I am leaving today, on the last of my journeys in Ladakh, to Pangong lake. Tundup and his Innova car are ready at the gate of the hotel . As soon as I reach there, Tundup welcomes me with his usual infectious smile. I remind him that we still have to complete that unfinished task from our Lamayuru trip; visit to the Hall of Fame, Museum. Tundup agrees immediately and says that we should visit it the first thing in the morning. The car stops near the museum. I get down and walk towards the main entrance. The museum building has been built like a Gompa with an arched gate. The building with its background of Zanskar range mountains, looks very impressive. Two mountain howitzers placed on either side of the gate, complete the picture. I go in and buy an entry ticket. I feel relieved as cameras are allowed in the museum with a small fee. As I enter the central hall of the museum, a huge three dimensional map of Ladakh welcomes me. All the geographical features and the areas and locations where major battles were fought by the Indian Army and Air Force are marked clearly. I find the map very informative. The first hall on the left has displays about Ladakh, its flora ,fauna and the people. The next room displays the attire our soldiers wear above snow line and other places, the packed food that has been developed specially for use at these high altitude places. All other halls in the museum are dedicated to various battles fought the Army and the Air Force since 1948 right up to 1999. display panels and three dimensional models for historic battles like that of Gurung hill in 1962, Tiger Hill, Tololing and PT 4875 (1999) , Turtuk operation (1971) and that of Saltoro range for Siachin Glacier(1984) are all well documented. A panel displays the last letter written by Capt. Vijayant Thapar (22) to his father, before he created history in the Kargil war. The letter expresses his feelings and show how charged he was with his love for the country. After reading that letter, my eyes almost become watery. A hall on the first floor displays captured Pakistani arms, pay books and and other papers carried by Pakistani soldiers in 1999 Kargil war.
I am so much charged with emotion that I start feeling suffocated. I walk out of the rear door, which leads me to an open air memorial to the Martyrs, who set out to serve the nation’s cause and did not return. I stand before the memorial with my head bowed down for few moments. On three sides of the memorial, Black granite walls have been engraved with gold letters, depicting names of of all the Martyrs since 1947. I easily find a name, I am looking for, Major Shaitan Singh (PVC) , the greatest hero of that legendary epic battle of Rezang La near Chushul village in 1962. One of the famous Bollywood films, Haqigat was based on this epic battle. I walk out of the museum, with watery eyes and heavy heart, yet feeling extremely proud of the soldiers of my country. It is no wonder that this museum is a must for every domestic visitor to Ladakh.
Memorial for martyrs; Hall of fame Museum in Leh
For going to Pangong lake, one has to take the Leh-Manali highway up to the town of Karu. This highway built on one bank of the Indus river, is perhaps the most populated part of Ladakh. This region appears to be quite habitated with many villages on the way. At Karu, the Manali highway continues along with Indus river and our car turns left towards Chang La, the second highest motorable pass in the world. The landscape again changes to the sandy radish yellow mountain land. It is natural because we are now trying to cross the same Ladakh mountain ranges, though much to the east of Khardung La . The road is much better here and BRO (Border Roads Organization)is very busy here. I see many patches of road recently asphalted. Our car keeps on stopping on the way as new asphalt laying work is in progress in many places. We come to a road junction where a smaller road leads to village of Sakti.
The main road now turns right and starts to climb the hills. As we gain some height, I can see on left, beautiful greenery of Sakti village, with it’s lustrous yellow mustard fields. The road continues to climb higher and higher. After an hour’s drive, the road becomes unpaved and bad indicating that the hill top or the pass is nearing. I see many shrubs on the grond with beautiful blue flowers. These look quite different from what I had seen in Nubra valley and are so beautiful that these could easily be planted in an garden. The car crawls and jerks even more as we reach an open space. We have arrived at Chang La.(17600 feet). I get down from the car and look around. On the west side, from where we have climbed up, I can see a huge mountain slope covered with snow. However in Chang la proper, there is no snow at all. Towards east, nothing can be seen because a tall mountain standing right in the middle, completely blocks the vision of any visitor. I was hoping to see bits of Nubra river, Chang Chenmo river valley and just a bit of Aksai Chin far ahead. But absolutely no chance as this mountain is like a dark curtain blocking out all views. Slightly disappointed, I turn to a small restaurant, set up in the pass itself. Since I am feeling hungry, I inquire about lunch. Only Maggy Noodles are available and it would take 15 to 20 minutes to cook because of the height. I order the same and sit on a bench.
After lunch, I take a stroll around. There is free medical help available, courtesy Indian Army. Army also has built a shrine here called ‘Chang La Baba’ where every soldier, goes and worships while on way. In the pass itself there is no snow, but in adjoining areas there are white patches of recently fallen snow everywhere. The soil is slightly more rocky here and of dark brown colour.
I get into the car and we start our downhill journey. A sign proclaims that we are in the Changthang region of Ladakh. Changthang plateau extends deep inside the Tibetan territories and includes region of Aksai Chin, which has been grabbed illegally by China since 1960. Since this is a sensitive border region, Army is in complete control. The border posts are however manned by ITBP or Indo-Tibet Border police.
Our car slowly climb downs to a small village known as Darbuk. This village is not very far from the place where Shyok river takes a complete U turn and starts flowing to the North. However huge mountain ranges block my view. The car turns right; a road sign tells me that we are proceeding to Tangtse village. This village is some kind of important military establishment and all vehicles are checked here. The car stops here and Tundup gets down to show our ‘Inner Line permits’ to the authorities. Further up on the road, we need to purchase entry passes for Pangong lake. From here another road branches of to Chushul village. The name Chushul brings in my mind, strong memories of 1962. Particularly the battle of Rezang La and Maj. Shaitan Singh. I quote here from a display board in the Hall of fame museum which I have just seen.
“ The battle of Rezang La commenced on the early hours of 18th November 1962. The first Chinese attack was ‘silent’, with the intention to surprize the defenders of Rezang La, in which, the Chinese failed. Maj. Shaitana Singh and his brave men were now certain to face a big attack. With baited breath they waited their fingers on the triggers. When the dawn was just cracking and the Chinese came within range, Maj. Shaitana Singh ordered to open fire and the company under Maj. Shaitan Singh let the attackers have it. But with every weapon of the company firing, the gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese. Chinese frontal attack having failed, they modified their attack plan by shelling Rezang la heavily. Finding his company surrounded, Maj. Shaitan Singh reorganized the position and resited the automatic weapons to take on the enemy attack. It was during the re-organization, which Maj. Shaitan Singh was personally supervising, that he received a burst of fire in one arm. After a while, he received another Light Machine gun burst in his abdomen and succumbed to his injuries. His mortal remains were found three months later. By any test, every man of the company who fought and died at Rezang La was a hero and the grateful nation continues to remember each one of them as such. The Kumaonis ‘ fought till the last man last bullet at the icy heights of Rezang La. Of the 118 men at Rezang La, 109 men laid down their lives. 5 men were captured and only 4 men returned back alive. The company had outdated and obsolete weapons as against the sophisticated weapons held by the Chinese.”
I know for sure that no civilian is allowed near Chushul, and I would never be able to visit the memorial of Rezang La battle. Since Pangong lake is not very far away from this place, I would have to pay my respects to these brave men at the lake only.
From Tangtse onwards, we are no longer traveling on higher echelons of mountain ranges; the road now is along a very fertile green valley with huge mountain slopes on either side. Yet this valley itself is at a height of over 13000 ft and remains covered by snow for major part of the year. There is no foliage here, only green grasses with darker green patches of shrubs sticking out in the middle.. Perhaps only these can survive the extreme weather and the harsh winters. I see Yaks and wild horses grazing on the grasses with white tents of the nomadic residents called Changpas. Few wooly rat like creatures called Mermots cross our paths several times. As we come nearer to our destination, the green grasses at the floor of the valley change to pure white sand. The wind blows this sand on the asphalted road, creating an illusion of a snow covered road. Even then, the view is incredibly beautiful. We approach a dried flood water current or Nala. This one is called by the locals as Pagal Nala or a mad water current. This Nala has changed its course several times during last decade, completely destroying the overbridges on it. Army has now built a steel structure on a much higher level, which means that the car has to climb up and come down again just to cross the Nala.
Far ahead, near the horizon, I see mountains breaking apart. In the middle a snow clad peak rises far above and in the front a small patch of brilliant blue is shining in the harsh sunlight of Ladakh. Tundup points out to the blue patch and announces that we have reached Pangong Lake. Before embarking on this journey, I have done my home work with Google Earth and recognize the snow clad peak as Chang Chenmo Kangri I (21423 ft.). This means that the low height peaks with patches of snow seen on the right side of this peak would be where Line of actual control between India and Tibet (China) passes through. On left side of these peaks with snow patches, I can see a depression, which most probably is the Marsemik La (18314 feet). The second highest mountain pass in the world.
As the car moves ahead, the patch of blue gets bigger and bigger. We approach a narrow opening between two overlapping mountains and pass through it, ahead of us is one of the most beautiful spots in the world; the Pangong Lake. This lake at an elevation of 14200 ft is the largest in Asia and measures 6 to 7 Kilometers in width and 130 Kilometer length. Half of this lake is part of Tibet (China) and remaining half in India. In 1962, Chinese have grabbed illegally, further part of this lake and now only 1/4th of the lake is in India.
I have reserved accommodation in a camp set up on the North-West end of the lake. It has been named as ‘Marsemik Camp’. The car stops and I get down. There is some confusion about the reservation. The camp manager tells me that he has reserved a tent for me with a common toilette. My understanding of this situation was that the toilette would be near the tent easily reachable in the night. It turns out that the toilette is a fiber glass cabin at least 100 meters away with no clear foot-way even. I have lengthy discussion with the manager and I try to tell him to call my travel agent in Leh. It can not be done as there are no telephones in Pangong and the mobile phones do not have a range here. After lot pf persuasion the manager agrees to give me a tent with attached toilette if available by 7 PM. I just dump the backpack in a tent have a cup of Tea and rush to the lake shore in our car.
The panorama from the lake shore is stunningly beautiful. In front of me are the clear blue waters of the lake, the ripples on the surface, sparkling and dazzling in bright sunlight. There are few people around, yet vastness of the panorama engulfs me so completely that I fail even to notice them. I try to hold some water in my palms. It is so cold that my palm and fingers gets numb. The water testes slightly salty, perhaps because of the heavy concentration of salts. Ahead of me, beyond the east shore of the lake are the mountains of the Chang Chenmo range. Shorter mountains are in the front, with the taller snow clad peaks in the background . To the south I can see series of shorter hills. To the west, just next to my position, stands the towering Pang gong range; There are quite a few snow capped peaks here. To the left of this range I can identify towering peak of Kangju Kangri (22063 ft.). To the north, beyond the lake shore and at the foot of a mountain I can faintly see the village of Lukung. The surrounding hills are all barren without any snow. Yet the marks created over the ages by small glaciers formed in the winter, sliding over mountain slopes, have left their marks on the slopes creating weird patterns. The marks appear to me like war paint stripes, painted over bare chested fighters of the medieval times.
The name Marsemik again has takes me back to those shameful days of 1960′s, when India was at war with China and was defeated very badly. It all started in 1952, when rumours reached Indian Army high command, about presence of Chinese in Aksai Chin area. Two officers were sent by Army for surveillance. These officers had travelled by the same route on which we have travelled today and then went via Lukung to Marsemik La- Kongaka la and finally to Kanak La on boundary with Tibet. They reported presence of Chinese engineers on Indian soil. Unfortunately, Government of India did not take any action and Chinese subsequently grabbed Indian territories. When Chinese incursions became known to Indian public and there was much anger, a Police officer, DSP Karam singh was ordered by the Government of India to go to Aksai Chin to establish a police post. DSP Karam singh and a team of 40 policemen left for Aksai Chin by the same route; Leh-Pangong Lake-Lukung-Marsemik La- Kongaka La. When this team tried to go beyond Kongaka La, they were surrounded by hudreds of PLA soldiers equipped with automatic rifles and machine guns. When DSP Karam singh was asked to go back, he did something, which was headline stuff and was published by all newspapers in India then. DSP Karam singh bent down, picked up some soil from the ground, and held it near his chest indicating that the land is his.
Needless to say, a war broke out. DSP Karam singh and his men equipped with WW II Enfield 303 bolt rifles, were no match for the Chinese soldiers with automatic weapons and after loosing many men, they had to surrender. They were released after few days with much humiliation. A memorial has been built near the Kongaka la to honour these brave men. It remaains out of bounds for any civilians, and I have no hope whatsoever, of seeing it and paying my homage to the brave policemen.
As I stand on the lake shore, facing the Marsemik La, which is the easiest gateway to Aksai Chin, I close my eyes and pay my homage to these brave policemen. I get back to the car and we start moving south along the lake shore. As we move southwards, the placid waters of the lake no longer look calm and quiet. As the easterly wind blows , the water responses with ripples and waves. The waves are not very big, yet they have a frightening kind of force. On the edges, the water is comparatively calm. The shore is not very sandy, except for a few places. Otherwise, gravel, stones and patches of marshy earth welcomes the lake waters to the shore. There are no water grasses seen anywhere with only short bushes sticking their neck out of the stones and the gravel. We continue to move southwards and finally arrive at our destination. The village of Spangmik.
This village is really very small. Just a few huts. But I do see few green fields and a tree, the first tree I have seen since we arrived in Pangong. I can see one or two houses built with modern construction practices. But most of the other constructions such as houses, compound walls, shelters for the goats, are all constructed by stacking rows and rows of rounded stones found abundantly along the lake shore. This small village is famous for the Pashmina wool of the goats here. The lake shore near the village is marshy and full of shrubs. It is difficult to go near the water. I stand little away from the water and look to the south. On my right the towering mountains of Pangong range taper off to the ground far away. Between these hills and the mountain ranges of the Chang Chenmo range, which are on my left, there is gap, which can be clearly seen. In this gap, far away, I can see faintly, some hills of low height. These hills appear to be obstructing the lake which really means that the lake turns sharply to the left at this point here.With the help of my binoculars, I manage to get a slightly better view. According to my map, these hills have to be the Gurung or Black top hills, where a major battle was fought in 1962. Just like Rezang La, Gurung hill and the Black top battles have become part of history and are well documented. I quote here again from the display board from the Hall of fame museum.
“ The battle for Gurung hill had begun on 18 Nov. 1962 and at 0545 hrs and the Chinese attacked the two platoons on Gurung hill commanded by Capt. PL Kher. As the Chinese started an artillery bobardment, the Indian gunners fired back at Chinese preparation sites. Guided by Second Lieutenant S.D. Goswami, own artillery barrage caught the Chinese in the open and the severe casualties forced them to abandon the attack.
When the Chinese were 150 yards, Kher ordered his men to open fire. Meanwhile other Chinese troops were streaming down the gullies leading to Gurung hill from the Spanggur Gap. Now the AMX 13 tanks of B squadron, 20th lancers, commanded by Second Lieutenant S.P.S. Baswani were thrown in the fray. Intitially the Gorkhas were thrown back but the valiant Gurkhas led a khukri charge and retook their positions.Meanwhile Kher was wounded and as he watched the Chinese attack again develop, he had two options. Stand and fight and be overrun or withdraw to camel’s back (adjoining hill) where he had a better chance. He opted for the second and called for artillery fire on his own positions to give him a chance to disengage. Meanwhile Goswami continued to direct fire from his observation postire on his position, he started to withdraw on Kher’s order, when he was hit.He collapsed and lay there till a patrol found him in the night and brought him back. But the severe cold had caused frost bite and his legs had to be amputed. Second Lieutenant S.D. Goswami was later awarded with Maha Vir Chakra.”
I stand still, close my eyes and pay homage to the warriors of the Gurung hill. The Pangong lake area is so strikingly beautiful that it is difficult to describe it in words. The colours of the water body, keep changing as sun rises from the east and sets behind the Pan gong range, from Electric blue to deep green, almost every shade possible is seen. I keep on clicking my camera never tiring of it. While we are returning from Spangmik, Tundup points out to a spot on lake shore, where a Bollywood film song was shot. He tells me that Pangong lake has now become famous because of this song and the actor. I do not like the idea at all that a Bollywood film and its actor are associated with this wonderful spot. I would rather associate this place with likes of DSP Karam singh and Maj. Shaitan Singh.
The car brings me back to our camp. The row about a tent with attached toilette has been resolved and I am allotted a room with attached toilette instead. I was looking forward to staying in a tent, but considering the extreme weather conditions, in a way, this arrangement is better. I look at my watch. The time is 7.30 PM, yet there is enough sunlight. I decide to make another short trip to the lake shore. I walk slowly to the nearest lake shore. The sun is behind me,casting last rays of the day on the placid waters. Straight ahead is the Marsemik la or pass and other mountains which are in Chinese possession since 1962. The grandeur of the view makes me very quiet and makes me realize that the wind is getting stronger by minute now. My balaclava or monkey cap is just not sufficient. I pull up the hood of my wind cheater on my head and feel comfortable.
Later, we are served dinner in a special dining tent. A cozy and warm place with rows and rows of tables. The food is piping hot and good. To serve full Indian meal in this remote location near Pangong lake is an incredible feat without any doubt. The camp staff is very courteous and polite. As I return to my room, I just look upwards in the sky. The sky is dazzling with bright stars. For a long time, I have not seen such bright starry sky. I can identify few stars and constellations like the Big dipper and Capella . But it’s getting very cold and I start feeling uncomfortable. I return to my room and get into the bed. They have provided two woolen carpets on bed sheets to sleep in between. This Ladakhi sleeping arrangement is amazingly warm. The camp lights go off at 10 PM. Its totally dark now except for the starlight. I just doze off.
(to be continued)
24 August 2011