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Road Trippin across the highest passes in the world !
27th October 2016

written by -   Priti Shriname


My little munchkin on ‘Top of the World’ at Pangong Tso lake

Of all the peregrinations we have undertaken across the length and breadth of India, the road trip across Ladakh remains close to my heart. I knew this trip would be tougher and rougher especially with my little one but along with all the apprehensions, I was full of beans thinking of the adventures we would have on this epic trip !!

This post is a recount of all the passes we crossed on this road trip.

A pass is called a LA which basically is the highest point on a mountain so you are ascending till you reach a LA and once you cross it, you are descending ! The road trip across Ladakh has a number of formidable and not to forget highest passes in the world, just made to be explored on a 4/2 wheeler and this post is a tribute to the rugged beauty of these passes !

ZOJI LA – The very first pass, Zoji La stands tall at 11,570 ft between Srinagar and Kargil and our experience was traumatic to say the least !! The drive was treacherous, slippery, littered with traffic jams, scary land slides and frayed tempers. The first day made me wonder if doing this road trip was a good idea in the first place, but this is a book not be judged by it’s cover ! This stretch was most definitely NOT a reflection of the rest of the journey to come, so don’t close your browser yet, it gets only better 🙂 . You can read up all about why the drive across Zoji La was so disappointing

NAMIKA LA – Namika La, the pillar of the sky passes located at the Zanskar range is at 12,139 ft and truly ushers you into the vibe of Ladakh. This pass was a breeze, LITERALLY a breeze !! It threatened to blow us away in the Himalayas, I had to hold on to my daughter with all my strength lest she flew away

The drive was one of the most beautiful ones I have been on with prayer flags fluttering in the wind, astounding scenery, precipitous mountains, gurgling rivers, Gompas, mountain goats scampering along merrily, a different topography altogether. As we climbed altitude, the trees were getting sparse, the elevation rising, roads getting steeper and peek a boo views of snow clad mountains in the distance.

To hold or not to !

FOTU LA – Next came the Fotu La, the highest point on the Srinagar – Leh highway at 13,479 ft, surpassing the famed Zoji La. The roads were in fantastic condition, smooth and serpentine, the drive was made more interesting with the famous BRO road signs reminding us of how deceiving the beauty of the roads could be unless we were careful and drove with caution !

At Fotu La Top

Surprisingly the traffic thinned out and the drive though rough in some stretches was mostly very smooth and invigorating.

The azure blue skies !

As the roads sloped upwards slowly and steadily, the topography kept changing, the mountains changed colours, greenery few and far between till we reached the Moonland in Lamayuru. This was something we had never seen, it actually felt like we had reached a different planet or at least the moon

The surreal beauty of Lamayuru – Moonland

The rest of the drive towards Leh was peppered with landmarks like Magnetic Hill, the legendary Pathar Saheb, Sangam and innumerable miracles of nature which are hard to pen down !!

Our entry into Leh !

After rest and recuperating in Leh and some local sight seeing, we headed towards the arid, harsh desert of Nubra Valley made by the confluence of Shyok and Siachan rivers which separates the Karakorum ranges and the Siachen glacier.

A slice of history

KHARDUNG LA – Crossing Khardung La was a milestone on this trip and stamped it as a legitimate adventure. The highest motorable pass in the world at 18,280 ft is probably the most photographed on the Leh – Nubra Valley stretch. Every travel blogger and traveler worth his salt has a pic at this famed wall announcing their feat, and we are no different

Could we BE any higher !!

After reaching and exploring the magic land called Nubra Valley, the serene monasteries, double humped Bactrian camels, Ladakhi cultural shows our next predictable stop was the stunning Pangong Tso !

Diskit Monastery in Nubra Valley

Usually travelers loop back to Leh via Khardung La and take the road to Pangong Tso but we were on an adventure :). Instead of coming back to Leh, we decided to take the rarely taken (non)road along the bed of Shyok river and go straight to Pangong Tso

So instead of coming back from A to B to reach C, we decided to drive directly between A to C and of all my travels across 22 states of India and 10 countries, this road trip beats everything else I have done hands down !!

And that is how you travel !

The river crossings, desert nestled in between snow clad mountains, shrubs hitherto seen, purple mountains (Yes, I was not hallucinating !), no sign of human activity other than one solitary hut in Agam, this was an out of the world experience.

Pangong Tso – Did you know there were so many shades of blues !!

We spent an amazing night by the Pangong Tso lake in a tent, huddled over a bonfire playing dumb charades, chatting and trying to soak everything in for posterity. The endorheic lake is the highest salt water lake in the world, completely secluded and enchanting ! I could write posts after posts about the ‘3 Idiots‘ lake but it’s time to move on to the next pass :).

CHANG LA – After conquering Khardung La, it was turn of the second highest motorable pass in the world at 17,688 feet while coming back to Leh from Pangong Tso, the Chang La.

The reassuring presence of our soldiers made me so proud to be part of Indian Army family and all they stand for in such harsh conditions.

We spent a few days in Leh exploring the markets, eating joints and most importantly the much needed shopping 🙂 . How could we go to Leh and not buy the famous jewellery and souvenirs ! After a shot of retail therapy we started for the drive back to Delhi via Sarchu and Manali.

TAGLANG LA – This pass on the way to Sarchu has some controversy about it being/not being the second highest motorable pass in the world at 17,480 ft ! I have no clue as after a comfortable drive for more than a week, the dreaded breathlessness hit me like a tonne of bricks on this pass and all I could do was sit in the car not moving while everybody else had their kodak shots 🙁 . The topography is barren, breathtaking and makes an atheist too believe in the higher power !

The biker gangs road tripping across Ladakh, what fun !!

ROHTANG LA – After a shivering, teeth chattering night in a tent in Sarchu, we took off for Manali via Rohtang La. The pass is legendary for its 6-8 hour traffic jams, we started really early in the morning to avoid it and fortunately only came across the merry makers from nearby cities like Chandigarh for some fun with snow !

The breathtaking Rohtang La before entering Manali.

We also crossed LACHUNG LA and BARALACH LA without even realising it, so no pics

This was our journey across the majestic, herculean and cosmic passes. But the post will not be complete without some pointers on safety which I feel one must know before undertaking this tremendous road trip !

This trip, especially beyond Leh is not for the faint of heart. It is advisable to have some driving experience in mountains, the roads after Leh are unyielding for a novice, this is how they can look like !

The roads or non-roads !

2   Choose a sturdy vehicle, be it a four wheeler or two wheeler, powered by something strong like CEAT Tyres , have it properly serviced and thoroughly checked out by professionals before starting the trip

3   Drive carefully sounds lame given the topography of Ladakh but it is something that cannot be stressed enough, number of vehicles fallen in the gorges will keep reminding you of the consequences of being careless.

4   Be aware of the rules of mountain driving, respect your own life and everybody else on the road.

5   Avoid driving at night time and do not overtake and scare the other drivers who may give a knee jerk reaction leading to a catastrophe !