Such Great Heights
The raging, flood-swollen river fifty feet below was quickly eating away the only road out. The torrent had eroded the hillside under the road, and the outer half of the blacktop was just a crust, with no support underneath. The inner lane looked stable enough, for the time being, but the river's appetite wasn't waning, and unless we got the cars past before it fell completely, they'd be stuck between the resulting chasm and the dead end in the other direction until a new road was built. Our plan to drive this MINI Cooper convertible from Delhi to the top of the world would be thwarted on day three.
What could we do but take a deep and possibly final breath, floor the throttle, and hope the river didn't choose that moment to swallow the rest of the road? Looking back over our ten-day, 2000-mile journey, it's not even a danger highlight. Driving a road car to Khardung La -- the Himalayan mountain pass that claims to be the highest drivable road in the world at 5602 meters, or 18,380 feet, or 790 feet higher than Everest base camp, or half the cruising altitude of a passenger jet -- was never going to be easy, but we didn't foresee the varied and inventive ways in which this trip would try to kill us.
We knew about India's horrific traffic-death record. We knew about the dangers of driving at extreme altitudes: confusion and vomiting are merely incompatible with dignity, but pulmonary and cerebral edema are incompatible with life. Medication helped our bodies adapt: any drive that requires drugs must be interesting, right? Same goes when your map has cease-fire lines and disputed territories and lines of control marked on it. India, Pakistan, and China face down each other in the Himalayas. Bill Clinton called this "the most dangerous place on earth."
We really didn't need the freak rains that killed thirty-four people across northern India our first days there, ate our road, and caused the landslides that would later nearly end our trip. Particularly not when we were doing this in a Mini. India has just become this riotously successful British brand's one-hundredth global market, but Minis will need to be more than urban baubles to survive India's tough roads, so we thought we'd take one over the toughest road we could find. We're pretty certain that no Mini and no convertible car have ever been driven over Khardung La, and we liked the idea of going roof-down to the roof of the world.
First, however, you have to get there. Photographer Charlie Magee and I landed in Delhi in 100-degree heat and heavy humidity and met Bunny Punia, an Indian journalist and old friend who has been over Khardung La on two wheels and four but never in something with as little ground clearance as our Mini, a 122-hp Cooper with the six-speed automatic that is standard in India. My insurance policy is a rented Toyota Fortuner, a locally made, proper off-roader comparable to the 4Runner. We've filled the Fortuner with jerry cans, spare tires, walkie-talkies, a steel towing cable, and essential supplies such as water and bags of cheese puffs. All of these will be needed.
A long way in India feels a lot longer than anywhere else: from Delhi we have a two-day drive just to get to the edge of the Himalayas about 300 miles away. A couple of hours in, Magee says he's already using his testicles as worry beads, and we've seen most of the sights that make Indian roads such an intense, exhausting, terrifying experience. We dodge the gutsy remains of a stray dog and spot a beggar sleeping in the street only when he shifts onto his side -- his near-naked body has taken on the exact shade of the dust in which he lies. There are cows in the road and stick-thin rickshaw riders who arch and strain against the pedals. There is sadness in the dissipated ambition of big projects started but seemingly abandoned -- bridges and bypasses and shopping complexes and cinemas -- and in the environmental havoc: great piles of rubbish and dense, black clouds of soot from the ancient, gaudily decorated cargo trucks. It can be hard to see the mysticism in modern India.
We spent our first night in the relative calm and cool of Shimla, an old British hill station at 7200 feet, and our second at Solang at 8500 feet. Gaining little more than a thousand feet each night slows progress but helps the body adapt to the thin air. As we drove up to our hotel in the dark, we could hear the thundering of the swollen river. People in the lower villages were already on the streets, wondering what they could do to protect themselves. By morning some had lost their homes. Our hotel was high enough to be safe, but the road that led to it wasn't. Getting the cars out required some nerve. Worse -- almost insurmountable -- obstacles lay ahead.
Two roads lead to the high, exotic Kashmiri provinces of Zanskar and Ladakh in India's northeast corner and to Leh, their biggest town, which sits 11,500 feet above sea level at the base of the Khardung La pass. Trucks must use these two roads during the four summer months when they're open to deliver the region's annual supplies. There's some tarmac but also long stretches of deep mud, boulder crawls, river crossings, and rough, unmade single-tracks with nothing to catch you if the edge gives way as you squeeze past an oncoming, nonslowing truck. Each road in has a killer pass that often seizes with stuck vehicles even in the best weather. Ours is literally a killer: Rohtang La, or the "ground of corpses," named for its failed traversers. It looked like Rohtang might kill our trip, too. A massive landslide had obliterated a long stretch of the pass, and it didn't look fixable.
This was a vision of driving hell. Any kind of hell, actually. The heavy rain and jostling trucks had reduced the surface to shin-deep mud. Thick banks of clouds gave the place an oppressive, ominous feel. Buses three days from Delhi stood stationary, their sides streaked with vomit from altitude-sick passengers. The ground stank of urine. In the landslide, a gang of migrant workers from Bihar, one of India's poorest states, dodged the falling rocks, then used them to fill the deep ruts dug by the few trucks that made it through before a fresh slide closed the track again. The line of trucks in front of us made it impossible to get through before nightfall, so we left the Mini on the mountainside and returned to Solang in the Fortuner. We'd try again tomorrow. We gave a guy who lived on the mountain five dollars to let us park the Mini by his tent. Clad only in a loose cloth around the midriff, he proudly produced a mobile phone and said he'd give us a call if there were any problems.
Things didn't look much better in the morning. Another big rockslide had hit a truck, pushing it halfway over the edge and destroying the road surface. Soldiers using two excavators took until midday to rescue it in the craziest vehicle recovery I'll ever see: one digger arm pulling the truck forward, the other cupping its backside to stop it from slipping over the edge and pulling the first excavator down with it. The machines started clearing a gap in the mountainside where the road once was; big, sharp rocks hidden just below the mud. Dodging minor rockfalls, I sloshed through on foot and thought the Mini had a fifty-fifty chance of making it through without terminal damage. But the road back down was now so churned up that we couldn't retreat.
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.