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Sprawled along the border between North India and Southwest China, Pangong Tso is one of the most spectacular sights in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India and the Chinese area of Tibet. Occupying a basin between tall peaks, the 172,800-acre lake is located at 14,270 feet elevation and usually appears to be a deep blue or aqua. Pangong Tso, also called Pangong Lake, is a brackish "soda" or alkaline lake that supports little aquatic life. The name Pangong Tso is Tibetan and means "long, narrow, enchanted lake", an apt description for the stunningly blue water. The surrounding area could correctly be called desert; little rainfall adds to the lake, and only two inflowing streams feed its depths. The shore supports only a little low-growing shrubbery and other plant life. But the expanse of colorful water against the stark beauty of the surrounding mountains draws visitors to the shore despite the hardships of travel to the area. Panoramas of the lake in the 2009 Bollywood hit, "3 Idiots" increased both Indian and Chinese awareness of the spectacular surroundings, leading to an increase in tourism.
The international border between China and Indian crosses through Pangong Tso, and that border is continually in dispute. The lake's eastern end is in Tibet, and the western end is in India. Entering the area requires a special permit called an Inner Line Permit from the Indian authorities. Indian citizens may obtain these individually, but foreign tourists can only receive group passes to be led by an accredited guide. These passes can be obtained from the tourist office in Leh and will be checked several places along the route by the Indian Army, so multiple copies are recommended. Access from Leh takes about five hours across a rough track that includes crossing Chang La Pass, the second-highest motor route in the world at almost 17,600 feet. An Army outpost at the pass checks paperwork, while a small tea house offers a bit of refreshment to tired travelers. Fording the locally famous Pagal Naala or Crazy Stream is usually a high spot of the trip. The innocuous little stream should be crossed in the morning while its glacier-melt flow is still frozen from the cold night. After the sun gets high, the melt waters rush downstream in a spectacular torrent, reaching several feet in depth, sometimes carrying boulders with them.
When visitors finally see Pangong Tso, the brilliant blues are stunning. And after the rough crossing, the few small tea houses and restaurants are most welcome. A few tent camps exist along the northwestern shore, usually with little or no electricity and limited running water. Nights are cold here at nearly 15,000 feet, and a good warm sleeping bag is suggested for all overnight visitors. Even during the summer season, the temperature often drops to freezing. In winter the lake, although salty, freezes over completely to the point where Indian Army troops stationed here play cricket on the ice. The lakeshore is closed to visitors in the winter. No boating is allowed on the lake due to border security concerns; any boats seen on the water are likely military. Visitors are advised to stay on Indian lands and not venture into Chinese territory. Prior to border disputes, natives accustomed to the elevation used to make regular circumnavigations of the huge lake on foot as a matter of religious devotion, a distance of well over 200 miles.
Important wetlands are located around the lake and provide sanctuary to a number of migratory birds and breeding areas for waterfowl. During summer, the Bar-headed goose and Brahmini ducks are commonly seen here. The region around the lake supports a number of species of wildlife including the kiang and the marmot. The area is under study to be added as a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance which will help to protect the fragile ecology of the region. This will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under the RAMSAR Convention. At one time, Pangong Tso had an outlet to Shyok River, a tributary of the Indus River, but it was closed off by natural damming. Geological evidence shows the lake was once quite a bit larger than it now is. Visitors are reminded to treat the area as a wilderness and take any trash along with them when they leave.
During the hot and humid Indian summer season, the higher elevations of the Ladakh region are a sought-after vacation destination. Pangong Tso is still a bit off the beaten track but becoming more popular every year. Although there are no famous monasteries or temples at Pangong Tso, the route leading to the lake is well-supplied with sights of interest to tourists. In Leh City, one of the must-see locations is Leh Palace. Its nine stories made it the tallest building in the world when built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. The building is very similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The ruined palace is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India and is open to the public. The view from the rooftop is breathtaking, with Stok Kangri Mountain in the Zangskar mountain range visible across the Indus valley to the south and the Ladakh mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.
Close to Leh City is the Sankar Monastery belonging to the Gelukpa or the Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism. The monastery is the official residence of the Ladakh's head of Gelukpa Sect. Open to visitors daily between 7am-10am and 5pm-7pm, the central image within the monastery is Tsong-kha-pa, founder of the yellow-hat sect of Buddhism. Another image is of Avalokitesvara with 1,000 arms and 11 heads. Sankar Monastery also has a temple devoted to the deity Dukar. Another nearby attraction is the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist shrine. Built by a Japanese Buddhist organization, called 'Japanese for World Peace', the stupa was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. The stupa's white dome is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset.
The route to Pangong Tso passes many monasteries, stupas and religious buildings. Most permit visitors and are more than willing to allow tourists to take pictures of their unique decorative architecture. Prayer flags flutter above the mountain passes, and signs of the religious nature of these hardy people are everywhere. The barren landscape is transformed by the colorful bursts of decorative textiles that adorn the most common of daily objects in use by local herdsmen. Visitors gain a sense of perspective here at the 'roof of the world', where humanity struggles to celebrate an often stark existence in a harsh land that they love. There are many local guest houses and guest rooms available, although often amenities are quite primitive. Tea and Maggi noodles are the staples, found at nearly every establishment. Western-style hotels and apartments are available in Leh City. Tour guides can be arranged in Leh or by travel agents. Bring plenty of warm clothes and sturdy walking shoes and the camera; you will never run out of photogenic scenery. Pangong Tso is definitely a bucket-list destination.
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