Day 5 – Drive from Nubra to Pangong via Shayok

After an excellent time in Nubra Valley and a day trip to Turtuk, our next destination was the famous Pangong Tso. This high altitude lake is famous for its distinct blue colour, and has appeared in a lot of Indian movies. Its popularity grows by the day, and we were quite eager to see it for ourselves. Pangong Tso is located southeast of Leh. There are 2 ways to get to Pangong from Nubra, either drive via Leh and then Chang La pass, or attempt the tricky Shayok route. The Shayok River route runs south from Nubra valley along the Shayok River. It is worth mentioning that since we were still in April-end, the glacial ice which feeds the Shayok River had not fully melted and so the river wasn’t as full as it would be. Once the ice melts, come June/July, this route can get almost unpassable in certain sections. Our driver planned to go via the Shayok/Agham route, as it was not only safe to do so, but it would also save an entire day by not having to go to Leh and then Pangong. While a good part of the Shayok/Agham route is paved with decent tarmac, there are instances of unpaved sections and a scary part where there is no road whatsoever. So, we were in for a proper adventure on Day 5!

We finished breakfast, checked out of our hotel, thanked the wonderful staff there, and set out at around 9 am. En route, we stopped at a place near the sand dunes to take a picture of a pond which was so still that you can see the reflection of the mountains very clearly. The drive thereafter till Agham village was pretty uneventful except for one unpleasant episode. Our driver had a generous helping of Khambir (local Ladakhi bread) at Snow Leopard, and apparently, it wasn’t very good. So, the hilly mountain passes made him nauseous and he ended up vomiting once. We were quite worried about him because the drive to Pangong was one of the longest of our trip and we needed him to be a 100% fit for this serious drive. Thankfully, he was ok after he threw up and he did not face any difficulties thereafter. Upon reaching Agham, we made a short stop as our driver wanted to get some tea. We asked him to relax and take as long as he wanted because we hoped that he would feel better. The tea shop at Agham was one of the most unique I have ever seen. It was slightly below ground level and there was one tiny window from where you communicate with the shop owner. You had to bend down almost to the ground level to do this. Perhaps it may have been an army bunker! While our driver was sipping on hot tea, we managed to walk onto a small bridge nearby, under which a stream of Shayok River was flowing. It was a good place to take a picture.

nubra pond reflection

                                                                                                                     (reflection at a pond near Hunder)

agham tea stall

                                                                                (tea stall at Agham)

agham tea shop

                                                           (low height of the tea stall at Agham)

bridge at agham

                                                      (Shayok flowing under a bridge at Agham)

The tea shop is located at the point from which the road splits into two. One road goes to Leh via Khardungla pass, while the other road goes to Pangong via the Shayok route. We took the turn towards Pangong and after a few minutes reached a spot from where we got a stunning view of the road winding and turning into rocky mountains. It was a popular photo spot according to our driver. We took the customary picture and carried on. The drive from that point on was amazing. It was such a remote and isolated place, with nothing but raw nature accompanying us. We saw unique black sand. It was dark grayish in colour and different from the normal sand that we see at beaches. This black sand would not stick as much and it almost felt like finely crushed rock. The quality of roads slowly started to go down and before we knew it, we were driving on unpaved roads. The scenery outside was brilliant, with the greenish-blue Shayok river running right next to us.

shayok river route

                                                                 (amazing scenery beyond Agham)

mountain road agham shayok

                                                                            (incredible winding road)

shayok agham route

                                                            (beautiful colour of the Shayok River)

black sand near pangong

                                                                                (unique black sand)

That is when the scariest part of the journey hit us. We were driving on the left of the river for most of the journey. But the road suddenly ended, and we had to go to the other side and drive on the right of the river. Interestingly, there was no bridge in sight for us to cross over. So, we had to literally drive through the part where the river would flow in June/July. Since it was the path of the river, there was no road or even tire marks. We had to basically pass through random rocks. You had to be a local to know where exactly to go, otherwise one slight wrong turn would lead you to get isolated in the middle of nowhere. Our driver’s experience was very helpful and he drove through like a champ. It was as if he had the route programmed in his mind. Not once did he stop and think which way to turn. He just kept on going. We felt very relieved once we made it to the other side and the paved road began.

crossing shayok river

                                                                    (crossing the Shayok River path)

shayok agham route

                                                                       (so happy to see tarmac again!)

After some time, we reached Shyok village. The driver stopped at a homestay on the road to buy a can of diesel. Apparently, the owner of the Katpa Eco Homestay also sold petrol and diesel. We saw quite a few taxis stop there to refill their fuel cans. Stocking up on fuel cans was really important because there is no fuel station in the Pangong area. While we were at Shyok, it started snowing lightly and our prospects of good weather were not looking good. We drove on and passed a very charming village called Durbuk. There were small houses, horses and the Shayok River flowing right through the village. It was a pity that the weather was overcast, otherwise the village would have looked absolutely fantastic.

shyok village

                                                                     (Katpa homestay in Shyok village)

durbuk village

                                                                      (charming Durbuk village)

durbuk village

                                                               (horses grazing at Durbuk village)

durbuk village river

                                               (a tributary of Shayok River flowing through Durbuk)

We hit Tangtse by lunchtime and it was absolutely freezing outside. We did not know about how cold the temperature was sitting inside the car. It was only when we stepped out did we know how far we had come. We were at a much higher altitude than Nubra and we could feel it. There were strong cold winds blowing in our faces, as light snow was falling from the sky. It must have been minus something surely. Apparently, Tangtse is known to be warmer than Pangong. So, many people prefer to stay there overnight rather than at Pangong. There was a checkpost at Tangtse where we had to submit our permit. So, our driver went to get that sorted while we hung around near the car. I wanted to try some Thukpa for lunch, and so I checked out some of the shacks in the area to see if anyone had some. Unfortunately, none of the make-shift restaurants had any Thukpa and most were only offering Maggi and herbal tea. We found a shack that was serving Maggi and a dal-rice-vegetable thali. That second option seemed appealing to a few of our traveling group. So, we headed in there for lunch. Though I am not a big Maggie eater nor a tea drinker, that day in Tangtse, with the intense cold, I felt very happy to get a bowl of hot Maggie and some herbal tea.

tangtse stupa

                                                                            (reaching Tangtse)

tangtse village

                                                                                (at Tangtse village)

lunch at tangtse

                                        (hot Maggi for lunch at Langtse)

herbal tea at tangtse

                                         (herbal tea after lunch felt wonderful)

After lunch, we headed back out on the road. We were inching closer and closer to Pangong. The further we went, the more overcast the weather turned. The visibility was not great and it just felt like a big snowstorm was about to hit us. A few minutes before reaching Pangong, we entered what is famously known as the Changthang Sanctuary. This cold dessert sanctuary is part of the larger Changthang Plateau, an area which goes right past Tso Moriri to the south and to Tibet in the east. It is known for its unique landscapes and Kiangs (Tibetan Wild Ass). We spotted a Kiang along the way as well. The scenery in the area through which we were driving was quite special. There was black sand, brown sand, and small hills made up of mud brown rocks. Some of the hills had bits of snow on top and it looked great. Soon, we caught our first glimpse of Pangong Tso. Just a tiny sliver of grayish blue visible through a gap between two hills. It was not very clear because of an impending snowstorm, but we were so excited to get that first sight of the lake.

changthang area

                                                                      (Changthang wildlife sanctuary)

changthang area

                                                                (after entering Changthang area)

kiang ladakh

                                                                  (blurry image of the famous Kiang)

first sight of pangong

                                                                             (first sight of Pangong Tso)

We drove through a final few hilly roads, twisting and turning before descending onto the bank of the lake. We passed an army facility and finally reached Lukung – a village right on Pangong Lake. Almost 6.5 hours since leaving Hunder, we had made it! But our joy was short-lived as the snow storm finally arrived. We took a couple of pictures before rushing back inside the car. The storm looked quite bad, and we almost gave up all hopes of seeing clear weather that day. Without the sun shinning brightly, Pangong Lake looked gray in colour and the “trademark” royal blue colour was nowhere to be seen.

snowstorm at pangong

                                                                         (snowstorm at Pangong)

We had not made any accommodation reservations at Pangong. So, we tried our luck by inquiring at some of the options in Lukung, which were all situated right on the bank of Pangong Tso. The rates quoted at Pangong Inn were ridiculous and we did not fancy staying in tents with such intense cold weather outside. I had looked up Pangong Resort beforehand and asked our driver to take us there. He did not know where it was, so I gave him the number and he spoke to the owner of the hotel, who guided him. We found out that it was actually in Spangmik (pronounced as “pangmik”). So, we drove from Lukung to Spangmik through some light snowfall. Upon reaching Pangong Resort, we asked for a room. The hotel staff showed us around. We had a look at the room, liked what we saw, and then bargained as hard as we could. The manager at Pangong Resort budged a little bit, and we soon realized that it was as much as we could push it. So, we settled on the price and unloaded our bags from the taxi. The view from the room was excellent. According to me, it was the single biggest USP of Pangong Resort (apart from being one of two or three brick-walled places at Pangong). We could just sit by the window and look at the lake and mountains in all their splendour! We realized that we had made the right choice with the hotel. On the flip side, it was absolutely freezing in the hotel room and there was no heating whatsoever. We worried how we would get through the night!

pangong resort spangmik

                                                              (our room at Pangong Resort in Spangmik)

light at spangmik

(this battery-powered light was the only accessory in the hotel room)

pangong resort view

                                                                (the view from the room was perfect)

However, those thoughts were forgotten quickly, as the weather cleared within an hour and the sun started to shine through the moving clouds. More importantly, the lake was blue again and people began heading outside. At that moment, we remembered something about Ladakh which we had heard earlier – there are two things that you just cannot anticipate: the fashion trends of Mumbai and the weather of Ladakh. Feeling very buoyant and energetic, we stepped out and went to the banks of the lake. We took loads of pictures in the freezing cold! It was magical. We noticed one person near us who started singing with his guitar and a mic. His wife was filming him. Later, we found out that they were recording a song for their YouTube channel! The vibes of Pangong Tso in clear weather were just amazing.

pangong lake

                                                             (beautiful landscape at Pangong Tso)

pangong lake clearing weather

                                                            (the weather started to clear up slowly)

pangong weather clearing

                                                     (the sun came out in an hour after the snowstorm)

pangong lake

                                                                       (Pangong lake was blue again)

pangong lake

                                                                 (gentle waves and beautiful blue colour)

clean pangong water

                                                             (the water of the lake was very clean)

We headed back in after a while and warmed ourselves with some hot water bags which the hotel provided us with. The water in the pipes froze by 7 pm and all the faucets were un-useable till about 11 am the next day when the water would melt again. It was absolutely incredible! The hotel provided everyone with buckets of hot water for bathroom use. Dinner was served by 7:30 pm. It was an excellent dinner considering the hostile environment in which we were. They had pasta, paneer, dal, roti, papad and even fruit custard. I congratulated the cooks/servers for putting up such a “rich” buffet in minus 6-degree weather and no heating. We wanted to view the stars at night, so we stepped out for about 30 seconds to catch the fantastic night sky before rushing back in, as it was getting colder by the minute. We slept with all our clothes on, jacket, sweater, beanie, etc. Never in my life have I slept with that many clothes, but the situation here demanded that we do. In the end, it was all worth it, because Pangong Lake is what Incredible India is all about.

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