Wheels on the edge

Driving on one of the most dangerous roads in the country, aka ‘The Cliffhanger’, Nidhi Tiwari learns a thing or two about extreme terrain driving while encountering stunning natural sights...

A view of 'The Cliffhanger' road

As I woke up to a cloudy morning, the bustle in Kyelong felt chaotic. My body was still hurting; the night’s sleep hadn’t done much. Strange though, considering that I had overdosed on just mental rhetoric over the last seven days while mentoring five women drivers who aspired to drive on extreme terrain. Could this lethargy just be in my head? Oh yes, it was. Not being behind the wheel had done that to me.

Back in time

Just to orient you, Kyelong is a compulsory pit stop on the main Manali-Leh Highway; it has the last fuel station (Tandi) and is also the administrative headquarters of Lahaul & Spiti district. The history of Kyelong traces back to the 10th century; it was a part of the Guge Kingdom. A bunch of light bulbs lit up in my head. The last I had heard about the Guge rulers was in Nubra Valley, and then a mention in Northwest China — about how their kingdom was wiped out overnight when struck by a natural calamity. To know that the Guge Kingdom stretched from China/Tibet to Kyelong was an ‘OMG’ moment.

I was at the wheel finally. We were to drive northwest towards Pangi Valley; Killar was the destination of the day, 131 km away. It was a bit audacious; driving a non-4WD vehicle and yet locking horns with the most dangerous roads in India (section from Killar to Kishtwar). But my head was buzzing with rationalisations to counter this. Thankfully, breaking the cacophony within, a decisive voice said — let’s move ahead. The rebel in me had awakened!

Driving out towards Udaipur (mind you, not where the maharajas live, but a quiet overgrown village instead) vegetable fields, apiaries, fruit orchards, green houses were a welcome sight. Single laned for most parts, this was not often used; but for the occasional over-speeding bus with its multi-pitched musical horn screaming to break decibel records, for most parts — peace prevailed. River Chenab infused character to the valley on the left. With the river as our reference, the road only gained and lost elevation. Sometimes, the river appeared full and fierce while at other times, it was just a barely visible stream faint rabble filled stream barely visible deep down.

River Chenab
River Chenab

The road was unpredictable. It had rained the previous night. There was abundant slush and my stout boy (read vehicle) swam a couple of times in gay abandon! I dreaded any vehicle crossing (from the opposite direction) for I needed the momentum on certain ascents. But one such crossing was pure delight. From nowhere, an XUV with a KA05 number plate appeared. Thrilled to bits, I parked on the side to let him pass. He made it up the slope and parked beside us. With a prominent question mark on his face, he uttered, “Aren’t you the one who drove to London?” Oh my god, that was instantly disarming. A fan moment in the middle of nowhere. Truly humbling. My Kannadiga roots leaped into overdrive. Conversing in Kannada, the banter meandered around coffee, food, politics, and the road, of course! 

By early afternoon, we entered the mythical Pangi Valley. Soon, Killar appeared at a height on the hillside. Chenab was silenced — far below in the valley and the road ascended sharply to hit Killar town.

The following morning, off to an early start on a mud track, almost miraculously, a check post barrier appeared. Enter Jammu & Kashmir, it said. From there, the driving got adventurous with every turn. The slush was playing up, big stones, sharp ascents and narrow U-bends, a fully loaded vehicle, the only respite were the new off-road tyres. 

Testing drive

The next police check post was at Paddar. Chai was welcome for up ahead was the ‘cliffhanger’. Some call the section of road between Paddar and Gulabgarh ‘the cliffhanger’; one that demands discipline at the wheel. River to road — the difference must be over 3,000 ft. It seemed as though someone had drawn a straight line using a pencil across the midriff of a rocky mountain. In some stretches, it looks like a glorified walking path, just as wide as the wheelbase of the vehicle.

Shadowy overhang, deep valley, narrow road — is a potentially disorienting combo. While there is barely enough space for one vehicle to pass, one must expect traffic from the opposite side. Local passenger taxis connecting villages ply on this route. So, spotting the opposite vehicle well in time and placing yourself on a bend to give a pass becomes crucial. If not, reversing long distances is the only option and that’s the epitome of disorientation on such a road.

Kishtwar
Kishtwar

From there on, there was pin-drop silence in a car full of women! Keeping a close watch on the wheels, my mind was too occupied to feel any fear. On completing this cliffhanger section, there was a collective loud sigh of relief. Gulabgarh to Kishtwar was a pretty drive, smooth tarred road, devoid of the daredevil attribute.

What strikes me most about this drive is how much I learnt as a driver. It was sobering. Irrespective of experience & exposure, I was forced out of my comfort zone. And that’s when the learning happened. And on a lighter note, the next time I am in midst of tough looking, unshaven, outlandishly geared men (both bikers and drivers) who are zen about driving and sway with heady knowledge, I will have a tiny wee bit to say. Small mercies after all!

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Wheels on the edge

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