(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 66, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Française in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)
Pangong and Tsomoriri Lakes
I had heard a lot about the twin high-altitude lakes of Ladakh situated almost 200 kilometres or so from each other. The first one called the Pangong Tso in Ladakhi is like a small sea. It is 134 kilometres long, 5 kilometres wide and is situated at an altitude of 4,250 meters above sea level. The lake has a total surface area of 700 square kilometres.
Two thirds of the Lake is under Chinese control and only one third is on the Indian side. It is a salt lake. The other lake called Tsomoriri is 19 kilometres long, 3 kilometres wide, and 4,595 metres above sea level. It is 40 meters deep and has a total surface area of 12,000 hectares. It is brackish but supports a large birdlife including the Bar Headed Geese and the rare Black Necked Crane. For me the trip to the lakes materialised in 1995. As usual I had gone to Ladakh with the then Commissioner/Secretary Tourism Anil Goswami to review working of various projects. He too planned to visit Pangong Lake and took the circuit before me. I followed him next day with Kakpori and Sonam Dorje. We took our Maruti Gypsy driven by Nissar and a Jeep from the local garages driven by Motup. All the provisions, sleeping bags, and a cook were taken along. Before starting I had contacted my friend late Commandant Hukam Singh of Indo-Tibetan Border Police whom I knew as member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, for assistance. We had planned to spend the night in Chushul in the ITBP camp. As the drive to Chushul was a long one, we started very early in the morning. The road to Pangong takes off on the left side short of Upshi on the main Leh-Manali Road. The drive is through a beautiful valley which has the monasteries of Chemrey and Takhtak. After traversing the valley for some time, the road climbs to Changla Pass. Those days road was still rough and we were driving slowly. While climbing up one gets panoramic views of the valley and the distant mountains towards Leh. The top of the Changla Pass is not so impressive. From the pass one can have a dramatic view of the distant mountains. On the other side of the pass the road was almost like piles of broken stones and the driving was very rough till we descended a thousand feet or so. After that the road went straight on the other side to Tangtse. On the way as well as at Tangtse there are big Army camps. This is a very strategic location. The Leh tourism had constructed a small bungalow here. However, they had not made it with a typical Ladakhi façade but a normal brick and concrete structure. I asked the local engineers to change it and create a Ladakhi ambiance. The needful was subsequently done. In Ladakh I witnessed a tragedy of local environment being spoiled by outsiders. The local hoteliers, guest house owners were very conscious of their cultural and traditional values and tried their best to preserve these. In fact, the use of polythene bags was banned by the Ladakhi shop keepers on their own without any government initiative. They did this a long time back. Kashmiris followed it only last year and that too under a compelling law! However, the great violators of environment in Ladakh were the government departments both the State and the Central.
We had a cup of tea in the bungalow and left for the Pangong Lake. Here, the route bifurcates in two. One branch goes straight into a valley which is famous for wild life. The other turns left through very narrow and winding valleys towards the Pangong Lake. Even though the valleys are narrow, there are many grazing patches en route and we found herds of Ladakhi mini-goats grazing there. There were in some places yaks also. The road was quite dusty and in some places there were land slides. We reached the Lake around noon and passed the army barrier. It was a dramatic site. Surrounded on two sides by totally barren brown mountains was a huge expanse of blue water. It looked like a painting. At the start of the Lake is the village of Lukung. In the very start of the Lake the Army authorities had constructed a viewing deck with some bath rooms. They also had some motor boats moored here for patrolling as well as joy rides for VIPs. We stopped here to have lunch and visit the wash rooms. From here onwards the road goes all along the banks of the Lake. Next village is Spangmik. Till recently, the tourists were allowed to go up to this village only. Now the Government of India has extended the limit up to Merak, the last village on the banks of the Lake. The drive along the Lake is fascinating. The Lake changes colours after every few kilometres. The landscape is same throughout. Barren brown mountains and the blue waters which keep on giving different shades at different points. We passed a couple of villages before we came to the turn in the road. From here the Lake turns left into the Chinese controlled area and the road climbs up on the right. The climb is straight and steep and after sometime, the Lake disappears from the view. This portion of the road is rougher as there was not much traffic on it. We did not see any human settlement all along till we reached the top and moved over.
From here we could see the village of Chushul which we reached just before sunset. Chushul is a small village in a flat valley surrounded on two sides by high mountains. There are many small streams flowing near the village. There is also an airstrip which saw lot of fighting during the Chinese invasion of 1962. We drove straight to the ITBP post which is located on a small hill. The officer in charge was waiting for us as he had received a wireless message from Commandant Hukam Singh. The post was in the form of bunkers and we were given a small cubicle for the night with two folding steel beds. We were served tea and pakoras which were quite welcome after a long and tiring journey. The officer indicated to us through binoculars the location of the Chinese pickets on the opposite mountains. In the middle of the plain below were some single storey buildings which we were told, are for conducting flag meetings etc. Those days there was no tension and things were quite normal. In fact, we were told that quite a bit of unofficial trade was going on between the local people on two sides. We could order anything especially electronics and these would be procured for us and even delivered in Leh. We had an early dinner and retired to our cubicle. Next day was going to be again a very long drive. The officer told us that for some distance the tomorrow’s drive would be along the Line of Actual Control and the Chinese would be watching us all along. He cautioned us not to stop for photography etc. and drive past this area quickly. The night was not very comfortable due to high altitude. In fact, Kakpori had some breathlessness due to frequent turning in his sleeping bag but it was not very serious.
We got up very early in the morning and packed our bags for a quick start. It was cold but the weather was clear and sunny. During day the Sun is quite warm and sometimes in rocky areas it is even unbearably hot! We had a breakfast of eggs and paronthas. The Officer gave us some pack lunch. We thanked him and the jawans for their kindness and hospitality. After crossing the village and the numerous small water channels we hit the main road going on one side of the flat Chushul valley. As advised by the Officer we were going at a good speed to be away from the piercing Chinese eyes.
Unfortunately, after only a couple of miles, the Gypsy had a flat tyre! We had no choice but to stop and change the tyre. It must have been the fastest tyre change I have ever seen! All the time we were very nervous about the Chinese peering through their binoculars. We were scared that they may whisk us away and the ITBP Officer would have to conduct a flag meeting to get us back. From this close distance the two buildings looked quite impressive with Chinese style roofs. We were more than glad to restart and speed past this strategic location. The road after some more distance turned right and we had another steep climb to the top of Tsaga la pass. The road was quite sandy and we raised clouds of dust in some stretches. The descent was smoother and we were soon crossing the Tsaga village. It seemed a very primitive and poor village.
Soon the problem area was over and we came to a marshy stretch. It was easily passable and we saw in the distance peacefully flowing Indus River. In this area, the mighty Indus River which had given India its name flowed very quietly. It was virtually flat with a very gentle slope. This has made the sides somewhat marshy. After a few kilometres we passed the bridge leading to Hanle and Demchok, the last point on the Indo-Tibetan border. This has been the traditional route between Ladakh and Tibet but after Chinese takeover, the route got closed. In spite of repeated requests from Government of India, the Chinese have refused to open it. There is already a road all along this route and probably a bridge is missing somewhere? This is the shortest route to Kailash- Mansarovar, the source of Indus River. The normal pilgrimage to this holy place takes about three weeks trekking through the present route in Uttaranchal but this way it can be done in less than a week and all the way in motor vehicle. Had the Chinese agreed to open it, Ladakh would have been flooded with pilgrims! Recently, the Chinese have become more aggressive and assertive. They even stopped construction of a small road connecting local villages. It seems the dream of connecting Kailash-Mansarovar to Leh via Demchok may not be realised in the near future. Hanle has an astronomical observatory probably highest in the world. Ladakh due to its altitude and pollution free clear skies is the best place for astronomical observations.
We carried along the Indus River to Nyoma. After driving along for some distance we turned left across the Mahe Bridge towards Tsomoriri. There is a beautiful spot near the Mahe Bridge where a mountain stream descends into Indus. With flowers and greenery along the descending stream it looks like a spot somewhere in Kashmir valley. There is supposed to be a small lake on the top from where the water was coming down. We liked the spot so much that we decided to stop here for lunch on our return journey. After crossing the Bridge, the road follows a stream through a very narrow valley, almost a gorge with steep sides at many places. The main road from Nyoma to Leh is black topped but the one going to Tsomoriri across the Mahe Bridge was rough but the drive was not so bad till we reached a bifurcation. There is small clearing here with a cairn in the middle. The straight road leads to Tsokhar and Puga valley while as the left branch climbs up to Tsomoriri. This was a freshly cut mountainside and it was difficult to discern the road from the rough cut rocks all around. This was probably the most difficult portion of the road stretch we had driven on so far. It took us quite a bit of time to reach the top which flattened out into a wide valley. Here again we had to cross some stretches of sand but these were easy compared to the ones after Tsaga la. There is also a small lake on top. After traversing this area the road turns left along a narrow valley and follows a stream downwards. There were many green patches on the banks of the stream which could be very good camping places. Here too there were some herds of Ladakhi mini goats. The stream flows down into the Tsomoriri Lake which we reached just an hour before sunset. The first view of the Lake was captivating. A blue expanse of water surrounded by barren mountains of all hues and shades. In the distance we could see snow on the mountain tops. The road follows the left bank of the Lake to the village of Karzok, the main habitation here.
The first sight we had was of some ugly stone and steel structures which had destroyed the total ambiance of this wonderful place. We subsequently learnt that these were the store houses of the Food Corporation of India. One fails to understand why Government has to destroy environment of an area? No doubt certain things are essential but these could be designed and constructed keeping in view the traditional architecture and using local materials. After all the Ladakhis have been living in their mud houses for ages. Even their monasteries and gompas are so nicely blending into the local environment. We were in for another surprise! Near Karzok there is a huge grassy plain on the banks of the Lake. This must have been a part of the Lake earlier. Bang in the middle of this beautiful grassy land was a small hut supposed to be the Public Works Department Rest House where we were expected to stay for the night. We went straight to this monstrosity called the Rest House and unpacked our bags. By now we were very tired due to a long and rough journey and after an early dinner dozed off to sleep!
The night was quite cold and we did not want to get up early. It was very cold outside even in the morning in the shade. We got out of the hut only when the sun reached the spot. The sunshine was brisk and we got warmed up quickly. The Lake looked very beautiful in the morning. In the distance on the side from which we had entered the area, I could see hundreds of birds.
It is supposed to be a nesting ground for a number of bird species such as the bar-headed geese. After a late and a leisurely breakfast we went to explore the Karzok village. It is a small village and the people seemed to be really poor. It has a monastery which too was not in a very good shape like other places. All the time we were irritated by the sight of the huge and ugly stores of the Food and Supplies Department. We also visited the site on a slope which was being considered for setting up a tourism establishment for visitors. It was a Government of India scheme. If the construction is done in the traditional style, it will blend in the landscape like the monastery some distance away. However, such things are unknown in government circles. Our people are experts in spoiling the environment and local ambiance by letting the engineers do everything on their own. They mostly do such things which would give them the maximum monetary benefit. Ultimately same thing happened with this establishment. First there was problem about land and then the construction got stalled for years on. It transpired that the brother of a senior officer in Leh was putting up camps in the area and he did not want the government establishment to come up. In fact, the whole issue became an audit objection and the Central Government referred it to CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) as a draft Para.
We climbed on a nearby ridge to have a panoramic view of the Lake. It is really a beautiful spot with some high peaks on one side. From the top it looks more beautiful as a blue sapphire set in a sandy brown mountain bowl. From here one can trek to Himachal across the mountains. It is also possible to go to Tibet. We had a nice day in and around Tsomoriri. It was total relaxation after continuous journey on some of the roughest roads and that too at high altitude. In the evening I made an entry in the register of the Public Works Hut while paying rent to the chowkidar. I wrote that the Tourism Department will bear all the expenses for dismantling and removing the hut from this spot. It is an eye sore in an otherwise wonderful eco-friendly place! Again we went early to sleep as we had to start the next day for another long journey to Leh.
In the morning while going away from the Lake we saw thousands of birds near the Lake entry. These were flying in all directions and some were on the Lake surface. It was a rewarding sight to see such extensive bird life. The return journey was smooth till the sandy patch. Here we got stuck at least for half an hour. It was difficult going uphill on the sandy patch. However, we managed to clear it. Next was the drive down through the freshly rough cut stones which formed the so called road. This too was quite tough and tricky. Nissar managed it quite well in the gypsy. Motup because of his heavy vehicle was going slowly. After clearing the stony track, Nissar drove quite fast and we were across Mahe Bridge by noon time. We drove to the scenic spot of the gushing stream and stopped there for making our fresh lunch. The Jeep which was hardly 20 minutes behind failed to turn up even after one hour. We waited and waited but there was nothing in sight. After an hour and a half we started worrying and were about to decide for going back to look them up when they came across very slowly. On our asking them what had happened, they gave us a shocking account. The entire suspension of the Jeep had fallen down while crossing the stony patch. They took almost an hour to put it back and had tied it strongly with steel wires and ropes which Motup always carried along. Motup was sure that it will last till Leh without any problem. After a lunch of rotis, potatoes, sauce, and pickles we started for Leh. The road now follows the Indus River which goes through a rocky gorge. There are huge boulders in the river and it roars all the way. The rapids are beyond grade VI in white water rafting parlance. It was also unbearably hot! Our heads would ache with the heat of the sun and we would often stop near the side streams which descend into Indus, to cool our heads in the cold water.
We soon passed the hot springs of Chumathang. These had become very dirty with lot of garbage and filth all around. I missed the site of these springs which Rauf and I had seen in 1974 when Brigadier Jeeti Goel had brought us here. Too many tourists and army personnel had been a big polluting factor. One hopes that the springs have been cleaned by now? Tourism though a big booster for economy of an area is at the same time a great destroyer of environment and one has to strike a balance. Only sustainable tourism needs to be promoted. Again among the tourists it is not the number but the type which counts. It may be better to have a smaller number of high spending tourists than a large number of budgeted tourists. Bhutan has stuck to this principle. May be we too need to do something about it? This is true in view of a tremendous increase in tourist numbers. The figures have gone from 500 in 1974 to over 77,000 in 2009!
We were driving smoothly when suddenly while passing over a bump in the road there was a loud thud and the Gypsy came to a standstill. Nissar immediately said that the front axle of his Gypsy was broken. We came out and everybody started checking the vehicle. There was no doubt the vehicle was broken down and we had to change the axle. Unfortunately, no one carries a spare axle in these parts. Luckily this thing had happened over a speed breaker in the road which was near a small village. The only alternative was to send an axle from Leh. Those days there were no mobile or satellite phones. We had no choice but to leave Nissar there. A Kashmiri Pandit who was walking nearby met us. He was a teacher in a local school. He said there was nothing to worry and he will take care of Nissar till we send the spare part. I had seen Kashmiri Pandit teachers in many parts of Ladakh. We had met one in Zanskar also. They seemed to be committed teachers and were prepared to go to any place to perform their duty unlike their Muslim counterparts!
We all cramped into the Motup’s jeep and rushed to Leh which we reached in the afternoon around 4 pm. On arrival even before taking some tea, we searched the market for the spare axle and after having bought it sent it to Nissar through another vehicle, a tempo traveller driven by Rajinder. They finally reached Leh almost at midnight. Thus ended one more of my adventures which was probably the toughest I have had so far!