As you descend the 5360 m (17,586 feet) high Chang La (Pass) to get to Pangong Tso (Lake), you see a sign at Durbuk: ‘Welcome to the land of beautiful mountains and blue water lake.’
More signs await you. On a rocky patch, there’s another, ‘Ice hockey, the sport of Eastern Ladakh, promoted by Army.’ The area is also the world’s highest army habitat it seems; only the sign reads ‘Arty Habitat.’ Creative, eh? I also met Kunchuk, 9, starting his 5 km walk to school, being seen off by his mother, grandfather and baby brother Phunsuk. The family subsists on a meagre agricultural income but they are always smiling, and Kunchuk just loves going to school.
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A little further on a rough strip of road, my car tyre ripped. And I still had the infamous Pagal Nala (‘mad stream’) to negotiate. It’s slippery and treacherous; you have to drive across it on tenterhooks. One wrong move and you’ll need a crane to pull you out. In the middle of nowhere. Cross it before noon because the sun melts the ice later in the day and the slush is hell to drive on. But I made it. And just the first view of the gorgeous glacial lake was more than worth it.
The Perfect Blue
An endless blue awaits guarded by mountains on either side. The welcome party comprises Brownheaded Gulls, the Larus Brunnicephalus, hovering about on the most exquisite lake you would have ever seen. Just throw a few bread crumbs or biscuit bits and dozens more gulls will materialise like magic. Every bit of biscuit I threw in evoked a flurry of flapping, waddling, jostling and even pecking to get to the ‘worm.’ Those flying overhead would swoop in and add to the commotion. And yet, some others would just wade about with the peaceful countenance of the Buddha. Evolved sense of dignity or just full tummies?
The gulls in flight conjure up images of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. This species flies pretty low over the water in direct purposeful flight, with low wing beat and frequent gliding. They might go for the occasional biscuit but their regular diet is much healthier, comprising fish, insects, slugs and green shoots. You find these gulls at Tso Moriri and Tso Kar too in the summer, and westwards along the Indus valley during their spring and autumn migrations.
Say Hello to Karma
While you are there, say hello to Karma. He lives in Spangmik village, beside Pangong Tso. At over 4,267 m (14,000 feet) summer is too short and barely warm while winter is endless and pitiless. He works as a cleaner in a government school in Durbuk, a couple of hours away by bus. If he can, he comes home on Sundays. The life of his family – old father, teenaged sister (who does not attend school), wife and a toddler son – will never be easy. They grow vegetables in the summer for themselves and sit idle in the winter, waiting for time to pass. But they will not move lower down to the relatively more comfortable Leh – their worry is the fate of their goat and cow.
Playing with Himalayan Marmots
On the way back, keep an eye out for Himalayan Marmots, just the pets to cuddle up with in Ladakh’s sub-zero climes. These cousins of squirrels flee at the slightest hint of humans. But a ‘greedy’ group is always willing to throw caution to the winds – in return for a treat of bananas and nuts. Tummies filled, they were quite friendly and snuggled up to my legs. They were also rather romantic and much Marmot-mushiness ensued. For six months starting October, Marmots hibernate. Huddled together in hay-covered burrows, they halve their 8 kg body weight in this period. If only weight loss was so easy for all of us.
Pangong Tso will linger in your memories forever, calling you back for another visit.
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