Ladakh - Pangong Tso

Confession: I do not watch Bollywood movies. But I doubt that's not hard to believe. So you’ll forgive me if I didn’t know that Pangong Tso was made famous by Three Idiots, a fact reiterated to me with details by Debbie. So okay, it’s safe to say that we were preparing ourselves for a swarm of tourists.

The original plan was to go to Tsomo riri Lake instead but buses to the closest village shuttled only thrice a month (the 10th, 20th and 30th) and the dates unfortunately weren’t aligning for us and while we talked about hiring a car, we weren’t drivers good enough for the Ladakhi terrains and more importantly, I don’t think you CAN hire cars right? I seem to remember a piece of information that stated so.

We were going to spend a night at Pangong Tso and on our return, Debbie and Sarju were going to go ahead to Srinagar while I stayed back in Ladakh. We were staying at the Ree – Yull Guesthouse with a really, really chilled out owner (who we dubbed as ‘Uncle’ from the beginning). He has two good looking bikes that he likes to polish almost every day and I’m certain it’s his pride and joy. He was very accommodating especially since I was going to keep coming back for a night’s worth of stay in the guesthouse. We got the room in the terrace for the first two nights when it was still the three of us together and it was the most comfortable we had been in what felt like ages. We actually washed our clothes and hung them on the clothes line! Being able to wash your clothes and hang them in a decent place is a benchmark and I know that most of you who rough it out while travelling will agree.

We went to the main bus stop to enquire about the bus to Pangong and found out that it was leaving tomorrow and would return the day after.

Without any leg room, the journey is a struggle no doubt but again, the landscape. It’s so difficult to describe it if you haven’t been there. The influx of tourists in Ladakh is growing tenfold and it’s not just foreigners but also Indians. Seeing groups of bikers is not an uncommon scene and you envy that freedom that is paraded as they ride past and you tell each other wistfully “I wish I could ride a bike” because you’d have the liberty to pace yourself, to stop wherever you want, to take a detour at every bend and find an adventure within your escapade. But it wasn’t to be. Us folks on the bus, we stuck to the view out of the window and to the places where the bus stopped, such as Changla Pass. At 17, 688 ft, it is the world’s third highest (pass) in the world. However, rather than the view, what proved to be more entertaining was our bus conductor, bus driver and three young women seated in the drivers sleeping bay.

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Love is a universal language and we didn’t need to understand what they were saying because actions and body language said it all. The young bus conductor was trying to flirt with the prettiest girl of the three but while she was flirting back, her eyes were on the bus driver, an older man who never let go of his sunglasses. The pretty girl’s friend had her eyes on the young bus conductor which meant there was a full blown love triangle going on. The third friend on the other hand sat with her arms crossed in the corner, was uninterested and continued to scoff at the other two from time to time. We felt bad for the young conductor as he tried to make his moves on the pretty girl but to no avail. Sarju was seated on the opposite side of Debbie and me because she wanted more space but every time there was a development in the drivers’ bay, we’d look at each other at the same exact time, exchanging smirks. Good ol’ love.   

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We first saw the sight of Pangong Tso seven hours into the journey. The outline of the lake was never ending and everyone on the bus had their faces out of the tiny windows. We stopped at what seemed to “the tourist spot”. Just for the heck of it, Debbie and I went and asked around about the prices for a room there. 3, 500/- per night they said. I’m not even going to sugar coat my language here: We scoffed, uttered shhhiiiit and buggered off. There were cut outs from the movie scene and seemingly, everyone was taking pictures at one part of the lake. I imagine they saw it in the movie. After about half an hour (of tourist watching), our bus called us aboard as we were going further ahead. Out last stop was a village called Spangmik where we would be staying overnight. On arrival, we went around looking for homestays and found one where the lady charged 300/- per bed so we took it.

Aboard the bus with us was a young Korean girl (among others). She was also looking for a homestay and looked a bit lost and confused. Debbie thought she might need help and went over to her also saying that the house we were staying in had another room, in turn free beds. She inquired about the price and said no. we thought she wanted a better place to stay so we told her that we inquired about the tents and wooden shacks that had their attached bathrooms too and they were charge around 2, 000/-. That’s when she elucidated her need. She wanted something cheaper than 300/-. We immediately gave up, said okay and left her. We were just annoyed. There she was carrying fancy equipment’s and wearing $150 Nike flyknits but 300/- was too expensive for her? In the face of cheap and budget travel, 300/- is pretty much CHEAP especially when it’s for one night in a tourist-infested spot like Pangong Tso.

I think we were just offended on some level because of the audacity of not just her but other travelers that come to India. It’s already affordable and with their foreign currencies, it’s dirt cheap. Eventually it came down to this one question: If we are okay to pay these prices, why are they being miserly about it? I don't want to get into the discussions we had because that'll spiral out of control. Also, there are going to be more objections about the beautiful Pangong Tso without meaning to turn you off from visiting, I must add. 

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As beautiful as the lake is, it was just too crowded. I get that we were tourists too and I know there’s no way of escaping it sometimes (and we were okay with that) but it wasn’t fun at the lake. There was nothing to do. Apart from walking around the lake that it. And even that’s not terribly fun when any secluded spot you chose was intruded by people. The best spot was taken up by everyone so we kept walking further down and found ourselves a spot because we wanted to take a dip and it wasn’t exactly allowed. The water was freezing but we had made up our minds even before we left Leh. We were going in. I set up the camera to video mode and on the count of three, we ran in together, hand in hand making sure no one was in sight and just as well because within minutes of our stunt, there was a swarm of cars and people that came by. We were waiting for our clothes to dry and mine was taking forever. That, the cold wind and the number of people that were shifting their base to where we were completely put me off and I was completely annoyed.  

I had a terrible time walking back because the wind was biting cold and I am pretty sure my sinus was acting up. It was 6:30PM and the sun was still bright but I changed and got into bed and I think so did Debbie and Sarju too once they reached. We got some amazingly thick blankets but even those and thermals weren’t enough. I was chattering and shivering and I could still feel the wind. That damn dip was definitely quite the experience. We got some warm lemon ginger tea in the restaurant that we saw on the way and turned in for a dreamless slumber.

The next morning, I tried waking up early before our bus ride back to Leh so I could take some shots of the lake but clearly, 100 other people had the same idea. I guess after 10 days of traveling, trekking, barely seeing a soul and being left to your own devices, Pangong Tso was just a sudden push into reality and we weren’t enjoying it for most parts. You'd think that at around 7:00AM, there would be peace and quite but it seemed as if that was asking too much when in Pangong Tso. 

There was no sign of any ‘village’ might I add. Whatever little houses there were, were all homestays. Other than that, there was an army camp because Pangong Tso flows directly into Tibet making it a border area. In fact, on google map, Pangong Tso is called ‘Bangong’. There are numerous tents and wooden shacks giving it a more ‘glamping’ feel. Here's the conclusion I came to: Pangong Tso is for people who want to experience roughing it but deep down, not really.

I didn’t hate it but I didn't love it either. There's no way to really play down the beauty of the lake. If you don't have time and can't do Tsomo riri, Pangong Tso is an option. So if you're tolerant, if you can deal with it for a night and go with the mindset of just wanting to see the place and get some beautiful photographs, I would still suggest a visit. I think it would be more fun with a large group of friends and your own vehicle too. Just don't mistake Pangong to be 'off the beaten track'. If you're one of those alternative travelers, I'd say stay far away and give it a miss altogether.

JULY 05, 2016