Indians have long held the Himalayas in reverence as protectors of the Indian subcontinent. This wall of snow covered peaks is responsible for sheltering the region and providing the much needed monsoons to all of India. Recently with the development of motor-sports in India, the Himalayas have become the grounds for yet another useful activity - testing the versatility of the many vehicles from different auto makers. One such form of vehicle testing is carried out by Indian auto-giant Mahindra and Mahindra. That's right, I am talking about the recent initiative by M&M, the Monastery Escape event. And three guesses who got to be a part of the 2012 Monastery Escape event. Yes, yours truly. There I was hashing out another day at the office when my editor pinged me one simple line of text that made my day. “You're going for the event.”
The 26th of July, 2012 saw me in Delhi NCR waiting eagerly for the Flag-Off ceremony to end so we could be on our way. The Flag-Off was held at the GIP (Great India Place), Noida much to the delight of the mall shoppers and onlookers who got a good long look at the various vehicles that were to participate in the 10-day long journey. The convoy consisted of 10 brand new Scorpios, 10 older tried and tested ones, 2 XUV500s and 2 Thars. Much to my delight I was assigned a slightly tweaked version of the 4X4 Thar. The standard model of this SUV is a 2.4-litre CRDe capable of giving out 105bhp and 247Nm of torque. The modifications consisted of a closed down air intake system which was replaced by a snorkel fin for better air intake, suspensions were raised by about 4 inches for better off-roading along with a turbo-charger fitted in to compensate for engine efficiency at the higher altitudes. All of the modifications turned out to be a blessing in foresight as we made our way through the rough terrain offered by the journey. Long speeches from the M&M officials covered the rest of the Flag-Off ceremony after which we retired to prepare for the start of the journey which was to take place early morning the next day.
We started off from Noida on the 27th and headed towards our first stop of the journey, Manali. Taking the NH1 out of Noida, we made our way across Chandigarh towards the Himachal. The convoy kept up a good pace set by the lead car, another special version of the Mahindra Thar and slowly but surely the concrete jungles of civilization gave way to the natural foliage of Himachal as we furthered our tracks towards our destination. The drive to Manali was more or less comfortable with wide highways and few interruptions. The Thar, although a rugged looking beast on the outside turned out to be a surprise on the smooth roads of the NH1. The steering was supple and rather responsive for an off-roader. The suspensions, though raised, gave little trouble on the potholes and humps and the Thar easily kept up with the other Scorpios and XUV500s. The day-long journey seemed to take nothing out of our vehicles except the fuel. It did however take a small toll on the organic part of the vehicles – the humans manning them and we made it to Manali well after sundown, exhausted but happy to have made the first leg of the journey with relative ease. However, even in our exhausted states we did not fail to notice the effect Manali had on most of us. We entered the outskirts of Manali just as the sun was setting and the first thing to hit us was the beauty of the hills in the dusk. It felt like an inverse relationship of light, watching the orange sun setting into the hills and at the same time white and neon lights from various buildings and houses creeping up into play twinkling across the hillside. The effect was quite magical and took away a good part of the exhaustion of the day long journey.
Day 2 saw us up and at it again, joining the bandwagon bright and early. We packed up, grabbed breakfast and headed out for Jispa via the Rohtang pass which is roughly 140km from Manali. The drive to Jispa turned out to be beauty incarnate. A myriad vista of beautiful landscapes marked the way with hills, waterfalls, forests like screens of green curtains following in the wake of our journey. Although the journey from Manali to Jispa is relatively short it is important to make this part of the trip in short clusters in order to acclimatise oneself to the environment. We consistently climbed higher and higher up, till we reached the Rohtang pass where the lack of oxygen finally hit us giving way to fatigue with the least amount of exertion. We stopped at the Rohtang pass for a good 2 hours during which the clouds cleared and the sun shone onto the terrain giving us a breathtaking view of the green valley lying below our feet. The fields were littered with campers enjoying the various activities the Rohtang offers its travellers, including paragliding. All of this sounds magical and fascinating but the fact remains that this path is a perilous one littered with several dangerous precipices. In the Ladhaki language, Rohtang literally means ground of corpses so derived due to the high number of deaths from cold and exposure in the winter months. Despite these dangers our brave little Thar soldiered on through the rough and slushy narrow roads of the pass.
Early evening saw us arrive in Jispa thoroughly refreshed by the beauty of the little village nestled cosily in a valley at 10,500 feet. The rest of the day was devoted to a small excursion carried out by members of the M&M team to a bog-land close to where we were camped for the night that had a creek of sorts running through it. The event proved to be good fun until one of the Mahindra & Mahindra team members got their Thar stuck in a sand-draft in the river bed. The vehicle was slowly pulled down until it was semi submerged under the water and it took the effort of 4 other vehicles to pull it back to the safety of dry land. The day ended with a memorable experience for everyone on what not to do when going through boggy areas. We later learned that the technicians of the M&M team had actually managed to bring the water-logged Thar back to life despite its flooded engine.
The next day marked the start of our journey to the much dreaded Sarchu plains. Although nearly everyone including our convoy doctor had been feeding us tid-bits of information about how bad things can get in Sarchu, I never really fully believed what they told us. Upon reaching our camping spot in Sarchu I realised their mentions were no exaggeration. The plains are nestled between tall looming mountains at an altitude of 14,300 feet. They're filled with dust and sparse vegetation and a biting wind. As picturesque as the scenery was, I could not wait to get moving as the lack of oxygen was finally getting to me and nausea was setting in. To make matters worse, my co-driver for the event had over enthusiastically tried to launch our little Thar out into space while navigating a rough and bumpy patch on the road and the result was, I had suffered a few bruised ribs. That night in Sarchu will always be my one bad memory of the whole event where I tossed and turned in discomfort the whole night, unable to find solace in the painkillers the doctor had administered.
Everyone got up at the crack of dawn the next day and packing up in a hurry, they were into their vehicles ready to depart the Sarchu plains. I was just as enthusiastic about leaving as everyone else and was ready to start the next leg of our journey which I was told would be a bit more pleasant. Having extracted a promise from my co-driver about not trying to turn the Thar into a rocket ship again, we started on our way. A good way into the next leg of our journey the discomfort from my injury kept mounting which led to the decision that I would retire to one of the Scorpio's being driven by another member of the excursion. Having entered the Scorpio I was pleasantly surprised by how much more comfortable it was compared to the Thar. I mean don't get me wrong, the Thar had proved to be a very good SUV throughout the journey. But it was simply not capable of providing the comfort and driving ease of the Scorpio and I was able to appreciate the passing scenery of the More plains with much more ease. The rest of the journey to the city of Leh was much more comfortable. I did however notice that Scorpio could not match the off-roading performance of the Thar, thanks to the modifications on the latter. There was a noticeable dip in power output on steep climbs despite the better 2.6-litre turbo charged engine on the Scorpio. All in all we reached the beautiful city of Leh in relative comfort at nightfall. Unfortunately due to my injury I was unable to visit all the places of interest the city had to offer and day 5 saw me back at the office looking rather like a sanyasi but extremely pleased with myself.
Everything said and done, the trip was a definite eye opener towards the awesome power of the humbling effect the Himalayan region can have on a person and I managed to have myself some excellent fun, bruised ribs and all. Here’s to hoping for another chance to get a crack at travelling through the regal regions of the Indian Himalayas. Cheers!