Speechless at Pangong

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beautiful, panoramic and mystical, the reflections of the spectacular Changchenmo range shimmering in the ever-changing blues of the lake's water, the serenity and tranquility of which deserves a standing ovation - This is what we call as Pangong Tso. It is one of those places that can be listed as "See before you die". 

The huge lake is more like a land locked sea, only one third of which is in India and the rest lies in Tibet (controlled by China). The lake thus, is not just an epitome of beauty, it also has a geopolitical importance. Sitting by the lake though, you would long that it was not divided by political borders. It is one of those rare places that remains etched in the memory forever.

Day 7, July 5th 2014, Saturday : We started from Leh after breakfast, passed Shey and Thiksey Monastery on the way, and were soon at Karu. We took a break there to stock food and water in the car. From Karu, one needs to take the left road that leads to Shakti, probably another 10 kms from there. The ascent to Changa La, the third highest pass in the world, starts from there. 

The roads are good and hence, the drive was good, except for the last few kilometers before the summit, where the road becomes more and more steep. 

The pass has a temple called the 'Chang La Baba ka Mandir', Army cabins and a cafe, where we had refreshing masala tea. Chang La is the gateway to the Changthang region of Ladakh.

After the descent, Tsoltak is the first village we crossed. Few minutes after passing Tsoltak, we spotted a frozen lake on our right. We were surprised, considering the month was July.

Soon came Durbuk and then Tangtse, where we stopped for lunch. The road all the way from Tangtse is fantastic, though we did encounter few streams running through the road at places, where we took small off-road detours.

After several minutes, we saw an expanse of bright blue peeking at us from between the mountains. The first glimpse of Pangong Tso is a sight I'll never forget in life. But it was impossible to even imagine the magnitude of the lake from there.

First view of Pangong Tso
As we drive 4 km downhill towards the lake, the sheer size of it becomes more and more evident. By now we had got used to the dry lunar landscape of Ladakh. The sight of the unending expanse of bright blue shocked us.

The first place you will pass as soon as you are near the shore is the army camp at Lukung. From here till Spangmik, the road is merely stone filled dirt track. Spangmik is the last village till where foreigners can go with an inner line permit.

At one point Dorjay, our driver, took a turn towards the sandy shore and drove till what he called the shooting point. 

This particular stretch was made famous by the movie '3 Idiots' where Kareena Kapoor drives the scooty on the narrow ramp of sand. This is the place many of those movie-influenced tourists visit Pangong Tso for. They spend time here and then head back to Leh on the same day. But that was not our agenda.

Pangong is brackish in nature, and thus with hardly any vegetation on the shore except for some coastal scrubs and grasses that we later spotted near our camps. There is no aquatic life either, apart from some small crustaceans (according to all the sites including Wikipedia). However we didn't spot any in the transparent water near the shore. We did spot plenty of gulls though, floating on the lake. One moment they were on the surface and the next moment they took flight, making me click the picture that is at the beginning of this post.

Pangong Tso is a photographer's ultimate delight. We were at the ramp for about 30-45 minutes taking in the glorious view all around and clicking pictures - as many as the memory card could hold. We were mesmerized by the shades of the blue water. One moment it was azure, the next turquoise and next indigo... and so on...

From there we again drove on stones and boulders to reach Camp Watermark at Spangmik, where we were to spend the night. We fell in love with our camps as soon as we saw them. Nestled right on the shores of the lake, this would be your best choice for a night stay at Pangong Tso. We were given the last three camps and hence we never compromised on the privacy part. The camps are made of canvas and the floors are covered with jute carpet to provide warmth. Each camp has an attached bathroom with cold running water. The beds had thick blankets and a hot water bag under each blanket - just perfect! 

While everyone else headed to the canteen tent for a steaming cup of tea or coffee, I headed towards the lake. There I had a first-time experience. I was so spellbound by it, that I lost track of time. I sat on a rock and gazed at the lake - as far as my eyes could take me. I have never seen something so magical and beautiful. 'Pangong Tso' means 'long, narrow, enchanting lake' and it's aptly called that, because it put me in a trance like state. It churned up so much emotions inside me that I felt like spending my entire life there. 

I don't know how long I have been missing, but when my friends finally found me they didn't disturb my silence. Instead they occupied a nearby spot and started admiring the lake - their way. It was the sound of their loud 'whoa's and 'wow's, that brought me back.

Later me and Akki were challenged by the others to stand knee deep in the chilling Pangong water for as long as we can (minimum being 2 minutes). We could bear the bone chilling cold water well past 2 minutes, but it did have a long lasting effect even after we stepped out. The good one - the water had some moisturizing effect on my feet. The bad one - I was shivering all night!

The shore near Camp Watermark

The dinner was served before the sun went down. It was a veg buffet, but the hot tomato soup in the cold made up for it.

We all agreed to pay Rs. 2000 for a bonfire (as charged) after a small debate within ourselves. As we were 6 people, it was costing us around 300 each. And you don't get to sit around a bonfire on the shores of Pangong every night. That did it! 
Last shot of Pangong before the Sun went down 
And do I even have to tell you it was one hell of an experience! At 10 p.m. the generator was switched off. Except for the area lit by our bonfire, it was pitch darkness all around and countless stars above us. I have had a similar experience in Rann of Kutch. It is only in a place plunged in pitch darkness, where you can spot the countless stars and constellations in the sky above. Intoxification on top of intoxification!

As our bonfire started to go out, we realized how shivering cold it was. We had to find our way to the tent in the eerie darkness as we had left our torches in there. The cold was making my teeth chatter and legs shake. I slept with all the sweaters and jacket on that night, along with the blankets and the hot water bag. 

Day 8, July 6th 2014, Sunday : Within just a few hours, I woke up feeling too warm and took the layers off. The tent was like a glowing orange orb. It took me some time to figure out that the sunrise at 4:30 a.m. has caused this. SUNday indeed!!! Unable to sleep in the orange glow, I walked out... in a tee - such was the temperature difference. 

It was only 6 a.m. when I walked back to the lake. I realized the lake is in its best of blue hues only when the sun is properly overhead in a cloudless sky. You might get a little disappointed if you go there on a cloudy day.

We checked out from our camps after tea and breakfast.

Leaving Pangong was a heart-wrenching experience, so much that it left me in tears. I had asked our driver what the stone towers erected in many places in Ladakh meant. He said locals put them up in prayer. And I thought why not...

I left my own prayer stones overlooking Pangong Tso, praying that she stays ever beautiful, ever enchanting, untouched by the destructive way of the world.

Tips for fellow travelers - 
  1. Permits are no longer required for Pangong Tso for Indian tourists. You need to carry National ID proof though.
  2. Nights can be extremely cold, hence be prepared.
  3. Bring a torch as electricity is shut down after 10 p.m. at the camps.
  4. Do not expect 5-star luxury at the camps. The basic facilities that they are providing at such a remote location is worth appreciation.
  5. Swimming is not allowed in Pangong Tso for environmental reasons.
  6. Last but not the least - Littering is a serious offence. Do not litter Pangong Tso! If you can't find a place for disposal, bring back the garbage with you for proper disposal.
This is the 4th in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 1 to Day 3: NH 1D - From Srinagar to Leh

Day 4: How I Got Leh'd
Day 5 & 6: On the Silk Route to Heaven - To Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - a part of the ancient Silk Route.
Day 9: 3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival 
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.
Day 11: Tso Moriri - The Road Less Traveled

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