India > Pangong Lake, the Jewel of Ladakh

October 2017

We first heard of Pangong Tso or Pangong Lake when we watched the enjoyable (funny but sad) Bollywood movie called ‘The 3 Idiots’, several years back. It was released in 2009, with the climactic final scenes shot at Pangong Lake. Suddenly Ladakh, especially Pangong, experienced a major influx of visitors. As a result, the fragile ecosystem of Pangong is suffering and its rudimentary infrastructure creaking at its seams. Summers see about 500 vehicles full of tourists making the pilgrimage to Pangong each day, and that’s simply too many.

Another long day-trip through the mountains, so we left Leh early in the morning, and as usual, traveling to the border areas require permits and a mandatory stop at a police checkpoint. We took the main highway to Manali, which goes all the way to Delhi, so this is the only access road heading south to the rest of India from Leh. It crosses more Himalayan mountains and is always snowed out in winter. Anyway, here we are at a police checkpoint, and while waiting for permission to move on, a furry family comes over to the car, politely waiting for breakfast handout. Unfortunately we don’t have any food, so when another car pulls over, the whole clan leaves to try to their luck there. Sorry, guys!

Permission granted, and we take a turn-off from the Leh – Manali Highway and head eastwards through the mountains along a narrow road. They love to paste their monasteries at the sides of barren mountains, and they look really spectacular. This is the mid-17th century Chemrey Monastery which belongs to the red hat sect.

The Chemrey Valley is in glorious autumn colours. Ladakh valleys are normally full of poplar and willow trees.

Soon the climbing starts, as we leave Chemrey behind.

Gaining altitude fast via this zig-zag. No margin for errors, otherwise a deep precipice awaits you.

And of course our dear BRO — Border Roads Organisation, a unit of the Indian army — always reminds us to be careful.

On the other side of another seemingly bottomless valley, another sad-looking road struggling against the mean mountains. A good show of how puny we humans are.

More harrowing mountain road driving, and soon we are approaching the main pass of the journey. I look back at the valley, there’s an army camp down there — a popular toilet stop, except that the toilets are generally waterless (I dare not describe how they look like, needless to say only the ones in Tibet are worse). So remember, when travelling the wilderness of Ladakh, carry some water since it’s virtually desert country.

This is Chang-la or Chang Pass, also one of the highest motorable passes in the world. The air is very thin, just like at Khardung and we won’t stay for long.

Officially we are at 17,688 feet above sea level, and yes, the oxygen in the air is just half of what we are used to. Not good. The acclimatisation stay in Leh (10,500 feet) does help a lot, without that we would have been in worse shape now.

Just past Chang Pass, we see the wrecks of three army trucks which fell off the road into the valley in bad winter weather recently. All six army men died, RIP. And this is just a shallow valley, imagine falling off the high mountain roads into those steep bottomless pits!

Then we enter a valley with orange grasses. There’s a river here, but it’s now dry. Only spots of small lakes remain.

This would have been an island if there’s water.

There are horses grazing on the orange grass, but I suspect these are reared ones, not wild.

That’s the whole valley, with a dry river bed, but traces of the water flow can be seen.

Suddenly I spot a sliver of deep blue water as the road winds into the valley. That must be Pangong Lake! We are on the Changtang or Chang Plateau, at 14,000 feet above sea level. That’s higher than Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest at 13,500 feet, which I climbed ten years ago — I can still remember the nonstop headache while ascending to the summit.

Yes, we are finally here and that’s one great-looking lake, I must admit! It’s noon, and the sky is spotless but the gentle breeze and the 14,000 feet altitude make it very chilly.

Look at how clear the water is. It’s cold and saline, hence there is no fish or aquatic life apart from some crustaceans. The lake is a slender 130km-long body of water, with maximum width of 5km and maximum depth of 100m. A third of it is in India, while the remaining in China. In fact the disputed border cuts right across the lake.

People flock to the spit where The 3 Idiots was filmed ten years ago, but back then the spit was much longer, extending far to the right into the water. Maybe the water level has risen since then.

Looking at the other direction, there’s extensive commercial activities catering to the many tourists — these were hardly around just several years ago.

People are frolicking in the cold water, but I notice seagulls floating and flying around. They must be feeding on the crustaceans in the shallow water.

These are Brown-headed Gulls, well, the heads are not brown here due to non-breeding plummage. In the middle of the continent at 14,000 feet high? They are migratory, so probably they stumbled upon this beautiful spot and decided to stay.

The lake seems to display various hues of blue, especially turquoise and azure, which makes it so scenic. On a fine day like today’s the full range of blue hues can be seen. I suppose these colours are due to the interactions between sunlight, the minerals in the water and the surroundings. I have not seen such colours in any of the glacial lakes I have visited before (see for example, my stories on Alaska HERE, on Tibet HERE, on New Zealand HERE).

A photo is a must here!

What’s this I see? Props from The 3 Idiots? Well, if there’s money to be made, there’ll be no shortage of entrepreneurs. Pangong Lake was virtually unknown until the Bollywood blockbuster was released in 2009. Now the film has spawned a cottage industry at the movie site, and hiked up visitor numbers to Ladakh many times over.

I guess there must be good demand by the visitors for this sort of thing. I am a bit bemused by it all, but the fans are mainly domestic tourists.

Only those of you who have watched The 3 Idiots would understand what the props are all about. All izz well is pretty cool stuff.

I can’t imagine 500 vehicles per day crammed into this spot during the peak summer season. With so many people, where would the waste and rubbish go? And the pollution too. I’d hate to see this pristine site spoilt, but then I’m one of the culprits too. Always a dilemma for an eco-traveller, hahaha!

The haphazard growth of amenities such as eateries, guesthouses and camping sites, is probably changing the character of the place forever. These structures were not here just several years ago, well not before The 3 Idiots were out.

There’s a road which skirts the southern edge of the lake all the way to the Chinese border just 50km away. There were skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese security forces in the area very recently so I guess things are a bit tense now. I suppose two armies eye-balling each other would define where the border of their nations is, so they have to stay put under any circumstances.

Eventually with a heavy heart, we have to leave beautiful Pangong, with an apt reminder from BRO.

Another message from BRO, the custodian of all the roads in Jammu and Kashmir. We must thank them for making all our trips in Ladakh possible.

Back in the valley, we spot a herd of wild donkeys, another rare animal, blending quite well with the terrain. These are tough creatures being able to live in this cold frigid high altitude desert.

Then we come across a very pleasant sight — horses grazing on the yellow grass on the banks of a fast-flowing stream.

Beautiful view indeed! I’m not sure if these are wild or reared animals.

The road deteriorates a bit, cut out from solid rocks. There’s no way you can pass another vehicle here, it’s just wide enough for one.

We soon cross the valley floor.

With the usual reminder from BRO.

Now what are these? Pashmina goats, say the driver. Wow, so these are the critters giving us arguably the best wool in the world!

The male goat looks so regal. Pashmina is a fine type of cashmere wool, and only four breeds of goats, all originating in this region, can give this extremely high quality fibre.

Pashmina literally means ‘soft gold’ in Kashmiri, and these handsome goats near Pangong are the local Changthangi breed, one of the four. Soft gold growing everywhere here.

We start making our way uphill as we leave the valley. ‘NEVER GIVE UP’ says the army motto. I sure hope they won’t. Or is it meant for us?

A truly desert landscape as the road snakes across the valley, and it’s totally freezing out here.

Another beautiful valley full of the photogenic yellow grass, with more grazing horses. I still can’t spot the horseherd.

We cross another valley floor strewn with huge rocks. It’s amazing how BRO could have constructed this Pangong Lake Road.

There’s a tight right turn just ahead, almost a U-turn, as the road climbs steeply (remember the zig-zag road?). Go straight and it’s several hundred metres down to the bottom of the steep precipice, there’s no barrier to protect us. Nothing could survive that, certain death for sure.

With more dangerous loose rocks ready to roll down at any moment, our eyes are wide open looking up to our left. We don’t really have Plan B in case a huge boulder starts barreling down towards us.

We return to Chang Pass at 17,688 feet above sea level. A big glacier is its landmark, just like Khardung Pass.

Past the Chang Pass, it’s virtually downhill from here, but it is more like hugging the sides of the mountains in fear of falling off into the deep valleys.

Is there a road somewhere there? The driver says there is.

Look at those huge boulders, in such precarious positions. We just drive through with a bit of prayer.

The weather is so chilly this cascade of water coming out of the rocks never had a chance — frozen solid.

I wonder how the asphalt could have held itself together considering the never-ending onslaught by falling rocks, and extremely bad winter weather.

More hairy car ride, but soon we are on the main Leh – Manali Highway back to Leh.

We are comfortably back at our Leh guesthouse as the sun sets. What a tiring day it has been. The landlady promises a hearty dinner for tonight. The trip to Pangong , although only 150km away, took us more than 4 hours drive one-way because of the road, but the experience has been priceless — the landscape, the scenery, the flora, the fauna, the rocks, the valleys, the scare (!), the altitude, etc, and of the course the gorgeous Pangong Lake itself! Do come.

She cooked delicious thukpa for dinner, a tasty traditional Ladakhi soup with generous pieces of mutton and pasta-like wheat pieces, aided by mild spices and lotsa vegies — originated from western Tibet, no surprise. A fitting end to our memorable Ladakh stay, for early tomorrow morning we are checking out, to catch a flight to Chandigarh.

A farewell shot with Madam Kunzes, the landlady of our guesthouse (Youthok Guesthouse, not Mentokling any more), in traditional garb before she and her husband go away for a wedding function.


A collection of messages brought by good old BRO, the Border Roads Organisation.



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