More Motorcycling In India – Pangong Lake
After Dan and I’s big adventure in the Markha Valley and our terrifying journey up to the village of Malana, we wanted one more beautiful excursion in Ladakh before continuing on to Srinagar. We weren’t exactly letting our past experiences deter us.
This time we wanted to see the area of Pangong, a region in Ladakh whose contentiously disputed Indian border comes right up along that of China’s. And of course in classic fashion, the decision to go to Pangong also meant we could add motorcycling over the “world’s second highest mountain pass” to our list. The road was supposedly better maintained, many parts were apparently newly paved or were being constructed. After coordinating the motorcycle rental and packing our bags, we left mid-morning, determined and reassured that we could get to our destination before nightfall.
The commencement of our journey started out relaxed, with paved winding roads through the beautiful countryside of Ladakh, with monasteries, towns, and farms making a gentle appearance discreetly veiled behind light green walls of poplar trees, a stark contrast contrast to the rusty sand and dry mountain terrain. These roads were fun and I even entertained the idea that this would be the perfect journey for me to learn to ride a motorcycle, but I put that thought aside and just enjoyed the passenger seat.
Soon enough the roads reputation became apparent, and we went from nicely paved roads to “nice” dirt roads. I say “nice” because in comparison to our journey to Malana this was cake, but it was still not for the feint of heart, with steep drop-offs, and usually no guardrail in sight, at every snaking turn. Dan seemed to be having fun though, and the views remained uncompromised by clear sky and crisp air (minus the dust that was now following the wake of any vehicle ahead of us).
As per usual, Dan and I moved with little hurry, taking in the scenery, and stopping at the highest point on the pass to give our butts a break. Maybe an hour later, while still taking in the incredible awe that is to be expected when traveling through the Himalayas, we slowly started winding down into a massive valley. This valley marked the point in which the Indian Military attempted to discreetly tuck away it’s incredible presence. In this town of Tangste, that was once a small village, we stopped to warm our now freezing hands with some hot chai masala and a little food. This was a proper town, at least by Ladakh standards, especially considering we were basically in the middle of nowhere in a seemingly uninhabitable high mountain range. There was signage for schools, temples of worship, and kids running around between shops as their parent yelled at them over the pour of a steaming pot of dal (lentils). The difference was the traffic consisted of the occasional civilian car or tourists motorcycle, sprinkled amongst huge armored vehicles, carrying men decked out in camouflage, rifles in hand.
We took leave of Tangste and continued onward. Too soon night had fallen, and the roads became mostly unpaved, but thankfully wide and level for most of the time. I could sense the stress of the driving mounting a bit sitting behind Dan, we’d assumed a 5-6 hour drive that was now definitely close to 7 hours, and we weren’t sure how much distance we had left. I assumed the role of total positivity, sure we’d reach our destination at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later. The dirt road turned to paved, still snaking and narrow, and our downloaded Google maps proved to be completely off on timing, and we drove for at least another hour without seeing any sign of a town or place to stay.
At some point we noticed a group of 3 motorcyclist and decidedly stayed close to them. Not long after, they’d taken a turn in the darkness towards what looked like a medical encampment, and we found ourselves not quite at our destination, but fortunately at a strip of buildings and lined tents that would be our bed for the night. In the dimness we could tell we were along a lake, but we knew from our floating blue mark on the map that this was not the Pangong lake.
Our room was a fancy tent with a warm bed, shower, toilet, and a deliciously warm meal, with a spread of dal, palak paneer, rice, chapati, veggies and more. We ate a lot of paneer, especially Dan (lol). Our tent zipper was broken and I nervously ignored it before attempting to sleep. Drained from the drive, Dan easily passed out. I attempted to sleep with the sound of the wind banging against the tarp.
I have a nervous tendency with locking all doors at night, and I found myself restlessly dreaming, thinking about the broken zipper. And then my dream put me in our tent, to the noise of someone opening the outer tent zipper. I wasn’t dreaming, but I was experiencing sleep paralysis and found my eyes wide open but my body unable move. The second zipper started opening and a man slowly poked his head in at which point my arm finally released from its paralysis and shot out at Dan who sleepily woke up, somehow immediately noticed the man and yelled “HEY!” at the top of his lungs. The man jumped and started profusely apologizing with his hands raised in front of him and fumbled trying to walk out backwards.
I genuinely think he just had the wrong tent as he wandered to bed around midnight (they all looked the same) and was incredibly freaked out by the loud shout that greeted him. Dan immediately passed out as if nothing had happened. I asked him in the morning if he remembered – he’d thought it was a dream.
We spent the first few hours of the morning back on the bike en route to the village of Merak. The drive coming up on Pangong lake was energizing despite the exhaustion of still a few more hours driving. I also was pretty entertained with all the BRO (Indian road construction company – Border Roads Organization) signs along the roads, reminding us how important it was to drive safely on their roads (well maintained compared to other parts of India, but still terrifying through my USA safety standards lens).
When we finally arrived in Merak, our guesthouse – Amchi’s Guesthouse – one of the first seen in town, Dan collapsed into bed with a fever…motorcycling through the mountains, and likely the night before’s paneer, took him out a little extra. He basically stayed there for the rest of the day. ):
I roamed around the village for the afternoon. Despite the overcast sky, the beauty was overwhelming, but so was the desolation. The mountains surrounding us had deposits of turquoise, jade and amethyst found in the Himalayas. I spent some time reading on the shore, taking photos, and making friends with a small pup that kept following me around. Aside from two other travelers also walking along the beach taking photos, the village seemed like a ghost town.
Once I got back to the guesthouse, our hosts were back home. Amchi and his wife seemed concerned about Dan, bringing tea to his room every so often. They invited me into their home as they started preparing dinner, unfortunately meaning I had to part ways with my canine companion. The inside of their home was warm. A large room, or foyer of some sorts, greeted me, before turning left down a small hallway leading into the dinning area painted a deep maroon. In a corner approximately 2×1 meters in size, Amchi’s wife, who spoke little to no English, got to work on enough food to feed a family of at least 6, despite my insistence that Dan would unlikely be joining for food.
The counter space was minimal, and I watched as this woman went from chopping vegetables in an almost fully seated squat (look up the yoga pose called malasana for reference), to standing over a small clay oven making an endless amount of chapati, and then over to the smaller stove top where she stirred up some delicious dal and spinach palak. While she was cooking I spoke with Amchi about what he did and got distracted by the back wall, lined with silver bowls of every possible size imaginable and a hodgepodge of intricately decorated porcelain plates, cups, and silverware. The column in the middle of the room had printed photos taped along it from top to bottom. Amchi was was a retired a doctor in his village (it now made sense why he kept recommended some herbs and tea for Dan). He beamed talking about his daughter in the photos who had studied abroad and was away from home now.
Once dinner was ready, an endless amount of rice, chapati, dal, palak and a chopped tomato salad was placed in front of me. Dan’s strength brought him over long enough to help me with the salad and rice but I felt a strong need to put my best effort forward as Amchi and his wife watched smiling idly at us. Her smile and presence reminded me of that look you get from Abuela after she’s served you your second plate of food and you know you can’t walk away until you’ve given your best effort in licking the plate clean enough so you won’t get more but she knows you’ve just had one of the homiest of meals in months. Her cat joined after a little, likely smelling the food and knowing dinner was near. Amchi’s wife wrestled and played with the cat the whole time just with her feet, soft smile and eyes never wavering from Dan and I.
We dismissed ourselves after tea, wanting to be ready for an early morning out.
NAT’S EYE VIEW: DAY 2
We’d packed up the night before to be ready as early as possible to leave for Leh this time, luckily with Dan seeming like his health was back in full force. Our hosts prepared our breakfast and we said our farewells over some toast, an omelette, and, of course, a steaming cup of chai.
The ride back proved a lot more relaxing now that we knew what to expect. There was more construction happening on the road today and several times the dusty roads were blocked bumper to bumper by construction “officials” (or just anyone who decided to get out of the car and interject) directing the flow of cars. It was pretty entertaining to observe from the back of the bike. The moment one direction of traffic was cleared and the roads widened out, it was full Mad-Max out there. Being on a motorcycle is typically advantageous on Indian roads, but this morning felt like all bets were off, with vans, trucks, and family sedans weaving in and around each other within and outside the confines of the roads themselves.
We got back to the more level roads leading into Leh with some relief. Motorcycling for so long, is always just so exhausting (even as the passenger so I couldn’t even imagine trying to drive). Luckily it never fails to make for a good time.
Our chapter in Ladakh had finished with another bang.
The pictures don’t do the region justice, less so the views even and more just the feeling of calmness that comes from being surrounded by such an intensely beautiful and, many would say, holy part of this Earth. I left Ladakh with that knowing feeling in my body that I’d find my way back to the Himalayas again.