Day 6 – Pangong to Leh via ChangLa pass

After an extremely cold and slightly uncomfortable (we were sleeping with our clothes and jackets) night at Pangong Resort, we were ready to head back to Leh. We woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise. We noticed that the glass pane on our windows had ice on it, from the inside! Yes, it was that cold inside the room at night without any heating. Being able to watch the sun rise over Pangong Lake from the comfort of our hotel room was the reason we chose Pangong Resort, and we even paid a slight premium for the privilege. The sun rises quite early in the eastern Himalayas, and we could see the first rays by 5:40 am. It was an amazing experience. We had to thank the weather because it turned out to be absolutely fantastic that morning.

sunrise at Pangong Lake

                                                                              (sunrise over Pangong Lake)

sunrise at Pangong Lake

                                                                              (the first rays of the morning)

frozen window Pangong Resort

                                                                     (window panes had ice on them from the inside!)

Since the water pipes were frozen, nobody planned on taking a shower. Instead, we managed to brush our teeth with the bucket of hot water provided to us by the Pangong Resort staff. Breakfast was going to be served after 7:30 am. So with time to spare, we stepped outside and went to the lake shore for a walk. The weather was so clear that the lake looked absolutely stunning. It was apparently one of the best days of the season according to the hotel staff. Clear blue skies and hardly a cloud in the sky. We got some stunning pictures of the lake.

Pangong Lake Spangmik

                                                                     (the more the sunshine the better the views)

Pangong Lake Spangmik

                                                                                          (multiple shades of blue)

Breakfast was quite good, as were all the meals at Pangong Resort. We finished eating and then went about looking for our driver. After a bit of exploring, we found out that he was staying in a tent next to Pangong Resort. We saw him after a while, as he was going somewhere with a bucket in his hand to take a bath. He said we would leave Spangmik by 9 am. So with some more time on our hands, we went back to the lake shore. With the sun shining brightly, it felt a lot warmer to be at the lake shore that morning than the previous evening. Even the wind was very calm. Being near the shores of Pangong Lake and hearing the gentle waves hit small rocks on a calm sunny morning is one of the most incredible experiences anyone can have.

Pangong Lake Lukung

                                                                 (peaceful and remote, a spiritual experience)

By 9am, our driver was ready and we loaded up the car with our luggage. The driver had left the car running for almost an hour before we left. Apparently, it was so cold the previous night that he had to do that for the engine to warm up. I had taken permits for Man and Merak village but our driver insisted that we would have to pay him extra to go there. Apparently, the roads from Spangmik to Man and Merak were not in good shape at all. You would have to take that route if you were headed to Tso Moriri, but we weren’t. Also, our driver advised us that the views of the lake from those villages were not any different to the views seen from Spangmik. So, we dropped Man and Merak and instead headed back towards Lukung. But we informed the driver that we would make plenty of stops over the next 2 kms to take pictures of Pangong Lake, and revisit Lukung since we couldn’t really explore it the previous day with the snowstorm blowing across.

Pangong Lake Lukung

                                                                      (Pangong Lake basking in the sunshine)

The next 20-30 mins were by far the best time of our entire trip. That piece of road from Spangmik to Lukung on a hill overlooking the lake, in bright sunshine, was the most stunning drive I have ever taken anywhere in the world. The lake was just glorious, with multiple shades of blue visible. Upon reaching Lukung, we went for a walk. Some of our traveling group took pictures on the famous “3 Idiots Scooter”. There was some ice still present along small patches of the shore. There were a couple of seagulls swimming in the lake and chirping. It was just a stunning ambiance to be in. Lukung was a little bit windier than Spangmik and we were freezing after a few minutes. So, we took some pictures and headed back to the car.

Pangong Lake from road

                                                                       (one of the most stunning drives in the world)

Pangong Lake colour

                                                          (more shades of blue, every angle gives a different shade)

Pangong Lake Lukung

                                                                                     (its almost like a painting)

Pangong Lake Lukung

                                                      (there was still some ice on the shores from the winter months)

Stupa at Lukung

                                                                                           (a Stupa at Lukung)

Pangong Lake seagull

                                                                          (a lone seagull swimming in the lake)

We drove away from Pangong and headed back to Tangtse, driving through the Changthang Sanctuary. We saw plenty of amazing scenery along the way which was just not visible the previous day due to poor weather and a snowstorm. The bright sunshine meant that some of the wildlife was out in the open too. We saw some marmots messing about and a small group of Tibetan donkeys. The mountains also looked stunning, with various shades of brown and some snow cover on a few of them.

Changthang drive

                                                                   (the drive back from Pangong was very scenic)

marmots Pangong drive

                                                                              (marmots – neat little fellas these)

Changthang Pangong drive

                                                                    (every few minutes, there was a stunning view)

Pangong road

                                                                           (Himalayan roads at their most scenic)

mountains along Pangong drive

                                                       (the multitude of shades and the patterns were just incredible)

sheep hearding Pangong

                                                                              (a local woman herding some sheep)

We crossed Tangtse in good time and then made our way towards ChangLa pass. The pass was quite benign in the beginning, but as we went further up, the snow cover started to increase gradually. The snow storm at Pangong the previous afternoon had also dumped lots of snow on ChangLa. About 3 kms from the top, we got stuck. And boy, we got stuck real bad. It had nothing to do with us in particular, but the fact that there was a trailer that was stuck on a steep gradient. There was a bulldozer trying to shovel away the snow, but for some reason, it was making things worse. The chain of the bulldozer was making the snow more slippery, at least according to our driver, and there was a mighty jam of about 10-15 cars on both sides of the stuck trailer. The ChangLa pass road near the top is so narrow, that even if one car gets stuck, the whole route gets blocked. You cannot just drive from the side of a stuck car. We must have been at about 15000+ feet, and as time went by, we slowly started feeling the effects of the altitude and the intense sun. Our driver was an absolute champion in this situation, as he single handedly took the lead and tried to figure out a solution. He got to work with all the other drivers who were there.

donkey at ChangLa pass

                                                                              (on the way to ChangLa pass)

ChangLa Pass

                                                                              (climbing the ChangLa pass)

ChangLa Pass

                                                                 (the higher we went, the denser the snow cover)

winding roads at ChangLa Pass

                                                       (the winding road which we travelled on visible from higher up)

The good thing about Ladakhis is that they show a great sense of community and team work. About 6-10 drivers from all the cars that were stuck got together, started shoveling snow, even pushed cars to get them going, and did anything that they could to help. They guided each other, managed to back up cars in tight spaces, and somehow cleared the jam and got the trailer going. Our driver had to put snow chains on, but the chain which he had was for another car of his. So, the size of the chain was a bit smaller. But he still managed to improvise (do “jugaad”) and somehow got us out. We were stuck for a total of 2.5 hours before the nervy episode ended!

ChangLa top

                                                               (after great difficulty, we reached ChangLa top)

Feeling relieved, we reached ChangLa top. Our driver suggested that we try the Thukpa at the ChangLa cafeteria. Apparently, the Thukpa there is quite famous and many people stop by to slurp it. It was way past lunch time, thanks to the delay, and so we decided to eat the Thukpa at the cafeteria. Lunch at over 16000 feet above sea level is some experience! The Thukpa, by the way, was absolutely delicious, with mushrooms, peppercorns and lots of stuff in it, that too at a time when there was a supply crunch in Ladakh.

cafeteria at ChangLa top

                                                                       (one of the highest cafeterias in the world)

famous Thukpa at ChangLa top

                                                                       (Thukpa on ChangLa top is the stuff of legends)

After lunch, we descended ChangLa pass and went to Hemis monastery. It was somewhat tricky finding the internal road to enter the monastery once we were in the complex. The Ladakh festival takes place at Hemis, and so some of the roads were dug up to pitch bamboo sticks and there was stuff left from the previous year’s festival which was blocking the road. After some driving around, we managed to find a way in. The monastery was quite well maintained from the inside. Besides the Ladakh festival, Hemis is also famous for being a filming location of several Bollywood movie songs. There is even a museum which has various artifacts of Tibetan and Ladakhi history. After spending a few minutes at the monastery, we drove on to Leh.

Hemis monastery entrance

                                                                              (going into Hemis monastery)

Hemis monastery entrance

                                                               (climbing towards the courtyard of Hemis monastery)

Hemis monastery courtyard

                                                                              (the famous Hemis monastery)

Hemis monastery courtyard

                                                    (the colourful structures makes it a popular choice for film makers)

door decoration at Hemis monastery

                                                             (nicely decorated door handles)

Before reaching our homestay in Leh, there was one more place that I wanted to stop at. On the Leh-Manali highway, there is a point on the highway from where you get a fantastic view of Stakna monastery, with the Sindhu (Indus) river twisting and turning in front of the monastery. I had seen pictures of this view during my research, and it was truly a fantastic sight when I actually stood there in person. I would highly recommend anyone traveling on the Leh-Manali highway to check it out.

Stakna Gompa view

                                                                            (this is one fine view of Stakna Gompa)

It was almost 5:30 pm when we finally reached Leh. We went back to Tukchu homestay and were very tired from our trips to Nubra Valley, Turtuk, and Pangong Lake. We were eager to take a shower as we had not bathed at Pangong. But there was barely any hot water left at Tukchu homestay. We managed to wash up somehow and relaxed for the rest of the evening. The small space heater which Tukchu provided seemed very precious, especially after the night that we spent in Spangmik. Some home cooked food for dinner was the perfect way to reflect on the incredible sights that we had seen over the past 4 days.


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