The urge to live dangerously tends to strike couch potatoes in midlife. It’s known as a “crisis”. Mine began with The Three Idiots or rather, a visual from the film: a turquoise lake, high in the mountains of Ladakh. And it has been making me behave in ways timorous women my age don’t. They don’t aim too high, for instance, and certainly not for altitudes that exceed 14,000 ft. above sea level.
But then, fools, whatever their age, rush in. So here I am, terrified at my own recklessness, but heading, nonetheless, for the sacred Pangong Tso, the world’s highest salt-water lake in a remote region in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. My rendezvous with risk has begun badly, with a weather-foiled attempt to land at the airport in Leh, the region’s largest town. With the second—successful—try, I resolve to be intimidated by nothing; not snowfall, landslides or altitude-related acute mountain sickness (AMS)—the hidden punches Ladakh often packs—and quake at the first hint of doubt: a veteran’s warning about Pangong Tso’s mercurial nature. Waxing and waning with the whims of weather, now you see its beauty, now you apparently don’t.
Moving southeast of Leh, my hopes rise as I watch the landscape unfold like a series of dream sequences in a movie. Then anxiety plays spoilsport again. What if the mountain pass en route is snowed under? What if my tryst with the lake, approximately 160 km away, is a total loss? What if, what if, what if? But the weather holds and Chang-La is accessible, even if it seems puny at 17,586 ft. after Khardung-La, the highest motorable pass in the world that I’d crossed days earlieron my way to Nubra Valley.
Geographical measurements—a controversial issue in this region—apart, Ladakh defies comparisons. For tucked away in its hidden corners are several worlds—all unique. If the journey to Nubra Valley leads you through rock and snow and pale, pale sand, around nearly every bend in the mountain highway leading to the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, where Pangong Tso is located, lies an arresting vista that bowls over even those sold on the region’s stark lunar beauty: rushing streams, purple and yellow heather or valleys of verdant pastureland dotted with velvet-black dzo (“A hybrid of yak and cow,” my Ladakhi driver corrects loftily, when I exclaim, “Oh, look! Yaks!”) and—during one wild, wonderful moment—long-maned horses, among them, an exquisite pale blond mare, playing truant, surely, from a fairy tale.
This is paradise, without the polluting presence of Adam and Eve who are obviously in hiding. Not a soul in sight along miles of deserted highway. But small chortens, crudely fashioned from wayside stones, mark the passage of travellers who have sought divine blessings for a safe journey. Faith is the sole constant in a life fraught with natural hazards and uncertainties and Ladakh’s many monasteries bear witness to its power. The most important of these on the road to Pangong Tso are Thiksey, which, like many fortress-monasteries of the past, reigns over spectacular surroundings from its lofty perch; and, encircled by high ridges, Hemis, a surprisingly unassuming structure, given its importance as a centre of religious learning and a repository of the priceless treasures on display in its basement museum.
If my monastery visits are rushed affairs, regret is swiftly elbowed out by the intensity of luminous blue edging the horizon as the sun tilts westwards and my hired Scorpio bumps its way over axle-breaking pebbled tracks towards the lake area. The car crests a rise and there it is—Pangong Tso, stunning like a sock in the jaw. I recognize the spot where the Bollywood blockbuster’s last scene was shot and where day-trippers are offloaded. But the camp in Spangmik, where I’m staying overnight, is further ahead, at a point beyond which foreign tourists are not permitted.
At Camp Watermark, I spurn tea and hospitality to get the last few shots of the waters before the sun dips behind the ring of mountains; who knows what tomorrow will bring? It seems impossible that of the lake’s dark blue vastness—approximately 130 km long and five km at its widest point—the visible area represents only one-third of its actual size; the rest vanishes into the unknown Tibet Autonomous Region. The breeze whips bright prayer flags, strung from poles, into a frenzy, carrying the dreams of many heavenwards. All is well.
It’s a thought that helps me settle in for the night. With the generator switched off at 10.30 p.m., I’m expecting pitch darkness inside my tent. But a magical afterglow like stardust keeps me awake.
Dawn makes a stagey entrance with seismic tremors. I unzip the tent flap when they subside and watch clouds gathering overhead. The lake is a foul-tempered, soul-destroying grey. By breakfast time, a flirty sun is coaxing from the water an array of aqua, turquoise, indigo—gleaming and peacock rich… The discerning eye can apparently pick out seven distinct shades. I’m content to be undiscerning.
Up close, the lake surface is crystal clear; pretty pebbles lie beneath. Greedy, I stoop to collect one as a memento and overbalance, bruising my hand as I break my fall. An anecdote, recounted by a Tibetan friend, of a man who had visited Pangong Tso a few months earlier flashes through my mind. Defying local religious sentiment, he had apparently relieved himself in its sacred waters. Within weeks, a stroke would fell him, leaving him brain-damaged.
The sceptic in me smirks at that story. But moments before my departure for Leh, I’m back at the lake, listening to the gentle slurp of water licking the shore. Reluctantly, I remove the little pebble from my trouser pocket and toss it back where it belongs.
Photo Credit: Rajiv Butalia