For the next 480 kilometres there would be no gas station. Or a place to buy food for that matter. Our trip demanded some preparation and so in Leh, Ladakh, we stocked up and filled up the tank of our Land Cruiser.
We left town, drove south and when leaving the main road, followed a river that cut through a gorge. From a world full of temples (and tourists) we entered an empty world of ochre and grey. Forget about road signs. Forget about inhabitants whom you can ask for directions. They are non-existent here. In some parts, tracks zigzag all over the place. A GPS would be handy, but we didn’t have one. My partner Coen (with whom I was traveling the world in a beat-up Land Cruiser) and I were in the possession of two maps, each giving its own interpretation of the area. It didn’t matter. It was all part of the adventure, of our interest in driving through and camping in the world’s most remote areas.
At times the Land Cruiser struggled, especially when the path turned into a pebble-strewn or jagged road. The car rocked vehemently over boulders and at one time we heard a loud bang. We wondered what it was but didn’t give it too much thought. Only weeks later did we notice that the Land Cruiser’s spare tire was missing–it used to be attached underneath the car. It must have fallen off there, on that rocky path. I hoped we had made a villager happy with such an unexpected gift.
While we had seen photos in brochures, we were blown away by the sight of Tso Moriri’s turquoise lake. It was lined with a thin line of white salt, and hemmed in by mountains sprinkled in snow. Was that the last of last winter’s snow or the first of this year’s?
The area was breathtaking – literally. Tso Moriri translates as the ‘mountain lake’. It lies some 240 kilometres southeast of Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir state, and is India’s highest lake. At an altitude of 4876 metres, the air is rarefied, and was so cold that our lungs protested with each breath. It was late September and even in the afternoon sun it was uncomfortable to sit outside. We tried staying warm by jumping up and down and skimming stones over the smooth surface of the brackish water but soon took refuge in the car. Coen parked the Land Cruiser in such a way that we could enjoy a view of the lake from our front seats.
The glistening of the water surface disappeared as the sun went down behind the hills and night set in. We snuggled under our down blanket and listened as the wind picked up and was soon howling with a vengeance. We got up after the sun had climbed high enough to heat up the tent, and Coen opened the hood to let the sunrays warm up the engine. As the Land Cruiser chugged into life it emitted black fumes.
Nestled alongside the lake is a settlement, Korzok, mainly inhabited by shepherds. They sell the famous and expensive pashmina wool. The place appeared deserted and we checked out its 400-year-old, Tibetan Buddhist monastery that is home to a couple of dozen monks. It is an extensive and colorful complex next to the village, and offers views of the agricultural lands that line Tso Moriri.
On our way back to the main road we stopped to admire ‘golden’ marmots, called so because of their shiny pelts. They seem to have no fear of humans, and simply continued sunbathing on the rocks along the side of the road as we drove past. We came upon another lake: Tso Kar, smaller than Tso Moriri, with salt rather than brackish water. The line of white salt surrounding the water surface was wider and brighter.
Going somewhere is one challenge, but getting back is another. We arrived at a valley with zillions of tracks seemingly leading nowhere. Where was the main road between Leh and Manali, which would take us back to civilization? We meandered back and forth randomly, until I spotted a bit of tar in the distance. It was narrow and seemingly a minor road, yet there was no doubt: in this wilderness anything tarred meant civilization. We had found our way out and set off south, to Manali and back to India’s heat.
Article by Karin-Marijke Vis.