The TATA SOUL Iconic Ladakh Drive was an incredible experience, where nature and community came together beautifully. By Satarupa Paul
The landscape seems to dance past your window. A river sensuously sways alongside, tall trees foxtrot by, and then, a spotlight of sunrays, filtered through broody clouds, shines on the mountains engaged in a slow waltz. Witnessing this musical of nature can change you and leave you with stories that last a lifetime. One such story is that of the Iconic Ladakh Drive, Mountain Trail, Spiti-Ladakh, curated by Tata SOUL (SUV Owners United League). It’s a story that saw us traversing some of the most daunting terrains in the world, aboard 10 mean machines, over 12 days and more than 2,000 kilometres. A story that took us through unforgiving roads and incredulous landscapes. A story that began with 30 strangers and ended with a brotherhood formed by the shared love for adventures.
This is that story.
THE PROLOGUE: ENCHANTING KINNAUR
It all began with a ceremonial flag-off from Chandigarh, under the expert guidance of the Tata Motors team. The convoy of 10 sturdy SUVs (six Tata Hexas, two Tata Harriers, one Tata Safari Storme and a service vehicle) was manned by 30 excited driving enthusiasts, all members of Tata SOUL, the official community for owners of Harriers, Hexas and Safaris. SOUL is a platform for like-minded people to come together and engage on common interests such as driving, adventures and exploring real experiences, therefore enriching the ownership experience of a Tata SUV. The community is now close to 14,000-members strong.
After driving through sheets of dense fog and torrential rain—and a quick stopover for lunch in Shimla—we finally reached our first destination: the little township of Rampur Bushahr. The winter capital of the erstwhile princely state of Bushahr stands along the banks of the Sutlej river. The most prominent sight here is the Padam Palace, a striking structure of wood and stone. This was an incredibly fitting start to the journey because the serenity of the place allowed us to let our hair down a little bit, prep for the tough drive ahead, and, most importantly, get to know each other. All of us SOUL members had travelled from different parts of India, but little did we know that this unique experience, and the laughs shared along the way, would create an unforgettable bond.
The next morning saw us entering prime apple country, Kinnaur, and a relaxed four-hour drive aboard our Tata SUVs brought us to the fairytale land of Sangla, the quaint town in the heart of the Baspa Valley. A place of verdant green plains and misty mountains that cradle the rippling Baspa river, we were told that a drive to the village of Chitkul—the last inhabited village before the Indo-China border—was a must. It was wondrous, and
we often stopped to stretch our legs, swap stories and just revel in the beauty around us. Of course, we had to stop at the ‘last dhaba in Hindustan’ for a steaming cup of chai. The night let us congregate around the first bonfire of the drive, and in that place, at that moment, all of us became closer, possibly because we seemed to be the only ones in the vicinity. Whatever the reason, it was magical.
THE HERO’S SAGA: STUNNING SPITI
“If there was ever a list of pilgrimages drawn for driving enthusiasts, Spiti would be the holy grail of it,” declared Dr Surajit Chakraborty, an ophthalmologist from Kolkata. We couldn’t agree more! This was the day we were going to meet the hero of this chapter—the cold desert mountain valley of Spiti, alias ‘The Middle Land’. Driving through the powerful Karcham Dam and making the crossing from Kinnaur into Spiti at Hangrang Valley gave us a brush with the rugged terrain and put our Tata SUVs to the test. When we stopped for a breather, the drivers told me that getting to Kaza was challenging but they were glad they had each other because they were able to laugh off the strain.
Cocooned by high mountain ridges, the little town of Kaza is charming, but it was the drive to Hikkim—situated at a height of 14,400 feet—that was surreal. Hikkim famously houses the highest post office in the world, and a few of us used this time to send a postcard the old-fashioned way to let our loved ones know that we were safe with our new, budding family.
A few more kilometres uphill is the village of Komic, the highest village in Asia that’s connected with a motorable road and which is composed of only 10 houses. It’s silent, to say the least, with the prominent Tangyud Monastery taking the spotlight. From there, we drove to Langza, a small village that is rich in marine fossils. This was especially great for the children, who couldn’t believe that these great mountains were once submerged.
After this, the drives began to get tougher. But, we were getting to witness some rare experiences, thanks to the community that is Tata SOUL. Monasteries abound in Spiti, and a few of the most famous ones are within driving distance of Kaza. We were collectively mesmerised by the cave-like Dhankar Gompa, which is situated on a 1,000-foot-high cliff that overlooks the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. (It was also one of the places where we took a thousand selfies.) By now, we had become very comfortable with each other, and the families had welcomed me into their own. No one was a stranger anymore—an element that can sweeten any journey.
THE DEVIOUS DAMSEL: CHARMING LAHAUL
We left Kaza two days after we’d arrived, and drove up to the Kunzum Pass (15,060 feet). Thus commenced the most treacherous drive of this trip: an 80-km stretch between the outposts of Losar and Gramphu. It was a good thing we had the trustworthy Tata SUVs on our side, as the turn of the terrain was almost as sudden as the change in the landscape. One moment we were driving on smooth tarmac through dusty, rugged mountains, the next instance we were bouncing over a gushing river bed with mountains in a riot of green beckoning us from behind the clouds. The drivers, of course, revelled in the challenge, buoyed and supported by the instructors and passengers. But, seated in the Tata Harrier, there seemed to be something effortless about the way this SUV took to the varying terrains and erratic turns—a result of the OMEGA-Arc technology that derives its heritage from the iconic Land Rover’s D8 platform, a guarantee of safety and exceptional craftsmanship.
We passed numerous waterfalls cascading down the lush mountainsides as sheep grazed freely and horses ran wild alongside—an experience that’s almost impossible to imagine if you’re from the city (which all of us were). In fact, many waterfalls tumbled over the roads, creating perilous crossings. “This is where your mettle as a driver and your determination and faith as a human are put to the test,” Mohammad Khasim, a driving enthusiast from Delhi, told me. “This is also where the endurance of your vehicle is truly tested over the rough, raw and very, very challenging roads. But then, that itself is the appeal of the drive,” he added. It was these tough terrains, the steady companionship and the support of new-found friends that helped us overcome most obstacles, and, at the same time, form a circle of trust.
By the time we made it to Jispa, our halt for the night, it was pitch dark. Each bond was tested as we tried to navigate through roads that weren’t visible, the only respite coming from passing headlights that assured us of the fact that we weren’t alone. The next morning, we climbed the snow-covered Baralacha Pass (16,050 feet) and feasted our eyes on the high-altitude lake of Suraj Tal. At the camping grounds of Sarchu, the setting sun cast a golden shroud over the barren landscape as we excitedly discussed the experiences over bowls of Maggi in the tent. We ended the night under Sarchu’s innumerable stars, a sight that no picture can truly do justice.
THE EPILOGUE: MARVELLOUS LADAKH
A great story calls for a great ending, and it’s only apt that this one ends in Ladakh. We drove up to 17,480 feet, with 10-feet-high snow walls flanking the way. The 21 hairpin bends of the Gata Loops were a thrill to drive up, the twists of which were accentuated by the ease of the following More Plains. Upon reaching the plains, it took us a while to actually get our bearings in order, because after seemingly impossible turns and endless bumps, the flat terrain seemed like a mirage. It gave us a chance to experiment with the road, and may have even enticed some of us to do a little off-roading. When we finally entered Leh, we found ourselves in a picture-postcard setting—the Pangong Tso, a lake that has innumerable testimonials about its tranquility and sparkling shades of blue. The legends were all true; the stillness was palpable and made us one with the setting. As the convoy cruised across the landscape, the myriad hues of lights, stars, and the lake itself, became breathtaking sights. The magnificent Nubra Valley, with its millions of green shades, was like a balm for sore eyes, delighting child and adult alike. Of course, the chance to ride the double-humped Bactrian camels of Hunder was quite something, as was rafting in the Zanskar river. Unique, curated, immersive… words failed to describe these moments of joy.
As we sat around the final bonfire of our trip in Hunder, a group of Ladakhi dancers regaled us with traditional performances. Megha Kochhar, a business analyst from Noida, said with pangs of emotion, “It’s going to be a tough task to leave all this behind and get back to the humdrum of city life.” It would be difficult to leave this family behind. But, we weren’t going to reminisce, we would sing, dance and celebrate—an ode to Tata SOUL and to this marvellous land we could visit.
- Chandigarh to Rampur Bushahr: 240 kms, 8 hours; Pitstop Shimla
- Rampur Bushahr to Sangla: 102 kms, 5 hours; Pitstop Karcham
- Sangla to Kaza: 237 kms, 10 hours; Pitstops Nako, Tabo
- Kaza to Jispa: 205 kms, 12 hours; Pitstops Kunzum Pass, Gramphu; Kaza Day Trips Langza, Dhankar, Hikkim, Komic
- Jispa to Sarchu: 80 kms, 5 hours; Pitstops Suraj Tal, Baralacha Pass
- Sarchu to Leh: 260 kms, 10 hours; Pitstops More Plains, Tanglang La, Karu
- Leh to Pangong Tso: 225 kms, 8 hours; Pitstops Chang La, Pangong Lake, Durbok
Leh Day Trips Shanti Stupa, Thiksey, Hemis
- Pangong Tso to Hunder: 200 kms, 8 hours; Pitstops Shyok, Diskit, Nubra valley
- Hunder to Leh: 125 kms, 6 hours; Pitstops Khardung, Khardung La
THE MOUNTAIN DRIVING HACKS
- Honk on blind corners to warn approaching vehicles of your presence.
- Stay in your lane and never overtake while approaching a blind turn.
- Vehicles driving uphill have the right of way.
- Protect the sidewalls of your vehicle’s tyres by avoiding sharp stones by the roadside.
- Use the manual mode in first gear on steep descents to maintain control.
- Cross from the visible shallow end of the water if it is flowing across the road.