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:
“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.”
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.