Sometimes when you are in a long distance relationship, you miss out on the daily moments of happiness. But that doesn’t mean your feelings change. In fact your feelings grow stronger and fonder with each passing day. If presence strengthens love, absence sharpens it. And when you meet again magic unfolds. Love and magic have a great deal in common. They mesmerize the eyes, enrich the soul and delight the heart. And they both take a sincere effort to make it work.
26th January 2015 was one such moment, when I again met my first love – Pangong Tso. Love is like pi — natural, irrational and never ending. And so on the day when our forces and paramilitary forces were displaying their military prowess and love for the nation, I was parading my unflinching love for the Himalayan masterpiece – Pangong Tso, the highest saline water lake in India. As they say, sweet are the fruits of adversity. Despite the harsh cold weather and bad health, I treaded on the difficult but heavenly path to embrace my love.
Leh to Chang La – Road to both Heaven and Hell
With my travel buds, Sidd and Rutwik, I embarked on the beautiful journey, which was ready to enthrall us in a way that no one had imagined. But not before setting a foundation of a great adventure. Thanks to extreme cold (-20 degree C), our car - Xylo got extremely lazy. Chucking our early start plans out of window, it refused to wake up until 9:30 am. With empty stomach but starry eyes we finally started off our journey, when the reticent sun was out to give us company. Our first pit stop was at Punjabi Dhaba at Karu. Aloo parathas with cholle and curd were delicious; service was quick and price was economical. The landscape was breathtaking – frozen Indus shores with emerald green water, sleepy golden brown valleys, mountains decked up in white, brown, grey, purple attire, mud houses adorned with colourful ‘Om mani padme hum’ prayer flags, serpentine buttery roads, locals greeting us with a friendly Julle. Very soon our car crossed the plains and cautiously entered the frozen zone. It was skating on first and second gear on freshly powdered snow. Before starting our final ascent to the mighty Changla Pass at Zingral, we had a heart-in-a-mouth experience when our car skidded and turned by 120 degrees. Few inches here and there and this article would have never seen the light of day but thankfully our experienced Ladakhi driver saved the day and we were back on track.
Chang La to Pangong Tso – Summer Hues changed to Ice Age Setup
As our car stopped at Changla, a furry Himalayan fox look alike dog came to welcome us. Changla normally has snow always on top but this time it was different, the whole landscape was white and barring a few army personnel and few dogs there was no living being in sight. I was running high fever and wasn’t in a condition to step out but how can you miss posing at world’s third highest motorable road pass? So I stepped out, only to realize that the blizzard was too much to handle for a city slicker like me. Within two minutes I was back in our car. After the mandatory photo-op for ten minutes we started our onward journey to the brackish lake. The down slope towards Durbuk has changed from what I had seen in August. The whole stretch of sand zones and glacial streams was covered by snow. Looked like God had put a pause button on everything. Pagal Nallah looked like a piece of cotton ball - so beautiful and so pristine that you couldn't possibly imagine what it becomes in summers. Instead of the lichen and wild grasses in shades of reds, golds and lime greens there was just one shade – frozen white snow. No friendly marmots or Bar Headed Goose or Brahmini Duck was in sight. However, there were wild horses and pashmina goat running around.
Around 2’o'clock, I saw Pangong Tso, my first love again. The first view of the lake was unbelievable. My love was a little off colour. Where had the colourful lake vanished? Did Chinese steal it overnight? Did Monday blues suck the blues out of the most beautiful blues? Thankfully none of it happened. Only Pangong Lake was trying a new outfit – a pristine white suit. I was so excited seeing the first glimpse of the lake that I was dying to hug it tightly and to never let it go. At last, the long parted lovers had met. I had fallen in love with my first love, again.
We reached the 3 idiots point, usually a spot bustling with tourists and makeshift dhabas in summers, transformed into a land without a trace of civilisation. It was just the three itinerant travelers and my first love – Pangong Tso. Though the lake was not completely frozen, the tapestry of blue was missing, which usually reflects seven shades on a sunny day in summer. But it still looked amazing. Pangong Tso is not called the ‘enchanted lake’ for nothing. Whether summer or winter, it doesn’t fail to startle you. Though it was drop-dead gorgeous, the -20 degree Celsius weather and wind-chill was acting a spoilsport. Much against my will, I had to get back to the comfort of my car. However, the heart wasn’t yet ready to bid adieu to my love. So we requested our driver to take us on the frozen part of the lake. We were driving on the frozen lake. Taking careful steps, we first walked then jumped then summersaulted like excited little kids. Our cameras went click…click…click. After spending some quality time, with heavy heart I said bye to my love with a promise to come soon.
Our next pit stop was Tangtse where we had the most awesome momos, fried rice and thukpa in the only open restaurant – Peace Restaurant. Like the restaurant, peace was all over the place.
Changla to Leh - The Adventure of our life
Traffic jams are dreaded everywhere but nothing comes closer to a traffic jam at 17,800 ft. We had the misfortune of getting stuck in one. Thanks to the stupidity of a Xylo driver, we were stuck in a traffic jam for 2.5 hours. The guy had blocked one way on an icy narrow mountaintop and then its diesel froze. Four cars with tourists from different places were praying for their life. All the drivers were trying their best to move the vehicle. Finally it did move on a side but its engine stopped working. All other cars had put iron wheel chains to cut ice on the road and avoid falling in the deep valley. Darkness along with heavy snowfall and winds had engulfed the valley. After reaching Changla, our car abruptly broke down. Our driver removed the wheel chain which has damaged in the descend. While we were praying for our car to start, the driver from the stranded Xylo came and requested us to give lift to their passengers. We agreed but three hours of standing still in the extreme cold had taken a toll on our car too. Our fuel pump had given up. Our driver had to burn his gloves to heat the diesel pipe so that diesel could flow into the engine cylinders. After soaking in the heat from the gloves, the pump started working and we were ready to go. We waited for half an hour but when the other Xylo passengers’ did not show up, we decided to descend as our own safety was in jeopardy. But God had other plans. Hardly had we moved one and a half kilometers, our car broke down again. We were fervently praying and somewhere cursing our decision to come to Pangong Lake. We were in deep trouble. The snow-clad mountains that looked so beautiful during the day were scaring the hell out of us at night. There was no light, no sound, no connectivity, and no human in sight. Our extra diesel was about to get over. Cold was tearing us apart. I was now running very high fever. Just the thought of spending the night in that goofy extremely cold world’s third highest motorable road was sending chills to my bones. I was scared for my life. Our driver took off his jacket and was planning to burn it too to heat the diesel pipe but thanks to a bunch of helpful locals, who were coming upwards, helped us start the car and advised the driver to cover the front of the engine with his jacket and drive the car in first gear only. Thanks to their sound advise, we managed to reach safely to the valley. And all of us heaved a sigh of relief. We reached the comforts of Leh at 10.30 pm.
The Pangong experience can’t be described in words or pictures. It is a lifetime experience, which must be in everyone’s to-do list.
Here are some Travel Tips incase you are insane like us to visit Pangong Tso in winters:
- Start early, not later than 7am. Else don't start at all. There are no accommodations around Pangong Tso and it becomes extremely cold and dangerous to descend at night
- Prefer an Innova to Xylo. Though Xylo has a better ground clearance but it is prone of breaking down at heights. If your driver doesn’t cover the engine front with a cloth, ask him to do it. A day to-and-fro trip should not cost you more than INR 8000
- There’s a fine line between being brave and foolhardy. Be selfish. Before helping others, help yourself. It’s a long journey. Any time wastage can prove fatal
- Though having hot food at Punjab Dhaba at Karu and restaurants at Tangtse are heavenly but to save time carry packed lunch instead of stopping over for food. Hydrate yourself regularly and carry dry fruits and chocolates. No junk food please
- Don't travel unless you are physically fit. You will get nausea and feel weak during this daylong trip in extreme cold and thin air conditions. Carry cardamom and clove along with some chewable items like toffees
- Drive slowly. Preferably in first or second gear while ascending and descending Changla. Use iron wheel chains to avoid skidding on icy road
- Pangong is at a greater height than Leh therefore it gets extremely cold up there. Wear 4-5 layers clothing – thermals, full sleeve t-shirt, sweater/fleece sweatshirt, down jacket and outer wind proof jacket
- Apply cold cream and lip balm in ample quantity
- Travel with awesome company only. It’s a long journey, you wouldn’t want to be stuck with boring people
- Lastly, if god forbids, you get stuck somewhere, don’t panic and start giving lectures to the driver. Locals know the best. Trust their experience over your panic attack.
My second meeting with my first love, Pangong, was one insane adventure that I will never forget in my life. But as they say what is love without a bit of madness.
Keep the madness alive. Travel. See. Write.
If you have any such or more insane experience to share please use the comment box. We would love to share it with the world.