Thursday, 9 February 2012

Pangong Tso – The Star Attraction Of Ladakh

Pangong Tso

Any Tourist visiting Ladakh will not miss on visiting the picturesque Pangong, a brackish water lake, surrounded by snow capped hills. The Jeep Safari entails passing through high altitude Chang-la pass and Changthang wild life sanctuary.

We pick up the threads on evening of 25th May, 2009.  After returning from monastery tour around Leh, it was time to chalk out the next day’s program. The Pangong Tso jeep route just opened after remaining closed for a few days. We opted for a two days program for safari, instead of one day, which left us with a lot of spare time in our hand, to do a ‘baby trek’ to Leh PalaceNamgyal Tsemo gompa and Castle at Tsemo in early morning. 

We got up at 5 am, and by 6 am we were on streets, walking towards Old Leh town. We passed by Chokang Vihara, a Buddhist monastery, desolate in early morning. Reaching Jama Masjid, we took to the lane on the right hand side. Above the shop–lined street , we could see the Leh Palace, Namgyal Tsoma gompa and the Castle, perched on hill, in early morning sunlight.
Leh Palace

As by-lanes got smaller, a drum placed at junction painted with ‘Way 2 Palace’, was noticed. We climbed the cement steps and after 15 minutes, we reached the lowest floor of Leh Palace. We went along the cement track and for the first time, had a bird’s view of distant snow hills and Leh town. All the doors and windows of the Leh Palace were closed. We found a board indicating ‘Way to Gonpa Soma’ along a narrow mud track. We avoided that track and continued along the cement and stone plane broad track by the side of Leh Palace. Little ahead, we could see the red painted Soma Gonpa and white castle above it. 
Tsemo Gompa & Castle

The onwards trek, appeared to be very steep, as we stepped on the loose sandy-mud stretch. Little ahead, we found the board ‘Castle at Tsemo’.  With so many sign boards, I came to conclusion that, ‘This is one such ‘baby trek’, which can be done without a guide.’  After covering the beautifully constructed cement road, we reached Soma Gonpa. Another steep climb on steps brought us to Castle at TSemo. The castle is a stone structure with a wooden structure on its crown, with lot of colorful flags fluttering in cool morning breeze. After having a few bird’s eye view shots of Leh town and that of Shanti Stupa in the adjoining hill we decided to commence the return trek. 
Shanti Stupa
We did not take any risk of climbing down the slippery sand-mud stretch of the trek; instead took to the asphalted motor road, starting from Soma Gonpa. We made our ground faster and reached Leh via polo ground where a cricket match was in progress.  Being a cricket fan from Mumbai, it was a revelation. The players were immaculately dressed in their colorful outfit, all the cricket gears, plus the attitude. For curiosity, I watched the match for a few minutes. The bowler bowled a good length; the batsman tried to defend and got a nick, the wicket keeper took a tumble and brought off a great catch. The batsman meanwhile did not wait for the umpires decision and started walking, in true sportsman spirit! Surely, some day, a Ladakhi will don the National colors.
Cricket At Polo Ground, Leh
Back to hotel, packing done, we sat in our hired Innova, for safari to Pang. Our first halt was at Karu at a distance of    30 km, where our entry permit was collected. We had a breakfast in a small way side hotel. Beyond Karu we passed through village Shakti, the road continuously ascending.  A few kilometres before Chang-la – the high altitude mountain pass, the snow made its appearance on both sides of the road. The adjoining hills were heavily covered in snow and blue sky above. A jeep body was found abandoned by the road side and embedded in snow; as if to caution drivers of vehicles passing by, about perils of careless driving!
Jeep Body Embedded In Snow
We reached Chang-la around noon time. Situated at 17,586’, the pass was full of snow wherever we looked.  The place had a few cottages on hill slopes, many colorful flags were tied to a horizontally suspended string around some religious structure.  There was a board for ‘Free Medical Aid’; another cottage belonging to Indian Army offering free complementary tea, which was really welcome. After downing two cups of liquor tea, I just roamed around, with my tour mates. Handful of tourists, were busy photo shooting amidst a lot of excitement.
Chang-la Pass
Beyond Chang-la, even more snow was visible around the trail. The top view of winding mountain road, surrounded by snow looked awesome. Some glaciers on a flat land below attracted us. They looked like as if a river had frozen. 
Snow On Hill-top

Gradually we lost height and passed through snow-less terrain of Durbuk village, consisting of twenty odd single storied structures on either side of the road. Driving along, we come to a board indicating that we were at Changthang Cold Desert Wild Life Sanctuary. By 1 pm, we were at Tangtse, a village 40 km from Pangong. As we ordered our lunch in a small Dhaba, it was interesting to watch a Ladakhi couple, doing block printing on a long cloth piece on the roadside. 
Block Printing At Tangtse
After we finished our ‘thali’ lunch and about to step into the car, I noticed a bunch of papers in a transparent folder, neatly kept on the car windshield from outside. On checking it, I found out, they were copies of our entry permits! When they had fallen out of my bag and out of the car on the road, I failed to fathom. The fact, that some guy, picked it up from road and kept it safely for us to continue with our journey without any hassle - we would have had to abort our further journey, as a copy of those papers are to be given at least at three check posts en route Pang. I had no words to thank the unknown person. Such is the integrity of the simple, pious and honest people of Ladakh.  Sonam our driver said that he rarely locked his car and no incident happened for which he had to regret. 
Beyond Tangtse, we were on the way to Lukung. The hills around had different hues of brown and appeared to be painted with some patterns and looked interesting.

Patterns On Hill
Five km from Tangtse, we come to a flat land with abundant grass, yellow-green colored bushes, wet land, back drop of snow capped hills and lot of black Yaks grazing. Those giant animals had so much of black hair on their body, that even their legs were getting almost hidden. Sonam, our driver adds that, ‘People wrongly call, Yak milk, Yak butter etc.; fact is Yak is the male species. The female species is called ‘Dri’. Generally, it is the hybrid of Yak and domestic cow, given the name Zho for male and Zhomos for the female. Zhomos is the domesticated animal  which gives the so called Yak milk in Ladakh. They look much thinner than monster Yaks, which we saw just now.’ 
Yak Grazing
Little way ahead, we had the pleasure of witnessing wild life Marmot, which stays in holes dug deep in the earth. Sonam feeding it some bread sticks was a wonderful sight, with us photo shooting. 
Marmot Feeding
Cruising ahead, we sight the Pangong lake for the first time between two hills. As we go nearer, even the sand shore of the lake was visible; that really got us excited.
Pangong - Distant View
We reached Lukung, which is the first habitation on the lake front, containing a few single storied structures. We drove along a good track, with white (salt) patches along the shore, everywhere, indicating brackish nature of lake. We were glued on to the blue water of the lake, with gentle ripples and back drop of brown colored hills. We pass by that famous location of sand portion jutting inside the lake, creating some kind of an island, where the last few scenes of the great movie, ‘Three Idiots’, was shot. With a number of car parked, tourists were having a good time. We decide to spend time here next morning during our return trip.
Pangong Tso
The nice motorable road for a few kilometers along the river bank and then we came to a mud-sand-stone track which slowed down the car considerably. Sonam informed us that this stretch of road is inundated by the swelling lake water, in month of July/August and cars do not go to Spangmik.  Tourists then have have a Pangong view only from Lukung. Finally after half an hour of bone-jarring ride we reach Spangmik. Immediately ahead, visible was J & K Tourism guest house and some tents behind it
J & K Tourism Rest House At Spangmik
We were not planning to spend night in tent, because of high altitude (15,500’), and cold wind blowing at night. On inquiry at J & K guest house, we found that all rooms were empty, but manager refused to give rooms without a reservation slip. However, he relented, when we made the offer, to quit, in case tourists with reservation turned up. We were not unduly worried, because, Spangmik had quite a few Home Stay rooms. We could not resist our temptation of staying right next to lake, even if it made a big hole our pocket of Rs.3,800/- for three persons for one day with dinner and breakfast included. 
Pangong From Spangmik
After hot cup of tea and snacks, we were ready to explore the lake for couple of hours. By now the color of water of the lake had changed from light blue to deep blue. The small cultivation plots near the lake, the tall bushes of yellow grass and cluster of willow trees, has enhanced the beauty of the most popular lake in Ladakh. The absence of bike at the lake front at this time of the year, was a blessing, as it marred the virgin beauty of the lake. It was a great feeling to stand calf deep in icy cold water of the lake.
Stepping On Lake Water
We did not know how the time flies and at dusk retreated to the guest house. Two more families have occupied the other two rooms and we were left undisturbed. The dinner was a vegetarian fare with well arranged buffet, including soup, chapattis, rice, vegetables and sweet. After dinner we planned for the Gonsterboom temple visit the next morning. Sonam agreed to pick us up by 6 am, and take us to uphill, and then if necessary we would trek up rest of the distance.

Next morning, being somewhat indisposed, I decided to skip the Gonsterboom temple visit and Sid and Sachin carried on. 
This part of travel story on Gonsterboom temple is written by Sachin: 

‘Gonsterboom temple is a Buddhist Monastery situated on a slightly higher elevation than Spangmik but is not visible from the Pangong lake front. It is a thirty minutes trek but there is no road as such. Our driver Sonam picked myself and Sid from guest house and promised to make an attempt to take the car upto the temple gate. It was slow going with mud and stone track. At some places, we had to get down from car and clear some of the bigger stones to allow the car to pass through. We did manage to reach the temple gate at about sunrise. The temple was locked but we could see oil lamps lit inside. The view of Pangong Tso from there was simply awesome. Sid and myself spent some time there just enjoying the scenery around and made our way back to guest house to pack up’ 
Gonsterboom Temple, Pangong
After breakfast , we drove to Lukung and spent some time there, observing hundreds of black-headed gulls, flying around, settling on lake water and bobbing up and down on waves.
Black Headed Gulls Bobbing On Lake Water
  Finally we bid farewell to Pang, where we had such a nice time. On the journey back to Leh, I had a rest in back seat, just to recoup, to head for another new destination, the next day, and see what surprises are thrown up. 

* Pangong Tso can be best viewed from my video clip creation as per the following captioned link 
Pangong Tso - Star Attraction of Ladakh 

Important Informations:

1) June onwards is the time to visit Pangong. Visiting in May could be risky due to blockage of Chang-la pass because of excess of snowfall.
2) Pangong is seen best in late afternoon when the lake water has deep blue hue and some spots ultramarine.
3)Being a restricted area, near to China border, one needs to have an entry permit by production of documents like pan card or passport for Indian nationals and passport for foreign nationals. For Indian national, even one individual can avail of permit, whereas for foreign nationals atleast 4 persons need to apply. Normally the hotel manager at Leh arranges the permit within 24 hours.                             

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