Long drives in the high altitudes of Ladakh evoke many thoughts. And while your body acclimatizes and deals with the lack of oxygen, your mind over-works and bombilates with thoughts and emotions. It was quite early in the morning that we had set off for the Pangong lake. With some 180 kilometers from Leh, it was to take us almost five hours to reach the Pangong lake, on an arduous journey through the second highest motorable pass in the world. And there was one consistent thought that lingered all along the journey, getting more enabled every time as a military contingent passed us. The thought was how this high-altitude land had turned into a chequered tale of diplomacy and military might between the two Asian giants. The thoughts on prevailing incursions from the Chinese side and the precarious border situations crossed my mind many times.
In the Tibetan language, Pangong Tso means ‘High Grassland Lake’. Geologically it is the last connection of the Himalayas with the sea. The Indian sub-continent was an island in the pre-historic world before the landmass started drifting from the African landmass and moving up north. When the Indian and the Asian tectonic plate collided, the collision led to the formation of the Himalayas, and the Pangong Tso is among the last geological signs of the sea that was here. This is also the reason why the Himalayas are called the ‘young fold’ mountains, owing to their age on the geological scale compared to ‘old mountain ranges’ like the Alps and the Andes, and fold as the folding of one tectonic plate over the other led to the formation of the Himalayan range. Pangong is a high-altitude saline lake.
We took the Karu-Chang La route to Pangong Tso, traveling through many villages, and military posts on the way. We also stopped at the Thicksey and Shey monastery on the way, just to click pictures and move on. In most of the routes the road condition is good, some rough patches come as we move towards Chang La pass. The route taken was this –
Leh – Karu (36 KMs) – Sakti (10 KMs) – Chang La (34 KMs) – Durbuk (32 KMs) – Tangste (9 KMs) – Lukung (34 KMs) – Spangmik (16 KMs) = 171 KMs
The enchanting landscapes of rocky terrains, high mountains, sparse vegetation, and valleys that we crossed, made us look so insignificant in front of the might and charm of Ladakh. And then as you stand on the shores of Pangong lake and watch the quiet waves gently rocking the pebbles beneath your feet, the colors of the water changing, the mountains beyond, and the sky above, you know there wouldn’t be many experiences that can come close to what you feel there. You are filled with awe, and a feeling of gay abandon after a journey of five hours, to stop at this magical sight; a vast lake that is a sign of some greatest geological events, and a witness to war and civilization alike.
And Pangong is more than a destination, it is a culmination of an unforgettable journey and for some a beginning of another. And it’s not a tourist spot, it’s an oasis of many thoughts and feelings, for you might have never come across something like it before. And it’s also a spring of many thoughts, and doubts, and unexplainable emotions. It is a tremor of nature that has been cut straight to your heart, leaving an indelible imprint.
And the roads to Pangong are equally magnificent. We halted at many points to breathe in the breath-taking vistas the valleys presented along the way. The turquoise waters of the rivulets and brooks along the way shimmered magnificently in the light of the morning sun, the velvety meadows run by wildflowers bursting into colors and sights, and the mighty mountains like the guardians of this landscape since eternity. The ever-changing landscape, in an alliance with overly dramatic skies, gave us a feeling of gliding through the skies, losing every sign and feel of space and time.
And then we stopped at a wide pasture land to meet the cuddliest creatures of Ladakh – the Marmots. These furry rodents dig burrows in the soil and stay underground for a great part of their day, coming out only occasionally for the relief of travelers who stop at these junctures to have a ‘dekho’ of these cuddly creatures. Given the climatic conditions, they hibernate for seven months of the year.
One-click and we were back on our way. The occasional green patches on the way, nourished by waterways offer a bucket-load of opportunities to capture shades of the nomadic life of Ladakh. These are where nomadic shepherds bring their animals for grazing. Some of them travel for miles from one pasture to another. This pastoral life is one of the imprints of Ladakhi life and heritage. And has not been left untouched by tides of modernity and climate change. The young generation doesn’t show the keenness to keep the pastoral conditions alive, and as tourism brings in money in Leh, the hinterlands are losing their traditional touch. But worse is the impact of climate change which is leading to faster melting of glaciers, and change in rainfall patterns, affecting pastoral lives and livelihoods of many remote communities. I stood for minutes looking at the lake as the waves crashed against my shoes. The vastness of the lake can be gauged from the fact that waves form in its waters, rising and crashing against its shores. We went a little further away from the click frenzy crowds swayed by the Bollywood fever (from the movie 3 idiots which had a scene shot at the lake and which brought Pangong to everyone’s notice) on the shores. There was a feeling of magic in the tranquillity and the vastness of the lake, an other-worldly feeling as if the lake opens the door to some other world, and beyond the mountains may lie a Shangri La. I believe that beautiful memory of the turquoise waters of the Pangong and the mountains beyond that have turned a battleground, will forever be itched in some soothing corner of my mind.
(Most of the pictures are taken by a friend Maitri. You can follow here work here.)
Do read more of my travelogues on Ladakh.