You want to do Ladakh in a Bug?’ my
‘Yup,’ said I.
‘Ever seen a Bug drive down from Def Col to CP without stopping at the Golf Club for 18 holes in order to cool off?’ they asked.
‘Nope,’ said I.
‘Sun’s got the guy,’ they concluded.
Yes, we were talking of a Volkswagen Beetle. The most sold car in the world. The car that Hitler built. The car that could be found cooling off under the shade of any tree on Delhi roads during summer months. The most scrapped car in Indian history.
I rebuilt my Bug’s engine using genuine Wolfsburg spares. However, Shimla’s slopes had the engine smoking and overheating to an early grave. With three engine rebuilds over a period of a year, I was up to my ears in debt, helped along by Rajnath Motors, who made me feel like a hill monarch buying parts for a Mercedes 600, from the prices he quoted and almost always successfully extracted.
I knew then that if I wanted to take the Bug to Ladakh, it could not be with the engine
Dr Porsche designed. Turning away all purist thoughts from my head, the air-cooled 1600cc engine from Volkswagenwerke was pulled out and a petrol engine from Maruti, over-bored to 1160cc, was mated to the original gearbox. The flywheel clutch assembly along with the starter motor were retained. However, on testing, the engine was under stress as the long gear ratios were found to limit engine rpm in the initial stages. More power was needed at lower revs if Ladakh was to be tamed. A week spent reworking the head yielded a nice tractable powerband and it seemed we were in business.
Throw in a floor scoop servicing two cooling fans on the rear mounted radiator, a Mitsubishi electric pump, an electronic distributor, an rpm meter on the dashboard and a temperature gauge, all without making a single modification to the external body of the car. The car accelerated to 70 kph in first, 115 kph in second and yet ticked over at 2500 rpm while doing 100 kph in fourth, but whether the high compression head would handle the rarefied atmosphere of 18,000 ft as well remained to be seen. A one-into-two tuned exhaust was designed with unequal lengths to sound exactly like the Beetle’s original. The resulting sound was deeper and richer, and every change in its tone along the way an indicator of impacting rocks, was a source of great trepidation. The adjustable suspension was lifted to give a ground clearance of almost 11 inches when unloaded, a trifle more than a Gypsy King’s!
Not least was the most excellent Cobra paint job using a shade of red from a Bburago Ferrari F50. That, in short, was the history of the modified Beetle which I thought would be equal to the task of taming Ladakh.
August 18, 1997
A Land Rover Defender 110 suitably ‘rally prepared’ by Raj Kapur of Performance Cars, Noida and a Gypsy King similarly set up by Jayesh Desai of Motorcraft were company. The weather gods were smiling all the way to Manali.
The Beetle took a direct hit on its exhaust from a rock short of Manali and changed its tone from a well-modulated growl to a growly hiss that really must have taxed its throat. Try growling and hissing at the same time if you want an idea of the complexity of the problem.
August 19, 1997
Departure was delayed as the Land Rover needed to fix a flat and the Bug’s exhaust needed repair. The Landie developed a sickening sound on deceleration though Raj had painstakingly overhauled the four-cylinder diesel just for the trip, enriching it considerably.
‘The Best 4X4XFar’ sticker on the rear door of the Land Rover seemed optimistic at that point in time. However as the tale unfolded, the sound aged Raj by 250 years in the next week, but hardly bothered the machine, which soldiered on regardless of terrain, altitude or inclination, fully earning the accolades of that sticker.
The high point of the drive up to Rohtang was being flagged down by two Germans on bicycles who insisted that they be photographed with the Beetle. At that time this seemed rather overt, but over the days ahead, one became used to Americans, Britons, Austrians, Germans, more Germans and still more Germans halting the Bug in disbelief for souvenir photographs.
August 20, 1997
Eager to take on the challenge of the looming Great Himalayan Range as it curves down to Baralacha La, the three vehicles were almost human in their anticipation of conquest. A flat run till Jispa where the Bhaga river meanders in a wide bed and we’re off to Darcha from where all the treks to exotic destinations in Zanskar start.
The climb begins insidiously, but gradually turns into a steady series of hairpins. Soon the wonderful tarmac disappears and its place is taken by a sandy, gravel mixture complete with huge stones right in the centre of the road. Here the Beetle shows off its excellent capacity for driving over kerb high stones without even blinking. It’s too good to be true, this singing up one of the most feared passes, and we soon succumb to a flat caused no doubt by a riverbed of stones masquerading as the main road. Unfazed and still full of adrenaline, the flat is changed in record time. Ten hairpins later, on a tight left hander, the engine coughs once and then dies.
The Landie and the Gypsy are mere specks on the endless slope of shale. Of our predicament they know nothing. Pull out the centre lead, hold it an inch away from the metal; crank.
Crank again. Nothing.
The current to the coil is strong. Maybe the wires are loose. Push. Push.
Out with a new ignition coil. Replacement takes half an hour. Crank again. Nothing.
It’s so silent you want to shout. The mountain is just sitting there doing nothing. A dud electronic distributor and no spare. The prognosis seems completely terminal. Two years of waiting, planning and building ends right here – ironically on the climb up Baralacha La, ‘The Pass of the Dead.’
It seems futile to pull out the distributor but the backup is still out of sight and what the hell, it can’t get any worse. The cap on top of the chip warns ‘Do Not Remove’, so I insert a screwdriver and gingerly prise it out. And there, in front of my eyes, is the most welcome wire break I have ever set eyes on. Twenty five minutes later my luck still holds out and the distributor is in and the car fires. Definitely the most glorious growl I have heard for a long, long time. Baralacha La is conquered in an hour.
We meet JD coming back for us. Apparently an Army truck has slipped down a gorge, injuring its occupants pretty seriously and traffic is temporarily held up as they are evacuated to the helipad at Sarchu. He’s one relieved man as he sees us gunning up the pass. Raj collects a puncture on the Gata Loops, the 21 hairpins leading to Nakee La just before the 16,616-ft high Lachalung La. The Beetle is running ahead in case the gremlins inside the distributor return. Pang is our rest halt for the night.
August 21, 1997
The cause for the excessive free play developing in the Beetle’s steering, on the downhill run from Lachalung La, is located. The bolts fastening the steering gearbox to the front frame are lying completely loose, held only in place by the locking strips, provided so thoughtfully by VW. The constant shuddering seems to have loosened every fastener on the car and we go through a tightening routine which is to become the daily, early morning chore.
Tea is made at Taglang La to celebrate the arrival of the caravan from Delhi. Rumste, green with a bubbling brook running down the centre, is straight out of Pahalgam and we are tempted to pitch camp. Reluctantly we drive down to Upshi. Leh is reached by the evening and we decide to spend the night at the Hotel Ga-ldan Continental.
August 22, 1997
Today is supposed to be devoted to rest but we drive down to 257 Transit Camp in search of a new residence. Our letters of recommendation get us accommodation with the Army at the most beautiful oasis around Leh, at Phyang. Two streams flow on either side of the officer’s mess and we are the only guests. Pure magic.
The cars are driven 30 km out to Choglamsar, then across the Indus to a garage for a clean-up. The cars are given a much needed wash, and cleaning of everything, especially the air filters, is done with great energy. In Ladakh, you have an extremely fine dust that gets into everything on arrival and stays there till you get back. Camera lenses, door locks, wiper blades and even under your teeth, you can feel its effect everywhere. Inspection of the Beetle’s underside reveals that all is well and no rocks have managed to touch the exhaust. However, a tie rod end has developed some play but it is not critical.
August 23, 1997
A perfect Ladakh day. The sky is that magic shade of deepest blue that is seen possibly only in outer space. The cars growl along agreeably and spirits are high all round. A kilometre after the bifurcation at Kharu on the road to the Chang La (17,400 ft) is a delightful little stream that is so completely out of the Kashmir valley, flanked by willows and poplars, that one could easily forget it was in Ladakh. It is the last oasis before Pangong Tso, 130 km away.
Almost instantly, as we drive away, the surroundings revert to the flat featureless moonscape, broken only occasionally by the whitewashed flash of a monastery perched dangerously up an impossible cliff face. Chang La looms dauntingly ahead. It will be the roughest pass of the entire trip. The road soon deteriorates to rough shale and huge rocks thrown all over the width of what should be labelled a mule track on maps! But that is Ladakh, and it is to beat this challenge that we’re here. The climb is relentless and as we cross the magic altitude of 16,500 ft, the engine note dies down to a whisper. There is hardly any oxygen left to burn and as the day is hot the oxygen is rarer still. Oh, for an intercooled turbo! The car strains against the climb and tortuous turn after turn we fight our way to the top. This is the first real fight for the Beetle as well as the Gypsy which spends time in 4x4 low to keep the rpm up. A visit to the temple atop Chang La is on the cards and this is my second visit to the shrine, the first being almost 21 years ago, in 1976, and its time I offered prayers and thanks.
The road down to Tsoltak deteriorates to an even steeper grade that is completely broken and at times seems to be cut in steps. The journey back is an unenviable prospect and my waking hours are spent dreaming about the ZF gearbox with limited slip differential on some Beetles.
A quick run down to Durbuk, which looks like and could well be the dried bed of an inland sea, and then onwards to Tangtse where we stop for lunch. The flat marshlands at Mugleb, 16 km down from Tangtse, show the first signs of increasing moisture and the presence of a really huge water body. A small unmarked lake, powder blue and sweet water, shows up and everyone stops for photographs. It’s half the size of Chandratal in Himachal, but has us all fascinated... it’s our first Ladakh lake.
The road is turning from sand to rocks to sand again as we literally wade through streams knee-deep and full of rocks. The Beetle hits a rock with its nose but the victim is only a lower leading edge below the front bumper. Still it merely shows that 11 inches of ground clearance is just the bare minimum for Ladakh! The Gypsy and Land Rover cross, scraping their low hanging diffs regularly. It’s late afternoon when we turn the last corner and find ourselves at the Lukung post which is the last army barrier post at the northwest end of the Pangong Tso. We had to report back by 5 pm, which is the most unfair condition, for as we turn a bend, everyone is left open mouthed just looking at the huge lake stretching to the horizon and beyond. Even more spellbinding is the fact that there are more than seven distinct shades of blue and green in the water, which though salty and undrinkable, offers crystal clear visibility up to a 15-foot depth! Pangong Tso stretches 160 km and only 25-odd km of this fantastic lake lie in India, the balance with China.
A fine dinner and early lights out see a fitting end to a day that saw the conquest of Chang La, unanimously voted the toughest pass of Ladakh by us, and our sighting of the biggest, bluest and most awesome lake at 14,500 ft.
August 24, 1997
The camp at Mugleb is finally broken by 11 o’clock and the charge back to Tsoltak begun in earnest. In Ladakh, the most difficult part is the visual measurement of distances, as there is no reference point in terms of trees to provide perspective of size or gradient. What seems a gradual, shale covered slope climbing for two km turns out to be an eight km, engine punishing climb. Tsoltak is achieved easily enough, but the ‘river bed’ to Chang La is waiting. A spirited charge up to the first lot of ‘Steps’ – huge slabs of rock cut in steps eight inches high, on a right hand hairpin, obviously designed to make the trip unforgettable. And the Beetle spins the rear tyres in a futile attempt to get some sort of traction in the loose shale that has already been churned up this morning by the Army convoy headed back to Leh. Two runs, on lowered tyre pressure, yield only marginally better results and reluctantly we strap the Bug to the Land Rover which pulls us up for the critical 100 metres. On top of Chang La we have news that one of the army trucks had to tow up a Gypsy that morning, whose 4x4 had been defeated by the churned mud at the ‘steps’!
Once down from Chang La we are treated to a most beautiful though unwelcome sight in Ladakh. The entire horizon to the east is overcast and our return route through Taglang La seems to be getting a pristine white coat of fresh snow. As four days are still left for us to return we are not seriously concerned about the snow as yet, but it is falling on our return route. At present we’re at Kharu, from where a short diversion across the Indus takes us alongside impossibly long ‘Mani’ walls – normally 10 feet high and about as wide and running several 100 feet in length. Made up of wide flat stones, all of which are engraved by hand with prayers, they lead to a cleft in a cliff face which hides, in its poplar groves, Hemis.
Proclaimed by all as the richest monastery in Ladakh, its treasures include the two-storey high Gold Buddha and numerous ‘tankhas’ dating back five centuries. The monks, however, seem to have little time for us. We find them all clustered around the Beetle, their voices shrill with animation and from their reverent worship of the car you would think that the Rimpoche himself was manifest.
The run back to Leh is without event and we pass through Thiksey just in time to catch the sunset from the monastery.
August 25, 1997
We wake to the sound of raindrops and the smell of rain on the parched earth reminds us that the rest of the country is firmly in the grip of the monsoon. Here in Leh, the monsoon is supposed to be a non-existent phenomenon. Not if it rains like its raining today. A black overcast has covered everything in sight and its visibly snowing over the Khardung La (18,400 ft). Taglang La is getting fresh snow for the second day and this means that its fine black dust will turn into a traction defying chocolate sauce a foot and a half deep.
Night at the mess near Phyang, we attempt to watch some reruns on the television but the strain of watching Star News full of Angola and Bosnia is completely out of context and soon we’re out in the open studying the night sky for whatever stars are out. They aren’t. Instead what we are staring into is a complete overcast – a thick inky sludge from horizon to horizon.
August 26, 1997
We awake to another morning with the rain coming down for the third consecutive day. Today Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world, has to be climbed. As it is snowing on the pass, everyone warns us not to go, which is the main reason why we have to attempt it today!
As the climb up the pass appears to be one long, slow muddy ascent with visibility down to three metres, I decide to leave the freshly waxed and gleaming Beetle at the army camp at Phyang. After Chang La, no pass in Ladakh seems to hold a challenge any longer! Khardung La is a well-graded pass and due to the cold moisture-laden day, there is no problem with oxygen at all as both vehicles and humans take the 18,400 ft ascent with ease. All plans to go into Nubra Valley, a green oasis on the old Silk Road over the Karakorams into Afghanistan and China, are abandoned – an army truck was swept off the road by a landslide and it took some of the road down with it.
A few photographs and we’re off back to Leh, with Hindi pop playing in the Land Rover. It seems strange to hear music after so many days and a bit out of place, since there is no music in the Beetle save the sound of that twin exhaust, ricocheting off the rock face as one accelerates up the passes of Ladakh.
August 28 onwards, 1997
The weather is ready to close completely and we decide to avoid the sludge covered Tanglang La by going by way of Tso Moriri, the ‘other Ladakh Lake’. From Upshi we again throw a left to Mahe. Tarmac after so long, and it’s a magical journey up the Indus for 150 kilometres. Snap a right at the Mahe bridge and we are on a grey shale strewn road that winds up a gully for another 17 km. At Puga Sumdo we take a left and climb for 10 kilometres up a marmot infested gorge. The pristine blue Thatsang Karu lake looms up ahead. Small but with tricky sandy sides, it really pushes the two-wheel drive Beetle to the limit on its sandy banks. Pedal to the metal we crab across the deep white sand just making hard ground as the engine begins to die. Oxygen is in very short supply indeed.
A slow descent onto Tso Moriri over the next few kilometres and we are home for the night at Korzok – the headquarters of the Rupshu nomads. Master Angdu is sought out and leases us a large rug covered room with a view of the lake and a square hole in the roof for starlight! We spend a surreal night and leave reluctantly next morning for Pang via the Tso Kar.
The road to Tso Kar is only slightly better than a riverbed in places and far worse in most! The Beetle straddles the stream that masquerades for a road for over half the day. The circumnavigation around the lake involves a water crossing that taxes the Beetle once again.
The sky is getting pitch dark and I fear that if we stop at Pang for the night we will be snowed in. We continue through the night crossing Baralacha La in a blizzard at 11 pm. Years later, we would repeat the exercise on the Raid de Himalaya 2004. The Beetle was struggling up the icy pass with rare courage. Rear engine adding valuable traction we crossed the Pass of the Dead and found ourselves a comfortable refuge at the newly constructed Ibex at Jispa.
With the Himalayas, it is only over when its actually over. What should have been a routine run between Jispa and Manali quickly turned into a nightmare. At Stingri, the road was blocked and in the middle of it all, looking definitely forlorn, stood a JCB with its power steering sheared off! The GREF informed us that parts from Faridabad would take three days and we should wait like the other 200 stranded vehicles. We convinced the army to allow us to try and effect repairs. Cannibalising hydraulic pipes from the bucket to replace the damaged ones near the steering had the beast going in another three hours. As a gesture of thanks, our convoy was sent out first and we triumphantly raced into Tandi for a gas refill.
A landslide of ‘chocolate sauce mountain’ at Sissu cost us another couple of hours, and finally it was the excellent momos at the Fauji dhaba at Khoksar that offered the only respite of the day. Rohtang was another nightmare of trucks, trucks and more trucks and try as we may, we could only reach Manali by 1 am. Crawling over the gate of the Ashoka Lodge, we shouted the receptionist awake and crawled into bed for a 12 hour sleepathon!
Home and dry.