Khar: castle, dung: lower – Khardung La – the pass of lower castle
I crossed the Khardong this year with the first caravan, and the date was the 13th June. It was no child’s play to force the pass, with its heavy covering of winter snow hiding the glaciers that dip over on the north side, and make the 17400 ft. – just about 6000 ft. above the altitude of Leh – a difficult and tiring ascent, where the unladen ponies had to be manhandled over with ropes..
..In fact, our crossing had been made possible only by several days’ hard work on the part of the advance party of the Mason Expedition – driving unladen yaks up to plough a way, and using men to cut and improve the track they made.
-M. L. A. Gompertz, Magic Ladakh (1928)
The Khardung la connects Leh valley with the Nubra valley and the Karakoram further up north. The serpentine, and often treacherous road winds up slowly from Leh town, to the base of the Ladakh range and reaches a dizzying height of around (what is claimed to be) 18300 feet before making its way down the other side. The high altitude means these passes face weather that changes in the blink of an eye. Tashi, our driver probably summed it up best, “Mumbai ki fashion ka, aur Ladakh ki mausam ka koi bharosa nahi (Mumbai’s fashion, and Ladakh’s weather can never be relied upon)“
The road to Khardung La begins with a dusty, narrow but well laid out road that Tashi turns to, in the older part of Leh town. From there, he tells us, it will take almost a better part of an hour, through numerous u-turns to reach the highest section of the pass. While Leh town has grown a bit stifling in the mid-morning sun, the road to Khardung La is blanketed by the shadow of clouds lurking above the Ladakh ranges. Before we know it, Leh turns into a tiny speck of green in the distance, the view rapidly changing from green fields and barren mountains to a monochrome of dirty white and dirtier brown. The sky in the meanwhile, hitherto a deep shade of blue has grown a sombre shade of dull grey.
It somehow still looks magnificently put together though, and as the views unravel one after the other, the condition of the road quickly goes downhill. The grey tarmac that started out from Leh, first resembles a dirt track, before giving way to crater ridden, slushy roads that are just about motorable. A few kilometers from the top of the pass, the melt-water from the snow laden peaks constantly carries away the soil and leaves huge potholes behind. The BRO has it’s hands full, trying to landfill and even out the roads all the way to the top, clearing stray rocks and moving boulders that have fallen on to the road. All this, while hundreds of tourist laden vehicles and army trucks pass through. Bumper to bumper traffic at what is arguably the highest motorable road in India is a grim reality these days.
The pass itself has acquired a notorious reputation in the past, owing to its fickle weather, changing road conditions, and the threat of avalanches. Tashi, with a wicked grin, points to charred and crushed remains of vehicles that have rolled down the precipitous road, ostensibly to horrify us.
On the way, Tashi advises us to keep sipping water to prevent dehydration. We sniff some camphor tablets in between and he asks us curiously, “Isme kya hai ? Oxygen ? Accha. (How does this help ? Oxygen ? OK)” The locals have obviously adapted very well to the low oxygen levels. Since our moods are dampened somewhat by the bad weather, he jokes that even their vehicles have adapted well to these conditions.
While we’re stranded at a traffic jam, we come across a few cyclists heaving up the demanding road, braving the cold weather and the low oxygen, not to mention the oncoming traffic and dressed in nothing but cycling gear. Tashi shouts out admiration for a job well done and they retort with a stoic “Thank You“, without stopping.
The next day, on the return leg, we get stuck just below the highest switchback. On the climb, the weather had worsened considerably and just a few minutes of light snowfall had resulted in a roadblock on the higher reaches. It takes almost half an hour to clear it, and in the meantime, the low oxygen quickly makes our woeful cardiovascular capacities obvious.
Tashi and Jigmet, our host at the hotel back in Leh had advised us to stop at the pass only on the way back to Leh from Nubra. The idea was to be able to combat the adverse effects of altitude, if any, with medical facilities in Leh rather than on the other side of the Khardung La. Staying at around 17000 odd feet for some time, the depleted oxygen levels in the air makes any activity seem like an ordeal. Drawing a deep breath makes one feel breathless, as if one has just finished a sprint. Accompanying this is a slight feeling of asphyxiation, with a heavy sensation in the cranium.
It is only afterwards, when we descend a little that I grow conscious about my clammy hands, there is an omnipresent danger of death in this region. Ladakh can claim lives if you do not respect it. Tashi exemplifies this with anecdotes from the Indo-Pak war of 1999. Apparently, the first batch of army soldiers were rushed into these areas without any acclimatization, and paid the price with their lives. Recently, he tells us, a tourist from Mumbai, a sexagenarian, had developed symptoms of AMS at the pass. The party refused to heed the warning signs and advice from the locals and chose to carry on. As the day grew by, the symptoms worsened and by the end of the next day, it was all over for the gentleman.
Tashi’s stories stick in our heads. The effects of high altitude are discernible all around, I see grown men and women hobbling at 15000 feet, when we stop for tea and snacks. An army soldier asks me if I’d be interested in joining them for a quick game of cricket. I have the heart, but my lungs refuse.
In spite of this notoriety, Ladakh and it’s mountains had that ironic, foreboding attraction about it, and like it’s fans, I couldn’t wait to see more of it.
We visited these places in the end of June, and everybody we met, told us that there was more snow than usual this year. The day after we came back from Nubra, the weather grew even worse and heavy snowfall closed the Khardung La, causing tourists heading towards Nubra to turn back. Those who were coming from Nubra had to wait till evening before the road could be cleared. Some of them even made their way across in the dark, arriving at our stay well past 2200 hours. Google will reveal photos of Khardung La with bright sunshine and sometimes, with lesser snow. But the weather is never predictable in these parts.
Stick to timeless advice when in the mountains, start early and intend to arrive early.