Tag Archives: tour

Pangong Lake

While in Leh we decided to do a side trip to Pangong Lake. An Australian guy we’d met in Rishikesh said it was ‘one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen’, which is an unusual amount of sentiment from an Aussie bloke. We had arranged to share the cost of a jeep and driver for the two day trip with the two young Belgians mentioned previously. Everything had been arranged in advance through a local tour and trekking agent.

The trip started off badly when, after the driver picked us up at our guest house in the early morning and took us to the agency, the person we’d arranged the trip with said that it might not be possible to make it to Pangong today due to high water levels at a river crossing. We’d heard of this possibility previously and had raised the question when we made the booking. We were reassured that it would not be an issue. Just a few kilometers before the lake there is a glacier-fed stream that needs to be forded. Water levels change throughout the day based on the temperature and sunshine and run highest in the afternoon. Vehicles often get trapped at the lake overnight until they can make the crossing in the morning. As a result, most people leave Leh for Pangong Lake by 6 AM, so they can complete the five and one half hour drive before noon, while the water levels are lower. It was now 8 AM. He said it was unlikely that we’d be able to make it there today, something he should have known about before he arranged the trip, so we now had an issue. After discussing the options with the owner of the agency, we agreed to proceed as planned, try to cross the river if possible, and if not, stay in a village about 30 kilometers back, then get up very early in the morning to make the crossing and be at the lake for sunrise.

The road to the lake wasn’t what we’d anticipated. For some reason, we were of the impression that this would be an easy drive. We knew that there was one mountain pass that we needed to cross to reach the valley where the lake is located, but we hadn’t given it much consideration. The drive started out lovely and relaxing as we slowly worked our way up into the mountains. As we went higher, the road became a paved track hugging the mountainside which was only wide enough for a single vehicle, with occasional pull-outs where two vehicles could pass. On the uphill side of the road were steep slopes or vertical cliffs of loose rock, and on the other side a precipice. There were occasional blocks of cemented rock or barrels filled with concrete to act as a vehicle guard rail, but they were few and far between, spaced far enough to raise the question, “Why bother?”

The road switch-backed to gain elevation, and the blind corners around rocky outcrops were very sharp and steep, such that it wasn’t possible to see if any traffic was coming, so pictures of musical horns resembling those of the ‘Whos’ from Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” are painted on the rocks to remind the drivers to honk before each corner to warn any vehicles coming the other direction. Slowing down does not appear to be part of the strategy. Unfortunately the horn on our jeep didn’t work.


With about 20 kilometers to go before the top, we passed an Indian army post, and left the paved road behind. The road got steadily worse, progressing from loose gravel to loose rock. The driver swerved to avoid rocks which had fallen from the loose slopes above.


To our surprise, at this high elevation we ran into a couple of road crews that were reinforcing the road by taking loose rocks from the uphill side and dropping them on the downhill side. They were dressed for the cold, wearing wool clothing and balaclavas, all in darks shades muted with the dust of the surrounding hillside, resembling a post-apocalyptic vision. It turned out that these crews are part of specialist team looking after one of the world’s highest roadways, and taking great personal risk to do so.

We reached the pass called Chang La, and stopped for a few minutes to celebrate arriving safely. Chang La is the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world. At 17,500 feet it is within 2,000 feet of the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We crossed the dreaded high water without too much difficulty,

and got our first view of Pangong Lake.

It was beautiful, but not the most beautiful thing we’ve seen. Perhaps we’re spoiled with too many beautiful lakes and mountains in British Columbia. We bumped and rattled our way down the lakeshore, without the benefit of a road, and began the search for a guest house. There is a luxury tented camp on the lakeshore during the brief summer months (the lake is at over 14,000 feet), but we were looking for something cheaper.


We found space in the home of a woman with a small boy and an absentee military husband. Like the few other buildings near the lake, it was made of stone and mud with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no plumbing and a squat outhouse. Our room had a mattress lying on grass mats that covered the ground. Thankfully we got a mix of new and only-slept-on-once-by-someone-else-but-not-washed sheets.


We walked along the lake to take some photos. Our hostess managed to wrangle up three large beers from somewhere else that we shared with the Belgian couple while the sun was setting. Dinner was rice, dhal, vegetables, and chapatti, served on low tables while we sat on cushions on the floor of the room where she and her son ‘live’. Cooking, eating, and sleeping are all done in the same room. Our guide Raja translated so we could speak with her, and he also taught us a few words of Ladakhi.

We woke very early to walk along the lake and watch the sunrise, but it was cold so we only lasted about thirty minutes and then went back to bed. Breakfast was an ‘omelet’ (which shouldn’t really be called an omelet if it contains only eggs) and chapatti. After breakfast, we loaded our bags in the vehicle, and then starting walking back along the lake until Raja picked us up. It was another long and hair-raising drive back to Leh, but we had a good driver and made it without incident.

Here’s Diane checking out some of local wildlife…

Head of the Class

Diane’s aunt arranged for us to visit a school yesterday in the nearby slum. The director of the school is a friend of hers, and the slum is called Soweto (no relation to the slum by the same name in South Africa). Soweto is home to about 25,000 people. The school is a ‘private school’ only in the sense that the government did not build the school, nor does it provide any funding for its operation. There are 160 students from ages 3 to 14, and six teachers.

The school is housed in the facilities of a church, which are indistinguishable from the surrounding homes. I would not have known that it was a church or a school if I had not been told. The classrooms for the senior grades are about 10 feet by 12 feet, each of which accommodates the teacher and more than 20 students crammed together on shared benches and plastic chairs. There are no desks.

We did not want to arrive empty handed, so we purchased a 20 kg bag of rice, to supplement the school lunch program, and we delivered 160 bananas on behalf of Diane’s aunt. By the time we’d walked the 15 minutes to the school with the director, carrying about 80 pounds of food, we’d already had a good workout. Each day, the school tries to provide a basic lunch for the students. In many cases, it is the only food they will receive that day. Lunch is usually ‘ugali’, a paste made from only corn flour and water, with some boiled vegetables. If they are lucky, they get rice instead of ugali, but there hasn’t been money for rice recently.

The headmaster, who has been in the role for five years, is a young man. Both he and the teachers attended two years of teacher college. Neither the headmaster nor the teachers have been paid in months, as the only school funds are used to provide food for the children.

The headmaster took us on a walking tour of Soweto, including his home, and the home of one of the school’s parents. The homes are made of rough bricks, covered with tin sheets. Each home is a single room of about 10 feet by 10 feet, with a curtain dividing the sleeping area from the remainder. The homes are clustered together in groups off shared narrow corridors, which are choked with hanging laundry. Each has a heavy steel door with a padlock, although there isn’t much of value inside. The people on the uneven dirt streets of Soweto seemed a bit surprised to see us, but they were friendly.


After our walk, we joined some of the senior students for physical education. About 25 kids stood in a circle on a small piece of vacant land, dancing and playing games. Everything they did was accompanied by a song. Yes, Diane and I both danced solos, but our singing was limited due to the fact it was mostly in Swahili.


We headed back to the school’s ‘dining hall’, which was an open-air lean-to off the side of one of the buildings. All 160 students plus teachers crammed into the small space with us. The headmaster called all the teachers to the front and introduced them. Patrick repeated their names as each one was introduced, but not one of them looked us in the eye. We learned later that doing so may not be considered polite.


The headmaster introduced the students, who then performed for us in the almost non-existent space left in the dining hall. Two groups of students presented poems to us that they had memorized. Three individual students presented a memorized verse from the Bible, with the length of each of their memorized introductions exceeding the length of their verses. A senior class sang us a song in English.

The Director introduced us. She spoke about how fortunate they were to have us as guests, and how we had brought rice and bananas. She spoke about how other businesses and guests had made donations, and pointed out the things they had donated. The cover we were standing under had been donated by a cell phone company, and one of the bathrooms by a Canadian woman. The whole slum of Soweto receives water only intermittently, and the water tank which stores water when it does come, was also donated.

Patrick spoke briefly. He started with few lines of carefully memorized Swahili, which drew blank stares. Perhaps he didn’t have the accent right. He then talked briefly about where we were from, and some of the differences between Kenya and Canada. The headmaster translated everything into Swahili, as many of the young ones don’t have sufficient English yet. Then Diane led everyone in a kids song with some actions, which seemed to go over well.


In preparation for lunch, the young children washed their hands in a large shared basin of water, without soap. Each student received their ugali, vegetables, and either one-half, one, or one and a half bananas based on their age. Diane assisted with serving the food, in a small dark kitchen where the food had been cooked over a charcoal fire. The school has no electricity or gas. Many of the children had not eaten since the previous day, yet every one of them waited until a simple grace was said before they touched their food.

We said our farewells to the students, and were accompanied by the headmaster and Director to the edge of the slum, where a broken bridge crosses a polluted stream.

Recurring visions of the students keep coming back into our heads…