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I love the outdoors. Trekking, camping, hiking, rappelling, rafting, mountaineering - these are some of the things that get my adrenaline pumping. Being a nature photographer, I like to immortalize these moments using my camera. But what I really love to do is to drive into the wilderness. To explore the unexplored, with my car and my camera - gives me the greatest joy & satisfaction.
This is the story of the best 10 days of my life. A motley group of 6 friends, acquaintances, friends of friends decided to go on the trip of their lives into the high altitude terrains of Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India. The trip got off to a rather inauspicious start with bad weather damaging many of the roads and passes enroute from Manali to Leh. This meant that our long cherished drive was to be quickly swapped with a Jet Airways flight ticket. We landed in Leh, after witnessing some breathtaking sights of the Himalayas from the air.
A birds eye view of the Himalayas
Landing in Leh and looking around, it almost felt surreal - like we were in a time warp - When nature was still pristine, when man was still a small speck in the grand scheme of things, when wind, water and soil were so overwhelmingly beautiful, calming & soulful. As we got out of the airport, we saw our SUV waiting for us – ready and gleaming! A Mahindra Scorpio driven by a retired Army Soldier.
Here begins the 1500 km long drive that took us from the bustling town of Leh into the remotest passes of the Himalayas. Our first stop was the Leh Palace. Leh is at an altitude of 9000 ft above sea level and the oxygen levels in the air is quite low. It is mandatory to rest for a whole day so that the body gets used to the low oxygen levels. Acute Mountain Sickness is a serious issue amongst most travelers. Us being us, we decided to put our bodies to the test and instead of driving up, we chose to take the path less explored and climbed up the hill all the way to the top. As we reflect back, it felt quite good to know that our bodies were fit enough to take that strain on day 1.
Climbing to the top of Leh Palace
Day 2 saw us embark on the long drive to Tso Moriri. The landscape was simply gorgeous. “Negative Space” takes on a whole new meaning in Ladakh. Wide Angle is simply not wide enough. 8 GB cards get used up by the hour. Ladakh is a visual artist’s dream. The massiveness in scale is something you need to see to understand. Ladakh is one place that makes you small, irrespective of who you are or what your background is.
The pristine high altitude Tso Moriri Lake
I was amazed to see full blown Royal Enfields having a top speed of 40kmph as they struggled through the mountains. The air is so thin , as we ascended to 15000 ft that even an Enfield struts around like a moped. Make no mistake the Enfield is a mean machine & the environment in Ladakh is meaner. Thankfully, the Scorpio was a dream as she sliced through the mountains nonchalantly. Not once did the SUV struggle. As a photographer, I got the best seat in the office. Next to the driver, on the window sill. Latching onto the carrier on top and sitting on the window sill, feeling the wind in my hair, camera in hand, silence all around (except for the rhythmic sound of the engine ), it felt like I was in heaven already. I managed to capture some of my best ever landscape shots – as the SUV hurtled down the slopes.
Our beloved Scorpio - in front of the massive peaks
We stayed overnight at Tsomoriri and the next day we decided to drive all the way to Sarchu (half way between Manali and Leh) to make up for the missed driving opportunity enroute to Leh. The drive through More plains was an explorer’s fantasy. This was a flat plane engulfed by mountains, with no road whatsoever. There was no GPS, no telephone signal, no landmarks, no map. The nearest gas station was 300km away. The nearest village a 100 km away. There was no life whatsoever - Just us & the wind, the sand, the sound of the soft engine and the mountains. We somehow managed to navigate taking help from the tyre marks of other fellow travellers. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least. Exploring the unexplored gives me such a high, its hard to explain.
Day 5 saw us renting bikes and driving down NH-1 towards the moonscapes of Lamayuru. Riding down NH-1 towards Kargil, gave me goose bumps, to know that so many soldiers were killed by shelling on that very road. War over a piece of land, seems so juvenile in the grander scheme of things. Unnecessary loss of valuable lives on both sides, all to satisfy a couple of politicians who have no connection to either the land or to the people who so unselfishly become martyrs for their country.
Over the next week, we drove in excess of 1000 km to cover the length and breadth of Ladakh. Everywhere we went, it was just the Scorpio and us. The SUV seemed to be used to explorers such as us who wanted nothing but to walk on lands that were never stepped upon, to appreciate nature for her beauty and respect her for its power, to leave nature just as pristine as she was when we stepped on her. Even at the extreme altitude of Khardungla (18000 ft), the Scorpio never complained even once. At this altitude the air is extremely thin & one of the patrolling soldiers warned me against running around excitedly as I might collapse due to lack of oxygen. Thankfully all those months of sweating at the gym kept me in good stead.
Dreaming away at 18000 ft
To cut a long story short, this trip was about getting out of our everyday stressful work lives into a world where nature stood in all its glory. It was about enjoying the pleasures of walking up unknown paths, climbing up random mountains, having lunches by the gushing Himalayan streams, meditating with monks in a monastery, rafting on the treacherous Zansar river, floating in the Indus with not a care in the world, driving down NH-1 on bikes, appreciating the BRO, Saluting the Indian Soldier for all they have given to us, seeing nothing but land and water, hearing nothing but the wind and the engine, driving through the country side with Dylan playing into our ears, exploring all this with a group of people who are now some of my best friends for life – In short, this road trip was the closest I have got to seeing heaven on earth!
To many middle class Indian travelers and explorers like me, the Mahindra Scorpio was the ultimate fantasy vehicle. It was something that one could easily take into the jungles or the rugged terrains of the mountains, from dust bowls to marshes, the Scorpio handles them all with ease. For city dwellers it gives you the much needed respect and space on the road (if you know what I mean). But the time has come for the Scorpio to pass on the reins to a successor and I think the Mahindra SUV has all the right ingredients to be worthy of taking on the mantle and the responsibility. The SUV comes with AWD (All wheel drive) technology for offroading, 2.2 litre engine 140 bhp, an integrated GPS and driver info system and the works. Already we have seen the XUV run away with numerous awards. Cant wait to test drive one soon! For more details please logon to twitter on #MahindraXUV500 or visit http://www.mahindraxuv500.com/
For more pictures from the trip please visit http://soaringseagull.blogspot.in/search/label/Ladakh