Postcards from Pangong Tso

.. Though the country is so barren, the lake has its beauties in the varied tints of surrounding hills and mountains, and the rich deep blue of its waters, becoming quite of an emerald green colour as they shallow near the shore.*

Once in a while during your travels, you come across a place that is different from everything else you’ve ever experienced. It captivates your imagination and the mind, already lured away from the monotone of routine, is suddenly unshackled and left free. As the body relaxes and somehow starts breathing differently, every whiff of fresh air invigorates you, like never before. This strange sense of absolute bliss and tranquility etches out memories that stand out not much unlike flame trees in full bloom. For once, you feel truly alive.

The Pangong Tso is one such place. It throws out all the undulating hype that has been building in your brain from weeks of anticipation. Only words can do it even a modicum of justice, and since I won’t attempt the sacrilege, I will depend on a few photographs to lend the narration some respect.

First view of Pangong Tso
To think, that having seen countless photos of the place, you’d not be awestruck is a sheer understatement; for at the first glimpse you are left wondering whose brush has unleashed this piece of art. From afar, when you first sight the cobalt blue waters, it looks magical. From up close, it is otherworldly.

.. a fine view of the first long reach of this elevated and interesting piece of water is obtained. Its colour is of an intense blue, the water as clear as crystal, but far too saline to be drinkable; there was quite a true salt water feel in the air as the wind blew off it.*

To see it in a photograph or read about it in a book is different. But to be able to witness the changing colors and the natural play of light and shadows, to hear the gentle waves lapping at the shores, to ignore the cold wind biting against your skin while breathing in the rarefied air; is a privilege – one that is not meant to be forgotten.

Spangmik
You can opt to stay farther away in Tangste. Or you can choose to camp on the banks of the Pangong lake. The choices vary from Lukung, which is to the west of the lake; to Spangmik seen here, where we stayed or further east at Man-Merak village. In either case, good woollens, mufflers, balaclavas and mittens are highly recommended since the temperature often dips below freezing point at night.

Daytime temperatures near the Pangong Tso are not much of a botheration. But in the evening, the temperature drops rather quickly into single digits. What makes it unbearable is the ferocious wind. The wind chill makes a bearable 10 degree Celsius feel like sub freezing. The cold penetrates exposed skin and soon, the nerves start tingling due to the numbness. The wind makes the ears scream in pain, the cold makes the nose weep too.

At night, the wooden walls of our cottage provide minimal respite. Outside, we can hear other tents flapping in the wind. Inside, our drinking water becomes too cold to be drinkable, and any contact with unheated water is like sifting through a sack of needles. The mink blanket and quilt feels like heaven, but that is only after you’ve put on 4 layers of clothing. Getting out of bed once you’re tucked in, is unthinkable.

In spite of all this, I do step out at night, briefly, to take a look at the starlit skies above. The milky way is not as crystal clear as made out to be, but the sky does seem darker and the stars by contrast, brighter. The wind protests against my intrusion in its space, and soon forces me inside. For a couple of tourists though, liquor and a bonfire prove adequate. Pangong is at a considerable altitude, and none of us sleep well at night.
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The Ladakhis

Famous western explorer Marco Pallis, while on an exploratory tour of the region way back in 1936, had this to say about the peasants of Ladakh, although it can be taken as a description of the Ladakhi populace in general too.

The inhabitants of these villages must surely be some of the happiest on the face of the earth. One can only pray that no zealous enthusiast will feel impelled to ‘improve’ or ‘enrich’ them, acting on some sociological theory worked out under totally dissimilar circumstances. Certain writers have alluded to the poverty of the people, doubtless referring to their lack of ready money and their rather spartan simplicity of life. There is no luxury, nor a big margin of surplus food, but if the enjoyment of a sufficient, if rather unvaried, diet composed of tasty, unadulterated materials and the leading of a healthy, outdoor life in majestic surroundings with work which has its leisured as well as strenuous phases, the wearing of durable and comely homespun clothing, the dwelling in spacious, well-built homes, and the possession of a restricted number of objects pleasing to the eye – if all this be poverty, then let us deplore our world.

The brief time that we spent with Tashi, our driver, gave us exactly the same impression. These are a happy set of people who have learnt to take the hardships of the land in their stride. One only wishes that they do not court controversies like disallowing private vehicles and self-drive schemes from plying in Ladakh, after all they need us (the tourists) as much as we need them.

References:

Prem Singh Jina, Famous western explorers to Ladakh

The Chang Thang Plateau – Doorsteps of Tibet

Changthang: Large northern plains

Durbuk: flourishing village in the valley

Tang ste: higher ground

Take a look at this image to get an idea of the scale of this plateau. At an average elevation of 10-15000 feet, it rightfully deserves the moniker ‘roof of the world‘. It is also the life-blood of the Asian subcontinent as all of Asia’s major rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy and the Yangtze originate here. Courtesy: http://www.thelandofsnows.com/faqs-on-travel-in-tibet/

The difference in the landscape as one exits the Chang La is immediately palpable. For this region consists of the western fringes of the Chang Thang plateau, which is itself, an extension of the enormous Tibetan plateau that runs thousands of miles to the east.

In ancient times, one would now be treading through Tibet itself. Of course, today it is a part of the Indian mainland and the Indo Chinese border separates it from it’s parent.

The Chang Thang is noticeably colder than the other regions of Ladakh due to it’s higher elevation. It’s winters are referred to using the adjective ‘Arctic’ in many places, indeed this is the place where one can be afflicted with frostbite and sun burns on the same day. Another major difference is the total absence of trees that are usually present in abundance in the valleys to the west of the Chang La. The locals here, more Tibetan than the Ladakhi populace back in Leh, used to be, and even now in some cases, are Nomads, called as the Chang Pa. Tashi, our driver, points out a nomadic hut on the plains – the tent is apparently made of Yak skin and can withstand the fierce cold here.

Closer to the pass, a lot of snow-melt irrigates the land and hence, serves as ideal grazing grounds for a variety of wild life. One comes across wild horses, the ubiquitous Yak as well as hordes of domesticated Pashmina sheep on these pastures. From time to time, mormots, some of them accustomed to the presence of human beings and the food they carry, also scurry out of the ground to greet tourists.

Frozen ponds Chang La
Frozen ponds dot the descent from Chang La to the plateau.
Melted ponds Chang Thang
The roads lead past numerous such scenes – towering snow peaks benevolently feeding snow-melt and watching over the grasslands.

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Crossing the Chang La

Chang La: Northern pass

A drive through the town of Shey is one of the most rewarding experiences in Ladakh. Here, the morning sun blesses the willow and poplar lined roads, resulting in lateral streaks of soft light falling on the ground. Accompanying this are bird songs and the sight of irrigation canals running merrily along side the road. This pleasant feeling sets you up nicely for what Ladakh has in store, up ahead, on the road to Pangong Tso.

Indus river near Karu
The Indus shines a brilliant aquamarine under the mid morning sun and merrily accompanies you till Karu, where it deserts you in favor of the Leh-Manali road. From here, the only sight of water will be snow-melt from the high passes.
Thiksey monastery
The Chemrey monastery presents an imposing sight. Even from a distance, it easily dominates the surroundings and stands out from the beige landscape and the green plains below.

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The Nubra Valley

Continued from Part I here.

Past Khalsar and the Karakoram wildlife sanctuary, is a stretch of road that is straight as an arrow.

This road is called the camel road“, remarks Tashi, our driver, in his usual mischievous tone. Upon being questioned, he bounces in his driver’s seat, mimicking the road’s tendency to make you feel like you are seated on a Bactrian camel that is native to these parts.

The road itself is surrounded by flat stretches full of sand dunes, the scale and the diversity of the geography never ceasing to surprise you at any moment. Past it, is another pass that leads you straight into Nubra.

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On the pass, Tashi pulls over to the side and points at the panoramic view that has unfolded in the valley below. The Shyok’s riverbed lies exposed, it will be fully covered as summer unfolds, turning into a resplendent shade of turquoise blue then. From Nubra, it continues to flow northwards into the Karakoram ranges before uniting with the Indus in Pakistan.
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How many places on earth can treat you to views of sand, greenery and snow capped peaks at the same location ? Ladakh is as unique in its scenery as it is magnificent.
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Talk about a mountain at your doorsteps – our rooms had a balcony that opened up to this view. This hamlet was situated right at the base of the mountain range.

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The high road to Nubra

Nub-ra: the western district

As we cross the Khardung La and leave the high altitude behind, the landscape changes. The snow from the glaciated mountains feeds little streams that irrigates the land, leaving patches of white and green. Set against the deep blue skies, the scenery is a welcome relief from the dirty brown monochrome that is Khardung La.

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Snow at a lesser altitude, melts and turns into streams leaving green patches as it flows down the land.
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Soon enough, you can sight the picturesque Khardung village, dwarfed by mountains that watch over it like a sentinel.

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The notorious Khardung La

Khar: castle, dung: lower – Khardung La – the pass of lower castle

I crossed the Khardong this year with the first caravan, and the date was the 13th June. It was no child’s play to force the pass, with its heavy covering of winter snow hiding the glaciers that dip over on the north side, and make the 17400 ft. – just about 6000 ft. above the altitude of Leh – a difficult and tiring ascent, where the unladen ponies had to be manhandled over with ropes..

..In fact, our crossing had been made possible only by several days’ hard work on the part of the advance party of the Mason Expedition – driving unladen yaks up to plough a way, and using men to cut and improve the track they made.

-M. L. A. Gompertz, Magic Ladakh (1928)

The Khardung la connects Leh valley with the Nubra valley and the Karakoram further up north. The serpentine, and often treacherous road winds up slowly from Leh town, to the base of the Ladakh range and reaches a dizzying height of around (what is claimed to be) 18300 feet before making its way down the other side. The high altitude means these passes face weather that changes in the blink of an eye. Tashi, our driver probably summed it up best, “Mumbai ki fashion ka, aur Ladakh ki mausam ka koi bharosa nahi (Mumbai’s fashion, and Ladakh’s weather can never be relied upon)

View from Khardung la
Before long, the fertile Leh valley makes way for snow covered mountain slopes and sinewy roads that seem to climb up forever.

The road to Khardung La begins with a dusty, narrow but well laid out road that Tashi turns to, in the older part of Leh town. From there, he tells us, it will take almost a better part of an hour, through numerous u-turns to reach the highest section of the pass. While Leh town has grown a bit stifling in the mid-morning sun, the road to Khardung La is blanketed by the shadow of clouds lurking above the Ladakh ranges. Before we know it, Leh turns into a tiny speck of green in the distance, the view rapidly changing from green fields and barren mountains to a monochrome of dirty white and dirtier brown. The sky in the meanwhile, hitherto a deep shade of blue has grown a sombre shade of dull grey.

It somehow still looks magnificently put together though, and as the views unravel one after the other, the condition of the road quickly goes downhill. The grey tarmac that started out from Leh, first resembles a dirt track, before giving way to crater ridden, slushy roads that are just about motorable. A few kilometers from the top of the pass, the melt-water from the snow laden peaks constantly carries away the soil and leaves huge potholes behind. The BRO has it’s hands full, trying to landfill and even out the roads all the way to the top, clearing stray rocks and moving boulders that have fallen on to the road. All this, while hundreds of tourist laden vehicles and army trucks pass through. Bumper to bumper traffic at what is arguably the highest motorable road in India is a grim reality these days.

The pass itself has acquired a notorious reputation in the past, owing to its fickle weather, changing road conditions, and the threat of avalanches. Tashi, with a wicked grin, points to charred and crushed remains of vehicles that have rolled down the precipitous road, ostensibly to horrify us.

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Hats off to the BRO for doing such a good job of maintaining these roads. Undoubtedly, working in bad weather or good, these people lead a very tough life. A ‘Julley’ however, never fails to elicit another greeting in return from these folks. I even noticed the female workers tending to their babies, in between work breaks.

On the way, Tashi advises us to keep sipping water to prevent dehydration. We sniff some camphor tablets in between and he asks us curiously, “Isme kya hai ? Oxygen ? Accha. (How does this help ? Oxygen ? OK)” The locals have obviously adapted very well to the low oxygen levels. Since our moods are dampened somewhat by the bad weather, he jokes that even their vehicles have adapted well to these conditions.

While we’re stranded at a traffic jam, we come across a few cyclists heaving up the demanding road, braving the cold weather and the low oxygen, not to mention the oncoming traffic and dressed in nothing but cycling gear. Tashi shouts out admiration for a job well done and they retort with a stoic “Thank You“, without stopping.

North Pullu
The view from North Pullu, as the weather grew worse right in front of our eyes. To get an idea of the scale of this place, examine this road minutely and you can see tiny vehicles making their way across.

The next day, on the return leg, we get stuck just below the highest switchback. On the climb, the weather had worsened considerably and just a few minutes of light snowfall had resulted in a roadblock on the higher reaches. It takes almost half an hour to clear it, and in the meantime, the low oxygen quickly makes our woeful cardiovascular capacities obvious.

Tashi and Jigmet, our host at the hotel back in Leh had advised us to stop at the pass only on the way back to Leh from Nubra. The idea was to be able to combat the adverse effects of altitude, if any, with medical facilities in Leh rather than on the other side of the Khardung La. Staying at around 17000 odd feet for some time, the depleted oxygen levels in the air makes any activity seem like an ordeal. Drawing a deep breath makes one feel breathless, as if one has just finished a sprint. Accompanying this is a slight feeling of asphyxiation, with a heavy sensation in the cranium.

It is only afterwards, when we descend a little that I grow conscious about my clammy hands, there is an omnipresent danger of death in this region. Ladakh can claim lives if you do not respect it. Tashi exemplifies this with anecdotes from the Indo-Pak war of 1999. Apparently, the first batch of army soldiers were rushed into these areas without any acclimatization, and paid the price with their lives. Recently, he tells us, a tourist from Mumbai, a sexagenarian, had developed symptoms of AMS at the pass. The party refused to heed the warning signs and advice from the locals and chose to carry on. As the day grew by, the symptoms worsened and by the end of the next day, it was all over for the gentleman.

Tashi’s stories stick in our heads. The effects of high altitude are discernible all around, I see grown men and women hobbling at 15000 feet, when we stop for tea and snacks. An army soldier asks me if I’d be interested in joining them for a quick game of cricket. I have the heart, but my lungs refuse.

In spite of this notoriety, Ladakh and it’s mountains had that ironic, foreboding attraction about it, and like it’s fans, I couldn’t wait to see more of it.


We visited these places in the end of June, and everybody we met, told us that there was more snow than usual this year. The day after we came back from Nubra, the weather grew even worse and heavy snowfall closed the Khardung La, causing tourists heading towards Nubra to turn back. Those who were coming from Nubra had to wait till evening before the road could be cleared. Some of them even made their way across in the dark, arriving at our stay well past 2200 hours. Google will reveal photos of Khardung La with bright sunshine and sometimes, with lesser snow. But the weather is never predictable in these parts. 

Stick to timeless advice when in the mountains, start early and intend to arrive early.