Words by Ouseph Chacko
Strange feeling this. There’s a slight delay between what I’m thinking and what my arms and legs are doing. My thought process has slowed down and just the mere thought of pressing the horn around a blind corner tires me out. Even simple conversation makes me feel like I’m reading out the constitution. In the passenger seat next to me is snapper Rohit who looks equally sloth. I feel like parking up and taking a nap on that sumptuous seat but that would be a bad idea. The more we stay up here, the worse it is going to get. We need to head back down to where the air is denser. It takes me a cup of chai and the last reserves of my energy to get us back to the valley floor at 12,000ft. We’ve just driven up to Komic, the world’s highest inhabited village and though I’ve driven to much greater heights before, this is the first time I can ever remember feeling Acute Mountain Sickness raising its ugly head. It reminds me of a lesson I learnt many years ago and one that I seem to have temporarily waylaid – never take the mountain for granted.
Taking it for granted
Oh yes we can do it. It is a simple thing to drive from Pune to Kaza in four days, finish the shoot and get out of there. I’ve done worse – that trip to Everest Base Camp where the road climbed 8000ft in 40km and stayed at that height – that didn’t get me. This should be a piece of cake.
And it mostly was, thanks to the massive comfort that the Hexa delivers. On the highway from Pune to Delhi we covered massive distances in three days and neither of us were weary for it. It is an effortless cruiser – the VARICOR 400 engine has loads of torque (400Nm of it) and its unflappable high speed stability make it a great highway car. Even on the twisty roads leading up to Manali, I am impressed by how much you can hustle this big seven-seater.
Well, we covered massive distances right up till that point we made a right turn at Gramphu and onto the broken road that leads to Kaza. I had driven this road almost a decade ago and that time I was competing in the Raid-de-Himalaya. I remember breaking our rear dampers twice – once on the way in to Kaza and once on the way back out. That road is a car breaker but then again, a decade has passed and now that Rohtang is no longer the challenge it once was, the mind finds it easy to assume the same for the road to Kaza.
Nope. No siree. No such luck. In the nine years that have passed since I last came on this route, a few of the rocks have been crushed into smaller pieces by the constant vehicle movement. That is it. It is still a dusty, broken road that can deliver a killer blow to the sump and crush shock absorbers like they were made of paper. Ok, I am exaggerating a bit but seriously I have to be careful. If we break something, it is going to be a long walk out. It is comforting then that the Hexa feels so tough. I am also surprised by how comfortable it is up here. I soon put my faith in its toughness and unintentionally relive a few moments of rally wheelsmanship before Rohit politely reminds me of how far we are from help.
We drive deeper into the Himalayas. I had forgotten how singularly breathtaking this part of the Himalayas is. The road runs through what I think is a river bed and we are surrounded by boulders and stark landscape. I think that it is because the road is so broken and difficult to navigate that this part of the Himalayas is relatively untouched by the package tourist. Unlike the Manali-Leh highway, you see far fewer vehicles and it is mostly motorcycle tourists we see all day. We stop at Batal to grab a quick Wai-wai and chai and carry on. Rohit is gobsmacked again by the beauty around us and to think that he just did this route a couple of months ago. That’s how beautiful the place is. I realise that the aim for the night halt, Kaza, is a bit ambitious. We have to cover 200km in the mountains today and we are getting delayed quite a bit. It is mostly because of the two-wheel drive taxis getting stuck in one of the numerous water crossings along the way. We are carrying tow straps so whenever we can, I use the Hexa’s four-wheel drive traction and strong torque to rescue a drowning cabbie. I also cannot understand what possesses people to come here in a Chevy Beat. For this road, four-wheel drive and good ground clearance is necessary with the latter being mandatory. I feel smug in the Hexa – it is nice to have such a capable car in places like these.
We start our ascent to Kunzum La. The 15,060 feet pass is what separates the Lahaul valley from Spiti valley and the road up is, as expected, broken. It is a piece of cake for the Hexa. Rohit is going crazy with the camera. He keeps making me stop because around every corner he sees another spectacular shot and the photographer in him cannot let it go. I like the Hexa’s relatively tight turning circle – it makes it easy for me to execute the numerous about turns that drive-by photography demands. I have to remind Rohit to stop running around so much – we are near the top of the pass and I can feel a slight headache coming on. We get to the top, quickly take the mandatory Kunzum Top board photo and descend. The road down leads us into what can best be described as another planet. I remember being blown away all those years ago when I first came here. I remember how all our rally calculations went out of the window because we were starstruck by the beauty of the place. I feel like that all over again. Spiti valley is incredible and I pray that it stays this way. There is a police check post at Losar, another water crossing and the beautiful light of sunset to accompany us as we drive the last few kilometres to Kaza. We drive past small farming communities and a land that looks rather prosperous – makes me ache to buy a small piece of land and settle down there. The BRO even have a surprise for us – the last 30km is freshly laid tarmac – just what we needed after a long day of trail driving. We get to Kaza before sun down, check in to Hotel Deyzor and wolf down the awesome mutton curry served there. Tomorrow, we head to Komic.
The world’s highest village
A late start today because we can. Komic is only 18km away from Kaza and given what we’ve already been through, I see nothing that can challenge the Hexa on the way up. However, I do realise that this is no road for people with vertigo. Most of the way up, you can see the river far down below and the road is particularly narrow. I occasionally have to reverse to where it is wide enough to allow oncoming traffic through. Again, we see no one for most of the trip up and again, we are blown away by the stark landscape set in sharp contrast against that deep blue sky. The only company we have are blue sheep perched precariously but surefootedly on the mountain side. Makes me draw parallels with us and the Hexa.
We make it to the board that says Komic, the world’s highest inhabited village, population 114. As Rohit clicks away with his camera, I order two cups of chai. We sip on the chai and I can feel AMS starting to kick in. Still, I look at the Hexa. It is so far away from where it was four days ago. It has come all this way, seen all kinds of obstacles pass under its big 19-inch wheels and is totally unaffected by any of it. That, I say, is the mark of a good road trip car.