On Top of The World: The Travelogue Part-5

The folks who had gone to Nubra returned to Leh pretty late in the night. It was obvious task for them to resume the ride to Pangong Tso early next morning since they needed to catch some sleep. However, Ladakh is a place where you cannot compromise on time since weather and the landscape can change within minutes. Any way, with the daunting task of conquering Chang La, sleep was the last thing in our minds.

Chang La has the reputation of being one of the toughest pass to cross in Ladakh. What makes it difficult is its high altitude being the 3rd highest pass in the world. This is further accentuated by intermittent snow fall and practically no tar roads. For us Chang La was like a boogey man-we have only heard about it happening to someone else and basis that our imaginations about what we would go through ran absolutely wild.

The best thing to do when you are riding within Ladakh is to start early. Given the sunny weather it is very unlikely that one would find ice on the road. However, if one were to start late, as the day progresses, the ice begins to melt turning patches of roads into virtual water streams making it extremely difficult and treacherous for bikes to cross. So to avoid getting into any such situation, we decided to make an early start for Pangong Tso. The ride to Pangong Tso took us roughly 35km outside of Leh on the Manali-Leh road and from their, we had to take a diversion towards Karu. Early on in the morning, the ride was absolutely pleasant. There was a nip in the air and the sun was in its final preparations to shine for another day. We drove all the way till Karu and there, we filled up our tanks at a petrol pump. I quickly inquired from the locals there about the condition of the road ahead. The news was encouraging as the locals advised that the road was fine with no snowfall in the past day. The ride after we took the diversion from Karu was one of the best that we experienced in our entire ride. Soon we reached Shakti and I knew that we will begin our ascent to the notorious Chang La. Gradually, good tar roads started to give way to bumpy tracks with stones and gravel. Then, there were puddles of water here and there. The temperature started to drop as the bright sun was slowly silhouetted by thick clouds. Ice started to appear on the side walls of the road adding fear and anxiety in my mind about possible ice on the road.

We rode on braving the chill and the bad roads an bumped into a transit camp hoping that we would get some hot tea to warm us a little bit. Unfortunately, there was nothing available and we had settle for a mere pit stop and resuming our perilous journey towards Chang La. The Chang La top was roughly 10 kms from the transit camp. As we kept ascending, the roads further deteriorated but we did not give up and after a lot of struggle, we safely made it to the top. It was another proud moment for all of us since we all conquered the dreaded Chang la pass. We stopped there for a while to get some tea, which was being served free for the tourists. There were many groups of tourists who had traveled in tourist cabs and many of them were thrilled and awed to see us bunch of bikers braving the cold and riding all the way.

Chang La

The Nomads @ Chang La

After our brief halt, we resumed our ride forward. Since Leh is at a relatively higher altitude therefore, the ascent from Leh to Chang La is not very steep. However, the region beyond Chang La drops to a much lower altitude and therefore, the descent from Chang La is even more dangerous than the ascent. And all the while we were descending from Chang la, I was getting more and more worried about our return journey when we would have to negotiate this virtual 45 degree ascent. After we rode down from Chang La, the ride became smooth. Just after Chang La, we stopped at a point that had this make shift dhaba made out of a tent. These were the elusive Changpas, an endangered tribal clan of Ladakh. We had a sumptuous meal of maggi and tea. While the food was being prepared, I ventured into the tent of the Changpa. I had seen this in the movie, “Riding Solo to the top of the world” and it was a dream come true to have first hand look and feel of their tents. The lady of the house also demonstrated how they may butter from Yak milk using the bags made out of goat skin. Rustic but effective.

The Changpa Tent

Changpa Lady making Yak Butter using a bag made of goat skin

After consuming maggi we proceeded further. As we rode on, the mesmerizing landscapes of Ladakh started to open up in front of us. This part of the Ladakh valley is called the Changthang Plateau. A vast expanse of land with no sight of human civilization, awe-inspiring mountains absolutely parched with no rains were some of the striking features of this landscape. We took some amazing videos of our ride on the road to Pangong Tso. After riding for a little more time, we were getting impatient to see the lake. I could recall a similar experience while riding to Chandertal couple of years ago when we had almost given up on visiting the lake after enduring some of the roughest roads en route. But then, the moment of truth came. Just a little distance before the lake, there is a spot from where you get to see the first view of the lake and this is how I would describe it:

A streak of blue color interspersed within parched, muddy, brown colored mountains making you feel that this is an oasis amidst a barren desert all around. The very sight of the lake made us quench our thirst and further rejuvenated our energy levels to keep going.

The first view of the Pagnong Tso

We rode a little further and reached the famed Pangong Lake. It was as if heaven had descended upon earth. It was a like a place that one would have only heard of in fairy tales and cartoons. A vast sheet of azure laid to perfection with a panorama of dry, motionless mountains. This one moment made all of us feel lucky and blessed. We spent awful amount of time taking photos in different poses and couple of us also dared get into the icy cold water. After staying there for some time, some of us decided to return to Leh. Since this was penultimate day in Leh therefore, I was insisting that we should return to Leh the same day and use the next day to get our bikes checked before we take on the odyssey of crossing the Manali-Leh highway. But Anil, Sukrit, Himanshu and Harsh wanted to experience the night in Pangong Tso so they stayed back. The rest of us resumed our journey back to Leh.

Pangong Tso

A Lama astride the messiah

the nomads savoring the lake

The return journey, as anticipated was quite tough. Usually, during the afternoon the wind speed in the Ladakh valley picks up a lot. And because most of our ride was in a valley therefore, we had to counter high wind flow pushing us from the opposite direction. There were moments when the bikes almost stalled and would not move even in the first gear. We somehow managed and reached the point from out the ascent to Chang La began. As I had guessed, it was one of the toughest stretches that we had experienced in the entire ride. A sheer 45 degree ascent ensured that some of our bikes had to be pushed. Thankfully we had help from each other and all of us safely made it to Leh. Now, for those who have not been to Chang La and intend to go there in the future here’s some useful information. The only difficult part of Chang La is a distance of 14 km. 10 kms from Leh side and 4 kms from Pangong Tso side. Rest of the journey is very smooth. Not that these 14 kms are any easy but if at all you end up getting anxious about Chang La, just keep in mind that its just 14 kms.

Late in the evening we went to Hotel Lamayuru for our dinner. Reminiscing about our ride to Pangong Tso, we all crashed in for the night. The next day was pretty much at our disposal. We all woke up in a relaxed manner and got ready to get our bikes checked for one last time before we began our final leg of the journey on the legendary Manali-Leh highway. I was determined that I would visit the Hemis Gompa on that day since I did not want to miss it this time. After getting our bikes checked, we had our lunch and returned to the hotel. Our friends who stayed at Pangong Tso had not returned yet to Leh.

At around 3pm, I decided that I will go for a quick spin and visit the Hemis Gompa. The Hemis Gompa is the largest and the richest monastery in the Ladakh region. It was built in the year 1620 and lies approximately 40 km from Leh. The Hemis gompa is not readily visible to the naked eye however, as you keep moving on the road, which has vast expanse of empty land on both sides, the monastery suddenly emerges sitting majestically at the foot of the hills that appear no less than a guarding deity of the monastery. The gigantic façade of the monastery is simply awe-inspiring and the village that is juxtaposed with the monastery seems to be out of a painting. I felt very happy to have visited the gompa since it was my dream for a long time to do so. Inside the monastery, there was a huge statue of the presiding deity, Guru Padmasambhava. You have to see it to believe it.

the inner courtyard of Hemis Gompa

the towering statue of Guru Padmasambhava

Guru Padmasambhava

Post my sojourn to Hemis, I returned to Leh and began the arduous task of packing for the next day’s mammoth ride on the Manali-Leh highway. By the time, I came back, our friends had returned from Pangong Tso and were telling tales of their “one night stand” at the lake. We all had a hearty discussion and eventually also discussed about our plan for the next day. What lay ahead of us were some more challenges-the notorious Tanglang La, the second highest pass in the world, Kanglajal Nallah Baralacha La, Rani Nallah and of course Rohtang La with all its mud, slush and rain.


  • Anil Misra says:

    Brilliant ride and brilliantly described. Keep it up.

  • Nandan says:

    Great narration Vas.

    The lake pic is not real. My guess is that you have painted this using your imagination, it is just too good to be true.

    So can one get a camp/acco at the lake impromptu ?

    Look fwd to read the ride back.

  • Vas says:

    @nandan: i wish my imagination was as awe-inspiring as the lake itself. fortunately, the lake is for real and exists for the human eye.

    One can camp around the lake in the designated camping site. there are also tented acco available around the lake at a nominal cost. there is also a government guest house available for stay.

    @anil: thank you for your comments.

  • Nandan says:

    Looking fwd to Leh-Manali ride. Since your original plan was to do Manali-Leh, I am assuming that there must be a lot of excitement when you started for this ride. Make it happen soon.

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