It had been a monumental day when we hitchhiked from Sumur to tiny Agham village and then through the most remote Shyok valley road to somehow get to Shyok village and make it to Durbuk. The as-it-happened detailed story is written for my book ‘The Goodness of Strangers’.
It is 25th December and we are overjoyed to wake up to a white morning in Durbuk. We have a quick breakfast at the homestay and take their leave.
We stand on the road in Durbuk waiting for a ride. Our plan for the day is flexible and we are keen on making it either to Maan or Merak village located on the banks of Pangong Tso. An army truck gives us a 9km ride and leaves us at a crossroads outside Tangtse. The roads are all snowed out and bifurcate for Tangtse town and another one goes to Erath.
The only traffic is by way of Army trucks mostly going by a green bridge which was a Army Camp. After waiting for about 30 minutes, we still don’t have a ride. I walk to the side of a building and pee in the white snow. We decide to just walk to Tangtse market to have a better chance of getting a ride ahead to Pangong Tso and end up getting a ride in a Mahindra Thar owned by a bakery guy.
At Tangtse, in no time we meet a camper guy who is going to Lukung village. He informed us that he will leave in around 30 minutes. We roam around Tangtse market in the snow, click pictures of the daily life, buy some candies and chat with one lama ji. We start from Tangtse towards Lukung and cross the Shachukul Monastery on a cliff.
The landscape is totally white from the fresh snowfall and there are footprints of many kinds of animals. The camper guy tells us he saw 2 foxes on his way to Tangtse just one day earlier. There is also some sand on the road and is is surreal to see white sand and snow together!
Just before reaching Lukung, we have the first sight of the dark blue waters of Pangong Tso which is not yet frozen. The camper guy takes us to Spangmik and there we meet Padma aunty and the little kid. I have stayed earlier with them and show Padma aunty the kid’s photograph from the 2015 winter trip to Ladakh. The waters of Pangong Tso look as stunning as ever; in a darker shade of blue with no moisture or cloud cover around.
It is only around 2 pm and since our plan is to head directly to Changthang after crossing Pangong Tso and Chushul; we ask the Camper guy is he can drop us to Merak village and offer to pay 500 Rupees. He has some other work in Merak as well and agrees! We are excited like little kids! My friend Jai has given us some photographs to be given to the homestay family in Merak.
Just after crossing Spangmik, the road disappears and only sand and snow sheets are visible; the landscape looks unreal. The distance between Spangmik and Maan, Merak village is 10+10 kms. We drive on frozen streams and it feels like a grand adventure! We don’t encounter any other vehicle on the route. At one point, the road ascends high above the lake and the colours of Pangong Tso look like a painting!
As we drive farther, we spot frozen water on the banks of Pangong Tso. One of the frozen water area is big and kids are skating on it! There are multi-coloured mountains in the nearby vicinity and recent snowfall is visible on them. We cross the prettily located Maan village, with 20 odd homes and 1-2 fancy resorts with dome yurt-like tents. We continue and reach Merak village and ask for the Amchi’s homestay.
We are in for a rude shock with the cold wind. The Amchi Homestay is closed as there is nobody there. The next house is Amchi brother’s homestay and he agrees to host us. There is fancy bollywood music playing and 3 very cute kids studying in the kitchen and hall of the homestay. We are served tea and make ourselves warm in the kitchen.
They ask us if we have eaten lunch and we tell them we haven’t! So lunch is served and is very tasty. Rice with vegetable curry of potatoes and carrots.
It is only 3 pm and the sun is shining brightly outside. We go out for a walk in the village and notice the scattered houses of Merak interspersed with the dried yellow fields. It is a very pretty village with a beach kind of feel and the ethereal colours of Pangong Tso. The wind blows very fiercely even though the sun is shining brightly. It is unbearably cold.
We were recommended to climb a nearby hillock in Merak village for a vantage view point of Pangong Tso. The freezing wind ensures that we are content with the current view of the blue waters of Pangong Tso and decide to just return to the homestay.
The warmth in the home is quite welcome and we sit with the family and kids. They are a mischievous bunch and are playing and making faces! Someone shows us that they burn dried dung in the bukhari tandoor. The tandoor is different in Changthang than the other parts of Ladakh as there is no burner attached to the Tandoor. Its purpose is clear as a source of providing heat and making the home warm.
We share the photographs given by Jai to a lady. The family announces that a Ladakhi dish chutagi is going to be made for dinner. We are happy and play with the kids upon this information. The preparations for cooking chutagi begin and we are surprised to see that almost all the other stuff is packaged. The mushroom is from somewhere, the flour is from Jammu and the paneer is packaged too.
In past winter trips, I had seen families keeping vegetables dug in the ground to be used later but not it seemed like packaged stuff had taken precedence over everything. The chutagi is ready and turns out to be barely edible; maybe it is because of the altitude but it feels a little uncooked.
Some village official is coming for a visit on the next day and the ladies of the house show us a perak! One of the ladies is in the welcoming party and she does a trial of the costume she is going to wear.
It is only about 8 pm in the night; we sit with the family and share conversations. They show us to a warm room and we jump in bed with a multitude of heavy blankets. They light up a bukhari in the room to make it warm; in hardly 15 minutes the pipe of the bukhari comes off and the room is filled with smoke. Thankfully, we hadn’t slept yet and no one is hurt.
We are shifted to a different room; it is bigger than the earlier room but is a lot colder. There is no direct sunlight that reaches this room and therefore it is freezing even after an hour of us snuggling into the heavy blankets. We have a disturbed sleep and even breathing under the heavy blankets feels difficult.
When we go to pee in the nearby washroom in the night, the millions of stars are a sight I have never seen before. The colours of the milky way are dazzling!