Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Finally Leh'd my Punto

First an appetizers before I start boring you with the story
The picture for which I went to Ladakh:
Fiat Punto Leh - at Kyagar Tso
At Kiagar Tso
It started back in 2011, when a colleague introduced me to BCMT. Before that i was not aware that such a beautiful place exists in India and is even approachable by road. From then on BCMT became a drug that i couldn't be taken off. I used to read travelogues whenever i could and dreamed about going one day myself.

Did a few trips along the way to hills, Lansdowne, Dhanaulti, Kufri and Corbett. But my heart was fixed on Ladakh. Became a Papa in 2012 and had almost given up on making the trip anytime soon when the Chinese intruded into our territory. Thus sitting in my company cafeteria i joked with my Manager, we need to visit ladakh before Indians start needing VISA, by 'WE' i mean me and a colleague, and asked him if we could take a leave for 2 weeks in June. He laughed and said yes. That became a trigger, i talked to my wife and she understood how important it was for me to make this trip. Next day i dropped the mail with leave dates and i got a reply that my manager thought i was joking Still he sportingly agreed and thus started the planning.

Bought a lot of stuff like tent, sleeping bags, Car invertor, Electric Air Inflator, tow rope and Stove. Got the car serviced and felt good about the car, GC and tyres. Then in last week i saw that actual ground clearance of my car was only as much as the length of my phone i.e. 134mm and thus went ahead and got the GC upgraded 3 days before the trip. Again was planning to do the trip on my existing tyres (35000km run) but on last day before the trip found a huge crack on the inner side wall of one tyre and thus got all changed just a day before the start of the trip.

So after 40k/- worth of preparations we, Me, my friend and my brother-in-law, were ready to embark on the dream trip. 

Day 0  
June 14, 2013- Friday

I call this day 0 as we did half day office and left Delhi around 1 PM in afternoon. The plan was to try and reach Pathankot and if possible then Jammu. The car was pretty full and the rear seat could hardly seat one person who had to fight constantly with landslides of stuff at every turn.
The condition of backseat

The route was fine with crossing Ludhiana being the only Pain. Also it started raining heavily around Pathankot but we were able to reach Jammu by 10:30.

Not posting any pics from day 0 as we hardly found anything interesting. The only time i felt like clicking a pic on the way was when at ludhiana we had 3 puntos in a jam together, a rare occurrence anywhere in India

Found an OK place on the highway, Choudhary Guest House, Room rent 700/- for a non-ac room. During the night it was raining cats and dogs and we hardly got any sleep due to lots of noise from thunder. But we were happy at achieving our goal for the day.

Next days targets were:
Minimum: Sonamarg
Optimistic: Drass

Day 1
15th June, 2013 - Saturday


 Woke up to lots of thunder and rain in Jammu. Were up and ready to leave around 6:30 in morning and got almost half drenched getting to the car. Started towards Srinagar. Was hoping that i will reach Sonamarg with still some daylight to spare and decide if Zozila can be crossed. However the continuous rain was making progress very slow.

Just after Jammu

The road is decent most of the way from Jammu till sonamarg however there are sections which can get extremely muddy in rain and thus the following condition of the car after just 100kms from jammu:

The rain was now down to a drizzle and the weather turned beautiful. I love the sight of green mountains and we had plenty on our way.

An interesting hill on the way

We were now making good progress although there was substantial army movement and we had a tough time overtaking a convoy. But all effort was lost while we stopped for breakfast as everybody overtook us and got stuck at a Jam at Ramban. Due to narrow road through Ramban and excellent Indian drivers we had almost a kilometer long jam.

Jam at Ramban

This took around hour and a half to clear up but still due to convoy the progress was slow now. This continued till Banihal where we crossed the convoy. Next landmark on the trip was Jawahar Tunnel. As the weather was pleasant our windows were rolled down, however inside the jawahar tunnel we felt choked by the exhaust smoke. Rolled up the windows switched on AC but still the smoke was here to stay and thus felt a bit claustrophobic.


A tip for travelers: Switch on the AC before entering the tunnel as otherwise a stuck vehicle in front of you can make you feel very suffocated.

Titanic point just after the tunnel was a welcome break.

Titanic Point


Thereon we picked up some speed and rushed towards Srinagar. Had a pathetic lunch of daal-rice at a dhaba 50kms before Srinagar and planned to continue till Sonmarg after that. Reached Srinagar around 4 PM and tanked up. We were using Sygic for navigation on my Android phone and it took me right through Srinagar bypassing the turn for NH 1. We went through the main city including Lal Chowk and even after that via a narrow road for almost 10 kms before we hit the highway again. We were a bit apprehensive but just kept on going.

Joining back NH was a relief and the road was excellent. The straight road through valley had some excellent views and colors to offer.

And then the mountains started again:

Continued on and reached Sonamarg around 8:30 PM. Found a room in the first hotel on the road Hotel Sunshine, Room Rent 1500/-. Had our dinner and went to sleep, knowing little about the heavenly view awaiting us right in front of the hotel.

Day 1 Trip details:

Next Day Target: Leh

Day 2
June 16, 2013 - Sunday

So, we reached sonamarg late in night and thus did not notice the view much. We were told by hotel staff that entry to Zozila road is only open till 8 AM after which it closes for road repair, although we could not confirm this but still to be on the safer side we decided to leave by 7:30 AM (the checkpost was hardly 1 km from the hotel)

So, i wake up at 6 in morning(to clean the car) and this is the view i am greeted with:


Behind our hotel

This is what i got up to clean - 

Two buckets and One handkerchief later

We have our breakfast and are ready to leave by 7:20 AM. Another pic just before we start.

Horses in the mood

The road towards checkpost was blocked by trucks parked on both sides, however mostly the checkpost is open for cars so we inquire and zoom ahead as soon as we get some space. Thus we are finally on our way to the famed Zozila. Now online people are always writing essays about the toughness of Rohtang and at the same time they cross Zozila in a single paragraph. Also lack of pictures and the lack of interest shown by people in covering Zozila made me think it would be an unremarkable pass with some moderate slush and climb. How wrong i was. Thus i will give due respect to zozila as it almost killed us.

It had already started raining by the time we crossed the checkpost and thus we expected cloudy conditions. The start was gradual and although we could see that road was not in a great condition but still it was drivable. 


View of Baltal at start of zozila climb

We had traffic from both sides and had to overtake a few trucks, soon the cloud cover became prominent and visibility reduced to few meters. We reached the point from where the two ways diverged. Enquired from a few oncoming cars and started on the route meant for Cars.


Start of the new route

This route hardly has 2 or 3 hairpins and those are also not too steep, but still for the first time i felt AMS hitting my car. On bends i could feel a bit of power loss and it took some effort to climb. The road is mud track throughout till top and the rain made it into a big slush-fest. From this point on till top i would need to paint the picture with words as none of us thought about clicking pics. 

Initially it was muddy but hard road but as we climbed the rain became harder and the road became narrower. Few trucks were also using the route and leading to huge hump in the middle of the narrow sections. We got to a place where Snow was melting on the edge of the road and there was almost a foot deep water crossing. My friend had to get out and guide me through it. Just after this we were crossed by a foreigner couple on bike. We saluted their spirit and kept on going. A little ahead was an even harder problem. Half the road was covered with mudslide and only a narrow portion was left. Even here the hump was too big and the car was skidding. I knew that with amount of slush and reduced power it might get difficult to move again if the motion is broken. It was a long stretch and as soon as i entered it i saw the biker struggling to move 20 meters ahead of me. I moved as slowly as i could to avoid breaking but he was unable to get out and thus i had to stop. Also for the first time underbody was getting hit by the hump. My friend got off to give the biker a push but before he could reach the bike moved. I started and thankfully tyres got traction and we moved. Crossed the stretch with a few more underbelly hits and stopped on the side to take a breath.

We moved ahead and had an even bigger slush waiting for us. Here again it was a long stretch and i entered and suddenly saw a Santro coming from front. That guy could see i had already entered the narrow stretch and should have stopped as he had space. Again I had to break in the middle of a bad section. My friend again got off to ask the Santro to reverse. But he obliged on his own and reversed. Santro was slipping like crazy and once he was parked on the side, i started again. It was the most scared i have ever felt in my life, i remembered the advice from BCMT to drive with two tyres on the hump but there was so much slush on the side as well that if i moved to left (on right was the valley) all my tyres would be in slush and i could risk losing traction. So with lot of underbelly hits and minimal steering control i moved ahead. At one point towards the end of the stretch the car slipped towards the valley side and almost reached the edge but thankfully some frantic (panicked) steering movements brought the car back and we were at the end of the stretch.

Again stopped to breath, talked to the Santro guy and advised him to take the other route. We were almost at the top now. A few turns later it was time to say hi again to second gear. The road at the top was laid with stones, although it was badly broken at a lot of sections, it was still infinite times better than what we had just crossed. Now we relaxed a bit and cameras came out. The view was out of this world. I had not expected to see a snowed out mountain top at such close range. The vapors rising from the mountain just made the scene mystical.

Well done Sabu (my punto)

Although we did get hit on the underbelly in slush but still there was a huge improvement with the GC upgrade. Also Due to the sump guard i was also not too worried about engine damage. Traction was my biggest concern and Bridgestones performed flawlessly.


It was place like we had never seen before, we could not stop looking at the mountains, grass, snow, mud and sky all in such beautiful colors. Clicked a lot of pics here on the stretch after Zozila top.

Clouds perfectly partitioning the white from green

Snow still intact on road sides

Punto Zozila
Promotional material for FIAT - (Please sponsor my trip)

Now the most important pic of the trip.

This is my friend's childhood friend. His parents bought this from J&K 26 years back and it has been in his family ever since. He brought him along on the trip as his family said 3 travelers is not a good number and thus he was supposed to be our fourth traveler. Unfortunately we lost him as on our return we could not find him anywhere in our car. My friend specifically asked me to put this lost and found notice. If anybody finds him, please return him to Delhi. 

So getting down from Zozila was relatively easy and due to amazing views we were stopping alot to click pics. I must add that our cameras were a Canon S2IS and two phones (LG Nexus 4 and a Nokia C7)

We were now in Ladakh region

Here on the roads were mostly bad till we crossed Kargil. However we did have a few great sections:

Passed Drass on the way, it was a small town with not much stay options visible. Enroute we stopped and spent a good hour at the Kargil war memorial. Do stop here to learn about the heroes who laid their lives so that we could enjoy this heavenly place. Each hill had it's own story and sacrifices made by our soldier and their families.

Flag at Kargil war memorial

At the memorial, do visit the museum room on the right side which has various artifacts and pictures from the war. Sharing one such interesting picture.

Tiger Hill

Road Conditions near Kargil

It was mostly bad roads coupled with Army convoys that slowed down our progress. We got stuck with the Army convoy from opposite side at a particularly narrow spot and had to park for a good half hour while the trucks passed. Also the stretch around Kargil is very dusty.


After Kargil the true Ladakh region starts with barren mountains. A lot of interesting rock formations can be seen on the way.

Indian Mount Rushmore with skulls instead of faces

Rocks in form of Easter Island Statues on top of a mountain

At NamikLa

Namik La a different view - i love this picture

The road to NamikLa was mostly good. Even on the great roads it gets very difficult to maintain good speed as every turn brings with it a better view and then you have to stop to capture it.

We found one local car lying on it's head. Probably someone getting over-enthusiastic on the smooth tarmac.

I feel one needs to be over cautious on good roads on mountains as with frequent turns and high speed, it would just take half second's distraction to take you off the road into nature's lap. This had happened hardly half hour back and we heard the driver was safe and had already left to get help.


Next up was Fotu-La, the highest point on the Srinagar Leh route. The road from halfway to top and further down was all mud track but plain. Also the road construction wark was going on and it should be a proper road by now. Interestingly we experienced very fine snowfall at Fotu La. It was exciting as well as chilling at the same time. The wind was very strong and our caps were still packed in luggage. Thus without any thing covering our heads and ears, cold started to get to me. We just clicked a few pics and left from the Top.

Road at FotuLa top

After Fotu La the roads till Lamayuru were great. We had decided to avoid driving at night and Lamayuru seemed like a nice place to stay at. Reached Lamayuru around 6:30 PM and after some searching found a guest house FotoLa, Room Rent 700/-


Lamayuru is a lively buddhist town full of foreigners and we had difficulty in finding accomodation as everything was booked due to a festival. Had our food across the road from Guest house and slept after a bit of bakar.

Tomorrows target: Leh and permits..

Day 3
June 17' 2013 - Monday


The hotel FotoLa was small but comfortable. I didn't quite understand how the hotel was completely empty while rest of the town was full of tourists with no rooms available. Anyways we had a good sleep and were up by 7 AM. Had our breakfast and left by around 9:30 AM. The town seemed beautiful with prayer flags all around.

Got see some interesting architecture

The house is embedded within mountain

Just after Lamayuru is this peculiar rock formation.

A formation from above pic that looks like Lord Ganesha

The roads between Lamayuru and Leh are spectacular with smooth surface and great views all around. This was a particularly straight stretch where i had to create another wallpaper for Sabu.

Sabu - The only Punto in Ladakh

Next up was Nimmu - Confluence of Indus and Zanskar. Although the water was muddy but still there was difference in color of the mud from two valleys.


Saw a Nano at Nimmu and it's color contrasted brilliantly with the surroundings.

All my pictures were shot in Auto Mode with no processing (other than cropping) still the landscape is so amazing that decent pictures come out.

Further down the road we reached the Magnetic Hill. Now a lot has been said about the hogwash that it is, even if its an optical illusion, it's a bloody good one. I rolled a plastic coke bottle and it also rolled in the same direction but if you see the below pic, Sabu was standing at the Red dot i've marked on road and it clearly seems to be a downward slope, but still the car moved backwards.

On the hill on right side you can see Tyre marks from Tanveer's White Elephant:

Will break the record someday

At Gurudwara Pathar Sahib

A warning on the way:

Finally after a lot of stopovers, we reached Leh around 1 PM. Called up Shanti Guest House and they had a room for us. But first we had to arrange permits. Went to the DC Office and it had not yet opened for the day. Also due a festival we heard it may not open till afternoon next day. Still we filled the form and got the proofs ready and by then the office opened. After that it was a painful 1 hour of pushing around to get the permits made. By 4 PM we were at Shanti Guest house checked into our room.

Had our lunch and then went to the Maruti Service Station to get Sabu a much needed bath. The receptionist there had a list of all the cars that usually came for a wash and the charges that they would take. As expected Punto was not listed there She insisted on seeing the car before she could tell me the charges. I had to pay 300/- (or maybe 400/-) for the wash including Air filter cleanup. That took around 1.5 hours of our time. But the result was good.


After that we rested a bit and went out for dinner to an Italian restaurant on the changspa road. Came back and slept well. Although we did realize in the night that we left our almost full bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label in the hotel room at Lamayuru. I was indifferent having a very specific taste( Pulpy Orange :P) but my co-travelers were crestfallen. They occasionally kept on looking into the luggage and car for rest of the trip hoping that the bottle would magically appear.

The plan for next day was Nubra valley, however the weather seemed dicey. Still we slept peacefully after the long journey from Delhi.

To Be Continued...