The revelation was most wondrous. What had been prismic shimmers around bends and atop treelines grew into a stretch of aquamarine fringed by sheeny topaz in the late afternoon sun.
An unrelenting chilly gale kept the pristine mountain lake and the pebbled shore riveted in a lacy embrace. Brown-headed gulls skittered over for whatever aquatic life the brackish water could afford.
Driving to the Pangong Tso in the Leh region of Ladakh, you traverse Changthang—nothing less than a slice of the divine. Greenfields with wild ponies and marmots scurrying across, frozen tarns, yaks minded by herders on horses wearing bicorn, gently woofing gaddis or mountain dogs keeping discipline.
Leh to Pangong Lake is done via the Bactrian halt at Hunder village in Nubra valley over two days. After driving through blizzard-prone Khardung La, you climb down from the heavens to enter paradise.
The Nubra valley is home to the double-humped Bactrian camel, living remnants from the days of trading along the Silk Route. Defying extinction they flourished and today ferry city folks shrieking with excitement over the lunar dunes of Nubra.
The shortest route from Nubra to Pangong is through Agham village but the passage is sometimes threatened by the Shyok River swelling.
The problem with meltwater is that as the day advances it rises rapidly and in these parts it feeds most water bodies. So avoid unnecessary halts or delays.
The first sighting of the lake is unforgettable. Our driver stopped the vehicle while the lake was still a triangular, turquoise slate wedged between the shoulders of brown hills in the horizon.
In the silence, even our laboured breaths in the rarefied air gave way for the awe.
“Most tourists do not come here to see a high altitude lake, or a protected wildlife territory, for that matter even the occasional avifauna exclusive to the region,” says Angchuk Jora, a local and a campsite partner by the Pangong Lake. “They come here to see where 3 Idiots was filmed.”
People milled around props from the movie placed on the shore, perfecting their positions and pouts from referral posters.
“Anything that provides a boost to the local economy should be encouraged. But what about the price extracted on the environment?” asks Jora.
From 527 tourists in 1974 when Ladakh was opened to tourism to over 300,000 annually today, the numbers are growing exponentially.
And with it, the toll taken on the habitat goes up. Fishing and boating are prohibited in the Pangong waters as it is a protected wildlife area and also due to an unresolved border feud with China. Of the approximately 150 km length of the lake, more than two-third is in occupied Tibet.
A morning stroll along the lake throws up garbage of every conceivable shape and size. As the day progresses and the lake launches into its famous colour play, changing surface palette every passing minute, the beatitude is broken by mounds of trash you will stumble upon—while some are carelessly strewn across, heaps are tucked under piles of alluvium and granite stones.
In an ecologically fragile zone, you have to ask questions and demand answers from locals, authorities and other stakeholders. This is one way of ensuring that places like the Pangong Tso remains being the continuum of unfettered beauty.
“There is a paucity of trash cans along the Pangong Lake,” admits Avny Lavasa, the deputy commissioner of Leh who is also the CEO of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “But it will be rectified soon,” she assures.
This is just one of the several measures in the pipeline under the Tsangdra drive initiated by Lavasa. While ‘Tsangdra’ means ‘cleanliness,’ under its broad purviews are concepts of local ownership-driven home through development of eco-sensitive zones.
“Tsangdra is about cleanliness, and development. It takes into account the opinions of locals and has their best interests at heart,” says Stanzin Gyalson, a businessman and homestay owner in Leh.
He brings up the original development blueprint of the Pangong Tso where the campsites were required to be shifted away from the lake.
“While initially there was resistance from camp owners, they all agreed when Ms Lavasa convinced them that it was for the long-term good.” Tsangdra has already been piloted to success and appreciation. Cabbies are given portable trash containers into which they collect plastic bottles and other garbage discarded by tourists and other motorists.
Lavasa and her team will also be harnessing the power of social media for the same through competitions as well.
“It’s not too late to set things right. We have the cooperation of the locals and the administration,” she says with confidence. What is needed now is the understanding and support of those who pass by. Those like us.