Ladakh is special in many ways and despite its gaining popularity, this place in Jammu & Kashmir remains virgin, peaceful and beautiful. Ladakh is not only home to some of the highest motorable passes and mountain peaks of the world, it also cradles high altitude lakes. The Pangong Tso is one such example. For the uninitiated, the word ‘Tso’ means a lake in local Tibetan language.
Where is it
Located at a distance of approximately 155km from Leh, Pangong Tso is situated in North Ladakh. This is one of the largest lakes in the world which is also home to Bar-headed goose and Brahmini ducks. The lake is 134km long and approximately 60% of it lies in the Chinese territory. The Pangong Tso is a saline water lake and landlocked from all sides. It remains frozen for about five months from end of November to early April.
The road or rather the adventurous journey to Pangong Tso starts from the capital of Ladakh, Leh. It passes through Chang la (‘la’ in local language refers to a pass) which is one of the toughest in terms of driving conditions. At an altitude of 17,590 feet above mean sea level, Chang la can turn notorious in terms of rains and snowfall within minutes, thus adding to the adventure. The first forty odd kilometers are fast and can be covered in less than an hour. You soon leave the Leh-Manali highway and from here on, civilization disappears and barren brown mountains are your companion. An hour and a half later, you are at the top of Chang la pass. Stop here, step out of your vehicle, take a deep breath and head inside the Army run café for complimentary tea. At most times, there will be well fed mongrels around – they are very playful and playing with them can be a good way of diverting your mind in case you aren’t feeling too well.
The journey ahead is tough for the first half hour, going through rocky paths and narrow roads. However, smooth tarmac greets you soon and you drive through a narrow valley before getting a first glimpse of the magical blue waters. There is a well-defined view point board at a right turn: stop here and stare at the lake. Take out your cam, put on the zoom lens and capture the first sight.
It takes less than thirty minutes to finally hit the small settlement of Spangmik which is bang on the left shore of the lake. You cross an Army camp first and then the line-up of eateries starts. Mind you, the Army run café is a great place for lip smacking food at reasonable prices. Do pay it a visit.
Pangong Tso is situated at over 14,000 feet. This means the air is thin and if you aren’t used to high altitudes, do not move around much. Spangmik has about a dozen odd restaurants dishing out whatever you may need. BSNL network now works and the restaurant owners are friendly enough to lend their phones in case you want to make a call back home.
What to do
The best thing to do here is nothing. Leave your car, carry your camera and spend a couple of hours around the lake. Walk, discover nature’s beauty and leave the rest behind. The water itself is calm and cold. There will be the occasional bird flying around and if you want a peaceful spot, either drive a kilometer or two away, or simply walk. This place can be serene, just what you need to be with yourself. Or your better half!
The other side of the lake has lot of peaks. On the right somewhere is China and that is forbidden territory.
What to eat
Though the restaurants have a variety of cuisines on their menu, do try out the local stuff. Tibetan food is warm and healthy for the body and we recommend the Thupka or the Kothays (Momos pan fried in butter). Stay away from alcohol and tobacco at such high altitudes.
Where to stay
The good thing about Pangong Tso is the accommodation part. From cheap beds inside restaurants to high-end Swiss Camps, this place has it all. Drive further up towards Man and Merak villages and you will come across luxury tents with all the modern facilities. The drive itself is beautiful as well. You drive next to the lake and at places, the road goes up into the hill, giving you a birds view of the blue waters.
Around Pangong Tso
If you are staying for a night here, you can explore a lot of places. Walk if you can and this place will give you enough memories for a lifetime. You can also drive to Hanle which is about 160km away. About half the drive is on no roads where you have to follow a dirt or sandy path. It is an adventure in itself where the only company you have is in the form of wild rabbits, Kiangs (wild asses) and Marmots. You will come across bunkers which will remind you of the famous war with our neighbor and needless to say, there will be no big town or network along. Hanle takes about 6 hours and has India’s highest observatory.
For those riding to Pangong on two-wheels, they can try their luck for Marsimek la which is the world’s highest place a vehicle can go. There is no road, just a path. Mind you, for both Hanle and Marsimek la, permits will be required in advance. These are obtainable from Leh.
When to go
Pangong Tso is a year round destination. The roads to Ladakh (from rest of the country) are open from May till October. In other seasons, you can fly into Leh, take it easy for a day or two and then either hire a four-wheeler (no self-drive options) or rent a motorcycle. The latter option is not advised for December, January and February. Temperatures drops to less than minus fifteen degrees at times which means the frozen lake can even the load of a car. Most taxi drivers will drive onto the surface and this can be scary and thrilling at the same time.