I, Ouseph Chacko, have wanted to drive this road for years. It has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember but strangely, I have never been able to sneak an excuse to drive it. It lies in a remote, difficult-to-reach part of our country and that fact didn’t help my cause either. A zillion emails to the boss asking for 10 days leave to go find a road all but bounced back with subjects ranging from ‘dream on’ to ‘ you wish’.
Now though, I happen to be in its vicinity. I’ve just driven over Sach Pass into Pangi valley and I’m so close to the road, I can smell the slippery wet mud that lies on it.
In my head, this road is almost mythical. I first saw it a couple of years ago when a few bikers had posted pictures of it on Instagram. From the comfort of my Mumbai apartment, it looked incredibly exciting – a tiny sliver of road dynamited out of an impossibly steep mountainside. It was just about as wide as an SUV, had no guardrails and the accompanying caption said that if you fell off the edge, you would have enough time to say 10 Hail Marys before you hit the icy waters of the Chenab far below. I mention this to Surpreet, my singer/songwriter friend who’s along with me on this trip. He rolls his eyes and tells me he is more a Bloody Mary kind of guy.
All Marys aside, I’m in Pangi valley on serious work. I am here to find out just how tough the new Renault Captur is and I’ve used that as an excuse to finally get to this road; and because I didn’t want to do it alone, I’ve dragged Surpreet with me on the premise that I will show him a side of the Himalayas that just might help him write his new album. This is how we find ourselves in a town called Killar in Himachal Pradesh.
Rough roads, steep gradients, difficult terrain: nothing ruffled the Captur’s demeanour.
Our trip has already hit a granite wall, though – all the locals I speak to seem hazy about where it lies because it is the road less taken. I show them pictures I have saved in my phone’s photo album and they all tell me that it lies in the direction of Tandi and not Kishtwar. That’s the problem with the roads in Pangi valley – they all look cliffhanger treacherous. The one I’m looking for though is slightly more treacherous than the others, mainly because it lies in an area that makes the deserted Pangi valley look like downtown Mumbai. Help is days away and believe me, if we have a bad spill, the search party will be collecting molecules when they do manage to rappel down to us.
Anyway, my gut instinct (and Instagram location tags) tell me I know what I am doing, so we head towards Kishtwar. I know I’m in a capable vehicle because the Captur has proved itself to be faultless, so far – it sneered at the difficult road over Sach Pass, pummelled its way down effortlessly to Killar and all it had to show for the hammering it took is a caked layer of Himalayan dust on its two-tone paintwork. Trust in your vehicle is very important, in these parts. It takes a huge chunk of worry off your mind – and I’ve come to trust the Captur over the past few days.
Back to Killar and the morning after our arrival there, Surpreet and I stock-up packed sandwiches and chocolates and set off into the unknown. Our first halt is a few kilometres away at the Himachal-Kashmir border at Sansari. While we make entries in their log books, a policeman there jokes about people attempting this road in hatchbacks and gouging sumps out from beneath them. He then looks at the Captur and says he can see enough daylight under the vehicle. He declares this will make it easily. It is comforting to hear.
A little ahead of the check post is Bailey bridge – and halfway past that bridge, we enter Kashmir. Surpreet grabs my iPod and decides this is the correct time to play Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.
The road climbs almost immediately through a series of hairpins and the surface is a mix of deep sand that hides big rocks. The Captur sails over them and the only time we are aware of the presence of vehicle-murdering rocks is when a wheel bumps into one. Again, I am impressed by how the Captur seems to shrug-off these sharp impacts. We climb through pine forests, past herds of sheep and notice a stark lack of electric lines. To me, this means we are heading into Bear Grylls territory. The road flattens out after a bit at around 8,000ft and becomes, in my eyes, a rally stage. It is broad and I can tell that it won’t be long before the electric lines and tourists follow. Still, this is a rare chance to throw the Captur around. Surpreet goes quiet and turns up the volume on the Captur’s superb audio system. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to help myself – the Captur’s superb suspension, inherent chassis strength and the space to finally let loose after days of rock crawling eggs me on and I don’t hold back.
Then it happens. As we approach a small settlement called Ishtyari, Surpreet lets out a whoop. I slow down and look at what he’s staring at; and on the far mountainside, I see the road. Hell, it makes my hair stand on end. I was right: the road is in this direction!
Not just any car can take you to places that inspire.
I can see a steep descent that begins soon after Ishtyari that has three tight hairpins leading to the road. We say a small prayer and set off.
The Captur’s tight turning circle comes into play and I easily make the hairpins in one go. The road narrows impossibly and Surpreet occasionally swears at how he can’t see any road shoulder beside us when he looks out of the window. I pray that we don’t meet any oncoming traffic.
We do. The only way out is to reverse a couple of hundred metres to a small outcrop that is just about wide enough to let the oncoming vehicle pass. Reverse gear, reverse camera, wits on end (Surpreet’s, not mine), we inch backward. There is no option of making a mistake because as I nudge up to the edge, I can hear a few loose pebbles fall into the void. I press a button and the power mirrors fold in leaving just enough space for the other vehicle to make it past. Once the breathing returns to normal, we continue. Somewhere in the middle of the 5km-stretch, the road widens a bit and what greets us takes our breath away: A waterfall, at least 300ft tall, cascades off the rock far above us. It is so high up that the wind rushing up the valley breaks the falling water mid way and sends it flying in different directions – Surpreet says it feels like we’ve walked into a set from Jurassic Park. The waterfall gives the Captur a free wash as we drive under it and the underbody gets washed when we cross the stream soon after. I can’t help but comment how good it feels to be finally on this road.
It soon widens out and we continue on towards Kishtwar; but decide to stop for a celebratory chai at a dhaba that we come up on. A quick chat with the dhaba owner makes us rethink the need to go to Kishtwar – he tells us that someone recently got held up there by a terrorist group brandishing AK-47s. A quick and rather easy decision was made: we decide head back to Killar and then to civilisation via Manali. The Captur has proven itself to be absolutely bulletproof, so far, but it would be foolish to test it against the real thing. We gulp down the chai, make a quick U-turn, scamper across the cliffhanger bits and make it to Killar, just before nightfall.
Mission accomplished – I’m happy I finally got to drive that road and Surpreet tells me that somewhere between the trepidation and fear he experienced along the way, he managed to find some inspiration. He nearly punches me when I ask if his next album is going to be called ‘Free Falling’.