Stretching around 150 km (with the eastern-third part in China), at a height of 1400 feet, beside a remote army outpost in Ladakh, Pangong Tso’s mesmerising palette of vivid blues can’t fail to impress, contrasting surreally with the colourful mineral swirls of starkly arid, snow-brushed
mountains that surround it. Apart from three tiny villages and Lukung’s gaggle of tent-restaurants, the scene is striking for its utter lack of habitation along the shores, that look almost Carribbean at the sand spit ‘shooting point’, a film set for the 2009 Bollywood hit, 3 Idiots.
There’s little to do at the lake side except for soaking up the atmosphere. The jeep safari from Leh is a joy in itself, scenically magnificent and constantly varied with serrated peaks, trickling streams, horse meadows, reflective ponds, drifting sands and a 5,289 metre pass. However, it’s tiring, and the return on the same day is masochism due to the high altitude. It’s vastly more pleasurable to stay at least one night in Spangmik or Man which is 10 km beyond the point. The tourist influx has proved a boon for the otherwise weak local economy. Some other movies have also been shot here. This multi-hued lake is also known as Bangong Company in Chinese meaning “long, narrow and enchanted lake”. It is one of the world’s highest salt water lakes at an altitude of 14,270 ft. It is about 134 km in length and five km in breadth at the broadest part and lies in a north-west to south-east orientation. About 60 per cent of the lake lies in Tibet, and also extends across Aksai Chin region with the remaining part in India. It covers a maximum area of 604 sq km and has a maximum depth of about 100 metres. A Google Earth shot gives you a good idea.
The mesmerising spectrum of colours results from the shifts in the angle of the sun’s rays and the corresponding wavelength refractions gives it vivid shades ranging from light blue, turquoise blue, pale green, deep blue, electric blue which is sure to strike your eye. The water is crystal clear, revealing the shallow edges of the lake. Due to the brackish water, the lake has very little fish or vegetation. But you can see seagulls and ducks in the lake. Local legend prohibits consumption of the water, lest some wrath is invited from the dragon beneath the lake. It is surrounded by cascading mountains adding to its striking presence and if the winds are calm in the morning, you can enjoy the reflections of the lower Himalayan ranges in the pristine lake water.
The Indian end of Pangong Tso, situated in Spagmik, is around 170 km from Leh town. Although the drive from Leh to the lake is rough, it is spectacular because of the picturesque moonscape of rocks and rushing streams all around. Spectacularly jagged, arid mountains enfold the magical, Buddhist ex-kingdom on the road from Leh. Picture-perfect gompas dramatically crown rocky outcrops amid whitewashed stupas and meditational mani walls topped with mantra-inscribed pebbles. Colourful fluttering prayer flags spread their spiritual messages and prayer wheels spun clockwise release more merit-making mantras. Gompa interiors are colourfully awash with murals and statuary of numerous bodhisattvas.
The five-hour-drive from Leh to Pangong Tso will take you through the villages of Shey, Karu, Shakti, Chang-la, Durbuk, Tanksey, Lukung, and on to Spagmik. Shey houses the famous Shey Budhist monastery and is a popular stopover for tourists. Once one of Ladakh’s royal capitals, it is an attractive, pond-dappled oasis from which rises a central dry rocky ridge, inscribed with roadside Buddha carvings. Along the rising ridge-top, a series of fortress ruins bracket the three-storey, 17th-century Naropa Royal Palace whose reconstruction has given it a facelift. The palace temple contains a highly revered 7.5metres tall gilded-copper Buddha, originally installed in 1645. The upper door opens to his inscrutably smiling face. For the most photogenic views of Shey’s palace ridge, walk along the access track to the delightful Besthang Guest House, a very popular homestay for tourists.
The blue skies, green grasslands and yellow-brown mountains may be reminiscent of some scenes from a hollywood classic Mackenna’s Gold. The winding hilly roads, the mountains which seem to have been spewed from earth’s innards in some gigantic seismic quake, pristine streams, green pastures, snow capped Himalayas and weatherbeaten faces of villagers, all present a picture-postcard shot for a photo enthusiast. At the top of the pass, riders can take a pit stop to enjoy the enthralling views around and partake of the free cup of tea and samosas offered by the Indian Army.
A free medical check up and oxygen inhalers are also available here just in case. On some stretches of the drive you have a feeling you are cruising through India’s own mini Grand Canyon. Besides splendid views all through the drive, you can also spot wild horses, mountain marmots, mountain goats, reminding you of glossy wallpaper views of remote pastures in outer Mongolia. The first view of Pangong is near miniscule Lukung, the army checkpoint, beyond which is a trio of simple guesthouses and parachute cafes with tiny bedspaces.
A bumpy drive along the lovely lakeside takes you to Spagmik, a drive with spectacular views. The Chang-Pa leave their homes with their herds in winter for pastures in Chushul and return in February over the frozen lake. Virtually every Spangmik house offers a homestay. Most have an atmospheric Ladakhi kitchen, solar furnaces and passable food. All share composting toilets and none have showers. On some summer mornings, the stream is small and calm, but swells up rapidly and rolls down vigorously by noon, perhaps due to sudden melting of snow up on the mountains. So ensure you pass it in time lest you get stuck and are stranded for the night.
Once you reach the lake, the suggestion is not to set course back on the same day, after having reached so far, or else you are going to miss many once-in-a-lifetime scenes. Ideally stay put in any of the tented accommodations available on rent. So stay put, enjoy the night sky glittering with stars, the mountain breeze and campfire, and then wake up early for the kaleidoscopic view of the lake in the rising sun.
Venturing into the waters is not advised as it is chilly and deep in certain parts. If you were in China, you would have been one of the hordes of tourists boating in the Chinese part of the lake with screaming children in tow, which would have ruined the whole experience. Instead, b efriend one of our brave jawans at who tirelessly guard our borders in inhuman conditions and offer him a cup of tea from your thermos or a candy bar, chat about his life and family or take a photo with the Changma people. Pangong Tso is open from mid-May to late October. Visitors are required to obtain an inner line permit from Local Administrative authorities in Leh Town.