Ladakh Diaries: The Tso-s of Ladakh: Pangong and Tsomoriri

The word “Ladakh” means country of passes. Broken down “La” is mountain passes and “Dakh” means country. Over centuries, these passes have long served as protection from intruders as well as important routes for trade.

During our 12-day trip from Srinagar to Leh and other prominent locations of Ladakh, we passed through five La-s, the last three among the highest motorable passes in the world. These are

1. Zojila – Height 11649 feet between Srinagar & Kargil

2. Fotula – Height 13479 feet between Kargil and Leh

3. Khardungla – Height 17982 feet between Leh & Nubra Valley

4. Changla – Height 17688 feet between Pangong & Leh

5. Taglangla – Height 17482 feet between Tso Kar & Leh

The world’s highest motorable pass is also in India. The lesser-known Umling La at 19024 feet, located in Ladakh, gets the honour after a road was constructed through this pass by Border Roads Organization in 2017.

But a pass is only a route, for us travelers it is sometimes strenuous to negotiate this kind of height. We all do that for what lies beyond. The high-altitude lakes of Ladakh (or Tso-s as they are known in the local language) are huge and serene, the best–known among these is Pangong Tso, around which frequent border skirmishes with China keep the lake in national news. About one-third of the lake is under India’s occupation currently, whereas two-thirds has been illegally occupied by China. 

Pangong is located at a height of 13,800 feet and can be accessed from two routes. One that we took was after our trip to Nubra Valley as we wanted to directly go there. The road was quite bad in some parts of the journey, whereas manageable in other parts. The route (250 km) which goes through Shyok, Durbuk, and Tangste has quite a few small canteens en route for snacks and tea.  The view was magnificent with the Shyok river accompanying a significant part of the trip.

As we reached closer to Pangong, the thrill of sudden sighting a portion of the lake reminded me of childhood visits to seaside spots where the first look at the sea at the end of the road used to make us so happy.

Pangong was blue, very blue, but actually the colour of the water changes depending on the position of the sun and the time of the day. The snow peaks seen on our right side further enhance your experience. The lakeside has become much more commercial since our last visit about a decade ago with scooters and other fun stuff. After taking the customary pics and staying there for an hour or so, we left for Tangste to have lunch.

Pangong has tent accommodation available near it, as well as homestays. You need to be vigilant about the oxygen levels, it is better to travel with oxygen cylinders on this route. On the way back to Leh, we encountered Chang La. This was the first time I felt a little breathless during our total tour. Our car driver made me sit in the vehicle, and rushed downhill and I started feeling better.

After a day's rest back in Leh and we were out to visit the other beauty, Tsomoriri. The lake takes about seven hours from Leh. Here we were planning to stay a night in a tent, so our journey was less hurried. Unfortunately, I had a bout of hill diarrhea since the previous day, which forced me on a conducted tour of local toilets en route.

The journey to Tsomoriri is smooth till Upshi (which is on the Manali-Leh highway). From Upshi we proceed to Chumathang, where most of the road is unpaved. After Chumathang there is hardly any road, and your vehicle literally dances over stones to proceed. We crossed Karzok and reached Tsomoriri almost at dusk. Tsomoriri is very secluded with nothing but an army camp and few homestays and tent accommodations. We virtually had the full lake to ourselves. The experience of this place is further enhanced by the complete attention you get from the lake. As the evening progressed the sky almost lit up for the sunset a view that photographs cannot capture.

It was freezing cold at night, and to make matters worse there was no power in the area. But early morning a view of the lake from the tents brought back our energy. If you ask me to choose one high-altitude lake in Ladakh, Tsomoriri will be surely my choice. Though travelling to the lake is quite a handful, the rustic beauty of the surroundings really amazes you.

On our way back, we took a different route, visiting another lake Tso Kar (15280 feet), 50 km away and close to the Manali Highway, and joining the highway near the Taglangla Pass. Tsomoriri was one of the reasons I went to Ladakh for a second time, and it did not let me down. 

One piece of advice. Though Tsomoriri is nearer to the Manali Leh highway, it is not recommended to visit here on your way to Leh. The sudden sharp climb to 15000 ft and staying a night there can easily result in high altitude sickness. It is better to go up to Leh, acclimatize there, and again come down to visit Tsomoriri. 

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