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Getting high on salt with Renault Duster

The Duster braves some good roads, a few local taxis and a crazy climb to get to the world’s highest saline lake

Words: Ouseph Chacko                                                                                                                                                            Photography by: Rohit Mane

Early morning. Drilbu guest house, Tandi. We got here last night after a gruelling 13-hour drive from Kaza. We have to get to Leh by tonight. Leh is 365km away. In the old days this was impossible. In the old days you would want to take an overnight break at Sarchu and then at Debring and then make it to Leh. You would want to take a break because you would be pretty broken by the state of the roads. I’m talking a little over a decade ago.

The BRO has fixed most of the Manali-Leh highway so you can now actually concentrate on the sights

Today, you have to fill up under a sign board that says the next fuel station is 365km away. It is not. Ever since they opened one in Karu, the distance is only 330km – a distance easily covered by the Duster. In fact the Duster is so fuel efficient we went all the way to Leh and then on to Durbuk – 500km – on a single tank. Up there in rarefied air. In a loaded car. With a lead foot. Impressive.

The world’s second highest tea stall at Chang La

Now, let me get back to the story and the roads that allowed us to leadfoot it. See, the road that leaves Tandi is a bit broken here and there, but after that, the BRO have a surprise in store for you. The surprise is that you can now see this part of the Himalayas in all its green splendour where earlier you would be too busy coughing up the dust thrown up by that bus that was ahead of you. The road is brilliant and the only thing you have to watch out for most of the time is the odd taxi taking the racing line around blind corners. The taxi drivers who ply this road have also learnt the fastest and shortest lines around the corners on this road because it is now so good.

That board is iconic but doesn’t speak the truth anymore. Tandi is the last fuel station before Karu, 330km away on the Manali -Leh highway

Our first pit stop is at Darcha – the old  metal bridge needs repairs and we have a one hour halt while the BRO chaps hammer away at it. In fact, for most of the way to Leh, our big delays are in the few road works that are happening at full speed. After Darcha, we drive on, cross the army camp at Patseo, drive on through Zing Zing Bar (the river over the road is now a trickle), climb the climb to the 16,000 foot Baralacha La pass and start the descent. We get down and before the tent village at Sarchu there’s bits of broken road. The Duster marches on unfazed, its suspension soaking up whatever the road throws at it. We cross the two checkposts at Sarchu, this is where the Himachal – J&K border is, and carry on.

The lake is still spectacularly beautiful but has unfortunately become a bit too much of a package tourist destination

Gata Loops. Homage to the Ghost of Gata Loops. Carry on up to Nakee La and hit half an hour’s worth of delays thanks to more road works. The speed at which the BRO lays down black top in front of our eyes is astonishing. We still have a long way to go and after the road is laid and the long line of traffic ahead of us is allowed to pass; I use the Duster’s clever AMT to make quick work of all those cars. We carry on past Nakee La, through Whiskey Nallah and that’s when the road disappears and I’m happy. We are back on a surface that I curse when I’m on it, but seem to have fond memories of once I’m back in civilisation. The Duster however, has no issues. We hot foot it rally style all the way to the Army camp at Pang and then climb up to the legendary More plains.

The Duster is quite the comfortable highway car

The More Plains at 16,000 feet (yes, even I used to think it was at 14,000 feet till recently) has a brilliantly black piece of road running straight through for 50km and right up till the climb to the Tanglang La pass. I am not ashamed to say this but when you can see so far ahead and you have nothing, not even wandering livestock to worry about, you use all the power you have to get across. Snapper Rohit has his mouth open at the sheer vastness and desolation of this place; I keep reminding him that we need to stop and shoot.

Chang La, the world’s second highest pass

 

The good road doesn’t end – Tanglang La is a racetrack (not one you want to fall off, mind you) and we cross over with big grins on our faces. I use the AMT’s manual mode, tap my way through the gears and like how responsive the gearbox is in this mode. Anyway, down to Rumtse, on to Karu and at the outskirts of Leh just in time to catch a spectacular sunset. I apologise if there is no mention of adventure so far because there wasn’t. I also apologise for boasting about making it from Tandi to Leh so fast. Please don’t follow in our footsteps because the sights are far more enjoyable now that you don’t have to pay as much attention to potholes as you had to before. We had to do this drive fast to get to tomorrow’s adventure.

The Duster is quite the comfortable highway car

The world’s highest saline lake

The most dangerous thing on the road to the Pangong Tso lake are the local taxi drivers. They think an out of state registration is one less customer for them or something like that. So most will not move over on this narrow road and will come barrelling at you in their MUVs. Thanks to the Duster’s awesome ground clearance, I could happily drop two wheels into dirt and continue like nothing had happened.

Same claim for being the second highest pass at Tanglang La

Because of the 3 Idiots movie, Pangong Tso is now a tourist hotspot and that means that there’s lots of work happening on improving the road to the lake which also forms the border to China. So, as we got to the climb, up to Chang La, we were diverted onto another road – a steep, dusty makeshift road that climbed the side of the mountain so fast that anyone who lost momentum while driving up had a hell of a time starting off again. All we could see and smell on the way up was wheelspin and burnt clutches as vehicles struggled to get moving again. I worried about the same happening to us but I needn’t have – the Duster’s AMT is so clever that if it senses that revs are too low in first gear for the angle of climb you are attempting, it will dip its robotised clutch in, raise revs and slip the clutch a bit till you are on the move again. All I had to do was to keep the throttle pedal pinned and it would figure everything else out for me. Nice! We finish the diversion and by now, I am fully confident in the Duster’s abilities. We make it to the top of Chang La, stop at the world’s second highest tea stall, drive down the other side, play chicken with a few more taxis and, in a couple of hours, get to Pangong Tso.

 

The world’s highest saline water lake is as beautiful as it is in the movie and while visitor access was restricted in the past, you can now get a visitor pass easily in Leh. So, while the lake itself is beautiful, the dhabas and the stupid yellow scooter replicas from the movie for tourists to take pictures of, aren’t. The food at the dhaba we ate lunch at is also bad and I get this ache to hop back into the Duster and get the heck out of here. It is exactly what we do and as we hot foot it back to Leh, I realise the lake isn’t what it used to be.

The Duster though is exactly what it says on the box – capable, comfortable and compelling.

 


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