Is Khardung La The Highest Motorable Road In The World?

A trip to Leh-Ladakh is always special as it allows you to enjoy in nature’s lap and at the same time provides an opportunity to witness some of the highest motorable roads in the world. The Himalayan Mountain Range is famous for its altitude and hosts some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. The average elevation of Ladakh Valley is 3000 meters and the area is famous for hosting some of the highest mountain passes in the world. Any traveler trying to explore places in Ladakh Valley has to cross the high mountain pass to reach a particular place. For example, to reach Pangong Tso Lake, one has to cover Chang La and to reach Nubra Valley, one has to cross Khardung La. In a similar way, there are many mountains passes in the Ladakh division and a lot of people try to cover them as an adventure. In this article, I will be covering one such pass i.e. The Khardung La which is considered as the “Highest Motorable Road in The World”.

A signboard on Khardung La Pass claiming wrong height. One more thing to note here is unnecessary stickers pasted on the board.

A signboard on Khardung La Pass claiming wrong height. One more thing to note here is unnecessary stickers pasted on the board.

Khardung La is one of the major tourist places in Ladakh Valley which every traveler visits when they undertake the journey of Leh-Ladakh. Clicking the photo on the signboard which says “Highest Motorable Road in The World” fills every traveler with joy and gives a feeling of an extraordinary adventure. I too witnessed the same feeling when I was on the Khardung La top, but my joy got vanished when I was in Pangong Tso and had a discussion with ITBP officials and BRO officials. According to them, the Khardung La is not the highest motorable road in the world. It used to be in past but not anymore. After completing my trip, I did some research and to my surprise, I discovered that indeed the BRO officials were right. Khardung La is “Not” the highest motorable road/pass in the world. In this article, I will be sharing the facts which will further prove that Khardung La is not the highest motorable pass in the world. Also, I will be providing the detail of the pass which is the highest pass in the world. If you have additional info on this topic kindly share in the comment/mail and I will try to expand this article further.

Difference between Motorable and Non-Motorable Pass:

A common claim for Khardung La to be the highest motorable road in the world is by saying it is “Motorable”. A motorable road is a road on which an expert driver can easily drive. Now here the word “expert” as well as “Motorable Road” is quite confusing as the level of expertness can’t be judged by any equipment as well the condition of the road. If we talk about Asphalted road then the highest road in the world is Semo La. Moreover, if one has crossed Khardung La or reached the top then he knows even the road at the top is not asphalted. In fact, the road starts deteriorating 10km back and same road conditions prevail on the other side of the pass. In the entire circuit of Leh-Ladakh, the condition of roads is very good and only 20% of the entire road is in bad shape. Saying Khardung La to be the highest pass in the world just because it is “Motorable” will be a lame excuse.

Signboard in Leh City Mentioning Khardung La Pass. The Pass is 40Km from Leh City.

Signboard in Leh City Mentioning Khardung La Pass. The Pass is 40Km from Leh City.

The term “Motorable” plays here a significant role because passes like Mana Pass and Shipki La pass are at a higher altitude but tourists (Indian & foreigners) are not allowed so the claim of Khardung La seems valid. But then there are passes like Marismik La, Photi La which is both “Motorable” as well as visited by travelers. Even the signboard at Marismik La says “Highest Motorable Pass” in the world. There is a news of another pass being constructed by BRO called Umling La Pass which is at an altitude of 19300 feet (5883 meters). This pass is under construction and it will connect the village of Chisumle and Demchok in southern Ladakh. As of now the civilians and tourists are not allowed to visit the Umling La but there is a clear indication that Khardung La would the title it has retained for such a long time.

If we abide by the signboard present at Khardung La, then it is definitely the highest motorable road in the world but in reality, the elevation mentioned on signboard is wrong. The board reads as 18380 feet or 5602 meters while in reality, the actual height of Khardung La is 5359 meters. Even the elevation of Chang La (5360) La is higher than Khardung La.

Chang La lies en route to Pangong Tso from Leh City. The pass is higher in elevation than the Khardung La

Chang La lies en route to Pangong Tso from Leh City. The pass is higher in elevation than the Khardung La

Why Khardung La Is Termed as Highest Motorable Road in The World?

There can be many reasons for the signboard saying Khardung La to be the highest motorable road the world. In my opinion, the most obvious reason is, Khadrung La is one of the oldest motorable passes in India and in the world. Actually, the board was designed way back in past and nowadays there are more précised devices. Nowadays there are many passes in India which are higher than Khardung La, but in past either they weren’t famous to undertake a journey, or they weren’t allowed by the government of India (example Marismik La). I saw a post on Facebook were a man undertook the journey to Khardung La in 1982 and at that time permit was required to visit Khardung La. Maybe 20 years ago, Khardung La was the highest Motorable Road in the world but it is not as of now.

The condition of Road while ascending Khardung La Pass. Initially, the condition of the road is good but it starts deteriorating as Khardung La approaches.

The condition of Road while ascending Khardung La Pass. Initially, the condition of the road is good but it starts deteriorating as Khardung La approaches.

Security can be termed as another reason for Khardung La to retain the title of Highest Motorable road as Mana Pass, Shipki La, and upcoming Umling La are much higher than Khardung La but permit to these passes is denied citing their location on sensitive India-China Border. One more reason which looks logical to me (I could be wrong here) is the dependency of Tourism on Khardung La. Why I am saying this because the Ladakh Valley lies at an average elevation of 3000 meters and hosts many beautiful valleys like Nubra Valley. People tend to visit Nubra and Hunder because they lie en route to the “Highest Motorable Road” in the world. If we take away the title, then there are chances people won’t visit Nubra Valley and head towards other hot destinations in Ladakh Valley. For example places like Rangdum, Padum and Chumathang offer a similar view but these places are often less visited by tourists in comparison to Nubra Valley. Removing the title can affect the tourism of Nubra Valley which officials don’t want. I had a discussion with BRO officials at North Pullu and I asked the same question, Is Khardung La the highest Motorable road in the world? They simply answered No. When I asked why the board hasn’t corrected? They simply said that they don’t have any such orders and till they don’t get orders they can’t change the marking on board. Anyways the truth is, the wrong marking on Khardung La top attracts hundreds of tourists every day which helps many locals to earn their livelihood and government is in no mood to change this as of now.

Which Road is Highest Motorable Road in The World and In India?

If we are claiming that Khardung La is not the highest motorable pass/road in the world then we must have an answer for the highest motorable road in the world which replaces Khardung La. The truth is Khardung La is not the highest motorable road in India, forget the world. There are many passes in India which are higher than Khardung La and used by Indian Army, Border Security Force, and ITBP. Here is the list of few passes (motorable as Army Vehicle ply on them) which are higher than Khardung La in India: 

Also Read: A List of All the Mountain Passes in India and Himalayas

    • Umling La: Road is currently under construction, though there is a signboard claiming its height to be 19,300 feet or 5,883 meters. Tourists (both national and foreign) are not allowed to visit Umling La pass but as per the reports few have managed to visit this Pass. The DC office of Leh doesn’t allow permits to Umling La as of now, maybe they allow in the future.

  • Shipki La: To all surprise, Shipki La is the highest motorable road in India. Shipki La lies at an elevation of 5,669 meters and the route is used by Tibetan people and locals from Kinnaur Valley for trade purpose. The pass is currently managed by ITBP and no tourist is allowed. The pass also serves as India’s third border post for trade with China after Nathula in Sikkim, and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand. The pass is close to the town of Khab and lies on National Highway 5.
  • Mana Pass or Dungri La: The mana pass is assumed as the highest motorable pass in India since access to Shipki La is nearly impossible. The height of Mana Pass is 5610 meters and there are few videos and images showing people have visited the Mana Pass although its permit is not given. When I was visiting the Badrinath Temple, I asked for the permission to visit Mana Pass in DC office Joshimath, but it was denied.
  • Marsimik La: The pass is situated in Ladakh division of Jammu & Kashmir and it is 35Km from the famous Pangong Tso lake. The height of Marsimik La is 5582 meters and tourists can visit this place. The permit to Marsimik La can be obtained from DC office Leh and one can visit after arranging the permit. To the surprise, the board at Marsimik La also states the highest pass in the world but omits the word “motorable”.
  • Photi La: Photi La is a high mountain pass located in Ladakh Division of Jammu & Kashmir and the pass lies at an elevation of 5524 meters. The pass is close to the town of Hanle border of India and China. A permit is required from Indian Army and DC office Leh and there is a higher priority that your application will be declined.
  • Dongkha la or Donkia Pass: The Dongkha La pass lies in the state of Sikkim in India and connects Tibet in China. The pass lies at an elevation of (5500~5486) meters and again permit is hard to get. The pass lies near to some of the highest lakes in the world.
  • Kaksang La: The height of Kaksang La is 5438 meters and it lies in between the town of Mahe and Chushul (Last village on India-China Border). The pass can be accessed while traveling from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri Lake. The two smaller lakes of Ladakh division i.e. Yaye Tso and Mirpal Tso, lies on this route.
  • Chang La: Most of the people who have visited Khardung La, also visit Chang La pass as it lies en route to Pangong Tso from Leh city. The elevation of Chang La pass is 5360 meters and to the surprise, even Chang La is at a higher elevation than Khardung La (beats Khardung La by 1 meter).
  • Khardung La: Khardung La comes at 9th place. The pass used to be one of the highest motorable roads in past but clearly not today. In last 2 decades, the tourism industry in Leh has bloomed a lot and credit goes to the Khardung La pass as it used to be the center of attraction for tourist visiting Leh. The actual height of Khardung La is 5359 meters but the signboard at top incorrectly reads 5600 meters.
    A Chart I found on the Internet supporting my claim. I found it relevant enough to share here.

    A Chart I found on the Internet supporting my claim. I found it relevant enough to share here.

There are many roads in the world which are much higher than Khardung La and they have been used by local people as well as defense forces of respective countries. The roads which are higher than Khardung La in the world are:

  • Lajiong La: Lajiong La is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 5830 meters above the sea level in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The road to the top is very rocky and bumpy and a 4WD vehicle is required to access the pass.
  • Cerro Utorunco: Cerro Utorunco is considered as the highest road in the world and it lies at an elevation of 5777 meters. The road lies in Bolivia and it was primarily constructed for the sulphur mines present in Bolivia. Many cyclists and bikers have visited this road so going by the current standards it is the highest motorable road in the world.
  • Kiu La: Kiu La is a high mountain pass located between China and India. The elevation of Kiu La is 5711 meters and it lies in the disputed territory of Aski Chin. There are pictures on the internet where people have visited this pass, but final authenticity is yet to be decided.
  • Bodpo La: Bodpo La is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 5767 meters situated in Tibet, China. The road leading to Bodpo La is very rough and average gradient increases as you climb further. Since the pass lies in the disputed territory of Tibet, access to the pass is restricted.
  • Jang Rang La: Jang Rang La lies in Tibet, China at an elevation of 5761 meters. The pass very difficult to access with very less oxygen supply. The other end of pass leads to Indian border but any civilian or tourist activity is strictly prohibited.
  • Semo La: Semi La lies at an elevation of 5565 meters in the Tibet region of China. Semo La is also the highest asphalted road in the world (previously the record was held by Taglang La, India). The pass is used by local bus and trucks for transportation and other commercial activity.
    A Temple situated on a way to Nubra Valley from Khardung La.

    A Temple situated on a way to Nubra Valley from Khardung La.

We can expand the list further and still it will be difficult for Khardung La to find its place in the list of the highest motorable road in the world. Many say that it is not possible to get the permit for most of the passes listed here but, they are still used for transportation (Even if its Army of a specific country). The reality is that it is difficult to determine the highest road in the world because it is nearly impossible to define the word “road”. Still if by road we mean asphalted and well paved then its Semo La winning the contest and if we talk about unpaved road then there are many contenders but definitely not Khardung La. Even permit for Marsimik La is given form DC office Leh, India which is why higher than Khardung La. Still, Khardung La remains one of the most visited places in the Ladakh Valley and tourist from India as well as other parts of the world come to visit Khardung La. No matter what the logic says it always gives a pleasure to click a photo in front of a board stating highest motorable road in the world. But going by the current tourism boom in Ladakh Valley and construction of newer roads by Border Roads Organization of India, it seems inevitable that Khardung La would retain the title of the highest motorable road in the world. Someday or the other the board at Khardung La top is going to change and photos will remain a memory for all who visited the “Mighty Khardung La”.

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