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Leh - Changla Pass - Pangong Lake

With my feet in the lake and my head in the clouds

semi-overcast 17 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I was awake from 03:00 this morning with congestion and generally feeling unwell. We scored a first at breakfast (in a day of firsts) – getting cold (rather than hot) milk for cornflakes! As we were waiting for the driver to turn up, I got chatting to a chap in reception who was also going to Pangong Lake today with his family, and I was sharing with him my concern about the altitude. His reply did not allay my concerns any at all: “I'm a doctor and I am concerned too”. Great!

In Delhi, Sabu was telling us that warning signs act as an invitation to Indians rather than a restriction, and I noticed that with our driver this morning with a police stop NO ENTRY sign. Not just our driver but it seemed most other people went straight through! I also thought it was very sweet that he drove around one of the huge prayer wheels on the side of the road – clockwise of course – possibly to pray for a safe journey across the mountains today?


Just before we started the climb, we had to check in with the police, with our Restricted Area Permit and passports. Then the fun began. Initially the road was quite smooth, tarmaced even, although the edges were uneven. It was barely wider than one vehicle, thankfully there was not too much traffic at that stage, as 99% of the time there were no barriers, just the occasional string of prayer flags and the odd memorial to those who didn't make it. Great views though.


Chemdey Monastery


As we climbed higher we began to notice the thinner air, in the breathing and in the ears. After a while the road deteriorated, and I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. The sign stating “Avalanche Danger, do not travel through between 10:00 and 14:00 (I didn't realise rolling stones had such strict timetable!) and do not stop vehicle. The only reason I could read the sign was because we were stopped right by it. Oh, and the time was 10:20.


The road, and the accompanying view, was totally mind blowing. Words cannot describe it and pictures would not do it justice. This is truly a road trip of a lifetime and there was more, much more, to come!

Not sure I like being so close to the crumbly edge.

I loved looking back down to see how far we have come from the valley floor.


We saw some yaks at one of the cultivated plateaus, and as we climbed higher, the little mountain streams tumbling over the rocks and into the road formed icicles where it touched the cooler stone. After a few kilometers we started to meet vehicles coming the other way, and almost without fail they would wave, gesture or make a V sign as if we all belonged to some secret exclusive club. In several places we had to ford rivers as they tumbled over the road – this journey is best undertaken in the morning, as the sun melts the glaciers later in the day, increasing the torrent of the rivers and often making the fords impossible to cross. One of the vehicles which didn't quite make the sharp, narrow hairpin bends was left halfway down the ravine as a sober reminder to drivers to take it easy.


The one thing that surprised me the most, was the blanket of purple flowers at this altitude.


Chang La Pass
At an altitude of 5,360m (17,590ft) above sea level, this is the third highest motorable pass in the world, and the highest altitude we've ever been to date. Our previous “record” was 5,220 m at the Gyantsola Pass in Tibet in 2005.


We measured our SP02 at the summit and found it was dangerously low - the norm should be between 93 and 99.


The pass is said to be named after the sadhu (an ascetic, wandering monk ) Changla Baba, to whom the pass temple is dedicated; although this is hotly disputed because directly translated Chang La comes out as “Pass towards the South”.


Of all the passes in Ladakh, Chang La is said to be the steepest and due to bad roads at the final ascent it is also the toughest. No wonder they call it The Mighty Chang La. We didn't feel the effects of the altitude as much as we expected here, apart from feeling a little dizzy when bending down to crouch over the disgusting toilet, I was fine.


David was very excited to have his picture taken astride a Royal Enfield which belonged to a biker from Mumbai.


The pass is run by the Indian Army who offer visitors a free cup of tea at the top. David accepted their hospitality, whereas I was too busy running around taking photos.


It's all downhill from here! Starting the descent, we had frozen glaciers one side of the road and a sheer drop the other. This area is part of the Ladakh Mountain Range which again is a segment of the Karakoram Mountain Range.


This journey is best undertaken in the morning, as by mid-afternoon glacial meltwater could cause fords like this to swell up and become impassable.


As we descended further, we caught up with and followed a river with its weak rapids and grazing horses on its banks.


The road is really popular with motorcyclists, as most winding mountain roads throughout the world are.


Because of the problems with glacial meltwater creating impassable fords on the road in the afternoons, bridges are being constructed in several places on this road.


More road works


Or just a bad road?



Some decent road for a while


Surrounded by stunning scenery.


Time to descend further to the next plateau.


Amazing road snaking its way down the steep mountainside.


At Tangtse Police Check we had to fill in a book ourselves and a little later pay an entrance fee to the national park of 10 rupees per person (ca 12p).


On this trip, David and I have been playing Road Sign Bingo. This part of India is well known for its sometimes amusing, often corny and always appropriate safety signs alongside the roads, and I have been trying to photograph as many of them as I can. Often I don't spot them until it is too late, and I don't always manage to focus the camera in time if we are going too fast – I only get half a point for an out-of focus sign (which to be fair most of them are). I can't wait to get home to check out my collection! I am still missing the “Accidents don't happen, they are caused”, though.


When I got home I discovered there is a website devoted entirely to these amusing road signs

A couple of times in the last few days my camera has had an error message something to the effect of the lens not talking to the camera body, and the lens having come loose. This baffled me until I discovered that my knuckle often rests on the lens release button, and when I think I am focusing, I am actually unscrewing the lens. This afternoon, as I was hanging out of the window taking pictures of the ravine below, I suddenly found myself with the camera lens in one hand and the body in the other. Oops. Fortunately I had a good hold of both.


The area around Pangong Lake is famous for its pashmina goats (the best wool comes from the chest), and we saw lots of them grazing along the side of the road.


I also knew this area is home to marmots, and I had no sooner uttered the words “I want to see a marmot” before one popped his little head up from the burrow. By the time I had changed into the long zoom lens, he'd gone underground again. Also seen along this stretch of road are yaks, horses, cows and wild donkeys.


I never expected there to be such varied scenery - from the majestic snow-capped mountains; to the barren brown scree-sided peaks; there were areas of fine sand – some of which was blowing across the road, making for treacherous conditions for bikers in particular; there was marshland; a silted up lake; as well as huge boulders and smaller rocks making up a moraine.



Suddenly, in the distance, we got our first view of the lake (with a sign along the side of the road stating the bleedin' obvious: FIRST VIEW OF LAKE!).


Later there were women washing clothes in the river.


Still snaking our way down the side of the mountain.


Before long we got a great view of the lake, stretching out beneath us.


At this stage we were still travelling on a road clinging to a fairly steep hillside above the lake. I was busy hanging out of the window photographing the lake below when we suddenly went over the edge of the road. In a split second a number of thoughts went through my mind and I gasped loudly. The other two laughed, as I hadn't seen the turn-off from the main road towards the lake. It was one scary moment though!


The road – if you can call it that – from the turn off to the camp was challenging to say the least. It was a bone-rattling drive over what was basically a rocky beach where vehicles had compacted the rocks a little in a certain area to form a kind of track. Finally we arrived at camp, shaken, not stirred, with a sense of relief – until we realised we have to do it all again in reverse tomorrow!


Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake is an endorheic lake (a body of water that does not flow into the sea) situated at an altitude of 4,350m (14,270ft) above sea level. It is reputed to be the world's highest brackish lake, although I could not find any evidence to back this up. Two streams feed the lake from the Indian side, forming marshes and wetlands at the edges. 134 km long, and 5 km wide at its broadest point, the lake extends from India to Tibet, with 60% of it being in Tibet, which is today under China's rule, some of it in disputed territory. The “Line of Actual Control” passes through the lake - a section controlled by China but claimed by India. Pangong is still a delicate border point, with incursions from the Chinese side being common. In fact, when we got back to Leh again, we heard rumours that the Chinese had been making unpleasant stirrings in the area in the last few days.

I later read this in an on-line paper: "The Dragon is at it again. On two days last week, Chinese troops -- estimated by sources at as many as 100 -- crossed the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh carrying banners asking India to vacate "occupied" territory "


In summer, the surface temperature of the lake can reach 19 °C (it certainly wasn't that warm today!), but the water will freeze completely in winter (despite being salty), and is devoid of any micro-vegetation. The mirror-calm water is cold, clear, and extremely salty, holding sufficient quantity of lime to form a calcareous deposit, which cements the pebbles together in patches of concrete on its bank. It is believed that there is a large amount of minerals in the basin of the lake, which result from the melting of the snow. We could see gulls skimming the surface of the water and the lake acts as an important breeding ground for a variety of birds including a number of migratory species, such as the Bar-headed Goose and Brahmini Ducks. Some varieties of scrubs and perennial herbs grow in the marshes around the lake. The region around the lake supports a number of species of wildlife too, including the kiang (wild ass) and the marmot, both of which we saw on the way here.


Although this area is today a high-altitude desert, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, a few of which remain today, the grandest of all being the 604km² Pangong Tso. The name translates as “Long, narrow, enchanted lake”, and enchanted it certainly is. It would have been awesome to go out in a boat on the tranquil waters of the lake, but for security reasons, India does not permit boating (the boats you see in the picture belong to the Indian Army)


Water Mark Camp
The camp was a collection of pre-erected tents in a single row, near the water's edge. The paths were quite uneven, so I am really glad I wore my hiking boots today.

Not a bad setting for a camp.


A glacier-fed river ran through the camp – it was almost dry when we arrived but quite full by the evening, with the sun having melted the ice on the glacier. OK, it was still not exactly a raging torrent, but we could see a marked difference as the day went on.


The tents were on a raised concrete platform and were reasonably roomy, with two beds and a small table, and ample room for the luggage. On a further raised platform was the attached toilet and basin. Outside was a small 'balcony' with two chairs overlooking the lake. The lake was beautiful, but not as blue as I expected it to be. Maybe the gloomy weather had something to do with that.


Storm clouds on the horizon


It was incredibly windy – all the tents had been anchored down using huge rocks – even inside our tents they'd placed a rock to stop the whole side of the tent blowing in. This rock promptly fell on my leg and grazed it, and later we found the wind was so strong the canvas was being torn by the rock too.


A nice lunch materialised, consisting of a buffet, with paneer masala (very tasty!), aloo, rice, chapatis and poppadoms, plus a dessert they called something like “sibea” which looked like vermicelli to me.


After lunch we decided to have a siesta – we were both tired, dehydrated and grumpy – and we both woke up feeling much more positive an hour or so later. We walked around the area near the camp, photographing the scenery and generally taking in the atmosphere. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows and giving a magical, charming and almost supernatural ambiance. I love the light this time of day.


When we arrived this afternoon, we were the only ones here, but by the time dinner was served, the place was full. Apart from two Malaysians and us, the rest were all Indian tourists – some had come in a group of nine, with the girls coming by car with everyone's luggage and the boys on hired Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes.


The sun made a half-hearted attempt at a sunset, and had to give way to more dark storm clouds and the was even some precipitation in the air during the evening. Nothing came of it though, at least not by the lake.


After a very nice dinner of mushroom muttar, dahl and egg curry, with the usual rice, chapatis and poppadums. It was all very tasty and we shared a table with a lovely young man from Bangalore.


After dinner I got my tripod out and attempted a few times exposures of the tents at night, but I found the wind and cold too much after a short while - the wind because it made everything move, including the tents, flags and even some of the poles; and the cold because I didn't have a wind proof jacket. The photographic results were not as good as I would have hoped.


Despite wearing all my clothes (including thermal pants and top plus a fleece, hat and gloves) and being covered with a thick quilt and a blanket; I was cold in bed. When I finally managed to get warm, and stopped panicking that I couldn't breathe, I went in to a deep sleep. The temperature dropped to +7 °C overnight inside the tent.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:35 Archived in India

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Don't be a Gama in the land of the Lama - is one of my favourite BRO road signs!!! The dessert was sevaiyan or as you rightly said, vermicelli.

by Aadil Desai

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