For anyone that wants to travel to the top of the Khardung La Pass / Ladakh Pass and who is wondering if it’s just like any other road, I want to take you to a moment that sums up our journey to the ‘highest road in the world’ (as we thought, more on that later), the Khardungla Pass…
We’re about 1 or 2 miles from the summit, I feel sick from the jeep bouncing all over the place, there is a mile-high cliff edge only a couple of inches from the car. The army is there, clearing away a landslide in the snow that blocks the road. We’re going to have to walk the last part… The views are spectacular, as you’d expect, but we’re just feeling lucky to be out of the car.
To cut the story short, we made it to the top of the Khardung La Pass.
In this blog I’m going to cover exactly what and where is the Khardungla, or Ladakh Pass, the history of the Khardung La Pass. I’m going to address the big question – “Is it the highest road in the world”, and I’m going to show you how you can actually travel to the top too!
History of the Khardungla Pass
The Khardung La Pass, which translates to ‘Pass of Lower Castle’ in Tibetan, is often referred to as the highest road in the world. It’s located in one of the most epic and cheap countries to travel – India. Roughly 40km from Leh, it is the gateway to the Shoyk and Nubra valleys and was opened to the public in 1976.
Building the road in such an extreme environment was incredibly dangerous. Unfortunately, many people tragically lost their lives during its construction.
The road endures temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius, and sees up to 10 feet of snow during the winter months. On top of this, the oxygen levels are around 50% of what is considered normal.
Khardung La is run by military all year round as it lies very close to both the Pakistani and Chinese borders. Soldiers deployed here are faced with 6 month placements at a time. One told us that he was even unable to have a shower or shave whilst there!
So is it actually the highest road in the world?
Khardung La Pass is roughly the same height as Everest base camp, at a staggering altitude of 5,359 metres (17,582 feet) above sea level. Impressive? Not impressive enough apparently. The local signs all insist that the pass is actually 5,602 metres!
There’s a whole mystery about whether it is or isn’t the highest road in the world, even when speaking to people there, they don’t really know! So, I’ve done my research..
Khardung La Pass is NOT the highest road in the world. The best sources that I found narrowed it down to 2 roads. One highest road in the world contender is only a few miles away from Khardungla (but is unreachable, even with a guide). The other is the Ojos del Salado in Chile/Argentina.
The confusion (I think) has come from the fact that at the top the sign says that it is 5,602m high, but this has been shown to be inaccurate. It also claims, boldly, that you are on the top of the world. So forgive the websites that claim its the highest road in the world, it’s an easy mistake to make..
So with that cleared up, should you even bother going to the Khardung la Pass / Ladakh pass if it’s not the highest road in the world?
Well that depends on your motives.
If you’re on an uncompromising mission to get to the highest road in the world, then the Khardungla Pass will, unfortunately, not deliver that to you.
But, if you’re an adventure lover who’s traveling around Ladakh/Leh/Himalayas, is it still worth doing? I’d say absolutely, yes.
Aside from its incredible altitude, if you’re interested in adventure, photography, videography, or just taking in jaw-dropping scenery, then you will not be disappointed by the Khardung La Pass. It’s really an epic journey unlike any I’ve done before.
The actual journey to the Khardung La Pass
The Khardungla Pass is no doubt a highlight of our time in Ladakh, Leh. It’s a stunning road and a truly fascinating spectacle.
The Ladakh pass, or Khardung La pass, starts off in a comparatively low altitude valley. From there it cuts through the farmland of Leh, before heading up to desert-like surroundings.
We went in the autumn, but no matter when you go you’ll be above the snow-line in no time. The locals have put up a lot of ‘punny’ signs at the side of the road that kindly remind you of the dangers of the journey, although one look over the edge will do a much better job!
Expect a bit of drama would be a top tip. There are constant issues with the road, the weather, landslides etc., that make the whole thing a bit spicy.
How to actually get up the Ladakh Pass / Khardungla Pass
The best way to head up to the pass is by hiring a 4×4 with a driver for around R2,600. If you’re travelling on a budget, you should pair up with some other travellers and split the cost. We paid about R650 each for the whole thing (£6.5-7) by sharing with another couple.
There are articles you’ll read that will tell you that you can’t go there. This is not the experience we had.
That said, I really wouldn’t recommend attempting to drive yourself! The road is run by the military so a permit is required to get past the first checkpoint. We got an authorised guide to come with us, and so this got us past the checkpoint. On top of this, the Khardungla road is absolutely crazy. Trust me when I say that even if there was no checkpoint, it really isn’t something to attempt without experience of the road and an adequate 4×4 vehicle.
How long is the journey?
The journey starts in Leh (usually). From Leh to the top of the Khardungla Pass is about 2 and half hours. The weather is unpredictable at the best of times, so be prepared for the very real chance that the road will be delayed or even closed, especially if heading there in the colder months.
It’s also not a paved road, and it gets very bumpy, so tread with caution if you get car sick.
What’s at the top of Khardung La?
Once you get there it genuinely feels like you’ve climbed Everest or something. It’s not just the end of any old road.. There’s an army base, a prayer flag monument, a cafe (unbelievably), epic viewpoints and some signs claiming that you are at ‘the top of the world’.
Once you’ve taken the customary ‘we did it’ photo, head into the ‘cafe’. For obvious reasons, they don’t sell much, but when it’s -15 degrees the only thing I wanted was a hot chocolate, and credit to them,they did make a mean hot chocolate.
Also, try and have a chat with the guys behind the bar. They are (I think) part of the army, and they get sent TO STAY at the top, unbelievably they live up there for months on end, even in the middle of winter! Really interesting stories from those guys.
2 final tips if you’re going to the Khardungla Pass / Ladakh Pass
Acclimatize, or you’ll regret it!
Firstly, if you attempt this road before acclimatizing to the altitude of Leh you’ll without a doubt experience altitude sickness. Yep, it’s really that high!
Spend a few days wandering around Leh to get used to the altitude first before attempting the Pass. That’s what we did and neither Sam or I experienced any sickness whilst on the journey.
You can also take altitude tablets. We took these for a week before traveling the Khardung La Pass, and felt no ill effects from the altitude. Though the tablets did give us ‘pins and needles’ for the week pretty much every half an hour, which was weird..
Bring your camera
You’re on one of the highest roads in the world, in the Himalayas. You’ve got the most incredible scenery everywhere you look. Don’t waste it! Whether you’ve got a phone or a $10,000 Sony, bring the best camera you’ve got (but not drones, they’re not allowed). You can also brush up on your snow photography by following these tips.
If you plan to go to Ladakh in the Autumn, check out our article about everything we learned from doing the Khardung La Pass and traveling to Ladakh at this time of year.
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