I had woken up breathless in the middle of the night. And then I saw out of the window, the lake shined in glorious moonlight. I dare not go out to pee, we had all been advised by the gentle homestay owners to stay indoors and clear of the cold, at least till the morning light. It was January and the trees had given up trying to battle against the cold and shed all their leaves.
In Leh market, I had tried to speak to some taxi drivers directly for a cheap to and fro ride to Pangong Tso and none of them had agreed. A deal was struck with a a reputed travel agency (Very few travel agents open shop in the winters) and Norbu was assigned for Rs. 7000/- with a one day stop at the lake. It worked out to Rs. 1000/- per person.
While gazing at the dazzling array of snowy peaks from the flight, (Left side window seats are best) mentions of Jaipur had rung in my ears. I had sprung up and made friends with a family of six. It was their first trip; they had no idea what to expect and they had chosen to arrive at the worst possible time. My company suited them and their presence was best for me because it enabled me to visit Pangong Lake (Tso in Ladakhi) in the winter, which may have been a difficult proposition otherwise.
Acclimatisation was a factor they didn’t care about and it was only my adamant behaviour that ensured that on our first night we stayed in a cosy local homestay in Leh. With songs in our hearts we left from the comparative warmth of Leh; entered our details at the Karu check post (Karu) and sped rapidly toward Chang La.
Snowy roads made it feel as if it was a fictional setting, there were hardly any vehicles on the road in this season.
If it was cold in Leh, then it was well nigh unbearable at the 5360m high Chang La pass which is kept open by the army throughout the winters. Visibility was poor and we didn’t dare come out of the vehicle. After passing through Durbuk and Tangtse, it was fascinating to see a chilly Ladakh which wasn’t white yet.
The mountains ahead were in shiny shades yellow and brown, sand on one side of the road and a frozen stream on the other side. I had surely never seen anything like this and looked wide eyed in amazement.
Check : A Photo Essay from Ladakh
The usually great sight of ‘first look’ of Pangong Lake point had no view nor colours to savour, yaks wandered in the vast plains of the Changthang and it really seemed like a wild place. Just before reaching the village of Spangmik, we were in for a major scare.
A big frozen chunk of ice had blocked the road and the vehicle was unable to make any progress. Adrenaline was pumping and I was happy to experience the feel of a frozen landscape for the first time in my life. I had been to Ladakh earlier and had slow travelled across the high passes but this was something else!
It was around 3 in the afternoon and Norbu had decided to take us to the homestay closest to the lake. The sun had no inclination whatsoever and white clouds covered most of the sky. The lady of the homestay was known to Norbu and she agreed to charge 250/- per person including food for the day. So, we were 4300m above sea level and freezing.
I warmed myself in the homestay kitchen and wondered ‘Why have I come here?’
Meanwhile, the family with me had went directly to the lake and were pretty pumped up to walk on a frozen lake. I had absolutely forgotten about them and was in my own happy space. The gur-gur chai (Salty Tibetan Butter Tea) instilled warmth in me and I ate some rice rajmah too.
It was also a general rule of thumb to spend some time acclimatising to these insane temperatures before (ad)venturing out in the open. Even sitting idle required an enormous effort in breathing and I didn’t want to jeopardise this long sojourn.
It was Norbu who dragged me from the kitchen (Samosas were being made) and walked with me to the lake. I was nervous at first, the ice made a creaking sound whenever I thrust my full weight and stood still. It got better as we walked farther, my fear had gone away too. The lake hadn’t fully frozen yet and water reflected the skies creating a gigantic endless expanse of white. A thick white slab of ice had gathered at the edge of that lake giving it a dreamy effect.
Read : Frozen in Markha Valley
A village kid had my attention with the cutest smile ever and we roamed in the 8-9 home hamlet. I was invited to a round of tea by the kids parents when they saw me loitering around with their three kids! I was pleased to know more about their lives.
I jumped and danced in glee and watched darkness engulf the vast open spaces while howling winds brushed us aside to send us screeching into the warmth of the homestay. Gur Gur Chai flowed like water and I helped myself to as much as ten cups. Everyone huddled in the small room that was warm due to the bukhari (traditional heater) and lazed while finishing dinner. Food wasn’t important, survival was the key. Kids were urged to eat and also to drink more water and stay warm.
The homestay lady assured us that the one blanket she had provided per person would be very warm and adequate; and how true it turned out to be. It was apparently smuggled into India and was available in Chushul (As per local information.) I could see stars of various colours twinkle and the sky threw out a variety of colours from the window.
At the first light of morning, I summoned all my strength to go for morning duties. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when water provided to me began freezing in the little time that it was lying in the open.
A burning stove had to be put beneath the car to warm up the freezing diesel; Norbu seemed to be an expert in this. It started effortlessly after all the preparation and had to be kept on idle to sufficiently warm the engine. We were privileged to see a fiery sunrise before the clouds took charge again. On our way back, a white landscape confirmed the fact that it had snowed all night. Chang La was even prettier now with a big helping of fresh snow.
Braveheart Ladakhi women battled knee deep in snow to keep the roads open working for BRO (Border Roads Organisation). Two members of the Jaipur family with me had spent a sleepless night grappling with signs of AMS. They were administered oxygen at the army camp at top of Chang La when their readings read a dismal 58 and 72. I was amused with the cute instrument and let my oxygen levels be checked too.
Maybe I was a Ladakhi in a previous birth. It read 89.