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To the mystical highlands in Ladakh

The magical land of Changthang in Ladakh is the stuff of dreams, though it might be losing its pristine beauty to the onslaught of tourists and campers

Geetanjali Krishna 

At 17,590 feet above sea level, Chang La is one of the highest motorable passes in the world
At 17,590 feet above sea level, Chang La is one of the highest motorable passes in the world

I first heard of Changthang many moons ago, through the adventures of Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku. The good professor went to Tibet in search of unicorns, but found instead a magical place in Changthang where dreams came true. Changthang was, I imagined, a mystical highland with vast meadows, glaciers and giant saltwater lakes, where strange birds and magical beasts roamed free. Over the years, this notion was dispelled as a hungry market for poached animal parts in China decimated its snow leopards, and the Indian passion for Shahtoosh killed off most of its massive herds of the Tibetan antelope. Yet today, as we reach Chang La Pass to cross over into the Changthang Plateau, that old magic rears its head once again.

Snow surrounds us at Chang La. At 17,590 feet above the sea level, it is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. The air is thin, weather treacherous and the roads non-existent. A few stray clouds swoop down to meet the snow as we reach the top, a ridge with valleys far below on either side. A golden eagle soars lazily on an air current as I espy an Indian Army soldier in his outpost. He tells me the army maintains the pass because of its proximity to the Chinese border. I tell him we’re headed to Pangong Tso. “Did you know,” he asks, “that Pangong Tso saw action during the Sino-Indian war?” There are, he informs me, hidden bunkers all along the lake, of which merely 40 percent is in India; the rest is in China.

Soon after we cross over to the other side of Chang La, the snow is replaced by meadows irrigated by glacial rivulets. After a simple lunch in Tangtse, at the Dothguling Guest house (they say Aamir Khan stayed here while shooting 3 Idiots), we drive on. It’s a strange place, Changthang. It is as desolate as desolate can be, with sandy hills topped with a fine dusting of snow. Its lakes (notably Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri) are vast, and nobody knows how deep they are. They’re an unearthly blue, almost blinding in the sun. And as for the sun…In the middle of the day, exposure to it instantly causes noses to peel, foreheads to burn and cheeks to chap.

En route, we spot a pair of Kiang, Tibetan wild asses, grazing in a meadow. These creatures are becoming an increasingly uncommon sight in Changthang, our driver tells us. Soon, we see why. Ahead, a couple of cars drive off the road and into the grassland. The Kiang disappears from sight. “The tourists have probably spotted marmots,” the driver rues. “And they must be feeding them biscuits, flouting the rules of the National Park.” A couple of bucktoothed specimens come into view. Marmots look like they’ve stepped out of a Disney cartoon. Sadly, however, I learn that this commonly-found squirrel species in these altitudes is being decimated as they’ve become addicted to a diet of chips and processed food.

Our first glimpse of Pangong Tso is magical. However, as we edge closer to the massive lake (it is 134 kilometers long), we realise that owing to a host of films shot here in recent times, the surreal, lunar landscape has too many admirers. The village near the lake, Spangmik, is full of “eco camps” and “nature resorts”. Thankfully, we’re headed further to Pangong Sarai, a tiny tented camp far from the madding crowds.

To the mystical highlands in Leh
In the growing evening chill, we don our woolies for a walk along the lake. A pair of ruddy shelducks and some brown-headed gulls are out and about — Pangong Tso is an important breeding spot for several avian species even though its brackish waters support little vegetation or fish. We come across a horseman. He belongs to the Changpas, local nomadic herders of this area. Did he ever see snow leopards here? “They’re too shy to stay here, amongst so many tourists and soldiers,” he says. “But we see them sometimes when we take the goats to higher pastures…” It turns out that he has a herd of Pashmina goats, and invites us over to see them the next morning. We head back as the wind picks up speed and the temperature drops to what feels like below freezing. Back at the camp, we’re relieved to see not just a mountain of blankets, but also two hot water bottles on each bed. We’ll need them all, for the temperature is slated to drop to minus three degrees that night.

In the morning, we walk to the village to meet our new-found friend, Norbu. “The goats would have been out grazing by now,” says he. “But today is shearing day!” Nearby, an old man is combing and clipping their hair with the ease of a salon stylist. Changras, as these Pashmina goats are locally known, are the sole source of livelihood for most Changpas, as the season for cultivation is extremely short. It was a hard life, he said, and many young people in his village had migrated to Leh. “But tourism has given us an alternative livelihood.”

Later, I sit on the banks of Pangong Tso, looking at the crackling layers of salt along its rim. It is an Endorheic lake, a water body that doesn’t flow into the sea. Being a closed drainage system, its mineral-rich waters are especially prone to pollution. I wonder at the fragility of its ecosystem and way of life, as yet another adventurous driver heedlessly raises sand, driving off road along its banks. Is curbing tourism the best way to conserve this magical place? Then I remember how happy Norbu was with the “development” Pangong Lake has seen. There are no right answers, I realise, and all I can do is capture the moment in yet another photograph.

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First Published: Sat, September 05 2015. 00:26 IST