Once the preserve of the military, the lakes of eastern Ladakh are places of hallucinatory beauty. Just don’t expect a good night’s sleep.
We’ve all seen it. Whenever Time magazine or one of its competitors brings out a story on the region and includes a map, a legion of unfortunate peons somewhere in the bowels of babudom has to sit and stamp ‘The external boundaries of India as depicted are neither correct nor authentic’ on every single copy. Now we were headed for one of those inaccuracies.
Pangong Lake lies like a giant snake, 130km long, oblivious of international boundaries. About one quarter of it is firmly in India. Another quarter lies in the disputed Aksai Chin region. The rest is in what some people refer to as China, and others prefer to call Tibet. I’d always assumed that a place officialdom takes as seriously as this would be almost impossible to get access to. In fact, all it requires is an inner line permit, easily obtained through a travel agent, and some endurance.
We left Leh at 4am. As we cruised through snoring villages, lines of whitewashed chortens slipped by like ghosts as ancient forts and monasteries loomed overhead. We traversed the Indus Valley quickly on smooth, empty roads, and were soon winding our way up into the mountains. Slabs of winter-hardened snow lay by the road, grey like granite in the moonless night. Gradually the snow began to creep across the road, first in blackened patches, then in fresh white. The Qualis’s heater kept us warm, but it couldn’t stop the cold from slicing through the floor, making our feet restless.
Finally, we crested the Changla pass, which a sign told us was at 17,800 feet, the third highest in the world—meaning third highest with a road over it, presumably. Ahead, the sun was painting amber streaks on the snow. We leaned towards it, wishing it on ourselves as we descended into a valley dominated by a gigantic crag, its puckered rock making demon faces like some protector deity from a monastery gate. In the valley, the immaculate military highway pushed on like an unlikely Formula 1 track through a boulder-strewn wilderness. The mountains were apricot, plum and champagne, sometimes crinkled with veins of snow. A frozen stream threaded its way through a sandy bed, the colour of fried egg. Parallel to it ran a telegraph line, fragile in the fierce wind, like some pioneering enterprise, determined against the odds.
Geographically and ecologically, we were more in Tibet than India, on its vast western plateau known as the Changthang. There are 22 wetlands on the Ladakh side, of which Pangong is the largest. It may not be Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai, but the two sides have a healthy respect for each other these days, and the area has been open to tourists since 1996.
We took tea at Tangtse, where huddles of squat, whitewashed houses alternated with a succession of army camps, corrugated iron sheds offset by lines of battered fuel drums, hemmed in with barbed wire. I contemplated humanity’s capacity to create routine ugliness amid resplendent beauty. Forty-two kilometres to go.
Pangong announced itself as a triangle of silver at the end of a geological rainbow. Gone was the harshness of the valley road. Serried peaks shimmered amid a blue haze, subtly shifting colour and shape as they marched into the distance.
“Is that Tibet?” I asked Namgyal, our driver, keen for a romantic image. “No, it’s India,” came the reply. There was obviously more to the lake than met the eye.
An arch welcomed us alongside a cluster of army huts, inexplicably painted in bright red, yellow and green camouflage. One low, curved roof hut was painted ‘Pangong Souvenirs’ against a sky blue livery with psychedelic dragons. We looked inside, at nylon tracksuits with Pangong Lake patches and dinner plates printed with a scene of the lake.
Enough of the military’s attempts at tourist infrastructure. When the Chinese invaded in 1962, one arm of the attack came at Pangong. They met some of the stiffest resistance of the entire front here—two units fought to the last man, losing over 150 lives. Understandably, the army considers this its territory. Tourists are tolerated, but not encouraged to linger.
We pushed on to Pangmik, the last village before the road is closed to civilians. Lunch was a handful of biscuits from Leh’s Golden Bakery, and it was time to go back. The valley was glorious in the sunshine as we retraced our journey, but the wind ripped at our ears whenever we stepped out of the car. Lemon and chestnut horses grazed in stone enclosures and greenish-yellow moss carpeted the streambeds.
At the top of the pass, amidst another camp, a sign offered tea, coffee, toilets and a heated shelter. Shadowy figures huddled in a glass-walled hut, which read ‘Visitors are welcome’ above the door. An urn of tea beckoned, but we needed to get back to Leh, ahead of another early start.
If Pangong suggests the hallucinatory beauty of Tibet, our destination the following day, Tso Moriri to the southeast, is a haven for some of its fabled wildlife.
We followed the Indus upriver, its milky green waters gradually accumulating platforms of ice and finally turning to a frozen thread. The route was a corridor of ochre mountainsides, which at one stage turned to burgundy as dense as an inkblot, before finally transforming into rolling hills. The small lake of Tasang Tso lay before us, a disc of water beneath a mountain tiger-striped with snow. Four kiang, or Tibetan wild ass, gorgeous creatures with reddish backs and cream chests, grazed at the far edge as we skirted the lake. Entering a shallow valley, we descended until we hit Tso Moriri, a 20km stretch of saltwater encircled by golden hills and two of the highest mountains in Ladakh.
We pulled up at a nomad camp where scores of tiny lambs bleated in stone enclosures, and mahogany faced women and children greeted us awkwardly, or fled into yak wool tents. They are another disappearing species, as roads are built in the area and government subsidies encourage them to abandon a harsh life. Salt mining at nearby Tso Kar, once a lucrative business for nomad families who traded the commodity for meat, grain and wool in Zanskar, is no longer practised, while others are turning to rearing pashmina, which some environmentalists argue is doing unsustainable damage to the grasslands. Further on, we were confronted with the impact of our own presence: a fence to prevent jeeps driving too close to the lake’s shore and damaging nesting grounds.
Yaks and horses grazed on the foreshores as we arrived in Korzok, a tiny village that constitutes the only permanent settlement on the lake. We were too early to see them, but by the end of April the first of about 1,000 bar-headed geese would arrive here to breed. The area is also home to blue sheep, black and brown wolves, red foxes, Tibetan gazelles, Asiatic ibex, marmots and mouse hare. Tso Kar, four hours’ drive away, is even richer. Each year five or six pairs of the highly endangered black-necked crane come here to breed, along with ruddy shelduck and about 70 other species. On its twin lake Tsartsapuk, hundreds of great crested grebe converge between May and August, making floating nests.
We saw none of this, with the exception of another herd of kiang the following day. They would soon be gone, up to the higher pastures, along with the nomads and their herds, as summer arrives and the lakes become the preserve of the birds. But we would be gone even sooner. After a night of fitful high-altitude sleep in a house in Korzok, and Maggi noodles for dinner, a golden dawn woke us up at six o’clock. We were guests in this place, and not particularly well adapted ones. It was time to leave it with its true custodians.