The mere mention of traveling to the highest motorway is enough to spark interest in the adventurous; traveling; or explore new places; or even motorcycling. From my own experience, I can tell you that the very feeling of being at a point where only a few were is like no other. It is a journey that begins with curiosity; unfolds like an adventure; and finally ends in a sense of accomplishment. If I talk specifically about India, every year thousands of motorcyclists and thrill seekers head to the deserts of Ladakh and Spiti like a moth for the flame; and one of the biggest factors that attracts them here is the highest motorized passes in the region. It is a challenge that everyone wants to undertake and a path they dream to conquer.
Tallest Passage in the World
But then what is the highest pass in the world? This is a question that has always had many answers and almost all the answers have been disputed. Why? Because the definition of the term is not absolute or definitive. For example, if I talk about the highest passage in the world, I will also have to include those that are possible on foot. After all, they are all canyons and people are really traveling through it. There could be hundreds of Himalayan passages that can only be crossed on foot and most of them are not yet known or climbed by anyone except the locals.
Therefore, to further refine the search and definition, the word “motorized” is added and the term changes to the world’s highest passage or road. But does the dispute end here? Not really, because then begins the discussion about what kind of vehicle we are talking about for a road to be considered “motorized”?
The highest motorized point in the world
There is an active volcano in Chile named Ojos Del Salado, which is actually also the highest mountain in the country, at a height of 6,893 meters (22,615 feet). On April 21, 2007, two Chileans named Gonzalo and Eduardo Canales Moya tried to scale him into a modified Suzuki Samurai. They failed to reach the top, but reached an altitude of 6,688 m (21,942 feet); therefore, set the highest altitude record achieved by a four-wheeled vehicle.
But can this volcano and the point where it reached be called the highest pass or motorized road in the world? Not really, because in the first place there was no road. They were climbing a volcano where probably no one would want to make a road. Secondly, as it was a volcano, it was not really a mountain pass.
The largest motorized road in the world
If we talk about the highest road in the world, another volcano in Chile called Aucanquilcha should be mentioned. There was a mining road here that reached an altitude of 6,176 meters (20,262 feet) and was commonly used by 20-ton mining trucks. This road, however, is impassable now and is no longer in use. The mine was also closed in 1992.
So after considering the two points above in Chile, the title of the world’s highest road or passage is open and has been claimed by many. Two names that are most commonly related to this crown are: Khardung La in the Ladakh region of India and Semo La in Tibet. However, none of them can be called the winner anymore.
If you live in India, the name of Khardung La would not be unknown to you. It is a high mountain pass located in the Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. A well-paved road travels through this pass that connects the city of Leh with the Nubra Valley. The road is used by Indian Army residents throughout the year and serves as a lifeline for Indian soldiers deployed on the Siachen Glacier. For a long time, the maximum elevation of this road and passage was incorrectly quoted as 5,602 meters (18,379 feet), making it the tallest motor road in the world. The boards at the top of the pass still claim to be true. However, it was later discovered that the actual pass height is 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). And therefore, Khardung La lost his crown to his competitor, Semo La Pass.
Semo La is a mountain pass situated in central Tibet. The road that ran through this gorge was an unpaved dirt track used only by a handful of vehicles every week. In 2015, a metal road was built in the area. At its highest elevation, this road crossed the Semo La Pass at an altitude of 5,566 m (18,261 ft). After Khardung La lost the highest road title in the world, she was transferred to Semo La in 2015 because of her altitude and the good condition of the road. But even Semo La couldn’t hold it for long and was transferred to another motorized pass in India, which I covered later in this article.
What is the highest road in the world?
So as you can see, the whole argument is about what really can be considered a road. For some, it must be metallized and well paved so that any vehicle can travel on it. But many others argue based on the navigation capabilities of the path. Therefore, for them, even a broken dirt track via a 4 × 4 vehicle will qualify as a road as long as it helps them reach their destination. A person’s driving skills also play a role in the argument to some extent. Can it be called a road if only a steering wheel expert can handle it? Road accessibility can also be considered as a qualifying factor. Is the road open to everyone or used only by army vehicles and restricted to civilians?
What qualifies as a road?
In my opinion, any path can actually be called a road as long as it qualifies in the below.
- The trail is wide enough for a car to travel.
- It is helping you navigate your way and move from one point to another.
- An ordinary skilled driver, military or civilian, can handle it.
- An ordinary city car can reach the top without any modification to make it capable enough to travel for the pass.
- The road may not be accessible to low CG vehicles such as the Sedans, but a high ground clearance SUV can reach the top. It doesn’t matter if the vehicle was two-wheel drive or 4×4.
- I don’t believe the fact that the road is paved has any role here. I am a frequent traveler from the Himalayas and can testify that no road here remains metallic all the time. Depending on weather, snowfall, landslides, precipitation; These roads break and are rebuilt every year.
- So basically, I’m talking about a road wide enough for a car, it has been traveled by civilians and is feasible for a 4 × 4, if not 2X4 vehicle. Now, keeping this qualifying factor in mind, below is a list of the world’s highest passages and roads that can be considered the highest in the world.
The world’s largest motorways or motorways
I will list the names below in descending order based on altitude. I am not considering the difficulty level of the pass or the condition of the road. The only qualifying factor is the elevation that has been validated and the fact that people were able to get here in their regular cars.
Umling La is a high altitude pass located in the Changthang Valley of Ladakh region of India. This pass was built in late 2017 and at a staggering height of 5,883 meters (19,300 feet), it is by far the highest motorized pass in the world. It was traveled by civil motorcycles and cars. I reached the top of the pass on my 350 CC Royal Enfield. The road to Umling La is a mix of super smooth metal roads and a dirt track, but a regular 4×4 can easily reach the top without any problems, which proves that the road is really motorized. There is a dispute around its actual height of 5,800 meters (19,030 feet), but it will still be the highest motorized pass in the world.
La Umling is located at a distance of 108 kilometers from Hanle; towards the village of Demchok. Depending on the route you take; The total distance between the city of Leh and Umling La Pass is about 350 to 400 kilometers. From Hanle, it will take you about 4-5 hours to reach the top of Umling La; depending on your speed and breaks. From Leh, it takes at least 2 days of travel.
In the early days, when this pass came to public notice, many people visited it in 2017 and early 2018. But because of its close proximity to the India-China border, access to this area is now severely restricted. Civilians can no longer travel for the pass.
I know what you’re thinking. Is Mana Pass really the second tallest motorized road in the world? In fact, if you consider the fact that the road through Umling La was built in 2017, there was, in fact, a time when the Mana Pass was in fact the tallest motorized pass.
Like all other passes, your actual height is also contested. If you agree with the BRO, the highest elevation point of the Mana Pass will be 5,608 meters. As in another measurement, the summit of the Mana Pass is actually 5,545 meters (18,192 feet). But a well-graded gravel road on the Indian side of the pass rises to an even higher altitude of 5,610 meters (18,406 feet) about 250 meters from the pass. Another measure places the elevation of this point at 5,632 meters (18,478 feet). These images are visible on visual systems around the globe, such as Google Earth. By following one of these measures, the Mana Pass will remain the second highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world.
The road was built in the period 2005-2010 for the Indian military by the Border Roads Organization. The Chinese side of the road was built after the Indian side. The pass is also known as Dungri La, Mana La, Chirbitya, Chirbitya la. It is used regularly by the Indian Army and ITBP and even tourists are allowed after obtaining permission from SDM Joshimath’s Inner Line along with the ITBP and Indian Army NOC Certificate.
Next on the list will be the spoken and sought after Marsimik La pass. It is located in the Ladakh region of India, and almost all motorcyclists heading to Ladakh dream of winning the Marsimik La. The pass was open to civilians until a few years ago but entry has now been restricted to military personnel only. I am not saying that permission cannot be obtained, but it is extremely difficult to obtain.
Marsimik La’s altitude is also, in fact, a matter of confusion. If you believe the panel placed by the BRO at the top of the pass, it is at an altitude of 18,953 feet. Or 5,777 meters. Because of this, Marsimik La was actually considered the highest motor road in the world. But a recent and more accurate measurement has raised the altitude to 5,582 meters (18,314 feet), which would make it the third most accessible vehicle road after Umling La and Mana Pass.
The pass is located about 36 km from Pangong Lake, 33 km from Lukung, 25 km from Phobrang and 180 km from Le City. To get to the pass, you first have to get to Pangong Lake. From there you will travel to Phobrang and send your authorizations at the checkpoint there. After Phobrang, the road rises sharply to the top of the pass.
The road to Marsimik La is regularly used by the Indian military and regularly by tourists. People were at the top of the pass on their bikes and cars. I hit the top on my Royal Enfield 350 CC, but a friend of mine really did it on the Pulsar 150CC. If you read the web, you will find that many people have won it even on scooters. This means that although the road is a dirt and gravel trail to the end, it is definitely mobile.
The curious fact is that if we consider the fact that the elevation of the Mana Pass is 5,545 meters, it would make Marsimik La the second highest. It is a part of the road to Mana Top that rises to 5,610 meters, but the actual passage is at a lower height.
After Khardung La, Semo La was believed to be the highest motorway in the world. In fact, it was the strongest candidate and the argument was based on the quality of the road. Passages like Mana La, Umling La and Marsimik La are all dirt or gravel roads, but Semo La has a suitable metal road built over it.
It is located in central Tibet at an elevation of 5,565 meters (18,258 feet), just behind Marsimik La. Another measure puts its height at 5,566 meters (18,261 feet).
Many believe the Semo La is the highest motor pass in the world, based on the argument that it is the only one that has been accurately measured. He also disputes the claim of the other passes as “motorized” based on the fact that they are all gravel roads. If we want to define the term road based on its conditions, Semo La will really come out as the title winner. In the past, the road that crossed the passage was all dirt road and used only by a weekly bus and a few trucks. Construction of the asphalt road was completed at the end of 2015.
For our next name on the list, we will return to Ladakh once again. Photi La Pass is located on the same road that continues to Umling La. Its altitude is 5,524 meters (18,124 feet), at a distance of about 35 kilometers from Hanle. To get to the pass, you first have to reach Hanle from Leh via Chushul or Chumathang.
From Hanle, take the road towards the top Photi La, which is approximately 35 km away. The board would read 28 kilometers, which is not true. If you continue on the road and do not take shortcuts, the entire stretch to the top is about 35 kilometers. This whole section of the road is a dirt track with the last 5 kilometers being a very steep climb. If you cross the pass and continue further, you will come to Umling La.
The Dongkha la, also known as the Donkia Pass, is a Himalayan gorge that connects Sikkim in India with Tibet. The elevation of the pass is 5,534 meters (18,156 feet). The pass is located about 4 kilometers from the India-China border, so permission is almost impossible to obtain. I don’t know anyone who participated in this pass, but it is often used by Indian army vehicles. Very close to the pass is the beautiful lake of lake Tso Lhamo. 6.5 km long and 2.5 km wide, it is one of the largest lakes in India at such a high altitude (5,330 meters or 17,490 feet). This lake is also the source of the river Teesta.
The pass was first recorded in Western literature by botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who crossed it on September 7, 1849.
To continue our list further, we will return again to the charming land of Ladakh. Kakasang La (also known as Kaksang La) is a high altitude step in the Changthang region of Ladakh at an elevation of 5,437 meters (17,834 feet). The road is one of two that connects the villages of Chushul and Mahe and the shortest. The other route is via Chushul, Tsaga, Loma and Nyoma. If you choose to travel via Kakasang La, you will be crossing another high altitude pass at Hor La before reaching Mahe. The climb to Kakasang La is very steep and you really need a 4 × 4 vehicle for this.
Suge La is a high mountain pass in Tibet at an elevation of 5,430 meters (17,815 feet) above sea level. It is one of the highest road crossings in the world. The climb to Suge La is a nightmare, but from the pass you have incredible views of Chomo Gangtse, which rises to 7,048 meters. Road conditions at Suge La are decent. It is a wide dirt road on which most vehicles can travel.
Returning to Ladakh once more; Now we’ll talk about one of the region’s favorite passes; the mighty Chang La; which, at an altitude of 5,360 meters (17,585 feet) for a long period, was incorrectly considered the third longest motorway in the world. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful passes and gives way to Pangong Tso, one of the most beautiful lakes. The pass remains open for all 12 months. There is a metal road that runs through the passage and is steerable by all types of vehicles.
The final and last entry among the 10 highest motorized crossings in the world would be from the king himself, Khardung La. If you search on Google; you are still likely to be named Khardung La as the tallest; Such is the glory of this pass. At an elevation of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet); It remains open for 12 months and connects the city of Leh with the Nubra Valley and Siachen base camp.
These are just the top 10 names I provided, but the list, of course, doesn’t end here. The passes I listed above were based entirely on ease of accessibility, road conditions and the ability of an average driver to get to it. However, there are numerous other passes around the world; mainly in the Himalayan region of India, Nepal, Tibet and China.