The Trans-Himalayan cold desert, also known as the Tibetan Himalayan region lies in the rain shadow area receiving an annual rainfall of just five cm. Life in this region is sustained by the melting snow in summer. Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram are the three major ranges of this part of the Himalaya.
Ladakh is the land of alluring lakes, monasteries and pastoral people. Fascinating flora and fauna make the region colourful during summer. A part of the Trans-Himalayan range, it is in the northern most area of Jammu and Kashmir.
The natural high altitude salt water lakes — Tso Kar, Tso Morari and Pangong Tso, are a typical feature of Ladakh and lie in the sweeping valleys of Rupshu and the Changthang Plains. ‘Tso’ means river in the Tibetan language.
The Pangong Tso, made famous by its appearance in several Indian movies, is a ‘high grassland lake’ located at an altitude of 14,270ft. on the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control. An Inner Line Permit is necessary to visit this lake that is endorheic in nature and completely freezes during winter. A rather thrilling drive on the rough mountainous route through the villages of Gya and Shey, crossing over the Chang La takes us to this picturesque water body. The harsh environmental conditions and high saline saturation are responsible for the low bio-diversity that exists here.
The Tso Morari, a pearl shaped ‘mountain lake’ that lies on the Ladakhi part of the Changthang plateau is considered to be ‘a sacred gift to a living planet.’ This area, known as the Tso Morari Wetland Conservation Reserve, protects and preserves rare and unique plant and animal life. Black-necked Cranes, Bar-headed Geese, Kiangs, Barrels, marmots, Snow Leopards and Tibetan Wolves roam during the summer months when the temperature rises to 30 degrees C. Encircled by mountains rising over 20,000ft., this ‘Jewel of the Rupshu Valley’ is at an altitude of 14,836 ft. Changpas, the nomadic community of shepherds inhabit this part of the valley raising Yak, Sheep, goats and horses of Tibetan origin. It completely freezes in winter when the temperature plunges — to 10 to -40 degrees C. The 400-year-old Korzak Monastery lies on the western bank of the lake.
The Tso Kar or ‘white lake’ lies in the Rupshu Valley in the Southern part of Ladakh. Earlier, the Changpas exported salt, manufactured from this lake to Tibet. Wolves, fox and marmots, Tibetan Gazelles and Kiangs inhabit this basin of Tso Kar and the adjoining Morey Plains.
These landlocked lakes retain water and do not flow into the river or ocean but instead feed swamps, which help hold the coastal soil and sand, controls floods and provide valuable ecological services.