Feb 19, 2016

Pangong Tso - Chumathang - Sumdo - Tso Kar

J&K complete logs here.

After surviving the howling winds and a chilly night, I pulled up myself to step out and have a look at what was on offer. The campsite was facing the lake and vista views of the lake and the rising sun was what awaited us (well, actually the sun was up very early when we were in deep slumber). The howling winds had reduced and so did the chillness and the sun was blazing in all his might with clear skies.

We drove up to Mann (few kms further away) for some birding and all I did after looking at the birds was just sit and get lost in the tranquility and surrender myself to the sublime beauty of the place next to none. I didn’t know what to do, I was completely lost and felt like a puny, tiny object on this earth in front of the mighty Himalayas and the widespread blue mesmerizing Pangong Tso.

By now, the sun was blazing with all his might and it was getting hotter by the hour and all I could manage to do was sit on the ground and stare into oblivion, a feeling of being in a place that is imaginative or was I hypnotized with a blank mind staring at the natural vista or was I out of my mind thinking all these…

A good hour passed by with me in this state of mind till the other folks returned and brought me back to the real world and the after effects of this state of my mind continued as I chose to remain a silent spectator till we moved out of this place.

This lake and some specific locations here have become tourist hotspots after the movie 3 Idiots and as a result of it, you’ll find signs of trash, hordes of people on a ‘picnic’ and the exhibit of insensitivity that we display everywhere.

After a dose of simple breakfast and birding around, we left Pangong towards Tso Kar, another high altitude lake and the place for the critically endangered Black-necked Cranes but we were sure of a halt in between due to numerous birding opportunities we would encounter on the way. We had to take the route backwards via Chang la and then deviate towards Karu and then Chumathang. It was already late afternoon by the time we reached Chumathang and opted to stay there and continue further the next day. We chose a small hotel to stay right next to the highway that was probably the only hotel around that offered a place to stay. There were some natural hot springs within the compound area from where hot water bubbled out even in the extreme cold. These regions in Ladakh are not so frequented by tourists and in many stretches, ours would be the only vehicle to be moving around. Wherever and whenever we stopped on seeing a bird, we would be curiously watched by the locals around and our cameras and binocs would be their main discussion theme.

Next day, we left early towards Sumdo as we had a lot to cover and had some prime birding spots en-route that had plenty to offer. We had plenty of birding on the way till we reached Upper Sumdo where again we were kept occupied by relentless birding all around. Except for a few houses, there was nothing much in Upper Sumdo but the bird life kept us occupied. In particular, the White-throated Dipper that gave us a hard time at Mushko valley was frittering all around the place here and spent ample time with us allowing to observe its behavior, feeding pattern and also gave us the opportunity to take some good shots of it from multiple angles.

We also came across a herd of Blue Sheep or Bharal that had come down from the hillocks to feed on the lush green grass and they showed us a glimpse of natural talent of maneuvering cliffs and rock climbing skills. In seconds, they would vanish from our sight and be seen on a steep cliff high above and their ability to merge within the surroundings keeps them safe from the lurking predators. Bread, Jam, Nutella and Ready-to-eat dry Noodles was our breakfast that we had in midst of the continuous birding that we were doing.

From Sumdo, we drove towards a school at Puga, where there were a couple of bird sightings reported and also offered a lift to a teacher from that very school who was very happy when we agreed to drop him. As luck would have it, we were blessed with distant sightings of the Black-necked Cranes and Tibetan Wolves en-route Puga that literally had us thanking all our stars and gods that we pray to. We were confident of seeing the Black-necked Cranes, but Tibetan Wolves was a bonus that we were rewarded. They were sighted in a distant meadow near a hot spring and we chose to stay till the wolves and the cranes moved away from there. Our effort of having embroided t-shirts from Leh with the cranes paid off as we could now happily state that we had indeed seen them.

From Pugo, we traveled towards Tso Kar through another pass, ‘Polokung la’ on a literally non-existent road with an ascending gradient and except for a single vehicle we didn’t pass by any other vehicle on this stretch for the many hours we spent traveling. Polokung la had multiple sightings on offer for us as we got to see the Groundpecker, Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagles, Ravens and many others and the Groundpecker being the highlight of the place.

We reached Tso Kar Eco resort just before Thupche village that looked deserted passing by Tso Kar and blessed with another sighting of the Black-necked Cranes. The Eco-resort is mainly a club of few individual rooms and one dining hall and nothing else. The temperature was dipping as the hour passed by and we raced to the village to scout for the Owl species found there and after a thorough scanning we did see the Little Owl happily perched on an electric pole.

Back to the eco resort after this, we had a proper meal and retired for the day with plans of extensive birding around Tso Kar the next day. The accommodation was decent and comfortable and these being concrete buildings helped negate the howling winds. We were in a far fetched location, literally cut off from the world with patchy or non-existent network and the only news that would reach here was the communication received through the satellite phone booth.

(how many Bharal's can you see...?)

So overall we had good sightings for the day that included Blue sheep, White-throated Dipper, Black-necked Cranes, Tibetan Wolves, Groundpecker, Lammergier, Little Owl, Ravens, Royals Pika and hot springs at Chumathang.

Feb 7, 2016

Leh - Chang La - Pangong Tso

J&K complete logs here.

Further to what I had said in the earlier post, below is an Alpine Accentor, found in the high altitude region feasting on a noodle nibble discarded atop Khardung La. Polluting here is an serious issue and we all are responsible for it. Our way of contribution was to carry back our trash/plastics from such places to the nearest town for disposal.

After navigating the terrain twice through the mighty Khardung La, we got our vehicle checked once more before proceeding towards Pangong Tso and Tso Kar lakes as now the travel would be through remote places with fewer people and fewer facilities. Also, point to note is that you may need to carry additional fuel in cans if your travel is for more than 2 days from Leh, else you might face the probability of getting stranded in a no man’s land till you are rescued and in that eventuality, the highest possibility is of being rescued by one of those army truck convoys that keep moving between bases.

With the vehicle check getting delayed, we utilized the time to do some shopping and finally headed towards another high altitude pass, the mighty Chang La, world’s third highest pass located at 17688 FT. It was a long journey and we had multiple breaks on the way to gaze at some birds or to drink in the scenic views that was on offer. Stops for food/drinks was very limited and we had quite a long distance to cover before ending the day.

Birding on the way, we finally reached the top at around 3pm; quite late actually and stopped for a quick scan for the birds and to have the much needed Maggi in lieu of lunch that we had skipped. Compared to Khardung La, this pass is relatively less crowded and less noisy as most of the vehicles that pass here are the ones traveling to the remote Pangong Tso.

Snowfinches, Rosefinches, Accentors, Ravens, Choughs kept our binocs and cameras occupied till Chang La and thereafter a lone Red fox, numerous marmots and a few woolly hares kept us happy. The roads were pretty good except for few stretches here and there and we were soon approaching the magical lake, Pangong Tso. As stated earlier, there were hardly any souls or people moving and we were kind of traveling in isolation. A vehicle or two would pass us once a while, else it was only ourselves in the whole terrain. No people, no shops, no food, no water… absolutely nothing. You just keep following the dirt track till you reach your destination and in case you are stuck somewhere, keep praying that someone should find you!

Daytime in the mighty Himalayan region is lengthier and it used to get dark only post 19:00 hours, and this meant we had long days every day, wake up at odd hours in the morning and hit the bed late at night that meant only a few hours’ sleep every day literally. As we started descending towards Pangong Tso, we could clearly see the crystal clear blue lake from a far distance and the views were amazing, difficult to describe but worth experiencing. A huge fresh water lake at a high altitude of about 15000FT, 30% of it in Indian territory and the rest 70% in Tibet. The 30% of the lake that is in India itself is mighty huge and there are camps setup at strategic points for hosting the tourists. Choices vary from luxury to very basic and the food served across is almost the same. These camps wind up by October as the cold starts getting unbearable and they return back next summer just before the tourists start arriving. During winter, the whole lake is frozen and only a few hard souls choose to stay back in the area.

We had to do a little bit of searching and enquiring for accommodation and finally chose to stay in tents at Padma Hotel, a setup of cluster of tents and a small building for the host. We were walk in guests and luckily got some dinner and we feasted as we were without a proper meal through the day. Sleeping in tents in the bitter cold is a challenge and I had to use multiple layer of clothing and bedspreads to feel comfortable. In such cold weather, your activity freezes and you don’t feel like doing anything other than snuggling up in the bed.

Pangong and Chumathang up next…