Over Khardungla Pass

By Tom McDonagh
June 2012

Crossing the Snow Line. The mountains in the distance are the Saser Muztagh, the easternmost subrange of the Karakoram range, beyond which lies the Tibetan plateau. Photo by the author.

The driver is bouncing on the end of a giant wrench, trying to loosen boltson the front wheel. We have just taken a puncture, not an auspicious start to our bus ride. We are venturing out of the Nubra Valley, the most northern part of the Indian subcontinent. To the northeast lies the Tibetan province and to the northwest is the disputed border with Pakistan. As we wait on the roadside in this serene mountainous area, it is difficult to imagine that a little farther up the valley is a battlefield. The Siachen Glacier, which feeds the fertile green outcrops in this barren landscape, is home to 3,000 Indian troops and an equal number of Pakistani soldiers. As these soldiers man their posts, the very surface they are fighting over is melting away due to global warming. Yet as the bus gets going again, I think how the view from my window has changed little since the age of the Silk Road when camel-riding merchants passed through Nubra towards China via the Indus Valley. The trader’s route was the same as ours, over Khardungla Pass. What is different today is that the pass has a motor road by which our bus makes its daily journey.

Very soon the winding route starts to tack higher and higher up the valley. The color of the rocky terrain changes continuously from a dusty light brown at the valley base, to jagged purple crags, then to smooth beige stones, which darken to a golden orange glow. We turn a corner and navigate a flat white expanse cut by small, chalky canyons. Despite this mountain palette before my eyes, I actually spend most of the time looking at the small piece of road between our bus and open edge of the road. It becomes apparent that as the slope we climb gets steeper, the road narrows proportionally. Soon the road tapers to a point where I can no longer see it at all and when I look down from my window seat I am peering straight to the bottom of the valley. This produces the distinct sensation of traveling in a floating bus. It is at this point that the signs appear: “Falling is not a crime but a lack of effort is,” “Speed is a knife that cuts life,” and “If married, divorce speed.” The gallows humor is not lost on me. Every so often we pass small memorials to dead drivers and several thousand feet below I can see a large green tanker lying broken and scattered. I’m very happy not to be driving.

In fact the driver seems oblivious to the peril and changes the tape to a different and yet indistinguishable collection of Bhangra hits. Worryingly, he has taken a shine to one of the girls in the front seat. One other passenger seems even less concerned about “the edge.” He is a tall South Korean man dressed head to toe in the brightest local knitwear. As our self-appointed journey jester, he passes around bars of “Chocomaza” candy in a green wrapper complete with a curious Scottish piper logo. When the mood takes him, he leans out the window, over the edge, reaching for the distant clouds. Yet his style is strangely in keeping with our bus’s decor: prints of leopards, garlands of fake roses, and a large central Buddha animated with flashing green and red LEDs.

The journey now enters a new phase. Snow is appearing, first as a dusting, then growing thicker until a wall of snow as high as the bus flanks our right side. Black crows circle overhead and a foul smell fills the air. The source of the stench is a truck containing several hundred chickens; it had overturned some days ago. The poor birds, trapped in their cages, were beginning to putrefy. I imagine myself trapped like them in my own cage under a flashing Buddha.

We stop at the Fighting Fourth Army checkpoint next to the “VIP” toilet shack. The jester and I show our passports to soldiers sporting puffer jackets and mirror sunglasses. It is here, in the highest and most exposed terrain, that we see the true kings of the highlands, shaggy yaks that miraculously thrive in these conditions. After leaving the checkpoint, the road quickly deteriorates, potholes appear more frequently until the road surface turns into undulating ice and mud. From here on out it’s tough going. The driver stops flirting with the front-seat girl and switches off the music. Everyone listens in silence to the groans from the suspension below. The jester lets out an “owww” as the nose of the bus projects over the edge on a tight hairpin corner. My head grows lighter and lighter, and the sunlight on the snow makes it too blinding to look out of the window. Then we see it. The triumphant sign reads* “Khardungla Top—18,380 feet—World’s Highest Motorable Road.” And this terrifying, exhilarating experience is just 100 rupees, less than a metro pass.

*In fact, Khardungla is 17,582 feet high by GPS, and there are two slightly higher motorable roads in Tibet.