We climb. We always climb. As a race we climb. And at OVERDRIVE, we love it when the passes open in the summer and we get the chance to return to Ladakh. And so it was this year also. But this time we were going to ride one of our favourite scooters of recent times, the TVS Scooty Zest 110.
The ladies of the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 post on a suspension bridge near Aut between Mandi and Manali, in Himachal Pradesh
But the story isn't as straightforward as you think. Because we weren't alone. TVS was sending a gaggle of Zest-mounted girls, and we were following their journey. Team leader was Anam Hashim, a young stunter from Lucknow. She did a longer tour in the same region last year known as the Himalayan High Season 1.
TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 gets going after a break just after the Pandoh Dam on the Beas River
The plan was simple. We would start at Mandi, cross the high passes that lurk between Manali and Leh before crossing the fearsome Khardung La into the Nubra Valley. And then all that remained was to cross the Khardung La once more and end in Leh where we would surrender our brown Himalayan edition Scooty Zest.
The TVS Scooty Zest 110 was our Scooter Of The Year, and we love it for its effervescent nature and the spring in its step. Powered by a 110cc engine that it shares with TVS' other scooters, the Zest wears its lightweight and lower gearing rather well, and it really is a delight in the urban cut and thrust.
Rohtang used to be such a messy pass to climb. Not any more. The roads snaking out of Manali towards the pass are empty, and on some stretches the quality tarmac, epic mountain landscapes are absolutely thrilling!
But how was it going to fare in the mountains? How far were we pushing the wee scooter out of its comfort zone and would it make it?
Anam seemed fairly confident, "I didn't have any problems last year. The Zest climbed all the passes without any issues." We noted at this point that Ms Hashim weighed a scant 46kg and climbing high passes with our considerably greater girth was going to be a completely different challenge.
The roads going up and especially coming down from the Rohtang pass were devoid of traffic. But as usual, the Himalayas laid out a tough test for the Scooty Zest-mounted TVS Himalayan High Season 2 convoy which had to traverse hours of slush
But leaving Mandi for Manali, the Zest seemed to sense our fears and work hard at allaying them. The low gearing which gives the Zest strong acceleration up to about 60kmph - perfect for the urban riding cycle - also gives the TVS the ability to handle slopes.
On the reasonably good roads between Mandi and Manali, we re-familiarised ourselves with the bubbly little scooter. As did the girls. Many of them ride motorcycles and a few ride scooters. All of them commented on how cheerful the scooter appeared to be. The Zest is far from the ploddy, utilitarian machines that many scooters find hard to exceed in role and personality.
The signboard at Tandi, near Keylong, is supposed to proclaim a fuel station. What it has become is a signpost for travellers to leave their mark. Tandi is the last fuel station before Leh - a 365km run. Here, a TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 participant, Trupti Sarmalkar, adds an Indian flag to mark the passage of the TVS Scooty Zest 110
The real test lay on the other side of Rohtang though. A chap on a motorcycle stopped to chat. "Seriously? Leh? On that?" He said laughing. Er, yes... "Well, my brave friend, let me just say that lots of molten chocolate awaits you!"
What he meant was that the climb down to Sharmaji's (think meat-rice) at Khoksar was an utter and complete disaster. Between the broken roads, stones and rain, it was just endless wet mud that we had to traverse. We even had to stop for a BRO 'dozer to clear a small landslide.
A participant on the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2, Pallavi Fauzdar, makes short work of a water crossing on the TVS Scooty Zest 110
While more suspension travel would have been welcome, the Zest seemed unfazed. There was a bit of sliding about and many of the ladies (and ourselves) had legs out as outriggers multiple times, but our TVS scooters were proving to be effective and feeling very robust, indeed.
Bactrian Camels are leftovers of the important of the Nubra Valley as a waypoint on the ancient trade routes. The story goes that traders left them behind and they're still here. They might have twice as many humps as normal camels, but their ill-temper is just as obvious as with normal camels
The run into Jispa for the second night halt was almost a routine run - that's how easy the scooter made the going feel.
But then came the first of many warnings: "The roads past Baralach La are in terrible shape. You're so gonna hate it tomorrow."
Baralach La itself is far from an easy pass to cross. At nearly 16,000 feet above sea level, it's a deceptively unthreatening pass. The only clue you get is the climb which seems to go on for a long time. And the fact that it seems to lead the fatality statistics from the front.
TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 participants take a break at Suraj/Deepak Taal just metres from the Baralach La. Apart from a couple of water crossings though, the climb is now more or less all-tarmac. What fun! The Zest corners with ease and the girls ahead were also getting into the groove
At a chai stop at Deepak Taal, Garima Kapoor, from Lucknow said, "This feels so much lighter than my scooter back home. I cut through traffic on that so fast; the TVS Scooty Zest will be insane!"
All the levity stopped at the Baralach La top though. We felt the lack of oxygen, and shortly thereafter the lack of tarmac as well. The roads felt like the Himalayas had chewed them up and spat them out. Arriving at Bharatpur, our lunch stop was a relief. It also meant that we were halfway to Sarchu, our stop for the day.
Sarchu is a 14,000-foot camp that's actively malicious. You reach amidst bright sunlight and heat and think, "Well this is pleasant!" But as soon as the sun sets, the wind picks up, the temperature plummets and you feel a palpable lack of oxygen immediately. The cold, the incessant flapping of the tent and the lack of air is a depressing triple whammy.
The girls of the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 post for us at Jispa and then we allow nature to paint the TVS Scooty Zest 110 in a million colours
It was a great relief that no one seemed too badly affected by Sarchu the following morning. This was unusual. Literally 2km later, we would officially enter Ladakh and that would change.
Turns out a truck had displaced metal plates on a bridge and blocked it. The alternative was a deep-water crossing with fast-flowing, supercold water. It took us nearly 3 hours to get through one scooter at a time. Between feet aching from the cold water, the lack of oxygen and the sheer effort of the crossing, it felt like we'd just climbed a mountain. Except that we were still to hit the first of two passes for the day!
The Zests, though, were troopers. They climbed handily out of the valley and headed, post-lunch, towards our next stop, Pang.
The Shanti Stupa on the outskirts of Leh is a modern monument which has become popular for the views of the city, the Zanskar range as well as towards Khardung La
We crossed the two passes without incident. The first was Nakee La which is always overshadowed by the slightly higher Lachulung La that comes up right after it. The convoy only stopped for eats and drinks, and our little Zests manfully handled what can only be described as endless hours of punishment.
We tried everything. Slow down for the rocky roads. Which produced hard hits that had the kidneys begging for mercy. Sped up to try and skim the surface. This worked better until the succession of hits would cause the forks to stop suspending, and you'd have to back off to allow them to work once again.
Then nearing Pang, the roads changed to a smoother, sandy consistency. The first slides were scary. The next few were provoked and thoroughly enjoyed. We arrived at Pang super thrilled at how unfazed the scooters were in the face of the terrain. Happily enough, the girls had also shrugged off a couple of falls, and all the scooters were now filthy but running happily.
This narrow road climbs to the ancient - established in the 14th century - but remarkably well-kept Diskit Gonpa near Diskit, in the Nubra Valley
The size of the engine did show up on the slopes, naturally. Some of the steeper slopes would only allow 25kmph, for example. But the flip side was that we all got to see more of the terrain and the incredible scenery. Riding faster machines tends to narrow your focus to the road and the scenery sort of blurs by.
It was the run between Sarchu and Pang that convinced us that the little Zest and all of the girls would make it to the top of Khardung La without drama.
The Zests duly dispatched the endless climb up to the top of Tanglang La and then we smoothly zoomed into Leh. Phew.
The Shanti Stupa is a place of peace. And it has stunning vistas in every direction. Here we catch the dramatic sunset from the Stupa as we look on the city of Leh. Towering above the city is the Leh Palace. See if you can catch the quick ascent of the moon!
The climb up to Khardung La was going to be hard work though. "They're widening the road for tanks, and there are sections where you're literally riding over freshly cut mountain."
Despite the dire warnings, the climb wasn't so bad. The weather was clear, the water crossings nearly dry, and we even tried standing up and riding using the pillion pegs. The Zest seemed at ease with all this even though the altitude and the slopes were costing us speed.
The girls of the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 receive the certificate from the India Book of Records. From left, Pallavi Fauzdar, Antara Pal, Gauri Kapur (sitting), Megha Chakravorty, Anam Hashim, Shruti Naidu, Surbhi Tiwai (sitting), officials from the India book of records, Trupti Sarmalkar (sitting), Kainoor Mistry, Roshni Sowkumar (front, sitting) and Ebronah Dorothy
Gasping for breath at the top of the pass, speed was the last thing on our minds though. Envy was we all wished our Zests didn't make it look so effortless. At 18,000 feet above mean sea level, there is 40 per cent less oxygen and that seemed to affect us a lot more than the wee Zest. Breathless hugs exchanged, two million selfies taken, we embarked on the uneventful but visually jaw-dropping run through the beautiful Nubra Valley into Diskit and then the run back into Leh crossing Khardung La once more.
The belief is that prayer flags send prayers to the gods with every flap in the wind. Here the flags overlook the green of the valley below the Thiksey Monastery
It wasn't until our last night in Leh, scooters surrendered that the true magnitude of what we had just managed sank in.
The Nubra Valley looks wonderful, no? The TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 participants saw this view in the late afternoon from the lofty 14th century Diskit Gonpa above the village of Diskit on the Shyok River
We had just taken a small, urban-focussed scooter across some of the highest mountain passes on earth. We had fought our way through bad terrain, a lack of oxygen as well as the sheer hour after hour pummelling that body and scooter both receive in this region.
And we were all feeling worse for the wear too. But our little Scootys? They just climbed on enthusiastically and tenaciously. They really did live up to their name, eh?
These are the views on the sunny day as you ascend out of Leh. This is what the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 2 participants left Leh for home after a week of amazing riding, views and camaraderie.
Images by Ishaan Bhataiya