PIX: The stunning lakes and rivers of Ladakh
Ladakh never ceases to amaze. There is just so much for a traveller, it can be an endless lifelong journey. Take its water bodies -- the lakes and the rivers. They easily figure in the world's must-see natural wonders. They stun you out of your senses.
All located at high altitudes, they are vast, pristine, desolate - and support delicate animal and bird life that are a joy in themselves to watch. Interestingly, all these great lakes are salty, not freshwater ones.
Ajay Jain is a leading travel writer and photographer and shares his travel experiences at http://kunzum.com.
Image: The stunning lakes and rivers of Ladakh
Photographs: Ajay Jain
Moonrise over the Indus
It is said the Indus originates from the mouth of a lion in Mansarovar, in China-controlled Tibet. Thus it is also called Sengge Tsangpo or the Lion River.
It's significance goes to back to the time when some of the earliest human settlements on this planet came up along its banks.
As it flows from Tibet to Pakistan through Ladakh before meeting the Arabian Sea, it symbolically binds the people of the three nations. A common lifeline, one only wishes these ties could secure peace between warring neighbours.
Few rivers in the world can boast of flowing through as stunning a landscape as the Indus. As you drive southeast along its banks towards Tso Moriri or northwest towards Batalik, you will see it flow by valleys, gorges and peaks of countless hues.
Can you imagine setting up home along its banks? See it all up close if you get a chance for some whitewater rafting.Walk along its banks in the evenings and admire the views created by a setting sun and a rising moon.
Image: Moonrise over the Indus river
Hues of blue at Pangong Tso
As you descend the 17,586 feet high Chang La (Pass) to get to Pangong Tso (Lake), you see a sign at Durbuk: 'Welcome to the land of beautiful mountains and blue water lake.'
A little further on a rough strip of road, you have the infamous Pagal Nala ('mad stream') to negotiate. It is slippery and treacherous; you have to drive across it on tenterhooks.
One wrong move and you'll need a crane to pull you out. In the middle of nowhere.
Cross it before noon because the sun melts the ice later in the day and the slush is hell to drive on. But I made it. And just the first view of the gorgeous glacial lake was more than worth it.
Image: Pangong Tso
Brown-Headed Gulls frolicking at Pangong Tso
An endless blue awaits guarded by mountains on either side. The welcome party comprises Brown-Headed Gulls, the Larus Brunnicephalus, hovering about on the most exquisite lake you would have ever seen.
Just throw a few bread crumbs or biscuit bits and dozens more gulls will materialise like magic. Every bit of biscuit I threw in evoked a flurry of flapping, waddling, jostling and even pecking to get to the 'worm.'
Those flying overhead would swoop in and add to the commotion. And yet, some others would just wade about with the peaceful countenance of the Buddha. Evolved sense of dignity or just full tummies?
The gulls in flight conjure up images of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.
This species flies pretty low over the water in direct purposeful flight, with low wing beat and frequent gliding. They might go for the occasional biscuit but their regular diet is much healthier, comprising fish, insects, slugs and green shoots.
You find these gulls at Tso Moriri and Tso Kar too in the summer, and westwards along the Indus valley during their spring and autumn migrations.
Image: Brown-Headed Gulls frolicking at Pangong Tso
On the way back, keep an eye out for Himalayan Marmots, just the pets to cuddle up with in Ladakh's sub-zero climes.
These cousins of Squirrels flee at the slightest hint of humans. But a 'greedy' group is always willing to throw caution to the winds -- in return for a treat of bananas and nuts.
Tummies filled, they were quite friendly and snuggled up to my legs. They were also rather romantic and much Marmot-mushiness ensued.
For six months starting October, Marmots hibernate. Huddled together in hay-covered burrows, they halve their 8 kg body weight in this period. If only weight loss was so easy for all of us.Pangong Tso will linger in your memories forever, calling you back for another visit.
Image: Himalayan Marmots
The salt lake
Here's a tale so incredible you actually want it to be true!
Eons ago, they say, a devil drank up all of the overflowing Tso Kar. A gurgle in the stomach suggested he had drunk more than he should have. So he spluttered and sprayed water all over. Some flew towards Korzok, forming Tso Moriri. Some splashed in another direction, creating Starspapukh and Regul Tso.
Regul is the local name for Kar, an L-shaped saline lake at 15,367 feet (4,684 metres). The lake covers only about 40 square km (16 square miles) but offers unique attractions.
Like one of the few pairs of the Black-Necked Cranes I was lucky to spot, though from afar. Or the Kiang, the Tibetan Wild Ass.
Herds of Kiang escape from China, where they are hunted for food, and cross the border into India where no one harms them. Kiangs can make you run though. The closer you move towards them for better pictures, the further they move. Sure can make you feel like an ass!For a long time, the nomadic Changpa tribes of Ladakh collected salt from a site at Tso Kar's southeast end in September and October, and would trade these for barley and cash in Leh and Zanskar. However, rising water levels drowned this source after 2000.
Image: Tso Kar
A sacred gift for a living planet
Head to Tso Moriri and an unending expanse of sheer azure awaits. You can sit and stare at its blue waters and the peaks all around for hours.
Sitting pretty at 15,100 feet (4602 metres), it is 25 km long, 5-7 km wide and 40 metres at its deepest.
Originally a glacial lake, it had outlets to Sutlej river. Now it is a huge enclosed basin fed by three streams.
In the desert-like climate, due to surface evaporation, what was a freshwater lake first turned brackish and finally saline.
If you have the patience, you can spot rare animal/bird species here. In fact, over 150 bird species are found in the region. Korzok village, located along the lake has a 400-year-old monastery, built on a gentle slope unlike most gompas that are perched atop high hills.
Local Buddhists revere this wetland as sacred and don't use or pollute its water. At the WWF Annual Conference in 2000 in Nepal, Tso Moriri was declared a 'sacred gift for a living planet' by the local community.
Image: The Tso Moriri
A cold desert
As you drive towards Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, you enter Changthang Eco Zone.
It is an extension of Changthang, the Northern Tibetan Plateau, and covers about 15,000 square km. The elevation varies from 13,000 to 23,000 feet and the region is dotted by wide valleys amidst rolling hills and the occasional mountain lake.
It is a cold desert that gets very little rainfall and very high solar radiation. Summer temperatures range from 0 C to 30 C but the winter is hostile, with the land freezing over at -20 C to -40 C.
The region is strikingly beautiful but very desolate too. You wouldn't want to be stranded here. There are few permanent human settlements. Much of the population are the nomadic Changpas who pitch tents wherever their livestock find pastures.
In Changthang's wetlands live many vulnerable and endangered animals such as the Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Tibetan Argali, Blue Sheep, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf and Lynx.
They are the only breeding site for the Bar-Headed Geese in India, and the only region outside China where the highly endangered Black-Necked Cranes breed. Of course, you'll need a lot of perseverance to spot these creatures.
Image: The Tibetan Argalis in the Changthang Eco Zone in Ladakh
Travel tips for the Great Lakes of Ladakh
Here are some tips for those planning to visit Ladakh:
1. The lakes are accessible by road only.
2. You can visit these only from June to early October - it is extremely cold and the passes to these lakes are frozen over.
3. Indians and foreigners alike need permits to visit these lakes. Usually just a formality.
4. The Indus River flows across Ladakh including along Leh - and can thus be enjoyed anytime you are there.
5. Distance / Time from Leh to Pangong Tso: 160 kms (100 miles) / 5:00 hrs
6. Distance / Time from Leh to Tso Moriri without a detour to Tso Kar: 221 kms (138 miles) / 5:00 hrs
7. To get to Tso Kar, take a diversion at Sumdo Village on the way to Tso Moriri - it is 40 kms (25 miles) one way and takes about 70 minutes to get there.
8. You can also get to Tso Kar and onwards to Tso Moriri when coming from Manali towards Leh; there is an obscure diversion after Pang on the More Plains. Miss it and you will reach Leh. You must take a break at Sarchu for the night to reach Tso Moriri in good time.
9. Accommodation at Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso is limited to some camps and rooms - all very sparingly equipped to provide any comfort. These are best booked through travel agents. Your only option at Tso Kar is to pitch tent.
A complete driving guide to Ladakh (Kunzum Route K12) is available at http://kunzum.com/2011/06/19/kunzum-route-k12-driving-in-ladakh-updated-guide.
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Image: A stream flowing out of the Indus River in Ladakh.