Khardung La, at an elevation of 5,359 m (17,582 feet) above the sea level, is a high mountain pass located in the Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir, India. The narrow dirt road to reach the pass was built in 1976 and it was opened to motor vehicles in 1988. It’s one of the highest motorable roads in the world.
The pass has been widely, but incorrectly, believed to be the highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world, and is the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valleys. These roads are not paved and with the frozen mix of ice and dirt for a road it makes one slippery and narrow trail with very deep valleys right next to you. Maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier. Due to the proximity of the Pakistani and Chinese borders, army truck convoys are a regular hazard, however that’s nothing compared to what the altitude can do. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can start to affect people over 2,400m. Khardung Pass rises to well over double that, making those final kilometres absolutely agonising. It’s one of the highest mountain roads of the country.
This trail passes through remote areas, so you need to be prepared. Usually there are potential long travel delays due to traffic congestion on narrow one-lane sections, washouts, landslides and road accidents. The pass (also said "Khardong La" or "Khardzong La,") is historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia and is situated 39 km by road from Leh. From North Pullu into the Nubra Valley, the road is very well maintained (except in a very few places where washouts or falling rock occur). Hired vehicles (2 and 4-wheel-drive), heavy trucks, and motorcycles regularly travel into the Nubra Valley, though special permits may need to be arranged for travellers to make the journey.
There are sheer drops virtually along the entire route and enough hairpins to make a whirling dervish dizzy. Altitude sickness is a serious health concern for travellers not previously acclimatized to high altitudes. Prophylactic altitude-sickness medication like acetazolamide may be necessary for some travellers as there are no emergency medical facilities to treat altitude sickness along the route. Long claimed to be the world’s highest driveable road, the Khardung Pass in India features on many a die-hard cyclist’s bucket list. Anyone game enough to ride this ultra-long slog is likely to regret it as soon as they start pedalling. From the town of Leh, it’s a mighty 39km to the summit. While the gradient is steady at 5 percent, the road is not asphalted. So for the final 15km you can expect rocks and the odd lump of snow on the route. Massive Indian military presence in the area and associated military convoys cause additional problems. A military-check point on the road requires passport and a respective permit to ride the pass.
The road is closed annually from approximately October to May due to snow but it can be closed anytime when the access is not cleared of snow. With such a high summit altitude the road can be closed anytime due to snowfalls. The zone is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions. Do not travel this pass in severe weather conditions. Avalanches, heavy snowfalls and landslides can occur anytime, being extremely dangerous due to frequent patches of ice. It has a well-deserved reputation for being dangerous because of unpredictable snowstorms and blizzards, and driving under these conditions, can be extremely challenging. The road is primarily loose rock, dirt, and usually covered in snow. Altitude sickness is guaranteed on this journey and there is no medical support along the route!
Pic: Saurabh Arora