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Yeti hunting in a Skoda Yeti

Can we find the mythical beast while driving its namesake SUV on Bhutan's roughest roads?

Justin Leighton

Do you believe in the yeti? The Abominable Snowman? It's a legend that's been around for centuries -- an enormous creature, rarely seen by humans, living in the Himalayas. And if a human were to see one? Death, probably. Yes, the yeti sounds like just the kind of chap we should see, so a trip to Bhutan was in order.

Bhutan is home to people who believe the yeti is very real and to wildlife sanctuaries where the creatures are said to roam. Fascinating, but I confess the idea of actually meeting something like a yeti on foot didn't appeal to me one bit. I may have the heart of a champ, but I have the fitness of an infant, so I needed a little protection. Thankfully, Skoda makes the perfect car for the job, called (drumroll) the Yeti. It's a small SUV that comes with either four-wheel or all-wheel drive and a choice of engines.

Built for a rough road

The Yetis my and friends I drove through Bhutan came with superefficient (150-horsepower, 2.0-liter, a promised 40+ mpg that we didn't actually see) diesel engines, AWD, an Off Road button that let the cars descend a hill without too much fuss and what Skoda calls the Rough Road package -- basically extra reinforcement under the car. Why we needed the last option wasn't obvious at the beginning of our journey, but it soon became essential.

Skoda Yeti

Can the Skoda Yeti find its namesake?

Justin Leighton/Skoda

Launched in 2009, the Yeti is a bit of a small-SUV staple in Europe. Admittedly, its initial design wasn't pretty, but the face-lifted version we had in Bhutan is much easier on the eye. Looks aren't everything, though (or so my mother keeps telling me), and indeed the Yeti's talents lie elsewhere. We could pack gear for three people plus all our day bags, tins of cookies, bags of chips and other clutter in the trunk with room to spare.

Skoda Yeti

Welcome to Jurass... No, Buhutan. Welcome to Bhutan.

Justin Leighton/Skoda

Our journey began in Samdrup Jongkhar, a town just over the border from India. Entering Bhutan requires a visa, but offers the opportunity to pass through a Jurassic Park-esque gate. Approaching it at night is quite a sight -- we felt like we were entering somewhere completely alien. I mean, when was the last time you went through a hand-opened gate to get into another country? Exactly.

To even get there we had to drive through India, which was a feat in itself. While you're supposed to drive on the left as I do in Britain, that's more of a suggestion. Cars, trucks and bicycles come at you from all sides, every angle and at any speed. You've got to stay alert and keep your eyes open. And hope.

Bhutan's roads were empty by comparison. While there were other cars on the road, we only passed maybe 30 other cars during the few days we were there.

Skoda Yeti

This is about as good as the roads got.

Justin Leighton/Skoda

Keeping on the cliff

Our destination was Merak, a small, remote village 2 miles above sea level and a two-day drive away. Nearby is the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a mountainous area at the eastern point of the country with black bears, snow leopards and red foxes. Maybe some yeti, too?

The first day's driving would be about 110 miles. About 3 hours tops, right? No. It was tough, it was sobering and it took us all day. Bhutan's roads aren't supersmooth. Or even a little smooth. They were mostly rocks, ruts and dust, sometimes with a sheer drop-off to the side and no barrier to stop errant motors from falling to their doom.

Skoda's Yeti may look like it's got some off-road cred, but it's not a purpose-built off-roader like the Land Rover Defender. Still, its AWD gives plenty of grip on slippery stuff, and the Off Road button allows some low-speed hill descent action. You won't climb Everest in one, but if you've got rutted, slippery, dusty, generally unpleasant roads to play on, a Yeti will sort you out nicely.

The end of day one saw the motorized Yetis intact, but dusty, and us settled in Lingkhar Lodge not far from the delightfully named town of Trashigang, where some of its 2,500 people showed a lot of interest in our modern transport. Of all the cars in that part of Bhutan (I can't speak for the rest of the country), we saw nothing more flash than Indian-made Mahindra pickups. Western cars were rare.

Skoda Yeti

Bhutan is a stunning country.

Justin Leighton/Skoda

In Trashigang we met someone who knows more about the mythical yeti than most. Kunzang Choden literally wrote the book on yetis. In "Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti" she writes of the stories she heard as a child: threats to put kids in the hollow of a yeti's back if they were naughty, how seeing a yeti usually ends badly for you and even how one girl fell in love with one instead of her husband-to-be. Choden prefers to believe that the yeti is everywhere, that it's a spiritual being, not something to be encountered.

Day two was a shorter day of driving, a mere 38 miles to Merak. Thanks to "the new road" (something our hosts made a big deal of) accessing Merak wouldn't be a problem. Or so we were told. I foolishly expected "the new road" to be smooth tarmac with stunning vistas. Well, we got the vistas but the road was rough, lumpen, dusty, unpleasant and... you get the picture. It took a couple of hours.

Skoda Yeti

Mmmmm, angular Yeti.

Justin Leighton/Skoda

Finally, the sanctuary

Though we were still hungry for a glimpse of the mythical creature, we only had time to stop at the entrance to the Sakteng Sanctuary. We saw no yetis there, but plenty of yak, which stand about 6 feet tall. Now, it's said that a yeti is the size of two yaks. A yak is pretty big, so a yeti... must be huge.

Our cars again caused some fluster in Merak, as did our very presence (we were tourists in a hard-to-reach part of the country, after all). We were treated to some Bhutanese home brew (lethal), then shown a traditional yak dance, which involved furry heads and jumping to the sound of a drum.

Lama Richen, a senior monk, told us that he used to work at another legendary yeti sanctuary and that he once saw the mythical creature's footprints in some fresh snow. When asked whether he could take us to where he saw the prints, he declined. It was too long a walk.

Skoda Yeti

Hunt unsuccessful, but the motorized Yeti was most excellent.

Justin Leighton/Skoda

Waking with a sore head on day three (blame that home brew), I readied myself for a drive back to the border -- one that would test the cars with sustained punishment from harsh terrain. As expected, it was horrible, but the car took the beating way better than my back did.

En route we stopped to talk to a local via our translator. He claimed to have heard a yeti years ago, saying it sounded shrill and large. He was 100 percent convinced that it was real. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't, but Bhutan is a beautiful, magical country and you can't help but think there's something more out there. And hey, if some want to believe in the yeti, who are we to balk at it? One thing I do know, the car that bears its name is very real, and it's also very good.

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.