Mumbai to Ladakh via roads less travelled

A post-lockdown car journey reclaiming the thrills of travel and adventure was an exploration of routes that Google Maps was yet to discover

Picture this: A silver SUV with a Moka pot balanced on its bonnet, bubbling with fresh, hot coffee. A gurgling stream, acres of snowy peaks, fresh mountain air, and no one around for miles. This is literally the middle of nowhere.

Travelling again, after months of lockdown, we were determined to find unexplored roads as we drove from my home in Mumbai to Ladakh: routes that Google Maps is yet to discover. Despite our teeth chattering like castanets, as we battled snow and ice up and down the Shinku-la Pass, our purpose was served: there was not a single soul.

Ours being the only car on the road, it meant that we had to be self-reliant. We had packed, among other things, a stove, and an electric Moka pot that ran off an inverter connected to the car’s battery. With this we could park in any pretty place that caught our fancy and brew delicious tea or coffee, often drawing water from a nearby stream.

How it started

Having always enjoyed road trips, in this age of COVID-19 and physical distancing, the freedom they offer can truly be appreciated. The last time I boarded a flight was in January 2020. Despite that, after lockdown 1.0 eased in September 2020, I have been to Kashmir, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Ladakh… by road, from Mumbai.

After months of lockdown last year, when even going beyond my neighbourhood seemed ambitious, to just be behind the wheel on the open highway was a treat. Because we were on a road trip and the masters of where we wanted to go, we could choose destinations that were not crowded, where physical distancing was a given. So camping became a big part of many of our trips. When we did not camp, we would find secluded places, which inevitably involved an arduous drive, often involving the need to ford raging rivers.

During lockdown 2.0 as we sat confined in Mumbai, sweltering in the summer heat, our minds often turned to the windswept valleys and lofty mountain ranges of Ladakh. But the tenacity of the virus had us scared.

We decided that if we wanted to venture out even after being fully vaccinated, the car would have to be our cocoon. I set out, planning to maintain minimal contact with the outside world. We slept in the car at stops between Mumbai to Delhi, and in Chandigarh, crashed at a friend’s home.

The route was from Mumbai to Indore to Agra to Delhi to Chandigarh to Naggar — a distance of about 2,000 kilometres.

Manali would have been the most logical place to take a break, however, photos of hordes of tourists in Manali flashed across my social media feed, and I decided that there was no way that we were going to step out. Instead, we paused at Sonaughi Homestead, eight kilometres from Naggar in Himachal Pradesh, 22 kilometres short of Manali. The reason being that the Sonaughi Homestead stands secluded in a forest and away from any town or city.

Ladakh, having shut its borders all of last year is seeing tourists arrive in droves, all of them driving up the 430 kilometre-long Manali – Leh road.

But I was determined to take a route that has been recently cut through the mountains. This route goes from Darcha to Padum (in Zanskar) and then onwards to Kargil.

We started off from the Sonaughi Homestead, bypassed Manali and took the Atal Tunnel that goes under the Rohtang Pass.

In three hours we were at Jispa, the last habitable place in Himachal Pradesh on the road from Manali to Leh before it crosses the border into Ladakh.

Up until now, we were on the regular Manali – Leh road, but the next morning at Darcha, 14 kilometres away, I turned off onto a dirt track and off the regular Manali – Leh Road. As we drove away from the regular road and climbed higher towards the Shinku-la Pass, the Google Maps voice pleaded with me to turn back. I knew about this road from YouTube videos of motorcyclists who had explored this route earlier.

The road snaking away from the Manali – Leh road at Darcha is an ancient walking track that goes over Zanskar Range to Padum, the district headquarter of Zanskar. Up until now the only motorable road to Padum was via Kargil. But the Border Roads Organization (BRO) has marginally widened the walking track so it is now motorable, but barely so.

A dose of adventure

We had an extra dose of adventure as the sleeting rain turned into flurries of snow that started coming down thick and heavy while we made our way up and down the Shinku-la Pass.

That night we camped in a meadow under the holiest mountain in all of Zanskar called Gumbo Rangan. The next morning when I stepped out of my tent, the trials and tribulations of the previous day seemed so trivial. The sky was a deep blue, devoid of any cloud, the holy mountain towered over like a sentinel and snow-capped mountains shone in the sun.

After coffee and a quick breakfast of eggs we had bought in Manali, which we cooked on a little portable stove that we were was carrying, we drove on towards Zanskar. This region was largely uninhabited and achingly beautiful so when the first village appeared — Kurgiakh — a person dressed in a PPE suit flagging us down seemed like an apparition. A health worker, who with his rapid COVID-19 test kits, was testing everyone entering Zanskar. Waiting with the anxiety of one testing for an unplanned pregnancy (the test kits look startlingly similar), we awaited the test results, which fortunately came out negative.

We drove into Zanskar. It would be another three days before we saw any sign of habitation. Which was just perfect, making this exactly trip that we had been dreaming of.

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