A Botanical Trek To Sapi Tso – The Enchanting Frozen Lake Of Kargil

A botanical trek to a high-altitude glacial lake through a scenic trail of colourful and rich plant diversity is any field botanist’s dream. Situated near 4000 m asl, Sapi is the highest settlement in Kargil region and home to a wide array of flowering plants, many among them medicinal. The trek to the Sapi Tso (Tso meaning lake in Ladakh), makes for a perfect hiking trail during summer, when the flowers are in full bloom, offering a riot of colours. This spectacular lake is fed by the enormous ice mass of the towering Gangchenmo glacier. The lake is in itself a little paradise, high up in the mountains, and lies close to the north edge of the glacier. The lake is divided into two sections by a narrow band of rocks, and the part closer to the glacier contains big chunks of bluish tinged ice, seemingly dancing in the calm water of the lake.

The lake portion towards the mouth of the glacier.

However, the other section is devoid of the ice blocks and provides a breathtakingly view, with the distant mountain ranges of the valley in the backdrop.

The other section of the lake towards the valley side.

The area around the lake is surrounded by a lush green carpet, dotted with a variety of colourful wild flowers, including species of Aconitum, Anemone, Aquilegia, Aster, Corydalis, Delphinium, Epilobium, Gentiana, Pedicularis, Potentilla, Primula, Ranunculus, Rhodiola, Saxifraga, Saussurea, Senecio, etc., many among them medicinal – it surely appears a paradise on earth.

From left to right: Anemone, Delphinium, Primula, Ranunculus

The lake supposedly changes its colour, sometimes it is milky white and other times it is turquoise blue by a phenomenon which is unknown to the locals. However, my personal comment on this would be that during the early winter months as the ice from the glaciers ceases to melt, the water is devoid of any impurities and hence turquoise blue. But during main winter months the lake gets frozen as told by the village elder at Marpo Yul (yul means village). During our visit, we encountered the milky white colour from which a beautiful milky white stream also originates, with a galaxy of rare and colourful flowers and medicinal herbs growing on its moist banks. The lake is also a source of water for a number of villages in the surrounding areas.

Sapi valley is located in the remote Kargil District of Ladakh UT. It is about 226 kms from Leh and only 78 kms from Kargil town. We travelled from Leh to Shargole along the Leh-Srinagar highway (NH1) on the right bank of the Indus, thereafter, we crossed the Indus River, and the road from Shargole to Sapi is a constant winding climb to the top of the Sapi La (La meaning pass), at 4300 m. After crossing the pass, it is all downhill to the Sapi valley, which consists of six small hamlets (Yul) spread distantly, apart. We reached Sapi late in the evening and camped besides the sparkling fresh water stream near Marpo Yul. The moist stream banks being carpeted with the bright yellow of the Pedicularis longiflora and P. bicornuta, pink of the P. punctata, and the purple hues of the medicinal salep (Dactylorhiza hatagirea).

Sapi has been an unexplored region as domestic tourist avoid locations where good amenities are not available and here there are no hotels or homestays, and tough trekking is a requisite, which city dwellers seldom like. Nevertheless, some local visitors from Kargil area do visit the valley to trek to the Sapi Tso.

Next morning, we began our trek to the alpine meadows and the Sapi Tso. We were well aware that all day long it would be like walking in the high-altitude zone of 4200 m to 4600 m, and the slope aspect also to be uphill from the very beginning, and up till one reached the lake. However, due to the presence of a variety of flowers all along, one forgets about the arduous trek at hand. Also, all along the trek the landscape view is thrilling with undulating meadows, distant bare mountains, tall bare unique formation of towering mountain peaks surrounding the lake area and of course the thrilling view of the huge glacier feeding the lake.

I must admit that the trek is really testing, and required my full commitment to egg on towards the final part of the climb, before the destination – the lake. For the first time, I realised that my age was catching up on me, and required me to rethink my ventures in such difficult terrain. However, my energetic team of Brij, Bhanu, Astha, Hasina and Younis kept me occupied with the rare plants they collected and brought for identification. Just below the lake we encountered a rare aconite (Aconitum rotundifolium), and suddenly all tiredness vanishes and the situation again turns you into an enthusiastic student.

And, finally when we reach the lake (4480 m), the feeling is just beyond words – waooooh !!!!, believe me, it is heavenly. It’s those once in a lifetime moment, that actually take you to sublime utopia. I assure you that anyone in these locales, is capable of becoming a poet.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

(Lines from the poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W. B. Yeats)

As per the botanisation is concerned, we documented 119 flowering plants belonging to 34 families and 74 genera, and that too in a single day. Prominent floral taxa encountered, included Aconitum violaceum, A. heterophyllum, A. rotundifolium, Bistorta affinis, Corydalis govaniana, Crementhodium ellisii, Delphinium brunonianum, D. cachmerianum, Heracleum candicans, Pleurospermum brunonis, Podophyllum hexandrum, Rheum webbianum, R. speciforme, Ribes glaciale, Rosa webbiana, R. lutea, Salix karelinii, Waldhemia, etc.

The field survey trek was part of the research work being conducted on the medicinal plants of Ladakh, a project funded by the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB), Ministry of AYUSH, New Delhi.

(Photo Credits: Author and his team members, Astha Chauhan & Bhanu Verma)

Dr. Vaneet Jishtu, a field botanist specialising in high altitude himalayan flora, conducts a wide range of research at Himalayan Forest Research Institute (HFRI), where he works. At Shimla he has pioneered in setting up an arboretum, a botanical garden where a vast collection of Himalayan trees have been planted. He lives in Shimla

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7 Comments

    1. says: Himanshu Sud

      Breathtaking views. What a special place. Much needed research work as well. We need to document the flora before it gets lots in climate change. Thanks for your work!

  1. says: Suma Tagadur S

    Splendid narration. It just captured me ….
    Himalayas is my all time favourite. I thank
    Authors of this publication for sharing their experience in a colour ful and enticing fashion. As botanist, I learnt about the gentle plants ….
    Kudos….keep sharing.
    Regards Suma Tagadur PhD

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