Breathless Himalayas: Crossing Chang La

“The journey, Not the destination matters…” ― T.S. Eliot

As we climbed higher it became cooler passing through breathtaking Himalayan scenery. Pristine white snow-covered mountain roads are a sight to behold but they’re a tough climb. Riding in thin cold air through wet & slushy ice on the road was a challenge and the potholes added to the bumpy ride. Adding to the excitement one of our motorbikes broke down on the slippery road a few meters from Chang La pass.

Chang La Mountain Pass

Riding on motorbikes from Leh to visit Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, we had to cross Chang La, one of the highest mountain passes in the Himalayas. A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range. Chang La that literally means, “Pass towards the South” claims to be the Third Highest motor-able road in the world. At an altitude of 5360 meters (17,590 ft) the pass is constantly under snow and one of the most dry & cold places in the Himalayas.

A mountain dog chilling at Chang La

It took us about 20-25 minutes to fix the bike and we managed to cross the pass safely. But as we rode on towards Pangong Tso, we saw one of our bikes parked besides the road and our friend kneeling on the ground as if throwing up. He was feeling noxious with a terrible headache and couldn’t ride anymore.

Spending more than a few minutes in low oxygen at a high altitude can cause AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness.

Riding towards Tangtse after crossing Chang La mountain pass

Spending more than a few minutes in low oxygen at a high altitude can cause AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. Starting from headaches to nausea, vomiting and feeling dizzy, the only remedy is to get at a lower altitude and rest. We had medicated ourselves before the climb for AMS, but I guess 25 minutes is more than enough time at such a high altitude to cause sickness. It was getting dark and the nearest village Tangtse, was still a few km away. We parked our bikes with parking lights blinking on the side of the road so vehicles passing by could spot us. After about two hours we found a local jeep going towards Tangtse; our sick friend got a comfortable ride and one of the locals from the jeep rode his motorbike back with us.

Enroute Tangtse

I woke up dazed the next morning and as I walked towards the bathroom on the soft-carpeted floor, I noticed the tiled walls, a wash basin, a western pot & shower head and got confused about where was I? As I splashed cold water from the tap on my face I remembered the previous evening! Still dazed as if from a hangover, I walked up to the dining hall for breakfast and couldn’t believe the choices – cereal with milk, paratha, bread, eggs, poha, upma, chai, coffee there was a whole menu!

“This was our first time in a “hotel” in Ladakh!”

Tangtse village

On our entire road trip in Ladakh we had stayed at basic government-run accommodation or home-stays that sometimes involved shitting in a hole in the ground and mostly eating instant Maggi noodles. This was our first time in a “hotel” in Ladakh! Initially I felt pampered being served tea & snacks or being asked about the menu for lunch or dinner, but after a while I felt guilty of enjoying such city-life comfort in this remote Himalayan village. Hoping our friend felt better after a good meal and rest we decided to visit Pangong Tso finally, in a jeep. One of the caretakers of the hotel warned us about it being a popular tourist spot with more than 1500 people visiting the lake in a day in peak season!

Sunsets and moon rise over Tangtse village

Tibetan for “high grassland lake”, Pangong is the most famous and largest of all the high altitude lakes in the Ladakh Himalayas. Situated at a height of 4,350 m (14,270 ft) the lake is 134 km long and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China passes through it. Brown headed seagulls that breed in the high plateaus of central Asia and Inner Mongolia migrate here in summer.

Brown headed gulls at Pangong Tso, Ladakh

I felt boxed-up sitting in the confines of a jeep not being able to see the sky above, or feel the breeze on my face. Even though the road felt devoid of potholes and my back didn’t collapse after the drive, I preferred the free & open experience of riding pillion on a motorbike. Dreading to find people taking selfies on the banks of the lake we instructed the driver to take us to a less touristy spot and he stopped just when the lake started! There were a few shacks on the right of the road and on the left was the big blue lake. We met these kids playing with two bicycles near the lake. Bored of riding their own bikes, they exchanged them and went off again. At this altitude & isolation the enchanting beauty of the lake is an everyday thing for them; they probably don’t even look at it with as much awe as we travelers do!

Bored of riding their own bikes, they exchanged them and went off again.

As we drove further up we saw the crowds but due to the sheer size of the lake it wasn’t difficult finding a spot to gorge on the enchanting blue waters and watch the brown-headed gulls fly by. The lake is massive and looks more like a sea surrounded by the Pangong range and Man – Merak villages on its shore. On our way back we saw marmots peek out of their burrows and tourists offering them snacks to take their pictures! In comparison to Tso Moriri, Pangong Tso is much larger in size and being nearer to Leh it is crowded with tourists. Given a choice I’d skip Pangong Tso and visit the less touristy Tso Moriri instead. (Read more about Enchanting Lakes of Ladakh)

Pangong Tso, Ladakh

Ladakh, the “land of high passes” is one of those places that you can only dream of until you get there and once you do, you’ll be smitten by its captivating beauty for life! Travelling through some of the most remote parts of Ladakh I realised I’ve experienced & learnt more about a place, on the way to it. Our journey to Pangong Tso crossing one of the highest roads in the world, dealing with mountain sickness and recuperating in a hotel quite literally left us breathless, but an interesting part of our journey was still ahead, the cold desert of Changthang!

Changthang, Ladakh

How to reach:  Visiting Pangong Tso and Chang La requires an Inner Line Permit for Indian nationals and a Protected Area Permit for Foreigners, obtained from Leh. Pangong Tso is about 170 km from Leh. Through Karu cross the snow-covered dangerously steep Chang La pass, reach Tangtse and take the Pangong lake road. Visiting Chang La requires acclimatization and it is not advised to spend a lot of time at such a high altitude. Route from Leh to Pangong Tso via Chang La pass on the map.

Best time to go: During the summer months from May to September.

Did you know India has a permafrost seed storage facility at Chang La Mountain pass? A vault to safeguard seeds from any catastrophes and keep them for the future. The high altitude of the pass and temperatures below minus 18 degree Celsius make it an ideal freezer for storing the seeds. Read more here.

Pangong Tso in Ladakh

This piece is a part of a series on my travels to Ladakh, other posts – Road trip to Ladakh Ride of a LifetimeLadakh Blues: Enchanting lakes of Ladakh,  Smiling Faces of Ladakh – heartwarming people of Ladakh, Wild Ladakh and Hidden treasure of Ladakh– prehistoric Rock Art that dates back to 3000 BC! A short video of our road trip to Changthang, shot mostly on the motorbike.

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