By the last day of my Ladakh trip, I had travelled to an innumerable number of monasteries, spun one prayer wheel after another, and prayed more in three days than I had in the past twenty years of my life. From the Naropa Festival held at the Hemis Monastery to the sublime Thiksey Monastery and even the historical Shey Gonpa, I had learned much about the history and influences of Buddhism on the locals. Having found a sort of peace and calm within these monasteries, I was ready to explore Ladakh beyond its cultural roots.
As hordes of tired bodies, mine included, ate dinner, the excitement to unravel the possibilities of what the trip to Pangong Lake the next day would include ran through my thoughts. It was finally here, the wait was about to end and in a few hours, the journey to the iconic location would begin. Having grown in popularity because of the Aamir Khan-starrer blockbuster 3 Idiots, the beauty and allure of the lake have been heard of by most people. Known for changing colours over the course of the day, the lake is situated right in the Himalayan range with more than half of it flowing through Chinese terrain.
We got on our buses as the first rays of the sun lit up the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayan range. The six-hour journey through the world's second highest motorable road at an altitude of 17,000 ft had begun. The Chang La was a true test of our perseverance. With the sun at its maximum power, the temperatures at Chang La refused to budge over 0 degrees. Even after four layers of warm clothes, I shivered as if I had spent the last ten years of my life within the insides of a freezer. Treacherous roads added to the misery. On the other hand, the irresistible Himalayan mountain ranges which the Chang La weaved itself through left a wide grin on my face. Add to that loud music from Shah Rukh Khan's 90s films blaring through the speakers, the bus ride had already become one of my fondest memories of the trip.
We reached Pangong at mid-day while the vibrant rays of the sun provided a much-needed relief from the breathtaking cold of Ladakh. The name of the lake, Pangong, comes from a Tibetan word meaning "a narrow and enchanted lake". And after spending two hours there, I realise that it rightfully deserved that name. Enchanted by its charm and shimmering beauty, the lake is a long stretch which if you start following will take to the Chinese mainland. Migratory birds like seagulls and black-necked cranes only add to the grace of this mesmerising location.
A blanket of clear blue among the mountains, I saw the lake change colour throughout my visit there. From a light sky blue to a turquoise to a deep royal blue, I witnessed a gradient of blue laid out in front of me. From a distance, I could see the reflection of the barren mountain on the surface of the lake. The mix of dried orange and royal blue created a perfect moment of harmony adding further life to this Ladakhi destination.
After taking more pictures than you can imagine, my friends and I took part in a 'skipping stones' competition. If I had so far thought the journey was miserable, the competition only added to that. Having made my stone skip 5 times across the surface of the water, I was mighty confident that I would emerge the winner. But to my grief, one of my friends managed to beat that with 7 skips. I blame it on beginner's luck. Even with her technique all over the place, she had managed to pull out a trump card putting to bed my lofty confidence.
After that, I made my way to have lunch while basking under the sun and enjoying the serene view in front of me. With each bite of my paratha, I caught a glimpse of the crystal clear lake, and I was enamoured by the tremendous mountain ranges. How glad I was that this was my last memory of Ladakh.
Tips and tricks for a first-timer:
A trip to Pangong can be a tricky affair. A five to six-hour journey from Leh, it is not recommended that you travel during the winter. The Chang La is covered with snow then and you can end up being trapped for days. It also tends extremely cold during the nights, and the lake itself will be frozen during those months. The best time to travel would have to be during the summers or springs when the lake is at its best.
Secondly, since Ladakh is a military zone and Pangong falls near the Chinese border, any visitor coming here needs an Inner Line Permit. You can do so by visiting the portal named http://lahdclehpermit.in/ and follow the given steps. You will also have to pay ₹ 400 per Person as an environmental fee + ₹ 20 per day as Inner line fee at the time of getting the permit. It should be noted that the payment for the permit cannot be made online. To make the payment and get your permits signed or stamped, you need to take a print of the online form along with its copy and visit the following address in TIC Office, Opposite J&K Bank, Main Market, Leh.
The road to Pangong is rickety and uncomfortable, and I would recommend carrying motion sickness medicine for those who suffer from the said problem. Another recommendation would be carrying warm clothes--crossing the Chang La can be a pain and the terrifying cold does not make it easier. Lastly, carry food as for long stretches you'll not find any place to eat. It is all worth it, though.