it go as he dived into a bowl of Thukpa. We discussed later on the rationale behind our never-have-eaten kinda behavior, and we realized that it must be the beautiful lady who was serving us. More food means more puking, but unlike earlier people didn’t puke no more. Whilst eating there, the lady at the restaurant warned us of a bad sandstorm that has been hitting them everyday since the past week or so, and hence suggested that we made it quick; and we heeded to her advice.

As we stepped out, we were befronted by the monster whom we had outrun earlier; it had found us. We made the run before we got eaten up by the storm.

The plan was to refuel at Diskit and then stopover at Hunder to see the Bactrian Camels and then make it to Turtuk by early evening. As we got into the valley, the view in front of us mesmerized us completely. In this middle-of-nowhere, we had entered a desert in what seemed to be a huge flood plain. There were barren mountains and sand dunes all around… and it was cold as well. If the movie 2012 was to have a sequel, they should shoot here. It is absolutely clear that this place had something here thousands of years back. We drove past the Diskit monastery towards the Petrol Bunk which was more of a bunker, to find no diesel.

I knew that from here to Turtuk and back till Leh there was no fuel available. I had crossed the point of no return, and I went ahead without a winch in my thought. I knew I will manage; a very impractical thought, but then the whole idea to travel from Mumbai to this place was impractical; the definition of impracticality lies deep within one’s on mind behind one’s own prejudices & ignorances.

We marched ahead to Hundar to see the double humpbacked Bactrian camels. The place seemed to be a melee of sorts; with all those people who had overtaken me and those whom I had overtaken had converged here to see this wonder only to be seen here in the entire country. I hope they got the larger picture… Bactrian Camels are resilient creatures and that is why they were used by merchants coming from Mongolia on the Silk Route enroute to the middle-east. It was during those voyages that some of them got left back and they sort of flourished around here. The reasons I wanted to stop here was because this was the season is which the Bactrian Camels give birth, and it is considered to be auspicious, but looking at the whole of Delhi & Chandigarh there, I wasn’t quite interested to find out more.

What I was interested was to do some river crossing on Xena, and there was a small stream, but after a failed attempt at pestering my doppleganger, I just went back to clicking photos while my monkey and Richa went for the Camel ride with Sathish. After a 40-minute break, we got ourselves moving.

The next 85kilometers were going to be a desolate ride. The fear of an empty fuel tank was pushed back, and I knew HE would save us somehow; and if he doesn’t, I am ready to settle here. I am amazed at my manipulative skills at times! But, this was self-hypnosis.

We crossed THOISE; it is the last airfield on this route, and if I am not wrong the highest airfield, heavily guarded by some heavy-duty artillery. We took some candid shots and moved forward. The road thereon was desolate, but good. In fact at one point Manas pointed out that we had not crossed a single human being or vehicle in the past twenty kilometers!!!

We reached Turtuk at 1915hrs and checked in the Turtuk Holiday Camp that is run by my good friend Attaullah’s family. The warmth of the all the family members provided us the comfort that we needed.

Turtuk is a village that was taken over by India during the 1962 war with the Pakis. It is the last point till which civilians are allowed on this front. We spent a lot of time with the family members understanding the concept of Salted Tea and the variety of Apricots that are grown there. In fact Apricots aka Khubani are grown here and there are eleven varieties of them. We had lots of them. The village is essentially a Mohammedan village, and while our limited understanding was that they are big-time into non-vegetarian products, we realized that the most used raw material is ‘saag’ and yoghurt.

We checked in to our tents and these guys had organized a cultural show for which we dragged ourselves out at about 2100hrs. It was really cold and we sat around the fire. The cultural show was essentially some folk songs sung by the locals and dance-performances which go along with them. The troupe was not a professional one, but then they were the only one, and it comprised of village folk from all walks of life. The village-teacher was there as well, and took out time to explain the lyrics. Most of them were love ballads or an ode to their erstwhile ruler. That reminds me that tomorrow we would meet Mohd. Khan who is a walking-talking guide of the Yagbo dynasty which used to rule Turtuk and surrounding areas at one point of time. The night ended with a light dinner of bread which looked like a cross between roti and parantha served along with a curd & saag based dish and raita.

There is nausea behind the smile...

Marble Cake

There was a mild snow storm that we tried hard to capture!

And the valley calls me... A kilometer long off-road drive!

Storm... Through a 55-250 lens

The Chasing Storm

The Storm

Sand Dunes of Hundar

Neither want to mount

I care a damn... Bactrian Double Humpback Camels


Seabuck Thorn Forest... There is salt all over and that's why there is a white hue

Read it for yourself.

Ek akela is shahar mein...

Whether to pee or not to pee!

Manas Mandakini

Guess what's that in the distance...

Guess what's that in the distance...

Bridge Caught in the Sandstorm. Imagine how high was the storm!!!

Although this was the condition of the road in some places, but overall good roads

The Guardian... Behind the mountain is Turtuk

Turtuk Holiday Camp

The Troupe

Ballads being sung

Love Ballad

Sathish being invited

Frozen Monkey

Everyone, lest me, jumps in.

Excited Wifey

Seems more like a Monkey Dance

Sathish thinking of jumping in...

Manas... Getting into the Groove!


Sathish... Getting into the Groove.

An excited Sathish... The guy in the front was actually run away from him.

Chilling out in the cold...

Day 9: 206kms – 6hrs 40mins apart from a total of 2hrs of break-time.

Turtuk – Leh

The morning started with salted tea, followed by a trip to the village. In the meanwhile we had spread the news that we needed diesel. We walked through the meandering street in the village whilst appreciating its quaint surroundings, and finally met up with Mohd. Khan.

The gentleman walked us through his Eastern European lineage dating back to some thousand plus years. It was a memorable trip; this is the kind of village where I would like to work. The villagers were very proud in saying that they have their children being well fed and well educated, some of whom have also gone to far off places like Delhi and also the US. The employment rate is high and they are proud to say that they are not particularly poor; they just need some more opportunities.

We came back from the village and I was introduced to gentleman who was the maternal uncle of Attaullah; I was told that he had just gotten back from Leh with supplies, and then someone told him that I was looking for refueling Xena. He readily offered the only jerrycan of diesel that he had gotten for himself from Leh. I didn’t know what to say; he was Godsent!

Now, that we were refueled, I sent out a silent prayer for HIM and we left Turtuk. Our local driver had been complaining about the pace at which I drive, so once we were outside the village, I let loose the Schumacher in me. These Ladakhi drivers think they are the best drivers and our driver especially thought that Leh is the centre of the universe.

We drove hard and stopped at the same restaurant at Khaltse to be served by the charming woman who by now had charmed her way through to Sathish’s heart. The mere mention of her would make Sathish blush; things happen at four-o-forty... or nearly there!

By now Xena had gotten acclimatized, and she was crunching miles like nobody’s business. Everyone in my car was almost sleeping when we crossed K.La, and for the first time slight dizziness hit me. I made the dash back to South Pullu, but the condition didn’t improve much. I had to keep a straight head as there was no alternate driver in my car, and we were speeding ahead. We refueled again before Leh and checked back into Panorama Hotel at quarter-to-six in the evening. Leaving aside me, wifey and monkey, all of the others went shopping. We had the usual dinner... at a decent time and retired to bed.

The tree has stood there like this forever...

The school with its 'intrigued' students

Now that we have prayed...

A Typical CRY photo

The Family Tree

Read it...

The Entire Team with Mohd. Khan of the Yagbo Dynasty


Seems rickety, but can take 5 tonnes of load

When the bridge had given away, this was the mode of crossing the river...

A road-bridge that 'used to be'

THOISE Airfield

Diskit Monastery

Early drive-ins were always welcomed a smile on everyone's lips

Day 10: 175kms – 6hrs 45mins apart from 2hrs 30mins of total break-time.
Leh – Karu – Chang La – Tangtse - Pangong Tso

The day started today without a vehicle for the other team to go to Pangong. Sathish and I were completely harassed by these taxi drivers who in the garb of the Union do whatever they want to do. The Union is a good concept, but the dork sitting there doesn’t even know how to create an itinerary. Nevertheless, we went there, and found that the office was closed, which I think was a lie. The drivers there offered their services and after a two-minute customary haggling show, we got into an Innova.

Innovas aren’t successful there; the taxi drivers prefer Mahindra Xylo or Mahindra Scorpio. Anyways, we went back to the hotel and picked up the entourage. By about 0945hrs, we were on our way. The plan was to stop at Thikshay monastery enroute to ChangLa, the third highest motorable pass in the world at 17586ft, and then go further to Pangong Tso.

The monastery was a monument to the hardships the monk must have gone through to build it. We spent quite some time there and then proceed for the ChangLa. The drive to ChangLa was uneventiful especially compared to the South Pullu - North Pullu menace that we had already experienced yesterday.

We stopped at the La and took photos. Thereafter, we stopped for lunch at Dothguling at the Dothguling Guest House. This had also been the pre-identified ‘exigent’ overnight stop. But, we had a lot of sunlight and the road condition was inviting.

The first glance of Pangong Tso was mesmerizing. The lake is supposed to be some 135kilometers long and the greater part of it is in Tibet. The turquoise color of the lake makes the entire valley beautiful; colors run riot here. We checked in the Martsimik La Resort, and made for a run for Spangmik, for no apparent reason. The seven-kilometer patch technically had no road!

Once we came back, we checked into our tents and made some acquaintances. Met Sandeep Bhandari of Bhandari Homeopathic Labs… Cool Dude! We plan to go on a long trip like this together next year.

View from the Thikshay Monastery

Look at the Electric Supply Pole, and then the perspective becomes clearer...


Our acco for the night

Manas @ 0400hrs

Panoramic View

Day 11: 296kms – 8hrs 35mins apart from 1hr 15mins of total break-time.
Pangong Tso – Tangtse – Chang La – Karu – Mahe - Tso Moriri
It was cold in the night… very cold! The sleeping bags helped a lot. Manas had tried to wake me up at 0500hrs for a photoshoot, but I refused to budge.

My experience till now, with regards to timing, had not been great with distances more than 200kilometers, and I was in a hurry to leave. To be honest, I wanted to go the Tsaga route, but we had to go back the same route as we had fallen short of copies of the Permit and the driver of the other car had given the same to someone at Dothguling to get copies. And moreover, it was a team-decision.

So, at about 0845hrs we left, and raced towards ChangLa. We wanted to be at Karu by Lunch. The wildlife in this region basically consists of Kiyangs and a Marmots (largest rodent in India), and both of them were a common sight.

The drive was smooth, but at the base of the final ascent of ChangLa, I noticed a huge amount of drag on Xena; 20kmph at 2500RPM. I knew something was wrong, and it is then I realized that Xena had been punctured. The narrow road had slush and icicles all over and I didn’t want to take a chance to repair the tyre or change it. We were 3 kilometers away and at about 15000ft. The next 3 kilometers would see us moving up another 2500ft. We knew it would be even more difficult there, but then we would also get help there, so, we decided against stopping and moved on and take care of the puncture there at the La. The drive to the La was slow, but Xena performed ably. Once at the top, all of us got to the job after deciding against repairing the puncture as we figured that the last 3 kilometers must have damaged the tires even more. So, we quickly changed the tyre; and don’t forget that we were at 17586ft. The faujis there were also amazed at the speed in which we changed the wheel, and in about ten minutes flat, we were back on the road, racing towards Karu for lunch.

The lunch at Karu was uneventful, except for the fact that we discovered that the tyre had now developed seven punctures. Got all seven of them repaired, much against the wishes of the Khalsa repair-fellow. He wanted me to put a tube, and I didn’t want to try out anything. I just wanted to be back on the road.

The tarmac was smooth all the way till Sumdo, and that is where we took a left turn towards Tso Moriri. We were now driving on the base of a narrow gorge which seemed to be a like a conduit to the ‘other’ side. The drive was beautiful, and within a kilometer, we could see a change in the colors. All the time from Sumdo onwards, we were enchanted for various reasons; I know mine. The topography there provided enough opportunities to go up & down the terrain, and I shall crush them on my return.

In about fifteen kilometers we came across a green colored lake with a thin sheet of shimmer covering it; the view was scintillating. The beauty of this lake got enhanced when we looked at it from the other end, from where it looked turquoise with the thin silver shimmer covering it half-way. With the sight captured in our hearts, we went forward the next seven kilometers in search for Tso Moriri.

The terrain ahead of us was like a huge piece of plateau and it gave us enough opportunities to drive in any direction and at any speed. The first view of the lake was not far-off, and whilst there was a proper road going on the left, I knew we had to go right. This, possibly, was the same turn which two tourists, Aarti & Harsh, had taken last year, and had landed on the other side of the lake.

As we got close to the lake, we realized that the lake was now a protected reserve, and the hoarding there boasted of all of the birds that flock the lake. We drove alongside the lake for quite some time; the most amazing part being that even from a 20feet height we could see the stones beneath the water. The water was absolutely clean!

We reached the BRTF post where we were asked for our permits. This was one place where we were completely planned to pitch our tents, as we had no accommodation and we had no clue. On asking the guards there, they guided us to a camp set-up just behind their camp. Sathish could manage a great deal there. The outfitters, Camps of Ladakh, were extremely hospitable.

An interesting conversation took place there with the local boys about Hanle, and I told them about the dismembered hands of the witch and her son at Hanle and the observatory at Hanle, and most were amazed at our levels of knowledge; this is the true power of the internet and especially that of social networking.

We also met with Pierre Eduoard from Switzerland here; He and his friend were planning to scale a mountain that they showed us.

After a quick tea, all barring my wife hopped into Xena to go to the banks of the river. Manas had to click photos with his new cam. This was also the spot when we took out the bottle of Old Monk which had not seen the light of the day yet. It was jarrrrrrringly cold and Sathish, Sarita and I took sips to warm ourselves, but there was no respite. After about twenty minutes, when our ears lobes started feeling like leeches about to slip off from our bodies, we decided to go back.

The food in the night was simple, and we retired early.

Day 12: 229kms – 6hrs apart from a total of 2hrs of break-time.
Tso Moriri – Mahe – Karu - Leh

I was woken awake at 0400hrs by the sound of an engine cranking; a car parked somewhere nearby was trying to crank up. The bugger kept cranking, but the car refused to start. Anyways after a record eight minutes of continuous cranking, the car came to life. I stepped out to see if everything was alright, but couldn’t stand out for even a moment; it was cold, and within moments my toes started becoming numb. The only respite was to retire to the cozy confines of my sleeping bag. Just as I stepped in, Manas started calling me out for the sunrise shoot, to which my answer was a simple ‘No’. Anyways, Manas did go.

It was only at breakfast that we discovered that Manas had made the foray and almost got frozen; he was in no position to even hold on to the tripod. Whilst talking to the outfitters, we found that the temperature had dropped to nine degrees below zero!

The breakfast was simple, but we enjoyed the eggs a lot. Pierre and I got into a discussion on Swiss GDP and comparing the same with that of India and etc etc… and that got us late by about twenty minutes; we started at 0930hrs from Tso Moriri.

The journey back was rather uneventful, except for the fact that the first 22 kilometers saw me driving less over the road, and more over the hills!!!

We stopped for an hour at Karu, and then stopped at Hemis Monastery for an hour. We checked into the Hotel Panorama at 1730hrs.

Tomorrow, we start our drive back to Mumbai. I had six days to join back work, and I needed a day of rest at Mumbai, so that leaves me with 5 days. I had to take the chance, although I knew very well that for a single driver, five days is a little stretch, and especially when there is no room for error. The plan for tomorrow was to try to reach Sonemarg, make an effort for Dras, and for sure get to Kargil.

I couldn’t sleep through the night; driving all this way was taking its toll. I hadn’t told wifey that I had developed a tingling sensation in my lower lumbar area. I just hope it didn’t turn out for the worse, a slip disc. I have had an interesting history with my lower lumbar muscles.

The target was to get loaded by 0530hrs, and move out by 0600hrs.

The Marmot

Day 13: 284kms – 7hrs 40mins apart from a total of 3hrs of break-time.
Leh – Khaltse - Kargil - Dras

We left the hotel at 0630hrs. We wanted to be on the higher pull so that we don’t lose our advantage on time.

About an hour’s drive from Leh, is the Patthar Sahib Gurudwara. We went all around the temple, and read through most of the manuscripts on the wall. This place of worship is considered to be alive, and every long distance driver would stop here to take the blessings from the Guru.

Another five minutes of drive, and one gets to the Magnet Hill; a strange geological phenomenon. The mineral deposit in the surrounding hills does something there due to which it creates a gravitation pull away from the natural gravitational pull. My two tonne baby got pulled as well. We tried the experiment for a couple of times, completely oblivious to the few others who were there as well to take photos… that was the child in us.

We had planned to stop at Lamayuru and go via Mulbek to see the statue of the next Buddha, ‘Maitreya’. The drive back started well and we did good timing. Mornings are the best to catch the speed on highways, and even with the 90mins of breaks at the Gurudwara & Magnet Hill and the breakfast stop at Saspol (the same place we bought fuel  whilst on our way to Leh), we crossed Khaltse at 0930hrs.

Khaltse is the point where one needs to decide whether one needs to go via Lamayuru or via Batalik to Kargil. Fifteen kilometers short of Lamayuru, we were diverted to the old highway due to blasting on the main highway. This older road is narrow and very steep at points, and almost difficult for two vehicles to cross each other at a lot of points, but luckily, our vehicle was the first one, so we were zooming past. We didn’t get even one vehicle from the opposite direction for the next twenty five kilometers, until we touched the main highway ahead of Lamayuru. Sandeep's Tavera was lagging about ten minutes behind us and got delayed a little more as an Army convoy had just entered the loops.

We tried to convince the local guards there to allow us to go to Lamayuru, but even after having waited for ten-fifteen minutes, we could not get an access as the Army convoy still stuck around the corner, and they didn’t want to offend the Army by allowing us. Supposedly the Army convoy had waited there for about half an hour to get an access to the main highway, but the BRTF (Border Roads Task Force) guys had refused. So, we finally ended up not seeing Lamayuru. Our bad luck!

130kms from Leh, one crosses FotuLa; at 13479ft, it is the highest point on the Srinagar – Leh highway. Keeping our target in mind, we had decided not to stop for lunch, however, the road here takes its toll, and the other vehicle had to stop. Today was the day for road-blocks and Convoys.

After Mulbek, we were stopped again for about an hour due to road burstings and after having crossed Kargil, we had to cross a convoy of nearly 80 vehicles. The convoy-crossing was fun with my son on a counting spree. The crossing-exercise was a test of driving regulations; that is you follow driving regulations, and ask for ‘side’, and only overtake when the vehicle in front gives you the ‘right’ signal. Now that is known to everyone, but the discipline with which the Army convoy follows it makes life that much stress-free.

We reached Drass at 1700hrs to find out that the road gets closed for traffic at 1600hrs. Gosh! Had those road-blockages and convoys not been there, we would have made it through and would’ve landed up in Sonemarg, but on the brighter side, we had made it to Dras.

Reaching Dras was one, but finding a place to stay was another. The Demand-Supply situation is way-off; it seemed like there were a thousand taker for about forty shitty rooms that were available. Luckily, we managed to get hold of ‘chacha-jaan’ at the J&K Tourism complex and got ourselves three rooms. By the evening the room that was available at 500 bucks a night had started costing 1500 bucks a night!

Apart from the fact that Dras was in the centre of action during the Kargil face-off with our neighbours, this place is also famous for being the second-most coldest inhabited place on earth; on 14th January of 2011, the temperature here had dipped to sixty degrees centigrade below zero!!!

The other vehicle came in about an hour later. Poor chaps had got stuck behind the convoy. Dinner was the next on the agenda, and that was ordered at a nearby restaurant which also gave room-service at the J&K Tourist Complex. We did a lot of low-light photography, most of which were useless. Anyways, we did not have much to do, as from the time we checked in to the time we checked-out, we weren’t graced by Ms. Electricity. Outside, at least the moon light striking off the snow-clad mountains was something that one could enjoy. The electricity issue finally gave our Quechua lanterns to show their prowess; and we had both our monkeys jumping around with the lanterns.

Whilst talking to locals at the restaurant, we had found out that the road opens up for down-traffic at 0400hrs and we had to go in quickly. Manas and I decided to use our experience till now, and decided on leaving at about 0500hrs, for we knew that everyone would be planning to leave at 0400hrs, and there would be utter chaos. We communicated 0430hrs to the rest of the team, and burrowed ourselves in our sleeping bags for the night.

The tingling sensation in my lower-back had re-emerged.

Day 14: 508kms – 16hrs 20mins apart from a total of 90mins of break-time.
Dras – Doji La – Sonemarg – Srinagar BP – Udhampur BP – Dayal Chak – Lakhanpur - Madhopur

Today’s day was going to be the killer. I felt guilty for not having told my cow about it before-hand, but she is a sporting woman, and excuses similar petty misdemeanors of mine from time to time.

We left at 0450hrs from the hotel, and were planning to race past most of the road till such time we didn’t hit the ascent to ZojiLa, but to our dismay, the terrain had changed completely, and while we still had ice-walls on the sides, the iced roads had mangled and changed to slush-pools.

Xena started squeaking like nobody’s business; and in the midst of all of this we also had to overtake other sluggish vehicles. There were well-honed hands driving Innovas and Taveras overtaking us from left, right & centre, but Xena would always get to be in the front, because of her sheer capability to crunch through slush and mud and every other thing.

After about three hours of driving, we were welcomed by a serpentine queue of vehicles which seemed to stretch for the next two kilometers; and all of them had stopped because there had been an overturn ahead. We waited and waited and waited; and some of those Innovas and Taveras squeezed past us on the narrow road to get ahead in the queue, but everything was dead-still. The word came back from the truckers that we might have to stop here for long as the BRTF guys were finding it difficult to remove the vehicle and clear off the road. To top up my anxiety, truckers had already started cooking their breakfasts on the side of the road, giving me a feeling of giving-up. I switched-off the music, as I knew that if we were to get stuck here for long, then we had to have power, and food & warmth; the essentials for survival. All other occupants in the car were asleep, and I was getting tensed by the minute; a trucker also came by and asked if I would like to have some tea.

Time went by and minutes seemed hours. Having waited for about 45minutes, I decided to tell wifey about the plan that would never get done today. She has the uncanny ability to give reassurance at the times that I need it most. Anyways, after what seemed to have been three hours, which was actually about an hour, and we could see the serpent moving. In no time, all of us were moving. By this time, our Tavera which was somewhere way back had squeezed itself between trucks and had reached just behind us.

Now, was the time for catching up, but with this huge convoy of unruly drivers, not the truckers, it would be difficult, more so because half of the road was all ice, rocks and slush. And then it struck me that that was the exact reason which would give me a golden pass, and it did. In the next twenty five odd minutes, I became the head of the serpent, with all, yes ‘all’, of the vehicles behind me. Xena’s valor was unmatched and I could see other vehicles trying to take the same track as ours, but failing to do so. It was all 4X4 and 4L, and the rest was handled by the autobox. Apart from the ladder-chassis which gave a constant feeling of being on the swing, nothing else mattered for Xena. Infact I found out that her Jap counterpart from Toyota was finding it difficult even with its All-Wheel-Drive.

We reached Sonemarg at 0915hrs, and the other car joined us about twenty minutes later. This was our breakfast stop and also the point where we would part ways with the rest of the team. Sarita-Sathish-Richa had a train to catch from Udhampur the next afternoon and Manas had a flight the next afternoon as well… so, they had time. After a hearty breakfast of paranthas and daal, we bid adieu to the rest of the gang at 1020hrs and left Sonemarg.

The target was to bye-pass Jammu completely by taking a route that is not frequented by many, from Udhampur, and end up the day in Madhopur or Pathankot on the other side of the J&K border. A long shot, but how would we know if we didn’t try. The drive from Sonemarg to Srinagar bye-pass was riddled with traffic of tourists who were on their way up to Sonemarg to go and see the glacier on a mule. It took us an hour and a half to reach the Woyil bye-pass to Baramulla. This road would take us on the Srinagar – Baramulla highway from where we would take a left turn to go past the fringes of Srinagar towards Jawahar Tunnel. Another forty minutes and we were on that highway having bye-passed Srinagar, also having made a promise to myself that I would get wifey and monkey to Srinagar in the next two years ‘by air’ and show them the beauty of this place; no one should miss it. The last time I was in Srinagar was in 1984, and we had had an awesome time. Refuelled here as well, and we were away from Srinagar by 1230hrs.

The only stop that we wanted to make was at a specific shop at Qazigund near the Gurudwara to pick up Rajmah (Kidney Beans); it is here that we picked up some awesome almonds from POK as well. Lunch today was chivda, biscuits, sliced sponge cakes and juice; we couldn’t afford to stop. Traffic on this road as usual was heavy with couple of one-way accesses, anyways, we crossed PatniTop at 1830hrs and in an hour were at the outskirts of Udhampur taking the Dhar Road, which is the road that one takes to reach Dayal Chak on the Jammu – Pathankot highway.

At about 2000hrs, and after having driven straight for ten hours, we stopped for tea at a non-descript tea stall at the edge of a precipice. The traffic on this road was lean, and I for sure, wasn’t very sure of my decision. The tingling in my back had already become a tango, but this was no time to whine, as I knew something was going to squeak if I were to push hard to get that extra day of rest at Mumbai. After sometime on this road, the road became completely desolate with no vehicle in front or behind us. We crossed a point were there were no clear indications, and it was only five kilometers ahead that we found that we had to go back and take the other turn. We did that and the road became even more desolate with no villages to cross by as well. It was a run for about twenty five kilometers on a dark desolate narrow road before we hit the highway at DayalChak. Lakhanpur, the border of J&K was still forty clicks aways, and it was already 2200hrs.

Our phone started working, and the first call I got was from my boss giving me the wonderful news on our bonus payouts. After about thirty-forty minutes of driving, we crossed two big motels on our right, and that was the ray of hope that we were looking for, yet we weren’t on the other side of the border, and we decided that if we didn’t find anything for the next twenty minutes, we would come back. Soon enough, we were at the Lakhanpur border, the guard told us that in another fifteen-twenty kilometers, we would get to Pathankot. I knew that even if we don’t get anything, I could call up my friend, Vishal Goindi, and check-in at his home.

Shortly, after the border, we came across this small garish motel on the left called Jal Mahal. I stopped to check whether rooms were available, and had an interesting conversation with the guy there. He asked me if I were alone, and would want some company, and I said that I wasn’t alone. To that he asked if I had a woman alongwith, to my assertion he gave a sly smile, and to that I told him that we were two males and a female, and this guy was all smiles-for-miles. He asked me if I would like to have two rooms, so that we could do the rounds, to which I told him that all three of like to sleep together. He knew he would make a killer deal tonight with two horny bastards looking for a room at this time of the hour. He asked for 1500 bucks, and then I threw the bombshell that it was a family of three; the rate slid down to 800 bucks! Neat profit for us! WoW!... and now we could sleep.

We finally checked-in after ten minutes at2250hrs. We were all hungry and could gobble down a bear; to begin with I gobbled down a beer whilst we took rounds at the shower. The day ended at midnight.

The Serpentine Queue

Day 15: 524kms – 10hrs 50mins apart from 1hr of total break-time.
Madhopur – Pathankot BP - Ambala Cantt – Delhi

The morning started with a squeak in my back, and in the next hour, I had a sore back.

We left the hotel at 0940hrs after a hearty breakfast. As we were driving out, we started reporting back to friends n family, as our phones were now working. In about two hours the pain in my lower back had became excruciating, and I had to take support on all sides with cushions & pillows to ensure that I was able to stay straight on the wheel.

We bye-passed the towns of Tanda, Amritsar and Jullundhur quietly, and after that started the long under-construction portion of the highway all the way to Karnal. It was quite a pain, but the silver lining was that we were going to go through Ambala Cantonment, where we had spent seven years (1977 – 1984), however, the only thing that I would be able to do is to call upon my Harley-manufacturing Kannadiga Sikh friend’s parents, who are also based out of Ambala.

I took wifey and monkey to my school in which I used to study, Army School, now known as Army Public School. Also took them to the house in which my younger brother was born, showed them where Col. Lal Singh (the same friends with whom we had had brunch in Jaipur) used to stay, and also showed them all those spots that were clearly etched in my memory. After this fifty minutes detour, we got back on the highway at 1630hrs. The target was to hit Delhi and also make a quick stop at my friend Happy’s home to meet up with the family, and especially his mother.

Driving through Delhi was an enthralling experience, especially, as I was driving through the roads of my beloved city after seven years! By no means should you think that the roads were empty and that it was a smooth drive, but compared to Aamchi Mumbai, at least the roads were wide and the traffic moved faster than a snail. We didn’t want to try any heroics on my memory of the roads of Delhi, and decided to take the Ring Road all the way to Pragati Maidan and then cut through to The Oberois, Lajpat Nagar, Moolchand and cross over to Greater Kailash, Nehru Place and finally to Chittaranjan Park.

Happy’s family was pleasantly surprised, and after having spent about forty five minutes there, we finally headed for my maternal uncle’s home for the overnight stop. Sharing of experiences and stories got us to sleep past midnight. The lumbar pain had become unbearable, and by this time I had crammed myself with all kind of pain killers, and applied all kinds of balms and sprayed many a pain-release sprays.

Day 16: 683kms – 12hrs apart from a total of one hour of break-time.
Delhi – Jaipur – Chittorgarh BP – Udaipur
We left early considering it was a Sunday, and Delhi takes its sweet time to get on streets on a Sunday. We drove via Qutub Minar and Chattarpur to Gurgaon to meet up with our close friend Akshay Bald Eagle Duggal and his charming wife, Ritika. Duggal & I go back to college days and have been close friends since. My wife had not met Ritika ever, so it was almost ritualistic, and she also wanted to see as to whom did our large-sized Gorilla had finally convinced to get married to him. Ritika has done a favour to humanity… Bless You! A point to be noted is that Doggie had promised us a great breakfast of sausages and sandwiches, but the bugger got neither… and I shalt not forgive thou, Eagle!

Anyways, after a forty five minute break with the couple, we scooted on NH8, and barring a short jam of five odd minutes, we flew towards Jaipur. In Jaipur, we took a wrong turn somewhere, and spent an hour getting out of Jaipur.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon, we stopped at the New Jaipur Restaurant on the GVT Expressway, for lunch. This spot is thirty clicks from the toll on the Jaipur side. The place is quite shitty and service is awful. In about two and a half hours we bye-passed Bhilwara, and in another hour we left behind Chittorgarh as well.

I took it a little easy from here and in an hour we touch Udaipur. We had taken some help from my colleague, Mihir, to figure out a hotel in Udaipur which took about half an hour to locate & drive to. The hotel, Raghu Mahal, is highly suggested; comfortable bed, clean sheets, neat toilets, great service.

By this time, wifey was helping me in and out of the car. I was literally bent and almost walking with my hands rested on my knees. I had to take the support of the wall to stand straight, and thereafter I couldn’t bend. The pain was excruciating.

Day 17: 777kms – 12hrs apart from a total of one hour of break-time.
Udaipur – Amdavad BP – Baroda BP – Bharuch BP – Ghorbunder – Navi Mumbai

Today was the last day of this great trip of ours, and we had finally managed to get to Mumbai with a day in hand. WoW! Albeit, at the cost of my back!!!

We left at quarter past eight in the morning and in three hours we were on the 85kms long Baroda-Amdavad expressway which we crunched humbly in forty minutes sharp.

We took our lunch break at Rose Garden at two o’ clock in the afternoon. This place is eleven kilometers from Ankleshwar as one drives towards Mumbai, on the left opposite the police station. From here Kausamba is nine kilometers. The food is excellent and the ambience is plain & simple.

We crossed Vapi at half past five, and the one-eighty kilometers drive back home from Vapi took a painful three and a half hours. At nine in the evening, it was ‘home sweet home’.

The pain in my back started feeling like a ten tonne boulder on my body, but I was happy that we got back in time, safe n sound.

With vivid memories we went off to sleep; memories that will remain etched in our lives forever.



    Three-lettered man: HV Kumar a.k.a HVK
    Harley-manufacturing Kannadiga Sikh friend: Mandeep Singh a.k.a Luky
    Tall-fair-smart biker: Gautam Bhushan
    Abhijeet Mhatre and Charlotte Lobo of LetsCampOut
    Photographs - Manas, Sathish, Sudipa, Sarita, Richa and Me