A mountain pass is a gap or break in a mountain range or over a ridge. These mountain passes have served a navigable route throughout the history.
What is a motorable mountain pass?
If I put it simply: A motorable pass is a pass where you can reach on a vehicle. The road can be metalled, tarred or unpaved but as long as an SUV car or a motorbike can be driven, it is a motorable pass.
Now, if I ask you which is the highest motorable pass in the world, majority of you will say Khardung La in Ladakh. Wrong answer! So we have listed the top 10 highest motorable passes in the world. Read the blog and see where Khardung La is in the list.
Umling La: At an altitude of 5,883 metres (19,300 ft), Umling La became the highest motorable pass in the world in 2017. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) accomplished a heroic feet of constructing the highest motorable road in the world, and the first one to cross the 19000 ft mark. The road connects the village of Chisumle and Demchok. It took 6 years for the road to be constructed. Do you know that all the construction workers were given special training and had to come down every hour to acclimatize themselves? Hats off to the commitment and hard work!
Umling La is located in Changthang valley of Ladakh region. To reach Umling La, you can take one of the many routes from Leh. You will cross the village of Hanle from where Umling La is 108 km if you take the route via Photi La. There is one more route via Ukdungle which is 104 km from the highest motorable pass.
In 2017, after the pass became famous, a lot of people travelled to it. However, from 2018 no civilian is allowed to travel to Umling La. The pass is too close to the Chinese border which makes it a sensitive region. Now, let’s not be disappointed. The highest motorable pass in the world is in India. Don’t you think, it’s something to be proud of?
Marsimik La: The second highest motorable pass is also in Ladakh. The elevation of Marsimek La or Marsimik La is 5,582 meters (18,314 ft). The board put up by BRO claims an elevation of 5,777 meters (18,953 ft), but the new measurement is accurate. It is located in the Chang-Chemno Range in the east of Leh. The road was built in 1983 under the supervision of Sonam Paljore, an Everester. Marsimik La lies in close proximity of just 4 km west of Indo-China actual line of control. China has also built a six-lane highway all the way upto the border just 10 km beyond the pass.
The civilians can also access the pass after getting permission from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Leh. To reach the pass, you have to travel via Pangong lake from where the pass is about 20 km. The road is mostly a dirt trail but is definitely motorable. People have been to the pass on their SUVs and motorcycles. People have also travelled on their humble scooters and have succeeded.
Semo La: Semo La is situated in central Tibet at an altitude of 5,565 metres (18,258 ft) and is the third highest motorable pass in the world. It was believed to be the highest motorable pass in the world for many years. People still argue that the roads to Umling La and Marsimik La are all gravel roads, whereas Semo La has a proper metaled road. The road to the summit is called 206 Provincial Road (S206) and it was paved in late 2015.
The pass gives access to the Changthang region in Tibet. The route is used to travel to Western Tibet and Mount Kailash, especially at times when the Southern route becomes less accessible due to mud.
Mana Pass: Mana Pass in Uttarakhand is the fourth highest motorable pass in the world. It is situated at the border between India and Tibet. Now, the actual height of the pass is disputed like all other passes. Mana Pass is at an altitude of 5,545 metres (18,192 ft). But, the well-graded gravel-dirt road on the Indian side rises to 5,610 metres (18,406 ft) making it the second highest motorable road in India, and the third highest motorable road in the world. Now, as we are listing down the highest motorable passes only (and not the highest motorable roads), so this will be fourth on the list.
Mana village is around 25 km from Badrinath, the famous Hindu pilgrimage site. It is the last village before the border to Tibet starts. The pass, also known as Mana La, Chirbitya, Chirbitya La, or Dungri La, is around 50 km from Mana village. The road to Mana Pass was constructed in the 2005-2010 period by Border Roads Organization. The road is mainly used by the Indian Army, but tourists are also allowed after getting an Inner Line permit from SDM Joshimath along with NOC Certificate from ITBP and Indian Army. This is a great trail for experienced wheelers. Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren’t your strong point.
The route is very beautiful as it falls in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve of the Zanskar mountain range. You will also cross Deo Taal, a sacred lake. The lake remains frozen all year round except for the month of September and is the origin of the Mythical Saraswati River.
Photi La: And we are back to our favourite Ladakh again. Photi La, at an altitude of 5,524 meters (18,124 ft) is the fifth highest motorable pass in the world. It is located in the Changthang region of Ladakh. Photi La is around 30 km from Hanle, a small village famous for the Hanle Observatory. After crossing the pass, if you decide to continue further then the same road goes to Umling La.
Dongkha La: On 7 September 1849, British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker crossed the pass and brought it to the attention of the world. He described it as the most treacherous pass that he had ever traversed. Dongkha La, also known as Donkia Pass is situated at an altitude of 5,534 meters (18,156 ft) and comes sixth on the list of the highest motorable passes. This pass connects Sikkim in India to Tibet, and is located about 4 kilometers from India-China border. The security around here is very high due to the close proximity to the border and it is very difficult to obtain the necessary permits for visiting Dongkha La.
Atop the mountain pass one can capture the picturesque Tibetan plateau. The beautiful Tso Lhamo or Cholamu Lake is also quite close to the pass. It is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world, and is also the source of Teesta River.
Kaksang La: On number seven, we have Kaksang La. This pass is situated in Changthang region of Ladakh at an altitude of 5,437 meters (17,834 ft). The road to the summit connects the villages of Chushul and Mahe. Before Mahe, you will cross another high altitude pass of Hora La near Tso Moriri. On this route, you will find two beautiful lakes namely Yaye Tso and Mirpal Tso.
You will need Inner Line Permits to reach Kaksang La.
Suge La: Situated at an altitude of 5,430 metres (17,815 ft) in Tibet is the mountain pass of Suge La. It is located in the Nyenchen Dangla Mountains at a distance of about 110 km from Lhasa. You will most likely be driving an off- road, but the road surface is relatively good. You get an amazing view of Chomo Gangtse mountain (7048 metres) from the pass. Suge La is the eighth highest mountain pass.
Chang La: This will come as a surprise to the most of you, but YES! Chang La is higher than Khardung La. Chang La comes ninth on the list of the highest motorable passes in the world. It is situated at an altitude of 5,360 meters (17,586 ft) in Ladakh. You will cross Chang La on the way to the stunning Pangong Lake from Leh.
There is a temple on the top dedicated to Changla Baba. The temple is decorated with colourful Tibetan flags and the locals say you must seek his blessings before starting your journey from here. The pass is guarded and maintained by the Indian Army and you need an ILP to visit Chang La. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Ladakh and visit Chang La. Few adventurous people cycle from Leh to Pangong via Chang La. Cycling on one of the highest passes would be a thrilling experience, don’t you think?
Khardung La: And finally, we have the most famous and the most disputed pass, Khardung La. If you do a Google search, chances are that Khardung La will pop up as the highest motorable pass in the world. Located in Ladakh, this pass is one of the most visited and definitely the most photographed pass in the world. Everyone who crosses Khardung La clicks a picture in front of the sign board claiming it to be 18,380 ft in height. Now, don’t let the internet or the sign boards trick you. This is the tenth highest motorable pass in the world.
Khardung La is situated at an altitude of 5,359 metres (17,582 ft). It connects the town of Leh to Nubra Valley and Siachen Base Camp. The best season to visit is May-September. So next time, when you visit Khardung La, don’t buy the magnets or keychains for the highest pass in the world. Or maybe you can buy them all, just for fun!