The coronavirus pandemic disrupted countless travel plans this year, mine included. I’ve been stuck home these past few weeks, with my travel options having shrunk to visiting the various rooms in my house, preferably, pushing a broom while at it. But there’s something I like to do when I’m restless with wanderlust. I close my eyes, and go where my dreams and memories take me. I revisited the magnificent Pangong Lake in Leh, this way.
I’d seen Pangong Lake (locally called Pangong Tso) in the movies a few years ago, and been enchanted by its serene, azure waters and the lofty mountains that skirted it. The landscape had loomed larger than life on the silver screen, painted in vivid blue, shades of brown and crowned with spotless white. Striking, in its complete absence of green. At that time, I’d dreamt of going there someday, and viewing this extraordinary panorama first-hand. ‘Someday’ finally came by, and we had made the 5-hour drive from Leh to the lake. Our journey had taken us past the villages of Thiksey, Shey and Gya, beyond which the road wound upward toward Chang La, the third-highest motorable mountain pass in the world, at 17,688ft. The brown landscape gave way to gleaming, blinding white, and we had to stop to fit snow chains on our vehicle tyres before climbing higher. Progress was slow, at 20km/h, over slippery ice and snow, but I enjoyed every moment of the frosty sub-zero temperatures and the frigid winds that swept the snow across my face. It was of course, mind-numbingly cold, but this was a first for me, and like any other first, it was intriguing, captivating and utterly memorable.
Once we’d crossed the mountains, we drove alongside a frozen river, on the banks of which a few yaks grazed. After we parted ways with the river, the road got increasingly bumpy. In some places, it was no more than a dirt track. Further on, we passed the village of Tangste and then entered the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, where we spotted a few wild horses. This sanctuary covers a considerable area, enclosing Pangong Tso as well as Tso Moriri.
After what felt like a hundred hours on a broken road, we caught the first, fleeting glimpse of Pangong Lake between two mountains, before the rugged slopes obscured it from view. Thankfully, a few minutes later, there it was! And it was even more breath-taking than in the movies.
Pangong Lake, or the ‘lake of the great hollow’ is the largest saltwater lake in Asia. Despite being brackish, the lake freezes during the cold months. We arrived to find a frozen lake that had only just begun to thaw around the edges. We didn’t see the famed deep blue hues of the waters, but what we saw looked just as stunning.
The lake is over 130km long, extending into China for the most part. Our guide told us that between the months of June and August – the best time to visit Pangong Lake, you can see the clear waters of the lake change colour with the time of day. It remains frozen the rest of the year. Nestled in the Himalayas, at over 14,000 ft., this place is piercing cold, made colder by the winds that sweep across the acres of ice, and blow, unhindered, across it. We found no flora in or around the lake, although we did encounter a few noisy brown-headed gulls.
We walked alongside the lake for a while, explored a Buddhist temple on the shores, and photographed the lake from every possible angle. I even clicked this picture, reminiscent of the movie that elevated this lake to greater fame! You have 3 guesses! 😀
After a delicious picnic lunch followed by steaming kahwa, the Kashmiri green tea, we started on our long and tedious, yet incredibly scenic journey from Pangong Lake back to the hotel.
Now, sometimes, when my memory begins to fade, I bring out the myriad photographs that I had clicked at this gorgeous locale. And I can almost experience the fresh, frigid wind that had blown across my face, and relive the feeling of awe I had felt as I had stood in the presence of unimaginable natural beauty.
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