Pangong Tso Lake. The Magnate of Bollywood Tourists

Brown-headed gulls throng the brackish Pangong Tso lake, Ladakh (sanjay austa austa)

Brown-headed gulls throng the brackish Pangong Tso lake, Ladakh

(The travelogue first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Sep 2014)

No sooner  the airplane finished its ascend,  it was over  the Himalayas and was  circling above Leh,  waiting  its turn to land. It took less than 45 minutes for us to get from sweltering Delhi to stunning   Ladakh.

As I emerged from the small airport and its barbwired compound, I felt a disquieting pang. Widening before me,  was the unending expanse of all embracing beauty.

This was cheating, I thought.   A journey to a place so remote, so raw and so striking should be made piecemeal by piecemeal. It should be earned over time. Perhaps after crossing a few hills, glades, mountain passes and streams. Not parachuted upon,  the way I  did, plonking in the midst of splendor in less than half an hour from home.

But this is just as well. Ladakh now gets tourists not travellers. So planes are the preferred mode of transport for most visitors.   After the last of the snows melt here, starting mid-May, low cost airlines ferry thousands of tourists into  Ladakh, till late September. The land of monasteries, lamas and high passes is now the most accessible inaccessible place in India.

The lakes cradled in Ladakh’s  high mountains are remoter still. But there is no romance of  discovery anymore. Roads have spread  their tentacles  everywhere.

The long and winding road in the mountains of Ladkah, India (sanjay austa austa)

The long and winding road to Pangong, Ladakh

Not too long ago the joy of reaching any mountain lake (or summit)  in India  was on foot. You  trekked for hours through the cold desert wilderness often following a dubious  trail  and just when you lost   hope,  someone would point the  shimmering lake far ahead in the  valley. Exhausted, you could sit all day,  watching the emerald waters change colors  with the day. The small rewards that adventure brings are sublime.

But adventure is not what brings most Indians to Ladakh, much less to Pangong Tso. Its Bollywood. Ever since the Aamir Khan starrer 3-Idiots was filmed here, Pangong Tso (meaning long and narrow lake in Tibetan)  has seen an unprecedented upsurge of domestic tourists.  Middle class Indians with ageing  parents and babies in tow, make a long journey to this endorheic (land locked)  lake from Leh,  crossing Chang La (5360meters)– the third  highest motorable pass in the world.  And after a few selfies at the lake and a broth of Maggi  at one of the many tent- restaurants,  that have sprung up on the lakeside in recent years, they make a dash back to Leh.

Very few  stay back for the night. But if you do,  you witness the full grandeur of the lake.  The sunrise at Pangong is simply stunning. And the night sky is bejeweled with stars that seem so much brighter and closer. The lake may be salty, supporting  negligible marine life but it attracts birds including the brown- headed gulls. The silence meanwhile is eerie broken only by revelers on the lake.

Women laborers lean out of their truck. They maintain the high-altitude roads. Every day they drive up the mountains and remove debris, cut ice, or level the roads so tourists can have a smooth drive to Pangong Lake. These women were from Sakti village. (sanjay austa austa)

Women laborers  maintain the high-altitude road to Pangong. They remove debris, cut ice, or level the roads. Ladakh.

It is  175 kilometers to Pangong from Leh . Its therefore advisable to begin the trip early.  You need a permit which has to be flashed at several check-posts along the way. Many  remote outposts that fall near the Indo- China border need permits in Ladakh. Pangong Lake which is 134 kilometers long, is  60 percent in Chinese controlled Tibet. A 20 kilometer stretch of the lake on the Indian side of Line of Actual Control is disputed and controlled by China. Tensions sometimes run high even in  such serene surroundings when the Chinese make incursions here throwing the Indian army into a tizzy. There is therefore  extra surveillance here. There are perennial army outposts  at high passes like Chang La.

But for many hours on the narrow, looping road, its just you and your jeep.  There are of course  nomadic shepherds along the way. If you are lucky, as I was they  can invite you into their yak-hair tents and offer you yak tea. Others like an old woman I met, stand holding up baby lambs, enticing travellers to stop to take the exotic photos for a few bucks.

How to get here:

The best way to get to Ladakh is to take the  400 kilometer Manali – Leh highway. One can fly or drive up to Manali from New Delhi. From Manali one can drive or hire one of the many cabs to Leh. From Leh,  Pangong Tso  is 175 kilometers.

Where to stay:

Leh is littered with budget hotels with tariff starting  at 2000 rupees in the peak season.

Pangong Lake has modest tents that charge  500 per person per night. For a  more comfortable stay one can try Pangong Inn. The tariffs here start at 2500.

A couple shoot their photos at Pangong Tso lake, India (sanjay austa austa)

Pangong is thronged by Indian tourists, Pangong Lake, Ladakh.

Israeli tourists smoke at a restaurant at Chang La pass. (sanjay austa austa)

And the Israeli tourists are everywhere.  Chang La pass.


A photo with a lamb? The old lady stood by the roadside offering a photo for a price. (sanjay austa austa)

Want a photo with a lamb? The old lady stood by the roadside offering a photo for a price. Ladakh


Motorcycling is the best way to travel in Ladakh, India (sanjay austa austa)

Motorcycling is the best way to travel in Ladakh, India


Indian army maintains its surveillance via helicopter at Pangong Lake (sanjay austa austa)

Indian army maintains its surveillance via helicopter at Pangong Lake

4 Responses to “Pangong Tso Lake. The Magnate of Bollywood Tourists”

  1. Bharat Baswani says:

    Ladakh still gets many travellers. It’s just that the number of tourists has increased radically.

  2. “Woh Three idiots wali lake kahan hai ladakh mein”, is the most common questions i get from the tourists visiting Ladakh.

    Before 2010 leh market was beautiful with many rooftop cafes with ladakhi food. Now there are many new punjabi dhabas selling the same old parantha you get everywhere.

    I was told that there are more then 400 travel firms registered in Leh. All I can request from the tourists is to take back the litter they are so used to throwing out of the window of their car.

  3. Hitesh Kaushik says:

    Nice blog

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