Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Khardung La in Ladakh, the World's Highest Road Pass

Welcome to Khardung La in Ladakh ©Solange Hando 

Did you know?
 According to the Guinness Book of Records, Ladakh in northern India claims the world's highest road pass, if you ignore the dirt tracks meandering across the Himalaya.

It's only 23 miles from Ladakh's capital to 'K-Top', but it takes a good two hours and a special permit to drive up to the pass, leaving behind the lovely oasis of Leh as barren mountains suddenly swallow you up in a dark alien world.

The Road to Khardung La, India ©Solange Hando

You leave the last sign of human life at the Pullu checkpoint, apart from the odd biker in search of a challenge and a few truckers eking out a living on the roof of the world.

As the thin ribbon of tarmac zigzags across the slopes, there is no turning back, no crash barrier, but plenty of potholes to test your  nerves and your skills. It's meant to be a one way system, up in the morning and down after lunch, but 'special' permits allow VIPs, whoever they may be, to break the rules.
'Always keep a cheerful attitude', is the official advice so just remember that, if you meet someone coming the wrong way...

K-Top ©Solange Hando

At last, hopefully, you reach the finishing line, having survived the precipitous drops, the overhanging boulders and the odd truck which broke down in front of you. It could be worse, if the snow comes down, it's chaos.

In this bleak mountainscape, the pass brings a welcome splash of colour with prayer flags and shrines and a hut serving hot tea and noodles. Sheer bliss... but before you're tempted to climb up the nearby hillock for the view, take note of the sign ;'avoid running or moving too fast, you have gained 7000 feet'.

Heading for the Nubra Valley ©Solange Hando

Now, a bus has arrived but it doesn't stop. Barely a glance at the pass and off it goes, ghost-like as everyone's sleeping inside and multicoloured bags jostle for space up on the roof. A ray of sunshine lights up a nearby ridge, a patch of blue sky beckons, surely an auspicious sign. All will be well.

Scrambling down from the Shrine on Khardung La ©Solange Hando

But for those who can stop on the pass and climb up to the shrine, what a view it is, glaciers glinting all around, peaks as sharp as razor blades and an ever changing mountain desert of light and shade stretching all the way from Zanskar to the Karakoram. The icy wind almost sweeps you off your feet but it's worth every gasp as you fight to breathe in the rarefied high mountain air.

Meanwhile down in the valley, the sun shines on Leh, a gentle breeze rustles through the poplar trees and on the lower slopes, marmots frolic around in the last courtship dance of the season.

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