In my previous article here, I talked about reaching Pangong Tso from Nubra valley via Wari La. In this article, we will discuss the second route, the Agham Shyok Road, that you can take to complete the same journey, that is to reach Pangong Tso directly from Nubra Valley without having the need to return to Leh.
A few years ago, say about a decade, when travelling to Leh was more for the adventurous kind, a common itinerary that people followed was to go to Nubra valley, come back to Leh and then go to Pangong the next day. I followed the same when I first visited Leh. There were two reasons behind this. The first and the foremost reason was that there was not much information available anywhere about different inner roads in Ladakh so people would usually stick to the main roads. Second reason was there was not much civilian movement in the area so several of these inner roads remain out of limit for tourists. Much has changed now. Ladakh has gotten popular and tourism in the area is increasing by each passing year. Thanks to that, even government removed several restrictions like ILP and opened several new areas for tourists to visit.
One such road that did not even exist like 5 years ago is the Agham Shyok road. Back then, if you wanted to reach Pangong from Nubra, there was no second choice but to either return to Leh or take the Wari La road which would save you some kilometers but you really got to have a strong vehicle to make to Wari La top. Both these routes were time consuming and would eat up an entire day. To make it easier I guess, another road was created that run along the Shyok river, was considerably short and would cut down the time of journey between two places considerably. But is it really easier? Time saving, yes, but easier? Hell no.
Before I get into details of this road, let us take a look at the map of the region to understand the route.
After crossing Khalsar village, you need to take the road towards Village Agham, leaving the upper route going towards Khardung La. Once you reach Agham, you will be at a bifurcation where the road left would take you to Shyok village and the one towards right is going towards Wari La. The road towards left is the one the one you need to take.
Below are a few pictures of what you will find when you take this turn.
The total distance on this road between Khalsar to Pangong Tso is approximately 140 kms and total travel time is about 6 hours which is about 80 to 90 kms and 4-5 hours less than the Wari La route. While the Wari La route is long and equally desolated, the Agham Shyok road is even more isolated and far more treacherous, if it can be called a road at all for that matter. For a while, it will run right next to the Shyok river and then there will be a tremendous gain in altitude.
For the part when you will be travelling next to the river, you may have to cross the river several times and I mean driving or riding right through the water and not over a bridge. If the water level in the river is high, the entire road would be claimed by the Shyok river. Below are a few pictures of the section where the road sometimes goes underwater.
In the months of July and August, when the snow is melting, there will be several streams of water that you will have to go through. To make it worse, this entire stretch is full of rocks and at some places you would have to get down, remove rocks and clear the road to pass by. Loose rocks, big rocks, rocks under water, stones sharp enough to damage your vehicle’s tires, you name it and this road has it. There are several sand dunes on the route too and at some places, you may have to drive through the sand. To add to all this, this is also a landslide prone area and some parts of the stretch are enough to get your heart pounding. Falling stones from up above the hills is another big concern and safety risk.
As I mentioned above, this entire area is highly desolated and you would rarely come across another living soul. Even the local taxi drivers would sometimes refuse to take this route. There are no services on this road anywhere and a breakdown would mean big trouble. If you are travelling alone, then there is no other option but to leave your vehicle and walk to the nearest source of help which would either be Agham or Shyok village.
After all said and done, there is no denying the fact that the road is highly scenic as well and if you have slightest of interest in photography, you would barely be able to keep your hands off your camera. If you are the adventurous type, this is a road that you would remember for rest of the life. So if you are planning to travel on this route, below are a few suggestions I must make.
- Avoid travelling alone as far as you can. You should be in a group of at least 2 to 3 vehicles. If your car gets stuck in the sand, or rocks somewhere and you cannot get it out and you are alone, you are done.
- Take this road only if you are an experienced driver. Some of the curves and terrain is hard to handle and you do not want to risk your own safety or of people with you.
- Be extra careful when you are out of your vehicle as there are places where you will find stones falling from up the hills, or “shooting rocks/stones” as they are called.
- Be careful while removing clearing rocks from the road; do not hurt your hands.
- A 4×4 vehicle with good ground clearance is best for this route.
- Do not even think about taking a hatchback or Sedan unless you intend to bury your car in Shyok village and catch a flight back home.
- If you are in a 4×2 SUV, it will still be a tough journey. You really need be good at the wheel to manage.
- Even a 4×4 SUV will cry out loud at some places, especially in July and August when the water level is high and Shyok river will be waiting to greet you right on the road itself.
- Inquire about the road conditions ahead while you are in Nubra valley or at Agham village. If the locals ask you to not risk it, take their advice and return.
For motorcycles, your bike really needs to be in a good condition to handle this terrain. I know entire Ladakh is a difficult terrain but this road is an entirely different story altogether. Get your bike checked in Leh before you start towards Nubra. Travel solo if at all possible. Travel light and leave your extra luggage back at the hotel at Leh if you can. Be very careful and ride slowly because if your bike slips, you can get some serious bruises and cuts. Stop, get off your bike at the water crossings, inspect and then get across slowly and carefully. Water crossings here have some big and unstable rocks under the water so practice caution. If you are on a rented bike, the rule is plain and simple, DO NOT go on this road.
The next question is, when does this road open. Surprisingly, unlike several other routes, this road opens a little early, almost at the same time as Srinagar Leh highway. I have known people who have done this route in late April and early May. This brings us to our next question which is when is the best time to travel on Agham Shyok road. In my opinion, there is no best time really but yes, July and August are the worst months to be here. As the snow melts in these months, there will be several water streams and high chance that Shyok river may run over the road as well. If you want to cover this route, think about doing it in either May or June or after August. Road remains open until late October and closes almost at the same time as Srinagar Leh highway.
Update: September 2017
I wrote this article a few years ago, back when Shyok road was definitely one of the worst roads of Ladakh. Much however changed since then. There was a lot of work on the route in 2017 and the road conditions have tremendously improved. Sharing a few pictures clicked in September 2017.
I hope this information on Agham Shyok road was of help. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below; or at our Community Forum; and I will be glad to answer.