If you are into Travel and especially in traveling to mountains, then you must have heard of terms like Highest Lakes in the world, Highest Motorable Mountain Passes in the world, Highest Motorable Roads in the world, etc.. Some of us must have dreamed of scaling these world’s highest roads or lakes or mountain passes one day or the other after seeing others doing it or in the wake of our self-belief 🙂 🙂 …
If I drill down further into the niche of travel regions then those who travel within the Himalayas or in India must also have come across with one very popular spot in Ladakh claimed to be “The Highest Motorable Pass in the World which is called Khardung La” and is about 40 odd KMs from Leh in Ladakh region…
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Let's quickly dive into the details:
The Myth – Isn’t Khardung La Highest?
Many of us must have seen 1000s of pictures over various websites, social media platforms with enthusiast travelers like us, including me, posing with the signboard of Khardung La Pass in Ladakh. We all have a great sense of achievement of our life being on the so-called “The Highest Motorable Pass in the world” 🙂 🙂 …
Well, frankly speaking, it isn’t a child’s play to travel approximately 18000 feet from sea level and feel the top of the world. The thin air gives nightmarish situations if things get stuck at that altitude. However, for those of us who have scaled over Khardung La Pass and felt that we were on top of the world, then I would like to pause here. I will break your heart a bit by wiping away the myths around the altitude of Khardung La pass. Its title is falsely claimed to be the Highest Motorable Pass in the world.
Pro Tip: If you are planning to do a self drive to Ladakh, then make sure are aware about the must have things to carry on a self drive trip to Ladakh
Motorable Road or Motorable Pass – Let’s Define
Before going into the details of the world’s highest motorable passes or roads, we must first understand or settle the meaning of “motorable pass or motorable road”. As defined in one of the articles linked below in the reference section, we define “motorable road or pass” as a pass or a road on which:
- Any average experienced driver can drive or ride any car or bike like a hatchback, SUV, sedan, low powered bike, high power bike etc..OR;
- Any average experienced driver can drive or ride an equipped motor vehicle such as only a 4×4 SUV, or an ATB or a hefty power bike, etc.. OR;
- Any greatly expert driver can drive an equipped motor vehicle such as only a 4×4 SUV, or an ATB, etc..;
- Only army movement is allowed and is closed for civilians but still considered as motorable pass or where anyone, at least local native of that place can drive or ride over it with prior permits or permissions…
- Whether the road is metalled or tarred or is it an unpaved road or dirt track with rocks on it but in drivable conditions at least for High GC vehicles or bikes or the road is abandoned but once built.
So, you can see that the fact about being the highest motorable road in the world or the highest motorable pass in the world will depend upon, how we define the motorable term.
How do we define it
Hence, for the sake of brevity of this article, let’s assume we define a motorable pass or motorable road:
As a road or pass where an average skilled local citizen / civilian driver or rider, with permits from army if required, can take an SUV car having high ground clearance (4×2 or 4×4) or an average powered motorbike irrespective of the fact whether the road is metalled / tarred or unpaved / dirt track as long as such a vehicle can be driven and maintain decent connectivity.
Also, to add to the myths, the data shown or written at most of these high mountain passes signboards or hoardings is not in compliance with the modern age technology GPS Devices or SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission). This observation is based as per many reports over the Internet whose authenticity I even don’t know or can comment upon.
Many people who have driven over these roads or passes with modern age GPS systems have also found discrepancies. If you are interested you can read more details of SRTM on Wikipedia.
Top 13 Highest Motorable Passes or Roads in the world
Now, going by the above definition, let’s brief ourselves with Top 13 Highest Motorable Passes in the world or Roads in the world whose altitude data points are measured in compliance with SRTM or with modern age GPS systems based on the reports present over the Internet. Some of them I have linked in the references outlined below in the article.
1. Umling La or Umlingla Pass – 5,883 Mtrs or 19,300 Feet
In 2017, BRO has built and opened the world’s highest road over Umlingla pass or Umling La connecting Chisumle and Demchok villages. Umling La pass is about 105 KMs from Hanle Village and about 235 KMs from Leh. Civilians are no longer allowed to travel to Umling La pass. So you need to wait up to the point in future when army and administration start issuing the permits for Umling La.
The route you can take is Hanle to Photi La Pass to Photile Village (57 km). Then follow the route from Photile Village to Umlinga La pass for about 50 km at an altitude of 19300 feet. You will come across two bridges/ water crossings while going to Umlingla Pass from Photile Village. There is another route from Ukdungle village as well, but it is more of a dirt track only except a few kilometers. If you are planning a trip to Umling La pass, then you must read my comprehensive travel guide of the Umling Pass trip.
2. Road to Uturuncu – 5,777 Mtrs or 18,953 Feet
The road to Uturuncu above col is situated in Potosi, Bolivia which was used to be considered as the world’s highest motorable road at a staggering altitude of 5,777 Mtrs or 18953 Feet until India opened up Umlingla.
This route has attracted many cyclists all over the world is the highest cyclable road in the world for sure. The road was built to service a sulfur mine. However, if you live in India and have been to the high villages of Ladakh and Spiti, then by looking at the pictures of roads to Uturuncu, you can judge that such roads are driven mostly by many of local natives as well as tourists who are experienced drivers in such terrains of trans-Himalayas.
You can read more on Utruncu at the wiki link. Also, on this blog on the Andes where it highlights that a landslide blocked the road for motor vehicles at 5,550 Mtrs a few years back. But, in one of the articles I read, it states that the road (up to the year 2013 at least) was motorable from Quetena to the col between Uturuncu’s two summits at 5,760m.
3. A Road uphill Mana Pass or Dungri La – 5,610 Mtrs or 18,406 Feet
Mana Pass or Dungri La is situated at the border between Tibet and India in the state of Uttarakhand. Civilians, though native to India, with prior permits from the army can travel up there to reach India’s second-highest Motorable road and third highest motorable road in the world.
Mana Pass or Dungri La, in itself, is at an altitude of 5,545 Mtrs or 18,192 Feet which is less than the altitude of Marsimik La (number 4 below). However, as per the Mana pass wiki link “The well-graded gravel-dirt road is higher on the Indian side than the new road on the Tibetan side, and rises to 5,610 Mtrs (18,406 feet) on the Indian side of the border, 250 Mtrs west of the low point of the 5,545 meters (18,192 ft) Mana Pass“. Hence, it can be considered as India’s second-highest motorable road and the world’s third-highest motorable road after the road to Uturuncu based on the above assumption that it is still open.
4. Marsimek La or Marsimik La – 5,582 Mtrs or 18,313 Feet
Marsimek La or Marsimik La is situated in Ladakh, India where civilians, though native to India, with prior permits from the army can travel and scale this daunting pass at an altitude of 5,582 Mtrs. Getting a permit to Marsimik La is a little easier in comparison to getting a permit to that highest road Umling La or to Mana Pass or Dungri La road.
The road to Marsimik La bifurcates through Pobrang on the way to Pangong Tso Lake and is about 20 odd KMs from there at a steep climb. People have scaled Marsimik La by their ordinary SUVs (4×2) or average powered bikes in the past. The altitude mentioned here is, according to SRTM. But you may find different sources of altitude for this pass in various articles over the Internet. Also in its signboard image, I shared below.
Hence, you can say that Marsimek La or Marsimik La is the second-highest motorable mountain pass in the world because the other two in the list above are the high altitude roads, not passes (assuming that the road to Uturuncu mentioned above is not a pass).
5. Semo La – 5,565 Mtrs or 18,258 Feet
Semo La is situated in the central part of Tibet and boasts an altitude of 5,565 Mtrs or 18,258 Feet. According to the wiki link of Semo La, “Travellers use this route as an alternative access route to western Tibet and Mount Kailash, especially when mud makes access by the more southern route difficult“. Prior to the opening of Umling La, Marsimik La and road to Mana Pass or Dungri La, Semo La was used to be quoted too as world’s highest motorable road to clear the myths which always surrounded Khardung La Pass 🙂
6. Photi La – 5,524 Mtrs or 18,124 Feet
The latest unknown entry into the world’s highest motorable passes or roads is Photi La pass which is situated in India – Ladakh region at an altitude of 5,524 Mtrs or 18,124 Feet. Photi La is about 30 odd KMs from an amazingly beautiful place on this earth called Hanle that is present in Changthang region of Ladakh further away from Tso Moriri lake.
Pro Tip: If you are looking forward to travel to Ladakh from Srinagar Leh Highway, then do check our guide on planning a trip to Srinagar Leh Highway
7. Dongkha La or Donkia La Pass – 5,486 Mtrs or 17,999 Feet
On number seven, we have Dongkha La or Donkia Pass situated at an altitude of 5,486 Mtrs or 17,999 Feet connecting Sikkim in India with Tibet. This pass is located in North Sikkim having Tso Lhamo Lake or Cholamu Lake (14th Highest lake in the world) very near to it.
Tso Lhamo Lake or Cholamu Lake is considered one of the origins of the Teesta river along with glacial lake Khangchung and Gurudongmar Lake. It lies about 10-12 km (if I am not wrong) away from the Dongkha La or Donkia La Pass. The Indian Army controls the pass. You need to get special permits to visit this mountain pass. Similar to the Mana Pass permit, it is hard to get the permits. It is all due to the proximity of this pass with the Tibet border. Also, the roads are not best in shape towards this pass, so a High GC vehicle, preferably 4×4 is required to drive up there with good driving skills.
8. Kaksang La – 5,438 Mtrs or 17,841 Feet
Next, in the list, we have another least known surprise entry by the name “Kaksang La” pass which is situated in the Changthang region of Ladakh at an altitude of 5,438 Mtrs or 17,841 Feet. It comes on the route from Mahe to Nama – Chusul – Pangong Tso when going over Hora La Pass that comes first as you start ascending from Mahe ahead of Chumathang near Tso Moriri.
On this route from Mahe to Nama – Chusul – Pangong Tso, there are two amazingly beautiful lakes by the names of Yaye Tso and Mirpal Tso as well which will take your soul away by their first sight itself. Again, you need an Inner Line Permits in Ladakh to visit the region of Nama – Chusul, but at least Indian Nationals always have a fair chance to get these permits. Please note at times, even after having permits, the army does not allow you to travel on this route and can send you back from the checkpoint in case they deem unsafe to travel further for civilians.
9. Suge La – 5,430 Mtrs or 17,815 Feet
Suge La is situated at an altitude of 5,430 Mtrs or 17,815 Feet present in Tibet about 110 KMs northwest of Lhasa. The road to the top is in decent condition, and after reaching the top, you get an amazing view of Chomo Gangtse mountain which boasts an altitude of 7,048 Mtrs.
10. Chang La – 5,360 Mtrs or 17,586 Feet
Surprise, surprise, surprise !! 🙂 🙂 … Well, yeah, those of you who have been to Ladakh will be in a surprise to know that Changla pass is higher than Khardung La too as per the readings in compliance to SRTM or with modern age GPS systems. Chang La is quite a beautifully located pass on the way to majestic Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, India. It is visited by thousands of tourists every year as soon as the season in May – June starts after the opening of Manali – Leh Highway or Srinagar – Leh Highway.
Since Leh has connectivity through the air as well, so nowadays loads of tourists have also started visiting frozen Pangong Tso over snow buried Chang La pass in winters too. Do not miss a black tea or tomato soup up there at the Canteen.
11. Khardung La – 5,359 Mtrs or 17,582 Feet
Number eleven on the list is the falsely claimed highest motorable pass in the world named Khardung La pass, situated in Ladakh, India at an altitude of 5,359 Mtrs or 17,582 Feet. I am thankful for the stars that at least it made it in the Top 13 on this list after having so much hype around 😉 😀 😆 …
Thousands of tourists travel every year to this mountain pass, and I assume that it may be one of the most clicked passes in the world for sure with maybe thousands of photographs produced every year by tourists over the Internet who visit Ladakh. Almost, everyone who visits Ladakh, do visit Khardung La pass and get a picture clicked up there with its signboard, see mine too in the article first picture ;)…
Almost all kinds of bikes or cars have traveled up there as the ascend to it is not that treacherous as compared to some other even less altitude passes. Do not miss a black tea or tomato soup up there at the Canteen similar to Chang La. You can also get some souvenirs of world’s highest motorable road too from the shop up there at Khardung La 🙂 🙂
12. Taglang La or Tanglang La – 5,328 Mtrs or 17,480 Feet
The second last on the list is Taglang La or Tanglang La pass at an altitude of 5,328 Mtrs or 17,480 Feet which is located in Ladakh, India. It comes on one of the most beautiful & the adventurous road of the world that is Manali – Leh Highway. It is one of my favorite passes in Ladakh.
Like Khardung La, Taglang La is also incorrectly claimed to be the second-highest motorable pass in the world followed by Chang La pass. However, now you are aware of what exactly is the order of Chang La, Khardung La, and Taglang La 🙂 🙂 …
13. Wari La – 5,312 Mtrs or 17,428 Feet
Last on the list is a desolated pass situated in Ladakh, India which is connecting the direct route from Nubra Valley to Pangong Tso and falls under Nubra Valley at an altitude of 5,312 Mtrs or 17,428 Feet. The climb to Wari La is so desolate that one can feel completely disconnected or lost from the civilized world, especially when traversing the route from Agham village to Sakti village at the base of Chang La pass. Not even a single human soul to spot in miles. It is one of my favorite passes that I have ever been too.
Shipki La Pass in Himachal – 4,268 Mtrs or 14,000 Feet
Shipki La Pass is situated at the border between Tibet and India in the state of Himachal. Civilians are not allowed to travel up to Shipki La, and getting the permit from the army to travel to it is extremely difficult. The wiki does not have the correct altitude noted for this pass. DB has mentioned in the comments section below that they consistently measured Shipki La pass to be around 14000 feet odd only. His comments prove my apprehensions were correct 🙂 …
So, it seems that Internet references require a lot of corrections. Even, ElevationMap website proves that too. So, taking it out of the list and keeping it as originally posted. By the way, I have been as close as to Namgia village to Shipki La pass. It never felt it is the world’s highest road until was surprised seeing the data posted over the Internet 🙂
There may be many more higher motorable roads or passes built up in China / Tibet / Andes like Ojos del Salado (6,646 Mtrs), Aucanquilcha (6,176 Mtrs), road to Luo La (5,593 Mtrs), Bodpo La (5,767 Mtrs), Jang Rang La (5761 Mtrs), etc.. all mentioned in the articles present in the reference links below.
But whether or not they are still motorable roads now in the recent past is still not clear because most of them are either abandoned or not allowed for travel may be. Hence, as per the definition we settled in the article above, I am just enlisting them here for some remaining unknown or unclear myths/facts even on the above list too 🙂 🙂 …
So, next time you think or say to anyone that you have been to Khardung La, that is the highest motorable pass in the world, then you know how many more passes or roads are still left for you to scale before feeling that you have been to the top in the world by a motor vehicle 😉 😉 …
Now, you know where you need to drive or ride or pedal to reach the top in the world, so feel free to share this valuable information with all the travel freaks you admire or know. In the end, all I will say is that there is this travel bucket list for you that I have shared above, so start planning a trip to them at least those of which are in our Indian Himalayas in case you don’t feel like going abroad 😀 😀
Special thanks to the people/authors/sources mentioned in the below reference articles which have written about the highest motorable roads. Some of them who collated data from various reports on the Internet and some who cycled with their latest GPS devices and shared those readings with all over the Internet in these articles.