In how many ways could this go wrong? If the Mini got stuck, we didn't fancy getting out to attach a towrope during a landslide, so we hooked it to the Toyota before we entered the worst section. So now not only might both of our vehicles get stuck, or pull each other over the edge, or be smashed by falling rocks (I raised the convertible top, as if that would do any good), but if the cable snapped it might lash out at the shins of the spectators who were ignoring the falling rocks to watch the trucks buck and bellow through the gap.
It lasted maybe thirty seconds, the Fortuner jerking the Mini forward as it scraped its belly on the rocks beneath, the noises coming from the underside sounding like a pod of dolphins being massacred by Japanese fishermen. My elation on the other side is hard to describe: after thirty-six hours in which I was fairly sure I'd have to call off the whole trip, the Mini had no visible damage, its onboard status report saying, almost unbelievably, "OK -- No faults."
Magee had brought the theme from The Italian Job and saved it until now: I wonder if it's ever been played in Kashmir before. Beyond the Rohtang Pass, Led Zeppelin is the only soundtrack, and we saved the eponymous song for the moment we crossed the border into Kashmir. We stopped in a little hotel with hard beds but with a satellite dish that allowed us to watch, with a bunch of stoned Tibetans, the Olympics. The next morning, we set out to cover the 200 miles to Leh through the most heart-stopping, otherworldly scenery you'll ever see.
Because these high, remote, serene, protected provinces are so hard to reach, they feel quite apart from the crowded chaos of the rest of India. The roads are almost deserted; the people visibly ethnically Tibetan. They smile beatifically and wave at our odd, out-of-place car as we pass. It wasn't the height superlatives that made us want to drive to Khardung La. It was the landscapes of Zanskar and Ladakh -- vast valleys barred in the very far distance by rows of snowy sawtooth peaks, wide turquoise rivers with soft sand banks whipped into weird fantasy castellations by the winds, and roads cut into the sheer sides of flat gray or metallic red mountains, looping farther and higher than any others, anywhere, each bend revealing another alt-rock album-cover view that leaves you torn between stopping for a picture or driving on to the next, higher, better view or just weeping at the barren, alien beauty of it all.
We were getting seriously high now, with the iPhone altimeter passing 15,000 feet. I was reciting lists of presidents backward to confirm that I wasn't getting confused and was still fit to drive, and the thin air made the sun whiter and fiercer as it scorched my nose and cheeks. As the air pressure dropped, we could hear the occasional ricochet as another bag of cheese puffs detonated in the trunk. Two hundred miles is a very long way when you're scanning every inch of road for potholes and puncture risks, and your speed suddenly drops to a crawl when the tarmac ends and the "road" heads off into unmarked desert. The hell of Rohtang had played havoc with our schedule, and our planned refueling station was closed, forcing us to buy gasoline from roadside traders in a little truck stop called Pang. One trader, blind drunk, emerged with two jerry cans, smoking a cigarette as he started trying to fill the Fortuner with diesel. He insisted the other can held petrol but a sniff told us it didn't. We bought gas from someone who was sober instead.
It took us until midnight to cover those 200 miles, which meant driving over the Taglang La pass -- at a claimed 17,480 feet second in height to Khardung La -- in the dark. When, exactly, did we start thinking it was OK -- normal, even -- to scale the world's alleged second-highest pass over unmade, unmarked tracks in now-near-freezing temperatures and pitch-black night in a Mini with the roof down? At least we couldn't see the drop-offs.
The Mini didn't seem bothered at all. Our observations on the car might not seem relevant if you won't ever drive yours at 17,000 feet, but we were genuinely impressed with its toughness. After Rohtang, the exhaust was as dimpled as a golf ball and the steel oil pan had been seriously reprofiled but fortunately hadn't cracked. Talcum-fine desert sand deluged the cabin and the roof mechanism, but both worked flawlessly, and the Continental run-flat tires didn't puncture despite covering hundreds of miles over vicious little stones. The engine started to lose torque only above 13,000 feet. On start-up, the Mini idled roughly until the ECU recognized the lack of oxygen and smoothed out the engine. Most important, the brakes were always there, whether we were stamping on them to avoid another oncoming truck or constantly brushing them to bring the car down 6000 vertical feet in an hour. If you're going to sell a car successfully in a hundred markets, it needs to be engineered for all circumstances. You're particularly grateful for those qualities when you're three miles up and hundreds of miles from a mobile-phone signal, a hospital, or any other kind of help.
With 28,000 people, the city of Leh felt like Manhattan after the utter, eerie isolation of the previous days. I felt like the coolest man in town in my Mini convertible. Everyone, from Buddhist monks to Western travelers, stared at it like it was a supercar. Locals who had never seen a convertible demanded to see the roof in action. The final, twenty-five-mile drive from Leh to Khardung La looked relatively tame compared with what we'd been through, but, just in case, we had the car blessed by a young monk at the ancient Tsemo monastery on the way up. The climb took two hours, the tarmac ending with about ten miles to go and leaving us with a couple of deeply unpleasant rock crawls to negotiate. The Mini, cambered toward oblivion, trickled calmly and sure-footedly over them, as we'd come to expect.
We rounded a bend and were there: Khardung La, 17,608 feet by my altimeter and, regardless of the inaccuracies and disputed claims, as high as you can drive a regular car. I'd been reading about this place for ten years, had planned this trip for months, and was convinced at least twice in the last few days that I wouldn't make it. I leapt out of the Mini but nearly fell back in with a sudden dizzy head-rush from the lack of oxygen. You walk in pigeon steps across the fifty-yard pass, eyeballing soaring Himalayan peaks in the far distance but at the same altitude. You obey the notices in English and, bizarrely, in Spanish that order you not to sacrifice any animals. There's a hut with oxygen, which we didn't need, and the world's highest cafeteria that serves cups of tea, which we did. Loud Buddhist prayer chants are played on a loop by the little monastery almost hidden behind a tangle of prayer flags, and, entirely appropriately for the end of a journey in this most English of German-owned cars, a detachment of Indian soldiers played cricket three and a third miles up in the sky. I joined in, of course, and was caught out on my third ball. It started to snow, and it suddenly felt like the right time to leave. It felt like we'd pushed our luck as far as it would go.