Pangong Tso, Southwest China & India

Lake Locations:

China - Southwest China - India - North - Jammu and Kashmir -

Also known as:  Pangong Lake

Sprawled along the border between North India and Southwest China, Pangong Tso is one of the most spectacular sights in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India and the Chinese area of Tibet. Occupying a basin between tall peaks, the 172,800-acre lake is located at 14,270 feet elevation and usually appears to be a deep blue or aqua. Pangong Tso, also called Pangong Lake, is a brackish “soda” or alkaline lake that supports little aquatic life. The name Pangong Tso is Tibetan and means “long, narrow, enchanted lake”, an apt description for the stunningly blue water. The surrounding area could correctly be called desert; little rainfall adds to the lake, and only two inflowing streams feed its depths. The shore supports only a little low-growing shrubbery and other plant life. But the expanse of colorful water against the stark beauty of the surrounding mountains draws visitors to the shore despite the hardships of travel to the area. Panoramas of the lake in the 2009 Bollywood hit, “3 Idiots” increased both Indian and Chinese awareness of the spectacular surroundings, leading to an increase in tourism.

The international border between China and Indian crosses through Pangong Tso, and that border is continually in dispute. The lake’s eastern end is in Tibet, and the western end is in India. Entering the area requires a special permit called an Inner Line Permit from the Indian authorities. Indian citizens may obtain these individually, but foreign tourists can only receive group passes to be led by an accredited guide. These passes can be obtained from the tourist office in Leh and will be checked several places along the route by the Indian Army, so multiple copies are recommended. Access from Leh takes about five hours across a rough track that includes crossing Chang La Pass, the second-highest motor route in the world at almost 17,600 feet. An Army outpost at the pass checks paperwork, while a small tea house offers a bit of refreshment to tired travelers. Fording the locally famous Pagal Naala or Crazy Stream is usually a high spot of the trip. The innocuous little stream should be crossed in the morning while its glacier-melt flow is still frozen from the cold night. After the sun gets high, the melt waters rush downstream in a spectacular torrent, reaching several feet in depth, sometimes carrying boulders with them.

When visitors finally see Pangong Tso, the brilliant blues are stunning. And after the rough crossing, the few small tea houses and restaurants are most welcome. A few tent camps exist along the northwestern shore, usually with little or no electricity and limited running water. Nights are cold here at nearly 15,000 feet, and a good warm sleeping bag is suggested for all overnight visitors. Even during the summer season, the temperature often drops to freezing. In winter the lake, although salty, freezes over completely to the point where Indian Army troops stationed here play cricket on the ice. The lakeshore is closed to visitors in the winter. No boating is allowed on the lake due to border security concerns; any boats seen on the water are likely military. Visitors are advised to stay on Indian lands and not venture into Chinese territory. Prior to border disputes, natives accustomed to the elevation used to make regular circumnavigations of the huge lake on foot as a matter of religious devotion, a distance of well over 200 miles.

Important wetlands are located around the lake and provide sanctuary to a number of migratory birds and breeding areas for waterfowl. During summer, the Bar-headed goose and Brahmini ducks are commonly seen here. The region around the lake supports a number of species of wildlife including the kiang and the marmot. The area is under study to be added as a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance which will help to protect the fragile ecology of the region. This will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under the RAMSAR Convention. At one time, Pangong Tso had an outlet to Shyok River, a tributary of the Indus River, but it was closed off by natural damming. Geological evidence shows the lake was once quite a bit larger than it now is. Visitors are reminded to treat the area as a wilderness and take any trash along with them when they leave.

During the hot and humid Indian summer season, the higher elevations of the Ladakh region are a sought-after vacation destination. Pangong Tso is still a bit off the beaten track but becoming more popular every year. Although there are no famous monasteries or temples at Pangong Tso, the route leading to the lake is well-supplied with sights of interest to tourists. In Leh City, one of the must-see locations is Leh Palace. Its nine stories made it the tallest building in the world when built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. The building is very similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The ruined palace is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India and is open to the public. The view from the rooftop is breathtaking, with Stok Kangri Mountain in the Zangskar mountain range visible across the Indus valley to the south and the Ladakh mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.

Close to Leh City is the Sankar Monastery belonging to the Gelukpa or the Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism. The monastery is the official residence of the Ladakh’s head of Gelukpa Sect. Open to visitors daily between 7am-10am and 5pm-7pm, the central image within the monastery is Tsong-kha-pa, founder of the yellow-hat sect of Buddhism. Another image is of Avalokitesvara with 1,000 arms and 11 heads. Sankar Monastery also has a temple devoted to the deity Dukar. Another nearby attraction is the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist shrine. Built by a Japanese Buddhist organization, called ‘Japanese for World Peace’, the stupa was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. The stupa’s white dome is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset.

The route to Pangong Tso passes many monasteries, stupas and religious buildings. Most permit visitors and are more than willing to allow tourists to take pictures of their unique decorative architecture. Prayer flags flutter above the mountain passes, and signs of the religious nature of these hardy people are everywhere. The barren landscape is transformed by the colorful bursts of decorative textiles that adorn the most common of daily objects in use by local herdsmen. Visitors gain a sense of perspective here at the ‘roof of the world’, where humanity struggles to celebrate an often stark existence in a harsh land that they love. There are many local guest houses and guest rooms available, although often amenities are quite primitive. Tea and Maggi noodles are the staples, found at nearly every establishment. Western-style hotels and apartments are available in Leh City. Tour guides can be arranged in Leh or by travel agents. Bring plenty of warm clothes and sturdy walking shoes and the camera; you will never run out of photogenic scenery. Pangong Tso is definitely a bucket-list destination.

Things to do at Pangong Tso

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Camping
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding

Pangong Tso Photo Gallery

Pangong Tso Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Saltwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 172,800 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 14,270 feet

Maximum Depth: 328 feet

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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