Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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Kargil Memorial, Murgh Qorma & deadly black ice—My trip to the wonderland on Hyundai Tucson

We took Hyundai Tuscon to Zoji La pass at 11,649 feet above mean sea level. The car moves from tarmac to ice to snow and back to tarmac without skipping a beat.

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War memorials are extremely sombre places, because they remind you of the ultimate sacrifice of young men and women, in the prime of their lives. However, it is also true that many gravesites are scenic, and it seems almost unbelievable that actual bullets and artillery shells rained down hell at these places. But few like the Kargil War Memorial are surrounded by the natural beauty between the towns of Kargil and Drass in the Union Territory of Ladakh.

There is another reason this particular war memorial hits home harder — this was a war that occurred in my lifetime. It was the first ‘televised’ war in India, which created heroes in Captain Vikram Batra and Captain Manoj Pandey. Alongside these two men, there are the other heroes who died at unbelievable heights, to secure not just Indian territory but also, I must admit, an extremely awe-inspiring view.

As you approach Drass from Kargil, driving past the valley of the Sindh river that eventually becomes a tributary to the Indus, the legendary Tiger Hill emerges into view. With the fresh snowfall recently, the massif that begins with Rhino Hill looked impressive with the early morning sun reflecting off the white powder draping it. And as you pull into the parking lot of the Kargil War Memorial, with Tiger Hill in the distance to the left, the national flag surrounded by all the regimental flags is overlooked by the Tololing range.

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Zoji La pass, winter wonderland and Hyundai Tucson

The jawans of the Gorkha regiment currently manning the memorial tell me that the enemy had reached the Tololing peaks. Beside him, a freshly painted but decommissioned Bofors 155mm howitzer gun stands guard, as does a MiG-21 fighter at the entrance. As you walk up to the national flag, you see the busts of heroes like Captain Batra and Lt. Pandey. A small hut off to the side captures the story of the Kargil war, the citations of the heroes and what each of the regiment did.

A small section shows off some captured enemy flags and weaponry.

We were in the region driving the new Hyundai Tucson, the fresh snowfall had meant that the Zoji La pass, at 11,649 feet above mean sea level, had been blocked for a few days. It appeared that we would be stuck in Sonmarg, which looked like a proper winter wonderland with fresh snow. All two feet of it make one realise that such landscapes needn’t always be in Alpine Europe. Of course, the sunlight reflecting off the snow made sunglasses a critical wear and the intense solar radiation made it warm enough to strip down to a T-shirt even when the air temperature on the car’s display was minus four centigrade. But the sun, and its rays would come back to bite us later.

Thanks to the intrepid organisers of the drive, we finally were allowed to cross the Zoji La pass at five in the evening. After a day playing in the snow, we crossed over the pass that connects the Kashmir valley with Ladakh as the sun fell. With the sun gone, it began to feel properly cold and I felt grateful that the all-new Hyundai Tucson came with heated seats as well. When the convoy stopped for a ‘tea and pee’ break in the town of Drass, a signboard welcomed us to the second-coldest inhabited place on earth (an Army helicopter had recorded an air temperature of -60 C back in the 1980s) and I thanked my lucky stars that I had a proper Arctic weather jacket and gloves. The freshly made tea had to be consumed instantly, because it was that cold.

The cold had another effect, it led to the formation of deadly ‘black ice.’ It happens when snowmelt re-freezes as the temperature drops, forming an invisible transparent layer of ice on the black road surface, hence called black ice. But we were driving the all-new Hyundai Tucsons that were not only equipped with permanent all-wheel drive systems, but had different terrarium modes including a snow mode. This mode compensated for the lower traction that a car has in ice and snow conditions. Once the mode is set, it takes literally a few seconds to do that, the car moves from tarmac to ice to snow and back to tarmac without skipping a beat.

Late in the evening, we reached a chilly Kargil, but at The Kargil hotel, the heating had been ramped up and some great Mutton Yakhni and Murgh Qorma awaited us. A long, cold day meant that I, for one, needed the calories and while I usually stick to light meals these days, I ate a fair bit. After all, the next morning was about to start with a visit to the war memorial.

The Kargil War Memorial is an amazing place, made more so by the fresh snow. During the summer, the heights are barren rock, but it is still incredible that some soldiers go up in such extreme conditions to keep an eye on our neighbour. Although nowadays, the soldiers are backed by the occasional AH-64 Apache helicopter. I noticed a few of them too.

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Respect for the mountains and martyrs

But as I mentioned earlier, the sun came back to bite us. The snow that melts in the daytime forms a layer of ice and any fresh snowfall on that icy layer can, and does slip off becoming an avalanche. With the Zoji La scheduled to be closed in a few days, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) worked overtime to clear the roads so that traffic from Kargil and beyond could make it back to the Kashmir Valley. Yet, there was the longest traffic jam I have ever seen, albeit the most scenic one with the snow-capped 15–18-thousand-foot peaks looking over thousands of cars and trucks stuck on the road. It also meant that we all missed our flights. But whenever one travels to the mountains, whether it is summer or winter, a healthy dose of respect is needed. That is irrespective of how capable one is as a driver or no matter how good the car. The all-new Hyundai Tucson is a tremendously good car. As they say in French, c’est la vie or this is life.

As we waited for the traffic to clear, we could see construction of the Zoji La tunnels taking place. These two tunnels when constructed will change the area forever. It might mean that the scenic road gets empty while the 19 kilometers of tunnels will ensure year-round connectivity, especially to Drass and Kargil. And that should make more people visit the Kargil War Memorial remembering the sacrifices of soldiers in 1999. Those who paid with their lives to protect Kargil so that I, and all my fellow travellers can visit the spectacular region and have an amazing driving experience. Thank you to all of them, and all the soldiers and officers of our armed forces.

ThePrint ValueAd Initiative content is a paid-for, sponsored article. Journalists of ThePrint are not involved in reporting or writing it. 

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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