Ladakh is the land of high passes and we set about with two Skodas to drive to Khardung La, Umling La and Changla.
I’ve driven the Skoda Slavia umpteen times before, but the view out of the windscreen today is just something else. Imposing mountains in fifty shades of brown stand as sentinels by the road, the sky is a majestic shade of blue and the sunlight is the crispest I’ve ever seen. Greenery is a rare sight; we’re way above the tree line. This is Ladakh in all its stark glory. We’re on this expedition to drive India’s three highest motorable passes, but with two very different cars to see just how each would fare at the top of the world. Filling the rear view mirror of my made-in-India, made-for-India Slavia is the very European Skoda Kodiaq that’s ferrying Autocar India’s mountain man Rahul Kakar and our stoic video producer Cyrus Dastur, with whom I’ll be splitting the driving.
Our adventure starts in Turtuk, among the lowest points in Ladakh. Low in relative terms, that is. We’re at 9,250 feet above sea level. Sights to see include Indian and Pakistani bunkers perched high up on the mountains surrounding the valley. You read that right. Our hearts fill with pride seeing the tricolour waving high on top on ‘our side’, yet there’s the uneasy feel of also being in the enemy’s crosshairs. It’s a feeling new to us city folk. We depart Turtuk grateful for just how shielded our lives are, all thanks to those on the frontlines. The ice-breaking session with the cars takes us to Thang village, a further 6km towards the Line of Control. It’s the northernmost village of India and giving the backdrop to the cars is Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Car parkings don’t get more special than this. Surreal.
You can look into PoK from Thang. A closer look reveals both sides’ bunkers.
The route to Leh will see us traverse the mighty Khardung La, but there’ll be lots to see enroute. Thankfully, quality time spent with the Slavia in the past means I’m quickly at home behind its two-spoke steering wheel. The 150hp, 1.5 TSI engine is feeling energetic, the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox is quick as ever and the handling is crisp. The next few days will be fun.
The initial part of the drive is slow-going, partly on account of the condition of the roads and partly because we take our time to soak in the surroundings. Ladakh is stark and vast, and leaves you wide-eyed every time you’re there. But an easy-going drive, it is not. Battered sections, the need to precariously slither past heavy-duty road repair machinery on slinky mountain routes, and the odd apocalyptic dust storm are part and parcel of the journey. The road and conditions improve as we approach the serene Nubra Valley – a cold desert. We stop for a quick break at Hunder to meet one of the region’s most famous inhabitants – the Bactrian or double-humped camel. It’s not too much later at Diskit – where we’ve come to see a gorgeous 108-foot statue of the Maitreya Buddha – that I sense something’s not right as a mild headache quickly takes the form of something more sinister. Mountain sickness, inadequate hydration, or both; I was out of action. So I quietly get into the Kodiaq’s rear seat and zone out while the meds kick in. The switch to the Kodiaq is to make the most of the headrest’s fold-down neck support – a brilliant feature, might I add – and I wish it was on the Slavia too; in fact, it could easily be a Skoda signature.
Frame of reference. Siachen Valley boards punctuate the road from Turtuk to Leh.
I resurface on the climb up to Khardung La. Cyrus is at the wheel and reports no loss of power as we snake our way up the mountain. Rahul in the Slavia walkies in nothing out of the ordinary either. It helps that the Kodiaq and Slavia’s engines are turbocharged allowing them to make the most of the thin air around us. At least, the cars are doing better than, ahem, some of us. Umpteen twists and turns later, we summit Khardung La just before the sun calls it a day. 17,982 feet above sea level, we’ve made it. It’s a feat even if Khardung La has lost the tag of the world’s highest motorable road. Fist bumps and photos later, we realise the Slavia’s front right tyre has developed a slow puncture. Rahul swoops in to action and orchestrates a speedy high-altitude tyre change that even the Red Bull F1 team would be proud of. Soon enough, we’re on our way to Leh some 40km away with the LED lights piercing the darkness. One pass down, two to go.
Julley! We’re on a bit of a touristy trip today headed to Pangong Tso, the world’s highest saltwater lake. And playing gateway to the great lake will be Chang La, the third-highest pass in Ladakh.
Pangong Tso is a sight to behold. Our Crystal Blue Slavia and Lava Blue Kodiaq fit right in the majestic setting.
I’ve taken the wheel of the Kodiaq for the day and taken easily to the SUV’s chilled-out character. Back home you miss that massive punch you’d expect of an SUV, but here, the 190hp engine has more go than you’ll need and the handling is neutral, predictable and likeable. And from the captain’s chair, it doesn’t feel as large as it is, even if it towers over the Maruti Altos that reign supreme in this neck of the woods.
The road out of Leh is smooth and it gets better and better. Freshly laid asphalt, clear road markings and safety barriers welcome us on the climb to Chang La. This could be a mountain pass in Europe! I have to exercise the restraint of a monk and keep my right foot in check, or else the soundtrack for the drive would be the speed warning chime. The road is that good.
On good roads, bad roads and no roads, the Slavia managed everything that the Kodiaq did.
Trouble is, the route up is a work in progress and soon we’re in a queue of vehicles waiting to cross an under-construction section. There’s a particularly tricky mud pit to cross and I can see few vehicles ahead need a helping hand to make it through. The Kodiaq pulls through with ease, but, surprisingly, the Slavia doesn’t flinch either and powers out of danger. Remarkably, the sedan has managed everything the 4×4 SUV has so far. Sure, things would be very different in April/May when the melting snow, gushing streams and marshy tracks would catch the front-wheel-drive Slavia out, but on a day of fine weather, it’s quite amazing to see the possibility that 179mm of ground clearance opens up.
We’re welcomed to Chang La by toothy grins from Maratha Regiment jawans who are thrilled to see two Maharashtra-registered cars so far from home. We get our ceremonial pictures with the Chang La plaques, but we’re advised to keep moving on. The summit is buzzing with tourists and the last thing we’d want is to be stuck in a traffic jam at 17,688 feet.
Ladakh is stark and vast, and leaves you wide-eyed every time you’re there.
The subsequent journey has its tricky sections, but the first sight of Pangong Tso (Tso is lake in Tibetan) makes it all worth it. The blues and greens of the water contrast magically with the brown mountains behind. It’s a breathtaking setting where our Crystal Blue Slavia and Lava Blue Kodiaq fit right in. A cool factoid? Two thirds of the lake lies in China, which isn’t all too far away as the crow flies. Lots of photos later, it’s back towards Leh.
High, Higher, Highest
Hanle, some 230km from Leh, will be a base camp for us in the final run-up to Umling La. The journey to Hanle feels familiar, yet different. The route that runs along the Indus is lined by jagged mountains but now there’s tinges of red amidst the brown hues. And the further we drive the more expansive the setting gets, as if someone has pushed the mountains to the distance. The barren landscapes from earlier in the day meld into grasslands. And cutting through the scene is one brilliant road. It’s smoothly surfaced but has its share of crests and dips, which can catch you out if you aren’t paying attention. If anything, it’s a high-speed torture test of your car’s suspension. Softly sprung cars would feel soggy and unenjoyable here. The Skodas? They come across as well-damped, absorbent and reassuringly confident.
Umling La is the new Everest for a motorist. Signboard captures the milestone.
It’s early evening by the time we make it to Hanle and the agenda for the evening is to go star-gazing. Hanle is one of the best places in India for this, and is actually home to the world’s second-highest observatory. Our plans to watch the great gig in the sky fall through because we find ourselves at Hanle on the night of the ultra rare blue moon, which is so bright that little else of the world above is visible. Good luck or bad, I don’t know what to call it. That long exposure photograph of the Milky Way through the Kodiaq’s panoramic sunroof I’d envisioned will have to wait another day.
Hanle is among the best places for star gazing. Pity, luck wasn’t on our side that night.
Hanle to Umling La is all of an 85km drive, but over the journey we’ll climb from 14,000 ft to upwards of 19,000 ft, and the temperature will nose dive from the comfortable 14°C we’re at, to the low single digits. Our friendly hosts at the charming Hanle Homestay also cautioned us about the first part of the journey being a bit challenging. They omit to mention a small detail. There’s no road for the first 30km! We find ourselves on dirt tracks that wind their way through vast expanses of flatland. The mountains that have encircled us are now even further in the distance and for all you know we could be driving on Mars. It’s desolate. It’s untouched. It’s spectacular. And we’re all alone here. There’s no GPS or mobile connectivity, and the last vehicle we saw was all the way back in Hanle. Crazy.
And then, all of a sudden appears a perfectly surfaced ribbon of road that will lead us to Umling La. Our cars, by now caked in fine dust, look as out of place here as Bear Grylls at a red carpet event. The next hour of driving is magic. If the scenery wasn’t otherworldly already, the road constructed by the Border Roads Organisation is brilliant in its own right – meandering, dropping and rising as if designed for the express purpose of thrilling.
The cars perform flawlessly. And to think we’re at an altitude way higher than they were tested at.
We almost forget we’re gaining altitude too. Soon enough, we’re looking down at the mountains that have given us company all along. A board informing us of our altitude being higher than Everest base camp drives home the enormity of what we’re about to do. The climb is gradual but near the very top I can tell the altitude is finally getting to the Slavia. The engine’s not giving its all in the rarified air, but it’s enough for the climb. And then we summit.
Much of the route from Hanle to Umling La is a dirt track that winds through vast flatland.
The bright Border Roads Organisation board welcomes us to Umling La – the world’s highest motorable road 19,024 feet above sea level! This is a motorist’s Everest. Opening the doors lets in a high-altitude chill, but the stinging wind we were warned of seems to be taking a breather. Still, note to self – hop into the Kodiaq and make the most of its heated front seats on the journey down. The past few days have left us wide-eyed and with phones low on storage space. And with newfound respect for the Skodas. Ladakh is a torture test with extremes of temperature, altitude and surface, but the Slavia and Kodiaq, though different in philosophy, came through together brilliantly, feeling no different at the end from what they did on day one. Particularly impressive because we’re at an altitude way above the cars were tested at!
There’s a buzz of a new road in the making even higher up. Time to plan the next adventure.