Doing cross-country road trips on metalled roads in a UV is one thing, and tackling terrain as hostile as the Himalayas is quite another. So when Tata Motor Full Throttle – the recently formed motorsport division of the company – called us for the Himalayan Throttle Experience, we jumped at the offer.
This was the first in a series of Experiences that aim to encourage UV owners to explore their machines’ capabilities in challenging terrains. A convoy of Tata SUVs, including Safari and Arias, were flagged off from Delhi for the 2000km-plus Himalayan Adventure, crossing multiple mountain passes, valleys and lakes before wrapping up in Srinagar 10 days later.
My steed for the experience was the humble Sumo Grande. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to spending 10 days behind the wheel. But by the time we finished the first 500km+ leg from Delhi to Manali – a mix of open highway till Bharatgarh followed by well-laid winding sections, I was already warming up to it.
As imagined, it wasn’t a rocket on open roads and I was often left watching the more powerful Safaris and Arias cruise past. I was expecting to have an even tougher time in the twisties, but this is where the Grande managed to surprise me. Despite the edgy, nervous feedback, there was plenty of grip once I worked hard at exploiting its rather modest limits.
After talking to a few other drivers who were pushing their Safaris and Arias, I also discovered that lack of ABS on the Grande was actually a boon. The ABS, they claimed, was cutting in a bit too early for spirited driving.
On day two, we made our way to Jispa – a village in the Lahaul-Spiti region 140km away. That it took nearly nine hours to cover that distance is a testament to the abundance of patience you need while driving in the Himalayas. If you’re used to comfortably averaging 100kph on expressways, this terrain can be immensely testing. Part of it was down to the fact that we were stuck in a 5km-long traffic snarl at Rohtang Pass – apparently a common occurrence during peak tourist season.
Next day was a relatively quick dash to the campsite at Sarchu, after crossing Baralacha La at 16000+ feet. The Grande hadn’t missed a beat despite being thrown over moon-like surfaces and the engine barely getting out of third gear through most of the journey.
Camping in Sarchu, situate at an altitude of 14,000+ feet, was a surreal experience. It was stunning that we were in the middle of nowhere flanked by high mountains while chilly winds howled through the night. Basic electricity meant an early night and although I had a solid night’s and although I had a solid night’s sleep, some people weren’t as lucky. The doctor accompanying our convoy had warned us that people find it difficult to acclimatise at sarchu. Needless to say, he was kept busy through the night.
Then we were on to Leh. After two days of complete isolation from cellphone networks and such, it was back to civilization. Multiple layers of clothing were history and we could finally ditch the staple Maggi-omelette mountain diet for more exotic culinary delights.
After a day of sightseeing at Leh, the next destination was the secluded Nubra Valley, which is actually a high-altitude desert complete with camels. Enroute Nubra we also crossed Khardung La – still mistakenly referred to as the highest motorable road in the world. Regardless, at 18-000-plus feet, it is still a spectacle to behold.
After the night camp halt at Nubra, we traced our way back to Leh and then it was a sprint to Kargil for the night halt. Unlike the conflict named after it, the place is no different from any small town we had seen till then. Enroute to Srinagar next day, we stopped to pay our respects to the martyrs at the War Memorial located about 30km from town, overlooking infiltration points like the Tiger Hill.
The final mountain pass we encountered on our journey was Zoji La – and it was perhaps the most treacherous of all. There was no surface at all and frequent landslides meant traffic was often backed up while the army spring into action with earthmovers. Regardless, the wait seemed momentary compared to the gridlock at Rohtang, and finally we descended into the picturesque town of Sonmarg with well-laid, winding roads taking us all the way to Srinagar.
AS for the Grande, it went through all the pounding without a hiccup, save for a couple of rattles that emerged after negotiating the gauntlet of Zoji La, leaving me thoroughly impressed. I have come to believe that expeditions like this are the most enjoyable, where you don’t have to pore over maps for fuel stops, figure out night halts or worry about medical emergencies. Pure driving pleasure, this.