Alys Francis quite literally perches on top of the world to give you the low-down on Pangong Lake. Yes, yes, the same place that set the scene for the climax of Three Idiots.
I’m sitting by a crystal clear lake, surrounded by mountain peaks, slowly turning golden and grey in the sinking sunlight.
As the shadows stretch across the rich blue water of Pangong Lake, also known as PangongTso, it’s hard to image a more peaceful spot.
A handful of people are scattered along the shoreline, sitting on rocks, walking or simply standing and gazing out at the water, which is 5km wide but stretches as far as the eye can see lengthwise, 134km into the distance where it crosses the border from India to Tibet (China).
The mountains in Tibet remain eerily black as the sun sinks, until the clouds shift and a beam of sunlight illuminates a single peak, turning it golden. The only sound is the wind.
One would expect a place with such breathtaking views, so picture perfect it starred in the final scene of the hit movie Three Idiots, would be a mecca for tourists.
But thankfully, despite its Bollywood moment, Pangong Lake is safe from becoming India’s Phuket.
Why? First, because situated on the roof of the world, around 4350m high in the Himalayas, it doesn’t have the best swimming weather.
And secondly, because the journey one must take to get there is somewhat tricker than buying a ticket and hopping on a plane, as we discovered a few days earlier.
After landing at Leh airport, 3500m above sea level in Jammu and Kashmir, we spent a few days acclimatising, which is necessary unless you want to experience a serious case of altitude sickness.
We wandered through the Tibetan refugee markets and into tiny shops crammed with pashminas, pearls, semi-precious stones, and antiques.
Our heads was swimming in the thin mountain air – having so little oxygen without being acclimatised feels a bit like being half way into a pub crawl, only you’re not drinking with friends but instead trying to decide whether purchasing an ancient leather breast plate covered in blue stones is a smart decision (It’s probably best to leave big purchases until your acclimatised).
When we felt strong enough we booked one of the local four-wheel-drive tours to Pangong, packed our bags and steeled our nerves for the early morning start the next day.
We woke as the sun was rising and made our way to the travel agent where we were met by our driver and an Argentinean woman who had also booked to visit the lake.
Wiping sleep from my eyes I clambered into the vehicle with everyone else and settled in for the six hour drive.
Barely 15 minutes later we were stuck.
It wasn’t an avalanche or stray cow that blocked our path but a traffic jam; thousands of cars, four-wheel-drives, jeeps, mini-vans and buses had converged on the neighbouring town of SheyGompa, which has only about 600 inhabitants in 80 houses, turning it into a parking lot.
Perhaps Pangong Lake’s 15-minutes of fame had caused a sudden spike in popularity? I was pondering this when our driver explained the hold up. It was the Dalai Lama, come to speak in Shey. It appeared that practically everyone in Ladakh, and many people from beyond, had come to hear his wise words.
With no way through the traffic, we turned back to Leh in defeat.
After struggling for another day to find a vehicle with enough seats for our group, we managed to book a trip with a different tour agent and prepared for early morning wake-up take II.
This time the vehicle arrived at the door of our hotel filled with two English men, one tall, the other round and wearing a traditional Kashmiri salwar kameez suit and dupatta pyjama pants with ray bans and a pashmina wrapped around his head.
“I love it. It’s so comfortable. It makes me look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says.
This morning the roads are clear, save for a handful of other four-wheel-drive tour groups and some army trucks from the military base by Leh airport.
We stop in Shey for a roadside breakfast of parantha, which is not too oily and filled with spicy potato chunks and curd, and then we are off.
We pass monasteries perched high on hilltops, fat fluffy Himalayan mutts stretched out in the sun – which is surprisingly strong in the thin air and turns faces to walnuts – fields of vegetables, tiny school children in bright white uniforms and rows and rows of tall cedar trees, brought in by people to harvest for building and burning.
We begin to climb higher, up into the barren grey mountains, strewn with rocks and not much else save for the occasional snowy peak.
The road to Pangong, cut into the mountains with just room enough for two vehicles to pass in some places, is one of the most dramatic and highest navigable roads in the world. It crosses Changla pass at 53560m.
For some, this would be slightly off putting. Physically the journey feels somewhat like being in a carnival ride that does nothing but shake violently, except there’s no rails holding the car to the ground and more often than not there is a 1000m drop a few inches away from your hip.
Oddly enough the road is most popular not with souped up four-wheel-drivers but motorcyclists, leaning back all beaten-up-leather-jacket-cool on Royal Enfield’s.
They come in convoys to test their mettle on the bumps and stomach churning turns – testing also the four-wheel-driver’s skills when they pop out from blind corners hugging the wrong side of the road because they don’t want to drive next to the edge.
Swaying and bumping with a constant stream of Hindi pop on the stereo, we climb higher and higher until finally we are level with the snowy peaks.
One final bend brings us to Changla Pass, with several teashops, a monastery festooned with prayer flags and views of yet more rocky peaks.
We stop and clamber out to take photos next to a sign that welcomes us to “Mighty Changla: Alt. 17,585 feet”.
I’m absorbed taking photos when our tall English friend approaches briskly.
“Do you guys mind if we go now? Gareth’s not feeling well, so we just want to get down off the pass quickly,” he says.
Back in the vehicle, Gareth has turned silent and pale under his Elizabeth Taylor–esque scarf, hand clutching the roof through the window, he leans his head into his arm and stares into space.
We quickly get in and begin the bump and gravel-grind down the mountain.
On the way we stop for chai at a stall constructed out of one of the numerous illegally sold army parachutes. A group of French travellers clutching tiny plastic cups of tea give Gareth some altitude sickness pills. He instantly perks up (Despite that fact that the pills take several hours to work, as we later learn).
We cross through a few rushing streams, fed by the melting snow, before we finally catch our first glimpse of the lake.
Our driver takes us to one of the many seasonal hotels. Made out of tents, they are dismantled in the winter, leaving only rows of cement slabs, atop which stand toilets and hand basins that make up the bathroom at the back of each tent.
After unpacking and drinking more chai, everyone heads down to the lake.
My friend silently decides to taste the water, bending down and scooping up a handful. Instantly I want to try too.
Tasting 96% of India’s water bodies is a move that could leave you hospitalised indefinitely but up here, where only a handful of people live in the summertime, it seems relatively harmless.
Sure, there could be snow leopard pee, but with 604km2 of water and only a roughly estimated 40% of the 4,500-7,500 leopards still alive in the wild and living on the Indian side of the Himalayas, I figure it’s probably watered down enough so you won’t taste it.
It tastes a little salty, but clean and sweet at the same time.
Later in the evening finds us sitting on the shoreline, absorbed in the sunset that paints the clouds golden and pink.
In the distance a girl sits in a pose of meditation and further away, a film crew sets up. Any sounds are muffled in the vast expanse of space.
It may be a difficult place to get to but the rugged, unspoilt beauty of Pangong Lake makes it well worth the trip. Just remember to ask if the Dalai Lama is in town.