Overnight in Leh and ready for an early morning departure
In the first parts of this journey, I wrote an introduction to arriving in Leh from Delhi Read here and a 6-day journey to the Zanskar valley and back. See ‘Ladakh: Leh to Leh and what lay in between’ – Part 1. Read here
Following a restful night, and repacking for a smaller journey, our small group of 3 ladies, our Ladakhi travel guide and travel organsier Suresh see Suresh’s website here set off on the main road that returns to greater India via the Rohtang Pass to Himachal Pradesh and down the Kullu valley into the plains. We drop my husband off at Hemis Monastery where he will spend a few days and visit the Gotsang Cave, a two-hour walk up the valley from the monastery, before heading back down the valley to the main road.
Towards Pangong Tso (Lake)
At Karu, we cross the main highway and drive in the opposite direction from Hemis on the road to Pangong Tso (Lake) which sits at 4,419m (14,500ft). The road heads north towards the Chang La Pass in the ‘Ladakh Range’ of mountains. The valley is lush, green, fertile, wide and pretty, with new houses under construction or established ones in the traditional Ladakhi style – square with a flat roof and parapet. Colourfully painted and kept in very good condition, our local guide tells us that a lot of government workers live in this valley. On a rise across the river valley and between two large hills across the river sits a bright white well-maintained monastery. It is the Chemray monastery (16th C) and associated with Hemis; however our guide tells us it was built before Hemis. It is so striking in its commanding position over the valley that we stop and take photographs.
The road climbs to Chang La Pass
The road is under reconstruction, widening and resurfacing, so is very rough and slow going for quite some kilometres. We begin to climb upwards towards the high pass – the third highest motorable pass in the world at 5,288m (17,350ft) making good progress on the slow road. The view back down the valley is stunning and we are enthralled with the patchwork of fields in green and gold as we inch our way to the snow-topped Chang La pass on the now sealed twisting road.
Chang La Pass
At the pass it is snowing, and for one of my friends it is her first experience of snow falling. It is fun to watch, laugh and play in the fresh snow throwing snowballs and enjoying the experience. Surprisingly I find it is not as cold as I expected at that altitude in the snow. We drink tea in the local tea shop and photograph the marker points noting the altitude and position of this memorable place.
The local temple here on the top is adorned with Buddhist prayer flags and Tibetan bells. The strong army presence is again noted. High up on the peaks above the road are huge snow and ice fields and the boulders at our level are more than sprinkled with snow, making for an amazing vista of gold and brown, deep blue/black and white.
Down the other side, amid many ‘avalanche area’ signs, we note the ghostly skeletons of three army vehicles, victim to an avalanche two years before where several soldiers lost their lives. A sobering sight! We eventually drive down the mountain and out of the area with snow on the road; although the snow remains in view on the massive mountain tops. The twisting road in the hills gives way to green valleys with pretty babbling streams, simple farm houses, cows, goats, horses and sheep. In the fields we again see the mischevious looking marmots munching on the grass with curious visitors close by taking photographs. The marmots take no notice of these intruders near a sign that states not to annoy these lovely creatures.
Along the valley towards the Lake
This journey is only 140km; however, there are endless high mountains, long green valleys and brown barren gullies to remind us of where we are. Not surprisingly a large army battalion was present.
Pangong Tso (Lake)
Pangong Tso is 134km long and straddles the Indian Tibetan (Chinese) border with approximately 1/3 of the lake in India and 2/3 in Tibet/China – hence the army presence. It is about 5-6km at its widest distance. Our first view of the lake is like peeking through a gap in the rocks and we excitedly take our photos. The massive Indian Flag and flag pole at this end of the lake stating ownership of this area is clearly visible for many kilometres.
The Changing landscape that makes Pangong Tso a travel destination
Once along the lake’s shore, the colour of the water changes from light bright blue to deep blue and aqua and we see the vastness of this long salt lake as it disappears into the distance surrounded by large deep blue snow-capped glacial mountains and high brown hills. Apparently even red can be seen in the colour of the lake at times – but this alludes us on this visit. Although on revisiting photos I am sure I can detect faint red colours below the blue. A common stopping point on the road high above the lake is edged with stone cairns signalling the many travellers before us. In the distance we see the tent town we will stay in for this night.
Glamping by the Lake
Once at our destination we note some more permanent dwellings being built and resorts that are not tents. We enjoy our ‘glamping’ experience at the Pangong Retreat Camp on the rise above the town where hot water bottles are provided making our stay even more comfortable as the nights get very cold at that altitude and time of year. The tents have their own tiled bathrooms and are warm and cosy, comfortable, clean and modern with mud brick plastered walls, wooden windows and solid floors.
The onsite kitchen provides us with meals and after a nice warm cuppa in this cooling late afternoon time we take ourselves down to the lake edge with its howling cold wind to check out a photo shoot where the damsel was dressed in only a light red flowing sari and scarf and looked very cold!!
Bollywood props provide for some fun
Several Bollywood movies have been shot here and for 50 rupees you can have your photo taken in gimmicky old props of one or two of these movies. We had our turn, giggling at the frivolity that we allow ourselves on holiday in this beautiful remote valley so far away from home!
Changing colours at sunset and sunrise
One of the attractions of Pangong Tso is the changing colours of the lake at sunset and sunrise, created by the wind, the sky, the play of light and the hills around it along with the saltiness of the water. It is an ‘endorheic’ lake which means it has no river flow outlet and is ‘land-locked’, being contained within itself due to a natural damming somewhere in the hills. However, it does have small rivers feeding into it from the glaciers all around. Although it covers 604 square kilometres it is thought to be shrinking as noted in the wetlands area on the Indian side where deep mud flats have appeared at the river inlets. In winter Pangong Tso completely freezes over which is rather unusual for a salt lake but at the altitude of 4419 metres with no fish, few migratory birds and little vegetation this unique area’s harsh environment provides special conditions for this phenomenon to occur.
Our guide provides us with great information and a running commentary as we stare across the lake at the hills on the fartherest side whose changing colours add a dimension of beauty that parades itself before our eyes. Browns, fawns, green, purple, red and dark chocolate line the horizon from the deep gullies to the tops reaching for the sky as cloud shadows and sunlight mix in an array of absolute breathtaking gorgeousness. Read more here
Pangong Tso at sunrise
With our alarm clocks set for very early, we settle to sleep. The plan is to rise early and, if there is not too much cloud cover, to watch the sunrise over the yonder mountains and observe the changing colours of the lake which alter the potential viewing for the day – every day is different. This is the beauty of Ladakh. It is patchy with cloud but we see some nice views. The lake is dark like a watery grave and very wintry looking but we sit huddled in rugs trying to keep warm on the veranda of our tents. The clouds turn yellow and pink before the sunlight slowly shows through the gap in the mountains above the snow-covered peaks towards the ‘line of actual control’ which delineates Tibet/China from India. There is no ‘dead zone’ or no man’s land our guide tells us – just a paper line in the water!
Driving off after sunrise
Once the sun comes up the water becomes sapphire blue with a streak of dark inky blue down the middle and aqua at the edges and we drive off with the sun rise at our backs from this wintry wonderland and retrace our route back to Leh.
Marmots and Yaks
We stop near the aforementioned sign to photograph the marmots and get very close – only about 1 metre away, as they ignore us and munch their breakfast of grass which was their patch in this part of the world. Just before we reach the army stop at the bottom of Chang La pass the most beautiful sight materialises before us. Three pure black yaks walking in a row in the pure white snow. It was a supreme photo shot and not something you see everywhere everday!
At the village below the pass we wait and watch a man with his donkeys, collect water from the nearby stream as a convoy of army trucks zig zag down the mountain side.
Snow on the pass
Up on the pass the overnight snow provides a platform for slipping and sliding of many cars, jeeps and motor bikes as we slowly make our way to the top and down into the fertile snowless valley once again which we admire as we drive back to Leh. We stop at the approaches to Leh to visit Thiskey monastery and Shey Palace sitting perched on the top of a hill, as befits their nature, and enjoy the statues, stories and wonderful views these elevated old buildings afford.
Thiskey Monastery and Shey Palace near Leh
At Thiskey there are three meditation halls all housing big and old statues and Thankas, some of which were over 6ft tall, made of clay and sitting on stone foundations – and all with a story to tell. Konchok, our Ladakhi guide, tells us some of these stories. Shey palace (16th C) houses a 3 storey sitting Buddha statue made of gold, silver and copper; seated in meditation posture, the statue is encrusted with gems.
Further, a meditation hall houses very old statues and wall paintings that have long lost their newness but are still very beautiful. Out in the grounds sits a large old victory stupa with a pure gold top. The royal family moved from here to the Stok Valley in 1834.
We return to our hotel to prepare for the next day’s journey to the Nubra Valley.