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The long and winding road!

Following a night back in our hotel the Grand Himalaya in Leh, we arise with freshness and the promise of a new adventure ahead. We drive out of the hotel complex and head in a new direction to the North-West beyond Leh. This takes us up a long and winding road right from the beginning. Our guide Konchok tells us that this road has been used to test a certain brand of Formula 1 racing cars, “Blimey!!” I say, just a bit shocked! But I could also see the value in this adrenaline stimulating narrow road for testing these powerful cars that have to glide around corners and manipulate hairpin bends with very accurate precision! But where does this road lead?

Formula 1 cars tested on Ladakh Roads above Leh
The long winding road where these cars are tested, above Leh on the way to Khardung La Pass

Amazing views on way to the Khardung La Pass

Our destination today is the Nubra Valley with its renowned landscapes, interesting history and lower altitude (link to be added once Nubra Valley story published). To get there we drive up the long and winding road which, at the start at least, is sealed.

Well above the Indus Valley and Leh on the Khardung La Pass road
High above the winding road we begin to reach the snow level. We look back towards the south east and the mountains beyond
Beautiful photographic opportunities from the heights of the road to Khardung La Pass
On this drive, every moment is a photo opportunity. This photo shows the view looking towards the Indus valley and the road to Kargil

With barely a cloud in the sky, the view over the Ladakh Valley and Leh towards the snow-capped mountains on the other side is more than spectacular. Konchok points to the green valley in the distance below the mountain range and tells us it is Stok. He had told us about this valley the day before and it is where the royal family, who like to be known as lay people, now live since they moved from Shey Palace in 1834. He points to the mountain range beyond and tells us about the long Markha valley beyond the mountains that is a popular trekking route with six villages that exist the way they have for centuries without modern conveniences except one satellite phone for all the villages.  Read more about ‘trekking the Markha’ here  

Indus valley, Leh, Stok Mountains
From the dizzying heights of the road to the Khardung La Pass we look towards the Indus Valley. The Markha Valley is beyond the mountains
Mountains, Stok, Leh from the Khardung La Pass road
The green fertile valleys with Leh (centre) and Stok (to the left) in the Indus Valley. The Markha Valley lies beyond the exquisite mountains

Stupa under construction

We drive past a construction area and I ask the question “what is that?” as I peer into the valley just below the road. Konchok tells us that the Buddhist Society of Ladakh are building a new stupa – like the Shanti one we had visited on the day we arrived in Leh. The foundations are laid and at this stage, it resembles a Roman amphitheatre.

Lea from the Khardung La Pass road
The beautiful fertile valley around Leh and the Shanti Stupa sitting atop a rocky pinnacle make a beautiful sight from the Khardung La Pass road
Buddhist Stupa under construction above Leh
The Ladakh Buddhist Association is building this stupa above Leh. The foundations have been laid

I turn and look up towards the saddle in the high mountains which houses Khardung La Pass and think “what a sight, and what a road to get there!” To look up and see how high we are heading to the pass is most definitely a wow moment!

Looking up towards Khardung La Pass from the Leh road
Leaving the sealed road behind and travelling on the slower gravel road, we look up towards the Khardung La Pass summit just around the corner from the end of the road as you see it on the skyline of this photo – at 18,380ft/5,578m

The roads we travel

The tar sealing on the road runs out as we enter an area under repair and re-construction. We are back to slow and bumpy but the anticipation and views are worth it and override any discomfort as we head to the top. Building roads here in these high mountains is no easy task, there are few modern machines and many road workers carry out the hard manual labour. It helps us to appreciate the road beneath our wheels especially when one notices women breaking rocks on the side of the road, sometimes with little children by their sides. A signpost states “you are driving up the highest motorable pass in the world, not a short-cut to heaven.” Road signs in India are inspired and offer great advice to the hill drivers to take care and ensure travellers reach their destination. This pass was built in 1976 but was only opened to motor traffic in 1988 and is essential for moving supplies towards the Siachen Glacier area – a strategic military zone. Formerly a track on the caravan route, it has seen thousands of horses and camels pass over in the hundreds of years before the road.

Prayer flags on Khardung La Pass road
Steep, rough gravel roads and prayer flags on Khardung La Pass road – anticipation rises as we head towards the summit and wonder – what is over that rise!
Road re-construction of the road to Khardung La Pass, Ladakh India
Road works on the rough road to Khardung La Pass under repair and re-construction

Khardung La Pass

At the top of this road lies the Khardung La Pass – the highest motorable pass in the world (5,578m/18,380ft). We voice our excitement to be well on our way and anticipate what lies around the corner at the top, which hides out of sight to travellers, only signalled by a tall tower which we can see in the distance. We enjoy seeing a bit of snow along the way; someone has made a tiny snowman and small frozen roadside waterfalls make for a pretty sight. We appreciate our careful driver who stops many times as we photograph the vistas all around and thank him for his patience. It takes a bit of time, but soon we are there.

Snowman just below the Khardung La pass summit
Cute small snowman near the Khardung La Pass summit – indicated by the arrow sign – just around the corner!
Near Khardung La Pass Summit a frozen waterfall makes a pretty sight
As we approach the summit of Khardung La Pass and in the dusting of snow we marveled at the small frozen waterfalls on the side of the road

At the top of the world

At the top, we get out of the car with great enthusiasm and take the usual round of photos by the signposts, toilets and the highest cafe in the world – after all, such feats of accomplishment need to be recorded!

Summit of Khardung La Pass
Yay, we have reached the top of the world and this is the summit monumnet with amazing views down to the Nubra Valley beyond – that is where we are going!
Cafe sign at Khardung La Pass
Khardung La Pass Summit Cafe sign
Signpost on Khardung La Pass summit
Cool but not really cold, in front of the summit signpost

It is cool but not as cold as I thought it would be and we are only slightly breathless as we carefully walk about in the soft snow on the top of the world! A small stupa, adorned with multiple colourful prayer flags sit atop a small rise just above the pass. The flags flap in the wind and the other end of the string is latched to rocks higher up the steep mountainside providing a welcoming and colourful sight against the white snow background. Konchok tells us that if two people marry, one from each valley on either side of the pass, the families gather at this stupa for ceremonies that offer them protection.

Prayer flags adorn the small stupa on Khardung La Pass
Against the backdrop of a stunningly clear blue sky, the small stupa on Khardung La Pass summit provides a beautiful sight adorned with prayer flags stretching in the 4 directions
Khardung La Pass summit adorned with prayer flags
Above the road on Khardung La Pass Summit are the rocks and stupa adorned with multiple Buddhist prayer flags, colourful and beautiful against the speckled snow background

After tea and snacks we are back in the car and on our way, the view down to the Nubra is spacious and invites us to explore. The road twists and turns as it snakes down the mountainside in the snow to then become brown grass and rock.

Khardung La Pass Summit sign
Travelling to the top of the world, a selfie is a must against the backdrop of the sign advertising the height of this road, the highest mortorable road in the world
Nubra valley side of Khardung La Pass
From lower down the Nubra valley side of Khardung La Pass looking back to the summit, clouds billow above the mountains speckled with snow

We are close to the Nubra now where special permits are needed and organised by Suresh our travel organiser see Suresh’s website here and Konchok, along with our driver. The terrain changes and we are excited as we look towards a few days in the same camp bed, and exploring the acclaimed Nubra Valley.

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