When I woke up on 18th Aug 2014 morning, even after a tiresome road journey of 24 hours, I didn’t feel a bit of high altitude sickness or tiredness. I was quite upbeat to tick mark one more bucket list item – Pangong Tso Lake. However, there was one critical link missing – how to reach there. All the shared taxis going to Pangong Lake were full, so either I could wait for one more day or else take a personal cab that would burn a big hole in my pocket. But just then Nami, my host – my saviour, appears on the scene with his invisible magical wand. He throws an incredible offer at me with hesitation, “My friend has to go to Pangong today to collect his bike. So if you don’t mind travelling with boys, you can come along. Your travel, food and stay will be totally free.” WOW that sounded like a lottery. However, being a Delhi Girl, just a thought of travelling alone with five boys send chills down the spine. But not when you are in hills. In the battle of left vs right brain, finally the latter won. Nami’s demeanour won over my anxieties. Nami was the guy who hosted me in his homestay – Shashipa Guesthouse at Leh. Extremely adorable. Soft spoken. Sensitive. Caring. Handsome. And most importantly, a guy with the golden heart. Way above the mundane wheeling and dealing that has become the norm of the day to run business. Thank god there are still people not corrupted by greed. He wasn’t merely a courteous host but he was the personification of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’.
With doubts and fear still clouding my mind, at 2:30 pm, I started my Leh-Pangong journey with five strangers (Nami, Jimmy, James, Kapsunk and Singhey) in a SUV. Before embarking on our five-hour long journey, we tucked a hearty lunch of momos, Shapale (Tibetan snack), fruit and gallons of beer, Breezer and juice.
As the road morphed into a dusty pathway through slush, boulders and dust, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the stupendous well-manicured valley between the magnificent mountains of different shades of brown, beige, white, cream, green and grey.
Our first stop was Chang La, the third highest motor-able road in the world, at 17,590 ft. Once at the summit, I took the much-needed pee-chai-photo-break. At the top of Chang La, there is an army base and small cafeteria, which offers free tea. Like all passes, there’s also a mandir, Chang La Baba Ka Mandir, built & taken care of by the Indian Army.
Initially, closer to the top of the pass, the road was bad after which it remained super smooth for rest of the journey. The lichen and wild grasses, in shades of reds, golds and lime greens; was making the drive heavenly. It looked like a patchwork of soft hues and sparkling glacial streams made the place absolutely stunning.
In couple of hours, we reached Tangste. We halted here for our pee-lunch-photo break. Per my local friends, Aamir Khan ate food at Dothguling restaurant. Like a crazy fan, I too wanted to share the same seat and eat the same food. But my bad luck, there was no food left. Tried few more places, but since it was a late evening, all restaurants were either closed or out of stock. At last, we got ourselves parked at the Peace restaurant. We had Chowmein, daal-chawal-sabji, thukpa & omelette. Restaurants in Tangtse stock limited food, which gets over by evening and that’s why we didn’t get the second helping.
When we left Tangste, Change of guard had already happened between the dusk and the night. The road ahead was like a runway and we were cruising at a good speed to reach our Campsite until James had a brainwave. “Arrey hum log itni jaldi camp mein jakar kya karengey. Challo 3 Idiots point par jakar thodi der baithte hain” When Singhey and the gang tried to reason out with him saying its pitch dark and it’s not allowed to go that side at night, James had his argument ready. “Arrey mein pichle mahine hi yahan aaya tha. Mujhe raasta pata hai. Woh ekdum 3 Idiots ke point pe le kar jaayega.” And so his confidence won over our doubts. He claimed to know the way all the way down to the 3 Idiots point. But he forgot it was a pitch dark night, where we could only hear the whispers of the lake but couldn’t see the whispering lips. We tried to follow the trail going to the lake beach. But couldn’t reach. Got stuck in sand dune. Had to dhakka maro. Almost did an action scene of jumping off the cliff into the lake but got saved in the nick of the moment.
After braving the cold for an hour, we decided to move into the warm confinement of our campsite – The nature’s Nest. The Camp owner was Jimmy’s friend, so were treated like kings. The bonfire and the booze added to the magic. Gujju boys from Mumbai, who were on their Ladakh trip, tried hard to impress through their singing and dancing. But I was too tired to oblige them. After a hearty dinner I called it a night. My tent had all what I needed – warm and comfortable bed.
Next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My eyes, mind, time and everything else froze. It was the most tantalizing sight I had ever seen. Flat, calm, unending it was so impossibly beautiful that I actually sat down by its water for some time to accept that it was not a dream. I was confused. How can reality be better than dream? How can so much beauty fit into one frame? How can there be so many shades of blue? Staring at Pangong Lake I drifted into a state of blissful delirium. Probably this is what ‘discovering life’ means. It is one of those places where nature gets to paint its own verse on its own canvas, words can never do justice to the beauty of this lake. Pangong Tso, literally means “enchanted lake”. It is a salt water lake which freezes over in winter but throughout summer and autumn, becomes a tapestry of blue. It usually reflects around 7 shades of blue, from violet, purple, cerulean, indigo, royal blue, navy blue, sea-foam green, turquoise and many more. Once 100% ours but after the Sino-Indian war, 60% of this lake is in Tibet.
While I was gazing at God’s beautiful work of art, I saw Ladakhi nomads rearing their dzos (cross between cows and yaks).
After marvelling at God’s painting, that he had left for drying, for couple of hours and getting the mandatory photo ops, we decided to start our backward journey to Leh. We left the camp at 12:30 pm. Our next stop was the 3 Idiots Point (yes, the same point that we could not find the night before). It was a point swarmed by hordes of tourists. Mostly domestic tourists
Thanks to 3 idiots, Pangong Tso was put on the national must-see list and increased the GDP of Ladakh by 25%. And the proof of its influence is in your face. Every single café pays “tohfa Kabul karo jahanpanha” homage to 3 Idiots by using Rancho or 3 Idiots reference in their restaurants branding.
We enjoyed our lunch at the Golden restaurant, facing the sparkling Pangong Tso View Point. The lady serving the lunch had a pretty face and a million dollar smile. She alone was serving all the guests. Incessant tourist demands didn’t bother her. Her freckles made her look even prettier. We had the customary Himalayan lunch – Maggi, Chowmein, Thukpa, Daal-Chawal, boiled egg and Omelette with a very sweet chai. One thing I didn’t miss at Pangong was the absence of chips and thank god for that. Else, we would be seeing a packet of Lays flying over Pangong Tso instead of Bar Headed Goose or Brahmini Duck. It was after noon when we could manage to peel ourselves away from there. Jimmy rode his bike and we drove back in our muscular boy – Bolero. Being the peak season, the road was completely covered with tourist vehicles. More bikes than SUVs. Per Jimmy, everyday 400 taxis were ferrying around Pangong Tso Lake. Add hundreds of personal cars and bikes to that number. On our way back, I saw few people standing in the wild grass. They were feeding and taking pictures of the Himalayan marmots, adorable giant squirrels of Ladakh. They were cute, cuddly and not afraid of humans.
The road was in good shape and wherever it wasn’t, the BRO guys were at it. A big salute to these guys, who brave such harsh conditions every day to make our drive comfortable. We drove back at a steady pace but for me time had stopped still by the shores of the Pangong Lake. Before retiring to my guesthouse, I did a bit of local sightseeing at Thiksey Monastery and Shey Palace in Leh.