Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pangong Tso... Ladakh and Tibet

A death-defying and dramatic five hour drive from Leh, Pangong Tso (Ladakhi for "Lake") glows spectacular aqua and indigo in the sunshine at 14,000 feet. Though permits are required to climb the desolate and snow-capped peaks that bring you dangerously close to the Indian-Tibetan border, we managed to expedite the process through veteran antics and a wink from a U.N. travel-mate. Cramming our diverse Bain, Google, U.N. and Fulbright, Detroit-to-Ireland crew into a land-cruiser, and we set off at 5am.

By 8am we took rest at the Changla Pass, the world's third-highest motorable mountain road. Though it was June 21, the first day of summer in the rugged Himalaya still comes with flurries of snow. A Nepali man who had served 23 years in the Indian army served me a complimentary cup of chai in his tented green military outpost. Two fatigued men with rifles laughed at my basic Hindi and Bollywood one-liners aside their burning furnace, faces half-shielded by bandanas to keep away the snow. Whereas overpriced coffee would accompany any Western tourist stop, Ladakh is still remote, inaccessible, and hidden behind the expectations of a dangerous Kashmir. As such, it's a world of immense and unparalleled rugged beauty, smiles and rifles, edgy moments and deep histories.

Descending from 17,300 at Changla Pass to 14,000 where Pangong Tso straddles the Indian-Tibetan border, we came upon a world not known as Earth. Infinitely complex patterned lines carved their way down thousands of feet of arid red-brown rock. Martian hills plunged toward an un-Earthly green and blue crystal lake, and above them towered the knife-edged Karakoram peaks of Tibet. Surrounded by flat shale, the pristine lake offers unparalleled rock-skipping. Overcome by elation, dizzy with altitude, whipped by crisp wind, we laughed as we dipped to skip perfectly-shaped bits of shale over the rippled reflection of Tibetan peaks.

The journey to Pangong Tso consisted of 10-hours of extreme-altitude driving over a bouldered pass often lacking pavement or even legitimate form. The road, though a snaking line carved into the brown of nearby peaks, was often little more than a clearing or flattening of natural elements. Forging streams of glacial run-off, passing flocks of high-altitude Dzo (Yak-cow hybrids), agile goats, and grizzly Yaks (16,000 feet plus), our tires were frequently inches from thousand-foot drops, and spit flecks of gravel into lush valleys below. As Greg Morteson notes in Three Cups of Tea, it's the roads that will kill you before terrorism.

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