Leh is the central location from where you have access to many remote places in the Himalayas. As the journey to Nubra valley starts from Leh, similarly we embarked on another such journey that started from Leh and took us to the famous Pangong Tso Lake. Most travellers do the Leh – Pangong Tso excursion as a one day trip and come back to Leh by night fall. However we were recommended by the locals to take our time and make it a two days trip to really appreciate the interment stops in between as well as the magnificent Pangong lake. We took their advice and after experiencing the wonder of Leh- Pangong tour, we agree that it was definitely worth it to add an extra day to our itinerary to truly appreciate the wonder that is Pangong Tso. Pangong is a derivative of the Tibetan word Banggong Co which means “long, narrow, enchanted lake”. We had been told that Pangong lake is the highlight of the Leh- Ladakh travel trip and it truly is an enchanting place.
Pangong Tso Lake is considered to be one of the most beautiful places in India. It is also one the largest brackish lakes in Asia. This beautiful lake with deep blue waters and surrounded by tall mountain peaks lies on the Indo – China boundary, with only one fourth of the lake being in India. Situated at a height of 14,270 ft, it is one of the coldest places on earth. The lake is frozen for most of the year with no options to stay around it and only available to tourists during summer months of June, July, August September. Even then, it is so cold that the chill can be felt through the layers of your warmest clothing. Pangong Tso is at a distance of about 170 kilometers from Leh and can be reached in a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The landscape is beautiful but treacherous. But Leh- Ladakh being an active tourist spot and due to the heavy presence of army, most of the roads are well maintained.
Our vehicle of choice was a car. But there are numerous modes of transportation available for tourists with taxis and even bikes for hire for motorcycle enthusiasts who are unable to take their own to Leh. Bus service by J&K SRTC makes regular runs and there are many travel agents who operate their own bus services. It is recommended to carry adequate supply of fuel as there aren’t many fuels stations along the way. And of course, pack as many warm clothes as you can carry. It is going to be a very cold trip.
When we start from Leh, our first destination is Karu which is at a distance of about 45 kilometers. It is better to start the trip early so after a delicious big breakfast we headed towards Karu. The way to reach the town of Karu is by driving on Leh – Manali highway. It is well maintained and in good enough condition to make it a fast paced journey. It didn’t take us more than an hour of travel to reach Karu. Karu is a small town with basic facilities being so close to Leh. However if you’ve started your journey prepared there is no real need to make a stop at this place. Once we reached Karu, we turned left that took us to the village Sakti. Here can make a stop at Takthok Monastery. It is a Buddhist monastery and belongs to the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, it is the only Nyingma monastery in Ladakh. About 55 lamas reside here. It was founded around mid 16th century and both its roof and walls are made up of rocks.
After a brief stop at the monastery, we continued onwards. Roads forward mostly run straight until you cross Sakti. A few kilometers after the village ends, the real ascent for Chang La starts. For most part ascent is steep but the initial roads are in good condition so it is safe drive. The real challenge (or fun, depending on the person) starts as you approach the final few kilometers of the ascent to Chang La. The conditions of the road start to worsen and steepness increases, making the affair of reaching the summit of Chang La more challenging and memorable. The Chang La situated at 17,590 ft is a high mountain pass in Ladakh and it is the third highest motorable road in the world. Due to bad roads at the final ascent is also the toughest giving meaning to its appropriate title “The Mighty Chang La”.
The pass is guarded and maintained by the Indian Army (due its close proximity to the Chinese border). It is covered with snow all throughout the year. Once we reached the summit, we were greeted by the Indian Army troops who are stationed here to acclimatize to high altitude, before they are posted in world’s highest battlefield, Siachen. Though it is usually open all year, but it can be closed anytime when the access is not cleared of snow. During the summer seasons, the peak of tourism in the area, the closures are not that frequent. The Changla Pass is the main gateway for the Changthang Plateau situated in the Himalayas. There are certain precautions necessary while visiting this place due the cold and chill climate. At such a high altitude, the oxygen is less and it makes breathing a big problem for tourists as many experience breathlessness. The ideal amount of time one can spend on the Changla pass is about twenty to thirty minutes to enjoy the snow along with the views of the snowcapped mountains. Be sure to cover yourself in fully warm clothing from head to toe. During this time we indulged in a bit of delicious Ladakhi street food at a stall at Changla pass. Though the Changla Pass is extremely cold and chilly winds that can blow you away, the breathtaking views from this region leaves you breathless (pun intended) and makes the hardship worth the while.
The descent from chang La towards Tangtse is again very steep, worsened by the deteriorated roads. This ascent and descent should only be attempted if you are an experienced driver. Rookies, beware. From Chang La to Tangtse, it is a distance of about 58 kilometers. After Chang La, continue on the descent towards Durbuk. After the initial few kilometers, the road becomes smooth and easy to navigate. Add beautiful scenery to the equation and you get yourself a drive you’ll never forget. After a pleasant ride, we arrived at Tanksey which is a big town with a few shops, hotels and even an internet café. The adrenaline filled drive through Chang La had left us ravenous and we quickly found a local eatery that served tasty warm food that rejuvenated our spirits. It is quite easy to find good accommodation in this place. But we continued onwards our next stop that is, towards Spangmik, where the Pangong Tso lake is located.
After Tangste, it is a straight run to the village of Spangmik, right on the shores of Pangong Tso. Roads are extremely good however we were advised by the locals to drive carefully as there are areas where one can find streams of water flowing down from the hill on the road. These streams can be deep sometimes. So even though it is tempting to drive rashly, it is better to be cautious on this unknown terrain. About an hour of so into the drive, as we reached Lukung the roads turned from tar to dirt track. At the same time we got our first glimpse of the beautiful lake. Its sapphire waters shine like a pearl in sunlight from the distance. Pangong Tso lives up to the rumors of its famed beauty. Since the lake is at a height of around 14,000 ft height, you can even see clouds hovering over and near the lake. The first glimpse of the serene, bright blue waters and rocky lakeshore will forever remain etched our memory.
No wonder it is such a sought after spot for filming romantic scenes in Hindi movies. Near the lake is a sand spit nicknamed ‘Shooting Point’ as it was used as a film set for the famous Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots.
Surrounded by the cold harsh snowcapped mountains, this patch of water stands out with its beautiful colorful hues which further enhances its beauty. But the water in this lake is ice cold and saline, not fresh. Due to the saltiness in the water of the lake, there is very less micro-vegetation. There are no fish or other aquatic life in the lake, except for some small crustaceans. However, we spotted numerous Brahmani Ducks, Rare black necked cranes and Seagulls over and on the lake surface. There are some species of scrub and perennial herbs that grow in the marshes around the lake. We were told that sometimes tourists can also spot Ladakhi Marmots, the rodent-like creatures which can grow up to the size of a small dog. Pangong Lake is a naturist’s dreamland. It is far away from the comforts of the modern civilization, giving us a unique view into the life of people who live in and survive such harsh climates.
Since most of the lake is in the Chinese controlled territory, tourists are only allowed to visit the lake upto the Spangmik village. Even that requires a special Inner line permit. Pangong Tso saw military action during the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. It is still a delicate border point along the Line of Actual Control and for security reasons, boating is prohibited on the Indian side. There is also an army base near the lake. The lake is in the process of being identified under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. When it goes through, it will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under the convention.
We stayed the night at luxury camps near Pangong lake. One of the best experiences at the lake is viewing the sunrise and the sunset. They are the best sunset and sunrise sights you will ever witness in your life. Absolutely picturesque and such peaceful moments that you feel sense of utter calmness wash over you as the first rays of sun light up the vivid colors of the Pangong lake. There aren’t enough words to describe such a mesmerizing view. You can only experience it.
The next day we explored the area around Pangong and clicked as many pictures of the lake as we could to cover every possible angle. But even that doesn’t seem sufficient to cover its stark beauty. There is also a souvenir shop that sells mementos to remember your Pangong Tso trip by. Not that a person can ever forget it. Don’t miss out on this charming serene place when you take a trip to Leh, Ladakh.
The trip back to Leh is again via the same route though Changla pass and take around five to six hours, depending on the number of breaks. But this time, you go back with a feeling of contentment and wonder at having witnessed such a marvel of nature. And you know, one day you’ll be back because it is a magical place that leaves you spell bound with its beauty.