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The high passes of India

It is in Northern India that one can drive or ride the highest passes on earth. China also has built roads over very high passes in Tibet, but most are in restricted military areas and anyway it’s very complicated to drive in China: a guide is required and a special permit is needed for visiting the Tibet autonomous area. So details about those passes are scarce.

Ke La, 5670m, a new and difficult pass to climb. Which therefore sees almost no traffic at all.

Nepal and Pakistan do not have any passes higher than 5000 m. And in all of South America you’ll find only a handful of more or less well maintained mine roads that end up in a dead end over 5000 m (Cerro Uturuncu, Refugio Tejos, Ollagüe); but no proper passes that link one valley to another at this altitude.

So here’s the list of all motorable passes of India that are higher than 5000m, including those that lay at the border with China and therefore are restricted to military personal only. Others are accessible by Indian National only, and most require a permit which is readily available and easy to get in Leh, the Ladakh capital, for visitors of any nationality.

Altitude (m)AccessSurface
Umling LaLadakh5798Indians onlyPaved
Kungzhag LaSikkim5780Military
Ke LaLadakh5670All with permitDirt
Mana PassUttarakhand5632Military
Marsimik LaLadakh5580Indians only
Karakoram PassLadakh5540Military
Dongkha LaSikkim5534Military
Photi LaLadakh5524All with permitPaved
Kaksang LaLadakh5430All with permit
Chang LaLadakh5387All with permitPaved
Saser LaLadakh5370Indians only
Khardung LaLadakh5359All with permitPaved
Tagalang LaLadakh5328AllPaved
NurbulaLadakh5313All with permitPaved
Wari LaLadakh5312All with permitPaved
Salsal LaLadakh5201All with permitGravel
Lipulekh PassUttarakhand5115Military
Nidar LaLadakh5107All with permitGravel
Lachalung LaLahaul5080AllPaved
Shinku LaLahaul5054AllPaved
Khardung La is crowded every day in season, when hundreds of rental bikes and taxis rush to the top to take a selfie.

The fabled Khardung La, which everybody seems to want to go to, is only 12th in the list, so maybe not even in the top 20 if we take in account the Tibetan passes ! The misconception comes from a sign on top which claims it to stand at 18380 feet (5602 m), which is clearly wrong, as will be shown by your GPS if you get there.

Some of the higher passes are also very popular and crowded (Chang La, on the way to Pangong Too), some are becoming increasingly popular because they are so easily accessible (Umling La), but some are almost completely ignored by the tour agencies, because they’re too remote or too difficult (Ke La, Kaksang La).

Salsal La is very remote and accessible through a gravel road only, so it’s likely you’ll have the mountain all to yourself.