Ladakh- Camping at Pangong Lake

A lake so enormous that one wonders if it’s mistakenly labelled so. For so vast is it that one gets the feeling it is a river or the gentle waves that reach the periphery make you think it’s the sea. To add to the enigma are its ever-changing colours from turquoise blue, to sea green to emerald green and all shades in between. This is the picturesque Pangong Lake in Ladakh which provided the backdrop for several Bollywood movies like Dil Se, 3 idiots, Jab Tak Hain Jaan and many more.

Having visited Leh and the spots around it, experienced the Nubra Valley, admired the surreal Moon land Lamayuru we are now all set to camp at the Pangong Lake. We go to the local Leh market as we need to pick some essentials. The locals are selling vegetables and are all smiles. We see the Royal Leh Palace which was constructed in the 17th century and was the original abode of the royals.

Local selling vegetables @Rafiq Somani
Royal Leh Palace @Rafiq Somani

We head to the Druk White Lotus School which was picturized in the movie ‘3 Idiots’. My daughter and I had missed visiting it earlier as she was unwell. My husband and son had visited it, and so we were looking forward to seeing it. The school endeavour’s to provide Ladakhi children with 21st-century skills while promoting the cultural traditions that are an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. As we tour the school, we see happy kids in the classrooms. My kids point to the various spots that they had seen in the movie. A board with an arrow reads Rancho’s Café. Rancho was the name of Aamir Khan’s character in the film 3 Idiots. It is now time for us to leave.

En route to Pangong Lake, we pass by two monasteries. Stakna Monastery gets its name from the tiger shaped hill that it is built on. Next is the impressive Chemrey Monastery in Sakti village at a distance of 40 km from Leh.  As we continue further, we see mountains with Z shaped roads meandering on them. Soon we see snow-capped hills and know we are nearing the Changla Pass.

Stakna Monastery @Rafiq Somani
Chemrey Monastery in Sakti Village @Rafiq Somani
Z road on the way to Changla Pass @Rafiq Somani

The Changla Pass is the third highest motorable road in the world at an altitude of 17,586 feet. It reminds us of Khardungla which we had earlier passed on our way to and from Nubra valley. We see the colourful Buddhist flags tied on a stupa here. We click some pictures and move on.

Changla Pass @Rafiq Somnai

Having left the snowcapped hills, we are now in a valley with some grass and see a Robin and White-winged Redstart looking for worms and grains on the ground. We drive further and now find ourselves amidst hills in Tangste Village. On a cliff is the maroon and white Tangste monastery with a golden roof.

Tangste Monastery @Rafiq Somani

As we move further, we some wildlife that is native to Ladakh. Kiangs are wild asses with a reddish-brown coat and white underparts. To us, they seem to be a cross between a donkey and a horse. They are lazily grazing on the plateau.

A yak with black and white fur walks by. We then see snow-white Changthangi goats with a voluminous fur coat. We are told it is the fur of this goat that is used to make the prized Pashmina Shawls that are popular and sought after. We step out of the car, and suddenly one of them jumps on me, and I shriek. It probably smelt the food in my bag or was just trying to be playful, but it does manage to scare me.   

We drive further and now get our first glimpse of the mighty Pangong Lake as we inch closer. The name Pangong Tso, when translated in English, means “High grassland Lake”. It is also referred to as “enchanted lake” a moniker it rightfully deserves when you see the picture-postcard perfect blue-green lake with monochrome brown mountains and azure blue skies above.

 The lake at 14000 feet above sea level is 134 kilometres in length with 40% of it in India and the rest in China. So, what we see is only 40 %, and we still think it’s so big. One can only imagine what the entire lake would be like. We get off the car and rush to the lake, admiring it, clicking pictures and soaking in its beauty. As we stand near the lake, the water moves in gentle waves over the sand below our feet, making us feel as if we are on a beach. The interplay of the natural elements of winds, waters and rocks has caused the weathering of the rocks to fine sand.

We see three gazebos which have been erected in memory of the 3 Idiots. A colony of Brown-headed Gulls is busy preening, wading and flying over the lake. Rafiq spots several other birds. We are back in the car and are dropped to the campsite where a series of tents are pitched facing the lake. We will be spending the night in tents.

Horned Lark @Rafiq Somani

We take a sip of the water, thinking it would be fresh and rejuvenating but it turns out to be salty! Yes, don’t let the pristine and clear lake waters fool you to think Pangong is a freshwater lake. In fact, the high salt content means no marine life can thrive in the lake. That probably explains why the lake waters are so clear! The colours of the lake change every now and then because of the dance of the sun and the waters of the lake.

After dinner, we try to sleep in a tent. The wind is howling, and the temperature is freezing. The blankets are warm, but when we turn off the light in the tent, we see orange sparks every time we squirm in them. It is static electricity generated due to the friction of the moving blanket. The wind whistles through the gaps in the tents, and there are moments when we feel the tent will just rip off and fly away. It is a wrestle between the winds and us humans trying to survive the hostile elements.  All this creates a very eerie feeling, and very soon, my son jumps out of his bed and crawls into my bed. He feels his mom will protect him when I fear the worst.

The sun rises, and my husband is busy trying to capture it in his camera. I squint my eyes and try to see the sunrise from the opening in the tent. It’s beautiful, but my body is tired as the entire night was spent in a disturbed sleep thanks to the whistling wind. We wake up after some time and are craving to have a warm breakfast. There is only a bucket of hot water provided and no showers. We just brush, wash our hands and faces and head to the lake. We rush for breakfast.

Rafiq has managed to see many birds and wildlife as he excitedly shares the pictures with us as we eat breakfast. A treachery of jet-black ravens (yes, a group of ravens is called treachery) is basking in the sun near the lake. Brown-headed gulls are swimming and flying all around. Brahminy ducks swim gaily, and when they take a flight, they are beauty personified. A Himalayan Marmot snuggles out of a borrow. A baby Yak grazes on the grass and lots more…

It’s time to say goodbye to Pangong lake. We will remember this forever. We are proud of the kids as they have managed to endure a night in a tent at -5 degrees Celsius, at 14000 feet! It’s a life lesson that will teach them to survive against all odds. We had almost decided to skip spending the night in a tent, worried it may be too harsh for the kids. But a part of us didn’t want to miss this experience. We are glad we stepped out of our comfort zones and passed the test of strength and resilience

Pangong Lake is now behind us as we return to Leh. When will we see it again? Will we ever see it again? Thoughts race through my mind, and the lake soon disappears behind us as we drive away.

On the way to Leh, we stop at the Hemis Monastery, known for the famous Hemis festival that is held once a year. The highlight of the festival is the elaborate Cham or mask dance where the dancers wear masks of gods, goddesses and demons, carry props dexterously to dance and enthrall the onlookers. Colourful Tibetan-Buddhist paintings or thangkas adorn the walls. A colourful statue with exaggerated eyes, a series of prayers wheels waiting to be spun can be seen.

Tomorrow we fly out of Leh to Delhi and then Mumbai. Our weeklong trip to Ladakh has come to an end. As we peep from the window of the aircraft, we see the majestic snowcapped mountains or Oreo Mc Flurry as the children called them.  

Snowcapped Mountains from Airplane @Rafiq Somani

We have seen some of the most picturesque landscapes, visited surreal moonscapes, admired the monasteries, camped in a valley and at a lakeside, seen unique wildlife and most importantly learnt to survive in the hostile conditions of the mountains. The Ladakhi people do this day in and day out and know that nature can be their best friend or most formidable enemy. They have serene expressions, and a strange inner peace and aura radiate from them. Ladakh had managed to seduce us and charmed its way into our hearts!

Goodbye Ladakh. Until we meet again!

GETTING THERE-
Nearest Airport: Leh has an airport with connections to Delhi. You can reach Delhi by flight or train from major cities in India.
Where to Stay: There are many staying options in Leh. In Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, you can stay in a camp or hotels. It’s a matter of personal choice. You can do a net search for accommodation options depending on comfort and budget.
Travel Trip: Acclimatization cannot be underemphasized. Explore Leh and the surroundings in the first couple of days and then set off for more challenging road trips further away. Dress up in layers rather than wearing one piece of warm clothing. The weather changes frequently so you can add on or remove layers accordingly. You will need anywhere between 7-10 days to explore Ladakh. Do your research well so that you can plan your itinerary well.   

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