Travelling southeast we move towards the hyper-popular Pangon Tso, after our trip to the green Turtuk. I used the term hyper-popular because of the extreme popularity that the lake gained in recent years. Its popularity can be credited to its exceptional beauty, the Bollywood film ‘Three Idiots’ that featured the lake and lastly the social media posts that frequently show the lake as a background or as is. Anyone travelling to Ladakh may skip other places but will never miss visiting Pangong lake. So let’s explore this mind-blowing high altitude (13,862 ft) lake.
Starting early from Nubra valley we took the other route to Pangong Tso bypassing Leh. Crossing the Nubra valley, Dorje our motorist decided to refuel the car as we have a very long drive ahead and there will be no fuel stations for the next few days before we head back to Leh. Although we had an extra fuel tank, Dorje didn’t want to risk it. We joined the exceptionally long queue of vehicles to refuel. With limited fuel stations in Ladakh refuelling is a matter of great patience. Wasting an hour in the queue we were finally able to fill our tank to begin our journey further.
The initial part of the journey was mainly through the valley then came the road that was severely damaged in patches through which snow-melt water was passing by. Vehicles carefully crossed these watery patches one by one taking time. The roads were narrow through the arid region and the drive was a little mundane. After such long stretches of monotonous drive, we reached a grassland area and this is where we met the friendly Marmots.
Marmots are large rodents or can be called very large ground squirrels with short legs, stout furry bodies and a large head with conspicuous sharp incisors. They are vegetarian and depend mostly on grass and other ground vegetation. They are primarily seen in the summers grazing around their burrows. They hibernate during the winters and they feed voraciously in the summer to fuel their resting period.
We were eager to meet these furry friends even before starting our journey and had already enquired about their whereabouts from Dorje. He informed us that we may find them on way to Pangong Tso and it was now when we finally met them. They are not at all shy in fact I found them very social. They seemed to ignore our presence, happily moving around after coming out of their burrows. We were rather conscious not to go closer to them lest we disturb or intimidate them. Dorje said they are used to human presence and are very comfortable in their presence.
As we were nearing the lake the excitement began to increase. The landscape suddenly changed from grassland to smooth rolling hills painted in shades of brown converging to the turquoise-blue lake within. A tiny patch of blue within the hills seen from a distance was our first glimpse of this huge lake. This high-altitude lake covers an area of 700 sq km, it is 134 km long and 5 km wide at its broadest. (Read my experience in another high-altitude lake in North Sikkim.) There is very little biodiversity in the lake owing to its saline water that freezes completely during the winter.
This is an endorheic lake, a waterbody that does not allow any outward flow of water to any other external waterbody. Pangong lake comprises five sub lakes namely Pangong Tso, Tso Nyak, Rum Tso (twin lakes) and Nyak Tso. A major portion of the lake falls under Aksai Chin, the remaining western part falls within the Indian territory and is thus a sensitive zone with multiple instances of the face-off between the troops of the two nations. Both India and China have vessels stationed on the lake and regular boat patrols can be seen.
Now that we had a full view of the lake on one side of the road, we could make out the gleeful mood of the water, sparkling in its varied hues under the bright sunlight. But some ominous dark clouds were lurking around, sometimes guarding the sun too. As we came closer to the main area of the lake we could find numerous tents set up by the lake, grouped under the name of various hotels and resorts. In my honest opinion, the huge number of tents beside the lake was visually disturbing. Not only they looked clumsy they also spoiled the aesthetic view of the surrounding.
Added to them were the iconic ‘butt-shaped chairs’ and the yellow scooters – props from the Bollywood film ‘Three Idiots’ that lined up the shore to give the tourist a photo op with the backdrop of the lake. It was amusing to watch people sitting on those butt chairs scratching their (chair) butts and shouting “Al is well”. (Again the iconic scene and also the cover picture of the movie poster.) While we walked on the sandy banks of the lake to get closer to it we could feel the moist chill in the air. It was windy and severely cold indicating a change in the sunny weather. Although the approaching patches of dark clouds within the sunny sky gave us some excellent colours of the lake. We watched in awe while touching the transparent cold water of the lakes. Suddenly there were waves in the otherwise ripply lake, surprisingly we found the military patrol boat in its regular rounds. This again indicated the strategic importance of the location.
We reached our hotel a couple of kilometres ahead of this area. To our surprise, it was again some clumsy row of tents built beside the lake. Here they shared the area among three different properties building tents one after the other in a lined fashion. Among these three properties, one looked pretty new with its tents (or rather makeshift structures) built with fabricated sheets assuring better protection from cold. Our tent resort claimed to have luxury tents. We found our luxury tent to have a netted balcony section secured with a zipped entrance where two chairs and a table were placed, then a zipped canvas sheet entrance led to the tent bedroom section with a bed and two flimsy bedside tables and finally the bathroom section with proper bathroom fixtures separated by canvas sheet door.
Meanwhile, all our cell phones transformed into mere cameras with no network (neither on Airtel nor on BSNL). The sun was then firmly hidden behind the dark clouds. The lake too changed its mood from cheerful to gloomy, all its varied colours faded into blue. After check-in, we took a walk by the lake shivering even in our thick layered warm garments. The altitude and the weather and the strong winds were making our simple stroll even more difficult. We were feeling breathless but continued to walk and collect pebbles as we didn’t want to return back to our tiny dark shabby tent.
As I mentioned in my previous posts (read my post on Nubra Valley), electricity is a rationed commodity outside Leh and is available only in the evening. The same rule applies here too and the tents were dark till 7 PM. When electricity was available, a dim bulb somewhat lit up the tent and even dimmer light did its work in the bathroom. There was a multipoint socket for mobile and camera charging but the voltage was so low that within the available three and a half hours of electricity we could not even fully charge our mobile phones.
It was the strangest experience of my adult life with no network no electricity, severe cold outside and nothing to do indoors. We decided to go to the concrete-built restaurant building to beat the chill and have a chat with how so ever is available there. We spoke to the manager sipping hot coffee with some ‘Pakodas’ as accompaniments and learnt about the tourist rush they handle, and their daily life when there are no tourists around. After such casual chats, we headed for dinner.
Retiring back to our tent we had nothing much to do but slowly sneak under two layers of heavy blankets. Darkness took over again at 10:30 PM. I tried hard to shut my eyelids to fall asleep fast but unfamiliar conditions prevented me from falling asleep. After a long time, I gradually slipped to the Sleep-land but too soon was awakened by the strong flapping sound of the canvas sheets of the tent. The tent was completely illuminated with white light from outside. I realised that it was the full moon and the moon was lighting up the tent.
I could not stay on the bed any longer and out of excitement I unzipped the tent and went outside without any warm clothes. I was amazed to see the lake and the surrounding in this bright white moonlight. Pangong Tso was bathed in this gleaming light of the full moon. The silvery ripples originating within the lake were gradually dissolving on meeting the shore. My watch told me it was 12:30 AM and there was no one around – only the lake, the moon and me. The strong winds were hitting the tents and finding channels within to pass through making a howling sound.
I was smitten by the ethereal beauty. I thought to myself that it must be my strange connection with the moon that woke me up from sleep to experience this delicate moment. My trance was over when I started shivering like a Malaria patient. I could not stand the chilling winds any longer and had to rush into the tent. I hardly managed to zip the tent and get back under the blankets. The shivering continued for a long and to a severe extent. I could not return back outside with the camera and certainly with my warm clothes. Worried about my shivering I tried to warm myself with the third blanket to finally fall asleep.
It was a blessing from heaven that poured in the form of moonlight and gifted me with such a memorable experience of my lifetime in Pangong Tso. Even a couple of months after my tour now, I close my eyes to daydream of the moment that soothes my soul. Stay with me, a lot more awaits for the next day which I will share in my next blog post.