I was woken up by the same sun-in-the-face alarm clock the next morning, and I found Shao almost packed and ready to leave. We picked up her bags and headed to find a cab to take her to the airport, but the illness had taken a pretty heavy toll on her. She was finding it really hard to walk, let alone carry her luggage (another little reminder to take AMS seriously). We were supposed to leave for Nubra that day, and that wasn't until atleast ten in the morning, so I accompanied Shao to the airport and made sure she had entered safely. That done, I wound my way back to my hotel and waited for the others to rise and shine. It was around ten-thirty that I got a call from Ifti, our tour operator, who informed us that there had been a avalanche on the road Nubra. PP and I went over to his office, where we met Rohit, who was to accompany us on our journey to Nubra. We were asked to wait for about an hour until someone received a word about the condition of the road. About half an hour later, we were told that the road would not open the same day. Just last evening, Mohsin and I had been gloating about how the trip had gone off completely according to plan, and I had heard a voice in my head that told me I would regret gloating so much. We were in quite a fix because of this sudden change of plans. A waste of a day would mean that one of the two places that were left would have to be scratched out of the itinerary. We had some quick discussions after which we decided that we would move around the plan a little bit. We decided to leave for Tsomoriri the same day, and moved Nubra to the days that we had initially planned for Tsomoriri. Rohit (who had been in Leh for about three weeks because of an internship), who is quite the bird-watching enthusiast also decided to join us, despite the fact that he had been to the lake about a month ago. Ifti scrambled to arrange the fresh set of permits as we relaxed in our hotel rooms, and it was beyond noon by the time we left for Tsomoriri, which is a part of the Changthang plateau (which extends into Tibet and also houses Pangong) about 230 kilometres away from Leh.
We were quite excited as we piled into Jigme's car; we would get to stay next to the lake at night, and we'd still get to visit all the places we had planned to visit. Manav, of course, dozed off within minutes into the journey, and kept drifting in and out of sleep till our first lunch stop at the small village of Upshi on the banks of the Indus. We had a fantastic meal at Upshi; the food was great and we were being attended to by a very pretty waitress. The road from Leh bifurcates at Upshi- the left fork goes to Tsomoriri and eastern Ladakh, while the right fork heads southward towards Manali. Right after a very nice filling lunch, we found Manav rather jolly and active, contrary to his usual sleepiness on the road. This was something we had been noticing for quite a while. Ruchira had first pointed it out on our way to Leh from Srinagar, and the phenomenon was unmistakable. "Manav is like an infant on the road. He sleeps, wakes up, eats, plays around and sleeps off again as soon as the fuel has run out", Ruchira once said; and Manav was doing just that. We took the left cut from Upshi and headed towards Eastern Ladakh, with the Indus keeping us company. The road unlike the previous day, was flat and the drive was quick. The Indus, itself was changing moods and colours as we went along. On the way, Jigme pointed out some villages and bridges where some sequences of "Three Idiots" were shot. Soon, we were within touching distance of Chumathang. The Indus had gone from a raging green torrent to a calm, milky blue stream. The valley floor had suddenly opened up, so the river snaked its way past the rocks that littered its path. Here, we also saw a memorial erected for the Indian army. Many memorial headstones covered the mountainside, one for every battalion that fought in the 1962 war with China.
(Above: Clockwise from top-left: Chinese war memorial, multicoloured mountains, the Indus slows down near Chumathang, hot springs at Chumathang)
We stopped for tea at Chumathang, which is famous for its hot springs. The putrid smell of Sulphur filled the air, and water could be seen bubbling out of various gaps in the rocks. The sulphur salts were also doing funny things in the water, turning into a strange colour as they mixed with the river water. The stop at Chumathang was short, and about an hour later we arrived at a checkpoint near the village of Mahe. The road straight from Mahe goes to Nyoma and Hanle, near the Tibetan border, the road to the right goes to Sumdo and on to Tsomoriri. At Mahe, we were approached by three friendly locals, who were looking for a lift till the Sumdo. We gladly took them on board and the ten of us, including Jigme squeezed into the car and drove on. On the way, we learned about their way of life and how hard it was for them to travel everyday from Sumdo to Mahe, considering that ours was the only vehicle we had seen for about twenty kilometres. Sumdo itself is divided between Upper and Lower Sumdo, separated by about 3-4 kilometres. We dropped off one of our companions at Upper Sumdo and the other two at Lower Sumdo. It was quite a joy to meet the people of Lower Sumdo. There were many children in the mix, who were very excited to see all of us. Right here I re-emphasize the beauty of being on the road. You come across some of the most beautiful people, inside and out, and every such interaction leaves your life enriched in some way.
The road had been very pleasant thus far . We drove past Namsung La in a hurry, the pass neither being very high, nor very dramatic; unlike its siblings in the area. But a few kilometers past Namsung La, right in front of us, was one of the most stunning sights we had seen during the entire trip. A small lake called Thadsang Karu with its milky blue water lay right in front. It was quite a beautiful sight- the sun was about to take a nosedive behind the mountains on the right, there was a straight road leading into the blue, and right behind the blue was a white snow clad mountain. What's more, there weren't the usual hundred people contaminating the view. Aside from us, there were only three bikers near the lake who were fixing their bikes. We made a quick photo-stop and stood there for a few minutes admiring the scenery, before Jigme signalled that it was time to leave. The paved road ended at Thadsang Karu; the next twenty odd kilometers down to Tsomoriri would be on a muddy track, sometimes dissecting a huge flat plain, other times negotiating the side of a mountain. Along the way, many nomadic tents appeared, along with their flock of sheep. A little stream flowing down from the mountains had frozen over at several places.
(Above: Clockwise from top-left: The charming people of Upper Sumdo, approach to Thadsang Karu, Thadsang Karu, nomads and sheep)
Tsomoriri's appearance in this story was quite similar to that of Pangong, only more beautiful. About ten kilometres away, we saw the lake appear at the base of a mountain in the distance, and soon our car had bumped and banged its way to the banks of Tsomoriri. The lake itself is much smaller than Pangong, but I found it far more beautiful, perhaps because it was much less crowded. Its also a haven for migratory birds and other forms of wildlife, something that Rohit was rather excited about. We proved to be somewhat of a good luck charm for him, because within minutes of our arrival, he spotted what had eluded him the last time he was here- Black-necked cranes (a rare migratory bird I'm told). The scene was stunning- the sun had almost set, casting a beautiful pink-0range glow on the mountains, the moon had risen and the sky was clear. To top it all, all of this was being reflected in the clear water of the lake. We spent some time clicking some really good pictures, after which we moved on to the village of Korzok on the banks of the lake where we would be spending the night.
(Above: Clockwise from top: Tsomoriri, mountains and the moon reflected in the water, Tsomoriri by moonlight)
Remote areas of Ladakh have few staying options, and some of them can be rather expensive. At Korzok, one can either stay in one of the luxury tents, which will cost you a mini fortune, or at a small restaurant which has a community tent that has about thirty beds which costs you barely hundred rupees a night, but the loo would be a hole in the ground. The third option, which we found feasible, was the option of a "homestay". The villagers are given funds by the government to refurbish their houses and open them for tourists. The rooms are neat and clean and you get some semblance of a drainage system from your loo. Its ironic that water is scarce in Korzok. The lake is a saltwater lake and most of the fresh water freezes into ice which increases fuel cost if more water needs to be used. Manav, PP, Mohsin and I went out for a short walk at night and the lake presented to us, a new side of itself. This time the moon was up, and was casting a beautiful shimmering glow on the surface of the water. Upon return from the walk, we went to the restaurant and had a really welcome meal, along with some much needed rum. Jigme introduced us to the concept of having warm water before every meal to boost digestion. For some reason, Manav had lost his appetite, which is quite a rare occurrence. After a fulfilling meal, Jigme and four of us went back to our room at our homestay, whereas Rohit chose to stay at the restaurant. He hadn't carried many warm clothes, so we were rather concerned about finding him in a popsicle-d condition the morning after. Rohit and I had plans to wake up and photograph the sunrise. Everyone else also volunteered to come, but I knew how that was going to turn out.
The night was rather uncomfortable for the four of us. It's not easy spending your first night at high altitude. Korzok is at 15,000 feet and the lack of oxygen makes your head hurt a little bit, and also makes your body very restless. I tossed, tumbled and drifted in and out of sleep all night, with Manav snoring loudly in the background. I know it sounds stupid now, but when Manav (who suffers from asthma) suddenly stopped snoring at around 4 am, I really thought something had happened to him. As it turned out from our discussions next morning, everyone had thought something was wrong. The reader is not allowed to ask why none of us got out of bed to check. I guess in our sleep-induced stupor, it probably had something to do with the thought of hauling a hundred kilo body down from 15,000 feet. My alarm went off early in the morning, and much to my dismay, it was already beginning to get bright- the sun had come up earlier than estimated. I was relieved to find Manav still breathing, and wasn't surprised to find no one willing to watch the sunrise. I got myself ready quickly and went down to Rohit's tent where he was standing ready. He went off to fetch his batteries which were charging in Jigme's room, and never returned. I later found out that he took to long to find his batteries and the sun had already come up by then. In the absence of Rohit, I walked down to the lake by myself, just as the sun began to peer over the mountains that border the lake. It was a nice, peaceful walk I hadn't had in quite a while. A couple of horses that had come out to graze in the meadows near the lake kept me company. On the way back I also discovered some litter strewn around the lake, another disturbing sign of a beautiful place beginning to wither. By the time I returned, everyone was just about waking up. Jigme was bounding around, rejuvenated by what I'm sure would have been a great night's sleep. We got ready, splashing ice-cold water on our faces and brushing with water that made our gums go numb. The taps need to be shut off for most of the year because the water freezes and causes pipes to burst. We reunited with Rohit, and after a quick breakfast, I took a short walk to the Korzok Gompa, which supposedly houses one of the Buddha's teeth.
(Above: Clockwise from top left: Korzok by first light, sunrise on Tsomoriri, from Korzok Gompa,
a Himalayan Marmot)
We began our return journey fairly early, picking up Rohit along the way, who had headed off towards the lake after breakfast to meet some of his friends who had also come down to visit the lake. This morning happened to be a good one if you wanted to spot wildlife. Along the way, we found scores of Himalayan Marmots frolicking around in the sun. The Marmots here, I found, were much fatter than the ones I found near Pangong. We drove down to Upper Sumdo where we had dropped off our co-travellers the previous day and took a turn to the left, heading straight towards Tsokar. On the way we stopped often to spot birds such as Bar-headed geese, Brahmini ducks and some other birds whose names only bird-encyclopedia Rohit is capable of remembering. Jigme, of course, had his share of fun by first indulging himself in an off-road race. He somehow also decided that it was a good idea to burn a block of sulphur that he found in the sulphur fields near Upper Sumdo. He went on to smell the consequences of his actions, of course. Soon, we were on the approach to Tsokar, which resembles the approach to Thadsang Karu a fair bit.
(Above: left to right: Jigme gets frisky with sulphur, alone in the wilderness)
Tsokar is very different from the other lakes we had seen. In fact, its more of a salty wetland than a lake. We were the only six people around for miles. Two Tibetan wild-asses (the animal. Not Jigme and some friend of his) called the Kiang briefly halted their grazing as they ascertained whether we posed a threat to them. Most of us took a walk around the lake as Rohit tip-toed his way in the direction of Black-headed cranes. While we were leaving, we ended up spotting a very large flock of cranes having a gala time near the lake. Rohit brought our car to a screeching halt, got out excitedly, dove into the mud and got into all sorts of positions humanly possible in order to get the best photograph he could take. About half an hour of clicking later, we had a very satisfied Rohit in the car and we drove onwards, and intersected the road going from Manali to Leh just after Pang. I remembered the wide, flat plains from last time. They had been a huge relief after having been stuck overnight in a gorge (read about that life threatening experience here). Soon, we were winding our way up to Tanglang La, the world's second highest motorable pass at 17,582 feet. By now, our acclimatization had ensured that we didn't feel the effects of altitude. The drive down from Taglang La to Leh is quite fast. The road was being widened for a short stretch just after the pass, after which the drive was very smooth. We descended into the Indus valley, with its serrated mountain edges, which had acquired a very strange colour and headed straight for Upshi. At Upshi, we had our lunch, served by the same pretty waitress, after which Manav, with his batteries charged began to dance in the car. Somewhere, I think this is where Rohit must have questioned his decision to travel with us for the first time. After about an hour, we had crossed Karu, Thiksey and Shey and finally wheeled into Leh, which was perhaps recovering from a rainy afternoon.
(Clockwise from top-left: Tsokar, a black-necked crane, Rohit loves his birds, at Taglang La)
Manav and PP, having decided that neither of them would undertake a bus journey of about eighteen hours back to Srinagar, had changed their tickets to depart from Leh the next day. That night, we went off for a farewell dinner, the aftermath of which found me sleeping very early, whilst the others yapped most of the night away in the balcony of my city-view room. Mohsin moved into my room to replace Shao.
(Above: Proof: Left to right: Manav before meals/sleep, Manav after meals/sleep)
Today, there were four. Tomorrow, there would be two.