Prior to the year 2009, the name Pangong Tso was pretty much unknown to everyone except for a handful few who were familiar with the terrain of Ladakh. Then in 2009, a movie called “3 Idiots” was released which featured a scene of Amir Khan flying a kite on the banks of a deep blue lake against the backdrop of barren grey mountains of mighty Himalayas. The movie was an instant hit but an even bigger hit was that lake. It provoked curiosity throughout the nation and pretty soon, Pangong Lake became a household name, known to every travel enthusiasts in the country.
The word Pangong Tso derives from Tibetan “spang gong mtsho” which literally means “High grassland Lake”, Also commonly referred to as “enchanted lake”, it is about 5 kkilometers wide at its broadest point and runs a total length of 134 kilometers; extending from India to China. Approximately, 60% of the lake is in China and 40% in India.
Pangong Tso is a saltwater lake and has very low micro-vegetation. Per the reports, there are no fish or any other aquatic life in the lake however you will still see numerous ducks and gulls flying over and on the surface of the lake. Interestingly, this lake also acts as a breeding ground for a variety of birds. In Summer, Bar Headed Goose and Brahmini Ducks are common to be seen here. Though you will not see right on the banks of the lake, but the area around also supports a number of species of wildlife like Kiang and Marmot.
In winter, water of the lake freezes completely; so much that you can easily walk over it. People have also taken their SUVs over the water in Winter to click pictures though I will really not recommend it. The route from Leh to Pangong Tso will also take you across mighty Chang La, a high altitude pass which was once considered as third highest motorable road in the world. Depending on your speed and breaks, this journey can take you anywhere between 6-8 hours and runs through a highly scenic region full of eye-catching vistas.
In this article, I will provide details on how you can plan a trip to Pangong Tso from Leh. The article contains information on routes, accommodation, best time to visit and several other important tips that can be of help while traveling to Pangong.
Pangong Tso Permit
Pangong Lake is considered a part of inner line, areas closer to border; hence an Inner line permit is required in order to visit here. For foreign nationals, a Protected Area permit has to be procured before they can travel from Leh to Pangong Tso. Inner line permit can either be applied for and obtained in person from DM office Leh or online. Protected area permit however needs to be obtained through a registered travel agent. Please read through the article below for more information on how to get these permits.
How to reach Pangong Lake from Leh
There are four routes that you can take for this journey. One is the traditional Leh to Pangong Tso direct route; while the other two roads are via Nubra Valley and the least traveled one is between Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso.
Pangong Tso Map
Below is a road map of Leh to Pangong Tso that I will be referring to for this article. Please click on the map to view it in full size.
Leh to Pangong Tso via Chang La
This is the most traveled upon and direct route to reach Pangong Tso from Leh. The other routes via Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri are more of an extended itinerary; when you try to cover all three places in a loop. However if Pangong Tso is on your mind and you want to get there directly from Leh, below is the route you will be following.
Leh – Shey – Karu [45 kms]
Karu – Shakti – Chang La [40 kms]
Chang La – Durbuk – Tangste [60 kms]
Tangste – Lukung – Spangmik – Pangong Tso [30 kms]
Leh to Pangong Tso Distance by Road
Traveling on the above mentioned route, total distance covered will be approximately 160 kilometers which can be covered in 6-7 hours depending upon your speed and breaks.An early start from Leh is advised so that you can reach Pangong by late afternoon and have ample time to spend on its banks. Take the Manali – Leh highway and drive till you reach Karu, which will take you less than an hour. From Karu, leave the Manali – Leh highway and turn left towards Sakti, then continue towards Chang La, ascent of which starts a few kilometers after crossing Sakti.
Chang La Pass
Chang La, literally meaning “Pass towards the South” is claimed to be the third highest motor-able road in the world, located at 17,590 ft. It is called Mighty Chang La because of its steep and “tough near the final ascent” climb. Once at the summit, take a photo-break and enjoy the beautiful scenery around you. At the top of Chang La is an army base and small cafeteria, which offers free tea, without milk however. So if you don’t mind sipping down black tea, it is good place to sit with a cup in your hand and beautiful Himalayan peaks all around you. Take photos next to several signboards reading “Chang La, 3rd Highest Motor-able Road in the world” You can also Visit Chang La Baba ka mandir built by Indian Army under the belief that Baba will protect & save people from any mishap here.
Chang La to Pangong Tso
After Chang La, continue on the descent towards Durbuk. Road initially is bad, closer to the top of the pass, after which it remains super smooth for rest of the journey. In a couple of hours, you will reach the town of Tangste, the big town on this route with several shops, hotels and guest houses. It is also a preferred stop for several people who reach here towards late evening. If you reached Tangste around noon, have your lunch here.
After Tangste, it is a straight run to the village of Spangmik, right on the shores of Pangong Tso. Roads are extremely good however there are areas where you will find streams of water flowing down from the hill on the road. Within an hour, you will get your first sight of the beautiful lake. Get ready to be mesmerized and enchanted.
A little before Spangmik, there will be a barricade where you will have to pay a small fee before you continue ahead. Last I was there, it was Rs. 10, may change in coming years. Pangong Tso mainly has accommodation available in form of Chadar tents and camp sites. There is also an Army base by the lake and a souvenir shop in case you are interested to buy something that would remind you of the trip.
While traveling on this route, you can also cover several monasteries either while on your way to Pangong or returning to Leh. Thiksey, Hemis and Shey monasteries can be covered but please ensure that you plan your day and time spent at the monasteries accordingly. This is the most convenient routes of all and provides the best road condition.
Leh to Pangong Tso via Nubra Valley
Well this is not exactly the road you take if you want go to Pangong Tso from Leh; but a way to include both these places in your itinerary without having to come back to Leh from Nubra valley. The most common way of a trip to Ladakh is to first reach to Leh, then travel to Nubra valley and then to Pangong. Earlier people would come back to Leh from Nubra valley before continuing to Pangong but off-late this has started to change. There are two routes that you can take to reach Pangong Tso from Nubra valley. One will take you across a high altitude pass, Wari La; while the other will have you traveling right next to Shyok river. Traveling on either of these roads will mean that you can save a day in your trip by not having to return to Leh city from Nubra valley.
The common thing between Wari La and Shyok routes is that they are both extremely remote and challenging. You will hardly come across anybody and in case of a breakdown, there is a high risk of getting stranded. You will be on your own and it can be several hours before help arrives. Of the two, route via Wari La will take approximately 10-11 hours before you reach Pangong Tso however traveling by Shyok road will see you by the shores in 5-6 hours.
Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake via Wari La
This route will take you over the mighty Wari La; probably one of the most difficult passes of Ladakh. Journey will be as mentioned below;
Diskit / Panamik – Khalsar – Agham – Tangyar – Wari La – Tathok – Sakti – Chang La – Durbuk – Tangste – Lukung – Spangmik
Total distance traveled will be close to 250 kilometers which may not sound much; but due to difficult roads and steep ascents, can very well take anywhere between 10-12 hours; depending upon your speed and breaks.
Due to the long journey, an early start from Nubra valley is highly recommended. Leave by first light of the day so that you can reach Pangong well in time. Depending on where you stayed in Nubra valley, you will have to backtrack all the way to Khalsar. At Khalsar, do not take the road towards Khardung La; rather continue straight towards the village of Agham. From Agham, you will take the diversion towards Tangyar, climb up to Wari La and then descend on the other side to Sakti while crossing the village of Tathok on the way. From Sakti, it is the same journey to Pangong Tso that I described previously in the article.
There are a few important things you need to keep in mind while journeying via this route. First is the long travel time and an early start from Nubra valley. Second is that Wari La opens a bit late in the season.
While the road across Khardung La remains open through out the year; same is not the case with Wari La. BRO clears this road sometime by late June or early July so please check the status of the road before you plan your itinerary.
Second is that while applying for Inner line permit, please ensure that you clearly mention Wari La on it. If the name of the pass is missing from your permit, Indian Army may not allow you to go that way. There is also no public transport available on this road. No bus plies this way and nor do any shared taxis so put Wari La on your itinerary only if you are traveling by your own vehicle and sometime between July and September.
Last but not the least is that from Leh to Nubra, then to Pangong and back to Leh will means several hundred kilometers of traveling; without any other fuel stations except for the one in Leh. So you need to ensure that you are making proper arrangements to carry spare fuel. A good to know information here is that these days, you can get fuel at the Chadar tents at Pangong Tso but it will be for double the price and quality of the fuel too cannot be guaranteed. Please read the article below for more details on this route.
Also read: Nubra Valley to Pangong via Wari La
Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake via Shyok
This is the shorter of the two direct routes from Nubra valley to Pangong Tso. Journey will be as mentioned below,
Diskit/Panamik – Khalsar – Agham – Shyok Village – Durbuk – Tangste – Lukung – Spangmik
Total distance covered will be 175 kilometers which can easily be covered in 5-6 hours. Though you will not be crossing any high altitude passes at all however; generally Shyok road is considered as more risky and challenging than the Wari La road. This road was put on the map in 2012 and it will be quite unfair to call it a road at all. It is mostly just a broken dirt trail that runs right next to Shyok river. Sometimes if the water level in the river is high then Shyok river too travels on this road and road then runs under the water. It is a highly landslide prone area with lose sharp stones, big boulders on the road. Please read the article below for further details on this route.
Also read: Nubra Valley to Pangong via Agham Shyok Road
Depending on where you stayed in Nubra valley, you will backtrack to Khalsar village and take the road towards Agham village. From Agham, continue towards Shyok village and you will exit on Leh Pangong road near Durbuk. After Durbuk, it is a straight run to Pangong Tso.
Tips that I mentioned for Wari La apply for Shyok route too. You need to mention it on your permit, make arrangements for fuel and there is also no public transport available here as well.
Tso Moriri to Pangong Tso
This route too is not really the one you take to visit just Pangong Tso but to rather extend your itinerary; exploring both these lakes without having the need to come back to Leh. In most of the cases, the route is actually done the other way around, meaning that people will first reach Pangong Tso and then travel to Tso Moriri directly. A few people however I know to have done it from Tso Moriri side as well; that is to reach Tso Moriri from Leh and then continue towards Tso Moriri via Chushul. Route of the journey will be as mentioned below.
Karzok (Tso Moriri) – Sumdo – Mahe – Nyoma – Loma – Tsaga Village – Tsaga La – Chushul – Merak – Man – Spangmik
Total distance of this route will be close to around 250 kilometers. Due to bad roads, even this journey can take well over 12-14 hours. I have explained this entire route in detail at the link below.
Also read: Pangong to Tso Moriri Travel Guide
Even on this road, you will have to ensure that you mention all the places clearly on your permit. There is no public transport available and you will have to make serious arrangements to carry spare fuel.
Pangong Tso Road Conditions
If you travel directly from Leh to Pangong Tso via Chang La, then most of the road is well paved and smooth. The only bad section is around Chang La top but rest of the journey is comfortable. Road conditions between Nubra valley or Tso Moriri to Pangong Lake are mostly bad; worst being the Agham Shyok road. If you travel via Wari La, the bad section is pretty much limited between Agham and Sakti. On Shyok road, the entire section between Agham and Durbuk is badly broken. Road between Tso Moriri and Pangong is a mix of good, bad and ugly.
Best Vehicle for a trip to Pangong Tso
For the Chang La route, even a Sedan or Hatchback will be able to complete the journey easily. For the other three routes however, a SUV is suitable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 4×4 but good ground clearance is a must. A Hatchback or Sedan is not recommended at all for either Wari La, Shyok or Chushul route.
Best time to visit Pangong Tso
Most of the tourism in Ladakh and at Pangong happens in the months of June till September. However the lake remains accessible throughout the year; except for the times when heavy snowfall may block the road temporarily near Chang La top. If you want to see a completely frozen Pangong, then January will be the best time to visit. Otherwise, anytime from June till September is good enough. It is peak tourist season at this time and you will have no problem finding accommodation or transport to reach the lake.
Pangong Tso Accommodation
Accommodation at Pangong Tso is mostly in the form of camp sites. There are several of these now and charges per person can be anywhere between Rs. 2000 to Rs. 4000; depending on which camp you are staying at. If this sounds a little steep then a cheaper accommodation can be at any of the Chadar tents where you will easily get a bed to crash on for the night for Rs. 200 – Rs.300. Another great choice for a budget stay is as a paying guest at Spangmik. There are a few guest houses there now which mostly are just homes of villagers where they let tourists stay for the night. There is only one cemented hotel at Pangong which is government run and is always booked months in advance.
Further ahead of Spangmik are villages of Man and Merak which too now have a few budget guest houses available. For more details on accommodation at Pangong Tso including names and numbers of camps sites & guest houses, please read through the article below.
Leh to Pangong Tso Bus
If you are not traveling by your own vehicle then you can travel from Leh to Pangong Tso by Bus. The bus starts in the morning from Leh, reaches Pangong by late afternoon and then travels back to Leh next day. You can use this Bus for both, traveling to Pangong Lake and return journey. This however is not a daily bus and you will have to plan your trip according to the timings of the bus. Please read the article below for more details on Leh to Pangong Tso bus service.
Also read: Leh to Pangong Lake Bus Service
Leh to Pangong Tso Taxi Service
If traveling by bus does not match your itinerary, then there is a regular taxi service as well that you may chose to travel by. Private taxis in Ladakh are a costly affair though but if it fits your budget, then it is the best mode of travel. Shared taxis are a cost effective option that you can get from Leh bus stand. Fare of a shared taxi will pretty much be the same as that of a bus.
Petrol Pumps at Pangong Tso
There is no petrol pump either at Pangong Lake or on the way. The only gas station here is in Leh. Usually a round trip from Leh to Pangong Tso can easily be done in a tank full unless your vehicle is consuming excess fuel or has a smaller tank. You will have to however make arrangements for fuel if you are heading towards Tso Moriri or Nubra valley from Pangong. You may find petrol available at the Chadar tents at the lake but it will be for double the price and quality of the fuel too cannot be guaranteed
Mobile Network and Data Connectivity at Pangong
The answer is none. There is no cell phone reception or data connectivity at Pangong Tso, no matter which network you are on (this also included MTNl / BSNL).
Also read: Mobile Phone Services in Ladakh
Banks / ATMs / Plastic Money at Pangong Tso
There is no Bank, no ATM at the lake and nowhere on the route. None of the hotels, guest houses or camps sites have the facility to accept a debit or credit card payment; hence it is of utmost importance that you withdraw cash before leaving Leh and carry enough as per your itinerary.
Medical Facilities at Pangong Tso
Once again, the answer is none. The nearest place you can expect to find some basic medicines or a Doctor is at Tangtse village, about 50 kilometers from Pangong Tso.
Pangong Tso Weather
Cold is how the weather here always is. Days in summer will be moderately warm but you will still need to put on a jacket, because of the cold winds. At nights, even in summer, temperature can drop down to zero degree Celsius. During winter, the lakes freezes completely and temperatures drops several degrees below zero.
Also read: Clothes for Ladakh Trip: What to Pack
Pangong Tso Altitude
The lake is at an altitude of 4,350 meters 14,270 ft.
Acute Mountain Sickness at Pangong Tso
It is one place where you are most likely to suffer from acute moutain sickness. Upon your arrival in Leh, do not straight away go to Pangong Tso. Spend a few days exploring Leh town and Nubra valley first and then plan a trip to Pangong Tso. If you start to suffer from AMS during evening, then do not spend the night at the lake and return to Tangtse. Please read the article below for more details on acute mountain sickness in Ladakh, what the symptoms are and how to deal with it.
I hope the information above on planning a trip from Leh to Pangong Tso was helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below; or at our Community Forum and I will be glad to answer.