On an impulse, I had rearranged the program, cutting out a night from Nubra to make the visit. It would have been a shame to have come this far and miss out on Pangong. Statistically – the largest brackish water lake in Asia with two-thirds of it in Tibet and one thirds in India. Esthetically – it is supposed to have at least four shades of blue at any given point of time, not considering the rim of mountains that form a cup around it.
I had to do something I hate doing – getting up at the crack of dawn. After quaffing down four cups of tepid coffee, I got dressed. By the time I reached the lobby, Danielle and Francois, my friends from France and avid India lovers were already there and I was ten minutes late. I was grateful for the understanding grin Danielle gave me.
We had to cross Chang La before noon after which, the road is open only to traffic coming back from the other side (in winter, traffic is open only from one side on a given day). The 78 kilometers of drive takes between three to four hours ascending a height of 1778 meters through barren mountains and small patches of emerald green in the valleys below.
Atop Chang La, hundreds of colored flags fluttered around the small temple of Changla Baba, a deity revered by the army men posted here. We had all crossed the Khardung La – the world’s highest motor able pass barely a day before and we cheered as the jeep rolled in; this was the world’s third highest – at 5300 meters! After the ritualistic photo stop at the pass, we rolled on. Francois was scratching his head furiously. Obviously, he was not very happy with his shots.
Within an hour we cross a small river bed and the driver warns us. After late afternoon, this very small innocent patch becomes a raging torrent of rivulet, fierce enough to make crossing it in a jeep dangerous (snow falls on the mountains during the night and at daytime, melt to cause a daily flash flood). We get the hint. My fingers start to tingle and I causally tell Danielle. She feels tired and I proceed to try and flush her with energy. Francois gives me his special goofy grin that translated means he finds it all outrageously funny.
The later part of the drive is on a relatively flatter land and Danielle spots marmots basking in the sun – looking cute as they stand on their hind legs and brush their tails with their paws. Further up, we see a heard of wild goats; their fur is used to make the world famous Pashmina shawls. Danielle thinks it is a good idea to take some back to France. Me – I haven’t eaten meat for days and they look tasty.
The last stretch of the road is non-existent and bumpy. Finally, we get a glimpse of a lake and an orchestrated gasp follows. The driver rudely tells us this is not the one and we feel properly chastised. Sometime later and after crossing a rickety wooden bridge, we spot another lake and look at the driver enquiringly and with a flourish of his hands – as he lets go of the wheels – he pronounces it to be Pangong! We drive up to the edge of the lake and park next to a shack selling hot momos and instant noodles. The driver heads for the shack while we move towards the lake. There are two families already there, frolicking in the water.
The placid lake lay before us, a different shade of blue every ten meters or so. As strips of cloud float by – the hue changes all around – blue gets deeper blue and deeper blue pales. The mountains around are scraggy and brown with dots of white on the tips – reflected on the lake all the time. The water itself is crystal clear and one can see the pebbles and stones at the bottom – even photograph them. We all decide it was a good idea to drive up further and have our picnic lunch there. The driver reluctantly agrees and drives us up another 5 kilometers.
A united family of India is already there – replete with mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, in-laws and an assortment of grandchildren. I warn Danielle and Francois to keep an eye on them – sooner or later they will pull out their cameras to take photos of each other and ignore the breath-taking view all around. Ten minutes down, they are both rolling on the ground laughing hysterically.
For the next hour or so, the driver snoozed in the sun, I stared moodily at the water and the mountains – when did you come, why, what pulls me to you so much? Both Danielle and Francois went for a walk. A neat picture postcard set against the raging torrent waiting for us to return to. Reluctantly, we all drag ourselves into the jeep and leave. We cross a string of colorful fluttering prayer flags and I say a silent prayer – may the world be as peaceful.
We cross the yet-not-so-raging stream on our way back and cross a jeep that had gone off the road and landed neatly fifty feet below on soft sand (Ladakh is full of natural river beaches with silky soft sand). Ladakhis are a friendly lot and our driver stops to give a helping hand. The owner of the unfortunate jeep shoos him off after fifteen minutes yelling he was doing more harm than helping.
Normally, when you drive back on the same route, it becomes boring but not here; the immenseness of the landscape, its haughty beauty, and its impregnable veneer sinks in even more firmly. We are all tired, happy and quiet as we drive back to Leh.
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