On day two of our trip to Ladakh, we got up early, showered, packed, had breakfast and hit the road to Pangong Lake. A car and driver were part of our package and we really lucked out with the driver this time. He was a young Ladakhi, unassuming but sweet, helpful and very patient. He told us he drives tourists to Pangong weekly (!!!), so he knew the road like the back of his hand, which was a very good thing. Plus, he was not a honker – a rare breed in India and a huge plus in my book!
Pangong Lake is about 100 miles (150 km) from Leh. According to Google’s magic algorithm, it takes 3 hours and 15 minutes to get there, but don’t let that fool you – the folks at Google don’t know what they are talking about in this case because you really can’t make it to Pangong (alive) in less than 5 hours.
Why? Well, for starters you have to go through Chang La, which at 17,688 ft (5,360 m) the third highest motorable pass in the world. Going through it can be problematic for stupid high-altitude newbies like us. And the road is downright scary. It is steep and vomit-inducingly ziggy-zaggy and constantly in need of repair because of heavy snow, rain and avalanches. I just remember looking up and seeing something that looked like a road up the steep mountain because there were cars creeping up it and thinking, “OMG, that couldn’t possibly be where we need to go!” only to realize minutes later that there was nowhere else to go and that indeed was the road. There are no guardrails on the road but there is some crazy driving evidenced by the multiple car carcasses we saw which had rolled off the cliffs.
I can honestly say that this was the scariest ride of my life. But you know what’s even scarier than the drive up to Pangong? The thought of having to drive back. Your heart is in your throat most of the drive up, you are pukey and hyperventilating from the high altitude, your head is hurting like the dickens but you finally get to Pangong Lake and you perk up a bit because the lake is ah-mazing. And then it hits you: “Shi$##$#@, we have to drive back tomorrow!!! There’s got to be another way! (There isn’t.) A helicopter? A broom? A dragon? Anything but driving back…” But I am getting ahead of myself…
So we left Leh in the morning and drove southeast along a nice open road through the desert, which looked like a moonscape…
… until the road ran into a river and started following its flow. We asked the driver what river that was. He said it was the Indus. Huh? This just seemed like the totally wrong place and direction for the Indus to us but that’s just tells you how ignorant we were because the Indus does indeed originate in the Tibetan plateau and makes a sweeping curve to the north into China before eventually running south through Pakistan and into the Indian ocean. Whaddayaknow?
Hi, Baby Indus!
We didn’t enjoy the river view for long though because we had to stop at a check-point and present our permissions to be there. While the driver was taking care of the permissions business we saw these huge piles of rocks, which seemed to have interesting drawings on them. The driver later told us that those were Buddhist mantras (prayers) carved into the stones.
We reached the edge of the valley and the road started climbing up and up and up. We were approaching Chang La pass, the highest point of our journey, so we decided to take some oxygen as a precaution.
We saw groups of South Indian looking people doing maintenance work on the road. The driver told us that most of them were from Bihar (one of the poorest states in India) and were living in tents in the mountains doing road construction pretty much by hand.
Finally, we made it to Chang La! Hello 17,688 ft (5,360 m) – the highest place we’ve ever been.
It was kinda pretty up at the pass and there were a few tea shops but we didn’t stop because it was very cold and windy and it was starting to snow. Plus, we were not feeling well and still had a long way to go to Pangong.
We tried to enjoy the scenery as much as we could on the way down despite feeling sick. Our last puke stop happened to be in a really beautiful area with a mountain creek running alongside the road and pretty purple flowers…
We made our way to our campground, Camp Martsemik, dropped off our stuff at our fancy tent (which had running water, a toilet and a shower in it)
… and enjoyed a late veggie lunch in the dining tent. The food was very basic but heavy on the rice, so it helped settle our tummies a little bit.
Pangong Tzo means long, narrow enchanted lake in Tibetan and that’s an apt description. Because it is on the disputed border between India and China, there is a military base on the Indian side (as I am sure there is on the Chinese) with a huge Indian flag. The area actually saw military action during the Sino-Chinese war in 1962.
Today, the Indian side of the lake is a protected wetland area. The water in the lake is brackish but it gets so cold there during the winter that the whole lake freezes over. The passes into the area are also snowed in 9 months out of the year, so life must be pretty tough up there for the soldiers in the military base and the people living in the few small villages in the vicinity.
The weather was gorgeous and the sky as blue as ever. The kids were in heaven skipping stones and playing in the brackish water. I don’t think they even noticed or cared that the water was freezing. Watching them play with such abandon was the kind of joy you want to bottle and stash away for a rainy day (or the drive back, as the case may be).
We did notice that other than two local kids, ours were the only other kids at Pangong – one of those things that make you go, hmmmm…
After a couple of hours at the lake, we went back to the camp. Our driver found us and said there was a village on the lake and that we could go see it if we wanted to. We did. The road to the village went up a high hill and the view of the lake would have been incredible but it was getting dark and there wasn’t quite enough light. We kicked ourselves for not going there earlier when the light was better.
Back at the camp, we had dinner and settled in for the night, which was easier said than done. We were all winded and had a hard time breathing, especially Max. We finally managed to convince him to take some oxygen, which helped for a little bit but by the time he fell asleep I was quite scared because he was gasping for air. We gave him more oxygen and he finally fell asleep even though there was a wild party outside our tent and there was nothing we could do about it. There were a bunch of people who had come to Pangong on motorcycles (brave souls) in our camp and they didn’t stop singing loudly until the wee hours of the morning.
Riding motorcycles through the Himalayas is a very popular thing to do for adventurous Indians and foreigners alike. It is also very dangerous. A U.S. citizen had a horrible motorcycle accident in Ladakh when we were there and ended up dying a few days later. Unfortunately, he was not the only one. But that didn’t seem to be a deterrent. Motorcycling around the Himalayas is big business too. There are several Indian-made motorcycles (Royal Enfield comes to mind although there are others) which are very popular and you can rent them all over the Himalayas. But I digress…
It got really cold overnight – below freezing for sure because I saw ice outside our tent the next morning. There were plenty of warm blankets in the tent to keep us warm but Max, who is not used to sleeping covered, kept kicking his blankets off all night. I spent most of the night making sure he was covered because I was afraid he’d freeze. Either that or pass out because of the altitude. I kept making sure that both children were breathing, while gasping for air occasionally myself. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep again, which gave me plenty of time to conclude that we were horrible parents to put our kids in this situation.
But we lived. We woke up to a brilliant morning on the lake and things looked better. Well, except for the prospect of going back up through Chang La, that is. We enjoyed the view of the lake from the camp for a little bit. We decided to skip breakfast (less puking material that way, we thought) but got plenty of water and hit the road again.
On the way back we saw some yaks, marmots and wild horses:
And then Max started gasping for air again. Badly! We tried giving him oxygen but it didn’t seem to help. He wasn’t complaining but just looked and sounded unwell. The driver was also concerned about Max – he kept checking on him in the rearview mirror and could hear him gasp. A few minutes later, the driver said that perhaps we should take him to a hospital. We figured he sees dumb foreigners like us all the time and probably knows better than us when one looks like they need medical help. He said there was a village nearby and he knew there was a small hospital there. This was not time to be coy or picky, so we immediately agreed although we had no idea what the hospital would be like. We got to the hospital and brought Max in.
It was a very modest government hospital with a few nurses, who were incredibly nice. There was a motorcyclist there who was also having high-altitude issues. The nurses immediately examined Max and hooked him up to a large oxygen tank. They also gave him anti-nausea medication and said we needed to stay there for at least a half hour before going back on the road. Max perked up a little while we waited. The nurses said we should keep him awake until we were on the other side of the Chang La pass and sent us on our way. We wanted to pay them but they wouldn’t take our money – not for their services, the oxygen, nor the medication. We insisted but they wouldn’t budge. Finally, we said we wanted to make a small donation to the hospital and reciprocated for their generosity that way.
We knew it would be hard to get over the pass but there was no other way back so off we went again. Max was dozing off. I tried to keep him awake but failed. He seemed to really need the sleep, plus he was breathing fine, so I let him sleep against the nurses advice, checking periodically to make sure he didn’t pass out.
Going over the pass on the way back was just as sickening as on the way there but somehow we made it to the other side, even though we ran out of oxygen. The driver saw we were in bad shape, so he took a short-cut to the valley on the other side of the pass. As soon as we got to the valley Paul felt awful and had to puke.
There were a couple of monasteries, which we wanted to visit on the way back but ended up stopping at just one of them – Hemis. The kids and I had lunch at the monastery and looked around, while Paul tried to nap in the car.
Here are a few pictures from Hemis:
I really wanted to see the other monasteries because I had heard they were really neat but the kids didn’t have the patience and Paul was not feeling well, so we skipped them and went back to Leh. Nia and I went downtown and did a little shopping but then we went back to the hotel and called it a night. Sleeping was not a big deal that night. I am guessing we had acclimated to Leh’s relatively lower altitude by then and were OK.
The next morning, we had breakfast, packed our bags and caught our flight back to Delhi.
In hindsight, the trip to Ladakh was dangerous and we should probably not have gone on it or at least not with the kids. But hindsight is always 20/20 - we really didn’t know that before we went even though we did research online and talked to people who had been there. No one had been there with little kids though. A couple of friends were surprised we are taking the kids to Ladakh but we take our kids wherever we go and truly didn’t understand the risks (the scary roads, the high altitude) until after we got there.
Am I sorry we took the trip? Absolutely not. It was rough and scary at the time but we survived and the memories from it are priceless. It was just so different from other places we have been that we will probably tell stories about it for a long time. So if you are thinking about going to Ladakh, I am not going to stop you but I will suggest that you research it thoroughly, weigh the risks and make sure you are OK with them before you go.
I will leave you with the closing scene from one of my favorite Indian Movies, Three Idiots (2009), which takes place at Pangong Lake. We saw the movie for the first time about three years ago while we were in Hindi Language training. At the time we didn’t know that this scene took place in Ladakh or that the lake was called Pangong Lake. We just knew we wanted to go there because it looked so darn awesome. So it was really the movies fault that we went there. Apparently, we were not the only ones. Pangong Lake, really took off as a tourist destination after the movie. Really good movie, by the way and if you haven’t seen it, you should. But here is the scene: