Defender vs The Mountains: Over 1000 Kms Across The Himalayan Ranges

Organised by JLR India's experience partner, Cougar Motorsport, the Defender Journeys saw us drive from Srinagar to Pangong Tso, covering a distance of over 1000 km in a Defender 110.

By Seshan Vijayraghvan


11 mins read


Published on November 25, 2023

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  • The Defender Journeys was a 5 day expedition of the Leh-Ladakh region
  • We covered over 1000 km, covering Srinagar-Kargil-Thiksey-Diskit-Merak-Leh
  • All five Defenders were the 110 models in the HSE guise powered by the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine

“To all those who have come here for the first time, congratulations on finally getting Leh’D!” said our trip leader Ashish Gupta over the walkie-talkie, as the convoy of five Defender 110s entered Leh city. By Ashish’s own admission, as cliché as it was, I for one was more than elated because it was indeed my first time visiting the mesmerising land of Leh-Ladakh. And what better way to do it than in a Land Rover Defender?


The Defender Journeys programme was launched in early 2023


Here's a little back story. Earlier this year, Jaguar Land Rover India and Cougar Motorsports, launched a luxury adventure experience called the Defender Journeys. These are exclusively curated self-driving expedition journeys organised for High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNIs) across India. They can be either prospective or existing Land Rover owners. So far, Cougar Motorsports has organised over 12 such Defender Journeys in different parts of India, and I was invited to be part of its first-ever media edition. And as my luck would have it, it was to the Himalayas.


Day 0 – Srinagar


A Defender along the banks of the Dal Lake 


Our journey started from the beautiful valley city of Srinagar, Kashmir. Now, while you can do this by directly flying into Leh as well, however, the organisers felt it would be better to start the journey from Srinagar as it would allow everyone to acclimatise to high altitude. And I for one was glad because this was also my first trip to the land that’s known as ‘heaven on earth’.


(L to R) View from Vivanta, Srinagar, a Defender on the banks of Dal Lake, Hotel Nadis 


The first day was all about relaxing and let me tell you there is hardly anything more relaxing than a Shikara ride on the still waters of the Dal Lake, sipping on some Kashmiri Khawa, and watching the sun set beyond the mountains surrounding Srinagar. The first day ended with some authentic Kashmiri food at this nice boutique hotel called Nadis, which has the friendliest little Golden Retriever.


Day 1 – Srinagar to Kargil


The Defender in the Fuji White shade


The bags were packed and the Defenders waiting in the Vivanta Dal View’s parking lot. After a quick look at the list one of the organisers pointed me towards the Defender that was assigned to me. The bulky SUV looked quite understated in the Fuji White shade, something that I kind of liked.


The convoy of Defenders en route to Sonamarg


Now all five Defenders were the 110 models in the HSE guise powered by the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that offered 296 bhp and 400 Nm of torque, mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. As with all media drives, here to were sharing cars, and I was paired with a couple of senior gentlemen, Ranjan and Sandeep, who after spending a few decades in the corporate world were now following their passion for travel writing and photography, respectively. The fact that they were old-time buddies made their company and arguments that much more enjoyable.  


Also Read: First Look: 2023 Land Rover Defender 110


First pit stop for the day at Sonamarg


Day 1 involved us going to go from Srinagar to Kargil, covering a distance of 210 km. While it might not sound very long, in the mountains, that’s a lot longer than what you’d expect. Plus the fact that we had to cross the treacherous Zozila pass meant the estimated time was over 9 hours. The first halt for the day was Sonamarg, and the roads until here were mostly good tarmacs. However, from Sonamarg to Kargil War Memorial (our second halt for the day) was a different story.


Back on the road, heading towards Kargil War Memorial


Picture this, broken mountain roads with steep inclines, about to size of a single lane, with endless convoys of army trucks with equal amounts of oncoming traffic. The route already gave us a taste of what to expect from this journey. Yes, the 2.0-litre petrol motor did feel a bit strained at times due to the challenging terrains, however, the other capabilities of the Defender ensured that the SUV handled everything with grace. The SUV’s all-wheel-drive capabilities and terrain management systems worked brilliantly.


Also Read: Fewer New Range Rovers, Defenders Stolen Since 2022: JLR


An afternoon at the Kargil War Memorial


After a quick tour of the Kargil War Memorial, it was time to rush towards the final destination for the day, the town of Kargil. Luckily, the roads ahead, although equally dangerous, were well-paved (thanks to Border Roads Organisation a.k.a. BRO) so it was easier to push the Defenders. Incidentally, the place where we spent the night was also called The Kargil, one of the oldest hotels in the region. And after a quick dinner, it was till hit the sack because the next day was going to be even longer.'


Day 2 – Kargil to Thiksey


Landscape view of Kargil


Day 2 of the Defender Journeys started a bit earlier because not only the distance we needed to cover was longer (217 km), but the roads were also going to be tougher. So, we needed an early start to save daylight. The first stop for the day was Lamayuru. Over 105 km of broker mountain roads and very few tarmac stretches, but the Defender was more than helpful in traversing them. Engaging the gravel mode ensured that the SUV offered better traction on broken surfaces, while the multiple camera angles offered by the off-road mode helped to avoid the big and sharp stones on the path.


The out-of-the-world terrains of Lamayuru


Nonetheless, it was possibly the most beautiful route we had seen so far. However, because of this, there were more than usual halts to take photographs and videos, which resulted in us running behind schedule, which only made our trip leader Ashish all the more agitated. Lunch for the day was arranged at Alchi Kitchen, a home-style restaurant located near the 1000-year-old Alchi Monastery. The restaurant is run by a sweet lady named Nilza Wangmo, who serves authentic Ladakhi food.


The Alchi Kitchen offers home-style Ladakhi cuisine and a soothing ambience 


After a blissful meal, it was now time to head over to Thiksey, where we were going to spend the night. However, not before taking one last quick pitstop at the spot where the majestic Indus and Zanskar rivers meet. The stay for the night was organised at The Ultimate Travelling Camp or TUTC. 


Camp life at its luxurious best! The Ultimate Travelling Camp or TUTC, Thiksey


Located on the foothills of the Thiksey monastery, TUTC is a glamping resort that offers exclusively designed luxury tents with almost all the amenities that you could wish for - like a queen-sized bed, air conditioning, in-tent bath and toilets among more. The night ended with a special Ladakhi dance performance.


Ladakhi cultural dance performance and Thiksey TUTC


Day 3 – Thiksey to Diskit


The convoy of Defenders outside the Thiksey Monastery 


Armed with our learning of the past two days we decided to take on Day 3 with better planning and time management. We had to reach another TUTC camp located about 130 km away in Diskit, however, it wasn’t going to be easy because today we were crossing one of the highest motorable roads in the world, the mighty Khardung La Pass. But before hitting the roads we had to visit the Thiksey monastery first. Located at 11,800 ft above sea level, it is the largest monastery in central Ladakh. 


Clockwise: Maitreya Buddha statue, a Defender outside the monastery, Thiksey Monastery, monks from the monastery, rotating the prayer wheels


While we were getting used to the uphill drive on the broken mountain roads, the climb up to Khardungla meant we also had to deal with proper altitude sickness. Driving up to 17,582 ft above sea level not only put a lot of strain on us but also the Defenders. However, Ashish our trip leader from Cougar Motorsports had given us some tips on how to drive the Defender efficiently in the mountains. 


En route to one of the highest motorable roads in the world - the Khardung La Pass 


First, engage the Eco mode, use the manual shifter, and keep the SUV between 3000 and 4000 rpm, going beyond that can flood the fuel pump at such a high altitude, which is what happened with one of the cars in the convoy. While there will be a slight drop in power the delivery becomes a lot smoother, and by using the manual shifter you can control the gearing better.


The Khardung La Pass is located 17,582 ft above sea level 


The drive down from Khardung La was equally challenging. The so-called road was filled with gravel, sharp stones and huge rocks, and one constant reminder we were receiving from our trip leader was ‘Save the side walls’. Because changing a slashed tyre in these parts of the roads can be 10 times more challenging than usual. 


TUTC Diskit


The Diskit TUTC camp was a similar set-up, only in a much more beautiful location. We were surrounded by the Himalayan ranges, with the Diskit monastery’s Buddha statue in plain view. The night ended with some hearty conversations around a bonfire and some moon-gazing. 


Diskit Monastery 


Day 4 – Diskit To Pangong Tso


Clockwise: A Defender crossing a bridge, Hani Mustafa from Flywheel, Sandeep Kumar (one of my companions), the convoy of Defenders, a young worker taking a photo of the convoy, the Defenders stuck in traffic due to BRO work 


It was our fourth day on the road, and by now, there was an ease that had set in about driving on the Himalayas. Navigating through the rocky mountain roads has started to feel like second nature, however, it was somewhat of a slow start, as BRO’s road project kept the pace of the convoy in check. We were headed towards the last major stop of the Defender Journeys, the very popular Pangong Tso or Pangong Lake, which was about 180 km from Diskit.


The Defenders at a pitstop in Agham


After a quick coffee break at the Agham, we were driving towards Dubuk, where a unique curated lunch was arranged for us. However, with all the road project work and army convoys, it did take us some time to reach the location. However, it was worth it. The setting involved a couple of large tents pitched in the middle of an expansive green pastureland, surrounded by rocky mountains. 


The specially curated lunch set up near Dubuk


A herd of sheep was grazing the land, while some wild horses were minding their own business at a distance. After having a delicious meal, it was time to get back on the road. Luckily from thereon, I got all well-paved mountain twisties which allowed me to push the Defender to the limits. It was I who was limited by my skills because the Defender felt like it had much more to offer. And after a few hours of driving, we finally got to see the pristine body of deep blue water that stands between  India and China.


The Defenders finally reaching Pangong Tso


We spent the night near Pangong Lake at one of the villages called Merak, and incidentally, our hotel was also called The Merak. Ran by this super helpful man named Tenzin, the small property had a handful of cube-shaped individual cottages that were designed using UV-resistant PVC panels and earthen walls, to offer natural insulation from the unforgiving weather of Pangong Tso. It was truly a night of celebration that was highlighted by music, bonfire and comradery.


A night to remember at Merak


Day 5 – Merak To Leh


For the journey back to Leh, we were given the choice to either trace back the route we came from or go via Chushul the last Indian village before the China border. While the former was the shorter easier route, the latter was longer by at least 100 km, and Ashish promised would be a lot more adventurous. I chose the latter, and so did most of my other companions. However, Ranjan and Sandeep were among the few who chose to take the less exciting route. So, we bid adieu and headed our separate ways.


The long way back to Leh, and a short visit to the Rezang La War Memorial


For this last leg of the journey, I was paired with Kanaad Chatterjee, a fellow journalist whom I had befriended at the beginning of this journey. And I was glad to end this epic drive with him. The route through Chushul ended up being the best so far, offering a mix of all the different kinds of terrains we had experienced over the last few days. On our way, we also stopped at the Rezang La War Memorial, located at Ahir Dham, which immortalises the Indo-China War of 1962.


To warm memories and new friendships


The drive finally ended at The Grand Dragon in Leh City. After a quick tour of the Leh market, it was time to rest, time to celebrate, and time to say goodbyes. Because the next day everyone will go back home, albeit with some warm memories and new friendships.


Photos: JLR India & Seshan V


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