It was 2005, I was a wet behind the ears auto journalist and an assignment to ride the legendary Manali-Leh highway had just landed in my lap. I’d heard so much about that road – my colleagues who had already been up there had so many stories of being trapped in snow storms, about freezing their nuts off while riding over 17,000 feet mountain passes at night, about almost running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. It was a harsh place they said, a place that tolerated no fools, a place where the adventure started over the 13,050 foot Rohtang Pass.
I remember riding up that pass the first time. I remember the night before in Manali and how I could barely sleep thanks to the pentup excitement. I remember the early morning start, the ride up the pine forests above Manali, crossing the tree line at around 8000 feet and then, running into the mother of all traffic jams. The road above Marhi was narrow and broken, there were more tourist taxis than clouds and the air reeked of burnt clutches as the hoards teetered on the edge of certain death as they inched past each other with millimetres to spare. It was cloudy, the freezing wind cut through my rather inconsequential jacket and I was getting increasingly nauseous from the thin air up there. I somehow managed to stay upright through the massive slush pit of Rani Nallah and successfully negotiated minor landslides all while fighting an increasingly pounding headache.
Adventure? I was ready to turn around and head home to hot chocolate and a warm blanket.
And then, I remember the climb easing out, I remember riding between massive walls of ice where the Border Roads Organisation had cut a road through the winter ice. I vaguely remember the yellow sign announcing the top of Rohtang as I rode past with chattering teeth and I clearly remember how, on the other side, when the road started descending, the sun came out, foreboding grey clouds turned into puffs of white cotton candy and the sky switched on the happiest shade of blue I had ever seen.I remember breathing crisp mountain air and gazing across the deep valley stood between me and the impossibly tall mountains on the other side. Those few moments getting across Rohtang Top were like walking from a grainy black and white movie into a 4k technicolour world. I knew at that moment why I would always think of Rohtang as the gateway to the Himalayas.
In those days, Rohtang was the first obstacle course, the one that weeded out the Make My Trip tourists from the people who were really interested in epic Himalayan adventures. Those who made it across Rohtang, earned the right to experience the Manali-Leh highway and its treasures. That’s what I thought atleast.
Fast forward to today and I’m back in Manali. The BRO are building a brand new tunnel that cuts through the mountain under Rohtang and when it is complete, the first obstacle course on the Manali-Leh higway will disappear. Before that happens, I want to drive it again. I want to see if Rohtang still presents the challenge it once did.
And so, at six on a cold cloudy morning, I awaken the Hexa and we quietly leave the gates of the Ride Inn, Manali. The Hexa is feeling peppy as cold mountain air fills the lungs of its 154bhp engine. The roads are way better than I remember but then again, time has a way of clouding your memory. I assume that because it is so early, there’s no one else on the road and so, I use the Hexa’s default ‘Auto’ drive mode to get it to swing from corner to corner. The Auto mode is primarily rear-wheel drive and when it senses slip there, sends power to the front wheels to pull you out of an impending slide. It works well and I’m grateful because the roads are still wet from last night’s rain.
Palchan is the village where a massive signboard announces the presence of the new tunnel. We ignore it and make a right that takes us through the narrow roads that ultimately lead to Rohtang. Second and third gear, engine spinning between 2000-3000rpm where the boost is the strongest, the Hexa isn’t really feeling the rarer air up here as we slip into the pine forest.
A hairpin. Across it, a mountain with waterfalls pouring down its massive face. Rohit, the man responsible for the pictures you see here, wants a picture and I stop. J J Cale is singing about a devil in disguise over the tenspeaker JBL audio system. It is magical to be up here on a morning like this.
Shot done, we drive up to the checkpoint where they check our permits. The tourism department of Himachal Pradesh has started limiting the number of cars that go up to Rohtang and this is a good thing. I’ve heard horror stories in the recent past of traffic jams that stretched into the next century, of an increase in discarded plastic waste, thanks to the previously uncontrolled surge of tourists.
We come up on a tanker and wait patiently behind him. Truckers in this part of the world are gentlemen drivers. The minute they have the space to let you through, they will. All I have to do then is go down a gear and quickly hustle past the lumbering giant.
I like the Hexa. We settle into a smooth flow – not too fast, not too slow. I like that it feels surefooted and for a vehicle so big, is surprisingly well balanced.
I am also surprised by the road. So far, the only blemishes have been a few potholes (that the Hexa’s incredibly compliant suspension completely smothers away) and the miles of bad stretches I remember from long ago have all but disappeared. Yes it is narrow in places and you have to be careful around the numerous hairpins and the many blind corners. But that is the only challenge to driving this road so far. This is good because I can now steal glances at the spectacular scenery that is unfolding before us. The fresh green slopes of the craggy mountains of Himachal Pradesh – they are like the Sound of Music mixed with the Guns of Navarone.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many other vehicles on the road either. We easily overtake a few Sumo share taxis carrying Israeli backpackers and we reach the one-horse town of Marhi at 11,200 feet in really good time. During the quick chai and omelette stop a man walks up, points to the Hexa’s registration number, and asks us if we’ve driven up from Pune. When I nod yes, he asks if my back is okay. I tell him it is perfectly fine, the Hexa’s chairs are superb. It is also then that I realise that we’ve driven halfway across the country over the past few days and neither Rohit nor I have really felt the long slog. You will struggle to find an SUV made in India that can gobble up Indian roads as comfortably as the Hexa.
We settle the bill and get on the road again. Up ahead I can see the top of Rohtang covered in clouds and as we continue our climb, we drive into thick fog only to break through to clear skies a few moments later. A sign board warns us that we are about to reach Rani Nallah and I relish the thought of putting the Hexa’s all-wheel drive system to the test.
Dammit! They’ve fixed Rani Nallah. I promise you will find bigger potholes on Mumbai’s roads. We sail through. Double dammit! This is too easy.
The climb continues and the road stays perfect. We soon come over a crest and the yellow concrete block that tells us we have reached the top comes into view. We stop for a picture. Rohit is surprised. On the way up I was regaling him with stories of epic climbs up Rohtang, even told him where the name comes from – literally pile of corpses in Tibetan – but the BRO is doing a spectacular job with the roads and the Hexa is spectacularly capable. Massive torque, easy road manners, a quiet and comfortable cabin, an ability to munch miles that was previously the preserve of German marques, I’m honestly very impressed. Last month we were in Kerala with this very same Hexa. This month we are at the gateway to Ladakh. Next month, who knows?
For now though the skies over Rohtang are clear, we can see for miles out and I see that nothing much has changed – that view on the other side that is so clearly etched in my mind is still as mind blowing. The only difference is, this time I have arrived more comfortably. This time I am even more prepared for the epic adventure that lies ahead.
A big thanks to Ride Inn, Manali and omghimalaya.com for their assistance in putting this story together