Khardung-La pass: Constructions and destruction at 18,000 ft
Updated: Jan 13
Photo credit: Mipham Jigmet
Mountain passes are a special geographic feature –– a route through a mountain range or over a ridge situated at a higher elevation. In the Himalayan region, passes have historically been a conduit for movement of people, goods and animals. The famous Silk Route, for instance, which connected East with West, was a vast network of overland trade routes traversing many passes in the Himalayan range. The Khardung-La, one such pass, has played a key role, in material and cultural exchange in the Ladakh region and beyond. Today, however, Khardung-La is a tourist route, more than anything, on the way to the Nubra valley to see sand dunes and double-humped camels. Standing at the top of the pass is a plaque encapsulating its significance thus: "The top of the world...17,982 ft".
In earlier times, Khardung-La would have been one among the many passes in Ladakh, which people climbed on foot to meet relatives on the other side, conduct trade and other routine activities. To be sure, the very name, Ladakh, means 'Land of High Passes'. Passes were also considered sacred in the local culture. Even today, while crossing a pass, locals put up prayer flags on the peak and offer prayers to the deities for their safe journey. But ever since Khardung-La's altitude came to be known, matters changed for this pass. Bestowed with the title, 'The top of the world', this obscure pass turned into a thriving tourist destination.
Stickers pasted by tourists on the signboard.
The signboard earlier (left) and now (right). 
Tourist amenities on Khardung-La pass: What, why, and how?
Opening remote and pristine locations to tourism is risky, and without protective measures, destruction is inevitable. Such is the situation at Khardung-La pass where in trying to facilitate the tourist, things have gone overboard. In recent years, several tourist amenities have come up at Khardung-La pass, although it is not advisable for tourists to halt there beyond 20 mins. Most of these amenities have been constructed by the Indian Army, some of whose units are camped at Khardung-La pass, South Pullu and North Pullu . It is important to probe into why and how these amenities came up because Khardung-La pass is situated on glacier, which has been melting at a visibly alarming rate.
The cafe at Khardung-La pass was constructed by the Indian Army, and given over to the Tourism Department-UT Ladakh to be run. The Tourism Department tendered the operation of the cafe into private hands. Originally, it was the Leh Development Authority (LDA), executing agency for infrastructural projects in Leh, which was commissioned by the authorities to build a cafe at Khardung-La pass. However, once the plinth for the cafe was laid, the Army halted the construction on security grounds. Later on, the Army itself went on to construct a cafe, and handed it over to the Tourism Department-UT Ladakh.
The cafe at Khardung-La pass.
The cafe is meant to facilitate the tourists by providing hot beverages and snacks. The revenue from the sales at the cafe go to the individual who runs it. All the food and drinks are served in single-use cups, plates and spoons, generating a significant amount of waste, whose whereabouts are unclear. The staff of the cafe say that their waste is collected by the municipality on a daily basis. However, the municipal authorities say that the waste might be collected once in a month while collecting waste from the upper villages of Leh. According to this, the cafe should store its waste of a whole month before the waste gets collected, and even then, it is not assured whether the waste will get collected since a municipal truck has to be sent specifically to Khardung-la pass, which is about 40 kms away and uphill from Leh city. As storing the waste of a whole month is not feasible, especially during the tourist season, the cafe most probably burns its waste, remains of which can be seen behind the toilets and in the barrels which are used as bins.
Cafe staff collecting the waste littered by tourists outside the cafe.
Barrels used as bins outside the cafe, covered with soot from burning waste.
2. Souvenir shop
On the left of the cafe is a souvenir shop, also constructed by the Indian Army, where they sell clothing items, beverages and snacks. It is run by the 21 Punjab Unit, which is based at 9-Post, near Turtuk. There is no information as to why the souvenir shop was opened, although the reason appears to be revenue generation.
The souvenir shop at Khardung-La pass.
Between the cafe and the souvenir shop lies an SBI (State Bank of India) ATM, built in 2020 and operational since 2021. The purpose of the ATM is said to be facilitating the tourists. However, it is commonsensical that tourists wouldn't rely on an ATM at 18,000 ft for withdrawing cash. In fact, they wouldn't even be aware of it. The likely purpose of installing the ATM is self-advertisement and self-promotion since banking institutions are driven by commercial interests. Nevertheless, operation and maintenance of this ATM is difficult and costly.
Apart from the cafe and souvenir shop, the Indian Army has also constructed toilets at Khardung-La pass. While the toilets are to facilitate the tourists, it is incomprehensible why the Army ventured to build the toilets. The waste from the toilet discharges into a compartment behind the toilet, where the faecal matter accumulates and the liquid waste seeps into the ground. Many of the tourists use the toilets, although, some can be seen urinating in the open.
Tourists using the toilet (top) and urinating in the open (above).
Problems caused due to the tourist amenities
Ever since these amenities –– cafe, souvenir shop, ATM and toilets –– have opened at Khardung-La pass, tourists spend more time there than advised, risking themselves to altitude sickness as well as causing traffic congestion. To abate the congestion, the District Commissioner-Leh issued an order in May 2022 for Khardung-La pass to be inspected and remedial steps suggested. A team comprising of members from different departments was formed, which visited Khardung-La pass and came up with recommendations based on their observations (listed below) .
Because of heavy rush of tourists heading towards Nubra and Khardongla, very heavy traffic jams take place at the K-top especially during the peak hours ( in the forenoon).
Tourists should be strictly regulated to stay at the top for 5 to 10 minutes only. For this, additional men-power of traffic police, tourist police and tourism department is urgently required.
Because of unplanned construction by different agencies (including Tourism Department, Army, BRO, Air Force etc.), very little space is left for parking of vehicles at the K-top. A cafeteria is being run in the building constructed by the Tourism Department; a Souvenir Shop is being run by the 21 Punjab Unit of Indian Army based at 9-Post near Turtuk; and, some tin-sheet structures of BRO storing some machines and fuel are also there. All these structures are there on the left side of the road when we approach K-top from Leh side. These structures not only cause heavy traffic jams but also give a very shabby look to the otherwise famous and iconic Khardong La.
The structure used for Tourism Department’s Café, Army’s Souvenir Shop, BRO’s tin-sheet stores and Army’s Generator Shed should be immediately removed or relocated. This will definitely resolve the traffic jam issue and will enhance the aesthetic look of the Khadong La significantly. If some structures of the Army and BRO like the Generator Stores and Tin-sheet Stores are urgently required by these agencies, they could be relocated beyond the road and parking spaces.
Behind the structures set up by the Tourism Department and the Army, some dysfunctional units of toilets are also erected by the Army on the Leh-side edge of the K-top from where human excreta could be seen spilling in and over the glacier.
These dysfunctional Toilet structures should be immediately removed from the top. No toilet structure should be allowed to be erected/constructed at K-top in future. Providing sufficient Public Convenience amenities at South and North Pullu could cater to the needs of the tourists. Informative Boards should be erected at both South Pullu and North Pullu stating the following: Peeing and Pooping is strictly prohibited at the Khardong La. There is no Toilet/Washroom facility at Khadongla top. Please use Toilet and Washroom facilities provided here. All Tourists shall not be allowed to stay at the top for more than 10 minutes. Staying beyond 10 minutes could cause high altitude sickness.
Doctors advice tourists (especially those coming from the plains) not to stay at the K-top for more than 10 minutes to avoid sicknesses related to high altitude. But because of the amenities like Café and Souvenir Shops etc., tourists tend to stay at the K-top for at least 30 minutes thereby causing huge traffic jam and health hazards for the tourists themselves.
All stakeholders especially the Travel Trade Operators, Hoteliers and Taxi Operators should be given clear cut directions to sensitise their respective guests/clients regarding the following: - Peeing and Pooping is strictly prohibited at the Khardong La. - Use of the Toilet and Washroom facilities at South Pullu and North Pullu. - There is no Toilet/Washroom facility at Khadongla top. - Not to stay at the top for more than 10 minutes. - Staying beyond 10 minutes could cause high altitude sickness. - Responsibility of stakeholders should be fixed for any kind of dereliction.
Only one traffic police personal was deployed at K-top and it’s almost impossible for him to manage the huge rush of traffic during the peak hours (forenoon).
Number of Traffic Police Personnel and Tourist Police should be increased immediately.
Tourist vehicles parked at Khardung-La pass.
More tourist amenities: At Khardung-La pass, South Pullu and North Pullu
To solve the problem of traffic congestion, the authorities plan to build a parking lot at Khardung-La pass, which can also serve as a lookout point. The construction of the parking lot, being done by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), is well under way . The authorities say that they also want to remove the existing structures at Khardung-La pass to restore the "beauty" of the place. But they haven't issued a formal order yet in that regard.
Other constructions in the pipeline include a cafe and a toilet each at South Pullu and North Pullu . Although both of these places had a cafe and a toilet, new ones are to replace them. A total of 4 toilets is planned: a male unit and a female unit each at both South Pullu and North Pullu. The toilets will have flush system. Water will be supplied to the toilets –– as well as to the cafe –– through bore well, also to be installed at both South Pullu and North Pullu. The water is expected to be at a depth of 100-150 ft.
For managing the faecal sludge, each toilet unit will have an integrated design of septic tank and soak pit. The septic tank will receive the waste from the toilet. Over time, the faecal matter in the waste will settle at the bottom of the septic tank, leaving the liquid waste on pass. As more and more liquid waste collects, it will pass from the septic tank into the soak pit. Being open at the bottom, the liquid waste in the soak pit will seep into the ground. To empty the septic tank as and when it fills up, municipal sludge suction truck will have to be engaged, which will suck out the sludge. The sludge will be disposed at the FSTP (Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant) near Bomb Guard.
The toilets at South Pullu and North Pullu will be maintained by those who will run the new cafes at each of these places. The cafe will be outsourced to private individuals by tendering.
Impact of tourist amenities on the glaciers
The tourist amenities which have popped up at Khardung-La pass are acutely responsible for polluting the glacier. The cafe and the souvenir shop (which serves beverages and snacks) produce large quantities of waste. The Indian Army unit camped over there produces its own share of waste. All the waste is burnt, remains of which can be seen behind the toilet. Waste is also littered on the slopes, stuck in the ice and between the rocks. Apart from the waste, the faecal sludge from the toilet is also contaminating the glacier.
Although glacier melt is the effect of global warming, localised activities also play a major part in accelerating the melt. At Khardung-La pass, dozens and dozens of heavy vehicles pass every day, whose movement generates heat and releases smoke into the air, causing the ice in the surroundings to melt faster. Over the years, with a parking lot, an even greater number of vehicles will crowd at Khardung-La pass. What will be the health of the glacier then, can be guessed.
Old photos of Khardung-La pass from 1973 (left) and 1975 (right), shows extent of glacier melt in just 2 years of traffic movement .
In earlier times, Khardung-La glacier was the only source of water for the villages in Leh. But with access to groundwater, dependence on glacier water reduced and so did its value, so much so that today, very few are concerned about the pollution and melting of the glacier caused due to badly planned tourist amenities at Khardung-La pass, South Pullu and North Pullu. Whereas further studies are required to understand the actual extent of damage to the glacier, the visible impact in terms of pollution and melting is enough to reconsider the extensive tourist amenities in these high altitude, remote and pristine locations.
South Pullu is a stopover on the Khardung-La road, located at a distance of 14 kms from Khardung-La pass on the side of Leh. North Pullu is another stopover, 15 kms ahead of Khardung-La pass in the direction of Nubra valley.
Report of Joint Inspection Team on "Beautification and Decongestion of Khardong La Top", May 2022. Source: Municipal Committee Leh.
Border Roads Organisation or BRO is an executive agency for road construction and providing infrastructure support to Indian armed forces in border areas.