Beyond the Khardung La

Ladakh has now become one of the most sought after tourist destinations both by Indians and the international community. Access to this land of high passes is restricted for the most part of the year not by humans but by natural forces at work during the harsh winter months.

The thrill of beating the odds to get to Ladakh is often considered to be a valiant affair. The Khardung La experience is something that most people look forward to on a visit to Ladakh. Travelers and tourists try their luck and overcome the obstacles and ride through the high passes on motorbikes; some even on bicycles.

Spiraling Roads in Ladakh

The Spiraling roads from Leh to Khardung La

For the faint-hearted, there are now direct flights from New Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar to Leh; the capital of the Ladakh district.

After my trek to the Stok Kangri mountain, I decided to stay a few more days in Leh and visit some of the places around.

First on my tour itinerary was the mighty Khardung La Pass. Beyond the town of Leh, I wanted to travel to the Nubra Valley and then all the way to Turtuk for a day or two at least. Turtuk is the last village of India before Pakistan occupied Kashmir. A trip to Turtuk played on my mind ever since the time I started researching about Ladakh. I’ve read stories of people who made it there and the place sounded really fascinating to me.

Image copyright: Nevil Zaveri

Getting there

Getting to Khardung La seemed harder than I thought it would be. For more than two days I had to stay put at my hotel room in Leh due to the heavy rains and snow at the Khardung La pass. When the weather got a bit better, the hotel manager booked a shared taxi for me for the next morning. In tourist season i.e., from May/June to September/October, taxis to Nubra and other areas are always available from the town. They can be booked for a solo trip (if you have a lot of $$$ stacked up in your wallet) or can be shared with other travelers making trips on the same route. Taxis can be arranged by the hotel/guesthouse/homestay you are at or you can just walk up to any of the travel agent offices at the Leh market and Changspa Road.

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Here is a list of the taxi fares as of the 2016-17 season.

If you are looking to travel cheaper and on a smaller budget then you could find a local bus at the Leh bus station just at the beginning of the town. But finding the right bus for the right time on the right date of travel could turn out to be a cumbersome affair as the bus services in Ladakh are known to be inconsistent owing to the remoteness of the region.

If you insist for the bus, here’s something I found online that could help you out.

Khardung La
Milestone at Khardung La

Milestone at Khardung La

Khardung La is located 39 km from Leh in the northern most state of India, Jammu & Kashmir on the route towards the Nubra Valley and it of the highest importance to the Indian Army. It is the only road that connects to the Siachen Glacier, dubbed as the highest battlefield on Earth. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) claims Khardung La to be the Highest Motorable Road in the World although this has been refuted by some sources. Whatever be the case, people from all over the world flock to get to this spot and earn the coveted title.

I boarded my shared taxi from Leh along with two couples. The road to the pass is fairly straightforward these days with a small unpaved and muddy section closer to the pass on either sides. High altitude weather dictates access to the pass throughout the year. But if you are in luck sometime during the season, the road should be open without much problems; except for the scores of people who ascend there. For us there was a clear weather window that day and it felt perfect after suffering the downpours the previous two days.

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As you make it through the narrow stretches of road up the mountain pass, the ride up is sure to induce vertigo to any one. All vehicles have to stop at the first check post at South Pullu to have their documents and permits checked by the army. Here, you can buy yourself some snacks and hot noodles to keep you warm through the cold journey.

The Highest Motorable Road in the World
Highest Motorable Road in the World

The Highest Motorable Road in the World

The freezing temperature up and beyond the 5000m mark will send shivers rippling through your body. The Khardung La top is situated at a height of 5,359m or 17,582ft. but incorrectly claims a height of 5,602m or 18,380ft.

It started to snow lightly when we got to the top. The roads were icy and slippery and it got really windy in a matter of minutes. Flocks of tourists, travelers and army men hurriedly tried to get a snap of themselves with the board that read the Highest Motorable Pass in the World; an achievement unlocked for many and amongst all of them, for me too. There is a temple, a cafe and even a medical room run by the army; in case things go bad for anyone at the pass. My advice to everyone is to follow a good acclimatization schedule prior to attempting any high altitude travel like this one. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can strike anyone at any time and so you have to be prepared.

top of Khardung La Pass

All snows at the top of Khardung La Pass

Getting out of Khardung La top was equally difficult. Due to the sheer number of people coming and going through here, bottlenecks are inevitable. With some careful maneuvering by our designated driver, we were off to the land beyond, The Nubra Valley.

The road spirals down and the weather noticeably gets warmer. After a while with no traffic en route you would be the only one within miles.

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The Nubra Valley

The rough landscape falling towards the Nubra Valley

In a few hours and after 90 kms of twists and turns, you enter a sprawling colourful valley spread out till where your eyes can see. Here, surprisingly you will find sand dunes along the sides with some magical mountain landscape. The Shyok river meanders through the valley. Some call this land a moonscape due to the close resemblance of the terrain with that of the moon.

The colours of Nubra Valley

The Nubra Valley is the stretch of land that separates the Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges. Foreign nationals will require a Protected Area Permit to get to Khardung La and enter the valley. This can be arranged by the taxi agents or hotel for you. More details of that here.

We reached the main village of Diskit in the valley and stopped by to visit the Diskit Monastery.

Diskit Monastery
Diskit Monastery

Diskit Monastery sits up on a steep hill in the Nubra Valley

This is the oldest Buddhist monastery in the Nubra valley. Perched on a small hill, you can either trek up the monastery or there is a well paved road to get your car all the way up without any hassle. The glorious view of the valley from up there in totally worth every step or mile you take and one that you should not miss at any cost. On another hill, a huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha sits overlooking the valley.

Maitreya Buddha

Maitreya Buddha Statue in Diskit

In the monastery, there are a quite a few flight of stairs to the top and you will see colourful frescoes, paintings and Buddhist wall art. If you are lucky, you can even get some time to chat with the monks who stay at the monastery.

Diskit Monastery

Inside the Diskit Monastery

Hunder

From Diskit we moved further down the valley to Hunder, the erstwhile capital of the Nubra Kingdom. Bactrian double-humped camels from the Silk Route days can be found in plenty here at Hunder. Photographers gather together in numbers to capture the camels as they move like a caravan across the desert landscape. Our taxi driver arranged a cozy little guesthouse to bunk for the night.

Bactrian Camels at Hunder

Bactrian Camels at Hunder

The hosts made us some delicious food before we crashed into our beds under the freezing chill of the valley. Accommodations of all types are available at Hunder. The more famous ones are the famous tented camps.

Nubra Valley view from Diskit

The sprawling moonscape called the Nubra Valley

The next day my plan was to head to Turtuk. But due to low fuel and altitude sickness for some, we returned back to Leh by evening. A little disappointing after waiting for that long to get there. A trip to Turtuk is still due.

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Travel Blogger from Kochi, India. An inspired traveler, a travel writer, a photographer, an aspiring mountaineer, a positive thinker and a minimalist.

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14 Comments

  1. Very nice experience! This road at 5602m… I wander if you get altitude sickness up there . Ladakh is under my radar now. Thank you for sharing

  2. This looks like an incredible experience. I love your photos of the snow-topped mountains. I would also love to see those camels and go along the world’s highest road. India is really such an amazing country!

  3. Wow, looks like an amazing adventure, one that I hope to undertake sometime. I enjoyed reading your experience and there are some very handy links in here, thanks for sharing.

  4. What an extraordinary collection of pictures! I would love to visit India sooner than later, and I will definitely keep this place in mind. Thank you for sharing! Travel safe!

    • Hi Marissa, thank you for your kind comments. Yes, the Maitreya Buddha stands out in that landscape. I just got back from a second trip to Ladakh and this time I got some close-up photos of the statue itself. 🙂

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