After its show-time months of fair weather and cliché-inducing vistas, the weary land and lakes of Ladakh’s Changthang plateau settle down for a topographic repose. And the Narnian winter —when midday temperatures hover around minus 15°C — helps it find just that. Snow piles up on the 5000 m passes and the cold numbs inquisitive minds that might consider crossing them. For good measure, it also kills car batteries and freezes fuel.
The Changthang, at an average altitude of 6000 m and spread over 40,000 km2, is not considered one of the most desolate places on the planet for nothing. It is uninhabited, save for the 1500 families - Changpas, nomadic pastoralists, guardians of the pashmina goats, and dear friends with whom I have spent more than ten summers learning lessons of survival.
Little wonder then that no one has ever explored this summer tourist haven in winter — when the only mode of transport are the good ol’ legs and the only manner of survival is on shoulders strong enough to lug an 18 kg rucksack. My curiosity led me to the Changthang in winter for the first time in 2006. Today having walked over 3000 km to the great lakes — Pangong, Tso Kar, Kyagar Tso, Tso Moriri, Kyun Tso and Lohan Tso — along a trail-less landscape of unending wonder I know only too well the price of transgression on the Changthang.
Like the landscape itself, the massive chorten near Tasabuk, a hidden Tibetan refugee village on the far bank of Tso Kor, is a work in progress. With most time spent indoors, residents, like the one in the picture, chisel rocks through the evenings and add to the sides of the chorten to increase its girth.
It is near-suicidal on a bad day: far too cold, too exposed, far too isolated to expect any kind of help; and the lakes too dangerous to skate across. But as an education in terrestrial metamorphosis, this is a region too tantalising to ignore.
Kyun Tso, at a height of 4816 m, is considered the Promised Land by SUV- driving off-roaders in summer. The lake, some 70 km from Hanle village, is not connected by any form of road, and the valley itself is considered by many to be among the coldest of places on the Changtang in winter. The lakes waters, an arsenal green in summer, retain a mellower hue in winter, visible only in places where the manic winds manage to clear the frozen surface of snow.
Sunset, sky and clouds lend a bend on the Hanle chu near Rongo the look of a palette. The frozen river offers the Changpa a walking trail, which is easier to negotiate than the loose sand that makes up most of the valley’s terrain. Here, Changpa children slide over it with their day’s collection of yak and goat droppings, which are used as fuel.
Dwarfed by distance and scale, Rashid, my trekking companion, Phunsok, a Man-Merak resident, and I pick our way across the Pangong Tso. The ice here comes in three varieties: hard as rock, soft as slush and practically water. We trekked 25 km on the lake and Phunsok walked with us for two km. He said he had ‘always wanted to, but never dared to alone.’
Sunset over Pagal nala, which drains into the Pangong Tso.
Tso Rul in a strobe of the setting sun. One of the smaller lakes, it rarely finds mention on the tourist itinerary because it lies just one pass away from its much-celebrated cousin Tso Moriri. An especially hard winter, however, had deposited snow more than four feet deep on the pass, making a crossing impossible to achieve on limbs sore from 13 days of walking.
This image is of waves frozen on the Pangong Tso. This phenomenon occurs when the cold snaps hit the Changthang, times when temperatures fall more than 10 0 C in a matter of minutes. The sudden cold manages to freeze waves in mid motion.
Lohan Tso, in the Nubra valley. This tiny lake is also one of the holiest in Ladakh. Muslims say the pure of heart can see their deepest desires in the reflections of this water body. Buddhists say the Potala Palace is reflected in its shimmering waters.