Ten state-of-the-art automobile machines called Hexa and Safari Storme. A supremely able community called SOUL. A daredevil group of 32 adventure seekers. A formidable travelling convoy, traversing a distance of 1,391 kilometres. Five high altitude mountain passes, innumerable streams and pure wilderness. The result: A trip of a lifetime.
But what is SOUL? It is the beating heart of a Tata SUV lover.
And the force behind this curated road trip whose memories are still vibrant.
SOUL (SUV Owners United League) is an exclusive programme conceived by Tata Motors which brings together Tata SUV owners from across the country and takes them across some of the most breath-taking landscapes, in the process, enhancing their ownership and off-road experiences. In less than a decade from its inception in 2012, SOUL’s community of driving enthusiasts has risen to 11,000. And it is they who created The Iconic Ladakh Drive Mountain Trail that started on 3 August and ended on 12 August.
This was a truly momentous event.
From the start till the end, this mountain trail proved to be the blast of a lifetime, a tale of bonhomie and almost a surreal experience. We slept at night under the crystal clear sky gazing at the stars in Jispa, a small Himalayan village, river-rafted along the Zanskar at Sangam in Ladakh and felt humbled by the majestic Himalayas at Tanglang La, the highest mountain pass on the route.
Spread over 86,000 square kilometres of wilderness, no destination is quite like Ladakh. It is a land of high mountain passes, sparse population and a habitat of rare mountainous flora and fauna. Situated between two of the world’s most awe-inspiring mountain ranges, the greater Himalayas and Karakoram, the landscape is dotted with high altitude lakes and the mythical river Indus, which flows through the region. It is a realm of snow-carpeted mountains, emerald waters and a unique ethnic culture. Ladakh is the ultimate terrain, where there is no dearth of adventure.
Huddling in a group, a day before our 10-day trip commenced at Chandigarh, our evening was spent acquainting ourselves with each other. The anticipation and adrenaline was running high. The convoy was flagged off from Chandigarh city, after which it moved onto Manali and then Leh, Ladakh’s capital 1,391 kilometres away.
Until we hit Rohtang Pass, we were plagued by traffic. But once we crossed Rohtang, driving by Keylong, the busy administrative centre of Lahul-Spiti, only nature prevailed. After a long day’s drive through the cedar forest and views of towering mountains, we reached the pretty village of Jispa, our night halt, which resembled the Swiss hamlet of Lauterbrunnen in the Alps. Bagha River gurgled past the tiny village. We set up camp that night on pristine green meadows and under starry skies. We couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by nature`s majestic presence.
Bala Chandra, an adventurist who was part of the ride, gushed, “Breath-taking mountains, smooth roads, stretches of dirt road, gurgling streams: This feels like a dream and reality at the same time. I have driven up to 600 odd kilometres in India but I had been nursing the dream of wanting to go on a Ladakh road trip with my Hexa for some time and could not find someone to accompany me. Then I heard about this trip being organised by Tata Motors. I instantly decided to join in. I knew I was in the safe hands of SOUL by Tata Motors, which was organising it from start to finish. The experience has been incomparable, with the highest standards of safety being observed in arduous conditions, which is more than what any other SUV brand could deliver!”
Next day, we left Jispa, via Sarchu, eventually reaching Baralacha La, the first of the famous five passes in Himachal, situated at an altitude of 16,040 feet, and mostly covered with snow around the year. We were excited. Some of the drivers stepped out of their vehicles and felt the cold air brush their faces. Saying goodbye to the colourful fluttering prayer flags and wishing for more good karma, we continued our drive.
Crossing Pang, we approached Moore Plains, a 40 kilometre-stretch of vast, uninhabitable cold desert. Then came a challenge: the Gata Loops, a notoriously treacherous stretch with 21 hairpin bends. Eventually we reached Tanglang La, which was at a height of 17,480 feet, and crossed over to Ladakh.
The most amazing part of the journey so far was the gradual change of terrain, from the green coniferous stretches to the snow-covered mountain passes and the stark brown cold desert of Ladakh.
As the popular local saying goes, ‘Don’t be a gama in the land of lama,’ which loosely means that when a traveller is in these parts, it’s best to celebrate and savour the slow life.
The second half of the trip was more about personalised experiences that acquainted us with the Ladakhi way of life. First on the list was a visit to the heritage town of Alchi, east of Leh, tucked in the grooves of the mountains. We admired the beauty of 11th-century frescoes. Ancient monasteries with rows of prayer wheels were common. The Buddhist belief goes, that rolling the prayer wheels enhances your karma. We rolled the wheels several times over.
A culinary class helped us understand Ladakhi cuisine. Guided by local chefs, we learnt to make the butter tea or the gur-gur chai. Just when we thought the adventure was nearly over, we were in for a surprise. On the eight day, we river rafted along 28 kilometres of the mighty Zanskar.
“The freshwater river rafting in Zanskar is something that I am going to remember for a long time and tell all my friends about,” said Vishal Deodar, a banker from Mumbai. He continued, “Whoa that felt like a different planet. I must confess, I always dreamt of having this sense of achievement. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to have this exclusive Tata Motor experience. SOUL acted as my perfect mentor for this mountain drive.”
Next on the cards was a stunning night stay on the shores of Pangong Tso, a high-altitude endorheic lake that is devoid of any marine life and stretches over India, Autonomous Tibet and China, 604 square kilometres of azure water. Says Mayank, a banker who drove along the trail, “I never imagined seeing Pangong Lake and crossing all these passes, including the Chang La. The road was very tough to navigate. Only the Hexa, which is great for off-road experiences, gave us the drive. With its amazing ergonomic design, the sheer comfort of driving long hours in the SUV was so easy, that both my dad and I never felt exhausted.”
Mayank added, “What made this a seamless experience for me was the four modes of drive that Hexa provides including auto, manual, dynamic and rough terrain. The 4×4 drive, as it is called, makes Hexa a tremendous to steer on road and off-road. There were many stretches along the route where there simply was no road but only a trail of gravel and water. I recall a patch near Pang, off Sarchu, where streams were overflowing but with the Hexa’s 4×4 mode and the guidance from the pilot car, we crossed the track smoothly. Everyone cheered once the fleet of cars had crossed the streams. There was a sense of achievement.” For others, the trip was a rekindling of earlier journeys they had made to Ladakh.
On the way back from Pangong Lake, we visited the magnificent Hemis and Thiksey Monastery. Along the stretch leading up to Hemis, we noticed terraced farm plots, soon to be harvested for wheat and apricots. Ladakhi women were busy working in the fields; some of them waved at us, smiling.
Entering the courtyard of Hemis Monastery, felt like it was part of another world. The monastery is famous for its gorgeous architecture and bright mandala paintings.
Sunil KP, a businessman from Chennai was a young biker when he had last come to Ladakh. He recalled, “What I did as a youngster 18 years ago was all about high adrenaline but nearly two decades later I am experiencing this trip in a deeper way while still being adventurous.
I normally drive a Safari but on this trip, I drove a Hexa. I enjoyed the car for its responsive engine and good ground clearance. The road never seemed difficult. My wife had never been to Ladakh and I told her “expect the new” at every turn. Now we can’t wait to go back again.”
A lasting memory, a taste of Himalayan life, some snapshots, oneness with nature, the SOUL Iconic Ladakh Drive, Mountain Trail 2018 had it all and more.
To know more about SOUL (SUV Owners United League) visit www.soul.tatamotors.com or follow us on Instagram on @soul_tatamotors_official.