A Night At Pangong Lake Ladakh, India
Nature has always been like that – benevolent and malevolent. The life sustaining and nourishing resources are equally threatening at times. But that’s the beauty of Mother Nature that triggers the very feeling of awe. I had such an experience on my visit to Pangong Lake, Ladakh. Pangong is a breath-stopping beauty that threatens your very existence.
Pangong is one of the highest brackish water lake cradled in the lap of Himalayas in Ladakh. Ladakh is a beautiful high-altitude desert and is a part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Pangong is not just a lake but also a fluid border between India and China. Yes, you read that right – a fluid border where the lake is divided between two countries. Pangong is 134 Kms long and 5 Kms wide at its broadest point. 60% of this length is owned by China and 40% lies with India.
Our Trip To Ladakh
Our trip to Ladakh was supposed to be a romantic one as it was an anniversary trip. However, we never knew there were adventures in store for us. When you look for Ladakh in those fancy Google pictures, it looks like romance personified. You will get lost in those enchanting valleys and the most unbelievable sunsets. Its out of the world lakes will leave you spellbound. It is one of a kind experience to see barren mountains, greenery and snow – all in one panorama. There is no doubt to the romanticism in those pictures and all the experience it offers. However, all this is served with a lot of adventure. There are bumpy rides through rocky terrains, low level of oxygen that further drops at night, limited food options at times and strenuous climbs to monasteries and forts. If you are an adventure lover, Ladakh is a paradise for you. Even if you don’t like much of an adventure, the mesmerising vistas you will get to see and the unique romantic bonding you will develop with nature – everything will compensate for your strenuous journey.
All Set For The Journey
Leh is the main city of Ladakh. We spent a couple of days in Leh and enjoyed the sight-seeing around. We got to know about the local life and their rich culture, tried the local cuisines and climbed hundreds of steep steps to reach monasteries tugged in the mountains. We enjoyed the cold mountain winds at the ‘Sangam’- the convergence point of two rivers – Zanskar and Indus. We tested the phenomenon that defies gravity at the ‘Magnetic Hill Point’ and visited all major landmarks of the city. You can check out more details about these landmarks on my last blog post on Ladakh where I’ve listed the top 15 places you must visit in Ladakh. After our adventures in Leh, we headed towards the Pangong Lake. This was the day we were eagerly waiting for. My husband had planned a stay in a lake facing cottage. It was our 5th marriage anniversary the next day and we had plans of midnight celebrations. As we were leaving the hotel after a hearty breakfast, the hotel staff handed over a packet to us. To my surprise, it was lunch for both of us. I told my husband that it was so sweet of them, but I don’t think we need it. The staff insisted that we should keep the food as we would need it. It was later that we realized the hotel staff knew very well what’s in store for us. I really appreciate their concern for the guests.
The Bumpy Ride
The journey of Pangong Lake from the Leh city is a 5-hour dramatic drive. The scenes change from the crowded city to the less crowded villages to the mountain roads surrounded by rocky terrains. We stopped at various locations to click photographs and sometimes just because we were tired of the bumpy ride. However, the mountain winds and the amazing views that greeted us on the way pretty much compensated for the tiring journey.
The Lovely Views
We saw a Yak herd grazing in the mountain fields, a playful marmot peeping from his little home and the vistas of barren mountains cracked by snaking rivers. There was a lot of beauty around but no food joints. We remembered the lunch box we carried when we were hungry. Each box contained two boiled eggs, a sandwich, a tetra pack of juice and some boiled potatoes. We relished our simple but tasty meal. We are not used to eating boiled potatoes. So, we left them in the box. We, however, realised their worth later.
Pangong – The First Look
Every twist and turn of the road enflamed our curiosity to reach that destination we dreamt of for so long. The destination that inspired our trip to Ladakh and the one we saw in those Google wallpapers and Bollywood movies. Yes, Pangong is the same lake shown in Bollywood movies like ‘Three Idiots’ and ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’. There comes a turn when we had the first look of the glorious Pangong Lake. My heart skipped a beat, eyes forgot to blink and the time stopped for a moment. The sight of the azure waters was heavenly and captivating enough to leave us longing for more.
Pangong – Beauty Personified
There comes a point when our driver parked the car and we got out to get a closer view of the lake. It was biting cold outside. We already left the bright and warm sun behind. This was the Himalayan Kingdom at a height of 14,270 ft. above the sea level. There was this screeching Pangong lake on one side and the towering snow-capped Himalayas on the other. We were standing as a part of a stunningly beautiful panorama bearing the Himalayan cold winds that were penetrating through our thick woollens and were making every effort to tear our skin. Pangong was beautiful in every way and terrifying at the same time. When I say ‘terrifying, I mean it in its truest sense. The terror you feel near the lake is equal to the beauty it reflects from a distance. It’s freezing restless waters threaten you with every wave dare you try spoiling its beauty. I’ve never seen such an awe-inspiring combination of beauty and terror. Being so close to the Lake and touching its waters made me realise how mountain climbers and adventure travellers feel. For a moment, I shared their emotions. We were also greeted by a flock of sea gulls – their swaying movements were heart-melting!
More About Pangong
We further drove to our Lake front cottage listening to some beautiful and scary stories about the lake. Our driver ‘Tashi’ was a local Ladakhi and to our advantage he loved narrating stories about his native place. He was a passionate photographer as well and most of our photos are clicked by him. He narrated stories of people drowning in the lake and the Indian army saving some lucky ones. The entire area is under army surveillance since the lake is a fluid border between India and China. Tashi told us that most of the people who drowned in Pangong, their bodies weren’t recovered. The lake swallows them. My feeling about the lake was right – an equipoise of beauty and terror. He warned us about the ever-changing climate and the low level of oxygen. The temperature at the Pangong ranges from minus 5°C to 10°C. There are barren mountains surrounding the lake and no vegetation around it – hence the low level of oxygen. The Lake freezes at night and the temperature as well as the oxygen level further drops.
Our Lakefront Cottage
Our vehicle ran along the length of the lake. Everything was magical about this place – the restless lake painted in different shades of blue, the distant hills, snowy clouds hanging high on the blue skies – everything seemed dreamlike and surreal. The final stop was our lakefront cottage. We received warm greetings from the manager. There were many cottages in a row and we were assigned one. The rest of them were unoccupied at the time of our visit. We got to know that the peak season to visit Pangong was to start next month (April). The manager was a young boy who looked after everything. He was the manager, receptionist, bell boy and cook – all in one. There were a couple of tiny houses around the lake. Tashi told us that they were the locals and they stay there in all seasons. Our cottage was a room with attached restroom. Both the warm and the cold water was provided in buckets. Pangong was visible from all the cottages. There was no network connectivity, no wi-fi, no television, no ATM’s and no markets or shops. Pangong is secluded and the things you can do there are click pictures, relax and enjoy the view.
The Beautiful Evening
As we reached our cottage, we experienced some snowfall, not more than 5 minutes though. The magnetism of Pangong was strong enough to draw us back to it. Tashi accompanied us for safety reasons. We were happy he did as he clicked a lot of photographs for us. When you travel as a couple, you need someone at times to click your couple photos. After the photo session, we spent some time watching the playful waves and feeling the strong energies that surround the lake until the chills of the daunting wind became unbearable. We planned to spend the rest of the evening sitting in our cottage with a lovely view of the lake. The kitchen cum restaurant was very near to the cottage and we could smell the dinner being prepared for us. The dinner was a part of our package. We thought of ordering some snacks, however, the snack menu contained only one item – Maggi. Well, Maggi is the familiar flavour we all love. So, it always works. As the sun started going down, the place became colder. The chills were unnerving by the time it was dark. We were carrying a bottle of Captain Morgan – the spice rum. Nothing can soothe the chills of a place like Pangong than a glass of rum. We wished we had some snacks to go with our drink. Guess what? We suddenly remembered the boiled potatoes we left in the lunch box. We sprinkled some salt and black pepper on them and yes! they went perfectly fine with our drink. We could hear the soft Ladakhi music that was being played in the restaurant. Although we didn’t understand the language, we enjoyed the beats and even danced on its tunes. Music has no language. You can simply feel its melodious notes.
We had our dinner at the restaurant. There were a variety of delectable Ladakhi cuisines on menu that included soup, salad, a couple of vegetables, curries and a sweet dish. The restaurant was kept warm with the help of burning coal in a small earthen pot. We asked the cook if we could get the same placed in our cottage as it is pretty cold. He denied saying that it utilizes a lot of oxygen and can cause suffocation. He also told us that he is going to extinguish it to save oxygen once we are done with the dinner. After relishing the lip smacking flavours of Ladakh, it was time to retire to our bed. We were equipped with a hot water bottle and thick quilts and blankets to fight the freezing temperature at night. It was 10 at night and we were quite tired by now. It took no time for us to fall asleep.
The Terrifying Night
It was around 11:45 pm that I woke up breathless. I couldn’t understand what is wrong with me and why I’m not able to breathe comfortably. The hot water bottle was already cold and the night was freezing. I looked at husband to find he was already awake. I told him I’m feeling breathless. ‘Me too’, he replied. I thought of the frozen Pangong Lake and the barren mountains around it. Was it really the low level of oxygen? After struggling in the bed for some time, I opened the door to call for some help. It was all dark outside and there was no one around. I went back to the bed and we snuggled to provide warmth to each other. At 12 midnight, we wished each other ‘Happy anniversary’ and wondered if it would be the last one. We were putting in all our force to suck the air into our lungs. When you count each breath of yours like this, the value of life and the passion to live it increases. I thought of a story narrated by Tashi about a woman who died in the cottage as she couldn’t bear the cold at night. I wondered whether it was the cold or the low oxygen level.
While we were struggling to breathe and each breath became a strenuous job, we thought if we die today in each other’s arms, how romantic this death would be? It was not more than 20 – 25 minutes that we came out of that romantic fancy and thought about the survival. We gulped the leftover rum to provide some warmth to the body. We then wrapped ourselves completely in quilts and blankets and hugged each other tight. The effects were positive. We were still a little breathless but much better now. It took us an hour to fall asleep again. The sleep wasn’t sound though. We woke up multiple times to suck more and more of air. It was 6 in the morning when the warmth of the sun engulfed the place, we felt our breathing returned to normal. We had breakfast sitting outside our cottage soaking our souls in the golden rays of the sun. It was still cold – the biting cold of course. We baded a sweet goodbye to Pangong and thanked God for giving us another day of life. And thanks to the heaven-sent ‘Captain Morgan’ that kept us alive to tell this survival story. There are little things in life we generally forget to appreciate – like the beautiful sun, another day of life and your loved ones. Sometimes such travel experiences make us appreciate them. Every time I remember this night spent at the Pangong Lake, I start loving and appreciating life’s little treasures.
Tips For People Visiting Pangong
- The oxygen level at Pangong is quite low and it further drops at night. It is advisable to carry an oxygen cylinder from Leh city if you plan for an overnight stay.
- Carry a lot of snacks with you as there are no snacking options on the way and very limited ones near the lake.
- There are no petrol pumps here. So, it is advisable to fill your vehicle tank from the Leh city.
- Indian tourists can obtain an individual in line permit to visit the lake, whereas foreigners require a group permit (minimum of 3 people) accompanied by an accredited guide.
- There is no wi-fi and no mobile network available at Pangong. So, make all your important calls beforehand.