Kunzum Travel List #11: Tso Moriri and Tso Kar – The Devil created these lakes

The Tso Moriri
The Tso Moriri

Here’s a tale so incredible you actually want it to be true!

Eons ago, they say, a devil drank up all of the overflowing Tso Kar. A gurgle in the stomach suggested he had consumed a bit more than desired, so he ended up spluttering and spraying water all over. A bit of it flew towards Korzok, forming Tso Moriri, while some landed in another direction, creating Starspapukh and Regul Tso.

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The Tso Kar and the Kiang

The Devil Drank up this Lake
The Devil Drank up this Lake

Regul is the local name for Kar, an L-shaped saline lake at 15,367 feet (4,684 metres). The lake covers only about 40 square km (16 square miles) but offers unique attractions. Like one of the few pairs of the Black-Necked Cranes I was lucky to spot, albeit from afar. Or the Kiang, the Tibetan Wild Ass. Herds of Kiang escape from China, where they are hunted for food, and cross the border into India where no one harms them. But the nomadic Changpas resent them – they eat into the already limited pastures of their livestock. Kiangs can make you really run though. The closer you move towards them for better pictures, the further away they run. They sure can make you feel like an ass!

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The Tso Moriri

Head further to Tso Moriri and an unending expanse of sheer azure awaits. You can sit and stare at its blue waters and the surrounding peaks for hours on end. Sitting pretty at 15,100 feet (4602 metres), it is 25 km long, 5-7 km wide and 40 metres at its deepest. Originally a glacial lake, it had outlets to the Sutlej river. Now it’s a huge enclosed basin fed by three streams. In the desert-like climate, due to surface evaporation, what was originally a freshwater lake turned brackish and finally saline.

If you have the patience, you can spot rare animal and bird species here. In fact, over 150 bird species are found in the region. Korzok village, located along the lake has a 400-year-old monastery, built on a gentle slope unlike most gompas that are perched atop high hills. Local Buddhists revere this wetland as sacred and don’t use or pollute its water. At the WWF Annual Conference in 2000 in Nepal, Tso Moriri was declared a ‘sacred gift for a living planet’ by the local community.

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Changthang Eco Zone

Tibetan Argalis in the Changthang Eco Zone in Ladakh
Tibetan Argalis in the Changthang Eco Zone in Ladakh

As you drive towards Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, you enter the Changthang Eco Zone. It is an extension of Changthang, the Northern Tibetan Plateau, and covers about 15,000 square km (5,800 square miles). The elevation varies from 13,000 – 23,000 feet (about 4,000 – 7,000 metres) and the region is dotted by wide valleys amidst rolling hills and the occasional mountain lake. It is a cold desert that gets very little rainfall and very high solar radiation. Summer temperatures range from 0°C to 30°C (32 – 86 degrees Fahreinheit) but the winter is hostile, with the land freezing over at -20°C to -40°C (68 – 104 degrees below zero Fahreinheit).

The region is strikingly beautiful but very desolate too. You wouldn’t want to be stranded here. There are few permanent human settlements. Much of the population are the nomadic Changpas who pitch tents wherever their livestock find pastures.

In Changthang’s wetlands live many vulnerable and endangered animals such as the Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Tibetan Argali, Blue Sheep, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf and Lynx. They are the only breeding site for the Bar-Headed Geese in India, and the only region outside China where the highly endangered Black-Necked Cranes breed. Of course, you’ll need a lot of perseverance to spot these creatures.

The Nomadic Changpas

A young nomadic Changpa girl near Pangong Tso
A young nomadic Changpa girl near Pangong Tso

A Changpa settlement near Tso Moriri
A Changpa settlement near Tso Moriri

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In case you’re camping in Changthang, be wary of the Changpas. That’s what you will most likely be told. Think nothing of it. Changpas, the nomads of Changthang, are rather friendly and peace-loving. In fact, many of them shy away from strangers. Some of them did open up to me though, in broken Hindi. For centuries, they said, they have been moving around the wetlands, seeking pastures for their sheep, goats, horses and yaks. They pitch yak hair tents called rebos, which stay warm even in Ladakh’s harsh winter. Most have a yak tail hanging outside. Those in the Tso Kar region also have houses in the nearby Thukje village, but use them mostly for storage.

Changpa children get modern education on the go. The government has arranged for teachers to travel with them to see them through till the fifth grade. They can move to special state-run schools after that for higher education. Traditional trading was based on a barter system, but cash is now needed for essentials like barley and medicines. They borrow from local traders or from some of their own who sold off their livestock to become commercial lenders.

For a Changpa, his livestock is his fortune, his primary source of income. Or used to be, at least. Sheep figured on top though the goat population is on the rise now, for they yield the more lucrative pashmina wool. Yak meat has commercial value but the animal’s milk is consumed by the Changpas themselves.

Changpas have always dabbled in other enterprises too. Salt has been a profitable, though uncertain, business. They traded in stocks sourced from Tibet till the 1962 Indo-China war stopped that. For the next few years, purchases took place in Manali and Leh. Then they discovered a site at Tso Kar’s southeast end where they could collect salt in September and October and trade these for barley and cash in Leh and Zanskar. However, rising water levels drowned this source too after 2000.

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Changpas are friendly to tourists but resent the loss of pasturelands due to tourism and related activity. Recently, they have started to participate in stakeholder dialogues and now organise home stays, seasonal eateries, hiring of horses and donkeys to trekkers, running grocery shops and other services. Training and education will go a long way. In recent times, the nomadic Changpas have been taking up stable government jobs or pursuing alternative professions. They still hold on to their livestock though.

Travel Tips for the Great Lakes of Ladakh

* Distance / Time from Leh to Pangong Tso: 160 kms (100 miles) / 5:00 hrs
* Distance / Time from Leh to Tso Moriri without a detour to Tso Kar: 221 kms (138 miles) / 5:00 hrs
* To get to Tso Kar, take a diversion at Sumdo Village – it is 40 kms (25 miles) one way and takes about 70 minutes to get there.
* You can also get to Tso Kar and onwards to Tso Moriri when coming from Manali; there is an obscure diversion after Pang on the More Plains. Miss it and you will reach Leh. You must take a break at Sarchu for the night to reach Tso Moriri in good time.
* Accommodation at Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso is limited to some camps and rooms – all very sparingly equipped to provide any comfort. These are best booked through travel agents. Your only option at Tso Kar is to pitch tent.
* These lakes are accessible only from June to early October.
* Indians and foreigners alike need permits to visit these lakes. Usually just a formality.

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