Road trip to Ladakh: Age of Discovery

Ladakh is usually the first name that comes to mind when it comes to long drives in India. It's bigger bliss if you are on a SUV

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There’s a great deal of enjoyment to be derived from reading Robert Pirsig’s meditative ruminations in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when you’re in your twenties. In that decade, pseudo-profound thoughts go a long way in buttressing a man’s ego (‘I’m 20 and I love Pirsig. I’m so cool; wiser beyond my years’ sort of drift). Two decades down the line, you don’t want to hear one more analogy on life, or get another insight on the search for meaning. You don’t want to be profound either: by now, you’re entirely comfortable with your lack of depth, and the fact that all you want, like Jim Morrison famously declared, is to ‘have your kicks before the whole shithouse blows up in flames.’

In that endeavour, you decide to drive out, to nowhere in particular, as long as it’s far enough. Ladakh is usually the first place that comes to mind when thinking of long drives in this country, and, when Land Rover confirms the availability of the Discovery Sport, you grab the wheel with both hands.

At this point you must digress to put in a word about the abilities of the ‘smallest’ SUV in Land Rover’s lineup. Okay, a two-word-phrase: ‘idiot-proof’. The Disco Sport is completely idiot-proof. Press the appropriate Terrain Response button appropriately marked Grass/Grave/Snow, Mud/Ruts and Sand) and you can comfortably sink back into that reverie while the Disco adroitly manoeuvres itself out of inclement situations that you’ve had the lack of foresight to land up in.

And so it goes, up from Manali, over Rohtang, and into that cinemascope-like landscape that everyone who’s ever made the trip knows so well — your plan unfolds exactly as you’d hoped. Confronted with the larger-than-life vistas of the upper Himalayas, you stare upwards through the panoramic sunroof, and are consumed by your own insignificance in the scheme of things. Nothing like humility forced to dilute grandiose notions; feeling a bit like a speck of dirt amongst a million galaxies looking for recognition, you stop and stare in awe. Life, is out there, not within.


Since the idea is to extend the trip, and take as circuitous a route as possible, you leave Leh for Kargil via Batalik, a single-lane diversion that hugs the line-of-control. Along the way, you stop at the Dha village of Bema where an Aryan Festival is underway.

In this remote region of Ladakh, a few isolated tribes claim lineage from the original Aryans who came to the subcontinent many centuries back. A grizzled gent of indeterminate age tells the youngsters that they have to learn traditional songs and dances so the largely oral traditions aren’t lost in the wheels of time. “If you don’t know where you’re coming from, then you’re rootless,” he tells them sagely. On the way to Kargil, you wonder about that; is where we’re coming from as important as where we’re headed?

At Kargil, you attend an annual cornucopia of culture and sport, where archers using traditional bows and arrows strike targets hundreds of yards away, while horsemen, whooping and galloping, play a no-holds-barred variant of polo. Two decades after the Kargil War with Pakistan, these folks are still trying to play down the inadvertent association the town has acquired with strife. Existential dilemmas are so much larger than the individual here.

After over a month on the road, and with no more viable detours on the road down to Srinagar, you change track and head toward Zanskar instead. Past Sankhoo village, mobile connectivity ends, and you turn off the road toward Suru Valley. Finally, no one knows where you are; not family and friends, not Airtel, and not even Google. The frontiers still exist; they’ve just been pushed back.


The motley crew of rock climbers from across the world encamped at the Suru Boulder Fest aren’t impressed by the Disco Sport. These folks, content that they’d left all vestiges of the modern world well behind, are obviously irritated that you’ve brought the Disco, not just to the boulder field, but literally all the way to your tent. You, apologise, duly, but don’t really mean it: the Disco has earned a right to be here. Under its urban clothes, this SUV is an untamed being that’s right at home in the wilderness. You can tell the way it gingerly wades through glacial streams, and leaps out with an irked roar when mired in knee-deep slush. Its poise when loping over rocks and crags in the valley’s ridiculously un-motorable terrain finally wins over the admiration of the climbers.


On the way back, Zoji La presents the toughest test yet of all the Himalayan passes in this high arid land. Precipitous unpaved single-lane tracks with sheer drops on the left and trucks barrelling down at you from the other end are enough to unnerve all but the truly fatalistic.


The Disco Sport is quick but doesn’t like to make haste, making progress in a surefooted, planted manner—with gravitas. And that is precisely the divination you’ve been seeking. Somewhere in a parallel universe, Pirsig parks his motorcycle, and shrugs: ‘The only Zen you’ll find on top of mountains, is the Zen you brng there.’


Land Rover Discovery Sport (HSE Luxury)


The first ‘Disco’ to have all the funky bits that would justify its popular moniker, the Sport gets a groovy infotainment interface, and a bunch of clever innovations including Land Rover’s much-acclaimed Pedestrian Airbag tech, a silky diesel engine with grunt that belies its two-litre capacity, and a slick nine-speed automatic. Relative to it’s pedigree, the Disco Sport jives to a different tune entirely than its larger namesake: Instead of relative frugality in the cabin being justified by off-road prowess, the Sport is premium inside-out, and yet retains Land Rover’s trademark abilities of getting the job done in inclement terrain. The Sport is technically a seven-seater but the third row eats into boot space, and is suitable only for kids. It’s also a looker, and unabashedly aimed at urban use whilst retaining the Rover’s well-deserved abilities in the muck. (


Engine: 2-litre diesel
Power: 177 bhp
Torque: 430 Nm@ 1750–2500 RPM
Price: Rs 60.44 lakh (ex-showroom, HSE; base model: Rs 44.68 lakh)


There are three primary routes to drive up to Leh — via Manali and over Rohtang Pass; through Spiti in Himachal over Kunzum Pass that merges with the road from Manali; and via Srinagar over Zoji La Pass. For those with time on their hands (at least three weeks) the road through Spiti is the most rewarding: Still relatively unexplored and unspoilt, the stark landscape rivals the vistas of Ladakh. The Manali-Leh route is by far the most popular while the road through Srinagar is the fastest way to get to Ladakh. If taking the former, then make sure you head out of Manali well before daybreak to avoid traffic snarls on one of the most dangerous mountain passes in the country. The route through Kashmir is just fine, but it’s the security situation in the valley that renders it unadvisable.


If Manali is just a stopover for the night, then pick a hotel in Vashishth to get some lead time on the morning rush to Rohtang Pass. There are a slew of comfortable budget stays by the road running alongside the Saryu River. If you stay in Jispa (; `3,200 onward) then it’ll be a relaxed drive from Manali but an exhausting one to Leh the next day. Sarchu (; `3,200 onward) is a better idea but the tented accommodation can be hard to sleep in when the wind howls at night. Irrespective of your itinerary, stop at the first signs of altitude sickness —there are lots of roadside inns where you can just rent a bed. In the Dha region, the Aryan Camp (; Rs 4,500 onward) is the only place to lay your hat for the night. Suru Valley is entirely inhospitable and the only time you’ll find a place is during the very popular annual Suru Boulder Fest (


Like elsewhere in India, an SUV just makes driving less stressful on this track. That said, you’ll see plenty of Maruti Altos and small cars doing just fine. This writer has driven to Leh in everything from a Maruti 800 to a BMW X6. All’s good until it isn’t; unless you have a Land Rover, just take a Mahindra, Hyundai or Maruti as these can be repaired anywhere. Just don’t take a sedan with low clearance. Lastly, protests by local taxi unions in Leh have led to unsavoury incidents of self-drive cars being damaged, so don’t bother with those.


For high-altitude, polarised sunglasses are essential, as is a strip of Diamox, in case you’re susceptible to altitude sickness. If you don’t know, then carry anyway. Irrespective of season, taking one heavy-duty jacket, thermals and a good pair of gloves is prudent. Passes on the way, especially Rohtang, are susceptible to landslides and snow; just carry a sleeping bag, plenty of nuts, and water. At least one 20-litre Jerry can for gas is essential: top up fuel from Manali rather than wait to do so from Keylong as that station often runs out of gas. For the car, make sure you’ve got a puncture-repair kit, a manual air pump, and any other spares your ride might need.

Pictures: Johan Castell


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