Ghosts of the perished: Place littered with bones on the way to Karakoram Pass.
High in these mountainous regions of India, China and Tibet, the views are spectacular but the drops often abrupt. Shrines and colourful prayer flags adorn the way, blessing the surrounding landscape and hopefully the fortunes of those travelling through it.
7. Tanggula Pass – 5,231 m (17,157 ft)
First up, a well known pass in the Tibetan Tanggula Mountains, Tanggula, which ascends to a mighty height of 5,231 m (17,157 ft) above sea level, just to the south of the tiny village of Wenquan. The Qinghai–Tibet Highway reaches its highest point of 5231 meters here, but it is more famous for being the highest point attainable by rail transport.
Looming scenery: Tanggula Mountains in the border between Qinghai and Tibet.
In 2005, train tracks for the Qingzang railway were laid through the Tanggula Pass at an altitude of 5072 m, and when it opened in 2006, the Tanggula railway station also became highest in the world, breaking the century-old record held by Peru’s La Galera station by 255 m. Passengers through this scenic if wind-bitten mountain pass enjoy rail carriages with built in oxygen supply to avoid altitude sickness.
6. Tanglang La – 5,359 m (17,577 ft)
With an elevation of 5,359 m (17,577 ft), Tanglang La is said to be the second highest of India’s mountain passes generally accessible by vehicle, surpassed only by Khardung La. Reports do suggest that there may be higher motorable passes in Tibet, but these remain unverified due to their positions in areas affected by lack of information and restricted access.
Road to perdition: The road to Tanglang La.
Located along the Leh-Manali Highway – open between June and mid-September when the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation clears snow from the roads – Tanglang La is reached via over 20 hairpins bends. Suffice to say the high altitude and the oxygen-scarce air can lead many travellers to experience some degree of mountain sickness. Thank heavens for the views at least.
5. Khardung La – 5,359 m (17,577 ft)
The gateway to the Nubra valley, Khardung La is widely but mistakenly believed to be the highest motorable pass on earth. Despite a claim in the Guinness Book of Records that it attains an altitude of 5,682 m, a recent expedition measured it at 5,359 m (17,577 ft) using GPS, debunking a myth that may have arisen from a copying error of the height falsely claimed by the summit sign of 5,602 m.
Unpaved and narrow: Difficult and dangerous when two trucks meet head on.
Built in 1976, Khardung La was opened to motor vehicles in 1988 and has since seen many car and biking trips. Though the first stretch leading up to the path is paved, for large parts the roadway is loose rock, dirt and occasional snow melts, but even so is well maintained. It is after all an important supply route for India and historically lies on the major horse and camel caravan route from Leh to Kashgar.
4. Changla Pass – 5,425 m (17,794 ft)
At 5,425 m (17,794 ft), Changla Pass is one of the highest mountain passes in India and part of the route to the 134 km-long (83 mi) Pangong Lake from Leh, former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. The main gateway to the Changthang Plateau in the Himalayas, it is named after the sadhu – or wandering monk – Changla Baba, to whom the Pass temple is dedicated.
Tricky drive: En route to Chang La there is quite a drop to the left.
Accounts tell of an easy if stony climb of two miles to the top followed by a gentler four mile descent. Changla Pass is nevertheless a difficult pass for animals because of the quality of the road, a mere track winding through rocks and boulders. The nomadic tribes of this dry, icy region are collectively known as the Changpa or Chang-pa.
3. Karakoram Pass – 5,540 m (18,171 ft)
The highest pass on the ancient caravan route between Leh in Ladakh and Yarkand in the Tarim Basin, the Karakoram Pass rises to an elevation of 5,540 m (18,171 ft). Slightly ominously, its name means ‘Black Gravel’ in Turkic, but then the high altitude and scarcity of food here led to the deaths of countless pack animals – and the route being notorious for the trail of bones strewn along it.
Saddle up: Karakoram Pass on the Sino-Indian border.
Today, the moribund mood is maintained by the desolate approaches to the pass, a 45-metre wide saddle between two mountains without vegetation beset by high winds and frequent blizzards. It is currently closed to vehicles but remains a bone of contention, marking the northern end of Sino-Indian border and part of the dispute between Pakistan and India over control of the nearby Siachen Glacier .
2. Semo La – 5,565 m (18,253 ft)
At 5,565 m (18,253 ft), Semo La is arguably the world’s highest vehicle-accessible pass – at least to have been measured accurately. The same research mission that cut Khardung La down to size in 2005 established Semo La’s height using a modern GPS survey. Situated in the central part of Tibet, Semo La gives access to the Chang Tang region, but is high and isolated and so takes some getting to.
Semo La: Small piles of stones by the roadside are used to maintain the road.
The road of this mountain pass is a dirt affair, unpaved and in poor condition, yet wide enough for minibuses and occasionally repaired by workers as it is a historically important route. The lack of crossing rivers and dangerous steps has meant trucks have travelled this road to western Tibet to avoid muddy routes to the south of the country, and there is a once-weekly long-distance bus.
1. Marsimik La – 5,582 metres (18,308 ft)
At an oxygen-starved 5,582 metres (18,308 ft) above sea level, Marsimik La is the pick of our bunch, a treacherous mountain pass in the Chang-Chemno Range of the Himalayas in northern India. A road crosses the pass over which skilled riders on powerful motorbikes and 4×4 army trucks have driven but it’s doubtful whether most drivers and vehicles could make it – if they were permitted to do so.
Serene scene: Pangong Lake near Marsimik La.
Located 16 km (10 mi) northeast of the northwest tip of Pangong Lake, Marsimik La is approached by a steep, treacherous track of sand, dirt, gravel and mud, which has been the beating of many a biker. This barren terrain is also the most direct route from Pangong to the contested Kongka Pass area, and lies in close proximity to the China-India Line of Actual Control, which divides the two countries.
Switchback or turn back: Roads from the Nubra Valley to the apex of Khardungla
Note: Several mountain passes that may have made this list were not included either because their heights were unconfirmed or because they were too remote for adequate information on them – or a combination of both. At 5,767 m (18,915 ft) and 5,761 m (18,896 ft) respectively, Tibet’s Bodpo La and Jang Rang La may be higher motorable passes than any included here, while Lo La at 5,593 m (18,345 ft) is another that could potentially vie for the top spot.
Colours of the mountains: Near Karakoram Pass.
Nama Pass (5500 m 18,040 ft), Dongkha la (5,400 m, 18,000 ft), Sin La 5,495 m (18,023 ft), Suge La 5,430 m (17,810 ft), Sasser Pass 5,411 m (17,753 ft) and Debsa Pass 5,340 m (17,520 ft) are others that fell by the wayside.