Day 4: Panginagu - Tso Kar Basin - Debring - Leh - Part 1 of 2
A note before you proceed reading:
Kiang = A wild ass, whose home is the cold desert of Changthang.
Kiyang = A wild Tata Safari, whose home is New Delhi, at times found in the cold desert of Changthang.
The night before had been terrible. I could not sleep at all, was feeling cold throughout, and to top it all I also had an upset stomach. We’d planned to leave at 5:30 in the morning to explore the Tso Kar basin and come back to the camp for breakfast. Then we had planned to go to Yar La and Datgo (the Rupshu region) before lunch, before finally heading off towards Leh. Although we did wake up at 5:00 am, I was in no position to go, having not slept a wink the previous night. We went back to sleep, and only woke up at 8:30. Sadly, it was now too late to do both the Tso Kar basin and Yar La, so we decided to explore the former. Both our heads were throbbing badly, and we wanted to take it a bit easy. After a lazy breakfast, we finally moved from the camp at 10 am.
The people at the camp had told us that the dirt track that led us there would go till the lake, but beyond that they had little idea till where it went. So far our tryst with the lake was from a distance, and naturally we were eager to get a closer look. As we moved ahead on the track, the pretty lake slowly came into view. We realized how big Tso Kar really was, and what a small bit of it we’d seen last year. Thankfully, there was hardly any wind at the time, and the lake was perfectly reflecting the mountains behind it. The lovely blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds completed the perfect picture. We spent some time soaking in the vistas, before moving on.
The Tso Kar basin is beautiful, and a large part of it was covered with purple shrubs this time of the year. These shrubs also grow on mountains, giving the whole landscape a purplish tinge. The fact that the place is a wetland only adds to its beauty.
Soon we came to the tiny village of Riyul, from where the track bifurcated, one leading towards the lake and to the village of Nuruchan, and the other towards the end of the basin and to the village of Chutak. We opted for the latter, since we also wanted to glimpse the Startspuk Tso, having missed it last year. My hidden agenda was to check if the dirt-track went all the way till Kiagar Tso, had a hunch that it just might. For a change, the hunch was wrong and we did manage to hit a dead-end at the village Chutak.
The outline of a village, which we now know as Chutak, appeared in the distance, and that is where the track was going. We hesitated a bit, since we wanted to circle the lake, but then curiosity tempted us to check out the village. All this while, we were hoping to spot a Kiang, as we had seen them last year in this very wetland, on the opposite side of the lake. Just as we were losing hope, we spotted two of them, and one crossed the track right in front of us. We were elated, and spent some time trying to capture the Kiang on camera, but did not get good shots as it soon ran away.
As we neared the village, we saw that its boundaries were fenced. Inside the village, however, all we could see were locked houses, and not a soul around. We went up till the end of the village, which was also the end of the basin. The end was uncharacteristic, the terrain ahead was simple enough to have dirt-tracks and the climb ahead to Startspuk La seemed easy for a 4WD! However, there were no dirt-tracks. Not even signs of tyre tracks which we could follow. My hunch was thus rendered false, and we realized that the route from there to Kiagar Tso was only a trekkable one for now. We could still not see any person or animal around. Some houses had what seemed like pashmina goat wool on top of their roofs, but ALL of them were locked. We could not figure out if the village was abandoned or if the villagers had simply gone out to earn a living, which of course would mean grazing their flock!
We then retraced our steps and went all the back till Riyul where the track had bifurcated. We now took the other path which led towards the lake and to Nuruchan. This path was much less used, and we sometimes even lost the tyre tracks for a few meters. It was also much closer to the lake, and hence we had to be careful not to veer off into any marshy areas or worse onto any part of the wetland. In the distance, we saw a watch tower, and concluded that this must be used by bird watchers to monitor the movement of migratory birds.
Along the way, we spotted two or three brown spots far away, and on looking through the zoom lens figured that they were actually Kiangs. I even got down from the car to capture two of them on camera. As I was walking back, they too seemed to follow me. Then, they stopped pretty close to us, and stared. And stared. And stared. Took a graceful turn, in perfect coordination, and then stared. And stared. And stared. Took a graceful turn, in perfect coordination, and then stared. And stared... and so on! All this while, Aarti had been shooting furiously with the zoom lens, and even managed to shoot a video of their antics. We were bewildered by these two brave and bold Kiangs, so curious about us humans that they did not let us out of their sight even for a second. It was us who had to finally give up and drive away when we got the feeling that this cycle might actually go on the whole day! But indeed, the grace with which the Kiangs carry themselves is marvelous. Everything about them - their slender, athletic body, their beige and brown colour which completely blends into the barren surroundings, their cute, alert ears, their majestic mane, the way they run with their heads up - is beautiful. What elegant creatures! Needless to mention, we were absolutely thrilled with the attention we got from them.
We also spotted the tiny Startspuk Tso in the distance. Both of us somehow love the name of that lake, and were glad to have finally seen it. Realizing that this track too did not cut across the lake, as marked on the map we had, we went back the way we had come. Some Brahmini ducks were frolicking on the edge of Tso Kar, but we couldn’t get good shots of them as they were very shy and flew away at the slightest indication of movement. We had almost reached our camp at Panginagu when we noticed some marmots on either side of the track, and were delighted at having spotted the one animal that we were really missing.