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Report 1932: Ladakh Takes Your Breath Away

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2011

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Page 12 of 25: ChangLa Pass and Pangong Lake

photo by Michael

Pangong Lake

Pangong Lake is a five to six hour drive from Leh and we did it as a very long day trip with an early start from Leh. It is a dramatic drive over ChangLa Pass claimed to be the third highest motorable pass in the world at 5,360m (17,590ft).

Leaving Leh on the Manali Highway the first part of the drive is fairly built up, past the Model village of Saboo. I asked what a model village was but didnít really get an answer except that it has a school. The road then goes through Shey with the ruins of the Palace high above on the hillside, the massive chorten field and Thicksey with its Gompa climbing up the mountainside.

The settlements are left behind as the road crosses the desert. Stankna Gompa can be seen on the far side of the river.

Karu has grown up at a major road junction where the Pangong Lake and Hemis valley roads branch off the main road to Manali and Delhi. There are shops, restaurants and a police checkpoint where permits and passport have to be shown. A note is made of the vehicle registration in a big book.

The road turns off up a side valley and begins the climb to ChangLa. The narrow and bendy road is cut out of a ledge along the side of the mountain, which rises steeply on one side. The other side drops down into the valley with no safety rails. It hardly seems wide enough for cars to pass, but they do, often at the narrowest bits.

There are good views of Chemde Gompa on the opposite hillside overlooking the valley. There is a small settlement below the Gompa surrounded by green fields, some carefully terraced. Higher up the valley the houses are more isolated and surrounded by farmland. There are super views back down the valley to the snow capped mountains on the other side of the Indus Valley. Closer to, are steep rocky mountains of bare rock, dust and scree.

The road climbs up the side of the mountain by steep double bends. Shakti village is far below with the remains of a fortress falling down the hillside below. There is no written history of this.

Settlement and fields gradually run out as the valley bottom becomes bare rock and dust. The road gets increasingly narrow and the surface is beginning to break up badly in places. Early morning in June, water running across the road was still frozen as the snow line was reached, although this had thawed out later in the day.

There was a dusting of snow on the road as we approached the top of the pass. There is a small medical centre run by the army before the pass is reached.

The land levels out into high plateau as the pass is reached and permits and passports have to be shown at the pass. Changla Pass is always busy with cars and people. There is a small temple, coffee shop, military post and assorted small buildings. At 5,360m, advice is to spend no more than 20 minutes at this altitude.

The road drops down from the pass through a much more open valley with grassy slopes. Horses and yaks can be seen grazing round here. There is virtually no settlement except for the small village of Tangtse, in a wide valley bottom surrounded by grazing land. Permits and passports have to be shown again.

The road continues to drop steadily down through wide valleys with grazing for yaks, horses and Tibetan wild ass. Suddenly there is the first glimpse of Pangong lake, which is deep blue against the yellow/brown mountains.

Most people park as soon as they reach the lake, where locals have set up small tents serving meals. It is very beautiful but at 4267m (14000ft) many people donít go far from their cars. Most people walk down to the tip of a small peninsula in the lake where part of a Bollywood film was set. There is a rough track which continues further along the lake shore with parking beside the lake. This is a sensitive area near the Chinese border and tourists are not allowed beyond Merak village.

The lake changes in colour during the day. The deepest hues of blue are when the sun is high, with a turquoise shade near the bank and deeper hues in the middle of the lake. It loses colour later in the day and turns dull as the sun moves towards the horizon.

The lake freezes to a depth of several meters in winter.

The lake is beautiful but it is a long drive to do in a day. Accommodation is available at the lake but we understand it is basic by western standards.

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