Khardung la World's highest motorable road

The pass, in Ladakh district, is also known as the Gateway to Nubra valley
Khardung la World's highest motorable road
Khardung la World's highest motorable road

Visitors to Ladakh may note, rising from the snow desert &mdash a landscape so vast the eye can only deal with it sequentially &mdash a squiggly black line, like a needle trace on icing, that eventually vanishes among a jumble of icy razorback ridges miles up in the Karakoram. Some years ago, while staying at the Ladakh Serai, I asked its manager, Ramesh Nambiar, what I was looking at.

&ldquoThe world&rsquos highest road,&rdquo he said.&ldquoYou&rsquore kidding&rdquo I stared at him. &ldquoSo how do I get onto that&rdquo

He laughed. &ldquoYou don&rsquot. It&rsquos military, it leads to the Khardung La pass and, beyond, the Siachen Glacier. They&rsquore fighting a war there, us versus Pakistan, so it&rsquos off-limits. But it happens the man in charge of army roads is a friend if I invite him to dinner you could at least learn something about it.&rdquo

Though the Serai, a collection of yurt-style bungalows perched at 11,500 feet, in the village of Stok, is known for its cuisine, Colonel Patel, a lean, rangy man with the swank of an ageing 1930s movie star, ate nothing at all. &ldquoI don&rsquot take food,&rdquo he said, opting for rum instead. He was actually an army doctor who built and maintained roads because he loved the outdoor life. When I mentioned the one that interested me, however, he looked bleak. &ldquoLast week I lost a bridge at Khardung La &mdash the world&rsquos highest, knocked down by a glacier. In the process, I also lost three officers and five men. Their bodies are still lying in the ice.&rdquo

It was obvious I would be allowed nowhere near it but, next day, Ramesh said, &ldquoOn Sunday, the 58th Gurkha Regiment is having a picnic to celebrate their return from the glacier. Colonel Patel has wangled invitations for us.&rdquo

In perfect picnic weather, we set off through those astonishing landscapes for some vaguely specified spot on the bank of the Zanskar river. Gurkhas kept stepping from behind rocks and issuing directions. We edged along an escarpment incorporating a dizzying drop to the Indus (a stream that hardly gave any indication it had travelled all the way from Tibet), passed a junction of the rivers, crossed a giant gorge, to finally arrive at a stretch of the Zanskar, noisy with tumbling snowmelt and, beside it, a broad riverine beach.

On it cookhouses, mess tents, latrines and a bandstand had been erected, while open parachutes suspended from poles provided shade. Colonel Patel, rum in hand, introduced us to the 58th&rsquos debonair &nbspCO &mdash another colonel. As young Indian officers, plainly shattered after six months on the glacier, wandered by swigging bottles of Rosy Pelican, the CO said, &ldquoThey are all fluent in Nepali, you know. So are their wives.&rdquo He added, &ldquoYou can only acclimatise the human body up to 18,000 feet so, on foot patrol at 25,000 feet, with crampons and ice axes, you must move very, very slowly.&rdquo

A young doctor, who had qualified only two years back, said, &ldquoIn winter, the temperature is 60 degrees below zero &mdash unless you fall into a crevasse. Then it drops a further 40 degrees.&rdquo

&ldquoSnow leopards are not uncommon,&rdquo a lieutenant told me. &ldquoOne became so tame we put it in a cage, but HQ made us release it. Respect the environment, they said.&rdquo

&nbspI noted people throwing empty bottles into the Zanskar. That did not strike me as respecting the environment, but the CO shrugged. 

After a fabulous Nepali meal, the six-man Gurkha band struck up. The CO&rsquos wife, at the mike, sang Nepali pop songs as the Gurkhas danced beside the cold grey river and Colonel Patel&rsquos wife, questioning me closely about my life, offered much thoughtful advice. As I rose to go she commanded, &ldquoBe happy&rdquo

Next day I almost jumped for joy. A permit granting me access to the Khardung La &mdash signed by her husband and copied to the Indo-Tibetan Border Force &mdash arrived at the Serai. My guidebook said the world&rsquos highest road was strictly off-limits and, due to frequent avalanches, dangerous.

&ldquoHow do I get there&rdquo I asked Ramesh.. &ldquoBy taxi.&rdquo

I smiled. &ldquoI&rsquom not joking,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThe Ladakh Taxi Union wields great power. The reason I do not keep a car for my guests is because they forbid it.&rdquo

The mountains were still bathed in moonlight when my driver arrived. A friendly, mild-mannered man arrived with a small blue jeep (which he handled with great skill). At South Pulu, the 15,000-foot-high security checkpoint where two sleepy soldiers in heavy greatcoats demanded to see our papers, the road turned into a skiddy yak track cratered by fallen boulders. At 16,000 feet melting snow and ice released so much water that I worried about being washed over the edge.I could see mile-long vertiginous drops, only inches from our wheels I also worried about the blind corners and military vehicles rounding them at speed.

Then, quite suddenly, we were there. &ldquoKhardung La,&rdquo murmured the driver, switching off the engine.

I climbed out. Beyond rows of faded prayer flags the Karakoram&rsquos early morning dazzle seemed to light up Asia. A sign said, &lsquoProject Himank World&rsquos Highest Motorable Road Altitude 18,380 ft.&rsquo Another advised &lsquoYou Are Nearest to Heaven And Can Have a Dialogue With God.&rsquo But for a distant generator misfiring in the thin air, it was very quiet. I spotted a tiny breeze-block temple, inside it examined a religious picture presented &lsquoby the Dozer Operators&rsquo. Rotting carpets covered the floor, tiny brass bells dangled from the tin roof. The place smelled of stale incense.

With a roar, a truck drew up outside. A young, nervy soldier appeared, bent to touch the lintel, rang the bells on his way into the shrine, rang a heavy Garhwal Rifles regimental bell suspended over it, rang the lesser ones again on his way out. I asked, &ldquoHave you been to the front&rdquo He nodded.

&ldquoTaking them what&rdquo
&ldquoApple juice,&rdquo he said.

Strolling, I found the remains of &lsquothe World&rsquos Highest Motorable Bridge&rsquo, lost by Colonel Patel. I looked across the Nubra valley towards the frozen battlefield, and chatted with the handful of people I came across. One, a lanky Delhi man having his hair cut, found it hard to believe I was in Khardung La of my own free will. He kept insisting it was an awful place and, when I said I found it exhilarating and beautiful, suggested I try staying for six months. &ldquoInstead,&rdquo he added waspishly, &ldquoof returning to hotel for lunch.&rdquo

Early in 2007, those memories returned with a rush, when the London Observer invited me to challenge the claim (made by one of its correspondents) that the magic had gone out of travel. I placed, at the heart of my case, this small Ladakhi adventure, and the way a mere taxi ride could lift the spirits, quicken the senses and keep one alive to a world which &mdash despite the mess we&rsquove made of it &mdash remains a place of infinite wonder. 

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