Mercedes SUVs to Marsimik La

Ashok George Updated: December 04, 2013, 10:33 AM IST

They say that whatever souvenirs you bring back from Ladakh, stones and pebbles should not be among them. Why? Because if you bring back stones with you, you will HAVE to go back to Ladakh. They must be wrong, right? Us modern homo sapiens must not succumb to such superstition, right? Wrong! The last time I was at Pangong Tso, I picked up a few multicoloured stones to bring home to a friend. And look at what happens - I'm back in Ladakh again that too just three weeks later. I'm not complaining though. Because I was here to drive two of Mercedes' finest SUVs  all the way up to Marsimik La, a remote mountain pass north of Pangong Tso.

Our steeds for the long journey ahead will be the ML350 CDI and the GL350 CDI. Why? Well, we chose the ML because it is an all new car and was one of the two cars that made it to Marsimik La the last time we went there in 2007. The GL because we took it to Dalhousie a few months back to give it a thorough beatdown in the snow and we came back mighty impressed.

We start our journey in Chandigarh. Accompanying me is Sanam Sekhon, Lallie  and Udai Sangha and two drivers from Mercedes. We make an early start and head to our destination – Manali. The stretch from Chandigarh to Manali is annoyingly long – 285km. The roads are good but the drive is quite boring. Unlike the drive up to Shimla, there is not much scenery to look at and there is always heavy truck traffic no matter what time you're there. This means your progress is always slow and you can't really keep your average speed up, ending up taking up to six to seven hours to make it there. But I had no complaints. I was sitting in the back of the ML enjoying all that space that there was. One of the big improvements in the new ML is the extra room. The older ML tended to get a bit claustrophobic when you sit at the back. But the new one has a maximum rear kneeroom of 880mm, which means that you can properly stretch out in the back. Our car came with the Designo interior package with its white leather interior trim. The bright colour too did wonders to the sense of space.

The GL on the other hand uses the black interior theme but somehow does not leave you feeling claustrophobic because of the fact that this is a really spacious car. Being built on an extended ML chassis (the last gen ML, of course), it is only natural that the GL is spacious. And space is not the only plus point in these cars. Even though it is built to cross even the toughest of terrains, the SUVs do not compromise on passenger comfort. There is absolutely no noise intrusion and unless there's someone standing outside your window yelling his lungs out, you will not hear a thing.

To get into Manali, all out of station vehicles have to pay Rs 300 as environment tax. Lallie thinks this is some kind of government conspiracy and decides that we must take a detour off the main highway and enter the town through a back road. Anything that involves saving money guarantees me brownie points back in the office, so I nod my head wildly in agreement. Lallie informs me that this route will take a few more minutes than the highway, no harm there I guess. We set off and it turns out that this little detour is not as little as Lallie claimed. I really wanted to reach Manali as soon as we can. Why?

See the last time we passed through Manali, we stayed at the Casa Bella Vista in Old Manali. Aside from being a very homely and comfortable place to stay, the place has the best pizzas I have eaten so far. I consider myself a bit of a pizza connoisseur and for me to say that a pizza is good is quite something. I am also an adamant carnivore and for me to say that a vegetarian pizza is the best ever is truly an achievement. Hence my annoyance at the extra few minutes we were taking to reach our destination. But no harm done. We soon reach the hotel and I park the car and run to the restaurant to gorge. Bliss. Once our bellies are full we roam around Manali, do a bit of shopping, get a few beers and head back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. End of day one.


We are in no hurry to get up. To cross the Rohtang pass, all cars (except those with a Himachal Pradesh registration) need to get a permit from the sub-divisional magistrate's office in Manali. We wait till the office opens and rush to get the form signed. It doesn't take long and we are quickly on our way with four pizzas in the back (They really are that good). The climb up to Rohtang is all smooth roads for the most part. We were flying through these sections, eager to clear the pass as soon as possible. But as always, fate had a wicked sense of humour. Some six km before the pass traffic came to a standstill. Apparently there was a landslide ahead. As is tradition, any jam en route to Rohtang is always a three hour delay. At least. Sanam and me promptly got down and started walking to the front of the jam to investigate. The earthmovers and bulldozers were doing their thing at their own pace. The jam took seven hours to clear. Most people went to sleep in their cars. Some played cards. We tried to join them, but they refused to let us (just the playing of cards, not the sleeping bit). So we wandered around till we were back in the ML. This was when the ML's entertainment system came into use.

Both the ML and the GL are equipped with state of the art entertainment systems. We passed time watching a movie on the high resolution screen in the car. Eventually we started moving again and by the time we crossed the pass the sun had set and the fog had covered everything reducing visibility to a few feet. Even the powerful headlights in both the cars couldn't penetrate the mist. We crawled across the pass and eventually made it to the other side. It was completely dark now. We had to make it to Jispa. This sleepy hamlet was almost 90km from Rohtang and the roads were good when we came here a few weeks back. We should be there in less than two hours. It took us four hours to cover the 90km. The roads in these areas are as unpredictable as a schizophrenic hopped up on crystal meth. They can go from race track smooth to mule track in a matter of days. The good roads had all disappeared for a completely broken stretch of road for almost the entire 90km. We eventually reached Jispa and after a hasty dinner went right to bed. End of day two.

The sunlight was filtering through the curtains when we got up. Uh oh! We were supposed to be out of here before the sun was up. That didn't really happen. We ran around the room like mad men, brushing, changing and eating a hasty breakfast and hopped into the car to head out. We had four passes to cross today – Baralacha La (16,043 feet), Nakee La (15,584 feet), Lachulung La (16,598 feet) and Tanglang La (17,582 feet). We pass the first of the passes and get to Killing Serai where we face our first problem. The bridge across the river here was being repaired. But wait! There was a trail that led away from the bridge, but taking this would mean we have to cross the river which was running with at least three feet of running water. The first real test of the SUVs.

Both the ML and the GL are equipped with 4matic (4WD) and Airmatic (air suspension) systems. This adjustable suspension can be raised when driving over rough terrain or lowered when driving at high speed. The GL goes one step further and gives the driver three levels to raise the suspension by, the highest of which is 307mm. Of the two cars only the GL gets low ratio gears and differential locks (centre and rear). The ML makes do with a simple offroad mode (activated with a small button on the centre console) which optimises engine output, the transmission, ABS, ESP and traction control to make it go where other vehicles can't.


Lallie scopes out the crossing and chooses a safe path through. He switches the ML into offroad mode and raises the suspension. He carefully navigates across the river. I can see water rushing against the sides of the car and I tighten my grip on the door handles just in case. After what seems like half an hour but is actually just a few seconds we are across. Now it's time for the GL to cross. The car is now on the highest level of clearance and running in low ratio. Sanam is careful and stays on the same path Lallie took and is in and out in a matter of seconds. Victory is ours. Next stop Baralacha La.

Baralacha La is a relatively easy pass to cross. And once we had crossed it, we were greeted by flat roads. We shift both cars in to sport mode and rush through. As soon as you press the button, the suspension on both the cars immediately stiffens and any body roll that was previously there is cut out. We fly past the tents in Sarchu and begin our assault on the Gata Loops. As soon as we begin our assault, Lallie points out a short cut. Apparently it cuts through the entire Gata Loops section and climbs straight to the top. The short cut is extremely difficult and cannot be attempted in any car without 4WD and a low ratio gearbox. Or Merc SUVs, as we found out. Both SUVs came up the entire way, bypassing all of the Gata Loops without a problem (the GL did not even have to engage low ratio). In fact the only part of the Gata Loops we ever saw was the board that marked its end.

The immense capability of both these SUVs is owed largely to the excellent motors that lie at their hearts. Both cars use 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 engines with the ML making 620Nm(258PS) and the GL making 510Nm(224PS). All that torque means that the engine is able to pull the hefty SUVs up most slopes that other cars would consider impossible. Soon we were past Nakee La and headed up Lachulung La and then to Pang. The roads were a mess and we left the cars in comfort mode all the way. In comfort mode the suspension softens considerably and there is a hint of body roll that makes the ride, er, comfortable. The ride quality really is impressive and the passenger is insulated from most bad surfaces even in the harsh conditions that we were driving in.

We stop for some maggi and "chowman", at one of the many food joints just before the army transit camp in Pang. Here, one can even find diesel in case you are running short, like we were. As we were eating at the little tent, Lallie got to talking to a Taiwanese lady who was on her way back from meeting his holiness the Dalai Lama. For some reason she was convinced that the cars we were in were fake Mercedes'. It took Lallie all of twenty minutes to convince her that they were 100 per cent genuine. After this she somehow convinced herself that Lallie was a bollywood star and that she had seen him on TV countless times. Lallie somehow wasn't as diligent in convincing her about the truth in this matter however.

We soon bid her goodbye and after she had her picture taken with the four "handsome young men" (her words) we set off to cross the More plains. For some part the road across the 40km stretch runs parallel to the Sumkhel Lungpa river and you can see some magnificent rock formations that have formed thanks to the wind eroding away the rock. The road across the plains had just been resurfaced and we let the two V6s do their thing here. However there were some sections that were still being constructed and this meant that we had to take some detours into the sand. Soon we had begun our climb for the final pass of the day –Tanglang La. At 17,582 feet above sea level, it is argued to be the second highest motorable pass in the world. We heed all the warnings about not staying on top for more than 20 minutes and hurry along. The roads after Tanglang La are in good shape and we quickly cross Upshi, Karu and enter Leh. Everybody is staring at the two cars. It occurs to me that we might just be the only ML and GL in these parts. I could even go so far as to say we were driving the only Mercs in Leh. We check into Hotel Thongsal on Changspa road, meet our cameraman Pravin, collect the inner line permits required to visit Pangong Tso, Marsimik La and other areas and turn in for an early morning departure. End of day three.


Morning was here and it was time to go. We quickly packed up all our stuff and shuffled into the cars for the long drive ahead. Today was the day we had to accomplish our mission. D-Day. We start off from Leh with the rising sun and quickly cross Karu to take the left that takes us towards Pangong Tso after picking up Udai from the airport. Pangong Tso is a 150km drive from Leh which takes five hours to complete. On the way we cross the Chang La (17,585 feet). The road up to Chang La is good for the first half. Then it is broken trail all the way. We stop on top of Chang La to have hot tea that the army serves for free. It is here that we get to get close and personal with snow for the first time. While we are finishing our shooting here, it suddenly starts to snow. But no time to stand around enjoy it, we are in a race against time to get to Marsimik La before daylight comes to an end. There's a problem but. Pravin is having a bout with acute mountain sickness. We quickly fix him up with the oxygen cylinders we are carrying and carry on.

Once you complete the descent from Chang La the roads are in good shape. We carry good speed through these roads and are soon greeted by our first glimpse of the blue waters of Pangong Tso.

I'm not going to tell you about Pangong Tso simply because Rishaad has done an excellent job in his story elsewhere in this issue. Once we were done with the mandatory shoots and drama we took the left turn that takes you away from Pangong Tso and towards Phobrang village. Once past the village we come to an Indo-Tibetan Border Police outpost where they check all our permits and give us a green flag. The time is 5pm, There is very little daylight left. And we have just been informed that this is where the roads end. From here it is all trail – all the way up to Marsimik La.

Marsimik La is the highest mountain pass in the country, even higher than Khardung La. The problem is that while Khardung La is motorable, Marsimik La is far from it. The army is building a road that leads there and goes across to the last border post a few kilometres ahead, but this will take a year or two to get ready. For now there are only a few trails that point you in the right direction. The only vehicles that ever come here are the army Stallions, specially prepared army Gypsys and some motorcycles.

With no time to waster we hurry along, zipping through the harsh terrain. I'm driving the GL and following Udai in the ML. There is a huge cloud of dust being raised and it's difficult to see. I slow down giving myself and the dust some time to settle. A few minutes later I come over a crest to see the ML parked with its blinkers on. We had just gotten a puncture. Sanam quickly goes about fixing the puncture and we thank our lucky stars that Lallie was thoughtful enough to bring a portable compressor along. Just to point out he had even packed snow chains, tow ropes, a complete toolkit, extra engine oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid, a puncture repair kit and sleeping bags. It's always better to be fully prepared than stuck in the middle of nowhere in freezing temperatures.


Once the tyre was up and running we set off again. The roads are really bad for the last bit. There are huge rocks everywhere and we have to navigate between them carefully. Add to that the fear of getting another punctured tyre and progress was really slow. We've been driving for an hour and a half since we left Pangong. I can see Pravin sitting beside me, glancing at the sun as it starts to set. There is not much time left. Suddenly in the distance we see a small structure at the crest of a steep climb. The ITBP officer had told us about a marker that sat atop the pass. With even more determination than before we push on. As we near the marker I glance at the temperature gauge in the car. It reads -0.5 degrees Celsius. I hadn't even realised it was this cold outside thanks to the climate control in our car. Another fifteen minutes and we have reached the marker.

The granite slab with the inscriptions with the details of the pass is long gone and has been replaced by some graffiti claiming the pass to be at a height of 19,600 feet above sea level. We cross check with our GPS and find out that the actual height is 18,438 feet, which clearly puts it above Khardung La. We had officially made it. And just in time too. Twenty minutes later the sun had disappeared, giving us just enough time to wrap up shooting.

As we made our way back towards Pangong to head back to Chandigarh we all had a sense of achievement about us. But most of all we were impressed with the two SUVs that had made this expedition possible. SUVs that most people will never dream of bringing to a place like this. To me they have earned the right to be called offroaders. They have taken the worst that the Himalayas could throw at them and  came out on top. Literally. They have protected us and surrounded us with luxury in the harshest of conditions. Maybe I'll come back here with a new set of SUVs next year. All I know is the ML350 CDI and the GL350 CDI have set the bar really, really high for whichever SUV we bring here next. Before that though, there was one other task at hand. I'll have to explain the bag full of pebbles to airport security.


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