Monday, September 4, 2017

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
This is the same transboundary high altitude lake where our army folks were provoked into a trivial street fight by Chinese army men, about three weeks back. Capitalizing the tense air born out of Doklam standoff between our armed forces and Chinese People's Liberation Army, which had lasted more than two months, even this petty event was sensationalized by media! Well, let's get back to this dreamy, massive and exquisitely photogenic Himalayan lake- Pangong Tso. Out of its 134 kilometers length, about 2/3rd lies in China where it is called Bāngōng Cuò. Luckily, the Changthang Plateau region over Ladakh cocoons the remaining portion of Pangong Tso at an astonishing altitude of around 4,250 meters. I rode to Pangong Tso from Leh on fifth day of our "screwed up" Ladakh motorcycling itinerary. Pangong Tso is about 150 kilometers drive from Leh which can take anywhere from 5-7 hours depending on the road conditions, weather and your pee-break habit. After driving some 75 kilometers from Leh you'll reach a very high mountain pass- Chang La (5,360 meters), the gateway to the Changthang Plateau, from where you can capture enchanting views of surrounding snow-clad barren mountains.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
After driving some 75 kilometers from Leh you'll reach a very high mountain pass- Chang La.
Border Road Organizations (BRO) claims Chang La pass to be the second highest motorable road, while local Ladakhi people consider it as the third highest in the list. I give a damn about its ranking. The only thing that should keep you wary is the abrupt change in altitude as you drive to Chang La from Leh in a short period of 2-3 hours. Remember, you're ascending almost 2,000 meters above Leh, which is not an easy assignment for your physiology to handle! Do not get overwhelmed by the beauty around these high mountain passes. Be aware of the low oxygen content of the air, stay calm, avoid any exertion, click few photos, and leave Chang La within 15-20 minutes to resume your journey for Pangong Lake. I will be penning a separate article to discuss the importance of acclimatization and how to avoid high altitude sickness in general. While at Chang La, you may savor a quick noodle soup from the lone cafeteria, visit the Chang La Baba Temple, or pose with an Indian army personnel posted there. While my fellow riders chose the eatery, I opted for the safer alternative.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
I was rejuvenated by the first sight of Pangong Lake fortified by massive rocky cliffs!
After all, I had already wrestled with mean mountain sickness over the rain struck Khardung La Top (5,359 meters), just 3 days back! My experiece says, once you get incapacitated traveling becomes a hateful headache. It is always wise to identify your limits beforehand and train your mind accordingly. Parking my motorcycle in front of the army health post I introduced myself to the on duty Jawan. He was courteous enough to escort me to the officers' chitchat room. There was an oxygen cylinder with face mask. I preferred not to consume their supply as I had my own oxygen canister. Although I wasn't breathless/dizzy, inhaling few puffs of oxygen seemed the right prophylactic measure at that point. After few minutes when I came out I found the same army man outside. He further obliged me with few clicks. Immediately I started my descent from Chang La. Although the accompanying vista was magical throughout the ride, the path was far from inviting. If you want to cherish motorcycle riding in Ladakh, better stop aspiring for paved roads.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
Only in the morning, I realized how close we had been sleeping from the ethereal Pangong Tso.
As I was descending from Chang La, I had to cross numerous streams and water-crossings. In that patch I was riding solo as my rest of the group members were well behind me. There were moments of extreme sense of insecurity and wobbliness. There were times when my underpowered RE Classic 350 got stuck in between boulders hidden by thin layer of water. I was extremely lucky to get help from a small group of Bangalore riders. For few kilometers, a tributary of Shyok River ran parallel to my road, adding more dynamism and melody to the mysticism of the Ladakhi landscape. At every turn of the road you'd long for a photo break. But do not indulge on photography so often. Trust me, exploring such challenging (and, unknown) Ladakhi terrain in dark is the last thing you would want as an amateur motorcycle tourer. As the sunset was nearing mountains kept changing their cloaks to match the imminent dusk. Then there was the rising moon to tease the sinking sun. I was not far from Pangong Tso.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
You'll find props related to Amir Khan's marvel "3 Idiots"everywhere around Pangong Tso!
In Ladakh, do not be surprised to find traces of dimmed daylight post half past seven in the evening! I was rejuvenated by the first sight of Pangong Lake from a fair distance, fortified by massive rocky cliffs. If you're a shutterbug traveling from Leh, I bet you won't be able to resist freezing the first glimpse of this bluish beauty in your camera. Actually, you won't be able to choose any particular color for Pangong Tso. Apart from the winter season when this mammoth lake of 700 square kilometers turns into a white carpet of snow, its color ranges from emerald green to sapphire blue! Depending on the daylight Pangong keeps changing her gowns. Despite being a lake, Pangong Tso pets tender turbulence in her water in the form of ripples and waves. From where I got the first view of the lake I had to ride another 15 kilometers on unforgiving gravel path to reach our reserved camp site- Himalayan Retreat. It was fully dark by then. Unfortunately, tents were not sturdy enough to preserve the much needed warmth at night.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
Apart from the winter season Pangong's color ranges from emerald green to sapphire blue.
Only in the morning, after making peace with the climate induced headache, I realized how close we had been sleeping from the mighty Pangong Lake. Due to overcast conditions, people who had sacrificed their sleep at 4:30 AM to capture the magical sunrise over Pangong Tso were momentarily frustrated. On the other hand, I was content with my last night's decision to skip the sunrise. The plan was to guzzle some morning tea like I always do, and set out in search of the most scenic edge of the lake, for clicking photos of course. Breakfast could definitely wait. By now, most of you know that few scenes of the over-popular Bollywood movie "3 Idiots (2009)" was shot at Pangong, by the lakeside. Another slightly less popular Bollywood movie, "Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)" had also featured the pristine beauty of Pangong Tso. Well there are at least half a dozen of Indian movies which had smartly exploited the visual appeal of this Ladakhi lake. These movies have literally revolutionized the tourism demographics of Ladakh, sadly pushing the fragile environment of this remote Himalayan land to a non-sustainable state.

Pangong Tso Lake - from my Ladakh Motorcycle diary
Important: For Devil's sake do not drive your vehicles up to the edge of the crystal clear lake!
There are shooting points by the lake where some or the other films were shot. It doesn't matter where you go. You'll find banners and props related to Amir Khan's marvel "3 Idiots" only, compelling you to believe that you're standing exactly on the rostrum of salvation. Any local guy outside your cottage/camp can direct you to one of those locations. Walk onto the shore of salty Pangong and enjoy its ethereal beauty amidst chunk of rocks. You might dip your feet and feel the chilled love of nature. You may choose to take a horse ride. At least you'll be contributing to the local economy. But, for Devil's sake do not drive your vehicles up to the edge of the crystal clear lake. When you publish photos of your vehicle kissing the lake, you're just letting the whole world know how dumb you are! Being travelers we should leave nothing but footprints, and bring home nothing but memories. So, love, respect and protect nature by all your possible means. I would strongly recommend you to spend a complete day to explore Pangong in greater depth. She completely deserves it. Probably, our fortune cookie got consumed too fast. The same day we had to resume our motorcycle ride for Tso Moriri. You must have met the little Ladakhi princess from Tso Moriri. Next I'll bring the entire lake for you. Do peep back.

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