Tso far so good

Tania Banerjee | Updated on March 15, 2019

All’s well that blends well: The barren mountains form a dramatic backdrop to the Prussian-blue waters of Tso Moriri   -  TANIA BANERJEE

In Ladakh’s Changthang Plateau, life and beauty revolve around highland lakes, mountains and villages

Tring, tring. Engrossed in following the rapid movements of an unusually large hare in the courtyard of the next house, I had missed seeing the telephone installed in the courtyard I was in. “Hello,” my host Rinchen Angmo yelled into the black receiver while the furry creature at the neighbour’s darted towards the green fields in the distance. Angmo kept at the instrument under the sunny morning sky and I moved my gaze to the expanse of soothing blue to the east — Pangong Tso (tso is ‘lake’ in Tibetan) in Ladakh’s Changthang Plateau.

When my husband and I left Spangmik, a touristy village with a clutch of luxury tents and campsites by the same lake, we had little idea how simple Merak, where Angmo lives, was. It had only 50 houses huddled in the foreground of arid mountains. Roads are a luxury in this part of the world. On the 20-km drive to Angmo’s homestay (at 4,250m), the wheels of the car rolled over gravel, occasionally splashing through shallow pools. While I braved the chill to gawk at the changing hues of the water, the soft waves of the Pangong Tso caressed the wheels of our Innova.

In her large kitchen, stocked with crockery bearing colourful dragon motifs, Angmo was at her busiest — especially when making gur-gur chai or the famous Ladakhi butter tea. She poured the boiling tea into a glossy wooden tube with a lid, before adding butter and salt. Then began the churning, with the help of a long stick. The kitchen filled with the sound of gentle thuds while we tried to ingest this rather unique tea-making process.

A mix of shock and pleasure hit my nerves with the first sip of the gur-gur chai. Angmo, observing my expression keenly, said, “We don’t usually make this tea for outsiders, but this helps in coping with the climatic conditions here. You are going to Karzok today; it’s higher than Merak. This tea will do you good.”

Merak appeared progressively small as our car picked up speed. Finally, it dipped below the horizon. We were on our own again, on the roadless land of loosely packed pebbles. The mesmerising Pangong was to our left and the towering mountains to the right.

Far away from the dusty trail, near the foot of the mountains, we saw the land speckled with brown dots. On closer inspection, the dots grew into mammals, with four legs, a tail and a face resembling that of a horse. They were kiangs — wild asses native to Changthang.

The emerald-green Kyagar Tso indicated that Karzok village and Tso Moriri were near at hand. Kiangs grazed peacefully on its salt-crusted banks. Tiny deserted constructions at the foot of the slopes confirmed the stories I had read about the changing lifestyle of nomads in the area — nowadays, the wealthier nomads build permanent houses at each of the encampment sites they migrate to round the year.

About 211 km from Leh, at 4,595m above sea level, Karzok sat on the shores of Tso Moriri. We were allowed entry on showing inner line permits and photo IDs at the army check post. The tiny village, which buzzed around its monastery, is touted as the highest year-round settlement in India. Almost all homes in the village take in visitors.

The majority of the people in this region are Changpas, a semi-nomadic community with roots in Tibet. Several nomadic kings had ruled over the Changpas but one of them — Rupshu Goba — is said to have built houses in Karzok. Eventually, the monastery was founded and an entire village, to cater to the needs of the king and the monks, grew around it.

Our home for the day was a guest house called Penguin. From a window, I admired an infinite blue spread out in perfect symmetry. The feet of the mountains remained immersed in Prussian blue waters. In the extended twilight hours, the golden rays of the sun cloaked the barren mountains. And the sound of cymbals clashing and trumpets blowing drew our attention to a special prayer ceremony at the monastery.

Later, under the full moon, Tso Moriri appeared to be sporting a silky white robe, and a fire blazed on a parapet of the monastery. Tsepal, a Karzok native, said the monks would keep the sacred fire burning for the welfare of the region’s nomadic tribes — whose lives depend on the moods of nature. At that precise moment, a fat drop of rain fell on my spectacles and we rushed indoors.

I peeped out one last time as I climbed into the car the next morning — the rain hadn’t stopped but the fire at the monastery, strangely, was still burning.

Tania Banerjee is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • The nearest city Leh is well connected by road and airways to New Delhi. Hire a private taxi to proceed to Merak and Karzok. The journey from Leh to Merak, by private taxi, takes around six hours; Karzok is another six hours’ by road from Merak.
  • Stay
  • Merak and Karzok have guest houses/homestays. Dorjay Delbu Guest House at Merak charges ₹2,000 (inclusive of dinner and breakfast) a night for a double room with a Western-style toilet. Dolphin Guest House at Karzok charges ₹2,500 a night for the same facilities.
  • BLink Tip
  • The night sky at Merak is a stargazer’s delight; if you’re into constellations and galaxies, carry a portable telescope.

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on March 15, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor