TVS Himalayan Highs Season 3: A tall order

Rishabh Bhaskar Updated: September 29, 2017, 06:18 PM IST

Seeing is believing, no? For years our eyes have been a sensory organ that has led to beliefs being formed. As a country, a number of our beliefs have led us to accepting stereotypes. One such stereotype, which sadly still persists, is that women in our society cannot match men step for step. Considered the weaker gender, on whom many restrictions still apply, women in India are still looked down upon. Sometimes even by individuals of the same gender. Last year, OVERDRIVE accompanied 11 women on TVS Scooty Zest 110s for an epic journey from Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh to Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world. The feat was recognised in the India book of records.

The excitement in the air was palpable as the riders geared up to set off on a journey that many wouldn't dare undertake

This year, for the third season of the TVS Himalayan Highs, the start and end points were the same as last year. The route that was chalked out, however, was longer and a lot more challenging, taking us into areas that people hardly know about. Over the course of 12 days, the plan was to ride from Mandi to Khardung La and Leh via Manali, Jispa, Sarchu, Pang, TsoKar and Hanle.

Given the route that was decided, the 12 riders that TVS chose, after a rigorous selection process, were quite a mixed bag, each with a personality that differed vastly from the other, yet with one common strand of DNA, perhaps. Wanderlust and the urge to fulfill it by a medium that's sure to raise eyebrows, a humble TVS Scooty Zest 110. Another first this year, was the decision to allow boys – two to be precise – to join the 10 girls, thus breaking the stereotype that men don't ride gearless scooters. As far as riding experience was concerned, each member of this determined dozen came with a different set of skills as well as experience.

The day of departure dawned. It all began to sink in. They assembled in the forecourt of the TVS dealership in Mandi, alongside the 12 colorful, matte finished, 2017 TVS Scooty Zest 110s. Excited as well as a bit nervous. Riding gear on, photo ops done, it was time for the flag off. This was it.

The riders were setting off on a journey to the Himalayas on an unlikely – although proven, this is Season 3 after all – weapon of choice.

The first 30-40 odd kilometres were spent getting acquainted with the scooters as well as the fact they were riding in a convoy, as a team. This meant maintaining a safe gap to the rider ahead, whilst riding at a steady pace to keep the convoy intact. The easygoing nature of the Scooty Zest 110 allowed the riders to settle in quickly.

The scooters were bone stock, barring a couple of modifications to help with the challenges that the terrain ahead posed. Firstly, the air-intake for the engine was shifted to the luggage bin. This was done to ensure better water wading capability while tacking river crossings. The second was replacing the road-biased tyres with sturdier, block-tread tyres to ensure adequate traction on loose mud and slush, a common occurrence on the route to Leh.

By the first rest stop, the riders had already grown familiar with their scooters. "I'm amazed to see how predictable the throttle response is" exclaimed Delhi-based Vineeta Lohchab.

The scenery had also begun to cast a spell on the group. For coastal boy Andre Camara, originally from Goa, the huge, massive green mountains in front of him and the gushing river Beas by his side, was an arresting sight. The busy highway to Manali is undergoing expansion work, so we chose a much more scenic route that skirted the commercialised town of Manali into Solang valley, where we were put up for the night.

The muck and slush on the way down proved to be quite tough to negotiate, but with persistence and faith in the little Scooty Zest 110s, the 12 riders made it through, unscathed

The next day, we headed to Jispa, about 138km away, and enroute was the first of the mountain passes we'd come across, the mighty Rohtang La. At 13,050ft above mean sea level, it was the lowest pass on the map, but seasoned travellers know that it's a pass that can catch you unawares.

The roads leading up to the pass are in pretty good condition and the riders were having a ball riding the Scooty Zests on the winding roads. Once past the Gulaba checkpost, it was a fairly quick dash to the top and none of the riders were deterred by the narrow roads or sheer drops. The cold winds though were starting to affect a few riders. At the top of Rohtang, Devaki P, from Hyderabad, was shivering in the biting cold, and she had to rush to put on additional layers beneath her riding gear to keep warm.

We encountered rain around Manali and while descending towards Khoksar, from the top of Rohtang Pass

Everything seemed to be in going well until we crossed the summit. From then on, all hell broke loose. The roads leading down to Khoksar were in pretty bad shape and in most areas, there was only a mud path to ride on.

To make matters worse, the heavens decided to open up, and in a matter of minutes, we were soaked. The mud had now transformed into gooey slush and it was quite difficult to control the scooters. In the distance we could see many bikers slip and fall, while many trucks were stuck in the muck. Our convoy of little scooters, however, soldiered on and it was at times like these when true team spirit came to the fore. One could see the girls and the guys egging each other to ride past the challenge. Devaki was terrified of the conditions and was trailing behind by quite a margin. But she managed to overcome her fears and make it to Khoksar and Sharma Ji's Dhabha for some piping hot lunch. The team was happy and relieved in equal measure, having conquered their first serious challenge. And it was a harsh opening chapter for a long ride. But there were muddy boots and happy faces everywhere.

On the way to and from Hanle, giant, purple mountains stretch as far and wide as the eye can see

Things were looking up. The rain had abated and by the time we resumed our journey to Jispa, we were greeted by the warm rays of the evening sun.

This route passes through some lush vegetation with snow capped peaks in the distance, adding to the visual drama. Shagufta, from Mumbai, is a serious nature buff and was spotted stopping at regular intervals, clicking photos and generally soaking in the views. "This is unreal. I can't believe this!" was all she could say over and over. As dusk fell, we rode into Jispa, our night halt.

Sipping on water at regular intervals is one sure shot way of ensuring that the altitude does not cause any sickness

The next day was spent picnicking by the banks of the river Chandra and admiring the change in the scenery. The low temperatures as well as the ride in the rain, the previous day, did take a toll on Anjali Manoharan, who was down with fever and she spent the rest of the day recuperating.

Jispa to Sarchu, our next leg, is not a very long ride but on the way we had to cross our second mountain pass, Baralacha La, at 16,040ft. The way leading up to it was a mix of smooth tarmac, interspersed with a few water crossings. At first, the riders were a bit skeptical about them, but seeing their little Scooty Zests make it across without breaking a sweat, they rode across the rest of the crossings without a spot of bother. There are also a number of tight corners and hairpins leading up to Baralacha La and it's here's where the superb handling prowess of the Scooty Zest 110 shone.

Water crossings turned out to be immense fun

The roads beyond the pass were not in as good a shape as the ones we'd covered before the summit and they kept getting worse as we approached our camps at Sarchu. The temperatures dropped sharply as the sun set and the whole group called it an early night, cozy under the warmth of the massive blankets in the tents. We were running a very lucky streak though. No one had shown any signs of acute mountain sickness or AMS so far.

The riders had now begun growing closer as a team. On the road, they'd be on the lookout for each other and would stop to help. Baishali 'Buli' Nath was the designated sweep rider. She'd wait for those lagging behind to rejoin, whenever they'd stop for an unplanned break.

The next day's ride to Pang was via Nakee La and Lachalung La, two high mountain passes set very close together. The roads up to Nakee La were pretty good and the riders were treated to the sight of castle-like sand rock formations. From Nakee La onwards, the roads to Pang were non-existent and the fine dust that was being kicked up by other vehicles was causing added problems. By the time we got to our stop for the night, we were all coated in a layer or two of dust.

That night, the riders got together, under a moonlit night sky and danced. Bonds grew deep as friendships blossomed. They were at 15,100ft, but neither the altitude nor the cold could dampen their spirits. They'll tell you Pang is high, cold and forlorn. The Zest-y riders making merry certainly paid those stories no mind at all.

Tsokar Lake was our destination the next day, which was about 60km from Pang. This was, easily, one of the best sections, which included the magnificent More Plains, a 40km long stretch of flatlands, with towering mountain ranges on either side. Needless to say, the riders had the throttle pinned to the stop, maxing out the scooters. It was quite surprising to see that despite the rarified oxygen, and the attendant drop in power outputs, the Sccooty Zests were managing to hit 80kmph in most parts. We also indulged in a bit of off-roading and the wee scooters were happy to comply.

The BRO is constantly at work in this region, and the result is some of the most impeccable stretches of tarmac that you can ride on

By late afternoon, we reached Tsokar, a lake that has a certain draw. Its high salinity gives its banks a white sand-like appearance and over the horizon, in the distance, is a vast expanse of snow-capped mountains. As the sun began to set, the riders sat by the banks, reminiscing the journey so far. Time slowed, and the worries evaporated away. They were all basking in the warm glow of the last rays of the day's sun, happy to just be there.

We began early the next day, setting our imaginary compass to Hanle, a destination that not many knew of, except for Aashrya Suresh, from Bangalore. The picturesque valley was unchecked on her bucket list and her excitement knew no bounds.

Riding past the check post at Mahe, the riders noticed a stark change in the topography of the region. The mountains were now purple in colour and in some places, such as Nyoma, there were actual sand dunes, the only place you'll find them in Ladakh.

The rest day in Jispa turned out to be immense fun as we mingled with the locals and even tried their means of crossing a river

A few kilometres down the road, we were treated to a welcome unlike any other. In the distance, we could see a herd of Asiatic Wild Asses or Kijangs, as they are popularly known. As soon as they'd spot our convoy, the entire herd would catch up to us and run alongside the scooters before crossing over to the other side of the road. To watch a wild animal at such close proximity was indeed a surreal experience, as was evident from the smiles on everyone's faces as we rolled into Hanle. There were some, however, who were simply blown away by the beauty of the place. Buli was moved to tears looking at the magnificent face of mother nature. "I can die in peace now!" she said.

Hanle had already given us a grand welcome, but little did we know that the place had a lot more in store for us.

The TVS Scooty Zest 110 can also be ridden adventure bike style!

The next day was a rest day and the riders woke up to an unexpected sight. It was snowing! Though it wasn't heavy, it was enough to get people out of their slumber. While most of the riders danced under their first ever snowfall, in one quiet corner though, Aashrya couldn't hold back her tears. Another item was checked off her bucket list and she was simply thankful for what was happening. "I usually don't get what I want. But when I get something like this, it's better than what I expected!" she said with tears on her cheeks and a big grin on her face.

Hanle is also home to India's highest space observatory, since at this place, out of 356 nights in a year, there's a clear night sky for over 250 nights. We spent a few hours at the observatory and followed that by a visit to the Hanle Monastery.

At Hanle, the sight of lush, green meadows with bands of sheep grazing is like a scene straight out of a painter's canvas

At the crack of dawn, the next day, we assembled next to our trusty scooters, and geared up for a long ride. Leh was 270km away and this was the longest stretch of the journey. For most riders, this was way beyond their comfort zone. Back home, they'd barely ridden a scooter for over 50km in a day, so 270 seemed daunting. "I don't think I'll manage to ride for such a long distance," said a very concerned Vineetha. The only exceptions were Mohit and Riya, who were used to covering long distances on two wheels. It was time for some teamwork again, and it was in these times when the friendship that the 12 riders had formed, came to the fore. They rode as one, cohesive unit and the thought of giving up never struck them again.

though the mountains
in the region are cold and barren, there is a beauty to them that leaves you spellbound...

The journey to Leh was quite demanding. While sections with smooth tarmac, especially after Mahe, where the Indus river flows alongside the road, were absolute bliss to ride on, there were some nasty stretches, especially the 35km patch before Upshi, that tested the nerves of the riders. The roads were strewn with rocks and pebbles and broken patches turned out to be torture test for the Scooty's suspension. At one point, young Milam, all of 18, had tears in her eye. She pulled to the side of the road, the terrain was taking a toll on her spirit. But after a few words of enouragement from Andre and Buli, followed by a bear hug, she was back on the Scooty Zest and zipping ahead.

After Upshi, the roads were amazing as we joined the Manali-Leh highway. We were nearing Leh, as the sky turned into a warm purple hue, post sunset. As the convoy made its way past the evening hustle and bustle of Leh, it slowly began to set in. The major part of the journey had come to end. As the riders parked their faithful scooters in the hotel foyer in Leh, you could reach out and touch the euphoria. Everyone was hugging and cheering each other, happy to have accomplished something that seemed impossible, at first. There was only one challenge left, to summit the mighty Khardung La or K-Top as it's known.

That sight of herds of the Asiatic Wild Ass or Kiangs running along the convoy of TVS Scooty Zest 110s is firmly etched in the memory

After a day's rest, the convoy set off for the mighty pass. The roads upto South Pullu were a rider's paradise, with smooth, flowing tarmac allowing everyone to exploit the surefooted and now familiar handling of the TVS Scooty Zest 110.

After the checkpost however, the roads began to deteriorate. As we climbed higher, the lack of oxygen had also begun to take a toll on the scooters. Maximum speed had dropped to 20kmph and the rocky surface wasn't making life easy either. Slowly and steadily, the convoy kept marching to K-top.

Smiles and cheers abound as the riders celebrate the end of an epic journey at K-top

With about a kilometre to go, the whole convoy paused for a moment. This was it. This was what the journey was all about. As the 12 riders rode on to the summit, a crowd of onlookers stood in disbelief. There were rapturous roars, cheers and a few stunned faces among the audience that had gathered. A bunch of crazy little girls, and two guys, had done it again.

Posing next to the, now famous, Khardung La board, a collective sense of pride took over the 12 gutsy riders. Not only because they'd finished what they'd started, but also because they'd also attained a new high on a personal front.

In many ways, the TVS Himalayan Highs Season 3 has strung these 12 individuals of all ages and from all over together. Like a pearl necklace bound together by a string of a colourful convoy of TVS Scooty Zests 110s.

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