Exclusive: THE WEEK takes you to the world's highest motorable road

Umling La in Ladakh, at 19,024ft, is higher than the Mt Everest base camps

gallery-image The 52km road, at 19,024ft, snakes through snow-capped mountains and connects important towns in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh.
gallery-image These wild donkeys were the only animals to be found at that height.
gallery-image Melting snow by the roadside.

April 20, 2022; 8am. We rounded a blind curve to find a yellow milestone. Welcome to the world’s highest motorable road, read the message from the Border Roads Organisation. My colleague Pradip R. Sagar and I pierced the quiet with a yell. THE WEEK had become the first Indian publication to reach the road. Umling La, at 19,024ft, is higher than the Mt Everest base camps.

Cold be damned, I thought as our driver Dorjee Gyalson pulled over, and jumped out with my camera. The mountains did not care for my bravado, though; I was gasping for air before I could shoot. It was -11 degrees Celsius and oxygen was scant. The icy winds froze my hands and the bright sunlight blinded me. The adrenaline helped me click a few quick shots before the thin air slowed me down. I had to stop.

I took a moment to take in the view. The sky was a clean blue, the ground snowy white. The yellow milestone shone like a gold medal for the BRO. Looking down, I saw the narrow, serpentine road that had carried us here.

gallery-image A bridge on the stretch.
gallery-image The view during the descent.
gallery-image An Army rest stop on the Umling La.

Before Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated Umling La under Project Himank last December, Khardung La in Leh was India’s highest motorable road. The 52km Umling La connects important towns in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh. It cuts travel time from Leh to Demchok by three to four hours. Currently, the locals and the Army have used it; but more travellers are expected in the summer. The BRO took six years to build the road in extremely challenging conditions. It was inaugurated alongside 24 other key infrastructure projects in the middle of a border stand-off with China.

When we started from Leh, we were not sure about reaching Umling La. There were no clear directions from the Ladakh administration, even though the BRO’s website promotes it as a key attraction. We were not even sure whether civilians were allowed to go there. A group of bikers was also asking around for information on how to get there.

From Leh, we travelled for more than 250km in about eight hours and spent the night at Hanle. The small village in the Changthang region is a treat for stargazers. There was no hotel, so Dorjee took us to a home stay. We were given homemade food and advice; go with a guide, we were told.

Border Roads Organisation signs near the road. Border Roads Organisation signs near the road.

We started around 6am the next morning and asked our guide, Stopgal Wangchuk, for the ETA. “It all depends on the Almighty,” he said with a smile.

He guided Dorjee through the narrow, bumpy roads and pointed out some shortcuts; we reached in about two hours. On the way, we saw some wild asses—the only other animal out on the desolate roads.

Once there, we saw an Indian Army hut by the road. Some jawans were clearing the spot for a visit by a senior officer. They waved us over for hot tea and biscuits at, as the Army puts it, the “world’s highest cafe”. “You are lucky to reach here. It is no ordinary feat,” said one of them, thrilled at the sight of civilians.

They did not want to be photographed, but talked warmly for about 10 minutes. As we were leaving, the jawans insisted on giving us a parting gift—biscuits and juice cartons.

Love survives, even in those heights.