Saturday, 17 December 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 6: Pangong Tso

In our first 6 days in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, my friends Sreyashi, Ananya, Harsha, Prasenjit and I, had been to Srinagar, Drass, Alchi, Diskit, Nubra Valley, Leh and Hemis (follow the Ladakh travelogue here). The 7th and 8th days were set aside for a visit to Pangong Tso, the lake that was seen in the closing scene of Aamir Kahn’s film 3 Idiots. On screen it looked incredible – blue-green water enclosed by mountains on all sides, but would reality match silver screen fantasy?



Although Pangong Tso is now identified with 3 Idiots, there are other Bollywood films that have been shot there as well, such as Shahrukh Khan’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se and most recently, Divya Khosla Kumar’s Sanam Re. It is an endorheic lake, which means that it is fed by water from streams and rivers, but the water doesn’t flow any further into a sea or any other water body, which makes Pangong a kind of inland sea. The lake is more than 600 square kilometres in area and some 60% of it is in Chinese control since Pangong is on the Line of Actual Control between India and China, a ceasefire line both nations have held since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The lake is fed by two streams, but the water is brackish and hence there are very few microbes and no fish in the water. In winter, Pangong Tso freezes completely but we were visiting in July and would, therefore, get to see that wonderful colour that had fascinated us ever since we saw 3 Idiots.


Chang La
We started out after breakfast from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the third component of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. The winding roads took us above the green valleys and into the stark and beautiful Himalayas. Our first stop was Chang La, meaning “Southern Pass”. At 17,585 feet, it is said to be the second highest motorable road in the world. The climb up to Chang La and the descent from it is steep and our car moved slowly and carefully, especially since the melting snows in July had caused small streams to appear all over the road. At Chang La Top, the highest point in the pass, our car stopped and we had tea at a small restaurant which served tea, coffee and Maggi. Even in July, Chang La Top was freezing cold, and the wind made things worse, but as we started climbing down towards Pangong Tso, the weather became tolerable and the landscape, once again, began to change.

Wild horses grazing near Pangong
First sight of Pangong Tso
As we inched closer and closer to Pangong, green became the dominant colour. It was clear that the streams that fed Pangong were responsible for the grass growing all over the valleys, as well as the swamps which had sprung up all around the lake. But what caught our eye more than the greenery was the horses! Dozens of horses, grazing, wandering, or simply chilling out! Who do the horses belong to, I asked our driver. No one, he said, they were wild. Wild horses?! I didn’t know such a thing existed in India! But excitement about the horses was soon forgotten as we caught our first glimpse of Pangong Tso – a little speck of blue-green water, peeking out from between the ochre colour mountains!


Panoramic view of Pangong Tso from 3 Idiots Point
 We had reached Pangong around 4 pm and began with a visit to the spot that is now known as 3 Idiots point. The point has the famous yellow scooter that Kareena Kapoor was riding and you can get yourself photographed with it. But it is only when you get some refreshments from the local shacks that you will truly understand the impact of 3 Idiots on Ladakh. Every single shack and there are about a dozen, is named after the movie. I found myself surrounded by boards with Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi and R. Madhavan smiling down at me. Every restaurant had a name like “3 Idiots Café”, “Rancho Café” or something similar. The restaurants served tea, momos, noodles and other snacks. But all the food was vegetarian. I was told that since Ladakhis considered Pangong Lake to be sacred, they didn’t allow non-vegetarian food here.

The impact of one Bollywood film!!!
There is some confusion about what the actual shooting spot for 3 Idiots is. 3 Idiots point is apparently not the spot, although it looks very similar. I had read on the internet that tourist vehicles usually only went this far, while the actual spot was further inside. Our driver told us he would take us there the next day, but for now, it was time to move to our camp and settle in.


Sunset on Pangong

 It is possible to camp on Pangong’s shores and there are a couple of operators with camps set up. For our stay, Ananya had chosen Camp Water Mark. This trip to Ladakh was the first time I was staying in a tent and I had some concerns, but as our experience in Nubra Valley had already shown, tents were actually pretty comfortable, with attached bathrooms (read more about it here). The set up was very similar to what we had seen in Nubra – a base was built on concrete, which contained plumbing for the toilet. On top, the tent was set up, with beds and tables and chairs. Every tent had electricity, but only for a limited period of time each day, since it came from a generator.

Sunset on Pangong...only a few minutes later

 We settled in charged our mobile phones, although it was pointless since there was no network. It was much more important to ensure that our camera batteries were charged since we would be trying to shoot the Milky Way at night and camera batteries ran out faster in the colder weather. For the moment, though, we were distracted by a spectacular sunset. The sky and the clouds were changing colour every few minutes and I was completely fascinated! We went for a walk along the edge of the lake and took a closer look at the little piles of stone that Buddhists had created all along the shore. Prasenjit and I had seen similar piles at Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim when we had gone there (read about it here). It was cold, but what made it worse was the wind, which was literally howling and on top of that, the low oxygen meant a few steps and we would be panting. It was a short walk!


What looks like a cloud of stars in the centre of the image is actually part of the Milky Way
Camp Water Mark had one large room where dinner was served. It was all fairly standard, including the food which was largely vegetarian, but thankfully included hot soup. But the high point of the night wasn’t dinner. That would come later. Harsha, Prasenjit and I were sharing one tent, and I had set the alarm for around 2 am. But when I stepped out of the tent at 2 to take a look, I found a dazzlingly bright moon. I tried taking a few photographs, but they mostly ended up washed out. I was disappointed, but I thought I’d take another look an hour later and thank God I did. Because when I stepped out of my tent at 3 in the morning, behind the tents, to the south-west, just where I had read it would, there it was…the Milky Way!!!

The Milky Way. The white line of the left is a shooting star
I literally shook Prasenjit out of bed and both of us set up our tripods and cameras and began the long and slow process of photographing the galaxy of which we were a tiny part. I had rented a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 manual focus lens just so I could do astrophotography in Ladakh, and even with my modest Canon 70D, it was working beautifully, although I had to push up the ISO to 5000. We ended when it was almost morning, a few minutes of shuteye before it was time for breakfast and our return journey to Leh.


Rock sculptures by Pangong's shore
We had been lucky with the Milky Way. Most people who are serious about astrophotography, go to Ladakh when the weather is guaranteed to be clear and there is no moon in the sky. We had had both and had still managed to get a shot. But with the sunrise over Pangong Tso, we were a little less lucky. The sun did rise, but it was nowhere are dramatic as I had expected. The girls wouldn’t wake up this early, but Prasenjit, Harsha and I were up and walking around with our tripods, trying to get photographs. Once again, there was the changing colour. The clouds were catching the light and turning a thousand different hues, patches of sunlight were breaking through the skies and creating patterns on the mountains and camps, it felt like being in a dream.

Camp Water Mark
Breakfast was served pretty early, in the dining hall, if we can call it that, and in spite of the remote location and the difficulty of getting food up here, the Camp Water Mark guys had done pretty well. There was poori-sabzi, tea, coffee and even breakfast cereal. It will probably sound very clichéd to say so, but I really wish we had spent another night there. But all of us had jobs waiting for us back home and we had a lot of to cover in limited time.


We had been lucky so far. But our luck almost ran out on the way back to Leh. It was a cloudy day and as we were on our way back, thick white monsoon clouds began rolling off the mountains and a slow drizzle started building up into heavy rain. Our driver was confident of getting us through but the problem was once we climbed higher, we would be inside the clouds that were now above us, and that meant near zero visibility. When we reached Chang La, I found it was just white. We couldn’t see anything except maybe the next few metres of road ahead. It was a slow and somewhat frightening climb down and all along the way we found bikers and tourists getting stuck or struggling and the streams of water cascaded down the narrow road. In spite of everything, we did manage to make it back to Leh without incident. On the way, we stopped to have a look at the massive Thiksey Monastery. There wasn’t enough time for a detailed exploration, and we planned to come back for more. I’ll save that story for another post. But I will share with you this spectacular sunset that we saw from Thiksey…

Sunset in Thiksey

-          By Deepanjan Ghosh



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Buswell, Robert E. Jr./Lopez, Donald S. Jr. - The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
Jacobs, Alan - When Jesus Lived in India: The Quest for the Aquarian Gospel
Lovell-Hoare, Max/Sophie - Kashmir: Jammu. Kashmir Valley. Ladakh. Zanskar
Handa, Omacanda - Buddhist Western Himalaya: A politico-religious history
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