The Mountain G.O.A.T.

Abhay Verma
Exploring high altitude trails in the Maruti Suzuki Jimny, to bring back tales from a 1,000 year old monastery in Spiti

Photography- Vaibhav Dhanawade

The Himalayas are all about magnificence and mystique. While the mountains look magnificent, standing where they have been for centuries now, the tiny villages in them, thousands of feet above sea level, feel simple yet mystical. These villages also hide lots of tales and folklore that are waiting to be told. In fact, no matter how many times you visit the Himalayas, there’s always more to explore! It’s like the region mesmerises you and makes you want to keep coming back to discover more. I’ve been visiting the Himalayas for over a decade, but it still feels like I’ve just about scratched the surface.

These mountains, especially the Spiti valley, are also home to monasteries that are centuries old, and have a lot of folklore surrounding them. While the Key, Tabo, Dhankar and few others are the more popular monasteries, there’s a few others that have stories waiting to be told. Like the Lalung monastery that’s over 1,000 years old, sits at 12,000 feet above sea level and was one of the 108 monasteries built to revive Buddhism. I’d also heard it has a willow tree in its premises that’s as old and was a marker of sorts for the monastery to be built there. Now, that’s a story that begs to be told, also making me want to scratch the perennial itch to explore the Himalayas!

The true joy of exploring the region, especially the Lahaul and Spiti Valley, is in driving up in a hardcore, 4×4 SUV though, like the Maruti Suzuki Jimny. Having enjoyed a cult status globally for decades, the Jimny has now made it to our shores. And given where the tiny little village of Lalung sits high up in the mountains, getting behind the wheel of the Jimny for this trip was a no-brainer. Starting from New Delhi I headed north towards Himachal Pradesh, and as the highway started winding up the hills after Chandigarh, the air got nippy, having me break into a smile. The Jimny felt perfectly in sync with the conditions, its 1.5-litre petrol engine offering enough grunt to make rapid progress. 

A few hours later as I passed the perpetually crowded hill station of Shimla, the Jimny showcased more of its strengths, like the compact dimensions and tall seating that helped me negotiate through the chaotic traffic on narrow roads with ease. Crossing the towns of Narkanda and Rampur Bushahr I was also appreciating the Jimny’s comfort as the seats feel perfectly cushioned and let you spend long hours behind the wheel, adding to its suitability for roadtrips. A major landslide ahead meant we were forced to take an alternate route towards Spiti, passing through some villages and going downhill on a kilometre-long off-road stretch before rejoining the highway. This is where the Jimny’s four-wheel drive and hill descent came in handy, offering the kind of confidence only a hardcore SUV could have on the loose soil and rocks. 

The sun was going down by the time I rejoined the highway – sunsets are early in the mountains – meaning I called it a day in Reckong Peo. The next morning I woke up to the view of mountain peaks with the snow on them glistening in the early morning sunlight. And as I walked towards the Jimny, the sight of the SUV standing in the empty parking lot against snow-capped mountain peaks made pulling my phone out to take a picture irresistible! Then there was the crisp mountain air, that was also far cleaner than what you and I take into our lungs in our concrete jungles. Can’t deny there’s a charm to the cold air hitting your face too! An early morning cup of tea done, after exchanging pleasantries with the aged, soft-spoken Himachali man running the little food joint, I was on my way, aiming to cross places like Nako and Tabo early.

However, the smooth tarmac turned into Spiti’s infamous, broken, gravely, rock-laden surface soon. Connectivity to Spiti has improved thanks to constant repair works by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) but owing to the altitude, remoteness of the region and above all else, the constant landslides, a lot of the stretches are difficult to maintain. I was not having to bother at all in the Jimny though. That’s because where the tarmac ends, the Jimny’s game begins as a 4×4 SUV. It is equipped with some potent hardware like a ladder frame chassis, solid front and rear axles and Suzuki’s AllGrip Pro system including four-wheel drive and low range that help the Jimny turn into a proverbial mountain goat. Driving it in city you won’t realise what these do, but drive to a place like Spiti and the Jimny takes to bad roads like a fish does to water.

Ride quality on broken roads is excellent thanks to the brilliantly tuned suspension and you don’t need to flinch, brace or slow down on bad roads. In fact handling and stability got better as I went faster, pointing towards the Jimny’s strong engineering roots and prowess at tackling non-existent roads. Add to that its ground clearance of 210mm along with the excellent approach and departure angles of 36 degrees and 47 degrees respectively and you know you’re talking serious abilities. All this, in stock form, with standard highway tyres! Not surprising, the Jimny has spawned numerous ‘Jimny owners’ clubs’ around the country already and buyers are engaging in serious off-roading with it, many even going in for purpose-built parts. Safe to assume the Jimny is building a legacy of its own in India too, like it has globally!

Of course, there is no dearth of natural trails in Spiti which make for great adventure if you like off-roading. Besides its abilities I was also enjoying the comfort and safety of the Jimny’s cabin as it is well-equipped for a hardcore SUV and packs in features like connected technology, voice commands, a 9.0-inch touchscreen, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, navigation, instant fuel efficiency and more. The Jimny is thus a brilliant amalgamation of creature comforts and serious abilities which makes it special, something I was discovering on this roadtrip.

The sense of authority with which the Jimny was helping me drive towards Lalung, without needing to slow down for anything plastered a smile on my face. That smile only grew wider at the sight of Lalung village – a tiny hamlet with just a handful of houses. As I got closer, I spotted the monastery, and the 1,000 year old willow tree outside as well! The cold air coupled with the quietness and sense of calm in the monastery’s premises had a very soothing effect and as I walked through the gate, an elderly gent looked at me and said ‘Julley’, a greeting in the local dialect. I responded back and asked him if I could visit the sanctum, to which smiled and nodded excitedly. The doors are locked usually but he promptly fetched the keys to unlock them and inside the tiny room, I felt a calm I’ve not felt in a long time. I then sat down with him outside, soaking in the heat of the early morning sun, quizzing him about the monastery and its tales.

Legend has it that if a twig was planted there and it survived, the monastery built there would too. That’s how the willow tree came about and has been a witness to the Lalung monastery’s existence from the time it was constructed. I was also told ‘Lalung’ means land of the Gods and that even the mountains behind the monastery change colour depending on the mood of the Gods. Some even say the paintings of the deities inside the monastery appeared overnight, yet another mystical tale. It’s difficult to know how are true, but these are tales I wouldn’t have gotten to know about, had I not decided to follow my craving for discovering something new in the Himalayas yet again.

As I soaked the warmth of the sun, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Jimny as well. It had made for an amazing couple of days in Spiti, taking me to places where only a hardcore, 4×4 SUV like it would dare to go. The Jimny had thus proved to be that dependable partner who gives you the confidence to forge ahead, irrespective of how challenging the conditions are. It also felt rock solid, just like the mountains I was driving it through. And visiting the Lalung monastery, soaking in its history and listening to tales of the 1,000 year old spiritual place that it is, had turned out to be a grand culmination of sorts for this roadtrip to Spiti. But like I mentioned before, the Himalayas have numerous trails like the one that took me to Lalung. And many of these lead to places that have numerous tales that are waiting to be told!

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