Newest Review: ... altitude. That's when I discovered the dispute over the claim to the distinction of 'highest navigable road'. (By the way, is anyone else ... more
Tea and frozen pees - on top of the world (looking down on creation, lah lah lah_
Khadung La Pass (Ladakh, India)
Member Name: koshkha
Khadung La Pass (Ladakh, India)
Date: 26/10/06, updated on 31/07/10 (200 review reads)
Advantages: Truly bizarre experiences with stunning panoramic views
Disadvantages: Not for the faint of heart or unsound of stomach
'So, it's like this' said the tour leader enthusiastically. 'We take four-wheel drive vehicles, head uphill for two hours on precarious roads with loads of nauseating hair-pins, occasionally over-taking slow moving lorries on blind corners or pulling over for convoys of army transporters to pass. When we get there you can have a cup of tea, wander around and then drive back for another hour and a half. By the way you might get a really bad headache and feel like throwing up.'
OK, I'll admit he didn't really say that - but that pretty much sums up a trip to La Khadung. I'll admit that it doesn't sound like the best offer you're going to get for a jolly jaunt but there's more to this than meets the eye. It's not just any old road and any old café. Douglas Adams had his 'Restaurant at the End of the Universe', and Ladakh has the 'café at the top of the world'. It's not your regular trip to a service station. For one thing you won't be ripped of for £2.50 for a cup of tea.
First controversy - how do we spell it? The joy of a language with only 200,000 speakers is that nobody seems entirely sure how to spell anything. I've seen it variously written as:
* La Khadung
* La Khardung
* Khadung La
* Khardung La
OK, so I can spell it, but what is it and where is it?
La Khadung is a mountain pass approximately 24 miles by road from the Ladakhi city of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir. On a map it's only about 10 miles away, so that's an extra 14 miles of zigging and zagging added on to the crow's more direct route. La Khadung ('la' means 'pass' in Ladakhi) is a 'pass' in the 'Khyber Pass' sense of the word - i.e. the highest point of a route through the mountains. In this case it's the route from Leh in the south to the Nubra valley in the North. A trail through La Khadung has been an important trade-route to Central Asia since ancient times but there has only been what we might call a 'proper' road since the 1970s.
The reason La Khadung is famous (well maybe famous is an exaggeration) is that it's the pass on the highest navigable road in the world - or is it? More about that later. If you find yourself in Leh preparing for a trek and looking for something to do whilst you acclimatise to the altitude, you will almost certainly be offered a trip to La Khadung. To not visit the pass would be a bit like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal.
What's all the 'hoo-hah' about the 'highest road' claims?
I've never really been overly impressed by 'higher - deeper - longer - faster' claims and I almost always forget the figures within minutes of seeing them. I have always suspected that a fixation with measurements is a genetic trait lodged firmly on the Y-chromosome along with remembering road numbers and getting excited about power tools. Consequently, whilst I remembered it was the highest road, I couldn't remember how high.
My photos of the sign-posts at the top showed me the altitude in feet (18,380) but I couldn't be bothered to work out the equivalent height in metres so I popped off to 'google' the altitude. That's when I discovered the dispute over the claim to the distinction of 'highest navigable road'. (By the way, is anyone else wondering what would be the point in being the highest non-navigable road?)
According to Wikipedia, the Indians claim the altitude to be 5602m. The Guinness Book of World Records lists 5682m which the Wiki-people suggest is a typo. They note that a group of Catalan scientists with GPS equipment measured the height at a paltry 5359m.
Why does it matter? Well if the height claimed by the Indians is correct, then this is the highest navigable road. If it's not and the Catalans and their equipment are correct then there are two Tibetan passes that beat it by a few metres. But then again, why should we necessarily assume those heights are right either? My attitude is that until the Chinese leave the Tibetans alone, I won't be going to there so I'm calling La Khadung 'the Highest Navigable Road in a Country not Currently Occupied by an Unfriendly and Unwelcome Invader'. It's not such a snappy phrase but it's good enough for me.
An amazing feat of engineering
The first attempt to build a road from Leh to Pratapur across the La Khadung pass was started in 1953 and subsequently abandoned. The army was too busy fighting off invasions by the Chinese for a couple of decades. It was not until August 27th 1972 that building started again. Exactly one year to the day later, the pass was opened to road traffic. I find that incredible. If anyone has a major engineering project, I'd like to recommend the Indian army's engineering corps and Ladakh's Border Roads Organisation - they are much more efficient than those jokers who are working on the Wembley Stadium.
So many questions spring to mind
* How do you build a road in just one year when the route is covered in snow for 8 months and the temperature is so low that your workers' breath will freeze on their faces?
* How do you do this when most of the workers have been brought in from lowland India and have never seen snow before, let alone worked in it?
* How do you build a road that rises 2100 m in a series of tight and treacherous hairpins?
* When you've blasted your way through and laid the road, how do you keep it open when the snow is banked up on either side like a white wall?
* What do the guys who live up at the pass DO all year long other than sit and wait for the Chinese army to come through again? This is an astonishingly bleak place.
* And the question going through my mind most of the time.....How many times will we roll over and bounce if we go over the edge in our jeep?
Death and Destruction
Blasting a road through such an inhospitable landscape was no easy matter and many paid with their lives. A monument at the top of the pass pays tribute to the 18 men of the 201 Engineering regiment killed during the building of this road - given the low standard of health and safety legislation in India, I was very surprised it wasn't more. Maybe it was - perhaps they only counted the soldiers.
Why would I go to La Khadung?
* "Because it's there!" as the explorer George Leigh Mallory famously said when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Unhappily he died trying - so we'll try not to emulate him on that one.
* Because you're there - and you need to kill three days adapting to the thin air before you start your trek and La Khadung makes a nice change from visiting another Buddhist monastery (Don't get me wrong , they are great but after half a dozen or so you've had enough)
* Because of the fantastic scenery - both during the journey and even more so from the top. Stand at the Pass and look North towards the Nubra Valley and you can see the Karakorum range. Look south, back towards Leh, and you can see the Himalayas behind.
* For the bragging rights - you can tell everyone you went to the top of the world - it's your choice whether you tell them about the disputed 'highest road' claim.
* For the comedy value - you can watch Indian people who've never before seen snow behaving like small children. Remember what it was like when you were young and saw snow for the first time
* For an Altitude Sickness Check - if 'five-thousand-six-hundred-and-however-many' metres don't make you feel sick, then you can be pretty confident you'll survive the lower heights that follow.
* For the sheer bizarreness - you can have a cup of tea in what must be the highest café in the world and take a pee in the highest public convenience
OK, I want to go, how do I do it?
I'm going to assume you have already got to Leh so I'm not going to cover how to get there. That sort of info is in my other review on Ladakh.
If you are travelling on an organised trip - as we were - your tour leader will probably have already booked some local drivers for you. If you are travelling independently, just wander into any of the stores organising treks and tourism and they'll almost certainly be able to sort you out with a trip.
You will need to plan this the day before you go because your passport details have to be taken to the local police station. So hand over your passport - or if you have a photocopy, that will do - and your leader can sort it all out for you. Don't worry, this isn't the sort of place where your passport will be stolen and sold to a heroin dealer with evil intent.
I'm not sure why the police want your details - it could be a case of national security (it's exceptionally important to keep the strategic supply routes open through La Khadung), personal security (i.e. "I'm sure 200 went up but only 195 came down, call out the helicopters") or it might just be another example of Indian job creation schemes.
You'll probably pay around 500-600 rupees (£6-7) per head. Budget another 200 per car for the driver's tip.
And they're off
The six of us in the tour party jumped into two jeeps with drivers and the tour leader and headed off at about 9 am. I believe - but I'm not 100% sure - that the road is closed at night and they like to keep the tour groups back until a little later in the morning to get the trucks out of the way first. I never grumble about a 9 am start on one of these trips.
ADVICE - if you are sitting in the back, ferret around between the seat and the seatback and try to find your seatbelt fixture - Indian drivers often don't set them up because there's no legal requirement for rear seatbelts. You will be thrown about a bit on this journey so please, buckle up.
Our driver was a jolly chap with a good collection of Bollywood movie tunes on his clapped out old tape player. He had a deep-seated dislike of following anyone and a hatred of being stuck at the back in any gathering of traffic. He shot off up the road like a bat out of hell overtaking all comers. At this point it's useful to reflect that a belief in reincarnation (as evidenced by the large semi-transparent Buddha sticker in the middle of the windscreen - just where you really need to be able to 'see') can be a helpful aid to overtaking. Travel insurance, a seat belt and keeping your eyes closed on the scary bits will come in handy for anyone else.
ADVICE - another bit - if you are thinking of going to Ladakh or any other mountainous places, check that your travel insurance covers high altitude. I have a policy with 'Insureandgo' which I took out a couple of years ago when going to Peru. I found that regular insurers wouldn't cover any exposure to high altitude but Insureandgo were originally set up to cover adventure travel tourists and include a lot of things that are 'specials' with other companies.
The first 10 miles of the journey are fairly straightforward - regular roads, quite bendy but wide enough for two car and with proper tarmac. When you reach South Pullu army base and checkpoint the tarmac peters out and the road gets narrower. From South Pullu onwards the road has no tarmac, just loose gravel.
The views are fantastic - if you can keep your eyes open. I recommend sitting on the right hand side of the car on the way up and the left on the way down. That way you won't be tempted to look over the edge and see any dead cars down in the valley. At one point we were delayed by a small bus of young Indians. They had just hit the snow-line and had stopped the bus right on a blind corner and jumped out to roll one-another in the snow and take photos.
What's there when you get to the top?
* Lots of parked cars - well it's obvious isn't it. Everyone wants to get out and wander around
* A monument recording the loss of the 18 soldiers and giving the dates of the construction and opening
* A little walk up to the highest point where you'll find piles of stones and lots of prayer flags. The path up was almost sheer ice when we went and if you've foolishly warn sandals it's precarious.
* A small souvenir shop
* Toilets - despite my loathing of public loos, I couldn't resist being able to claim I'd had a pee at the top of the world. Amazingly, these are the least smelly public toilets in the whole of India. I think it's because everything that goes in, freezes almost immediately.
* A café - nothing fancy but the hub for all the folk who live and work at the pass and where all the truck drivers like to get a cup of tea. Tea or coffee - that's it. No double-shot-mocha-capa-frappa-doodahs
* Fantastic mountain views - it's such a shame we can't add photos on dooyoo
The most important thing is that whatever you do at that altitude, do it very slowly or it's going to hurt.
Get back in the jeep, buckle up, have your camera at the ready and head back to Leh. It takes about 90 minutes so you'll be just in time for lunch when you get back.
Do I recommend it?
Unless you are prone to really extreme car-sickness, I'd say this is a nice little half-day trip that's well worth the money.
Summary: A white knuckle ride with a difference
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