On top of the world

sky high

serene View from Khardung La summit. photo by author

with the retort “Because it’s there.” Once a mountaineer reaches the summit of Mount Everest, it is not as if one reaches Shangri La, where you can spend time and enjoy. The weather does not permit this. A mountaineer has to climb down immediately after reaching the summit.

When I decided to reach the summit of Khardung La (La means pass in Tibetan) through the highest motorable road in the world in the Himalayas, I had no expectations. But I was in for a surprise. An apocryphal story has it that when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Mount Everest, they were greeted by a Malayali offering them tea. When I reached the top of Khardung La at 18,380 feet, I found the highest cafe in the world and I had not one but two cups of tea, simply because the tea was out of this world.

Sonam Norboo of the Indian Army, who attended the self-service cafe, told me the secret of the divine tea — cardamom, cinnamon and a dash of lemon besides, of course, tea leaves and sugar (no milk). In addition, the cafe makes Tibetan momos, noodles and a few other snacks to celebrate your arrival on the top, after having survived the rarefied atmosphere.

The Rinchen Cafe is no ordinary cafe. There are a number of art works fixed on the walls inside the cafe depicting the Ladakhi landscape and life. Prominently placed in the cafe is the portrait of Col Chewang Rinchen, after whom the cafe is named. Col Rinchen is the hero of the Himalayas. Born in 1931 at Sumur Nubra in Ladakh, he joined the Nubra Guards at the age of 17.

During the 1947-48 Indo-Pak War, he, along with his band of 28 volunteers, successfully blocked the advance of Pakistani raiders for one month and 23 days. For his heroic action, he was awarded Maha Vir Chakra and he became the youngest recipient of the award in Indian Army.

In the 1962 Indo-China war, he was awarded the Sena Medal for his brave deeds against the Chinese in Dera Baba Oldie sector. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, he provided vital information regarding the deployment of enemy forces to Col Kapur, Commander of Nubra Sector, and led some very aggressive patrols on the most difficult routes to reach enemy locations to take them by surprise.

In the 1971 Indo-Pak war, as a Major in the Ladakh Scouts, he led “Dhal Force” against the Pakistanis in Baltistan. His unorthodox technique based on guerrilla resulted in the capture of Turtok. He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for the second time. It is therefore appropriate that the world’s highest cafe has been named after this brave soldier. Rinchen retired as a full Colonel in 1984. He was appointed honorary Colonel of the Ladakh Scouts. The Indian Army has named an army shopping complex after him in Leh.

There is a nondescript monastery and a deity in a small shrine said to protect Khardung La. And if you are the touristy type, there is also an army-run merchandise shop selling T-shirts and caps as souvenirs commemorating your visit to Khardung La.

Khardung La, the gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys, is situated about 40 km by road from Leh. The first pit stop is at 24 km, South Pullu check point. South Pullu and North Pullu serve as two bases on either side of the summit. The pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier which lies in Nubra Valley. Historically, Khardung La lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually. During World War II there was an attempt to transfer war material to China through this route.
Building the road from Leh to Pratapur across Khardung La was a big adventure in itself. It was first attempted in 1963 but was stopped. The construction commenced again in 1972 and the road was opened to vehicular traffic in 1973. As many as 18 men of the 201 Engineers Regiment of the Madras Sappers lost their lives in forging the Khardung La. Today, the road is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation.

The Khardung La is an adventurer’s dream route. Many adventure motorcyclists motor their way up from Leh to the top and return to Leh. Cyclists ferry their cycles to the top in vehicles and ride their way back to the base. The long winding road can be treacherous. You need permission to go to Khardung La from the Commissioner’s office, which can be had without any fuss. If you are staying at a hotel in Leh, the hotel does it for you.
Even if it is not winter, you will find at least some snow. In winter, Khardung La is covered with snow and at other times oxygen levels are very low and you are advised to minimise your physical movements. But in case of emergency, the army men are always there to help you with oxygen cylinders. The sheer joy of reaching the top of the world, in a manner of speaking, is worth the minor hazards you may.

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