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I crossed the Khardung La four times in a matter of 2 weeks, and while there was no issue the first three times, the last crossing made me feel a little ill. It was a gentle nudge by the mountains to remind that we can never take these heights for granted, however confident one may get with time.

“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

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At an elevation of 17,582 ft above the sea level, Khardung La (Tibetan: ‘The Pass of Lower Castle,’ ) is one of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. For centuries, it has been an important pass on the trade route between Ladakh and the Central Asian cities of Yarkand and Kashgar. Once upon a time, thousands of humans and beasts would cross this pass every year, carrying precious stones, silk, pashmina, hashish, and culture with them. While the days of trade caravans are long gone, Khardung La still stands as the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valleys, and as the prime feeder route to the Siachin glacier and Turtuk sector.

The Khardung La Video

Before we start, here is a small video of our ride from Leh to Khardung La. Hope you like the video. We are still learning videography and video editing is another monster to be tamed so please excuse us if you find this video to be amateurish. Well, it indeed is made by amateurs. 🙂 

The Trip

“Upar baraf pada hai aaj subah”

The ever serious Dorje Saheb informed us as we loaded our luggage into the car. It had rained overnight, intensifying from the drizzle we had during the previous evening and even though the skies were clear now, we had to be careful. So, the first thing that we did was to pack a good quantity of food and enough water to last a week. Since we had plans to visit Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri as well, we got ourselves a rented oxygen cylinder as well. One can never be too careful in Ladakh.

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The checkpoint on the outskirts of Leh that flags off the vehicles going towards the pass did not open till 9 am. We were among the first in the queue and as soon as there was a green signal, we were on the road, surprisingly smooth for a mountain highway. Great job B.R.O.!

The road from Leh to Khardung La top is a steep ascend of more than 6000 ft in a matter of just 39 km and this change in altitude is not lost on the traveller. The air rarefies even more and the temperature drops suddenly. As we passed the scenic panorama of the Leh valley, the terrain became more rugged and devoid of any vegetation, not even shrubs. It was strikingly picturesque nonetheless!

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The valley and Leh town at a distance. The snowclad mountains of Stok can be seen behind Leh

Snow!

We had ascended quite a lot by now and the previously clear view outside the windows gave way to clouds, not the fluffy ones that we love so much in Ladakh but darker, slightly menacing ones that we have grown to fear in the Himalayas. It was then that we sighted snow for the first time and the apprehension quickly turned to excitement!

The browns of the rocks now had patches of white among them, getting bigger as we climbed higher. It was like driving through a pathway in the clouds towards a world so different from what we know. It became even more dominant after we crossed South Pullu, the military checkpoint where they verify the documents and hold the vehicles in case of an emergency.

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A drive amidst clouds

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Stuck!

A little after the India Gate, a rocky outcrop that has been cut in half to let the road go through, we got stuck. There was a landslide ahead and we had to wait while a bulldozer worked on getting the road cleared. We got down from the vehicle and walked around, looking at the wonderland that lay beyond the clouds. While the brave B.R.O. folks worked hard to remove the obstacles from our joyride in extreme cold, we happily clicked selfies. The mountains were bereft of any colour at this point, everything brown and grey due to the snow and fog. Surreal, exciting, and gloomy all at the same time!

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At The Top

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The road reopened finally and we were at the Khardung La Top in no time. Oh boy, was it crowded! While the traffic from Leh had stopped, there were no such restrictions for the people coming from the Nubra Valley side, and they all had come to the top and got stranded there, creating one of the highest traffic jams in the world. The place was teeming with people and they seemed to be trying to make the best of their time there; it would have looked like Paharganj if not for the snow. There are two signboards there that show how many feet above the sea level you are (though with incorrect numbers), and people were queuing up to get photographed there.

There are a souvenir shop and an army canteen which conjures piping hot tea, much to everyone’s relief. It was fun seeing the tea getting cold almost in no time, the mercury was hitting 0 degrees for sure. We spent some time around, got customary photos clicked and then started our descent towards Nubra Valley as it is not advisable to spend more than 10-15 minutes at such an altitude.

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The valley while descending from Khardung La. Dorje saheb believed that the dark mountains at a distance were the Karakorams.

The Kids At Khardung

On the other side of the Khardung La, after North Pullu, lies a village that shares the same name with the high pass, the small village of Khardung. It seems to have more cafes than houses and is a good place to have a refill of Maggi, thukpa, momos and tea before resuming the journey. We did not stay for long while going back to Hunder on our first trip. However, on our second trip with TGDL, we stopped at a family-run café for some Maggi. While the bigger cafes are better provisioned with more amenities for the travellers, the charm of the smaller family-run places holds on its own.

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This family had two very cute kids. The younger was just a toddler and wore so many layers of clothes that looked like a teddy bear. He was shy at first but got at ease after some time and there was no stopping him after that. His elder sister was the serious types and very protective of her sibling. It took some time for the trust to build up between us, and once done, we had a great time playing with them. May these kids, with cheeks like apples, grow up to become successful and happy in their lives.  

So this was our write about crossing the mighty Khardung La. Our journey was to take us to distant lands, to mighty mountains and beautiful valleys, from barren landscapes to lakes that seemed to belong to another world. All that, and more in the coming posts about Ladakh.

Till then, Julley!

Did you like this trip across the Khardung La?

Do let us know about your feedback and experiences under the comments section. 

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South Pullu

North Pullu

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