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It is not very often that one gets to drive on a road at an altitude of 18,380 feet. That is where Khardungla Pass, meaning the ‘Pass of Lower Castle,’ is located on the way from Leh to the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. It is the highest motorable road in the world as signs put up by the Border Roads Organization proudly proclaim.

The Marsimikla Pass, at 18632 feet, in eastern Ladakh has missed out on the top honours as it allows for only some kinds of four wheeled vehicles across it.

The Khardungla has quite a bit of history behind it according to documents available with the Indian Army. This is what I got to read up:

Click on this map to know locations of various places mentioned here

Click on this map to know locations of various places mentioned here

“Ladakh lies at the crossroads of the ancient trade routes from the Indian subcontinent to the great East-West trade highway or the ‘Silk Route.’ The traditional trade caravan routes traversed the passes of Zoji La (La means pass in Ladakhi), Namik La and Fotu La from Kashmir, and Baralacha La, Pang La and Taglang La from Himachal across the Great Himalayan and Zanskar ranges into the Indus River valley, converging at Leh. From here it was possible to move to Tibet and Baltistan. Northwards from Leh, trade caravans carrying pashmina shawls, spices, opium and saffron cross the Ladakh range through the Khardung La or Chang La, traversed the forbidding Karakoram (meaning: Place of Black Gravel) range through the Karakoram pass and thence to the central Asian towns of Yarkand and Kashgar on the Silk Route. The caravans brought back precious stones, hashish, tobacco and silk.”

A view of the Taglangla Pass

A view of the Taglangla Pass

Why did the need for a road at this altitude come about in modern times? According to Lt. General (Retired) TB Nanda, then Chief Engineer of the Northern Command entrusted with the task of building this road:

“After the 1971 war with Pakistan, there was an exchange of territory in the mountainous country north of the Himalayas, and India acquired an area of some 400 square miles astride the Shyok river. This was far up in the mountains, south of the Karakoram range and north of the Ladakh range in the province of Ladakh. The new area is known as the Turtok sector and contained at that time some 200 families. These had previously been maintained by Pakistan from the west; now they had to be supplied along the valley from the east. This was no easy task. For 16 of the 35 kilometers between Thoise and Chalunka there was virtually no track, and for several kilometers the Shyok river ran through a steep and narrow rocky gorge previously considered almost impassable. However a fair track ran west for the 22 kilometers from Chalunka to the new border.

Our main supply base for this area was at Leh at 11,500 feet and south of the Ladakh range. On the north side of this range was a Forward Supply Depot (FSD) at Partapur, and this supported deployment both north up the Nubra Valley to the Siachen sector and west down the Shyok valley to the Turtok sector. Up to this time supply to the FSD from Leh had been both by pack transport over the Ladakh range and by airlift to Thoise, where there was a gravel airstrip. But despite the efforts of path clearing gangs, the Khardungla pass was often impassable for pack transport in winter, and the Air Force was unhappy using the Thoise airstrip. The low mounted engines of the Avro aircraft tended to suck in dust and grit.”

To solve this problem of supplies to the region, and also to enable the building of the road connecting Thoise and Chalunka, it was decided to make a motorable road over the Khardung La. The 201 Engineer Regiment, Madras Sappers of the Indian Army commenced work on it on August 17, 1972 and the road was opened to traffic on August 27, 1973. An earlier attempt to build this road by the state’s Public Works Department in 1963 had failed. It was quite a task building this road, resulting in the deaths of many engineers. Click here to read about it.

The pass experiences up to 10 feet of snow in winters, with temperatures dropping to 40 degrees Celsius below zero. Even though temperatures in summers average 20 degrees Celsius, the weather can turn for the worse suddenly. When I crossed this pass in July, snowflakes were falling – an indicator that one needs to be alert to harsher conditions anytime.

The views from this pass are no doubt breathtaking – with the Ladakh range to the south and Karakoram to the north. And snow capped peaks at almost touching distance all around.

One should not expect much to do while here – except walk around a bit and feel the cool air (which can turn windy anytime) against the face and admire the views. It is not advisable to expose oneself to the elements for long anyway at these altitudes. But you can actually do some shopping here – at a souvenir shop run by the Army. Click here to read about it.

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20 Comments

  1. I wrote a blog post on my blog titled “Leh for dummies”
    Not as fancy as your blog but i think it is good enough
    http://www.tejaswy.com/2009/06/19/827/
    Let me know

  2. when kunzum pass generorly opens? what are the climate conditions in june in spiti ?
    can we travel on bike in 2 nd week of june 2010 in spiti ? we are having bike reanging 100 cc to 180 cc.

  3. Hi Vaibhav, Kunzum pass should open sometime late May. But it varies every year. But June should be all clear to bike in Spiti. Cheers… Ajay

  4. What is the best time during a year to do this pass by motorbike?

  5. Hi Pieter, The pass is usually open from June – Sep. And maybe some days in May and Oct too.

  6. rakesh nibjiya says:

    hi, ajay , please give me details of the programe which i can take on a bullet 1975 model. also give me any nos of other people interested in such a drive . from PUNE . THANKS

  7. what programme are you referring to Rakesh? Sure, will let you if anyone is interested in going with you.

  8. Sneh Kesari says:

    Hi, I m planning a trip to Ladakh district and willing to cover almost all the places, The plan is still in its fancy ages but the plan is final. The tentative date is late April/Early May. Is this a good time to cover the entire district on Gypsy?
    I am also planning to visit Hanle, Kargil and Drass while being in Ladakh. Do i need permits to visit any of these places? Any tips?

  9. Hi Sneh, you might not be able to reach Ladakh by road at the time you are proposing. Safest time to go is June onwards till mid-Sep. Even then you have to ask around when the passes are open. You will need permits but these can be done easily in Leh.

  10. We had been to leh in july 2010 it is a place one must visit in one\’s lifetime,the khardungala pass is really beautiful and cannot be described in words or cannot be captured in cameras. we felt little bad there when we saw lot of cans and bottles being thrown in the snow, i fail to understand how can someone do this to such a beautiful place,so my request to all of you who are planning to visit leh is please do not throw any cans or bottles or plastics anywhere in leh that will be your tribute to this beautiful heavenly place in India

  11. c000000000000000000000000000000000l!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Abhijeet Japsare says:

    I was visited to Leh Ladakh in 2006 by road HPTC state bus Manali to Leh via keylong way.
    & Returned by JKTC state bus Leh to Srinagar highway via khardungla pass, zojila, Kargil.
    There was lots of ice peaks, rivers, lakes & glaciers with highest motarable roads travelling in both way sides & that was my best journey ever.

  13. Hi Ajay! Very nice piece of work. can you please tell me how far is khardungla pass from leh?

  14. K. S. N. Raju says:

    I have travelled to this place Three years back.
    Journey from Leh by Jeep is good. every turn up wards is breath taking.
    It was so cold that , I could not stay for more than 20 minutes at the pass.

    Overly place to be

  15. hi…
    I wan 2 know wich is d best time to pass d motor bike road in coming year as we r planning for june itself. and what precautions we shuld take. What do u advise for female visitors..
    thanks

  16. what kind of risk is involved in this trip, let me know so, we can be prepaired for it

  17. ABANI KUMAR BANERJEE says:

    I am eager to visit the entire valley by conventional travel mode.The route should be
    MANALI-KEYLONG-KHARDUNG LA- LEH/SRINAGAR VIA KARGIL,DRAS.
    Please advise me about season and authentic operators at MANALI for road
    transportation to LEH via my route.COSY but not too costly accomodations at LEH too.
    precautions to be taken for elderly companions at health and food.thanks

  18. hi,
    could you kindly tell me the temp at leh,kargil,kardungla pass during 20 to 30 june
    thanks in advance
    ashwin

  19. Dear Ajay,
    I want to know how i go to Khardungla pass by my own vehical, and which type of vehical is perfect for this, also tell about driver skill and type of licence and paper which is required.

  20. “It is not very often that one gets to drive on a road at an altitude of 18,380 feet”.

    You don’t. It’s only 17,582 feet.

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