Sunday, February 6, 2011

Pangong - Lakeside

I have developed a love for coffee shops apparently… Wonder when I'll find one like where I am sitting in right now, back home in India. The d├ęcor is perfect for me to work in or just relax with my laptop but more on that in subsequent posts (so keep watching this space… ;P). I do want to take you, my reader, on a trip to Heaven on Earth (nothing whatsoever to do with the movie namesake though!! Climactic with reference to it in fact…), across a few seas and way up in the sky. To My Paradise and one that definitely tops the Most Favourite Places in the Universe list. Among the highest lakes in the World nestled at a majestic 4350m (14200ft approx.). Its recent claim to fame being the stunning backdrop of the climax of 3 Idiots (Apparently the crew had just cleared out a week or so before we visited!! :O). Among God's greatest creations, yours truly introduces you to Pangong Tso.

Last time we were on the journey to Pangong having just left Chang La behind. The landscape was evolving with the barren lands suddenly sprouting shrubs and tiny streams as the road rushed down the mountain side hurrying with hairpin bends giving way to the expansive valleys I had seen there yet! In front, the view encompasses a tiny tar road about 1.5 car widths wide snaking its way on a carpet of brown highlighted with the occasional green of tundra growth and shrubs. One's ear is occasionally tickled with the gleeful chattering of a whimsical brook which decides to join the party for a while coming from a source unknown in the muscular mountains. Passing through another checkpost and military outpost /barracks later calls for more change in scenery.

The hues of brown in the vista before ones eyes is quite stunning to take in. However, one is sure that every remotely brown skinned person would find themselves represented be it in the mountains which have taken on an endlessly sweeping countenance seeming friendly and welcoming even in this new form or the sand which suddenly looks to have been imported from Rajasthan!' Cold Desert' does make sense after all! Turning ones head and a close scrutiny to the mountain we were driving on led to the development of a theory. Irrefutable proof almost of how India broke away from Gondwanaland and decided to 'nudge' the Asian landmass resulting in the greatest upheaval in Earth's history that has left the youngest mountain range on Earth with an ongoing growth spurt. The mountainside is punctuated with stones - correction, pebbles - like the ones that wash up on a sea shore… smoothed with the flow of countless waves of water over them. A great find - even if I say so myself.

One thing I did not expect find so far out in the middle of nowhere was a traffic jam which we found ourselves in due to construction work done by the Border Road Organisation also fondly known as 'Seema Sadak Sangathan' :P. Of course, we had to stop and wait at the edge of the road and our existence as a foot and a half further off was a steep drop to a muddy sludgy water (I think, couldn't be sure if it was just marsh though!!) body. Proof that home sentiments are a strong thing for sure… The overseeing officer who walked past our vehicle suddenly backtracked to us explaining that he heard Tamil and missed his own native Kerala. He was serving for a long stint there and didn’t expect to be back home very soon I believe. A pleasant chat later, he decided to open the road and let the workers take a lunch break and we were once more on our way!

The next guest into our inner circle was a rather rude entry known infamously as the Paagal Nala (The Mad Creak suits my sentiments more!). The result of snow melting under the wary eye of the sun, this Creak gains force as the day progresses reaching its peak jut around 2pm as the snow from 12pm finally winds down to meet its human friends. Our driver was apprehensive about crossing it as it was known for upturning many a 4 wheel drive not to mention bikes! A bridge was still being built so it was a gut wrenching few seconds which seemed like few hours trying to maneuver the vehicle on the bed of this Creak without getting waylaid by its 'wicked' intentions. After almost losing to the Creak, we finally made to the other side in one piece and a heartfelt sigh of relief later we were bouncing along getting ever closer to our destination. Of course, I was dying for the first glimpse of this lake not knowing what to expect as I don’t remember seeing any pictures of it before.

The first glimpse… Words escape me as all one could do was suck in breath after breath and stare at - no, feast on - the splendour called Tso Pangong. And it was just the beginning yet!! Nothing can prepare you for the feeling of looking upon this creation with your own eyes. The camera in the movie certainly didn't capture the half of it in my opinion! Anyways that was not their intention I guess… Wonder if NGC or Discovery made a documentary about this. I can imagine them having one heck of a field day with it. As soon as the car stopped, I could not wait to run in and taste the water and Boy! were they right about it being a salt water lake!! The spot we stopped at was getting crowded as all vehicles we came in with also stopped there.

So, it was lunch time as for one we were ravenous and secondly, wanted the view to ourselves for a few minutes at least! No restaurant I have ever eaten in or will ever eat in can compare in ambience to that backdrop that the Lord had provided! I don’t remember the lunch much though mostly because I was ravenous and wolfed it down and also the biting winds did numb the senses a little. And then we had the place to ourselves at last. Wiping off the last crumbs from lunch we decided to survey our luncheon room a little more closely. And does it hit you hard!

Ethereal! Surreal! Too good to be true! Use any superlative to whatever degree and it can't measure up to the feeling of the wind whipping around you and the beginning of the 138km long lake at your feet. I remember wanting to etch the vista in front of my disbelieving eyes into memory forever so fiercely that I didn’t want to blink! Hard to do when the sun is out and the winds all about. I wonder if any of you have seen those artists' renditions of alien lands and unknown planets in space museums or as stunning wallpapers. Well, imagine standing on those lands, in those paintings and you can imagine how standing in front of Pangong was… enough to make you forget to breathe! I could have lived there forever! Apparently there were fish in the lake as some birds were snooping for their own lunch diving into the lake occasionally. And some ducks too I think. Finally, we moved on to our campsite. A bumpy ride if there ever was one!

And then in the distance we could glimpse a cluster of tents, white as the snow on the mountains behind them, in a semicircle arrangement and then a few more closer to the lakeside. This was to be home for a night. After the tents at Uleytokpo, one knew what to expect. However, even giving leeway to the unreachable nature of the terrain and place, the tent was still a surprise! It was set up and opened only a week ago and we were the first set of people staying there. It was quaint with one single bulb hanging from wiring from the top of the tent and an attached bath and toilet area (considering how cold it was there, if I had to walk any distance for it, I would rather have forgone it altogether :P). We reached somewhere between lunch and snack time but had hot chai as soon as the bags came in and we were settled down. The tent opened to the rest of the camp area beyond which were the bluest waters and mountains in the most bewildering browns. It was a perfectly glorious evening with no clouds except those whiffs of white kissing the sky.

'It was chilly' would be a gross understatement thanks to the 'roaring' winds! We found the tent was heavily tethered to strong poles on closer examination otherwise, Dorothy might have found new company in the World of Oz without a tornado even! The people they have in charge for the camps seem to be the most interesting characters one can find I believe. The caretaker here was an ex-Army guy who had served in Siachen if memory serves right. Apparently, he was keen to start the tent system in Pangong and this was his pet project. It was the first of its kind there not being made of concrete structures and buildings. Among some interesting stats he mentioned was the fact that the lake would freeze only if temperatures went 40 below 0 and that the lake did freeze every single winter! Not too keen on living there then though it would be a really cool ski rink in your back - umm, front - yard. Moving on, we decided to explore the place and the small semblance of a village found further on.

The walk was a continuation of the same bumpy remnant of a road forged in the Dark Ages through which we reached the camp. We saw comfy Pashmina sheep whose wool is used to make the famous Pashmina shawls and houses made of sturdy stone rather than brick and cement. Running into a village girl, curiosity led to a mini Q&A. She was going to school (the village had a school I think) but was mentioning how fending off the winter was their own problem with no help from the authorities. It definitely strikes one of how lucky we are. I mean, here was the most beautiful vista in front of my eyes which I go on gushing about and for which every person on vacation is willing to pay pretty hefty prices and in my eyes is God's greatest gift to us. A place where I felt anyone could easily be inspired by the surroundings to become a poet or writer or any other romantic notion - maybe not quite everyone. In the eyes and words of that girl all one could sense was that the bluest waters, if salty, or the large brown snow topped mountains with no fertile soil were not really God's gift but the enemy to earning a decent livelihood. The loneliness that 'city' people crave for on these vacations was a big handicap for their survival for a large part of the year. Perspectives, different enough for some serious food for thought!

After walking through the village in the direction of the river, the other property allowing people to stay lakeside came into view albeit in concrete buildings, not tents. We snaked our way closer to the lake thinking of walking on water lapped shores back to our own camp. We ran into another tourist, European he was, I believe, in Wellington Boots who told us we could probably walk all the way back though there were some parts he had to walk through the water. Braving it then, we wanted to see just how far we could go. It turned out to be a good decision after all as we jumped across rivulets of water, saw the grass "breaking off" caked in salt from the lake and in general had a nice walk.

We did manage to reach the banks of our camp wetting nothing but our appetites (excuse the pun :D). The sun was just preparing to set and decided to paint a pretty farewell by turning the mountains orange and sending out pretty beams between the mountains to make the water sparkle like a bed of jewels. Once the sun went down, the Chill rushed in very eagerly, from the mountains behind us which were still sporting snow caps. The kitchen tent got busy with cooking hot food and I for one couldn't wait for it! Hot soup and some simple hot food was welcome with the caretaker calling us into the welcomingly warm dining tent. One can't appreciate the power of warm food unless you find it spreading deliciously through your insides when all else is freezing around you. Then we returned to our tents with the help of torch-lights as the paths did not have lamps along the way. I vaguely remember a conversation was struck up with some fellow travelers who were a bunch of bikers we had passed on the way. The were a few tents down ours.

Of course what stands out clearly etched was sitting outside our tent and staring into the deep. The background score of waves lapping at the shore very gently, and the light of hundreds of years ago blinking back from the infinite expanse of the sky. It is easy to get lost in the sensation of looking at particularly nothing at all and still everything when it's a sight one could never dare to imagine as it is so breathtakingly beautiful. The sky was more brilliant here and the Milky Way just could not be missed. The wonder is similar to a child which has just learned to stand and looks out of its crib to see a whole new world right there which it new nothing about. It seemed so much clearer as though being that high up brought you closer to the heavens too! I could have sat there all night but sleep and the warm tent were tempting in their own way too! So it was off to bed wrapped up in more layers than I could care to sleepily count. The warmer one is wrapped up while drifting of to dreamland, the more gargantuan the effort required to consciously get out of it in the morning. But, the day must go on so after a quick wash, we were ready for breakfast and to head back to the valley of Leh and that must wait till next time….