I’m feeling quite intrepid. I am sitting on the back of my boyfriend’s Royal Enfield motorbike and we have just crossed the third highest motorable mountain pass in the world, Chang La in India’s Ladakh. We are heading towards Pangong Tso, a salt water lake in east Ladakh at around 4350 meters (14 270 ft) altitude, near the contested border region between India and China.
The lake is 134 km (80 miles) long, and only a small part of it is in Indian territory – most of Pangong Tso is in Tibet. A part of the lake is in an area that is controlled by China but claimed by India, and because of the proximity to the sensitive border region, tourists are only allowed to visit the westernmost tip of the lake on the Indian side.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You like remote places.
- You are happy to drive over a 5289 m mountain pass to get to your destination.
- You are happy to go without electricity or running water for a couple of days.
- Good for: anyone who likes mountains, anyone who wants to get away from it all for a day or two, and anyone who thinks travel is as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
The Road to Pangong Tso
The road to Pangong from Ladakh’s capital Leh goes over Chang La (5289 m or 17352 ft altitude). After the pass the road turns down towards the lake and the scenery becomes very picturesque; we drive through green fields and small villages, and we stop to give way for a herd of hundreds of goats crossing the road. We also stop regularly to hand over copies of our travel permit at several Indian army checkpoints.
We can already see a little glimpse of bright blue water in the distance when the road turns into gravel, and it takes almost an hour to negotiate a few kilometers of sharp stones and massive rocks, streams of melting water that run down from the glaciers in the mountains, and eventually the lack of any kind of a road at all except for a barely recognizable track in the gravel. (I don’t think the road is always so bad: there may have been a landslide.)
Sleeping at Pangong Tso
The lake is gorgeous; the water is ice cold and clear blue, the mountains around it are brown and rocky with little bits of white snow at the top. A lonely donkey is wandering around the shore looking for something to eat. If it wasn’t for the tent camp occupied by a busload of European visitors and the arrival of a jeep full of backpackers, I would feel like I’m really somewhere far away. Pangong is becoming an increasingly popular day trip or overnight trip destination from Leh, but it is still remote enough for a little bit of peace and quiet.
At night we sleep in a guesthouse run by local women on the lakeshore. It consists of bare stone walls and an equally bare stone floor, and two mattresses on the floor. In the evening the women bring us food, and we drink sweet Indian tea under the stars and listen to the silence.
Tips for Responsible Tourism
It is one of the places where you can’t help but think ”should I not have come?” The environment at Pangong is fragile, and increasing numbers of tourists will put pressure on it. Yet every travel agent in Leh arranges trips the lake – tourism is in Ladakh to stay. If you decide to go, be aware of the environment, be happy with basic accommodation and do not insist on luxuries, but do insist on environmentally sound practices. If you cannot recycle your rubbish locally, bring it with you back to Leh for recycling. Now would also be a good time to ditch toilet paper for a few days and learn the Indian method of using your left hand and a jug of water.
Practicalities for Visiting Pangong Tso from Leh:
- The lake is approximately 170 km away from Leh. Travel agents in Leh arrange trips. Day trips are possible, but mean lot of driving and very little time at the lake.
- Accommodation is available near the lake and in Spangmik village, mostly in tent camps or local homes. Tangtse, about 40 km before the lake, has some guesthouses and places to eat.
- Take warm clothes for the night and bring some snacks if you want to supplement the ubiquitous rice and dhal.
- You will need an Inner Line Permit to visit Pangong. Travel agents in Leh arrange permits. Foreigners are supposed to travel in groups and the permits are only issued for a group of at least four people. Take several copies of the permit with you, as you will have to leave a copy at each army checkpoint on the way.
- Pangong is a fragile ecosystem, so go only if you are able to respect the environment and the local culture.