The Scenic Road to Pangong Tso

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Ladakh - Pangong Lake - nature's canvas-19

The Scenic Road to Pangong Tso

In a region bounded by the Karakoram range and the Greater Himalayas, mountains are a constant presence, hovering at the edge of your consciousness, imprinted in your mind’s eye, challenging yet comforting, pointing you in the right direction…

Parched, barren, serrated and raked by frozen rivers, resembling the brown knuckles of an old ogre, the mountains were like a glowing rampart ahead of us as we sped out of Leh early one morning to travel to Pangong Tso, the lake of Three Idiots fame. We embarked on the six-hour drive which is amongst the most scenic in the world.

In the initial stages of the journey, the road slowly un-scrolled and then went vertical. Soon the sheer beauty of the landscape overwhelmed us into silence and we mentally genuflected before the ultimate artist – nature – who, with her lavish brushstrokes, had created a mesmerizing canvas. Her palette was restricted to browns, rust, beige, sometimes a menacing gray, for Ladakh is essentially a high-altitude desert. There was a play of texture as well – the mountains sometimes appeared brittle, flaky, even powdery, but most often they resembled the flexed muscles of a divine titan ready to reach out and pummel minuscule cars that teetered on their edge.Ladakh - Pangong Lake - nature's canvas at sunset-1

At times, the bald eroded peaks seemed to slither from the heavens to the rushing Indus below, a torrent that resembled liquid, flowing cement. Occasionally, along with the river’s edge, there would be a lush green oasis of wheat and yellow mustard fields bordered by poplar and willow trees or a tiny terraced field that glowed a defiant green amidst a monochromatic land. Or a white-washed monastery or gompa would surprise us by its impossible perch atop a mountain or along a precarious slope, the high walls seeming to protect its inhabitants – the monks – from the corruption and heartaches of a cruel world.Ladakh - Pangong Lake - tented camp resort-the cup that cheers (1)

We continued our journey along cliff-hugging roads that left us literally gasping for breath for though the traffic was light, the highway seemed to cling to the mountain face by a whisker. Occasionally dzos (hybrids of yak and domestic cattle) grazed on dry river beds below, foraging for elusive blades of grass. Wild horses, with manes flying in the wind, galloped past with long-limbed strides, flanks rippling… A frozen river glittered in the sun…

It all climaxed in terms of height at the third highest pass in the world – Chang La Pass at 17,800 ft where the peaks were snow crusted and resembled a sea in mid-heave. Icicles hung from rocky overhangs like the long white fingers of a vampire and a virtually smashed jeep was suspended precariously over the edge of the road, two wheels hanging in mid air… a graphic warning to those who dared to speed! Ladakh - Road to Pangong - a view of the mountains surrounding Chang-la Pass

At the pass, the Indian army distributes complimentary tea and medical aid to tourists who might have high altitude sickness symptoms such as a headache, nausea and recurring bouts of vomiting. A dhaba, which claims to be the highest in the world, also hawked tea, biscuits, and snacks to hungry wayfarers.

We then drove through a narrow valley where the snow peaks seemed just an arm’s reach away and the car careened on the pebbled bed of a dry river. In the distance, we saw a wedge of incredible blue – Pangong Tso or hollow lake – that shimmered like a torn piece of sky.Ladakh - Road to Pangong - a drive through nature's canvas of many subtle hues and textures-2

The lake is located at 14,500 ft and flanked by gigantic peaks that knife the heavens at over 19,700 ft. The sky over the limpid lake was a shade of sapphire. The huge scale of things made us feel small and insignificant. We retreated into the relative warmth of our frail tents, located virtually on the edge of the lake, wondering if we were halfway to heaven.







Gustasp & Jeroo Irani are a husband and wife team of travel writers/photographers, more accurately, travel junkies always on the lookout for the next fix, the next trip... They have travelled across India and the world. But eventually they return to the city they call home: Mumbai The footloose couple have edited Indian travel magazines, researched and written two guides for South African Tourism in India. Gustasp is the author of the book Once Upon a Raj