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Leh - Khardung La - Leh

Higher than high!

sunny 27 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After the problems I encountered at Chang La Pass, I was advised not to undertake today's journey to Khardung La Pass. But being defiant, I drank lots of water with electrolytes overnight and took some Diamox and set off with the driver this morning.

As we started to climb towards the pass, the view of Leh Palace was amazing. How bloody difficult is it to understand “can you stop for a photo please?”
“Yes please”
“Yes please”
Driver carries on...
“Can you stop please?”
“Yes, NOW”
Finally got through to him that I wanted to stop for a photo.

Leh Palace

Shanti Stupa

Today's journey to Khardung La is only actually 39 kilometers each way, but we climb over 2000 metres in that distance. Look at the road snaking its way up the mountains in these photos:


At a viewpoint the driver stopped (voluntarily) for us to take some photos.

Our trusty driver

Today's road leads to Nubra Valley and on towards the Pakistani border, so we had to show our passports and Special Permit at the 2nd police check (at the first, just the driver's papers were necessary) at Pullu. We also picked up a soldier at this point.

Loved the motorbike with prayer flags!

The road to Khardung La was not as memorable itself as yesterday's, this is wider and less scary. The scenery is not as spectacular either, very barren with just the odd yak for company. As we climbed higher, the road got wider – a lot of construction work is going on, the plan is to widen the road to two car width and cover it with tarmac. You wouldn't think it would be possible to build a road at all here, let alone a wide tarmaced one. You've got to admire the engineers!


Look at that road:


As we climbed higher, my face started to tingle and I could feel the air was thinner to breathe in. I tried to practice the breathing method my dad was taught for his COPD – breathe in slowly through the nose, then out again even slower through the mouth, puckering your lips as if you are going to whistle. It seemed to do the trick. I was also drinking plenty of water with rehydration salts – better to endure the awful toilets than Acute Mountain Sickness!


We've come a long way!


When I said the road wasn't so scary......


Ever upwards...


Suddenly, without warning, we reached Khardung La. I don't know what I expected – some sort of pomp and circumstance? A fanfare? Whatever it was, initially K-Top as it is known, was a bit of an anticlimax. The place was quite dirty on the one side of the road, with a shrine on the other. From an aesthetic point of view, Chang La was much more pleasing.


Khardung La Pass
Loftier than Everest base camp and the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La Pass (K-top as it is popularly called) is 5,602 above sea level (18,380ft) – Everest Base Camp is a mere 5,364m.


Let's put some perspective into the altitude of this place:
Khardung La Pass 5602
Everest Base Camp 5364
Vinson (highest peak in Antarctica) 4892
Mount Blanc (highest peak in Europe) 4810
Matterhorn 4478
Mount Elbert (highest peak in the Rockies) 4401
Galdhøpiggen (highest mountain in Norway) 2469
Kosciuszco (highest peak in Australia) 2228
Ben Nevis (highest peak in the UK) 1344

In other words, Khardung La Pass is higher than all of Europe, Australia and Antarctica; in USA, only Mount McKinley is higher, in Canada only Mount Logan stands taller, and Kilimanjaro is the only peak in Africa which exceeds Khardung La's elevation, but only by 189m. This place has some serious altitude!



Helicopter circling above


Built in 1976, the road was opened to motor vehicles in 1988 is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation - the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the disputed Siachen Glacier area. Khardong La is also historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels are still around – I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one but no such luck. During World War II there was an attempt to transfer war material to China through this route.


One day last summer army and police had to rescue more than 400 people – tourists, labourers and locals - from the pass as a result of landslides triggered by heavy rain. They were stranded in sub-zero temperatures when a 10km stretch of road was cut off by landslides, trapping 150 cars.


We were warned not to stay at the pass for any more than half an hour or so due to the thin air and lack of oxygen, and to take warm clothing as the temperatures drops drastically at this altitude, especially with the wind chill factor. I do remember that from the high altitude passes in Tibet.
My tingling face had by this time turned into pins and needles and spread down my neck, shoulders and arms, with the worst affected area being my fingertips. I felt very light-headed and my brain felt like it was rattling around in my head. It all got very much worse after squatting down in the disgusting toilet.


The temple at the top (I wonder if this is the world's highest temple?) is a working shrine with a Ganesha idol where worshippers are requested to "pray for our brave soldiers and for the peace and longevity of our nation".


Prayer flags
Each colour represents an element: blue (sky/space), white (wind/air), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth). Their purpose is for wind to blow prayers of harmony and happiness into the world.


Time to make that journey back to Leh..


Coming down we met a whole load of pedal cyclists – I take my hat off to them, the gradient may not be much as the road traverses the mountain, but they still climb a total of over 2,000 metres or 6800 feet. That's no mean achievement. Some companies in Leh offer a service where they drive you and the bikes to the top and you cycle back down. That sounds more like my kind of thing, although I not sure how safe I would feel on these roads.


The car carries the bikes and riders to the top and they cycle back down again. Neat idea!

What do you do if the only road back to Leh is closed? Move the bollards of course.


Get your ass off this road!


Last stop of the day at Gompha Viewpoint with great views over the valley and Leh.


The atmospheric pressure at altitude played havoc with David's water bottle.


Today's main scare: coming down on a narrower stretch of road, with sand spreading in from the sides, we met a Jeep coming the other way. The driver braked hard, and started to skid towards the edge. Nothing happened, but it was a tense moment. We made it back to the 'lowlands' and Leh safe and sound though, even in time for a late lunch.

For lunch we tried out the hugely popular Gesmo Restaurant and their yak cheese pizza. We even bought some yak cheese to take back home with us.

Mint, lemon and ginger juice - very refreshing!

Yak cheese pizza at the front and Gesmo special in the back (chicken, boiled egg, oregano and sausage)

Cutting the yak cheese for us to take away.

From there we went over to Mr Din's shop to pick up the mask he'd got for in especially for us. I have never known anyone so trusting: “you don't have to pay me now, you can pay me later”. “But we leave tomorrow morning”. “Yes, but you will be coming back to India in a couple of years' time?” Needless to say, we did pay him.

Mr Din, the most helpful shopkeeper we've ever met on our travels. Check out their shop near the Dreamlands Hotel (DIN BROTHERS JEWELLERY).

The ganesha mask fits in beautifully amongst all our other masks at home

David tries on one of the beautifully soft pashiminas in Mr Din's shop.

After all the dusty roads, my shoes were looking a real mess, so I stopped to have them cleaned by a sweet shoe-shine boy from Rajasthan who'd come to Leh to escape the heat from the Indian plains.


He did a very thorough job and my shoes looked immaculate afterwards - just in time for tomorrow's flight.


Before we left home I made a list of restaurants we wanted to try out while we were in Leh, and this evening we went to Lamayuru. Next door to Gesmo, it was totally empty while we had lunch, whereas by this evening it was really busy, with people being turned away. The food was good but service was so-so.



The biggest surprise was the Kashmiri Naan (centre) - stuffed with mixed melons! Clockwise from top left: peas pilau, gulab jamun, chicken do pyaza, chicken seekh kebab.

After dinner I went back to the room to update the blog, but found that the internet wasn't working. Typical!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:47 Archived in India

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Good read and pictures. Interesting comment with regards Everest basecamp altitude.
Just got back from cycling Leh to Manali. I would like to have done the Srinagar to Leh part too. Pictures at Paulsbikeride, wordpress blog.
Hope you have more fun on your travels!

by hrra

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