I often catch myself daydreaming about undulating hills, consciously avoiding plastic bottles and blind overtakes, and being careful of the sidewalls on my city drives. The pollution and the heat are the first ones to bring me back to Earth, but I still can’t help thinking of the million emotions that lavender-covered hill in the arid landscape of Ladakh evoked as I drove through a pass in the Himalayas in a Land Rover Defender 110. I’m talking about that one-of-a-kind luxury adventure road trip curated by Cougar Motorsport and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) that took me to some of the most pristine, untouched parts of the country.
Merak, for instance, a jewel tucked 176km east of Leh, by the southern banks of the Pangong Tso, shines with its eco- conscious ethos. Tenzin, our host at The Merak, champions this spirit with his 11-room boutique inn. Eschewing modern heating, the innovative cottages leverage UV-resistant PVC panels and earthen walls to cocoon guests in warmth. Paying homage to Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, its design is an artful blend of the contemporary and classic. Alchi Kitchen, started by the visionary Nilza Wangmo in 2006, offers a tantalising gastronomic ride. As Ladakh’s pioneering women-led restaurant, it weaves traditional flavours with innovative twists, portraying the resilience and warmth of its people.
Both The Merak and Alchi Kitchen exemplify the harmonious blend of luxury and sustainability without forfeiting authenticity, even in far-flung, quaint little towns in this part of the country. More luxurious stays like The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) Chamba at Thiksey and Diskit, place you right in the middle of the wilderness, cocooned in Ladakh’s history with unobstructed views of the Thiksey Monastery and Diskit Gompa, respectively, thanks to their glamping experience. Away from the pollution, plastic and people, they take you through roads that are one with the mountains, demanding that you be patient, focused and more coordinated with the rest of the traffic and within your convoy. The reward for your patience comes in the form of these mental sanctuaries; a luxury that our normal lifestyles cannot afford. The journey throws surprises your way, that keep you waiting for every subsequent turn and hooked to the road. And the credit for this goes to the Defender!
While it may seem overwhelming, driving the Defender in the Himalayas turned out to be as easy as pressing a few buttons and trusting the SUV to do the rest. It makes you feel so assured that you are egged on to undertake every new adventure with an air of confidence without worrying about the roads or the lack of them. Like we did on two occasions; once, while on our way from Lamayuru to Kargil and the second time, on our way from The Merak to our destination at Leh. But more on that later. Whether we were navigating somewhat treacherous terrains, winding roads, or just absorbing the panoramic views, the SUV’s prowess was evident. It made the wild landscapes of Ladakh feel almost tame, turning every challenge into an adventure and every drive into a memory.
From just wrapping your head around the sight and size of the Pangong Tso before realising that only 40 per cent of it is in India; to standing a few kilometres away from a Chinese mountain peak in the last Indian village Chushul, with camouflaged army vehicles always ready for combat; to discovering how similar garba beats are to Ladakhi music while dancing with the local performers – these moments of wonder stay with you long after you’ve returned home. Every twist and turn on this journey presents not only the raw beauty of Ladakh but a kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences. The Land Rover Defender was not just our vehicle, but our companion and our home on the road, helping us munch miles without breaking a sweat. As I recall the trip, sitting miles away in the urban hustle, I can’t help but wonder what really made the journey special. While the butlers on demand at most of our accommodations, seamless check-ins and check-outs, breezing past check posts without being stopped, locally produced gourmet delights, and in general being handheld through the Himalayas truly gave us a taste of luxury, it never compromised on adventure or the essence of a road trip – something which is at the risk of being lost under all the glamour. But welcome to Luxury Adventure: Millionaire Edition, I guess.
Here’s the day-wise itinerary of our 6-day trip.
Drive: In and around the city
Stay: Taj Vivanta, Dal Lake
Nestled atop Kralsangri hill, the Taj Vivanta on the Dal Lake was our abode in Srinagar. Picture a retreat with panoramic views of the city, hugged by the Himalayan foothills. As 10 journalists and social media influencers from across the country settled in, the laid-back day was dedicated to soaking in the local essence. Navigating the Dal Lake on a Shikara is a tourist rite of passage.
And our evening Shikara ride, named ‘Good Luck’ rather ironically, offered stories more than souvenirs. Salman, a seasoned boatman, revealed the lake’s multi-faceted ecosystem, from floating kebab stalls to vegetable markets. We wrapped the evening at Nadis, feasting on authentic Kashmiri fare in a space that was more a welcoming dining hall than a restaurant.
Drive: Srinagar to Kargil
Stay: The Kargil
The morning came with a challenge – the 210km drive to Kargil. Four legs (Srinagar to Sonmarg, Sonmarg to Drass, Drass to Kargil War Memorial, and from there to our accommodation at The Kargil); varying terrains; and the unforgiving Zojila Pass. The nine hour-drive, especially from Sonmarg to Drass through Zojila, can be challenging for newbies who don’t have much experience of driving in the hills. But the Defender breaks that barrier with the ease of access and approach it offers. Sure, there’s a slight learning curve to finding the sweet spot between accelerating wildly and just maintaining the momentum of the SUV, but it’s extremely forgiving and keeps you cocooned in a slew of safety features and driving assists. So much so that despite making a few rookie mistakes on the mountain pass, I was confident enough to complete the entire drive myself.
Drive: Kargil to Thiksey – 217km
Stay: TUTC Chamba, Thiksey
I was clubbed with a more experienced driver for the next day, and was willing to learn the chops from Lenny, a thoroughbred petrolhead, who had quit his cushy job in the Middle East to start off as an automobile journalist at a reputed Indian publication.
Each stop that day registered a memory that is hard to forget. The first one was for a short coffee break at Lamayuru. Now, Lamayuru isn’t one of your usual tourist spectacles; rather, it’s just one of the many quaint little villages in Ladakh, with a monastery being a somewhat major tourist attraction. Our spot was neither at the monastery nor inside the town but rather desolate, with the backdrop of a single lavender hill, standing out from a chain of barren, brown mountains. Words can’t explain coming across a spectacle like this, but it’s in these moments that you realise the kind of go-anywhere luxury the Defender affords you.
Our lead instructor, Ashish Gupta – a man of sharp wit and truckloads of experience when it comes to off-road and motorsports in general, whose chatter on the team radio always kept things light-hearted yet educational and informative – decided
to serve up a surprise. I would choose to believe that it was the lavender hill that triggered some inexplicable sense of chasing such wonders. Instead of taking the usual, safe, main highway to Alchi, Ashish offered us the choice of taking the old Kargil highway, which was anything but a highway. A narrow trail, with one hairpin bend after another, the winding route descends into the valley, merging with the highway parallel to the Indus River. When I say it was anything but a highway, there is no amount of exaggeration. In fact, Google Maps doesn’t even give the option of taking that route when you map a trip from Lamayuru to Alchi. It is only when you zoom into a scale of 100m that you see something that bears some semblance to a ‘road’.
Alchi, as mentioned earlier, served up some tantalising Ladakhi delicacies – with Chef Wangmo’s twist to broaden their appeal – while also offering a peek into the treasure trove of stories that Wangmo had to share. Alchi Kitchen may well have put the quaint town on the world map but it isn’t without Wangmo’s continued perseverance and hard work. From resurrecting the kitchen after the floods in the region, to establishing multiple outlets (including one in Delhi now), Wangmo’s story offers the right dose of inspiration, aside from the lovely cuisine, to fuel the rest of the journey. The next stop, although a brief one, at the Zanskar-Indus confluence might seem rather insignificant – but watching these rivers, trying to fathom all the stories you’ve read growing up and through survivors of the Partition who speak of the mineral-rich Indus with as much fondness as their homes – makes you reflect on just how small a speck you are in the history of civilisation. This, as if these mountains weren’t enough…
By twilight, we had arrived at our destination – TUTC Chamba, Thiksey. Having won multiple travel awards for its luxury glamping experience, it was the perfect end to that overwhelming day. The Ultimate Travelling Camp is a subliminal blend of sophisticated luxury and untamed wilderness. With unobstructed views of the Thiksey Monastery from your luxury tent, it is truly an unrivalled experience in one of the most exotic, far-flung corners of the country. It is perfect for anyone who wants to experience the romance of a nomadic lifestyle with a sprinkling of glamour from personal butlers and custom cuisine to other luxury bells and whistles you can imagine.
Drive: Leh to Diskit – 127km
Stay: TUTC Chamba, Diskit
Tackling the once-highest motorable road, Khardung La, I revelled in crossing it off my bucket list. The Defender effortlessly negotiated the terrain, taking us to the serenity of our TUTC property at Diskit with an unobstructed view of the town’s monumental Maitreya Buddha statue. The evening promised stargazing at the TUTC camp but the moon stole the show. Our spirits were kept up by Ladakhi spirits instead.
Drive: Diskit to Merak – 180km
Stay: The Merak
Our next destination was the hamlet of Merak, near Pangong Tso. Curated by Ladakh Sarai, our lunch break was at the village of Durbuk, located between the Chang La mountain pass and Tangste village on the way to Pangong Tso. Set in a picturesque picnic spot, surrounded by wildlife and mountains, and the Defender in the backdrop, the lunch menu included everything from Sushi to local Ladakhi cuisine, and a live barbecue grill. A heavy refill and some quick power naps later, we were on the road again.
Drive: Merak to Leh – 177km
Stay: The Grand Dragon
On the last day of the journey, Ashish threw in another surprise, offering us the option to return to Leh via Chushul, the last Indian town before the China border, or trace the path back to Leh. By now, I could blindly trust the Defender to take me to the Moon,
and this was only Chushul. I’m glad that there were enough of us who chose the longer way back home. I went shotgun with Seshan, another auto journo from a leading publication, who was also the first person I had met and befriended on this trip. One of the longest drives of the entire journey, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the road trip. Twists, no roads, water crossings, dust trails, gravel – the last leg served up everything we had encountered on our way from Srinagar to Leh, and then some. Hawk-eyed Ashish was quick to spot wild asses, yaks, and even marmots from a distance and quickly relay the news on radio, asking us to be cautious of any unpredictable movements these animals could make, which they eventually did.
As we approached our concluding stop, The Grand Dragon in Leh, a sense of withdrawal swiftly overtook me. Gathered around the bonfire, we reflected not only on the thrill of navigating high- altitude terrain but also on the unexpected, serendipitous moments that enriched our journey. As dawn approached, signaling that it was time to depart, the longing to stay was palpable. If only there was a way to slowly detach from the experience, just as we had acclimatised upon our arrival…