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Kashmir Part III: Leh - Chang La - Pangong Tso - Chushul trip in August 2013

I have long heard statements about the beauty of Kashmir, asserting it as the heaven on earth. After reading numerous blog posts and pictures sharing amazing experiences from there, I always coveted experiencing heaven-on-earth first-hand. Many a times I have dreamt of biking all the way from Bangalore to Leh and exploring the area. The main excuse I had for not doing it was the reluctance to take long leaves and preferred places reachable over extended weekends. But, over a period of time, it became obvious that I will miss a lot of must-do places, if I clinged on to that excuse. Hence, when Amit and Priya suggested hiring a vehicle and visiting the area, I and Preethu set aside the drive-up-there dream and decided to tag along.

We took a flight to Chandigarh and booked a Xylo to ferry us around. In the first few days, we travelled to Amritsar, Srinagar and Kargil, passing by Zojila. The next few days were spent at Leh and Nubra valley, passing by high altitude passes at Namika La, Fotu La and Khardung La. The whole experience just whetted my appetite - to see more of heaven-on-earth.

Back at Leh town after visiting Nubra valley, we stayed at the Solpon guest house for another night. Since, we were heading in to a weekend, the rooms we got was not as good as the last time. But, it was still good enough for a night's stay. While heading to Nubra valley, we had taken a lot of time for ATM and filling diesel - so, this time all those chores were completed in the night itself to make an early departure possible.

Our plan was to go to Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri lakes before heading back to Chandigarh via Manali. With just a few days left, we had some apprehensions about visiting two lakes and was contemplating, if we should skip one-of-them! Sources in Internet seemed to have the following consensus: Pangong Tso is indeed magical, but after the whole world saw those visuals from the movie 3 Idiots, the place is facing rapid commercialization. Tso Moriri on the other hand is still relatively untouched. The dilemma was saved by a few articles talking about a road connecting Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri[1], which could save a day for us.

The Inner Line Permits[2] were also taken two days back. There was confusion about this road, as we were told that it may not be open to civilians now. If the road was not open, we would need an extra day, which will affect our entire trip plan. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to take a chance and take the direct route from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri. The names of all intermediate villages (mainly Man, Merak, Chushul, Loma, Nyoma) were mentioned in the Inner Line Permit[2] and we were prepared to head back and skip Tso Moriri, in case we were stopped at any of the checkposts.

Preethu @ Solpon, Leh
All set to go ...

Next day, we were out of Solpon guest house early, finished our breakfast at Leh and was heading for Manali highway by 9. Some construction was going on in the Leh - Keylong - Manali highway, so we had to take a detour and rejoin the highway a few kms after Leh town. The roads were in good condition from here on and we passed by Shey and Thikse quickly to reach Karu by 9.30, which is where we should turn left from Leh - Keylong - Manali highway towards Chang La, Changtang valley and Pangong Tso.

After we took the left, we were stopped by a person who was checking the vehicle papers. One look at us and he knew that the Xylo is not ours and we had hired a private registration vehicle from Punjab - he just refused to let us go ahead. We initially felt that he was looking for money, but soon realized that it was not the case. We sat there, pleading with him for almost an hour or so and he still refused to let us go. After a lot more pleading, he eventually agreed for a strange solution - we had to go back and get an Inner Line Permit[2] done in the name of the owner of the car!

There was a question on this person's authority as he was a representative of the taxi uniion. But, we did not want to get in to any trouble by forcing our way through. That left us with no other choice but to head back to Leh and get a permit in the name of the Xylo owner. Though, it sounded a little difficult in the beginning, our driver called up the owner and managed to get a scanned copy of his driving license emailed to us.

An hour later, we were in Choglamsar, trying to get a print-out of the license. Internet was down here, because of some power problem, but the person at a browsing center offered to get us the print using a generator. We got the driving license downloaded from Preethu's phone - quite an achievement considering the bad signal coverage - and then managed to get the print done. Later, we called up the agent who arranged our Inner Line Permit[2] and by about 12, the permit was ready. We were back at Karu by about 1, only to see that the checking squad was gone by then!

All that we could do was to blame our luck - had we been here on a different day or time, we may not have faced any issues! Anyways, rather than sitting and whining about it, we were better off to keep moving. Having already lost a lot of time in this eventually-pointless-to-and-fro circus, we did not have any more time to waste, if we had to entertain any hopes of reaching Pangong Tso before dark.

Soon, we started to climb up the Chang La - through a typically boulder strewn path. Chang La is one of the highest mountain passes in the world, connecting Leh with the Changthang region, which hosts Pangong Tso. The roads were barren like most of the ladakh region, except for some irrigated villages in between.

Preethu @ Chang La
@ Chang La

The sign boards at Chang La claimed that it is the "third highest pass" at an altitude of 17586ft (~5360m). The GPS instrument I was carrying pretty much concurred this altitude, unlike Khardung La where it showed about 300m less. I later verified that most of the sources in Internet concurs with this altitude as well, though I could not find any reference to substantiate the "third highest pass" claim. The chances are that this claim was based on some old information, but the fact still remains that Chang La is one among the highest mountain passes in the world.

Snow mountains near Chang La
Snow peaks near Chang La

We could spot a few snow-clad peaks all around us, one of them being very close. But, there were no signs of snow in the pass. The Chang La top was also equipped with a restaurant and a tent serving free tea by army. Food was ofcourse our first priority and we had a much awaited lunch first - this would definitely count as the 'tallest' lunch we ever had! Amit and Priya went to check out the tea after lunch, while Preethu and me were not much of tea drinkers and skipped this.

valley after Chang La
valley after Chang La

By about 2.30, we started our descend from Chang La in to the Changtang - to soon reach a valley laced with a small stream and blessed with some greenery. The stream turned in to small lakes at some points. Especially with a few rain clouds hovering in the sky and sun playing peekaboo through them, it looked way different from the hot and arid desert landscape we had seen so far in Ladakh.

Thanks to the abundance of grasslands here, we also spotted a good amount of fauna as well in this stretch - herds of Yaks grazing was a common sight and we also spotted a few Kiangs (Tibetan Wild Ass) and Marmots. Even the drier stretches had some amount of vegetation and flowering plants - particularly a small shrub with yellow flowers contrasting beautifully with the landscape. Coupled with the deep-red-tinged boulders abundant in this region, it was very colorful all around.

near Tangtse
Roaring clouds ...

By 4.30 we were at Tangtse village, where we opted for a short tea break. The road forks here, with the one on left going towards Pangong Tso (Lukung and Spangmik villages), while the road on right goes towards Tso Moriri via Chushul. Our plan was to hit Pangong Tso for now and take another road (by the side of Pangong Tso) to reach Chushul. This road was our backup option, if we were not granted permission to take the Pangong Tso - Chushul road, which was closer to the China border.

The landscape was similar even past Tangste, except that the stream started looking more like a marshland. This was accompanied by a proportional increase in greenery as well. We also spotted a cute family of Marmots here. But, it was getting increasingly cloudy by now and we were starting to wonder if we will make it to Pangong Tso before it gets dark - thus the break was cut short.

About 15 mins later, we could see a beautiful blue lake, right next to the road. For a second, it looked like Pangong Tso, but we soon realized that it was much smaller. The stream we were following joined this as well. Later, I found out that this lake is called Chagar Tso.

We went around this lake, passed by another lake-like formation and was soon seeing a few camps ahead of us. The road went up a little and we could sense that we are nearing Pangong. We saw the main road turning left (towards Lukung) and a trail going up towards the campsite. A beautiful blue to purple tinge behind the hill told us that the lake is right ahead in this trail. So, we asked Sriram to wait, got down and walked up the hill towards the blue horizon.

Our assumption was not wrong - what we got to see when we reached the top was beyond our wildest imagination! The blueish tinge in the horizon now looked more like deep shade of blue and purple. A few dark clouds were hovering just above this, with one of the clouds hiding the evening sun behind it. A few rays of light came from behind this cloud pointing towards a full blown rainbow, further ahead in the horizon. Brown colored mountains covered the area all around us, except for a small gap where the bluish horizon merged with water of the same shade - yes, this was Pangong!

first view of Pangong
first view of Pangong

Our jaws dropped at this spectacle - the emerald blue water in the lake slowly lapping up against the shore, complete with white sand and shells. This had to the most amazing landscape I had ever witnessed and all we could do was to stare at the beautiful canvas of nature ahead of us and shake our heads in disbelief!

evening at Pangong
Blue, brown and blue

It took us some time to come back to our senses. The rainbow disappeared quickly - it was probably there only to welcome us to Pangong! The light was going down and I clicked a few pictures before it went off totally. It was impossible to capture the spectacle we were seeing, but I had to try. Soon, it was getting dark and we headed towards the campsites. There were a few of them around, some of them just off the lake. Yes, what we read about Pangong was true - it has probably got commercialized in the last few years. But yes ... it is still unbelievably beautiful.

We were carrying two tents in case of emergency, but hoping that it will not be necessary. For now, the campsites looked like a much better option than trying to set up our own tents in the lakeside. We first checked a place which looked like a hotel, but they sounded a bit too costly. Then moved in to a tent, which offered basic bed facility at a low cost. We looked around some more before eventually settling for a relatively luxury tent accomodation - Martsemik camp - complete with attached bathrooms, buffet dinner and comfortable beds - all at a descent cost. Way more luxury than we could expect at a remote location like this.

The buffet dinner was quite sumptuous and we met a few interesting people staying in the camp - about 30 tents and most of them occuppied with people from different parts of the country. In particular, we talked to a singer visiting Pangong for the 6th time or so and a surgeon who found the facilities a bit crude. I felt that the two of them represented the two extremes; the singer, a lady aged about 50, was lauding the beauty of Pangong and content with the time she got to spend here. She had found Pangong special and concluded with "Pangong se behther kuch ho hi nahi saktha". When we asked about Tso Moriri, she agreed that Tso Moriri is pretty too, but she still had a special liking for Pangong. She went on to talk about her first visits to Kashmir (when we were all school going kids) and we all listened with rapt attention.

Sandeep, Preetha @ Pangong
Heaven on Earth - indeed!

On the other hand, the surgeon kept complaining about everything from food, bed sheet and even the dogs barking outside, which apparently kept him awake all night. Next day morning, when the rest of us where sipping hot coffee outside, watching the beautiful Pangong lake, he was determined to give a lesson or two to the "manager" on "how to keep the dogs away!"

morning at Pangong
Bright and blue

sun at Pangong
Adding shine to the blue!

We were out early morning, taking a stroll along the lake side, marvelling at the deep blue hues of the lake. The brown mountains in the background, the sun shining brightly above those mountains, the perfect cotton clouds and the deep blue sky - all of them together made the spectacle surreal. Once, we got over the initial astonishment, Preethu wanted to find the spot were 3 idiots' climax scene was shot. We walked along the lake side for some time and found a few spots which resembled the place in the movie, but we could not be sure. Only later did we realize that the lake is quite vast and the spot could be anywhere in the lake side!

Red flowers @ Pangong
Found a bit of red too...

a biker gang @ Pangong
A biker gang @ the lake side

By about 11, we were out of the camp and checking out the fuel level in Xylo. There were no fuel stations anywhere near - and potentially anywhere in the way we have to go, for another two days, except for vendors like this who sell petrol / diesel for a slightly higher cost. For now, the diesel level was good and we decided to go ahead without a fill.

Our drive to Tso Moriri would now be along the lake side, almost till Chushul, where we would join the road to Tso Moriri. The road along the lake side was apparently in bad condition, but sounded too interesting to be skipped. Just before leaving, we also met a gang from Kerala in a rented (self-driven) Innova. They were also on their way to Tso Moriri and was in a bit of bother as one of their tyres were punctured. With no other options available, they were banking on the stepney tyre to take them back till a place where the punctured tyre could be repaired. We wished them good luck before heading out by the lake-side.

@ Spangmik
near Spangmik

The biggest advantage of taking this track was that we get to spend more time by the side of Pangong Tso. We took a few breaks for photographs - the longest near Spangmik village, where we walked a fair distance along the lake. The track was a little off the lake and Sriram tried to take the Xylo towards the lake-side, getting in to some trouble with the Xylo almost getting stuck in the loose soil. With some help from us, he managed to push the vehicle out.

stacks of stones near Spangmik
Stacks of stones

The track became tougher to drive on as we moved past Spangmik. At some points, it was tough to identify the track itself as it was covered with boulders. Not many people were there too and it became a little scary at times as we were not sure which way to go. By 1.30 or so, we were near Man village and took another long break there staring in to the beautiful blue shades of Panging Tso.

Amit n Priya
Amit n Priya, taking a stroll

For another hour, we negotiated the boulders and the tricky terrain. The track was deserted, except for occassional vehicles driving by. We were already quite late for lunch and it did not look like we could find anything to eat in this area. It was quite hot as well and we were trying to figure out how far is the next village when the Xylo stopped with a tyre deep in the sand.

When we got out and checked, it looked like we drifted away from the track in to a sandy field. One of the tyres had sunken in to the sand. Sriram tried to raise the vehicle and pull it out, only making it worse. After a while he gave up and we tried to push it out, again with no success. Next, we took out the jack, raised the tyre a little bit and then pushed a few stones underneath. But, once again, the tyre kept spinning, creating a bigger pit to sink inside!

We tried to pick up some stones from around and repeated the attempt, but the tyre only seems to sink deeper with each attempt. Eventually, it went so deep down that the jack did not seem to make much difference! To make things more-interesting, wind was blowing at full vigour and we had to turn away from the wind regularly to avoid sand getting in to our eyes, mouth and nose.

A little ahead on the "road", we could see a few guys and a couple of vehicles. It looked like they had camped there. As a last resort, Priya went to talk to them and ask for help - only to come back and tell us that they were in bigger trouble! This was the gang from Kerala in the self-driven Innova, who were stuck in a stream, with a Duster trying to pull them out!

Eventually, we saw another tempo trax going by who helped us by lending their jack. They also picked up some dry branches for support. We ended up picking up whatever we can to put underneath the tyre - mats, cloths, stones ... all of them seemed to go underneath a pit made by the revolving tyre!

With the two jacks we managed to raise the tyre and stabilize the ground underneath before re-using one of the jacks to raise it a little more. Eventually, after about an hours hard work, with a few more hands to push the vehicle, we finally managed to take it out of the sand pit and quickly moved to safer grounds. We thanked the tempo trax people profusely before they left.

A little ahead of us, the Innova was still stuck and the guys were trying all things legal to get it out. The terrain here was slightly different as there was a stream coming down, making the place slushy with a few boulders all around. The Innova was stuck among a few loose boulders, with a cold stream passing by. They were trying to pull out the Innova using a Duster - owned by some local residents - for a while now. We decided to try our luck with the Xylo - first the Xylo moved ahead of Innova and the rope was tied to Xylo. In the first few attempts, the Xylo did not make much difference.

We now examined the ground underneath Innova and tried to pull out some of the troublesome boulders. The stream was quite cold making this a little difficult, but, eventually we all managed to pull out some of the offending stones making the path a little more smooth. After this, we tried yet another time - with all of us pushing the Innova from behind - and voila, it came off!

rescue team
Rescue team!

It was past 4 by now and the whole exercise was quite tiring, especially with the lack of lunch ... but then, it was way too much fun! We thanked each other and started planning the next move. Tso Moriri was obviously too far and we could not imagine reaching there in any sane time. There was a group of locals there as well - in a Santro - who suggested that we could try to get accomodation at Chushul. That sounded good and we followed them to avoid any more mishaps!

For the next half hour or so, both the Xylo and Innova just followed the Santro and reached the Merak village. A short break here was followed by another half an hour or so of following the Santro, along a boulder strewn track next to Pangong Tso. By about 5.15, we started moving away from the lake and we stopped one last time for a final look at the lake.

Kiangs near Chushul
Kiangs!

Soon, we bid adieu to Pangong Tso and started moving towards south - with a few hills seperating us from the lake. We were soon in a huge valley - vast stretches of brown all around us, except for small patches of green, the clear blue sky and a good share of white cotton clouds. We spotted a group of Kiangs here and stopped a while to get some pictures.

All this while, the Santro and Innova was within our sights. Increased signs of civilization was visible as we approached Chushul. By about 6, all three vehicles left the vast fields and entered a narrow track, which eventually lead us to a settlement. There were a few buildings all around, a couple of shops and a police station. There were no hotels or lodges at Chushul, but Amit talked to the locals and managed to find a place to stay for all of us. What a relief this was considering that we were nose-deep (ok ... axle-deep is more apt here) in sand and slush just a few hours ago!

A few hours later, we were sitting in a local tea shop waiting for our dinner - bread-omlette and noodles - to get ready. We got to know the Innova gang - Faheem, Libin, Ismail, Ajesh and Shaheen - better and shared stories of the trip. It may be a mere coincidence that we were making the trip at around the same time and may have encountered each other before ... for example, we could not help suspecting that the traffic jam at Zojila was infact caused by them! Coming to think of it, isn't it a miracle that these guys made it till here with a punctured tyre? These guys who we did not know at all a day back felt like age old friends. At the end of it all ... we could only thank god for sitting safely here and ruminating about what-had-happened and what-could-have-been! As we failed to reach Tso Moriri by evening, the direct route from Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri did not turn out to be a day-saver. But, we still had a day to spend at Tso Moriri before heading back to Manali via Rohtang. Also, the drive from Pangong Tso to Chushul was an awesome experience by itself - with some more beautiful views of Pangong Tso and the fun time we had pushing cars out of sand and slush!

References:
  1. A few sites mention about the road connecting Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri, but we have mainly depended on this article by Neelima. From our experience, this route may not save you a day, but it is worth taking for a long drive along Pangong Tso.
  2. Effective 1st May 2014, Inner Line Permit is NOT required for Indian nationals to visit the usual tourist places near Leh (Khardung La, Nubra Valley, Pangong and Tso Moriri). Please note that it is still required to carry a photo ID card and the permit is still required for places like Chushul, Marsimik La ... etc. See this link for detailed information.



© 2017 Sandeep Unnimadhavan