The Khardung La is famed for being the highest motorable pass in the world. “La” means a Mountain Pass in Tibetan. It’s cradled at 17582 Ft or 5359 m, however, the boards at the Pass notes it is nestled at 18380 ft. The jury is out on it and this article is not the one to pass a judgement. The Pass lies to the north of Leh City and is the gateway to Shyok, Nubra Valleys and the Siachen Glacier. The two-hour drive covering about 40 km between Leh City to Khardung La, is a continuous climb of about 6000 dizzying feet. The experience at Khardung La is breath-taking, literally.
With negligible vegetation, the soil has nothing to cling on to. Some grass strands are visible, their roots having inadequate strength to hold the surface soil and just enough to hold for their own life. From a distance, the slopes look like several dumps of sand at a construction site with clear signs of soil ceding to gravity. Boulders, rocks and pebbles find their way down, leaving their tracks behind. The elements have been on a relentless venture to break them further. A landscape being sculpted by the forces of nature, millions of years in the making.
The road to Khardung La is serpentine on the arid slopes of the mountains. It is metaled and well maintained, making the drive smooth and comfortable. The City of Leh is visible for a large part of the drive. The grandeur of the valley is revealed as we gain in altitude one turn at a time. Keen observers will find that the only greenery the place has is where flowing water has touched the land. The Indus & Zanskar rivers are the region’s lifeline.
The land running along the rivers support the flora & fauna of the place. There are several points which are perfect spots for photography. The snow caps in the distance, the valley below, the road on the slopes are great for landscapes and can form a beautiful backdrop for portraits. The water trickling from the melting ice negotiates its way through the rocks racing down, meeting other streams; gathers into rivulets and finally converges into the river below.
As we progress towards Khardung La, a few streams and ponds accompany alongside. There’s some vegetation along the streams. A welcome sight in the otherwise naked landscape. These are grazing grounds for yaks and mountain goats and you can luckily spot a few. Stop and take a short trek down to the water bodies for some great photographs. Use a tripod and try slow shutter speed. You might require an ND filter to cut the light. Remember, at those altitudes, the sun is harsh. For the jugadu ones, your goggles might compensate for the lack of ND filter.
The metaled road ends about 10 km short of Khardung La and fattened crushed rock is all we have as a road to cover the rest of the drive. This section of the drive is slow and can rattle your body like a rattler in a toddler’s hand as the vehicle bounces on the rocks.
All vehicles make a mandatory stop at South Pullu a few kilometres short of Khardung La , a police outpost where travel permissions are checked. The travel agents handle all permissions. It’s hassle-free. Remember to carry at least two photo ID-cards. With less than a kilometre to go, our vehicle crawled slowly through the slush of soil and melted snow. Sections of the mountains which get very little sun retain the snow on those sides all through the year.
It is rather unannounced that a right turn on the top reveals the arrival at the pass. The realization fills with a rush of excitement. A tin shed on the left declares itself to be a restaurant, closed most of the times. But if it’s open, a hot Kawha is a great beverage to sip and get some comfort in the biting cold. One can also order Maggie and a few basic preparations.
The Indian army runs a small unit comprising a photo museum focusing on the history of the Pass. It also runs a medical center to support its staff and tourist and living quarters for about ten Soldiers. Few gen-sets supply electricity, their sound a continuous hum in the background.
For better or for worse, the place has mobile connectivity and you can call your family members back home to share the moment or with friends to make them jealous. All the spots are great photo points. Pull that extra energy from within to resist the cold. Your photographs will stay with you forever and those frames will refresh some lovely memories later in life.
It is not advisable to spend more than 15 minutes at the top. Any longer and one can get disoriented, develop nausea, headache, shortness of breath and other symptoms. I’ve been to Khardung La five times and every time I’ve been up there, the weather has been different each time. I have even experienced snow fall on one of my trips.
On the right is a board with statistics of the place. Everybody clicks a picture to frame their date with the mighty Khardung La. Behind the board is a flight of stairs carved into the side of the hill, covered with prayer flags all over. The path leads to a small monastery on the top. The spirits of Khardung La spellbound you. The music from the top evokes a sense of a spiritual calm and that experience is a story in itself. But then, that’s a tale for another time.
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