Home / Features / Mercedes-Benz GLA220d Travelogue to Turtuk: Exodus

 

Escaping to the mountains in style with the Mercedes-Benz GLA 220 d 4MATIC

Story: Anosh Khumbatta
Photography: Apurva Ambep

City life has gotten tough: Corona, lockdowns, stuck at home or stuck in traffic. Sometimes you just need to get away from it all, and there’s nothing quite like a luxurious escape into the unknown. So, when Mercedes-Benz offered us their GLA for a 10-day adventure in the mountains, I packed my bags and caught a flight to Delhi post-haste. A spotless white GLA was waiting for us outside the airport terminal as we arrived and, without wasting time, the camera crew and myself jumped in, pointed the car due north and began our escape towards the Himalayas.

Our journey began with a 550-kilometre dash into the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh and the day was spent getting to know the car better — first on the highways between Delhi and Chandigarh and then on the unending twisties as we made our way up to the snow-capped peaks. The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel under the hood is mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that always keeps the motor in its sweet spot to perfectly exploit the 190 hp and 400 Nm on tap. As a result, we made quick progress, arriving at our hotel just outside Manali as darkness fell.

The next morning, we did the touristy thing and drove into Manali town, which turned out to be quite a mistake. We were once again surrounded by traffic, with impatient drivers honking incessantly and holiday-makers swarming the streets; this wasn’t quite the escape I had in mind. We grabbed a bite and hurriedly exited the town, with a plan to explore one of the lesser-known sights in the region — the Jana Falls. This secluded waterfall is located about 30 kilometres from Manali, near the town of Naggar, and is accessible by a narrow road that winds its way up the side of a mountain through apple orchards and a thick pine forest. Although well-surfaced at first, the road devolved into a rocky trail as we got higher and we were soon crawling along carefully with a sheer drop inches from our wheels. We even came face-to-face with a JCB that was clearing up a recent rockslide.

 

This was the car’s first taste of the mountainous terrain and, although set up more for road use, the GLA took it all in its stride. I switched it into Off-road mode so that the 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system would send more torque than usual to the rear wheels, and we made steady progress with minimal fuss. After a meal of momos and soup, we headed back down to the hotel for a good night’s rest. The real adventure would begin the next day as we ventured into Ladakh.

We started early the next morning and once again headed due north, past Manali, for our first trip through the new Atal Tunnel. Inaugurated last year, this 9.02-kilometre  tunnel through the Pir Panjal range eliminates Rohtang Pass to shave three hours off the journey between Manali and Leh, and is the longest tunnel in the world at an altitude of over 3,000 metres above sea level. After what seemed like an eternity underground, we emerged into the Lahaul valley and turned left towards Keylong and Jispa.

While Manali and the surrounding areas are lush with green deciduous trees and pine forests, as we moved further into the Lahaul valley and closer to the Union Territory of Ladakh, the surroundings became more and more barren. We were soon in an arid, desert-like environment as we started the climb up to Baralacha La which, at close to 5,000 metres above sea level, was the first of four high-altitude passes that we would cross on the drive to Leh. The roads were completely broken in places, with the melting snow from the surrounding peaks forming chilled streams that flowed across our path. But inside the cabin of the Mercedes-Benz GLA, we were warm and toasty, the navigation display keeping us on the right track with the excellent sound system keeping us entertained.

We were soon past Sarchu, after which we crossed into Ladakh, and were immediately greeted by a sandstorm as we crossed the vast sandy plains at over 4,200 metres above sea level. Visibility was severely compromised and I could feel the car settling in the soft sand; for a while I even feared that we might get stuck, but the Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC system efficiently sent torque to where it was required to keep us moving forward until we were back on firmer footing.

As the day progressed, we executed a few more water crossings and proceeded to scale Nakee La at over 4,700 metres up, Lachung La at just over 5,000 metres up, and, finally, Tanglang La at over 5,300 metres above sea level, before descending into Leh at a comfortable 3,500-metre altitude and settling in for the night after a dinner of rajma and rice.

 

The next day was spent exploring Leh town and visiting the Thiksey Monastery, Shey Palace, and local eateries. We were once again surrounded by tourists, and it didn’t take much to create a traffic jam in the town’s narrow streets; our luxurious escape had brought us right back into the thick of things and it was time to move on.

We decided that the next day we would head to Turtuk, a village located extremely close to the India-Pakistan border and the Line of Control. Turtuk and the surrounding regions were annexed by Pakistan in 1947 and reclaimed by India during the 1971 war, making it an important part of our political and geographical history.

We set off early the next day on the last leg of our journey, the 220-kilometre drive from Leh to Turtuk, and the first obstacle in our path was the daunting climb to Khardung La. Situated at almost 5,400 metres above sea level, Khardung La was, until recently, the highest motorable road in the world, and the climb from Leh was fraught with broken roads due to regular landslides that made the journey that much more perilous.

After stopping at the top for a few photographs in the howling wind, we dived back into the warm confines of the GLA and continued into the Nubra valley. On the way we stopped off for lunch at Deskit and also visited the nearby Deskit Monastery where we admired the massive statue of Lord Buddha towering over the valley.

We continued north along the Nubra river for what seemed like hours till finally we caught sight of a lush green oasis in the midst of the endless arid desert; that was Turtuk. The town is nestled into the mountainside above the road and is home to some 400 families that live a peaceful existence on the border between two warring neighbours.

The mountains visible in the distance, including the K2 peak, are in Pakistan-controlled territory, and the constant stream of army trucks passing through the idyllic village is a constant reminder of the tensions in the region. But here in Turtuk it is peaceful, the locals are friendly and welcoming, and we are offered qawah (Kashmiri tea) at every stop.

Our luxurious escape from the real world with the Mercedes-Benz GLA 220 d 4MATIC brought us all the way to the end of the road, within striking distance of our national border. Finally, away from the crowds and traffic and lockdowns, we could now relax peacefully with a cup of hot qawah as we watched the sun set behind the Pakistani hills in the distance. The GLA kept us safe, warm, and comfortable through some of the most treacherous roads in the world, proving that Merc’s entry-level SUV has what it takes to conquer the mighty Himalayas.

 

 

About the author: Anosh Khumbatta

 

 

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