Knowing that this was, technically, the highest motorable road that actually goes to a place that we can go, in the world, it was pretty much at the top of our To Do list. So we Did.
About 10 Km out of town we passed a non operative check point that had signs about being on the highest motorable road in the world, so we all stopped and took photos. About 15 Km further on we came to an operative checkpoint with the gate down and a decent line of trucks and cars all parked and waiting for the gate to go back up. Of course we rode past all the cars and trucks to the front of the line, ducked our heads under the gate, and parked the bikes to see what the situation was. An avalanche had occurred on the backside of the pass and killed 2 women in their car. While that was being sorted out the whole road was shut down. With no estimated time of opening.
It was about 10 Am, and another destination, Pangong Lake, was a half days ride South of Leh. Rather than sit around and hope that the Khardung pass opened we turned the bikes around and headed South.
The road to Pangong was your average Indian highway for the first hour or so. A two lane road passing through small villages, with occasional temples and monasterys to keep things interesting. Trucks, cows, donkeys and tourists in hired taxis, all going as fast as possible and making random turns when you least expect them to. But once we turned off the highway, to cross over the Changla Pass, the roads became fun again. Less traffic, more turns, Himalayan peaks and high desert valleys. Similar amount of cows and donkeys in the road.
I knew the Changla Pass was significant, but I didn’t know that its actually kind of a big deal. It is 17,500 feet and considered the second highest motorable road in the the world. Naturally we all stopped at the peak and climbed up the hill until we were out of breath. It didn’t take long for me at all. The air up there is really thin. The sun is so strong that it felt really good to sit in the snow and soak up the heat, but when you step into shadow it’s the same feeling as when you leave a heated room and step outside into a cold night. When you take a deep breath it’s a little disconcerting because you can feel your chest and lungs expanding, but the sensation of air moving in and out isn’t there. We lasted about 15 minutes before we all jumped on the bikes and started down the road. Maybe 20 minutes.
Further down the road we hit the valley of the Shyok river, which was unexpected, but amazing. It was a long valley, with lush green areas and sandy dune –like areas. For about an hour we were following the river on its winding path down from the glacier where it originated, then around a bend, there was the lake.
Pangong lake is a long and skinny lake that conceals the borders of India, Tibet and China. The Western end of the lake is clearly in India, and the Eastern , in China. But in the middle is a section of Tibet, and because of the whole Tibet/China thing, pretty much nobody is allowed to go there. The actual borders are also somewhat fluid, no one seems to agree where the lines actually are.
Boats are not allowed on the water, and it’s effectively a dead end road once you get to the lake. This means that its still pretty undeveloped. There are no time shares or TGIFridays. No para-sailing boats or swimming with dolphins style activities. There are a few Dhabas and a few campgrounds. The Dhabas all have photocopied menus that look like they were pirated from restaurants in Leh, but don’t bother reading them. They don’t have most of the listed items. Just ask what they do have and choose the vegetarian option. The campgrounds are not the KOA style parking lots where you can pop up a tent and mingle with other wayward adventurers. They look like Bedouin camps with big communal tents surrounding the one bathroom. I hope you are a people person if you ever stay in one.
The lake and the surrounding mountains are amazing. So severe and barren that it might be another planet. No plants or bushes, calm water and steep peaks, still covered with snow. No people, or sign of people as far as the eye could see. There was somewhat of a road along the lake, but it didn’t seem to get much traffic and we didn’t see any cars pass by while we were camped along the shore. Windy, and cold, but camping there was worth it. Waking up and looking at the sun rising over those peaks was epic. I did bring some swimming trunks, with the intention of taking a dip in the lake, but the reality of it was that water was really cold. And the air was too. I don’t know if I would have been able to warm up again if I had gone in.
The ride back was eventful for me. I saw funny little cows, shorter than our motorcycles, with long shaggy fur, and I got AMS. Acute Mountain Sickness is a cute way of saying altitude sickness. Our initial run over the pass was so easy that it never occurred to me to even think about it, but this time we took a little break at the top. The typical condition of the road had thrashed Simons bike to the point that the frame had broken and the seat and rear fender were falling off, so we made a stop at the top while he used zip ties, hose clamps, and hope to try and hold it all together for the journey back to Leh. While I had more cold weather gear in my bags, I didn’t bother to put it on; I thought we would be on the top for a couple of minutes, and then moving along. After about 15 minutes I had lost feeling in my hands and feet and was breathing like I had just climbed ten flights of stairs. A few more minutes and I was getting a little nauseas, a little bit more time and I was becoming disoriented. Not dizzy and confused, but more like unconcerned with what was happening around me. And then I just wanted to go and lay down, maybe catch my breath and take a little nap. It was that type of exhaustion you get when you are really really cold and you don’t even feel the cold anymore. The kind of nap you don’t really wake up from. The rest of the guys noticed me shivering and acting stupid, so they sent me on my way, with Ian to keep an eye on me. My GPS shows altitude, and I made notes that at 15,500 feet I got my breath back, and at 14,000 feet the feeling returned in my hands and feet, but I was exhausted and out of it for the rest of the day, and some might argue that the stupidity still hasn’t left.
We made it back to Leh with no more issues, and spent the next day getting haircuts and fixing the bikes. Again.