On the seventeenth two people flaked on us and we couldn’t go to Pangong Tso. We could have gone on the eighteenth, but waited til the nineteenth to go with people we knew. But then one of them got sick, so we were delayed again. Finally on the twentieth we departed Leh with two women that had been looking for partners to go to Pangong. We were a bit delayed on the way out, having first forgotten our permits and then stopping to have the spare tire repaired. We took an alternate route at first, heading south along the western side of the Indus River rather than the eastern route. Apparently there was a lot of traffic on the main road, which was only believable in Ladakh because the Dalai Lama was speaking. I started out in the front and got to know our driver, Sevang, a bit. Between my broken Hindi and his broken English, I understood him to be ethnically Tibetan although his family has been in Ladakh for generations. Meanwhile, Joylani got to know our travel mates, Shella and Stephanie. Shella’s lived all over the world and had recently retired from Doctors Without Borders. Stephanie was a Swiss student who was on the tail end of a multi-month journey from SEA to India.
Before we knew it, we were high above the upper Indus Valley, staring down at the green fields that carpeted the valley floor. Cubic Ladakhi houses dotted the square fields, which were separated by stone walls. It was not long before we summated and were descending Changla-La, the third highest motorable pass in the world. At the summit and along the descent, glaciers and ice mixed in with the rocky landscape. We zigzagged down from the pass, before driving along the bottom of the glacial valley. We passed several villages and a few military camps and checkpoints, but most of the drive was through enormous valleys. At any point during the drive, we could look out and see tons of different mountains. We could see series of peaks rising in the distance, behind the giant ones in front of us. We would pass rocky peaks and then descend into a valley with slopes of eroded shale sliding down, only to emerge at the base of some snow-capped peaks we’d first glimpsed an hour ago. We passed boulder-strewn meadows in valleys that were full of wild horses just grazing, being dwarfed by the rocks around them. The wildlife was pretty exciting to see, as we also saw cows, goats, yaks, and marmots.
By mid-afternoon, we reached Pangong Tso, an amazing sight. Even more so after hours of staring at mountains and valleys. The deep blue water had bands of bright turquoise and light green, which made it look more tropical than central Asian. The Himalayan peaks rising out of the water reminded us where we were though. Since we arrived late in the day though, the glaciers were melting relatively fast which resulted in increasingly large and powerful “streams” pouring down the mountains into the lake. Several vehicles were stopped, the drivers checking out the situation. Then, one jeep attempted the rough crossing and made it. Then another truck tried to cross but got stuck. We watched as the passengers got out and tried to push, rock, lift, and anything else they could do to get the truck going. Watching them, our driver said we’d gone as far as we could- he wouldn’t attempt the crossing. It seemed like a good idea, as Joylani pointed out the stream was growing in width, branching out down the mountain. After about 20 minutes, the stuck truck got unstuck and made it across. Then another jeep tried and made it. Not to be outdone, our driver said he’d try. It was rough, with our jeep falling in and bouncing out of submerged holes in the path. We made it across without incident though, unless you count being stuck for a few seconds at the very end while some helpful observers quickly threw some rocks under our tires. All the vehicles made it across, with the exception of one car which was too small to attempt the crossing.
We drove along the lakeside for about five minutes, until we came to the village of Spangmik. We pulled up to the only official guesthouse, where our driver tried to negotiate a rate for us. However, seeing that we were foreigners, they quoted an exorbitant amount. Our driver pleaded with them to be reasonable and then I did with one of the English-speaking guys, but they wouldn’t budge. Refusing to pay such a ridiculous amount, we began driving back, our driver cursing them as dogs all the way. But just about 200 meters up the road, our driver stopped and yelled at a couple women in front of a small home. It turned out they had a couple spare rooms available, so we negotiated a rate. After checking out the rooms, we dropped off our bags, and headed out for walk. Pangong Tso is in a bowl of mountains, whose glacial runoff feeds the lake during the summer. Consequently, our walk (like our drive) traversed several streams, where we had to hop rock to rock to get across. The scenery was fantastic in a true sense of the word, which I hope my photos convey. A few interesting things about Pangong: 1. At 150 km long and 5 km wide, it is the largest brackish lake in Asia, which accounts for the countless dried-out shrimp shells that lined the beach. Shrimp were the last animal I expected to see in Ladakh. 2. It borders China, so although we were about 60 km from the border, we could see Tibet. In fact, the family we stayed with was half-Ladakhi and half-Tibetan. We got back to the house just as the sun was dropping below the mountains behind us, which was cool because we could see the shadows ascend the mountains across the lake.
We snacked on bowls of Maggie, which tided us over until dinner. Waiting for dinner, we watched the villagers end their days. Two little girls brought all the cows in, while a grumpy old man yelled at the goats. I thought to myself, “This is the farthest we’ll be from home.” A five hour drive from any town of significance, in a village of 60 people, powered by small solar panels on their roofs, and watching the farm animals returning to their pens. Dinner was simple. We sat along the perimeter of the room on their beds, which were straw mattresses on the floor. On the short tables in front of us, we were presented with dahl chavel (lentils and rice), some vegetables, and chapattis. The women just sat and watched us as we ate. It wasn’t too awkward though as one of them had a 15 month-old son, who was pretty entertaining to watch. I’ve never liked any butter tea that I’ve tried, but I thought maybe Ladakhi butter tea made with local Yak butter might be different- I still hate butter tea. Their black tea wasn’t much better, as I learned that Ladakhi’s add salt to their tea. Luckily dinner was pretty good. Despite leaving two full cups of tea, I cleaned up two full plates of food. After dinner we chatted for a half hour or so, until we realized they were waiting for us to finish before they would eat. So we headed to bed. The room looked so good when Joylani and I inspected it earlier in the day. But night was a different story, which I’ll let Joylani recount.
Pangong-Tso, some things Matt left out.
For the most part, Matt does a pretty good job capturing various events throughout our travels. This time he left out a few things that I found to be amusing, so I’ve taken it upon myself to fill in the details
We left the tour agency almost on time, impressive. Matt and the driver hit it off and were speaking broken English (driver) and Hindi (Matt) to each other. About 20 minutes later we made a pit-stop at a tire garage to have the spare tire fixed. Good. Our driver informed Matt that the jeep we were in was kharab, loosely translated: terrible. Not so good. As we waited he pointed out a field in the distance where some ammunition accidentally went off a couple weeks before. Nice. The tire was soon fixed and we were on our way again. The driver asked Matt if he wanted to drive. Matt replied (in Hindi), “No, they want to live,” pointing to us three women in the back. The driver laughed. He gave each passenger a Ladakhi name, Matt’s is the only one I can remember, Dorje. We had a somewhat uneventful drive the rest of the way to the lake, and listened to the same music tape about 10 times in a row.
Upon arrival at the lake, our driver helped us to find a place to stay for the night. Options were few and we settled on a family-run guesthouse: two bedrooms, a pantry, and a kitchen/restaurant. Our room had a little goat in it when we arrived. It was only about knee high (smaller than the one-year-old kid who was toddling around the place), and still figuring to what was edible and what was not, as evidenced from its attempts at eating rocks later that night. The driver opened the windows in our room, smiled, and said, “AC.” Matt and I laughed to each other. It was only 3 in the afternoon, but the mountain air was definitely already too cold to warrant any type of AC, natural or otherwise. The outhouse was down the hill, and washing could be done in the glacial stream since there was no running water. I will correct Matt in saying that the room looked good enough, not “looked so good,” as Matt put it. The place was quaint (adobe brick walls, sticks for the ceiling, and of course a picture of Lhasa, a staple of Tibeten decor), definitely had that “village feel,” and the goat was cute. Upon initial inspection there were no visible spiders, I didn’t see any fleas jumping around, and besides, where else would we stay?
the kitchen/dining room
One of the women in our jeep, Shella, a seemingly experienced traveler, had decided to sleep in the jeep instead of the house because, “I stayed in a place like that once and it ended up having fleas that I had the hardest time getting rid of.” She also told us a story about how a Doctor’s Without Borders co-worker had fallen into a latrine when the floor collapsed as she was using it. I let her stories get to me, and by nightfall I was feeling a little bit uneasy about our shelter decision, in addition to being afraid to go to the bathroom for fear of falling in. (The floor did seem a little unsteady.) Matt and I opted to share one twin-sized cot which we pulled out from the side of the wall into the middle of the room. (That’s my logic for making a bed less accessible to bugs, not sure if it actually works, but it makes me feel better.) I dressed for bed, wrapping a scarf around my hair, tucking my pants into my socks and my undershirt into my pants before climbing into my sleep sheet and then sleeping bag, pulling the drawstring tight to keep out any bugs. (If you haven’t caught on to this by now, I HATE bugs.) I awoke a couple hours later sweating from all my layers. That’s what he meant by the AC, I realized. Those mud buildings can get pretty warm inside. Bravely I consented to take off my long sleeve shirt and the socks, but I still tried to wrap myself as snuggly as possible in my sleeping bag. It was only midnight and I had 6 more hours to go until the sun brought its sweet relief from my nighttime paranoia.
Matt and I both had a rough night’s sleep, but thankfully we survived with little incident. There was an oversized grub-worm thing in one of the hotel provided blankets (luckily we had our own), and a few large insects that Matt heroically squished, but no fleas, bedbugs, or a single bite. Even still, morning brought a sense of calm as we emerged from our nighttime enclosure to the fresh outdoors. Breakfast was a simple affair: boiled eggs and chapattis with black tea (the unsalted variety) to wash it all down. I didn’t feel so bad that Matt didn’t finish his tea the night before when, after a couple bites, our driver made a sour face and said his Ladakhi breakfast tasted horrible. His meal consisted of hot yogurt, yak butter, and flour. No wonder it was gross. We laughed and headed for the jeep to settle in for the ride back to Leh.