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Natural Wonders: Pangong Tso lake, Ladakh Union Territory

From the Bollywood Hindi movie Three Idiots, do you remember the scene where Phuntshuk Wangdu (played by Aamir Khan) is re-discovered by his best friends from college? Do you remember the lake in front of which they talk? Have you wondered where the lake is? It is Pangong Tso in the Ladakh region, part of Jammu & Kashmir when we visited, but now a union territory ruled directly by the central government. While the lake was made famous by the movie and has since received increased tourism, it has been considered sacred for centuries by both Ladakh and Tibet.

Geography of Pangong Tso lake

Pangong Tso lake is a lake that straddles both India’s Ladakh region and China’s Tibet region. The lake is situated in an endorheic basin at the altitude of 4,350 metres (14,270 feet). The word endorheic means that the the water body does not pass on its water to any other water body. As a result, the water either remains inside the basin or evaporates.

The clear waters of Pangong Tso lake, taken underwater.

Pangong Tso is a very long lake and not quite broad. The lake is 134 km long. 60% of the lake’s length is in Tibet, while 40% is in India’s Ladakh. At its broadest point, the lake is just 5 km wide. It covers an area of 604 sq km in both countries put together.

Pangong Tso lake early in the morning.

Previously Pangong Tso used to drain into the Shyok river, a tributary of Indus. But a minor earthquake was powerful enough to create a natural dam that prevented the water from the lake from reaching the river. It has been like that ever since.

More about Pangong Tso

The word Tso means ‘lake’ in Tibetan. This word is used in all the countries and Indian states which follow Tibetan culture and have languages derived from Tibetan, e.g. Bhutan, northern Nepal, Ladakh in jammu Kashmir, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. As per the Ladakhi local governing body’s tourism website, the world Pangong means a grassland at a high altitude.

A gull swims over the Pangong Tso lake.

The Indian side of the lake is mostly saline water, such that it doesn’t support aquatic life such as fish or eels. But crustaceans like aquatic snails and molluscs do reside in the lake. Outside the lake, you’ll see several gulls, whereas on the surface of the lake you’ll find ducks. Several migratory birds also flock to Pangong Tso and land near the water, but do not remain there for long.

Three Idiots point

After the success of Three Idiots movie, the lake became very popular among tourists, especially from cities like New Delhi and Mumbai, where watching Bollywood Hindi movies is a favourite pastime. At the exact location where the movie’s scene was shot, one of the local villages, Spangmik on the bank of the lake, has placed a yellow Indian scooter, which is used by the three engineers in the movie during their college days. It is a very popular selfie point.

Inner line permit

Travelling to Pangong Tso requires an Inner Line Permit, which is a special army permit issued by the district authority at Leh city, the headquarters of Ladakh region and Leh district. Depending on where you arrive from, you can apply for the permits either at Leh or Manali (Himachal Pradesh). Pangong Tso is on a road between the cities. Both Indians and foreigners need to apply for the permits. The permits are checked at army checkpoints along the route.

Travelling to Pangong Tso: Public transport

To get to Pangong Tso by public transport, one needs to reach Leh city. There are two routes to Leh and even Pangong Tso from the rest of India, one via Jammu and Srinagar, and another via Manali and Keylong in Himachal Pradesh. No public transport is available from Manali side to reach Pangong Tso directly, whereas there are buses from Leh.

Getting to Leh

Air

One can land directly at Leh airport. Direct flights are available from New Delhi, Srinagar and Mumbai. Flights with one stop, i.e. New Delhi, are available from Chennai and Bengaluru.

Train

The nearest railway station from Leh is the state capital Srinagar. But train services runs only between Srinagar and Banihal in Jammu region. Track construction between Udhampur near Maa Vaishnodevi Katra and Banihal is still in progress. The nearest railway station in a major city that is connected to all of India is Jammu Tawi in Jammu city. From here, Leh can be reached in two days by road transport via Srinagar. A lot of people travel to New Delhi or Chandigarh by train and then use buses, taxis or hired self-driving vehicles to reach Manali in Himachal Pradesh and proceed to Leh.

Bus

Buses to Leh are available from Srinagar and Manali. Both bus trips take two entire days. The buses from Srinagar take a night’s halt at Kargil, while the buses from Manali take a night’s halt at Keylong in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul region.

Self-drive

To reach Leh, one can take the national highway New Delhi  – Ambala – Ludhiana or Chandigarh – Ludhiana. From Ludhiana, proceed via Ludhiana – Jalandhar – Pathankot – Jammu – Udhampur – Chainani – Nashri – Banihal – Anantnag – Srinagar – Sonmarg – Dras – Kargil – Lamayuru – Leh. On this route, you will come across Namik La, Fotu La, Moon Land and Magnetic Hill landmarks.

The Manali route is New Delhi – Ambala – Chandigarh – Bilaspur – Mandi – Aut – Bhuntar – Kullu – Manali – Sissu – Keylong – Sarchu – Upshi – Hemis – Leh.

Getting to Pangong Tso

There are three options to reach Pangong Tso from Leh. All three options reach a village named Spangmik on the bank of the lake.

Bus

A Jammu Kashmir state transport bus leaves Leh for Spangmik village twice every week. Be sure to check the timetable at Leh bus depot.

Tour operators

Several tour operators operate from Leh city and Manali city to take you to Spangmik.

Self-drive

Whether you are driving from Leh or directly from Manali, you should reach the town of Hemis (which on the road from Leh – Manali). Hemis is 32 km to the south of Leh city. From Hemis, follow the route Sakti – Durbuk – Tangtse – Harong – Spangmik. On the way, you will see Chang La pass, the second highest vehicular pass in the world behind Khardung La. Chang La is at an altitude of 5,360 metres or 17,590 feet.

Accommodation

At Spangmik, one can stay in dormitories where beds are available for ₹ 300 per bed. Another unique, but exorbitant way to stay at Spangmik is to look for tents operated by tour operators and adventure companies. You may carry your own tent, but a rent may need to be paid for camping near the lake at Spangmik village. We didn’t try that option. You may be able to camp for free at some distance from the village, but you must take care of food arrangements beforehand.

Seasons

Pangong Tso is fully frozen during winters. The road to Pangong Tso itself is shut during winters and spring due to heavy snow. The snow starts thawing in April and continues to melt away in May. Thereafter, the route opens in June and remains open until early October.

Conclusion

Pangong Tso flanked by hills to its north.

Pangong Tso is a spectacular lake. Seeing its crystal clear blue water is a unique experience. Travelling to Pangong Tso itself takes you through the rugged mountains and snow-covered passes along the route. That in itself is something not to be missed.