Himalayas, Yaks, Buddha and a Matiz

A Motoring Holiday to Ladakh


At 5000 metres – Pangong lake, Ladakh, India



1989the year I cast my first route map for a motoring odyssey across India from Bangalore to Ladakh, on what was to be the trip of a life-time. I made the trip ultimately 56 motor able months later. You can drive into Ladakh only 4 months a year before the snows close in and hem it in completely. The drive to Ladakh, they will tell you, is reserved for hardy 4WDs and cannot take puny cars like the Daewoo Matiz. Of course, most of India does not know that the place exists, and we saw lots of that ignorance in evidence – the streets of Leh were swarming with Europeans with their backpacks and gulping in oxygen at the top of Himalayas.


We drove our Daewoo Matiz 6,000 kms from Mumbai to Ladakh and back in September 2003. Before the trip, the car was already battered and bruised having travelled 208,000 kms of India (in fact, all the States of India) in 4 ½ years, pumping out power from its overhauled 800 cc engine and on its 8th pair of Bridgestone Donut Radial tyres.


The unexciting 1,450 km long drive to Delhi through Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana marked the beginning of one of the exciting trips in a lifetime. We left Mumbai at 900 pm, and as usual, we planned to reach Delhi in exactly 24 hours – drive through South Gujarat is highly trafficked 24x7, but we were keen on avoiding the lonely Udaipur-Beawar stretch at night, and more so, the road from Beawar to Jaipur is a death-trap at night. The Prime Minister’s grand vision of creating super-highways was being realized on the NH 8 as we beat rains and torrential traffic in wrecked South Gujarat highways. We were lucky that we did not get jammed for any inconsiderable length of time. 2 punctures and bone-shattering roads delayed us by nearly 2 hours. Work on the Vadodara-Ahmedabad expressway has been progressing at cycling speeds for the last many years, and we entered it through the town of Nadiad at 600 am the next morning and bulleted the last 45 kilometres to bypass Ahmedabad city, like the other cities of Vapi, Surat, Bharuch and Vadodara preceding it. There is a road from Nadiad to Himmatnagar on the Udaipur road that skirts Ahmedabad, but district roads do not inspire confidence. Luckily, the roads ahead in Rajasthan were much better and after climbing up the Aravallis near Udaipur, we made good speed till Jaipur which we reached only at 600 pm. Jaipur Bypass is definitely in the list of worst 10 bypasses in India – still incomplete and with melted tar rearing high enough to tear the car undersides, but it does save the trouble of driving through the city and some distance too. It was a relief to speed on the expressway to Delhi (last time, I did the 225 kms in 2 ½ hours), although some disciplining the cows and villagers will help calm the nerves, and decided to camp out for the night at the decent RTDC motel on the Haryana border at Behror, just 100 kms short of Delhi.


The Jaipur-Delhi expressway is a breeze, and we crossed Delhi State in just over an hour in the morning at 630 am, and started heading North along NH 1 or the GT Road as it is popularly known. Thank its straight and wide stretches – you need them to overtake long military convoys, especially the heavily-guarded ones where you are not allowed to break in anywhere. We whizzed past the Delhi-Lahore bus and tussled with Pajeiros, Qualises and Accents hurtling along at speeds of 120-150 kph. Turning off into NH 22 at Ambala, we entered Punjab and Chandigarh. The well-planned city that Chandigarh is, it could do with better signage for out-of-town travelers. Tank up fuel here; it will be the cheapest of the trip. NH 22 goes on up the exciting path to Shimla, Rampur, Recongpo (skirting Sangla, Kalpa and Sarahan) all along the River Sutlej to Sumdo on the China Border. We turned into NH 21 to slice through the Punjabi countryside lush with the waters from the Bhakra Nangal Dam.




I am often asked – how do manage to cover such long distances in such a short time without getting lost? Planning the trip can be a more exhaustive exercise than the trip itself. Route planning has to be done in advance and we work out detailed itineraries right down to the hour. You cannot stop by and ask the bystander “Bhaiya, tell me the route from Kolkata to Mumbai”. Keep your own counsel and stick to your route unless you have strong reasons not to. You must carry good road maps of each of the States that you are visiting. I had a huge collection of maps, road as well as trekking maps, and other literature on the route and region.


During this trip, we needed inner line permits to visit Khardong la and Pangong Lake. Follow the convoy timings out of Kargil. Stick to day-time travel across the Jawahar Tunnel (closed at night) on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, keeping in view the present-day unsettled conditions.


The road to Leh from Manali is sparsely populated and short on facilities. Plan your stay carefully at camps in Keylong, Jispa, Sarchu or Pang. Leh itself is a paradise, although an expensive one. But traveling off-season means room tariffs that are often 20% of the normal rates. Booking hotel rooms in advance is inadvisable because of any unscheduled hold-ups en route.  Carry enough food to last you 2-3 days in case of any dislocation, breakdowns, etc.


Estimate expenditure, and carry at least double the cash you will require for the trip. Always provide for that contingency when you may have to pay for some repairs to your car or worse, medical care. Credit Cards are still not widely accepted, so do not bank on them. In case you have ATM cards, keep addresses of ATM locations in case you need to withdraw en route. All highways are not safe, it is advisable to split up your cash and find yourself a couple of good hiding places in the car itself.


Your mobile phone may have a national roaming facility, but we were out of range for 10 days, from the moment we left Manali till we got back to Punjab.


You know you have entered Himachal Pradesh when you engage the second gear and leave the plains behind. The 50 km twisty mountain road from Garamoura to Bilaspur sensitises you to what lies ahead, and you are rewarded with splendid views of the River Sutlej meandering along the valley. Lorry convoys bound from Pathankot to Leh join us at Kiratpur and they were to be our only companions hereafter. Himachal has among the best roads in India, and we had no reason to revise our views. From Mandi, we commence the ascent to the Kulu Valley along the River Beas, far down below. The new tunnel at Thallout is awesome and at Aut, you look across the river at the road climbing further to the Jalori Pass. Kulu Valley never fails to greet you with its bracing winds and temperate climate – the apples were in full boom and the Beas bidding good bye to the last of the river rafters. From a single STD booth in Kulu 10 years ago, the Valley now buzzes with the rings of the Airtels and Hutches. We stopped at Manali – at 2000 metres above MSL, 2,000 kms out of Mumbai – at 600 pm. We were already facing a time overrun of sorts – but for the late departure from Mumbai, the miserable roads in South Gujarat, the 3 punctures and the failure to cross Delhi on Day 1, we could have easily reached Keylong beyond Manali on Day 2.


DETAILED ROUTE (Click through to see MAPS)


Day 0-1, Sep 10-11, 2003, 1335 kms: From Mumbai at 9pm, along NH 8, through the South Gujarat towns of Vapi, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara and Ahmedabad. Heading north to cross the Tropic of Cancer near Himmat Nagar, and climbing the Aravallis en route Udaipur, through the barrenness of Marwar to Beawar, where you encounter heavy traffic heading for Kandla Port. Speed across Ajmer and Jaipur (through the By Pass) to reach Behror on the expressway at the Rajasthan-Haryana border, 100 kms short of Delhi.

Day 2, Sep 12, 2003, 722 kms: From Behror, we enter Delhi from the Gurgaon end, switch over to NH 1 and pass through the green Haryana countryside via Panipat and Karnal. Enter Chandigarh after Ambala, and then take the Manali road through the water-fed country of Punjab. Climb the hills in Himachal through Bilaspur and Mandi to reach Manali.

Day 3, Sep 13, 2003, 237 kms: From Manali to Sarchu via the Rohtang Pass, Gramphoo, Keylong, Jispa and Baralacha la, passing from green to different shades of brown, black and red.

Day 4, Sep 14, 2003, 267 kms: Sarchu to Leh via Lachulung la, Pang, Tanglang la, Rumtse and Upshi

Day 5, Sep 15, 2003, 99 kms: Leh to Khardong la and back

Day 6, Sep 16, 2003, 329 kms: Leh to Pangong Lake via Karu, Shakti, Changla, Tangtse, Lukung and back

Day 7-8, Sep 17-18, 2003, 482 kms: Left Leh at midday for Srinagar for an all-night drive, via Nimmu, Khaltse, Lamayuru, Fotu La, Mulbek and Kargil. Travel in convoy along the River Drass to Drass and climb the Zoji La to reach Srinagar via Sonamarg and Ganderbal

Day 9, Sep 19, 2003, 124 kms: In and around Srinagar

Day 10, Sep 20, 2003, 125 kms: Srinagar to Gulmarg and back

Day 11, Sep 21, 2003, 413 kms: Left Srinagar on NH 1A for Pathankot. Crossed Jawahar Tunnel after Pampore, Khanabal and Qazigund to descend to Jammu via Banihal, Patnitop and Udhampur. From Jammu to Pathankot, crossing into Punjab at Lakhanpur-Madhopur.

Day 12, Sep 22, 2003, 945 kms: Pathankot to Shivpuri. NH 1A and NH 1 to Delhi, then NH 2 to Agra and finally NH 3 to Shivpuri. Passing the towns of Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Ambala, Delhi, Mathura, Agra, Gwalior.

Day 13, Sep 23, 2003, 390 kms: Reached Indore from Shivpur via Guna, Vijaipur, Shajapur and Dewas

Day 14, Sep 24, 2003, 630 kms: Last leg to Mumbai, on the same NH 3 through Sendhwa, Dhulia and Nashik.


See the Full LOG BOOK of the Trip


Manali is the last town to stock up on essentials and the next decent outpost of   civilization lies 500 kms ahead at Leh. The road from Manali to Leh is touted as one of the toughest road journeys of the world. Ahead of you lie the 5 highest road passes in the world, a seesaw of highs and lows of altitude and probably the most sparsely populated regions of India. From Manali through Leh to Srinagar, you can drive across 900 kms of bleak, forbidden and inhospitable high-altitude desert on the crest of the Himalayas, the average height of travel being 3500-4500 metres above MSL.  The melting snows in this region sustain the 5 rivers of the Punjab, besides the Indus. Once upon a time, you needed an inner line permit to travel beyond Manali, nowadays it is free country. For those who dare to wish to take the high road to Leh, but wish to preserve the sanity of their own cars, can take the jeep safaris – Sumos and Qualises who travel to and fro on per-seat basis.


We were out at first light on Day 3. At Solang, they are building what will be the most ambitious road tunnel project in India – 6 kms under the Himalayan mastiffs of the Rohtang Pass. We climb with the army convoys to the 3977 metre high Rohtang Pass, the last stop for honeymooners to Manali and leave behind the last of the green valleys. On the other side is the Lahaul-Spiti Valley, with its enchanting views of the River Chandra and the high snows of the Tibetan Himalayas. But before that, beware of the slithering climb down the muddy slopes (I was thankful that I did not have to climb up). At Gramphoo, the road branches off to what is also one of the most exciting drives in the world to Kaza across the Kunzum la, and on to Rampur and Shimla.  We cross the River Chandra at Khoksar over a magnificent Bailey bridge and proceed on mud track for the next 20 kms. Luckily, the mud is quite firm except in a few places when you anchor the tyres to the 3 inches of rubble on one side and mow the mud forward on the other side. Prepare to push the car and worse, tow it since you could sink into 2-feet deep mud.


Witness the lorry in reverse action – the amazing technique for heavier vehicles to travel the slush is to reverse into the mud, taking advantage of their rear wheel drives. Don’t miss the last petrol pump at Tandi, just before you cross the River Bhaga and enter Keylong. There is none for the next 375 kms! Although we were warned, we overlooked the fact, but then the Matiz trotted along in second gear for 500 kms on just 30 litres of petrol! You are advised not to try this, take along a canister of petrol, one for the road. Thank you, MPFI technology – had it been good old carburetors, my car would have gasped all the way and given up its ghost on its way up, the MPFI adjusts itself on the run to lean air atmospheres and pulls the car up seamlessly.



Keylong is the last big town, all 10 shops of it, but then you have a decent HPTDC hotel and several creature comforts here. From here on, all the way to Leh, except for Jispa 20 kms down the road, there are no permanent structures for the next 300 kms – and no permanent inhabitations for that matter.


Comfort yourself that the army camps are out there at least once every 50 kms, but then if you want a cup of tea, wait for 6 hours till the next 50 kms is up. Average speeds go down to 20 kmph. It is like you are driving a 2-geared vehicle, you rarely make it to 3rd gear. Make sure your car is 150% reliable – even the smallest of punctures can put you back by 5 days. Thank goodness for the lorry convoys, they are the only signs of human life. In case you want to stay overnight anywhere after Keylong, you have a wide choice over the next 380 kms – a hotel in Jispa, a camp in Sarchu and another camp in Pang! Except there are 6 ours apiece apart. Note that these camps are open just 4 months a year, as we were told by the organizers who were already winding up for the winter the day we arrived.


The roads are already dirt tracks, and continuously skirt overhanging cliffs and deep abysses. The army crews are continuously clearing the roads of landslides that keep happening. Boulder-strewn streams pose a problem, but you can cross with care and some smart swerving. Looming ahead are 3 of the high passes – the first is the Baralacha la which is 4891 metres high. Splendid views of snowy peaks and gashed-up valleys. Remember the Maruti Gypsy advertisement – Food? Hotel? But yes to Maruti Service Centre – well, we did not even see one.





View at Baralacha, Ladakh, India



At the end of the day and 225 kms later, we reach Sarchu which is a popular camp site at 4200 metres height, where I was told that normally petrol is sold in the black when the army is not looking. Apart from 3-5 tea shop-tents at Sarchu itself, you have the luxury of staying in 3 tent resorts. Prepare yourself for a night of chill, bracing cyclonic gales and struggle with high-altitude sickness.


Combating High altitude sickness – this is one of the big challenges. We had on board almost 30 litres of water which we guzzled all the time at the rate of 10 litres per person per day, plus munching high-calorie chocolates, dry fruits and glucose biscuits. Plus the apples and pears. Gasping for air, breathing it with mouths wide open. Every 50-metre walk is a hereculean task if you can manage to walk in the cold outside. The sun beats down mercilessly, and although it is just 10 – 20 Degrees centigrade at midday (except for the high passes, where it could be closer to zero), the sun block creams have been liberally applied to prevent sun-burn at high altitudes. Don’t forget to wear goggles; else you could end up with severe case of eye-ache.


You cross across the border to Jammu and Kashmir and enter the most forbidding terrain of the trip. As we climb up the Gata Loops, Ibex cross the road and the last vestiges of greenery completely vanish.


We are ascending rapidly to the 5064 metres Lachlung la before reaching Pang. The J&K Police is notorious for its corruption and nothing less than an Rs 50 will satisfy the gnarled-looking cop at the Traffic Control Post. Pang is even more wretched than Sarchu, and all that you have is around 10 tents selling tea and snacks, and offering dorm beds. One heave up from Pang, across a river and you are in More Plains that continues for the next 50 kms at an altitude of 4700 metres. Watch out, the yellow desert-like soil can be loose at the edges of the road and we almost sank in. The car smokes a trail of yellow dust as it speeds on the More Plains where the roads were the best so far. 






En route Sarchu, Ladakh, India


It is a steep climb to Tanglang la along a narrow road that hangs precariously off the cliffs, generates so much of engine heat even in the bitter cold. Tanglang la is the second highest road in the world, at 5360 metres, cold and tangy, but with spectacular views.


After Tanglang la, it is a continuous descent to the Leh Valley (Leh is just 110 kms away and 2000 metres lower) through Rumtse, Upshi and Karu.




View from Tanglang la Pass


Here at last are villages and stupas, yaks grazing and people at work on the fields. Coast alongside the tributary till you meet the magnificent Indus River near Upshi. The last 50 kilometres into Leh is a smooth ride on flat ground.


Leh has one petrol pump, touted as the highest petrol pump in the world (one more is in the making). To rejuvenate vehicles after the beating they take, there are service centres and tyre shops. For cars, you have the old reliable – the Maruti Service Centre. We even located a spares shop who claimed to have stocks of Matiz timing belts, tensioner assemblies and all other critical components. If you fly down to Leh, you end up spending the next 2 days in bed acclimatizing to the high altitude and rarified atmosphere. We did not have to, having been broken into the last 2 days out of Manali, and were ready to go as soon as we arrived there. 



Leh is the fulcrum of action in the Ladakh region. Moving in an easterly direction is the Khardong la, the highest motorable road in the world – 5,600 metres or 18380 feet. At this height, you are almost 8 kms high, just 10,000feet below the highest-flying commercial Boeing or Airbus, and just 3,000 metres more to reach the summit of Mt Everest. Obtain your inner line permit from the DC’s office at Leh, and drive up from 3500 metres 55 kms to Khardong la, which is en route to the Nubra Valley. The top is rumoured to be very cold in winter – 35 Degrees below zero, but we basked in the summer sun, posing against the snows and chatting up with the jawans shivering in their bunkers.

Khardong la Pass, 5600 metres


One of the most beautiful places to visit in Ladakh is the Pangong Lake which is 155 kms away from Leh, or a full day journey through Karu, Shakti, Changla and Tangtse. Chang la is the third highest road in the world, and at Tangtse you meet the River Shayok. The road is very decent except near Lukung where the summer melting of snows tears away Bailey bridges and whole swathes of mountainside. Pangong Lake is a surreal experience, barren mountains surrounding waters of brilliant aquamarine blue at 5000 metres heights, and gazing across to China a few miles away. The dirt road to Spangmik takes you alongside the lake and through to Chushul, but I doubt whether our inner line permit allows us to go all the way.



Pangong Lake, Ladakh, India





Our retreat from Ladakh was in the north-westerly direction to Srinagar via Kargil, the northernmost place in India. Planning for this sector depends on the convoy timings out of Kargil to Sonamarg. We found that the traffic from Kargil to Sonamarg starts at 12 midnight (in the reverse, starts from Sonamarg at 2 pm), and we had to do the most difficult sector in the night. More on that later.


Passing the highest airport in the world as one leaves Leh alongside the Indus River which fights and drills its way through the steep mountain gorges on its way to POK and Pakistan’s Punjab. We cross the Magnet Hill, which is supposed to pull the car up the hill with the engine shut off! The last 30 kms to Lamayuru from Khaltse is up a very steep one-way road. Lamayuru has a grand monastery, a must-see.


After Lamayuru, cross the Fotu La to enter the Muslim part of Ladakh. This route is quite well-populated all the way through Mulbek to Kargil, which has a petrol pump.


We reached Kargil at 830 pm, and started our Kargil-Srinagar leg of the trip. Ran head on into a traffic jam, where we spent the next 4 hours hopelessly sandwiched between trucks and army guns, listening to stones crumbling down the steep cliff side on the left and the raging River Drass down below on the right. In pitch darkness, read warning signs proclaiming that “Enemy is watching you”, a reminder that the Pakistani army which is camped out just across the river in the heights uses the advantage to take potshots at vehicles passing on the road. The road…….well, all rubble, boulders and steep embankments.



River Indus near Nimmu





Lamayuru Monastery








Rock formations near Lamayuru


Dancing on the stones would be an appropriate statement of the all-night orchestra of the din made by their hitting the undersides of the car as we pushed our way ahead. Drass, which has the reputation of being the second coldest inhabited place in the world, was reached at 215 am, and just beyond at the Matayan TCP, we halted for the next 2 hours for the Zoji La to open. Sniffer dogs and frisking at 430 am, and then the mad scramble up to the top. Zoji la was the lowest of the high passes at 3500 metres, but the most treacherous; they told us that the timings of vehicle movement are regulated to those parts of the day when they think the wind velocity is lowest; else lorries are known to have blown off the cliff. Narrow road, glaciers close by, and the fall 2000 metres down – points with apt names such as Take Off Point, till you climb down into the Kashmir Valley at Baltal. What a contrast now, having left behind the barren nothingness and moving through deep green valleys full of streams and flowers. Sonamarg is the first town en route, which we reached at 700 am, where you can have the pleasure of languishing in luxury hotel rooms and cantering on ponies. 


Leaving Sonamarg, we had the misfortune of a lorry in backing-up mode shatter our front windshield, leaving me with a bit of glass to peer through. In this state, we lumbered into Srinagar which was 80 kms away.




Food was never a problem despite the fact that we were all staunch vegetarians. Highway dhabas in West and North India are havens for Aloo Paratha and Lassi.


Relax, you are on a holiday, but take care, don’t fall ill: head aches, fever, dehydration, stomach upsets and nausea are some of the most common ailments. Eating light and a heavy liquid diet are good when you hit the road. Try carrots, bananas, dry fruits and biscuits. Drink lots of water, as much as you can, never mind if you need to stop every now and then to answer the call of nature. Mix electral with water to save yourself from being dehydrated. Particularly on the tough legs, where the steep ascents and descents require you to get acclimatised fast, else you may feel nauseated and have a heavy head. Avoid oily food, and keep away from culinary adventures with food you have no clue about. Stick to eating foods using oil that you find edible. Abstaining from drinking liquor is a must for the driver, advisable for the passengers too. High-altitude sickness is often fatal.


Carry your first aid box, and any other medicines that you are used to. Even toothache can spoil your holiday and the nearest dentist may be 500 kms away! Mosquitoes can be malarial, have coils and mats on hand. Ensure that throw-up bags are easily accessible, you never know when you will need them.


If you have asthmatic or pressure-related problems, Ladakh is not the place for you.




 Dal Lake, Srinagar


Here is a new index of economic development – does the town stock a Matiz windshield?  Scouring the spares shops, workshops and scrap yards of Srinagar over the next 2 days did not yield the spare windshield, and we had to settle for a guaranteed supplier in faraway Punjab.

So we did the next 1,000 kms with the shattered windshield – army stopping us to enquire whether the driver died in the bullet that shattered the glass! We visited the lakes and gardens of Srinagar, the temples of Shankaracharya and Khir Bhavani, and the vales of Gulmarg. Srinagar has everything   that you want, except a Matiz windshield. Stay in houseboats but check the underbody of your car in the parking lot before you move off – who knows what explosive may be strapped on?


We left Srinagar on Sep 21 at 6 am, having fixed up an appointment with the garage at Pathankot. The Jawahar Tunnel 85 kms away is open only between 8 am and 5 pm, and we were lucky to have escaped the traffic jam in NH 1A thanks to a hartal and rasta roko the previous day. At 2531 metres, and 2.5 kms long, the all-weather twin Jawahar Tunnel is the highest point on the road and the only route to enter and exit the Kashmir Valley from the Jammu region and the rest of India (apart from Zoji La, of course). Don’t stop to pee, the jawans patrolling the road every 100 metres are very edgy and may shoot off a few rounds on their nasty sten guns before asking questions – this is a very sensitive road, and the terrorists had mined the road thrice during the past 10 days. Jawans search every gutter, overturn each stone and climb down every valley searching for mines all day and night.



 Once under the tunnel, and into Banihal and Ramban, you curve down excellent roads with enchanting views of the River Chenab, the deodhar-filled hill stations of Patnitop and Kud till you reach Udhampur. After Udhampur, near Domel (where you turn off to go to Katra-Vaishno Devi), the big nut on the left hand side of the steering balancing rod gave away thanks to all the bashing it took on the nasty roads all the way from Manali to Leh and on to Kargil and Srinagar, and we almost went off the cliff. Tying up the rod with nylon rope and later steel wire, getting the car under control for the next 30 kms down the steep ghats till we reached Jammu, was, well, quite a task. We sensibly took the bypass and drove into a Telco workshop where the jovial sardar fixed up the nut free, plus a steaming cup of tea! We reached Pathankot at 4 pm, but not before some anxious moments when it rained en route and e did not want to catch a cold when the water poured in through the front.



The Ladakh roads are open only 4 months a year from mid-June to mid-October, preferably before end-September, after which the snows and landslides become unpredictable. I guess the freshly opened roads in June will suffer from constant landslides and melting snows, August-September offers the best time window since road conditions are relatively stable. Lorry traffic is intense, since they have little time to rush supplies to the region before winter sets in.


Petrol stations are rare – there is none for nearly 400 kms on the Manali-Leh road. Sometimes, you get only diesel, and in any case, the stations work only during daytime and may often run out of petrol. In the rest of India, highways have plenty of petrol stations, typically one every 30-50 kms, but then if you are traveling by night, remember that even at the so-called 24-hour pumps attendants go to doze by 200 am, and no fire or earthquake is going to wake them up – so ideally refuel before that hour. Quality of petrol is dubious in most places, chose your pump with care – there are several Pure for Sure and Club HP pumps nowadays, probably they offer the best bet. Nowadays, pumps also have toilet facilities which are fairly good. Dhabas offer you a host of facilities – STD, water, charpois to sleep, tyre repair shops and of, course food.


Although rare, there can be certain stretches throughout the whole route where you can encounter highway robbers during the night, so take care and do your homework well before you decide on the timing to take those stretches. Driving on these roads is definitely not for the squeamish ones amongst you.


On Indian highways, several odd signaling practices are in vogue. The truck flashing his right indicator is actually clearing you for overtaking, not turning right. Which he sometimes does too! Never overtake from the left in a 2-lane road, it can be fatal for both of you. In case you use bright headlamps/ fog lamps at night, remember that if the guy hurtling towards you gets disoriented and loses control, you are likely to get hit too! Hence, dip your headlamps for safety, this is not a film shooting in progress. Night driving requires skills of a different kind and very strong nerves so do it only if you are ready for it.


Pradeep Sabarwal, the ex-Daewoo dealer at Pathankot, took time off on Sunday, and had 4 men working on the car, rally-style. In 4 hours, they fixed up the new windshield, hammered together the broken pieces of exhaust, welded the damaged cross member, refixed the balancing rod, straightened the wheel rims and balanced/ aligned the wheels. We discovered that the lock nut of the front wheel had almost come off. 


Having relaxed for the rest of the night at a luxury hotel in Pathankot, 245 am the next day saw us speeding out, with the target of reaching Indore 1300 kms away by the night. The road to Jalandhar is in a miserable shape, and one hopes that they complete the double-laning work soon. Punjab Police has a dubious reputation to keep, and I was relieved of quite a bit of money, bribing our way through, never mind that we had committed no sins! After Jalandhar start the speedways of Punjab on NH 1, probably the best 400 kms anywhere in India. We flew through, barely noticing the towns of Ludhiana, Khanna, Ambala and Panipat beneath our windows! No wonder, we had covered the 500 kms to Delhi in 7 hours, when we reached the national capital at 1000 am. All the good work was rendered futile as we inched our way through unusual traffic jams, all the way from Azadpur through Rajghat and Maharani Bagh – imagine, it took us 4 hours to cross Delhi and reach Faridabad.




Tata Motors is truly India’s national asset – their trucks carry most of the merchandise by road. In the Ladakhi Himalayas, the rugged truck that laboured up the steep slopes with ease was the Tata. Mini-buses provided public transport in Himachal and Kashmir, and the LCVs powered through most of Punjab. The truly national car that has displaced the Maruti 800 is the Indica which is omnipresent. The Sumo, especially the hardy 2.0 L DL model, has taken complete command of the tough roads as the rugged taxi – wow, watch them zip on the precariously-hanging roads over the rubble and slippery slopes. Mahindra is losing the race fast, if not already.


Ladakh is truly a proud market for Maruti – 800s, Omnis and Gypsies. Mechanics in Leh can get an engine out of a Gypsy in 15 minutes flat. Punjab of course has fallen in love with the Toyota Qualis, and of late, developed a penchant for buying Mahindra Scorpios. No small cars in Punjab – welcome to the future of prosperous India – this is where the Hyundai Accents, Sonatas and Octavias are sold. Hero Honda demonstrates the hold it has in rural and semi-urban India, but not so convincing up in the hills. Baja Auto three-wheelers putters its way, polluting pristine hills with its kerosene-mixed fuel  - there was even one chugging its way up to the Rohtang Pass! Utility vehicles have become the mainstay of public transport all over India, over the State Transport undertakings.    


Route back to Mumbai was different – first the NH 2 from Delhi to Mathura and Agra, then the NH 3 all the way to Mumbai via Gwalior, Indore, Dhulia and Nashik. The expressway to Agra is splendid, and you can take a break at India’ s first MacDonald food complex at Mathura, which we didn’t. One wishes that they build an overbridge and close the level crossing before you enter Agra, and get the bypass road in better shape. We struggled through Agra’s terribly congested roads and took the road to Gwalior. Having gone on the same road 5 years ago, this one was a pleasant contrast – the PM’s Kashmir-Kanyakumari highway goes this way and double-laning on many sections is excellent – contrast with the one-lane roads earlier, twisting through the ravines of Chambal Valley. We encountered heavy rains on the way to Gwalior, and by the time we got there, the by pass road was under water and the roads jammed. With the locals cheering us on, we virtually swam across some terrible sections where one false step could mean thudding into a 10-feet hole. The road to Shivpuri was in a mess, completely pot-holed and impossible to drive after dark. We had to reluctantly halt at Shivpuri at 900 pm, after nearly 1000 kms on the road, but still short of Indore.


The road out of Shivpuri the next day was worse than the one the previous day, and we tottered into Guna with one more puncture and wheel rims bent into octagonal shapes. It had been raining heavily non-stop the last 2 days, and conditions became worse after Shajapur; we were trapped in long traffic jams near Dewas which we navigated out of using lots of driving skill and  sheer guts, to reach Indore (where the flood situation was worse) at 100 pm, where we halted for the rest of the day. Coming back to Mumbai from Indore was not a bad ride except that Madhya Pradesh retains its reputation as having probably the worst roads in the country, despite being neighbour to Mahasratra which has one of the best. We took the whole day to cover the 600 kms to Mumbai via Damnod, Sendhwa, Shirpur, Dhulia, Malegaona nd Nashik.


To cover the 6,100 kms, we took on 456 litres of petrol, not exactly frugal mileage at 13.4 kpl, but considering the road conditions – high speed on the highways, second gear in the hills – I would think it fantastic. Plus, one has to count in the fact that the battering meant bent rims, worn-out wheel bearings and misaligned wheels. Our perfect set of tyres was totally worn out. We had 6 punctures, the wheel nut almost came off, the grease completely leaked out from the axle shaft after the bellows were pierced, excessive play in the wheel meant some costly machining work and one of the distributor wires shorted out knocking off power. Not to forget the shattered windshield and the balancing rod that came off. We traveled across 11 states, and encountered several rivers – Narmada, Indus, Sutlej, Beas, Jhelum and Chenab.




Your car is the most important person during the trip. Lavish your attention on it before, during and after the trip. A well-maintained car (with an intelligent preventive maintenance schedule) is the best guarantee for a trouble-free smooth trip. Have the car serviced before you leave on any long trip. Make sure that all vital signs are OK – oils (engine, brake), coolants, belts, etc. I changed even the clutch plate in advance of its intended life just to make sure of the reliability of the car. 200% reliability is the buzz word; one small problem in Ladakh can be a disaster. Sensitise yourself to listening for those tiny squeaks and noises that signal impending failure or mechanical problems.


Tyres are the most important. Good treads, proper air pressure (keep checking them often, invest in your own pressure gauge) and inspect for bent rims and cut sidewalls. If possible, balance your wheels even during the trip (i.e. if you find a balancing shop). Check your spare tyre, keep a couple of spare tubes and don’t forget your jack and spanner.


Keep away from roadside mechanics as far as possible and collect addresses of dealers and service stations en route before hand. Maruti car owners, don’t worry: that ad of Gypsy in the Ladakh Himalayas was not exaggerated – there are Maruti service stations all over India.


Remember you are not driving in the city. Refuel well in advance of your tank emptying out. Quality of petrol can be dubious, so always try to refuel in relatively larger towns, especially in pumps that appear to be popular. Keep track of your consumption. 


Familiarise yourself with simple mechanical tasks to do if something goes wrong in your car. Several problems can be traced to the electrical fuses, so locate them in advance. Carry your service manual with you always. I have the whole workshop manual of the Matiz in my laptop computer. Plus critical spares such as filters, plugs, rubber belts, etc. Carry spare keys, spare spectacles and photocopies of important documents. Carry a couple of powerful torches and simple tools such as scissors, scotch tapes and adhesives.