Even before we reached Ladakh, we had heard much about Pangong Tso, the giant, magical lake that lies at 14,000 feet above sea level. It’s 134 km long, and more than half of it is in China. It’s in the running to become one of the seven new wonders of the natural world (see www.new7wonders.com). A Ladakhi friend had told me in an undertone that the Chinese have submarines in the lake. It sounded very interesting.
So on our third day in Ladakh, having overcome altitude sickness by sleeping through it, we rose early and ready for the journey to Pangong. The near end of the lake was a five hour drive from our hotel in Leh; it involved the minor matter of crossing Chang La, a mountain pass 17,800 feet high, that is said to be the third-highest in the world.
David, the only foreigner in our group, wasn’t coming along. He hadn’t managed to get a pass from the local authorities. He was also the only one still suffering a little from the altitude. Having researched his trip thoroughly before the journey, like a good traveller, he was convinced that the headache he had was the first symptom of incurable altitude sickness that would end with his brains expanding out of his ears.
Therefore, it was with a mixture of regret and relief that we parted ways that morning. We were sad David would miss the sight. On the other hand, we wanted his brain to remain in its rightful place.
The drive up was gorgeous. We could see bare brown mountains on all sides, and in the far distance, the hard whiteness of icy peaks. A green valley with villages and chortens lay a long drop below us. From where we were, the houses looked like toys.
We kept going. The air was now getting thin. I could sense some difficulty in breathing. We crossed a milestone saying 17,000 feet. I wondered how my friend LT, who has one good lung (having lost the other to cancer), was doing. “We just crossed 17,000 feet,” told her. “Oh,” she said, and lit a cigarette. I heaved a sigh of relief, and then gasped for breath.
Soon we were above the snow line. An army post greeted us at the top. Signs warned against exertion at this height, and advised against smoking or staying there beyond 20 minutes, to avoid altitude sickness. The head felt light even from walking a few quick steps.
The army was giving visitors excellent masala tea. So we stopped for that, took a few pictures, and moved on. It was still a long way.
Down the mountain, after frozen lakes and icicles, we came to a little village in the middle of nowhere. Then it was just barren land, for miles and miles. Once we came to a marshy place, and a marmot couple came out from behind some rocks and posed for the cameras. Some horses grazed free in the background. It was picture-postcard perfect. Only a car load of Oriental tourists, who had got there before us and were busily clicking photos, spoiled the scene. We quickly clicked a few and then left them behind and raced on.
After crossing a little stream and a few miles of fine sand dunes, we had our first sight of the incredibly blue Pangong lake in the distance. Icy mountains ringed it. It looked desolate, pristine.
We turned the last curve in the road and drove down to the lake’s sandy beach. About half a dozen Tata Sumos were parked there, and the intrepid Gujju tourists who had beaten us to the spot were busy unloading the ‘nashto’ (breakfast) snacks from atop their vehicles. We heard them cackling and watched them eat their khaman-dhokla, with the Pangong Tso in the background. Then, overcome by hunger, we lunged for the puri-subji in the boots of our cars.
The Gujjus finished their meal before us — they had a start — and got down to business, clicking photos. We soon caught up with them, after marvelling at how some of them felt no cold, and managed with just T-shirts and woollen caps. The ears seemed the only part of the Gujarati anatomy that feels cold.
Photos taken, everyone left the magical, desolate Pangong. We saw the marmots on the way back as well, but this time, no one stopped. We were dedicated tourists, after all, and we already had the photos.