As a traveller, it’s up to you to decide how much you want to stick to the beaten path and how — or when — you should take a risk and diverge. The draw of reaching the highest pass has tempted humans for hundreds of years and sometimes, that desire is strong enough to take a big risk.
More than 27,000 miles into their overland trek in October 1977, my parents Jan and Alec Forman finally reached a longed for destination — India. They crossed the border and drove to the breathtaking northeast corner of the country Leh in Ladakh, hundreds of miles from the typical tourist sites in India.
Early in the dark morning hours, Alec and Jan and their convoy companions, Jean-Luc and Martine, took off in pursuit of a “daredevil adventure.” North of Leh, the signs stated. ‘Tourists to Report to the Police.’ ‘Do Not Drive One Mile North of Leh,’ and finally, ‘To the Highest Point of the Highest Road in the World.’
This road was Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world for many years, which sits at 18,380 feet above sea level. High in the Himalayan mountains above Leh, Khardung La neighbours nearby Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, and southwest China.
My dad, a former military man, could not turn down a chance for an epic panorama and bragging rights. Just the year before he had been stationed in the Antarctic and stood at the southernmost point, the South Pole, making the highest point of the highest road an enviable challenge.
Fifteen miles from Leh, my parents passed another sign next to a guard’s khaki tent: ‘No Visitors Beyond this Point.’ Inside the tent the guard was in a deep sleep, and the barrier arm stood raised. At that moment my parents made the decision to continue. The roar of the Land Rover’s engine didn’t wake the guard, so on they went. Up, up, up they drove, around hairpin turns along the switch-back dirt road.
“Our Land Rover exerted itself to the full, burning a gallon of petrol every seven miles of the steady ascent,” my dad recalls.
Ten miles up, they reached their destination. Spectacular 360-degree views of the Himalayans surrounded them with an exciting sense of achievement.
“The panoramic vista of majestic mountain peaks, ridges, and steep descents took our breath away in more ways than one,” says Alec.
The couples posed for a photo next to the sign: ‘Highest Point of the World’s Highest Road.’ The air noticeably thinner from the 6,000-mile ascent in such a short time, they had to walk around slowly. They celebrated that significant moment by eating breakfast and enjoying a cup of tea.
Khardung La was completed in 1976 and opened to the public in 1988, now drawing tourists from around the region and world. No others were at the vista point that early morning my parents visited, but they did spot some public works lorries heading toward the border with China. Not wanting to tempt fate further, they turned back.
Coming down to the barrier where the guard had slept earlier, they found him awake and waving them down as they came through the checkpoint the wrong way.
“Didn’t you see the sign? This is a military zone.”
Since my parents’ visit to Khardung La in 1977, other roads have been completed that surpass it in altitude, including Uturuncu Potosi, connecting two dormant volcanoes in Bolivia (18,953 ft), and Umling La, just over 200 km from Leh (19,300 ft).
New heights draw us in and compel the human spirit to rise to higher heights, take new risks, and challenge ourselves to rise ever higher.
Though it’s not usually smart to flout authorities and signage where you are travelling, the choice is yours and one thing’s for certain: you’ll come away with a good story.
To find out what happened next, pick up a copy of my parents’ book, Strangers Like Angels with a Devil or Two to Boot. The tale chronicles their overland adventures through Europe, Africa, and Asia, including crossing the Sahara desert — twice.