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“I think we have to get out and push.”

I pressed my forehead against the closed bus window. Snow and mud sprayed out from beneath the spinning rear tires. We were definitely stuck, on an impossibly high road through India’s Himalaya. The huge Army trucks waiting for our little bus began to honk their horns. But our tires just spun faster.

One by one we zipped up our jackets and climbed out of the bus. All fourteen of us got a handhold on the bumper or down the sides of the bus. I decided the driver’s side mirror frame was strong enough and wrapped my hands around it. I counted down, “One, two, three” and as the driver floored it again, we pushed. The bus rocked forward, then back into the ruts its tires had dug, then forward again.

The wheels caught. The bus climbed so slowly that we could scramble along beside it and keep pushing. It gained momentum and finally pulled ahead. As I let go and stepped away, I looked through the driver’s window. The old man in his patched down jacket sawed the wheel back and fourth to find traction.

I stepped off the road. The Indian Army convoy that had been following us crested the top of the pass, thirty feet above us. I looked at my friends and realized we were all covered in mud and slushy snow. We pointed at each other and laughed and walked the rest of the way to the top of the Khardang La pass in Ladakh, India.

The top of the road passed through a narrow pas between even higher mountains. The road was lined with parked cars and trucks. A bright orange sign marked the high point: “18,380 feet. Highest motorable road in the world.” No wonder I had a headache!

Bright orange sign for the "Khardung La" pass at 18,380 feet.
Khardung La pass sign | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Near the sign was a gift shop. But most of the travelers walked by it and up a steep, snowy bank to the shrine above the road. Until the 1950s, Ladakh was a part of Tibet and many locals are still Tibetan Buddhists. They believe spirits live at the top of mountain passes, so when they travel they stop to pray. The shrine was decked out in brightly colored prayer flags stretching above the road.

We were a group of tourists and students who had rented a small bus with tire chains and a driver who promised to drive us over the mountains. The pass connects Ladakh’s capital, Leh, with the remote Nubra valley. Back then the road was one way, changing direction every day, we planned to spend three nights staying at farms in the rural valley before driving back. The weather forecast had been clear when we left Leh, but halfway to the pass we drove into a thick snow storm and near the top, our bus finally got stuck.

Travelers climb to a hillside temple.
Khardung La temple | Mrinal Pal via iStockPhoto

Our bus was waiting for us, just over the crest of the pass and parked facing downhill. We fell back into our seats, out of breath from the short walk at such a high elevation. The engine rumbled to a start and we continued downhill, swinging around one nearly 180-degree switchback after another. Combined with the altitude sickness, I felt like I was going to throw up within minutes. Then we caught up with the Army convoy and spent the rest of the drive in a cloud of sooty diesel smoke. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to climb out of the bus when we reached the green valley below.

Imagine my surprise when I later looked up the highest pass in the world and found that Kardung La is just 17,582 feet above sea level! I’m not sure whether the false sign was put up by the gift shop owner or was just an inaccurate conversion of meters. I’ll tell you, Khardang La felt a million miles high when I pushed a bus over it. But turns out the highest pass in the world is Umling La, also in Ladakh. Khardung La comes in at number 11, but I would still recommend it just to see the incredible Nubra valley.

Here’s how the highest passes actually stack up:

  1. Umling La Pass. Ladakh India – 19,300 feet
  2. Road to Uturuncu Potosi. Bolivia – 18,953 feet
  3. Dungri La. Uttarakhand, India – 18,406 feet
  4. Marsimik La. Ladakh, India – 18,313 feet
  5. Semo La. Central Tibet – 18,258 feet

Next, find out the incredible story of how a 1986 Suzuki Jimny took the Guinness World Record for highest altitude achieved by an off-road vehicle, or watch two motorcyclists try to navigate Khardang La during a snowstorm in the video below: