Khardung La at a height of 18,380 ft is the world’s highest motorable road. The pass traverses the Ladahk Range as it connects the city of Leh and the Indus Valley to the Nubra Valley. The views from the pass of the Zanskar Range across the Indus valley to the southwest and the Karakoram Range to the northeast are superb.
Khardung La makes great day trip from Leh and the easiest way to reach it is to join one of the organized biking tours. Several tour operators in Leh will take you to the top of the pass and provide you with a mountain bike to enjoy the 40km (24 mile) ride back to town. The price in July 2014 was approximately 1300Rs.
Day trips to Khardung La typically start around 11am but be sure to book a day in advance so that the required permit can be obtained. Most companies take pretty good care of their mountain bikes and will provide helmets and biking gloves as well.
It’s about a two hours drive to the top. The only possible stopping point is the military checkpoint at South Pullu at 15,300 feet. South Pullu also has a small dhaba (road side café) that serves tea and has snacks.
The first 24km of the road from Leh to South Pullu is hard surfaced and then it’s a gravel dirt road whose condition varies depending on the time of year. Lots of motorbikes, cars and big trucks use the road and it can be fairly busy in the morning but the traffic generally clears out by the time the bikes reach the top around 2pm.
If you are not an experienced biker you can get a ride all the way back down or just to the hard surfaced part of the road. The tour agency truck will generally follow along with the last member in the group to make sure no problem like flat tires crop up.
The top of the pass is a stopping point for tourists both Indian and international who like to get pictures with the Khardung La road sign. The pass is at 18,380 ft and if you are not well acclimatized you will probably be out of breath and with a headache. The best option is to head back down immediately.
If you have already spent a few days in Leh you can linger a bit for snaps and to enjoy some instant noodles or coffee at the world’s highest motorable cafe. Looking towards the northeast you can see the Saser Muztagh which is the easternmost subrange of the Karakoram range. Saser Kangri (7600+m) is visible and lies just on the Indian side of the border.
Most of the glaciers in both the Ladakh Range and Zansakar Range have a north aspect so that those in the Zansakar Range are visible while those in the Ladakh Range actually lie on the other side of the pass. Although approaching the pass you cross a glaciated valley that holds a small mountain glacier. The geology of the Zansakar Range is almost entirely made up of sedimentary sequences that were deposited just prior to the collision of the India and Asian plates and the subsequent uplift of the Himalayas. This is in contrast to the Ladakh Range which is a granitic laccolith that was emplaced during island arc magmatism prior to the collision of the continents.
The road itself was completed in 1973 and serves as a gateway to both Nubra Valley and the Siachen Glacier (the world’s highest altitude “battlefield”). Although road signs claim the elevation of the pass is 5,602 m (18,379 ft) most measurements suggest it is closer to 5,359 m (17,582 ft) and as a result the claim of “highest motorable roadway” lies in doubt. Personally, I visited to see the fantastic views and enjoy the ride down so the difference of a few hundred meters did not mean that much, but if you are truly seeking the “highest motorable roadway” you might need to do a little more research. Historically, the route was a a major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Central Asia. During a brief period of the second world war supplies were transferred to China via the same route.