It was our third day in Leh and we had already got enough chances of acclimatization by then. So we kept the long journey to Pangong and back on a single day. We finished a quick breakfast around 7:30 am as it will take around 5 & 1/2 hours to reach and the same to come back. It took another half hour for other necessary arrangements. Sufficient number of bottles of water, a big hotcase packed with freshly prepared roasted chicken and sandwiches and a big oxygen cylinder went into the car boot. Our enthusiasm was beyond any limit. As Pangong is close to Indo-china border (In fact almost 3/4th of it lies in China) an Inner line permit is required for the Indian citizens. Generally, the hotel arranges for the permit and hands it over on your arrival. For that, you need to fax the required documents such as
1. Self attested photocopy of a govt.recognized ID poof.
2.travel itinerary(specially the part where you need to travel with the ILP and how long will you stay there must be clearly mentioned.)
The permit costs around Rs.420 (400 for environment fee + 20 for ILP) per person for visiting selected parts of Ladakh for four days.
Leh to Pangong via Chang La is the most trodden as it is the least time consuming route to reach the place. Tourists also travel via Nubra and Tso Moriri in summer if they want to cover the entire trip in a single loop. Ours was the journey limited to visiting Pangong only, and it was of almost 160 km. The route was something like this.
Leh - Shey - Karu - Sakti - Zingral - Chang La - Tso Ltak - Durbuk -Tangste - Pangong Tso
First we took the Leh-Manali highway, crossed the Shey village, Sindhu Ghat and the Rancho’s school once again and drove to Karu in almost one hour. From Karu we took the road towards Chang La. From Sakti we started to ascend. The view outside was breathtaking. The yellowish brown hills resembled huge sand dunes and our car was tracing the ribbon like roads wrapped around them. It was around 10 am. when we stopped at Zingral. It was around 15 thousand feet elevation.As Zingral is not a regular tourist destination only one tea shop was open. We were carrying some snacks and hot “Kahwa” with us. Soon we resumed our journey to Changla which was still 13km away.
The Tibetan name Chang-La means" The pass towards south". We reached there around 10:30 am. Chang-la is at an elevation of 17,300 ft. We needed to reach Pangong as early as possible so that we can spend some leisure moments there. So our driver advised us to stop at Chang-la on our way back. We deferred our photo session in front of the signboard reading “The third highest motorable road in Ladakh”. We carried on with the drive towards Pangong and started to decend towards DurbukThe road towards Chang-la was fully covered with snow and ice from almost 1 km. before the pass and the road remains icy at least 1 to 2 km after crossing it. As we were reaching the pass the snow walls on both sides of the road were becoming taller. The road after Chang-la was quite rough and hence it was taking longer time to decend. Almost 2 km. after crossing the pass we found ourselves driving through a valley surrounded again by brown and black hills. On one side of the road there was a huge meadow that extended to the base of the hills. It was full of dry yellow grasses with patches of white ice. We spotted some “Kang” or Tibetan wild ass grazing on the grass. It was amazing to know that this was the Tso-Ltak plain located at an elevation of 16,618 ft. Tso-Ltak is one of the lesser known lakes of Ladakh which remains unnoticed in the hectic itinerary of a busy traveler. Though it looked like a vast span of grassland with patches of snow and ice during then, but in summer this place transforms into a beautiful blue lake to be found just 15 to 20 min after crossing Chang La.
Chang la to Tangtse, the biggest village of this route is around 52 km. As we drove downhill towards Durbuk and Tangtse we crossed varied landscapes. Sometimes series of barren hills of different shades such as of yellowish brown, grey, black, maroon and even purple were standing in endless queue under the azure blue sky. Sometimes barren rocky hills were guarding huge meadows of bushes and shrubs withered after long harsh winter. We drove alone through hills and valleys and that was the most unique experience of this trip. It was a rendezvous with nature. Not a single folk- neither a single bird nor a single green Leaf- we came across in our entire journey except those few Kangs of the Tso Ltak plain. At times it felt as if we were driving through some surreal landscape outside the human world or we had magically entered into a beautiful painting while watching it endlessly.
Though the roads are beautifully maintained here by BRO our driver informed that it is very hard to maintain them due to the harsh climate. Often in rainy season the water from melting glaciers coming down through the slopes of these lofty peaks create huge surge of water in the nearby springs and the roads get washed away. At some places fields were covered with rocks and boulders brought down by the flash floods.
Around 12 o’clock we crossed Durbuk. Tangtse was still 22 km away. Surrounded by hills. Tangtse village lies on the flat,arid valley floor of the Harong stream. The road crosses the stream and goes eastward towards Pangong Tso.
From here onwards a frozen stream started accompanying us. Tangtse houses few shops, hotels and homestays. But during March these hotels and lodges were all closed. Around 2 km after the police check post we found an access lane to reach the Tangtse monastery. Though it would have been an unique experience to visit a monastery in the middle of nowhere we had to omit it for our strict itinerary. This area is also part of the Hemis National Park. The sides of the road were covered by occasional sheets of snow for a pretty long time. My daughter’s sudden query push me to notice the snow more closely. It was only then I found the transformation. It was white sand instead of snow.
After Tangtse it was only a drive of 1 & 1/2 hrs. From Lukung we suddenly caught the first glimpse of the enchanted lake. We yelled with joy. As we drove downhill it disappeared on a bend. After a few more twists and turns for almost 10 more minutes we finally arrived at the shore of the Pangong Tso.
The lake was really" enchanting". We didn’t feel tired even after such a long drive. The cold wind was piercing our faces. Although it was 1pm. in the afternoon, the temperature was sub -zero. As expected the huge lake was completely frozen. In peak winter people even drive their cars and motorcycles on the ice. But since it was early spring our driver cautioned us that the ice has started melting and hence we should be careful while walking on it. We walked a little near the shore with care.
Though the deep azure colour for which the lake is so famous was not to be seen, still it was a celestial experience to stand near it amidst absolute serenity with no soul around us. We did miss the azure blue look of the lake resembling the sky above, but the vast frozen stretch surrounded by lofty barren hills at such an altitude was also a lifetime experience.
It was time for lunch. It was an equally amazing experience to have piping hot lunch seating cozily inside a heated car taking refuge from the icy winds. After lunch we took a stroll along the bank. All the dhabas, restaurants and souvenir shops were shut down. Some pieces of land were marked for tents. It seemed as if the whole place was just waiting for the tourist boom of the summer. We could imagine how the place would look in summer- the shops running in full swing, the tents being fully occupied with tourists. The serene bank full of fast food corners, ice cream shops and photo props like the famous yellow scooter of the popular movie. We compared that with the complete solitude and the absolute serenity that we were experienncing at that pristine bank . We were happy to have made the trip when all these could be avoided.