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Magical heights

September 24, 2007

The Hindu
Sunday, Sep 23, 2007

When it snowed in the mountains, last evening, the rising roads became
impassable. At four this morning, however, we were woken by birds
singing in the preternatural dawn of the highlands: there was a glimmer
of light in the sky. A little later, as t he sun raced through the
narrow, willow-lined streets of Leh, we saw silver rills shimmering down
from the virgin snow of the high peaks. We crossed our fingers hoping
that we might, we just might, be able to do the 160 km drive up through
the mountains, over the top, and down to the legendary, blue, glacial
lake of Pangong Tso.

Legendary reputation

At an elevation of 14,450 feet — official heights in Ladakh are given in
feet — Pangong is legendary. Shamanistic lamas use its shifting shades
and flights of birds to predict forthcoming events. Then there is the
oft-repeated story of the Monster of Pangong. We’ve pinned that down to
the fact that 66 per cent of the lake is in Chinese territory and the
PLA has been rumoured to surface near its lakeside hamlets, distribute
goodies and pamphlets, and submerge again. Mini-submarines can easily be
mistaken for marine monsters!

Moreover, we learnt that the terrain spreading down to the lake,
resembled the high-altitude deserts of Tibet. That, as much as the
mysterious, glacial lake, lured us.

We left our hotel little after dawn. The thaw had set in and the
chortling gush of ice-melt streams filled the chill air. We rumbled into
fourth gear and, at a yellow Border Roads’ marker, stopped. We were
still on the Leh-side of the range, but there, below us, was an
incredible eagle’s eye view over a valley, meandering for 25 km between
the lions’ paws of the rising mountains. The terraced fields were
stacked in tiers, each demarcated by its low, dry-stone, walls. The
fields nearest us were green with young barley. Gradually, however, as
the terraces rose higher, and deeper into the mountains, the Summer
green gave way to an Autumn sere and then, Winter frost glittered on
them. Three seasons in a single valley on the same day!

Rugged ways

Other little secrets began to emerge as we crossed the snowy ridge of
the mountains through the 17,800 ft Changla Pass and began to descend. A
herd of furry black yaks grazed on the stunted grass of a frigid meadow
around an electric-blue, tarn fed by melting fields of snow. Below them
was an encampment of yak herders. They are a friendly people whose
shaggy beasts give them all they need: hair for their tents, leather for
their shoes, milk, meat, butter and a fair income for their frugal needs
such as borax for their gur-gur tea, tea leaves, parched barley and
utensils. We were now at about 16,000 feet which is as high as these
Changpa nomads come. But though they share this rugged terrain with the
goatherds, they claim to be a different people separated by centuries of
divergent customs and traditions.

The tents of these wanderers were encircled by low walls of rocks, their
long-haired goats finding sustenance in this arid land. Because of the
cold, the goats grow a thick undercoat of fur-like hair. This yields the
valuable pashmina wool: soft, warm and very expensive. We tried to get
close but were warned off by vigilant, snarling, amber-eyed dogs.

Hidden life

Now that our eyes had learnt how to pick out life hidden in the
scattered boulders we began to spot other animals. Marmots, like fat,
brown terriers, squealed and sped into their colonial burrows. Scurrying
partridges looked like uniformed choristers recently embroiled in a
scuffle: they had black circles around their eyes. We also flushed a
pair of Woolly Hares nibbling on shoots of grass exposed by a melting
rug of snow.

We were now at the broad, flat, bottom of the valley and the great
mountains had stepped back on both sides. A broad stream flowed slowly
along its shallow bed and there were large stretches of sand eroded down
from the treeless mountains. We spotted two creatures grazing at the
fan-like edge of one of these sand-slides, where it met the lush green
of the flood-plain. At first the animals looked like horses from one of
the encampments. But as we got closer we realised that they were Kiangs:
the rare Asiatic Wild Asses of Tibet. They had probably migrated down in
quest of food. Later we were given another explanation by a Ladakhi
guide. He felt that they could have been chased down into the valley by
a hunting snow leopard who gave up the chase because he would be
conspicuous in this sandy terrain.

Startling beauty

Then, as we climbed again, a cleft in the mountains opened, and we saw
it. There, like a large glittering sapphire set in the claws of the
Himalayas, shone the brilliant, blue, gem of the Pangong Lake. We raced
forward, drawn by its incredible beauty. It grew and grew, a coruscating
crepe de chine stretch of cerulean blue, split by a sandbank thrusting
its tarnished silver tongue into the lake. And, rising out of the far
bank, were bare mountains of dusty grey and wood-ash crowned with capes
of white snow. As we drove closer and closer to its pebbly shores,
flocks of white gulls rose and wheeled over the water, their reflections
causing ripples of light over the surface of the lake. But they were not
the only birds in this high place. Bar-headed geese raised their necks
and honked at us in alarm. Ruddy Shelducks waddled out of the reedy
banks and launched themselves into the water, quacking softly to
encourage their ducklings to follow.

We stood for a long time at the edge of this magnetically beautiful
sheet of water. Clouds drifted across the sky, making the lake seem
almost alive as if its muscles were rippling, just below its skin. There
were no oracles here, or monsters or other “ghoulies and ghosties”.

It would have been sacrilegious to seek them in such a high and magical

Quick facts

Getting There: By Air to Leh and then by road. Taxis available from Leh
Taxi Stand for day excursion from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. However, overnight
stay at Resort Pangong Tso is recommended.


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