I gasped for breath and pulled the blanket off my face! Any relief was only momentary, as my exposed face was stung by the extreme cold, causing me to pull over the blanket again. This continued to happen several times during the night – a pattern that I would get only too familiar with during the many sleepless nights spent in the Spiti Valley. Yet when Skoda first announced the Kodiaq Expedition to the Spiti Valley, many of our editorial members jousted for a seat on this excursion. As luck would have it, the spot was allotted to me.
And initially, it was excitement that kept me up at nights. Naturally, I was very thrilled that Skoda had invited us to drive their latest SUV, the Kodiaq, to the Spiti Valley in the Himalayas. I have been to this beautiful place on a two-wheeler before, but would an SUV driven in these parts prove to be less exciting? Of course not!
Day 1 - Chandigarh to Manali
Our journey began from Chandigarh where we were greeted by a fleet of Kodiaqs. Clean and sparkling, waiting for us to be driven. Since Skoda only offers top-of-the-line Style TDI AT in India, I knew we had full access to explore the potential of this SUV. And in the coming days, we sure did. As for the first day, getting into the Kodiaq and getting comfortable was our top priority and a fairly easy one too. The huge boot ensured that it easily accommodated two big bags and another 2-3 backpacks that we had.
Our 300km drive that day wasn't going to be an easy one as we battled traffic and diversions getting out of the city towards Bilaspur. Thankfully the Kodiaq's music system with Canton speakers kept us entertained throughout. The journey got interesting after encountering huge dust storms from Sundernagar towards Mandi. It started pouring at Pandoh, giving us the reason to open the huge panoramic roof to experience the first rains of the year in a different style. After our first brush up against the elements of nature, it was only too refreshing to sip on hot tea and gobble up some Maggi before heading up the mountains in the dark. It was a smooth drive to Manali, nevertheless, it was nearly midnight when we reached the hotel. At that time, the cold climate felt soothing, and little did I know how the drastic change in temperatures (from a scorching 39°C to a cooler 11°C) would impact me.
Day 2 - Manali to Chandratal
I could never forget the day we entered the Spiti valley. As I’d mentioned earlier, most of my sleepless nights are generally out of excitement, but this one was dreaded. One that I will remember even if I want to forget it. One that reminds you and teaches you - life is so precious!
We made an early start from our hotel in Manali in order to avoid all the traffic and tourists at Rohtang pass. Besides, all of us were kicked about the journey ahead. As we progressed ahead, the air became cleaner and thinner too. We were advised to keep drinking water as it is the second most abundant source of oxygen. There were many precautions we had to take for the cold apart from adding a few more layers of clothing. But nothing was needed for the SUV. The Kodiaq took the winding mountain roads with ease, as if to the manner born, despite some initial lag in pulling up at sharp bends. Here, its huge size and weight could be felt. Nonetheless, I felt at home behind the wheel, as the automatic gearbox took care of smooth gearshifts.
Gradually, the tree cover on both sides of the road gave way to ice and snow. The road itself and with it, the last sign of civilisation completely vanished after the turn at Gramphu. By now, I had begun to acclimatise, but my head started to feel heavy, all the same. The only other people we caught sight of were a few locals at Chatru, where we took a break for lunch. Although the sunshine was bright and lit up the mountainside in its full glory, the wind chill sent a shiver down my spine.
Conditions were treacherous - weather-wise and roadwise too. Thankfully the Kodiaq was unstoppable as it coasted through the rough patches thanks to the intelligent 4X4 system. The only problem it faced was a cut in the tyre's sidewall. This was at an extremely bad section on the mountainside with sharp stones. Changing tyres here took up a lot of our energy, leaving us breathless at times. As if this physical challenge wasn't enough, driving on a spare tyre carefully to save the car from any other damage was another herculean mental task. Nonetheless, Skoda's team was well-equipped and provided necessary back-up when needed.
The Kodiaqs also managed to find their way across the ChotaDhara river crossings without getting stuck anywhere until Batal. By that time, despite the cabin being so comfortable, the side-to-side movement on the uneven and broken paths had induced back pain. Onwards, the terrifying narrow roads got worse on our climb towards Chandratal. Even the smallest mistake may very well have sent the car tumbling into the valley or the Chenab river. Altogether, it was a petrifying experience that tested all our driving abilities and patience. It was late evening when we all reached our camping spot. An extensive 12hour journey to cover just about 120km!
But what a satisfying sight it was to watch the stars at nightfall. So clear that every star was visible. On the other hand, the temperatures had dropped to 2°C (the last that I remember checking) and the wind chill got the best of me. The biggest mistake I did was to avoid food and crashed into bed. I'm not sure if it was the altitude sickness or my carelessness, or may be both, which had taken a toll on me. Thankfully, I didn't need any medical help but I spent an arduous night just lying in my tent gasping for breath, until the sun shone warmly the next day!
Day 3 - Chandrataal to Kaza
Clearly my plan of clicking some time-lapses at night had failed. But nature has its rewards and our small trek to the Chandrataal lake made me realise why all these efforts are worth dying for. The blue waters of this crescent-shaped lake, situated at an altitude of 4,300m, looked still and magical. Add to that the snow clad mountains in the background and the azure blue sky above, and it was enough to merely sit idle, look at the beauty and absorb all the energy I could get from it. This ‘moon lake’, called thus because of its crescent shape, is believed to be the source for Chandra river. No pictures or words can aptly describe my experience of being there. This is a case for ‘seeing is believing’!
The journey towards Kaza from Chandrataal was again challenging while crossing Kunzum pass and taking the winding roads in the valley. The majestic views enroute bear testimony to why people say it’s all about the journey and not the destination in this cold desert mountain valley of the Himalayas.
Day 4 - Kaza
Most of our time on the fourth day was spent in relaxing and recovering from the rigours of the past three days. It was only now that our minds were beginning to truly register the harsh beauty of the land and to realise how difficult it was to live in this region. Surprisingly, this was not the case for the Skoda Kodiaq. I was astonished at the way the SUV had managed in the region, which is unforgiving even to the best of off-roaders. And this soft-roader kept marching on, keeping us comfortably cocooned in its luxurious cabin. The rest of the day was spent visiting Langcha (fossil village), Komic (India’s highest inhabited village) and Hikkim (the highest polling station and post office in the world).
Day 5 - Kaza to Kufri
Our journey from Manali to Kaza was so daunting that we decided to take the Shimla route on our way back. This was more than 400km in total and about a 100km more than the direct route. Also, these not very good roads, but at least they were roads! And it turned out to be a very good decision indeed as it was a smooth drive where we actually got to use the sport mode on the Kodiaq to sprint across places.
Day 6 - Kufri to Chandigarh
Kufri is a small town with narrow lanes just before Shimla, barely visible through the fog that usually surrounds it. Here, we teamed up to take on the traffic that formed long queues in the lanes at the edge of the mountains. It took us about four hours to reach the starting point in Chandigarh where we had started this epic journey.
With more than 1,000km of driving in the Himalayas to our name, and across the most treacherous roads in the world, dirt tracks, river beds and a little tarmac too, we had made lots of unforgettable memories. And that too in a luxurious SUV that gobbled up all types of terrain effortlessly. It reaffirmed its ‘Kodiaq’ moniker which is said to represent a protective nature, a strong sense of family and a high degree of outdoor expertise. There isn’t any concluding note that I can think of which will do justice to the journey I just completed. What’s more, I will never say no to another opportunity that will take me back to Spiti again.