“It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, of the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.”
As I sit down to pen my journal from the 9th edition of Mahindra Adventure’s Monastery Escape in Ladakh, a couple of weeks after returning to urban life, I’m reminded of Pascal Mercier’s wise words from his gripping 2004 novel Night Train to Lisbon. The voyage to the enchanting heights of the Himalayas now comes across as a subtly, yet deeply, life-changing experience.
Before getting to that, let me first draw a picture of the adventure that the Monastery Escape was. The 10-day motorsport-standard event gives both Mahindra and non-Mahindra owners the chance to experience the terrain en route some of the world’s highest motorable roads. Flagged off from Delhi, the convoy of 26 expedition ready vehicles reached Leh via Manali, Jispa and Tso Moriri, at the half-way mark in the drive. I was a part of the contingent that joined the convoy for the second part of the trip, which was slated to then travel higher up to Jammu and Kashmir’s mountains.
The eclectic mix of participants on the journey had folks from all walks of life. From newly married couples and gentlemen who became partners after meeting for the first time on the trip to petrolhead neurosurgeons and female drivers who expertly steered the brawny 4X4s through the journey, you couldn’t have asked for a wider variety of people. We were introduced to the convoy at our accommodations — the Hotel Shangri La in Leh, where we were garlanded with traditional white khadasks, before heading out past the Potala Palace to the Thiksay monastery next morning.
At a distance of 19 km to the east of Leh, the largest Gompa in Central Ladakh offers stunning views — sit down for a brunch here and you can thank us later for the recommendation. Another great option for your mid-day meal could be the delectable thin crust pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens at the nearby eatery, Cafe Cloud. Warning: The area doesn’t serve any non-vegetarian food on dark moon days (amavasya), so foodies, please plan your visit accordingly.
My assumption that I’d already got the best possible photographs for Instagram was dispelled the minute I stepped out from the hotel later that evening. The sight of the gorgeous sky made it easier to walk uphill to the old bazaar which, at first sight, looks like any other ‘Mall Road’ from North India’s touristy hill stations. It’s when you tread deeper into its maze-like lanes that you actually discover the soul of the desert city. Locals help you find the best places for momos and thukpas — quite literally run out of domestic kitchens — and the tiny bakeries have lovely breads that people of the neighbourhood consume during the course of their day. Grab a few of these to accompany some piping hot tea and the dropping temperatures, prompted by Easterly winds, will feel like an old friend.
Having acclimatised for two nights, we were raring to lay our hands on the SUVs on offer the next morning. Our pals from Mahindra Adventure had handed out AWD Scorpios to each set of participants, while there was a Getaway pick-up truck, the butch Thar and a brave KUV100 for the media. As I climbed into the Getaway, some fellow (automotive) journalists were certain that the best part of the drive was already behind them. Little did they know what lay ahead.
As the convoy bunched up to head towards Khardung La Pass (K-Top), the highest motorable road in the world, we came face-to-face with some treacherous terrain. As if the climb all the way up to 18,380 ft wasn’t tricky enough, the journey down proved to be even more challenging. I could almost hear my bum say thanks when the car’s tyres finally hit tarmac en route the sand dunes of Nubra Valley, after hours of struggle on broken (sometimes non-existent) roads. The day’s efforts paid off, with some more striking views awaiting us as we retired at our serene campsite, with the Diskit Monsatery watching over us.
The convoy was supposed to take the same route back to Leh, but we were fortunate enough to get permission from the authorities to drive around the other side of the mountain past the Shyok Valley, which is otherwise a protected wildlife area. The lunch halt on the rocky banks of the Shyok River has to be my highlight of the trip. In the company of nature, the meal, without anything fancy on the menu, was easily among the best of my entire life. The testing drive, in the KUV, then culminated in truly breathtaking views at the top of the snow-capped Warila Pass, located at a staggering 17,427 ft. While we were running out of oxygen due to the altitude, there was no shortage of inspiration among the service and medical teams of the convoy, to iron out the creases in testing times.
The final stretch of the journey was in the Thar, with a kickass off-roader behind the wheel. In addition, we also encountered road repair and construction activities being carried out by the Border Road Organisation, famously known as BRO, whose prominently quirky signboards kept us entertained en route Leh.
At the end of this phenomenal adventure, which also happened to be my first visit to the state, I’d been to two of the world’s highest drivable roads, driven through snow and gravel and off-roaded to the best of an SUV’s capabilities. The 2017 Monastery Escape was an adventure that stayed true to its rugged promise, and induced the most adrenalineheavy experience that my body has had in a long time.
While on the flight back to Mumbai the next morning, a retired Wing Commander, who was also a member of the convoy, occupied the seat next to mine. We discussed the challenges of taking off at high altitudes, and the daunting beauty of the mountains. As the aircraft looked over the exquisite Himalayas through the clouds, in a dreamlike state, moments before dozing off, I heard the peaks echoing the contents of a cheeky BRO signboard – ‘Dear I like you, but not your speed.’
And while the adrenaline levels have certainly gone down a fortnight after the trip, what has subconsciously stayed with me is the slowpaced spirit of the mountains, which has encouraged me to step back and breathe; look at my inner demons in the eye and make peace with them, with a ‘wonderful silence.’