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Old 9th February 2022, 21:42   #1
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Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Its always the same with the mountains, once you have lived with them for any duration of time you belong to them. They keep pulling you back, there is no escape – Ruskin Bond (Notes from the Himalaya)



A self drive trip to view Ladakh during winter has always been on my wishlist. Having made several trips during the summer months when the road is accessible and open to drive up, I used to always wonder what the landscape would be like after snowfall. This December, I put in a lot of effort to check availability of a self drive 4WD vehicle I could hire within Leh like a Gypsy, Thar or Scorpio. Pulled out all my local contacts in Leh to see if anyone could organize a vehicle that I could rent for a week. Unfortunately this wasn’t possible owing to a couple of reasons
1. Locals do not trust outsiders with their vehicles especially during winter months with snow and ice on the road (rightfully so)
2. The Taximens Union within Leh is quite strict and opposed to Locals renting out their cars privately as that directly impacts their livelihood during these months (again rightfully so)
3. Most tourists who do drive up to Leh during Summer in privately rented vehicles end up abusing the vehicles (seen personally)

After trying un-successfully for a more than I month I was drawing a blank and gave up on this pipe-dream of a plan. As I came to terms with the fact that this idea of mine was a non-starter I chanced upon an e-brochure that mentioned Mahindra doing a winter drive in Leh. I got all excited and called up old friend Bijoy, (Head of Mahindra Adventure Initiatives) hoping to register for that event. Unfortunately thanks to Omicron, although Mahindra had 4wd vehicles parked in Leh that event was cancelled. After a brief discussion with Bijoy, he agreed to loan me one of the Thars from the Mahindra fleet to make the trip. My excitement knew no bounds and after some quick packing and booking flts I was all set to accomplish something that until a few hours ago appeared impossible.. BIGGG THANK YOU Bijoy!!!!!!

After checking availability with a few friends for company, Vikram Kapur instantly agreed to join me for this trip. Vikram is a seasoned traveller, driver, photographer and adventurer who has travelled all over India, lead many expeditions and is very well connected especially in the 4 states of JK, HP, Ladakh and UK. We agreed to catchup in Delhi and fly into Leh from there.

Here is how the trip turned out - Nothing below was planned and all decision making happening the night before or at times in the morning. With God’s grace everything fell into place.

Day 1 – Jan 15 – Bom – Delhi - Leh (Acclimatise - Day 1)
Day 2 – Jan 16 – Leh – Thiksey – Leh – Warila - Leh (Acclimatise - Day 2)
Day 3 – Jan 17 – Leh – Kargil - Sankoo
Day 4 – Jan 18 – Sankoo – Panikhar - Khaltsekar Buddha – Kargil - Leh
Day 5 – Jan 19 – Leh – Hanle
Day 6 – Jan 20 – Hanle – Umling La – Tangste
Day 7 – Jan 21 - Tangste – Shyok – Agham – Turtuk – Thang - Hunder
Day 8 – Jan 22 – Hunder – Khardung La - Leh
Day 9 – Jan 23 – Leh - Bom

Day 1: I caught the 3am flt from Bom to Delhi and met up with Vikram at the Delhi airport after which we flew into Leh by 9am. The airplane wasn’t quite packed despite being a flt to Jammu via Leh. With the Chaddar trek cancelled this year most folks on the flight were locals returning home with very few tourists. The new local Covid ruling mandated an RTPCR test that was done at the airport followed by a quarantine in your hotel/homestay until you received the results. After our tests, we got into a cab and headed straight for the Mahindra Mentoklin Dealership to pick up the Thar. We were met by a soft spoken and very knowledgeable Mahindra Works Manager Mr Vikram Updhyay who personally took care of handing over the vehicle to me. Once we picked up the vehicle we headed to the Noble House Homestay, owned by Vikram’s friend Dorjee, where we stayed for the next two nights to acclimatize and await our test results.

View from the room
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Noble House where we stayed. We were the only guests there being offseason
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Outside the Guesthouse - Truly the pride of India
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Day 2: The next morning, after receipt of the the RTPCR test results we headed out to Thiksey monastery around noon.

Crossing a deserted Leh town

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The Thar outside the beautiful Thiksey Monastery and some other random clicks of the monastery
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Yours Truly (masked) with Vikram
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Looking into the future
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Panaromic Vistas of the Monastery
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Old 9th February 2022, 21:56   #2
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

The Jeep and the Monastery
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Came back to Leh and stopped for Lunch at the Punjabi Apna Dhaba just outside the Mahindra Dealership. That turned out to be our default go to restuarant each time we were in Leh over the next few days. The Chef Naseem deserves special mention here. Besides being an excellent cook he is also a great human being, always smiling..

Naseem who fed us for most days in Leh. Thank you!
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After lunch we made an impromptu decision to head up to Wari La to get a feel for some snow on the road. After checking with local friend Achook (who lives right at the base of Wari La) we were informed that the pass hadn’t been used for a while. So armed with snow chains (that we did not use ) and Achook’s 4wd Bolero camper as a backup we proceeded to attempt summiting Wari La in the Thar. The climb was quite straight forward with a few inches of fresh snow on the road initially which got thicker as we reached the summit. The summit was nearly completely snowed out on both sides and we had a little trouble turning both the vehicles around. After the customary pics we started our descent around 6.15pm by which time it was already dark. I was leading in the Thar and somewhere halfway down the pass I misjudged the sharpness of a right hand bend. Although I was in 4wd high, the sudden steering correction followed by the involuntary tap to the brake pedal and compounded by packed ice on the bend led to Thar slowly sliding and landing up in a ditch, thankfully on the side of the mountain. After a few seconds of shock and assessing what had just happened we hopped out to check if the vehicle was high centered in any place, which thankfully was not the case. Got back in engaged 4wd low and the Thar literally crept out on its own steam with no accelerator input. Respect!!!

Achook's 4wd Bolero Camper
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Thar pics enroute upto Wari La and at the summit
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We were soon at Achooks place where his brother had a raging Bukhari going in the kitchen. We had coffee and biscuits, thanked our host and left to return to Leh where the local cops had issued a 9pm curfew. Made a quick call to Naseem to get some grub ready for us before we could retire to the homestay for the night. While having dinner we were debating on which direction we should explore the next day and decided to go to Zanskar Valley which I had last visited in 2011. I specifically wanted to visit the Maitreya Buddha Statue at Kartsekhar outside Sankoo.

Achook's Nephew at home
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Old 9th February 2022, 22:09   #3
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 3: We left the homestay around 8am and went straight to the Dhaba for breakfast. Naseem’s cheese masala omelette with plain paratha is highly recommended and hits the spot every time, I think I must have 7-8 of those throughout our week in Leh. The drive from Leh to Kargil was uneventful after a quick stop at Patthar Sahib. The amazing vistas enroute and the super smooth tarmac made for easy driving. We stopped at the two passes enroute and at the Lamayuru Monastery for quick pics.

Some clicks along the way.

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The Lamayuru Monastery
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Old 9th February 2022, 23:15   #4
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 3 continued : We finally reached the outskirts of Kargil around 5pm, took the bypass and headed straight towards Suru valley. The change in the scenery was quite dramatic. While the entire road from Leh to Kargil was devoid of any snow, it was just the opposite in Zanskar. As we later learnt, there are no dedicated heavy snow clearing equipments for Zanskar valley and the locals pretty much need to fend for their own. So the local buses and trucks that ply up and down double up as track pavers to clear the snow before the smaller cabbies and private cars can ply.

Frozen waterfall near Fotu La
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A colorful house before Kargil
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Entering Suru valley - Modded Gypsy
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Stopped to fill up fuel at the pump outside Sankoo and the owner informed us that it would indeed by hard to find accommodation there. He was right and as we reached Sankoo just after dark, the town was completed deserted.

At the Fuel station before Sankoo
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With the Fuel pump owner at outside Sankoo
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After driving around for a bit with the hope of finding some accommodation we finally decided to turn around the car and head back to Kargil which was another 90 mins away. By now it started snowing quite heavily with the light flurries giving way to fat snowflakes and the temp had dropped to -13 degrees. Just then we picked up the lights of an approaching Scorpio Cab. I waved him down and checked for any info on a homestay or even a tea stall where we could have a coffee before proceeding to Kargil. Mustafa the cabbie graciously invite us to his home nearly for a cuppa. On reaching his place we were introduced to his young family of two little kids Anjum and Ali, the wife, his younger brother Ali and his dad Naseerullah. After a few minutes of introductions his dad announced that it wasn’t a great idea to return to Kargil that night with the weather turning worse and barely any traffic on the road. He insisted that Vik and I stay back with him and after making sure that we would not be disrupting the family’s night we agreed to stay back. We had the red carpet rolled out for us with dinner followed by really cozy bedding. I slept like a log that night, probably the best sleep in the last couple of months. The warmth and love of the family extended to us total strangers was a very humbling experience. Thank you Mustafa!!!

A deserted Sankoo village
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Following Mustafa home for Chai
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Naseerullah with Anjum
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Mustafa with Ali Jr
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Vik and I with the kids
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Ready to hit the sack
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Left to right: Ali Sr, Ali Jr and Anjum
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Old 9th February 2022, 23:35   #5
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 4: it was a sunny day with clear blue skies and after a quick breakfast we bid farewell to the family to make our way towards Panikhar to explore the area. It had snowed quite a bit the previous night and the sleepy valley was draped in white. The Thar too was covered in snow and everyone assumed it was a diesel thar and would give us grief to start in the sub zero temp. Mustafa even readied his trusty kerosene stove to help pre heat the car. Surprise surprise . One self and the engine roared to life much to everyone's shock and awe.

The Thar next morning covered in snow
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Anjum posing next to the Thar
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The household name that the locals have come to trust
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Vik with Anjum and Ali Jr
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Some Pics of the Thar in the Suru valley
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Old 9th February 2022, 23:50   #6
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 4 Continued: After an hour we turned back and enroute visited the 9th century statue of the Maitreya Buddha. I was returning to this statue after 11 years and it was nice to see that not much had changed around the area. After clicking some snaps we proceeded towards Kargil and later returned to Leh that evening. Headed to the Dhaba, had dinner and checked in at the Larookh hotel. Had the first shower in 4 days and it felt good.

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The magnificent 9th century statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved into the mountain wall
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Very Unique wall of kindness in Sankoo where anyone can leave their clothes they wish to donate to others
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Another sculpture of the Buddha just off the main road
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Enroute back to Leh
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Back in Leh at the Dhaba
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Old 10th February 2022, 00:10   #7
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 5: Next morning after a toss up between Hanle and Turtuk we decided to head to Hanle after breakfast with the intention of trying to reach the recently innaugurated highest motorable road in the world Umling La at 19k++ ft. The plan was to make Hanle for the night and to attempt Umling La the next day before returning to Tagste for the night. After that the plan was to hit Turtuk which meant our next filling station would be at Khaltse. An estimated round trip of around 700 kms meant we would need to carry extra fuel. Since I wasn’t carrying any fuel can, we spoke to Vikram Upadhyay at Mahindra and he graciously loaned us 4 used oil cans of 5litres each. We stopped to fill up at the fuel pump at Karu, and used around 500ml of petrol to rinse all 4 cans before filling them up with petrol and sealing them with plastic before screwing on the Lid.

Fuelling up at Karu
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The BOSS busy on his phone at a local pharmacy at Karu
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The primary fork at Karu
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Just after Karu there was a small trail going towards the frozen river which was too hard to resist. So we decided to take a small diversion and after slapping on some crampons on my shoes and testing the ice for thickness we drove the thar a bit on the iced up river taking care not to venture too far off the bank and always keeping a ear out for any sign of cracking ice

The frozen river
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Some pics of the Thar on the river
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Enroute towards Mahe and some clicks along the way
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Old 10th February 2022, 00:39   #8
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 5 Continued: A little ahead of Nyoma we saw a lone local peacefully ice skating on his own over the frozen river bed. No audience, no spectators, no hassle. We yelled out to him to encourage him and Vik also took down his mobile number for future reference. Enroute we stopped at Nyoma at a Dhaba run by Vik’s friend’s dad who insisted on treating us to some hot noodles, soup and chai and forced us to carry a loaf of freshly baked sliced bread with us for the rest of the trip (Something we enjoyed 2 days later at Khaltse). At the Loma checkpoint we were surprised to see a an earthmover completely submerged in the iced up river. We had taken the Upshi and Mahe Bridge route and reached a freezing Hanle around 6.30pm. We stayed at the highly recommended Padma Homestay which had kerosene operated bukharis that kept the room really toasty. Called it a day after an early dinner.

The lone ice skater accross the river
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Stopped at the hot springs to empty one can of petrol into the main tank as it had sprung a leak and the petrol fumes were causing us to get high in the small cabin of the Thar

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Photo Op at a stream
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More frozen river driving
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Vik at the Nyoma Dhabha
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Some poser pics of the Thar
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The endless tarmac snaking across the plains and some beautiful mountains towards Hanle
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Finally at Padma that evening.

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Old 10th February 2022, 01:20   #9
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 6: Next morning we were up early as there was Umling La waiting for us to visit. We unloaded the remaining cans of petrol and left them at the guesthouse as we had sufficient fuel for the trip up to Umling La. We got some basic instructions from the Padma owner after which we headed out. We first crossed Foti La and then after an hour of driving and stopping for pics we encountered the board which pointed us to Umling La. Compared to other passes like the Sach, Zojila and even Rohtang from the old days the mighty Umling La at 19k++ ft had a very gradual and tame ascent with butter smooth tarmac. We were lucky as it was a bright sunny day and the pass had no snow on the road except at a few places.

Leaving Padma that morning and the landscape enroute to Foti La
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At the fork going up to Umling La
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The signs says it all
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At the Summit
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The most famous BRO signage
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On Thin Ice - Literally
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Old 10th February 2022, 01:34   #10
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Day 6 Continued: After spending around 15mins at the summit for shots, we returned to Hanle via Nerbole which had nearly 25kms of cross country driving without a defined or cut path and indicated only by poles hammered into the ground. The terrain varied depending on the altitude you were at and starting from a snowfield at the start it ended up as a dusty gravel track closer to Hanle.

Frozen Streams, Rivers and Waterfalls got to see them all
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After reaching Hanle we emptied all 4 cans of petrol into the Thar and started our journey back to Tangste around 16.30. After some non-stop driving we managed to reach Tangste around 21.00 and checked into a homestay organized by friend Taashi (who owns the Camp at Tso Moriri). For the first time on this trip and after nearly 11 years we got to use a spiti toilet that evening and next morning.


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Old 10th February 2022, 10:55   #11
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Excellent travelogue - well written with superb images.

One can never have enough of the great mountains. I've been there multiple times and still long for more. The roads, snow, the views, the people, the monasteries - all have unmatched charm. It's been a long time now, but your travelogue has brought back the memories and ignited the flame to start touring again.

The Thar looks just so "at home" in the snow! So nice of Bijoy to provide you with the car. I too have known him for a long time now. Since this travelogue is about the Himalayas, I remember, well before he joined Mahindra, I had, by chance, met him in Ladakh.
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Old 10th February 2022, 11:57   #12
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

Awesome trip and awesome share. Loved going through all the pics, so how did the Petrol AT Thar do in the hills? Would love to hear from you.
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Old 10th February 2022, 12:38   #13
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

What a trip! Take a bow my friend... Thar petrol is probably most suited vehicle for such a trip and these are some of the best pics I have seen of Ladakh in winter.

Any particular reason you guys didn't do the Padum side, would have been quite a sight to see the Drang Drung and Parakchik in winters.
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Old 10th February 2022, 12:39   #14
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

What an amazing travelogue sir. The pictures are droolworthy. I have had a crush on the new thar ever since it released and seeing your pictures of the thar in its element has made me realize that I badly want one XD
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Old 10th February 2022, 14:07   #15
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Re: Ladakhi Winter in an Automatic Petrol Thar

How lovely!How was the Thar? How did it handle? What did you like about it what do you not like? Anything you wish you would have done differently?
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