I knew from the beginning of the trip that I could end up subject to a bit of smug pride, in being someone who “dared” to drive such an old Jeep into what is still a relatively remote region.
BHPian ringoism recently shared this with other enthusiasts.
As a preface: I debated whether to finally collect all the thoughts and photos and post anything at all here, considering that these days one more family journey around Ladakh is hardly anything special. But this being at least my sixth trip there over sixteen years with some witness to the intervening changes, and also having come and gone and hardly seen anyone else doing these routes in older vehicles, figured these might add some unique angles to the whole experience. And we did behold and try to capture some lovely scenes that seemed worth sharing.
So what do you do when the road beckons, your only car is a rattly old 21-year-old Jeep, there’s been a longstanding desire to tour Ladakh with the wife & kids, and a week’s summer break from school suddenly looms on the horizon?
Well, you pause and try and work out a rough risk/reward ratio, alternately imagining exultation / cringing; You hesitate, calculate, then finally figure “Why Not?”, spend a couple days getting the neglected beast (mostly) in order, determine to stretch that school leave by a couple days on either end to do the place justice, reclaim the loaned camera and then just pack up, get in and go.
At least that’s what we did.
Kids’ teacher said they could permit two days’ absence at a time without special permission, so we figured we could eke out just under two weeks without much trouble (upon return found out we needed the Principal’s permission – and this particular one is not one to be crossed / meddled with (oops!), so let’s see how that goes!). Anyway, this was in truth conceived as being a substantially educational journey, so with about a week to go after this bright idea lit up my mind, we started getting ready.
So it was clearly getting time to travel.
Living in the hills is generally satisfying, but one downside is the quandary re: what to do when one wants (/needs) a little change of scenery. Drive the better part of a full day in any direction, and after considerable time & effort, we’re still in the hills – in most cases hills that don’t look substantially different (quite often less appealing) vs. what we see outside our door every day. Have sometimes envied (believe it or not) friends in certain metros who within a few hours or less can find themselves in the midst of entirely different geographic environs in any one of a few directions.
Had wanted to visit Rajasthan but the plains are obviously too hot this time of year so anything down there is definitely out. Same goes for the coasts.
Ladakh is far from typical as the mountainous regions go, has been on the list for years and monsoon is an okay time of year to do it. BUT can we / should we do it in this car? One that hadn’t been anywhere outside of state in at least five years? I don’t think it’s been more than an hour from home in that time, in fact. Last year it was successfully inspected / passed fitness till 2026 – but does that mean it was literally “fit” for something as distant and rough as Ladakh, with so little on-road support to be found? Whatever its relative strengths, was the venerable beast truly up to it / even capable of it? Would I live to regret embarking on something like this with a whole family along, when we could all end up in more than minor inconvenience if it were to break down hard in some remote corner?
A friend offered the use of one of his well-maintained Fortuners at no cost, a kindness I felt was too generous to accept, especially as the car would otherwise be generating good income for him on self-drive rentals. Besides that, in truth: 1) I’d always secretly dreamed of taking the Marshal out there sometime before we retired it; 2) I’ve seen a good number of BSIV-BS6 vehicles carried out of that “great beyond” on recovery vehicles recently – incl. a Merc, a Volvo, an Audi, an XUV700, an AWD Duster, and others. So it is not as though having a newer, plusher, “better quality” vehicle was any kind of guarantee for success. 3) A number of mechanics over the years have told me that the old N/A DI is “the best engine ever made” or words to that effect, I suppose because it rarely gives problems and tends to just plod patiently on, largely impervious to all manner of abuse / neglect.
I knew it would be sluggish getting up over those passes – it is sluggish here 10,000ft lower than those too, of course, does alright once the momentum is there but it’s not always easy to achieve that! I knew too that its flimsy old body structure (no finite-element-analysis back in those times) would shake, rattle, and bang its way along, not a pleasing prospect for my tinnitus, if general irritation weren’t enough. But more than anything, in times of uncertainty like this, thoughts inevitably turned to its earlier times with us – those difficult first couple years, where it had blown a head-gasket (due to assembly error, but still…), had the transmission gears jam up a couple times (juggad-repaired on the way with assurances it would NEVER happen again), had the voltage regulator fry (that on account of a leaking vacuum-pump oil seal), the cooling system spring a leak, the starter clutch utterly fail to engage (on the maiden voyage to Delhi the whole starter motor had nearly fallen out just an hour from home, on account of a mounting bolt breaking off), the valve-cover gasket leak profusely, the steering-box mounting bolts loosen / break (which could have seriously endangered our lives); and (shockingly) the entire transmission crossmember just about fall out entirely once… all this on long trips, and NOT the stuff of pleasant experiences; Local mishaps (like the broken brake line and resultant pressure loss, while my wife was maneuvering through the market) had been rarer, but no less serious. Ah, the woes of an ill-maintained preowned ex-local-Himalayan Maxicab taxi!
I had to admit that, apart from a cracked spring leaf now and then, the Marshal hadn’t given any real trouble in a long while. Finally more or less sorted over those years, it had actually done well on that other long, hard run all around / above / beyond Spiti & Kinnaur… an axle U-bolt had worked loose once on those rough roads, but we tightened it up and got on our way with no further issues.
But that was six years ago – it was “only” 15 years old then and it had turned 21 by now. The clearcoat on the top surfaces was starting to peel and the upholstery seams were beginning to split. I knew I had neglected it badly the past couple years – Earlier a daily driver, we had hardly used it between the time of 2020 lockdowns till schools finally re-opened this year. And for all its essential ruggedness, predictability, and generally forgiving nature, it had begun to feel worn now.
As noted / inquired about in other threads, we had been searching (with difficulty) for an appropriate replacement for the Marshal, something which has yet to manifest. Mostly settled on and have been looking for a (85ps) Duster / Terrano as a replacement / supplement, but not willing just yet to brave the heat of Delhi in search of those cheap 10-year-old NCR disposal units (any good leads out there among known parties, do let us know, I think I can survive a day down there!).
So for this one last tour at least, it would be the Marshal – it could seem a kind of destiny. Long before we thought to head for Ladakh in this aged beast, I had already accrued an arms’-length list of issues that needed attention – a list that would grow as we moved into actual inspection stage: Self-starter clutch was on its way out, rear door was rattling / shaking badly, leaf-spring bushes were gone (little did I know then that a main leaf was cracked as well), an inner door handle was broken. I needed to re-do some sound insulating; One driveshaft yoke bolt was missing and the others loose. An exhaust-pipe mount was rattling. A rear wheel-bearing race was badly pitted. Rear brake shoes were gone, and one of the wheel cylinders frozen. Radiator had been seeping for a long time, one of the horns had gone silent, left tie-rod end needed replacing and steering box had too much lash in it; headlights sometimes flickered at inopportune times, clutch needed adjusting, diesel filters were long overdue for a change along with the (ancient design but highly effective) oil-bath air filter service and engine oil-change and gear oil level checks – and to top it all off… I needed to top off the windshield washer fluid… Yeah, we had been driving it like that (!), and it had been seriously feeling “good enough” locally. But now there was a LOT to get done in a couple days. I tried to separate the list into things that MUST be done vs. things that ideally ought to be done. And made some good progress.
Meanwhile our sons finished off their last couple days of school, wife started packing clothes and piles of snacks and other stuff, and finally the fateful morning arrived… Kids were so excited to finally be going to LADAKH (and to be allowed to skip school, I’m sure!).
The younger one was so excited, in fact, that after running down to stash some of his stuff in the car, he gave the passenger’s side door a nice hard, exuberant slam shut…
…A minute later they came upstairs, looking rather shaken, to inform me its glass had shattered.
You can’t really blame a kid for being over-exuberant (still he did get a little scolding). But along with that glass other things had broken. Not even on the road yet, and experiencing our first mishap with the car! I don’t believe in bad omens, but confess a bit of hope/confidence was shattered as well.
Our first day’s itinerary had likewise disintegrated. An hour late already and without many words I felt like saying, rushed off on my own to see if by chance I could find a replacement window here locally, and someone competent to fit it good and quick. In great suspense watched as the parts-guy sifted through a big stack of vertically-stored window glasses. He got all the way through and hadn’t found what we needed – Oh, Lord! But he tried again, sifting back the other way, and by God’s grace spotted it this time (the benefit of having a car that shares so many parts with other vehicles, including commercial models).
Grabbing a new set of window seals and a few other spares as an afterthought, an “angel” then appeared in the form of a guy who’d done most of the denting on the car nearly seven years ago, who has now set up shop nearer-by. Aging, small in stature and well-weathered in his visage but still super-active and one of the best around when it comes to returning twisted and distressed metal panels to the perfections of their original form, Jata is a real gem. I had called ahead, and upon arrival he readily got to his work, and very proficiently. Done within a half hour or less including cleanup of the broken glass, I asked the price of his services; The Rs100 he quoted was too cheap so gave him double (even that was cheap, guys like this are worth their weight in gold). Had put in a new window rubber seal while we were at it, and having grabbed a couple other spares as an afterthought, sped back home – whereupon we all jumped in and on a wing and (literally) a prayer, embarked on our first family adventure in a long time.
As the whole idea had been a little late coming to mind and there was all this other work, there hadn’t honestly been a lot of time for route-planning. Original idea from a few years back had been Zanskar via Darcha, then back to Leh by whichever route (there are supposed to be at least two new ones) – but having heard that the road beyond Shinku-La was pretty gravelly-rough for a few hours after, and knowing how little our car likes those sorts of roads in particular – and now with the departure delay and more modest confidence level, I figured it would be best to make Leh, as an “easier” destination, a first goal. If something went wrong after that, ok, at least we’d arrived in the heart of Ladakh after a beautiful drive on (reportedly) good roads, and seen its capital city!
“Reportedly” came from a guy driving the Fortuners there regularly now, vs. the 4×4 Bolero Camper he’d plied with earlier. In our car (near identical underpinnings to those Campers), the roads did not seem any better than they’ve ever been; I was pretty disappointed at the lack of quality of even the freshest surfacing being laid. Places like the ascent to Baralacha-La and descent from Thanglang-La and Chang-La and several other places have become infinitely worse than earlier, and it didn’t appear that any real work was going on towards improvements at a few of them. I’ve always held that good dirt is better than bad pavement (car strongly prefers that too), but apparently whichever powers-that-be don’t see it that way, and as such, a truly good stretch of smoothly, evenly paved road was indeed a very rare find those twelve days.
But apart from roads: Needless to say, things have dramatically changed since the time of my first adventures in 2006/7. When I visited most of these places in those years, there were only scattered tourists to be found outside Leh, and even there most were foreigners, present in modest numbers. I used to stay in central Leh near the Moravian School in a quaint little family-run guest-house of perhaps 5-6 rooms, with lovely unobstructed views out huge multi-paned windows (more like an entire glass wall, as was once common in the South-facing corner rooms of Ladakhi homes) looking towards the Indus; I had eaten right there in the family kitchen with them, too, and all this for next to nothing in terms of cost. I tried to locate the same place now, but it seemed to have become surrounded by larger new structures, I couldn’t even find its gate, signboard, or the path into it anymore, and am sure it is no longer operating. Pages could be filled on similar lines, but suffice it to say that the typical tourist of today demands more and does not tread lightly; Greed and competition among locals has perpetuated a constant state of construction frenzy and the bondages (and risks) of a loan-culture, yet the region has not necessarily been well-served by overdoing tourism “development”. I was glad to see some semblance of a desire, at least, for a measure of discipline and cleanliness: In the main bazar itself (despite the government’s questionable decision to cut down almost all the trees in the process of laying new tiled pedestrian walkways), it seemed to be having some positive effect:
Lots of places outside that central area have nonetheless been badly littered and dumped upon, I will not offer photos of some of those sad sights here.
But still Ladakh – for all the potentially overwhelming mess in certain places – cannot really help but still be essentially beautiful. And there is still adventure – with the roads still overall quite a mess and nature doing its best to continually confound us all, there was plenty of water to drive through, broken bridges to clamor across, precarious unprotected edges to drive along, high passes (if no longer the highest in our case) to wheeze over. Someone told me that “There are roads everywhere now – all the adventure is gone”. Well, not quite – not in my book – and not when riding in a two-decade old Jeep.
We moreover got a lot of attention out there, lots of friendly waves. My wife kept asking, “Do they know you?” In general, I’m sure they did not – the car is just an attention-grabber, not the kind of thing people ever really see anymore, if they ever did. As it turns out, it was not the only – nor the most vintage – older Jeep out there (will share a pic of a KL-plate Willys wagon we saw a couple times). But I daresay it was the brightest!
It was Robert Pirsig (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) who commented on the difference between biking and traveling by car, the latter of which, by nature of being seated in a closed compartment with merely glass openings all around, was “like TV” – where scenes were all “framed” and thus a bit isolating and artificial – the wind, sun and other natural elements were softened, and thus limited in their inputs and impact vs the open-air, the peripheral vision and full-sensory inputs one could experience on a bike.
True enough. But would have to say that despite the “frame” and the general worsening of the Ladakh scene overall, this time felt in no way a lesser experience, in some ways it was my favorite excursion to date among them all. Have done these roads earlier with other very dear people to be sure – some of my best friends in the world – But being with ones you love the most while fulfilling a longtime dream in a rather unusual vehicle, can really make it special.
Might also note that the Marshal’s skinny/flimsy (/dangerous?) old-style A-pillars and near-vertical and utterly flat windscreen, along with the complete lack of any kind of horizontal dashboard or vinyl padding, made it quite lovely to look out of, with relatively little obstruction and never any significant glare, things I struggle with behind the wheel of any more modern car. As such you’ll note that I’ve included a number of frames taken directly from the driver’s seat… many while in motion – So that even if you’ve done these roads yourself and/or seen hundreds of photos, there’ll likely still be something different in them for you.
For anyone curious, these were mostly shot with a Sony A58 DSLT & Sony 16-105mm lens, basic consumer-grade all-rounder, nothing fancy. A few here may also have been taken with the Redmi 8A, a super-cheap phone utilizing the same very respectable Sony sensor used in some fairly premium handsets. Where needed, PP was managed with Irfanview & a couple plug-ins useful for toning down highlights, as skies were cloudy-white and lacking more obvious detail much of the time.
Regards and enjoy the ride.
Always love the view looking back towards Zingzingbar, approaching Baralacha-La:
On account of the broken window and leaving late, dusk found us here a bit down the leeward side, where the (bad) decision was made to overnight. Lovely spot, but we all got bad altitude sickness, and wished we’d stayed back at Jispa. We felt no better in the morning when the car, parked on flat ground alongside the tent as we’d been directed, refused to fire despite good cranking speed. Never gave trouble anywhere before, nor in Leh/ Nubra later, but above a certain altitude it apparently gets feeling as bad / lethargic as we do! A push-start did the trick readily, so after this would park on slopes when staying nights up high. Next time will bring a can of starter fluid spray for those aberrant/ cantankerous moments!
The fabled Gata loops…
…and their glorious (occasionally sketchy) shortcuts: We managed descending them all later, and ascended most too – but a couple were extremely steep at the bottom, with a lot of undulated / off-camber holes and loose dirt/gravel – might have got up them with some momentum, but crawling with a locker / LSD would be a lot safer bet – maybe someday!
Well-known remains of alien civilizations near Pang:
Always loved this scene on the verge…
This time, two tiny white specks down in the riverbed (barely visible towards the left) turned out to be a herder’s tent and Gypsy. I would really like to know how they managed to drive it down there, how many km’s diversion and how much water-crossing was required. There is a kind of off-roading that most of us know absolutely nothing about. And it forms the lifeline of many hardy people who hardly think of it as adventurous.
The More (Mor-ay) Plains. One of these times I’m going to drive straight across the middle in the dirt, the way we did the first few times back in the days… This time saw two dust clouds moving at surprising speed a couple km’s away out there, figured someone was racing around on ATV’s… as it turned out, they were a pair of wild asses, very possibly the pursuit of a mate as the second seemed rather determined and the chase continued quite awhile (can’t say anything as to whatever result here)… Only wish we’d been closer. Next time!
After descending Thanglang-La, stopped here between a lively, splashing river and some fascinating geological formations in the form of red-hued freestanding “walls” of what could have been stacked squarish stones. Amazing, and a marvelous place to rest awhile and picnic, letting the vestiges of altitude-effects begin to wear off a bit (in truth the worst bouts of it any of us had ever had). Incidentally this was close to where I’d had my one and only puncture enroute to Ladakh on my little KB100 in October 2006.
Approaching Leh: Thiksey Monastery:
The lovely Indus bridge at Spituk:
Uncommon weather in Leh:
Lofty and ancient Tsemo keeping watch:
We stayed in the home of Ladakhi friends, in a part of town I never before had – a great blessing especially on account of true “home-stay” hospitality, other perks being that most of the famous landmarks are visible from there, and that it is more or less off the tourist path and (apart from barking dogs as everywhere in Leh) very quiet:
Keyword: Did a family road trip to Ladakh in my 21 year old Mahindra Marshal