Looking at pristine Pangong Lake, also known as Pangong Tso, you could be forgiven for thinking it's anywhere but India. At a literally breathtaking elevation of 14,270 feet (4,350 meters) above sea level, the lake presents a surreal spectacle.
Notably, Pangong Lake is one of the world's highest saltwater lakes. (It's frequently said to be the highest but the elevation of Nam Lake, Nam Tso, in Tibet is actually 400 hundred meters more). The lake is also unusual because it's completely landlocked and unable to drain anywhere, unlike other water bodies that flow into a river or ocean.
Apparently, glacial erosion created the lake's basin, and it was initially a freshwater lake. It turned brackish over time due to the formation of mineral deposits, which killed off its aquatic life. No one really knows exactly how deep Pangong Lake is, although it's estimated to be around 300 feet. Even though the lake is salty, it freezes in winter. As the weather warms up, melting snow from the surrounding peaks replenishes its water supply.
Naturally, Pangong Lake has been of great interest to geologists. However, it only really rose to fame after featuring in popular Bollywood movie "The 3 Idiots," starring Aamir Khan, in 2009. Now, it draws an average of 1,000 tourists a day!
Read on to find out how to visit Pangong Lake in this complete guide.
Pangong Lake is located in the Changthang region of eastern Ladakh, about six hours drive southeast of the erstwhile capital of Leh. The route crosses the Ladakh Range through Chang La at a dizzying 17,586 feet (5,360 meters) above sea level. It's one of the highest motorable passes in the world. The lake stretches for nearly 135 kilometers (83 miles), and is 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) wide at its broadest point.
What's important to keep in mind is that Pangong Lake is sensitive disputed territory. The Line of Actual Control, between India and China, cuts through the lake near Khurnak Fort but neither county agrees as to where it should be. About a third of the lake lies within India, while the rest is in China-dominated Tibet.
How to Visit Pangong Lake
Unlike many high mountain passes that close during winter, the Indian Army keeps the road through Chang La open continuously, except when it snows really heavily. Hence, it's possible to visit Pangong Lake all year round. The main attraction during winter is being able to walk on the frozen lake. However, have no doubt about it, it will be icy cold! Plus, accommodations will be limited to basic homestays. May to October is a more comfortable time to go, with June and July being the peak tourist season. If you want to avoid the worst of the crowds and commercialization, definitely avoid these two peak season months!
Since Pangong Lake is in a border area, special permits are needed to visit it. Indians are required to have an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for Pangong Lake, while foreigners (except for Bhutanese citizens) must have a Protected Area Permit (PAP). Permits are now being issued online here. However, Indians can also obtain ILPs from the Tourist Information Center near Jammu and Kashmir Bank in Leh's Main Bazaar.
Foreigners should get their PAP from a registered travel agent in Leh, particularly if traveling solo. Theoretically, at least two foreigners must be in a group to get a PAP. However, travel agents will add solo travelers to other groups. This doesn't mean you need to join the group though. It's possible to go alone after getting the permit. Do note that citizens of Afghanistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China need permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi for a PAP, and should apply through the Indian consulate in their country.
Tourists usually visit Pangong Lake on a day trip from Leh, or stay overnight. You won't have much time to spend there on a day trip though and it will be very tiring. In addition, sunrises and sunsets over the lake are spectacular, so spending the night is highly recommended. Pangong Lake can also be included in a wider itinerary encompassing the Nubra Valley (such as Khardung La, Diskit, Hunder, Turtuk) and/or quieter Tso Moriri lake. Foreigners heading on to Tso Moriri from Pangong Lake aren't allowed to go through Chushul though, and must take the usual route via Chumathang.
Pangong Lake Tour Options
You'll find a plethora of travel agents in Leh all offering similar tours to Pangong Lake. Bookings can readily be done there after you arrive, and you'll be able to save money by negotiating. Alternatively, if you want to travel independently, you can hire a taxi from Leh to Pangong Lake. The taxi rates are generally fixed and you can expect to pay 8,650 rupees for a one day return trip. However, you may be able to save 10-15% by contacting taxi drivers directly. You'll find some recommended drivers and their details at the bottom of this article.
Local government buses also operate between Leh and Pangong Lake for those on a budget. The cost is about 250 rupees per person, one way. The services don't run every day though. Details are available here.
If you do want to plan and book in advance, some quality Leh-based tour operators that organize trips to Pangong Lake and receive excellent feedback are Ju Leh Adventures, Wandering Wisdom, Dreamland Trek and Tour, and Yama Adventures.
Online adventure travel booking platform Thrillophilia also offers a popular 7-day Ladakh sightseeing package tour that includes Pangong Lake.
How to Stay Safe and Healthy
Altitude sickness is a major health concern when visiting Pangong Lake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can affect anyone more than 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level. The thinner air means there's less oxygen to breathe, resulting in low levels of oxygen in the body's blood (hypoxemia) and tissues (hypoxia). Symptoms may commonly range from mild headache and fatigue, to the rarer build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain. Therefore, acclimatization is to be taken seriously, otherwise you may end up dangerously ill.
The body does adjust well to high altitudes but requires time, from three to five days. Rapid ascent from flying into Leh, at just under 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) above sea level, puts travelers in the high-risk category for altitude sickness. Most people will feel a bit sick, like having a hangover, after they arrive in Leh. This can be reduced by taking medication called Diamox (acetazolamide), which speeds up acclimatization process. A doctor's prescription is required. Anyone who has a pre-existing condition such as heart or lung disease, or diabetes should also consult a doctor before traveling.
It's recommended that a minimum three nights be spent resting in Leh (local sightseeing during the day is okay) after flying in, before setting out to Pangong Lake. This is especially so if you haven't been to a high-altitude place before and don't know how your body will react. The amount of oxygen in your blood will be lowest when sleeping, so this will largely determine how you respond. Those who are unwell will normally start improving by the third night. If you're feeling really sick, you can move down in altitude to nearby Alchi for a while.
When deciding your itinerary, ideally proceed in order of lowest to highest altitude destinations. The CDC recommends that once you're above 9,000 feet (2,750 meters), you shouldn't increase your sleeping altitude by more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) per day. You should also allow an extra day of acclimatization for every 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) gained.
Since Pangong Lake is about (850 meters) higher than Leh, it's wise to spend a night between Leh and Pangong Lake at Tangtse village. Its around 12,800 feet (3,900 meters) above sea level and 35 kilometers (miles) from Pangong Lake, and has a medical center. Some people do become unwell when passing through high-altitude Chang La, about an hour before Tangtse. You'll feel better and enjoy your trip by going slower.
Other tips for minimizing altitude sickness include avoiding alcohol, smoking, and exertion for the first 48 hours. Keep appropriately, but not excessively, hydrated by drinking water with Oral Re-hydration Salts (ORS). Eating garlic soup is said to be helpful as well!
Oxygen, from medical-grade tanks or oxygen bars, is an effective treatment for moderate altitude sickness. Anyone who experiences shortness of breath or coughing should seek medical assistance immediately. There's an excellent hospital, Sonam Norboo Memorial, near the airport in Leh that treats tourists every day. Most of the people who have been admitted have ignored the acclimatization guidelines.
Less acclimatization time is necessary in Leh if driving from Srinagar in Kashmir or Manali in Himachal Pradesh, due to the gradual increase in altitude. The route from Srinagar provides the best option for acclimatization as the increase is steady, while those coming from Manali may experience sickness on the way due to altitude fluctuations.
What to pack for visiting Ladakh and Pangong Lake will depend on the time of year. During the tourist season in summer, the temperature drops dramatically from warm in the daytime to cold at night, making layering necessary. Bring cotton tops and t-shirts, woolens, thermals, and windproof jackets. A headband is useful to protect your ears. The sun in Ladakh is harsh, so wear sunscreen to avoid getting burned too.
Accommodations and Facilities
Those who want to visit Pangong Lake independently and choose their own accommodations will find a wide variety available, ranging from basic homestays to luxury tented camps (glamping by the lake is a thing!).
Tented camps proliferate along the lake from May to October. The tents usually have attached bathrooms with western-style toilets and hot water (although it's limited to certain times at some). Most aren't heated though. Those that are, are usually heated for a few hours at night and in the morning. It can get very cold and windy at night, so do take this into consideration. Another consideration is electricity: camps commonly provide it for a few hour only. Some camps offer wireless Internet in the reception area.
Homestays are a cozier alternative. The facilities vary from private rooms to hostel-like dorm rooms (such as at Padma Homestay), and private western-style bathrooms to shared local-style bathrooms. It's best to just turn up, look at a few places, find one that's suitable, and agree on the price.
Lukung village, at the head of Pangong Lake, is the entry point and the only village with a view of the whole stretch of lake. However, the drawback is that it's quite a walk to the lake's edge. If you stay in one of the many homestays there, choose one closest to the lake.
The next village, Spangmik, is the most developed (and commercialized) village at Pangong Lake. Most people stay in this area. The fields have been leased to tour companies from Leh to set up tented camps. Camp Redstart is very popular and has luxury doubles from around 5,000 rupees per night. Mystic Pangong is only a couple hundred meters from the lake. Its 15 luxury tents cost from 3,500 rupees per night. There are plenty of homestays as well.
The last of the luxury tented camps are at Maan village, beyond Spangmik, which is quieter and less crowded. One of the best ones is Pangong Hermitage, with eight eco-friendly yurts. Rates start from 18,000 rupees per night for a double, including breakfast. Pangong Sarai is a cheaper option with 25 luxury tents and rates from 3,220 rupees per night for a double. Pangong Travel Camp has 23 luxury tents right by the lake for 4,300 rupees per night for a double.
However, if you want to really get off the beaten track, you'll need to go even further ahead to tiny Merak village. There are a few friendly homestays there, and it's a fantastic way to experience the local culture. One of them is Peacefull Homestay. All guest rooms have attached bathrooms with western-style toilets. Expect to pay 2,000 rupees per night for a double.
The homestays and tented camps all provide meals for guests. There's a handful of stalls in the vicinity of the lake that serve everything from momos to daal and rice too. If you'd prefer to eat at a restaurant, P3 Restaurant is renowned for its tasty Tibetan food and lake view.
What Else to Do Nearby
Props, including yellow scooters (related to The 3 Idiots movie) are available for hire at Pangong Lake for those who want to pose and have their own Bollywood moment. (Yes, it's that commercialized!).
Birdwatchers can spot migratory birds at Pangong Lake. There are also yaks for tourists to ride.
It's possible to visit several Buddhist monasteries on the way from Leh to Pangong Lake. These are Stakna, Thiksey, Hemis, Shey and Tangtse. There's also a palace at Shey.
Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, between Leh and Pangong Lake, is home to the Himalayan marmot. You may be able to spot one (but don't feed them).