Stories From The Camp: The Highest Motorable Road In The World, Khardung-La
Driving to the highest motorable road in the world is an adventure in itself. Our resident blogger, Rupert Winchester, talks all about his experience at 18,380 feet here!
Although Diskit is only some 150 kilometres north-west of the camp at Thiksey, getting there can be something of a challenge. But a completely brilliant challenge. And that’s because to get there, you have to negotiate what is billed as ‘the world’s highest motorable pass,’ the Khardung La. According to the signs at the top, it crests at an eye-watering 5,602 metres (18,379 feet).
The pass is historically, and currently, important. In the past it was a major caravan route between Leh and Kashgar, loud with the sound of horses and camels carrying salt and silk, carpets and cannabis. Nowadays the silence is broken only by the puttering of Royal Enfields, army trucks and Toyotas. During World War II, attempts were made to transfer war materiel to China over the pass. In the end operations were moved to airfields in the northeast of India, near where TUTC also has a camp.
The route over the Khardung La starts innocuously; through the clogged and winding streets of Leh. Then, gently at first, the road rises. It is never alarmingly steep, but there are some startling hairpin bends. The views just get better and better: miles of air and rocky and barren mountainsides. The trees quickly give way to bare hills. Gradually you notice that the size of the drops off to the side are becoming increasingly severe.
Then you get to about 16,500 feet (after a while in Ladakh, you start to carry an altimeter with you), and the tarmac ends, and the bumpy bit begins. You pass gangs of road menders, who are constantly busy repairing the track. There are, even in the summer months, plenty of landslides which need clearing: huge boulders which your car noses past, sprays of gravel and potholes of a generally serious size.
It’s best not to look at the state of the road, which is admirably maintained under the auspices of India’s Border Road’s Organisation: an actual real-life Sisyphean task. What you want to look at are the views – stretching out into the empyrean blue of the Ladakhi skies, the rows of peaks: Nya Kangri in front, Stok Kangri behind; deep valleys, tiny lakes, and the ever-present rocky hillsides running down to far below you.The peak is a mess of souvenir shops and prayer flags, and, to be honest, not really worth a stop. And by then you’re keen to get on, and get down to the valley on the far side. But what a ride it’s been. The world’s highest motorable road! And now you’re in the Nubra Valley. Of which more later.
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