The Ladakh Reflections - Day 6

The alarm clock buzzed at 5am, and i had to be at the pick up site by 6. I rushed to be ready by then. The taxi came dot on time, we picked another three people on the way. A young couple from Bangalore and a lady from Delhi. I was excited as today we are going to Pangong lake, the most must-see place in Ladakh. I tucked multiple xeroxes of inner line permit and was full on all possible camera batteries. We followed the same route as we did when we went to Thiksay. We drove really fast up to Thiksay, because all the driver did was drive, not a word about what just went by or what lay in front of us. I missed all the tiniest of detail that Nawang would tell. Beyond Thiksay, on the banks of Indus lay the monastery called Stakna located on a hill. Stakna means the tiger's nose and probably the hill is shaped like one. We stopped at Karu (35km from Leh) for the quick breakfast.

(state of the roads at Chang La)

(Chang La pass at 17586ft)

From Karu one can get fabulous views of snow covered peaks nestled between barren hills and the greenery below. We moved on indifferently for other wonders awaited us. On the far hill top i could see another monastery that looked lot like Thiksay. This was Chemde monastery (of the movie Samsara fame). We had left the straight road behind and the drive now was steep up the mountains. Down in the valley, there was the beautiful village of Sakti, the only patch of green in the all encompassing barrenness. Through the wind screen, i could see line of other tourists jeeps moving higher on those curves in the mountain ahead of us. A very long curve and we would be there, nothing would have changed. We would still be in wilderness and barrenness would still be same but we would have gained couple of hundred feet in altitude. I have traveled hundred+ kilometer in all direction from Leh and i am overwhelmed at the vastness of this cold desert and the scale of it. I awed at the thought that same landscape would greet me if i go to Tibet and it would be thousands of miles across. I want to see it someday. The milestones constantly reminded us that the next big village would be Zingrul (60km from Leh). From the distance i could see the clouds high up in the mountains in mood for mischief. In the light brown mountains that we just crossed, i could see the roads carved randomly on the sides like with a stick on sand dune. As we continued to gain altitude, we were driving on mountains that had snow on its higher reaches. We reached Zingrul which was not much of a village, some army buildings here and there.From Zingrul onwards the ascent was really steep and though initially the road was good, it started getting bad now. There was spattering of snow here and there on the slopes though the road was dry. We were now in midst of the clouds and mist and though i and co-passengers were elated, the driver fret-ed about the approaching bad weather. He told that the colors at the lake would not be great if it continued to be overcast at the lake. The high pass which was visible some moments ago was now shrouded in clouds. The snow on the slopes were much more uniform now and the road much more worse. Occasionally the stretches of road were marked as avalanche prone and on those stretches the snow was over 10 feet high besides the road and running water forming icicles. Sometimes it was not even the road anymore, all you could see was streams of snow melt rushing down across the broken road with the shortest path possible. Everywhere your eye could see there was snow and it was so bright without the sunglasses on and that to on a day when the sun was hiding behind the clouds. One last turn and we enter what looked like a wide stretch of road and semicircular steel dwellings on both sides. The milestone proudly displays that this is the Chang La, world's third highest motor-able pass (75km from Leh). We stopped there, the Bangalore couple seemingly over-excited about the snow. Later they told me that they are seeing snow for the first time in their lives. On the middle of the road was a shrine dedicated to Chang La. There is small tea-counter besides a medical facility here. It was very cold here, and i had to pull my jacket before i could venture out. I felt good to feel snow at the height of the Indian summer and wondered what it would be this time in Delhi. Couple of army men with heavy boots and sunglasses rested on the wired fence. 4-5 more tourist jeeps arrived now. There seemed to be melee at the pass center now. I meanwhile was busy with my camera and talking to the driver. Just behind the pass from where we came was an impressive snow covered slope looking a tad dull in the overcast weather. Chang La pass is next to Tanglang La (which is 2nd) and stands at 5360m(17586ft) at the high point. That is some menacing height considering that Mussoorie with all its fame is just 2000m high. After staying for another 15 minutes which was enough to give the couple traveling along a headache (probably due to rarity of oxygen) we started out descent down the pass.

(The various shades of Chang Thang region)

(A himalyan marmoot)

(The colors of Chang Thang near Tangste village)

As soon as we left the pass, the weather turned inclement and it started snowing. Not very hard, but enough to make you feel good and joyful. The road though still terrible was slanting down now slowly. We slowly made our way past Tso Ltak, which was another military installation. The snow was no more now either falling or on the slopes and the road had remarkably turned good. This was Chang Thang territory (meaning large northern plain). The mountains has so many shades exposed, one wonders was this all intentional. Did almighty create this for us to relish. A small river flowed along side the road as we drove towards Tangste village. Occasionally a small lake would on this river and you wished you could stop the car and go down to the edge of the lake. There was a green carpet where ever the river flowed, with the meandering river in between. Occasionally on both sides of the road, there were huge rocks with the road carved in between, probably rocks is not the right word. It does not properly signify the scale of what you saw. They were like whole hills that appeared to be a single big rock. We stopped at Tangste for the permit checking, before driving off again. One diversion from here goes to Chusul (another 80km from here) famous for the 1962 India-China war. The locales were still spectacular and the green valley with the river was lost in the mountains to be replaced by another river, this time of gray sand. As we drove the entire length to Pangong lake, this river of sand was by our side. Probably this is snow-fed river that feeds the Pangong lake as i hazard to make a guess. In such desolate environs even the river of sand looked to be an eye catching spectacle.

(at the edge of Pangong Tso)

(at Pangong Tso)

I caught a glimpse of it. A deep blue patch just barely visible in this absolute ruggedness. Another couple of minutes and we had arrived or rather the lake had arrived in our senses. A think blue streak of endless water cradled between the mountains, as far as i could see. The water was so calm and quiet as if hiding a million secrets underneath. We drove a little while besides the lake, before alighting. It was such a majestic view as if somebody had painted with the choicest of colors that would look best. Nothing more need to be added and nothing more needed to be removed. Maybe it was for the Gods only to view and we are fortunate few. I went down to the lake, the water was icy cold and crystal clear. A flock of birds swam effortlessly in it. On the other side the smooth brown mountains seamlessly merged with the lake as if in perfect symphony. I sat down and wondered why such pleasures have to be fleeting and why we whiz past them for inconsequential goals. Wouldn't it be nice to have a home whose window opens on the lake, or maybe one window opens on the lake, the other on lush valley of Nubra and another on icy peaks of Stok Kangri and so on. I reigned in on my flight of fancy and climbed the higher ground for some better shots. From the distance it looked like a postcard, all the elements in absolute harmony, in perfect awe of each other. Everything was so serene and quiet. Not a wave, not a movement anywhere as if frozen in time. At the start of the lake the water had a tinge of green. Whenever the sun was out the lake looked blue and when it hid in the clouds, it was in shades of gray. My camera furiously worked overtime to make sense of it all. This lake is 130km long and not very wide across and at 4300m altitude.More than 60% is under Chinese control. Someone volunteered to take couple of my shots. After spending two hours on the lake, we started the long haul back. The driver told me that tourists who come here to spend a night are taken another 12 km along the lake to Spangmik where tented accommodation is available. I wondered if there are water sports activities there. It would be such an experience, taking to boat midway and enjoying the pristine views around.

It was already 1:30pm by the time we left the lake. Leh is a good five hours away. It was decided that the lunch would be Tangste, a hour drive from here. The river of sand by our sides as we drove into the panorama called Chang Thang. We drove by Tangste monastery on a hill top looking old and dilapidated and yet surreal. The driver stopped in front of what looked like a eatery. The lady told that we can have our lunch in their house instead of here. A door besides the eatery took us straight to the main hall of their house where we seated ourselves comfortably on the carpet. We had simple yet delicious dal-chawal-subzi before we took leave. In the outskirts of the village, amidst all that green one could see domesticated horses and herd of pashmina goats grazing. A camp of nomads housed in circular tents passed by. A little forward a group of yaks were indifferently grazing while travelers stopped there jeeps to take their photographs. We promptly did the same. Hardly we had started again, when the driver pointed out in the field. A Himalyan marmoot was sitting as if monitoring traffic. As soon as we stopped and open the door to take pictures, it rushed forward and raised its forward two legs raising its nose in the air as if to get a scent of something. The driver told that the travelers have taken to feeding them therefore they are not scared of come near people. From Tso Ltak the ascent was pretty steep. Since the sun was out brightly, the snow that fell earlier in the day was melting fast and those small streams of snow melt that crossed the road to the slope below were now gushes of water. The jeep cautiously navigated to avoid the bigger puddles but the road was such bad that any amount of going around would not help.The driver told me this pass is the most difficult to maintain of all the passes and looking at the terrain i seem to agree. We stopped at Chang La for 10 minutes to give our backs some relief from the beating it took on this treacherous road. The drive from here to Leh (another 75km) was rather uneventful, besides i was feeling a bit sleepy due to the sunshine that was warming me up from the window and the windscreen.

I reached home around 6:30. Nawang and I talked and examined the results of the day (the photographs) over cups of kawa. He also told me that tomorrow trip to Nubra Valley has been arranged and i need to be ready by 8 in the morning. A little TV besides a big dinner and serving of fruits to wind up a glorious day!

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