Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pangong Tso Lake, Ladakh

More than anything it was a fickle and uncertain evening surrounded by an aura of questions - Are we going to Nubra or Pangong? Is it snowing at K-top and is the road open at Khardungla? What about permits? Does the army influence work? What about the broken bridge and flash floods enroute Pangong? Where do we stay at lake? Can we make the onward and return journey in just one day? Our hope kept dwindling...we were clueless.

Vikram Wanchoo, a Kashmiri colleague of mine, came in as an eleventh hour Samaritan saving us from dilemmas. His uncle helped us to get permits (permits are given at DC office in Leh city, it's a must to have permits if you're heading towards Pangong Tso, Marsimek La, Chang La, Tso Moriri lake and Nubra valley) by noon and not just that, he had resolved the problem of means of transportation, his dad lent him his Chevrolet Tavera. After a yummy lunch of egg-vegetables thukpa (noodle soup) at the Tibetian restaurant, we collected the permits from Vikram's uncle, few sheets from his house and were cruising on Leh-Manali highway. Pangong Tso lake, 170km away from Leh city, was our destination.

At Karu, about 45km from Leh city, we had to deviate left for Pangong lake. Till Karu, we happen to see many monasteries on either sides of the road all back dropped by tall rocky sierras with snow capped peaks. The road till Karu, that goes along the river Indus, is in a very good condition and could be made to Karu in well within an hour. The road that starts immediately after the deviation at Karu seems to be a newly laid tarmac, it's dashing black, clean and without any damages. We happened to see a distant monastery on to the left, after which we reached the town Shakti (read saak-T). From Shakti town the ascent to the mighty Chang La pass begins.

The roads are narrow but in good condition initially and starts winding up mercilessly, there are protective barricades on the valley side and frequent banking is made to give allowance to oncoming big vehicles or for overtaking. We stopped at one of the banking above Shakti village for photographing, the scenery was breathtaking - we were like tiny dots standing among gigantic barren rocky mountains all around and in the valley, people, who again looked like dots to us, were busy farming their fertile green lands, dotted here and there with cattle. We continued our journey further and took one more break before reaching Chang La.

As we started ascending higher and higher, the temperature fell drastically and oxygen kept depleting. As we approach closer to Chang La pass, the roads start getting worse with potholes and sharper curves. At Chang La, the second highest motorable pass in the world at 5360m, the mountains were magnificently snow capped and the weather was mind-numblingly cold. There is an army outpost at Changla pass which serves complimentary tea (it was cold due to extreme cold, I guess) and has maintained public conveniences like toilets and also there is a temple embellished with numerous fluttering Buddhist festoons, as colourful as a rainbow. After a few clicks, we started our descent.

The road conditions were pretty bad after Chang La pass, the descent was a steep one and at some places the roads were completely ripped off. Enroute, we saw two Ford Endeavors struggling their way up the Chang La pass. After the descent, the landscape becomes more plain and picturesque, green meadows, tiny streams and grazing gigantic yaks. There was a lonely tent where an old Buddhist lady served tea and hot water. I really appreciated her service, aged and lonely, in a cold and desolate place, she energetically served tea to the passersby. Two GREF workers got into the SUV, they wanted us to hitchhike them till army cantonment at Tangste village enroute Pangong.

The village of Tangste is located in the valley and by the time we had a glimpse of the village it was past twilight with moon smiling high over the town. It was a memorable sight, the sky was pale blue with moon, slightly obscured by a patch of fleecy cloud and lights of the town below, surrounded by mountains. I cursed myself for travelling without tripod at that juncture, I just got a very mediocre photograph, shot handheld.

It was 7:30 in the evening, we dropped those GREF guys at their destination, on the outskirts of Tangste, and continued our journey ahead to the lake without actually entering the Tangste town. In the dark we couldn't drive fast, at about 9:30 in the night we reached a place closer to lake (about 4km away, which we realized in the morning) wherein the roads got extremely inhospitable with huge bouldery stones all over. Since we couldn't figure out the road ahead, it was decided that we're gonna stay right there in the car. I had a splitting headache all the way from Chang La, the night was cold and moonlit, I dozed off.

Early next morning Pradeep and Vikram came back panting into the car, they had found the way in the wee hours and we revved the car along the rocky roads and crossed the stream. Finally the bright reflective surface of PangongTso lake started unveiling itself slowly, just below the horizon. It gradually got bigger and bigger as we approached Spangmik, lesser known name of the place where the lake is located.

PangongTso lake, a 130km long pristine blue lagoon at an altitude of 4250m, is shared between India and China, about 40km of it lies in India and the rest in China. The lake has this mesmerizing effect of making you forget all the tiredness you feel during the journey. It also has this magical property of changing colours from greenish tinge to blueish to purplish to golden shades, as the angle of sun rays change. Obviously, the lake is located in the disputed region of Sino-Indian border, as a consequence of which the lake is not open for commercial boating but controlled by Indian army, which probably is one of the reason the lake has been maintained so well. Boating could be done only by the privileged few, those with army acquaintance or those who can somehow win the heart of the army officer, in charge of the lake.

One of the soldiers, Sandip became a good friend of ours and told us many things about lake. He told us about 4 times in a month, they go on a reconnaissance boat ride all the way till the border. In the winter the lake freezes and the soldiers stationed there play cricket over the lake. He said they are made to run on the road, where even breathing normally is an arduous task, as a part of their daily exercise. He also told us many celebrities have been denied permission for boating, Karishma Kapoor to quote an example.

We were misguided by people that there are no accommodations near the lake, but there is a camp near the lake for staying and there are restaurants too. It seems the restaurant charges Rs. 700-1500 depending on the season and type of accommodation (rooms/tents). We had breakfast of cereals and porridge at the restaurant, since it was too early for them to prepare parathas or pooris. The breakfast even though we felt was slight expensive, when you think of the effort that goes into shipping it all the way to lake, you feel OK. I greatly appreciated and admired the service of Indian army, they've built and maintained toilets, restaurant, souvenir shop and are extremely helpful for the public. They're friendly, they made us wait inside the restaurant for the boat service to start. Our car tire got flattened and they were more than happy to fix it.

After breakfast we ambled around the lake for sometime photographing the brilliant blue lagoon. The cold winds from the lake made us shiver and dried our lips to crack, yet it was pleasure to promenade on the banks watching the waves of crystal clear water. I expected to see few aquatic birds but there were absolutely no fauna, probably due to cold. We had the permission for a boat ride, but the winds were so strong that they didn't allow us. We continued on the road for few more kilometers in the direction of Sino-Indian border, clicked few photographs and started our return journey.

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