Winter was well underway in 1981 and biannual visits to the few personnel serving in bleak, forbidding and harsh terrain in each of the six isolated northern pockets had been accomplished. The cadence of official demands was fading. The prospect of being discovered for being away from headquarters was remote, since only Morse Code communication existed between us in Ladakh and our principals in Delhi and Chandigarh. So, it was an opportune juncture to explore southern Leh district, which did not educe attention in the normal course of our duties. That was even otherwise a less visited part in the western protuberance of the Changthang plateau, 3,000 feet and more higher than Leh.
Knowing that roads were scarce and cross-country traverses would be the norm, a couple of mechanics were mustered for the foray. Driving upstream along the Indus, for the most part on the right bank, we were treated up until Kiari to deep purple striations in the sand-hued rock faces on the other side, quite resembling those between Upshi and Taglang La. The Indus was lacking in verve and much of it was frozen. Our progress was good as the drive on a partially developed road remained uninterrupted; we were way ahead of the convoys that usually operated along that route.
By the time we crossed Chumathang, the river course was fully frozen and all the streams flowing into it were frozen too, often times encroaching on to the route. At one point, a stream had created a sharp icy slope across the track. While we disembarked to examine the obstacle, Sonam Tashi, formerly of the Ladakh Scouts, who was driving the second vehicle, nonchalantly bypassed us and drove his Jonga onto the icy patch. Before we knew it, the Jonga spun around and slid into the frozen Indus, nose up. Sonam Tashi emerged unfazed as the vehicle remained still and clawed his way back to where we were. Without offering an explanation for his rashness, he strode towards the nearby Mahe Bridge, and returned with an Army recovery vehicle.
Since it would take time to pull out the Jonga, we cut ruts in the icy slope, filled those with sand, crossed the hurdle and headed off to Nyoma (13,600 feet), which though off-track presented the possibility of some rest. Upstream of Nyoma, the Indus debouches into an expansive basin before it is confined again to a narrowish valley as it heads towards Leh. The hills athwart the southern perspective ring a plain expanse, which has since been exploited for creating a landing ground. The sprightly Tehsildar, who discovered our presence there, was very hospitable. And he took it upon himself to edify us about the topography, largely nomadic population, their husbandry practices and means of sustenance, as also about the fauna.
Sonam Tashi’s Jonga was recovered, with minimal damage. And we set off before noon for Puga (14,400 feet), known for its impressive hot springs. As the narrow valley opened up at Sumdo, billowing clouds could be seen a couple of miles away. Closer to the venue, steam was seen gushing out at multiple points through little mounds of ice, forming ‘ice volcanoes’. Water on the marsh-like surface was far too hot despite the ambient temperature being several degrees below freezing point. Deposits of sulphur and borax covered the ground in and beyond the marsh. Years after this visit, the Puga complex was recognised as the most promising hydro-thermal system in the Indian subcontinent. A Geological Survey of India study conservatively suggested (2000) that steam from the fumaroles in the shallow Puga geo-thermal system could be harnessed to generate 2 MW of power. Later, in 2013, other researchers suggested that, with deep wells, a 20-MW power plant could be sustained.
Backing up a bit up to Sumdo, we headed towards Tso Moriri (14,850 feet), known for ecological diversity; this distinction was to earn its listing as a wetland conservation reserve under the Ramsar Convention in 2002. Descending into the basin cradling this lake, it was like a giant mirror in a broad algific frame reflecting the circumambient mountains and the sky. Fifteen miles long and about 5 miles at its widest, although endorheic, brackish and without effluence like the larger Pangong Tso, the spectrum of colours this water body offered did not match those of the latter. Yet it was starkly beautiful. Insulated from human presence for the most part, barring residents of Karzok, a small village, and a few Changspa (nomadic herders), Tso Moriri has been favoured as a breeding ground by the rare black-necked crane, bar-headed goose, brown-headed gull and ruddy shelduck. Sadly, none of these species, nor any migratory birds, were noticed during our brief visit; we should not have expected any sightings considering that we were well into winter.
Pilgrimage to this unique and isolated spot over, and recognising that a detour to Kar Tso, another lake further west, would not be feasible due to paucity of time, we turned back reaching Chumathang (12,950 feet) for the night. There, we came across an enterprising individual who was planning to build a hut over the waters of the hot sulphur spring that bubbles forth to the west of the village before they join the Indus. One wonders if this naturally and uniquely heated accommodation materialised and whether others of his ilk set up similar digs. The image created by the undercroft on a stygian night studded with a plenitude of celestial wonders remains ineffaceable.
On the way back next day, one reflected over the bounties that nature has bestowed upon a land that at first seems too barren to be a cradle for a kaleidoscope of unusual sights.