Words by Ouseph Chacko
Images by Rohit Mane
The world’s highest hand dryer. It sits diagonally opposite the main door of the Hotel Deyzor, which interestingly, sits just a few feet lower than the world’s highest fuel station at 12,270 feet. A few feet away, sitting in the hotel’s parking lot is the world’s highest Duster AMT. Yes, I know this for a fact because Kaza is a small place and I haven’t seen any AMTs around.
I think this particular Duster is here because Sirish has a weird sense of humor. He’s seen news reports of closed roads, raging cloudbursts in North India and massive landslides and so, sent me this front-wheel drive Duster AMT and told me to use it to get the hell out of there. Well Sirish, you might as well have sent me into a tank battle with a knife. Thanks.
In preparation for battle, I wolf down an excellent last breakfast, dry my hands at the world’s highest hand dryer, drive over to the world’s highest fuel station and top up the world’s highest Duster AMT with what is probably the world’s highest stored diesel.
Sirish is also doing some ‘producer’ stuff (I think he’s been watching too many re-runs of that world’s highest gear show). He’s told me to drive to Tandi which is 180km away where I will receive further instructions. Now, to those not familiar with driving in the Himalayas, 180km may seem like peanuts but it isn’t. 180km a day on the mountain route is the equivalent of a 1000km in the plains. It is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. It is doable but you’ll be at your wits end at the end of the journey. Oh well, the mission is on and we are already late.
The first 30km out of Kaza on the road towards Gramphu is a racetrack. It is narrow but it is perfect. Like Angelina Jolie perfect. Like Ingrid Bergman perfect. Like Perfect. The Duster is at home here – I know it drives more like a car than an SUV – so I use its road manners to drive the daylights out of it. I drive it in the manual mode because that way I can smooth out the gearshifts, I can overtake at will and I prefer the greater control it gives me. Up here on the highest roads on earth, control is everything. We drive through sleepy villages and in no time, get to the village of Losar where a stream has pushed its way through the road. Now, when you are in a two-wheel drive vehicle, you need momentum and ground clearance. The latter the Duster has plenty of – 205mm to be exact. The momentum I provide. See, flooded places like this need the correct balance of speed and throttle control. Still in Manual mode, the Duster AMT lets me maintain just that. Not too slow to bog down, not too fast to sump the world’s most resilient rock and decapitate the car.
Breakfast has to be had so we cross the mess and stop at a dhaba in Losar. The chai is too sweet and the paneer parantha is served with the world’s biggest cube of ghee. Up there, when you are hungry and know that the next meal is far away, you throw your healthy eating habits into the wind and adopt the world’s highest pigging habits. Yum! So nice to have an excuse!
Spiti valley is a lonely place. You hardly meet any cars. I think it is because the road to get here is rough. It is a boulder field. It is a river bed and it can be a car breaker. It is for this reason that Spiti is still relatively untouched. It hasn’t yet gone into the downward spiral that Manali and Leh have because it isn’t for the faint hearted. Once you start out on that road, you are committed to many hours of pounding, a few hours of technical driving and a lesson in car preservation. In here, the nearest workshop is on Mars and the closest puncture-wala is a day away. All of this contributes to making Spiti the adventure it is. If something happens out here, you have to rely on your wits to get yourself out. Driving here today reminds me of the adventure and beauty that the Manali-Leh highway used to offer when I first went there twelve years ago.
Anyway, we start the ascent to the 15,060 foot Kunzum La. The road is a rally stage and I can feel the rumblings of the world’s highest stomach upset at this point. Damn! Must be all that ghee! I distract myself by treating the road like a Raid-de-Himalaya stage. I’ve learnt to manipulate the AMT to get it to do my bidding.
I then distract myself by staring at the scenery. It is a great day – the skies are the colour of freedom and the clouds are pure white. It completely contrasts the world’s highest desert that we are driving through. Up the pass, down the pass and into what is possibly the world’s highest traffic jam at Chhota Dara. I don’t know what it is that possesses people to come here in a Chevrolet Beat! There’s a ‘DL’ registered red one stuck in the stream ahead of us. Stupid people. It is Sunday and the Beat is blocking the whole road. It is a picnic atmosphere on this section though. Tourists from the numerous taxis stuck behind the Beat have perched themselves on the rocks to watch the show. The hardier ones have stepped into the freezing glacial melt to lend a hand. The Beat is literally manhandled out of the water. An Innova gets stuck immediately after. The audience realises this is going to be a long afternoon and break out the biscuits and chai. The world’s messiest traffic jam goes on like this till it is the Duster’s turn.
I am nervous. There are so many people watching, so many people who want to see the Duster beach itself. Luckily, that doesn’t happen. All you need is love. And some momentum. I am impressed that with some luck and the right technique, the front-wheel drive Duster will not embarrass itself. To all those asking if the AMT Duster can be taken to the Himalayas here’s your answer – yes, it can!
I drive on, well aware that the traffic jam has cost me a couple of hours and driving in the mountains at night is not something I really want to do. Oh, and we only have a 100km left to go.
I push the Duster a bit – it feels like it can take a beating and it can. It dances on this river bed like no SUV can. We drive on into dusk. There are two more challenging water crossings, many more people getting stuck – makes me think that an off-road basics course is mandatory before driving or riding this road.
Anyway, the valley puts on a spectacular light show as we climb the last bit to Gramphu. From here, it is all highway to Tandi. It is a mountain highway so I have to be prepared for sudden road works. I have to be prepared for perfectly marked tarmac to melt into single lane sandy bits around a blind corner at night. I am glad that the Duster is so accommodating. Up here on the world’s highest obstacle course, the Duster’s friendly road manners are a bonus. We make it to Tandi at 9:30pm, thirteen hours after we left Kaza. Tomorrow morning we will refuel at the last fuel station for the next 330km and await further instructions from Pune. I am glad. It means I have a few hours to settle into the world’s deepest slumber. To be continued…
Thanks to Hotel Deyzor and omghimalaya.com for helping us with the logistics for this story