One would imagine Ladakh to be full of high mountain passes; arduous and tortuous paths abound. This journey has none of that. The drive is certainly one of the most picturesque in all of Ladakh; the myriad of ‘Pangong’ hues that keep you company are pure bliss. Cold deserts and green plains follow with snowy peaks as the backdrop. One needs to get a permit for this route from the DC office in Leh which is roughly 300 rupees per day per person. The dearth of travelers on this route means that you get a feeling of exclusivity, which doubles your urge to share the experience: the reason I write this piece.
Hanle being 160km from Spangmik, seems a short drive but numerous ‘Photo Breaks’, no roads and navigation errors ensured that the drive took the better part of the day. The first half of the journey upto Chushul involves driving along the Pangong in sand, tracing the tracks left by others.The beautiful villages of Man and Merak lie along the lake and have comfortable homestays (Better stay here than the relatively crowded Spangmik). This is undoubtedly the best part of the journey. This is also where we did our second rescue which I talked about in my last piece on Shyok. Permits are checked at Merak, after which the tracks move away from Pangong (goes into Tibet) to the right towards Chushul.
It is easy to get stuck in sand especially if you are not in a SUV. Our fellow travelers wandered off the beaten track and got stuck in the sand. Though they were well prepared and had brought planks that could pull them out, we had to chip in. Their SX4 only had a rear tow hook which meant that we pulled them to the path with their car in reverse. The 4L mode had once again proved its worth! Check out the video below!
Traveling the road alongside the Pangong is an experience unparalleled. Lake to the left, snowy peaks to the right and a desert ahead! This is the place which keeps urging me to do the drive again; one which has something even if you are doing it the hundredth time.
Taking a slight right into the desert following a rarely used trail, you come across the town of Chushul. This is the last village you see for many a mile, with the journey now consisting primarily; the desert. Chushul was the town where the Indian army camped after coming from the forward posts in the war with China in 1962.
We lost an hour by not taking the left towards Mahe, instead going via the alternate route back to Tangtse. There are no signboards for Tsaga or Loma here, nor is there anyone to ask! We did ask an army post for the route to Hanle after going on the wrong route (towards Parma) and they too did not know much about its whereabouts! As we traced back and turned towards Mahe, we were met by seemingly endless stretches of desert. This place was incredible. There were faintly green mountains in the distance and a few kiangs grazing. We have named our vehicle ‘Kiang’ recognizing their ability to tough it out and this was the first time we had spotted them in the wild!! There were also a few carcasses we had seen on the way but the ‘Tibetan wolves’ remained elusive.
As we reached Rezang La, we were reminded of the supreme bravery of the 13 Kumaon. One must read about this battle to know what really saved us in 1962. The memorial reads:
How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds,
For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods,
To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La,
114 Martyrs of 13 Kumaon who fought to the Last Man,
Last Round, Against Hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962.
Built by All Ranks 13th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment.
It is said that 1200 Chinese were killed in the battle. Only 6 Indians survived ; in a company of 123. I had no idea of the battle before visiting, and I feel ashamed that I did not. Do read about it if you have not.
As we moved towards Tsaga La , the deserts seemed to be giving way to some green and the Indus was once again by our side ( You are flanked by rivers almost all the time in Ladakh).
Roads were back after village Tsaga, so the going was much faster. As we were approaching Loma, we came across a few Pashmina farms and herders. There were also bar-headed geese and ruddy shelducks to spot. The mesmerizing beauty of the mountains is evident in Ladakh, but what makes it peerless are the colours and the game shadows play. The same shot at slightly different times may give you appreciably different results!
Once we had done our entry at the Loma checkpost, it was an excellent 50km drive to Hanle. The roads are good, straight as a arrow but one does need to look out for sudden dips! The mountains here seem to have a slightly reddish tinge and one can see a few local camps on the way. The best place to stay though, is Padma Guest House in Hanle. The host, Sonam Dorjay is very courteous, friendly and runs the lodge efficiently.
Hanle is known for its clear skies and opportunities for sky-gazing. It was thus sad that the weather was freezing with no clear skies. The Hanle Observatory remotely operated from Bangalore is a must visit. It is the world’s second highest and offers stunning views of the Hanle monastery and the mountain ranges to the East which houses the deadly Photi la pass (need to do this one!!). We visited the Observatory the next morning while on our way to Tso Moriri and Tso Kar.
This Spangmik-Hanle route is a hidden gem. We only saw three other vehicles one of which was an army truck the entire day. Getting a permit for this route is well worth the effort and leaves you with an experience of a lifetime!