Roof of the World

Pangong Tso

It is widely received wisdom that if you travel to Ladakh you should make the journey to Pangong Lake. Having made the journey, I have to agree. At a remove of 160km from Leh, the lake sits at 4250m/13940ft on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world.

A permit is required to visit the area because Pangong is near the Line of Control (LOC) between India and China/Tibet. In fact, the lake sits astride the line – it’s 134km long and 5km wide at its broadest point – with most of it in China. Our driver told us stories of Chinese soldiers coming down the lake on jetskis and questioning tourists hopping off the bus from Leh. Yes, on the Indian side of the LOC. Interesting, huh?

While the 160km journey to the lake seems like a distance you could chew off in a couple of hours, this isn’t the case. It took 5.5 hours to get there. And we didn’t dawdle. In this part of the world, Distance/Travel Time is a good proxy measure for road quality and safety :-)

Before I left NZ, a friend of mine and I were discussing the journey…

Friend: “Have you ever seen the TV programme “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads”?
Luc: “No, I haven’t”
Friend: “Well, where you are going is even *more* remote than that”
Luc: “Hm”
Friend: “If you are breaking down on one of those roads – oh ho ho! That’s it.”

The last was said with a gleeful grin which I found a little discordant with the finality of the statement, I have to say!

Road to Pangong

My travelling companions included Neelakshi, the eco-warrior architect resplendent in her goncha (traditional Ladakhi dress), Stanzin our **amazing** driver, someone hitching a ride and the SECMOL student who had agreed to put us up for the night in her village.

The journey took us over Chang-La.

Chang-La
I know, I know. Don’t try to understand. Just don’t lol :)

Fortunately, though the way was perilous, we were blitzed with good advice all the way…

Go slow, friend
RISKY?! On those roads?! You’d have to be a lunatic.

We collected a number of semi-randoms on the way, dropping people off and picking people up. In a place where it’s difficult to get around, you could see that this was all quite normal. On the way back we even picked up a soldier from one of the permit check-points. One of his colleagues (who couldn’t have looked less distressed if he tried, sipping casually on his tea) told us he needed to get somewhere because of an “emergency”. So random :-) Anyway, onwards to the lake…

Impossible blues – Pangong Tso – and yonder lies Tibet

You can’t tell from my iPhone shots, but the blues of Pangong are out of this world. There seemed to be ten shades running through the lake. The lake features briefly in the movie The 3 Idiots. When I saw it I thought they had exaggerated the colours for cinematic effect. They hadn’t.

Neelakshi having a mystical moment

We stopped for a very nice lunch at a lakeside restaurant (which also had accommodation, incidentally) and took in the scene. After lunch, some of our hitch-hikers left us and we went for a walk along the water’s edge. It really was worth the effort to get there. If you go to Ladakh, make a point of getting to Pangong. And, if you do, go through Stanzin at Lynx Expeditions. He was our driver and owns the company. He was solid, reliable and conservative in his approach to the roads and the head-cases driving on them!

Most people tend to go up and back in the one day. If you can, though, find somewhere to stay. We were fortunate to stay in the village of Tharuk, a couple of hours’ drive from the lake. On the way, we visited Changthang Residential School. Using funds from foreign donors, the same people who founded SECMOL worked with villagers to build the school with an eco-friendly design.

Changthang Residential School

The family who put us up for the night had no idea we were coming. Three strangers waving merrily out his lounge window at him was all the warning the father got. Despite getting no notice, we were looked after beautifully. They were all generosity from start to finish.

View out the lounge window
Yaks. Seriously.

So, there I was sipping butter tea in this spectacular location surrounded by extraordinary people, whose families had moved to this area so long ago they couldn’t say for sure when. Hundreds of years? A nod – the kind which says “of course”. How many hundreds? A shrug.

The family at breakfast 

The mother was a hard-working, houseproud matriarchal character with a real strength about her. The father was one of those open-hearted spirits emanating kindness with an unchecked smile. I wanted desperately to take a photo of the grandmother but felt it would have been inappropriate. She sat quietly, in traditional dress, a face full stories weathered by the arid climate, spinning her prayer wheel and observing. I remember looking at her wondering to myself “What must be going on behind those eyes? What does she make of all this? Of us? Of me?”. Nevermind another *place*, it was like she was from another *time*. I guess, in a very real sense, she was.

Point of interest: yak dung is used to fire the stove. It is first dried on the roof of the house. Remember, there is hardly any rainfall in this part of the world.

Roof of the house and the family’s land – a river runs at the end of the property
Space for the animals

The next morning, after breakfast, we were waved off with a smile. Hospitality and kindness in a far-flung corner of the world. How lucky am I?!

Mr & Mrs waving us off. Ladakhis very rarely use family names.

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