In 2008, I travelled to Ladakh for the first time. I had read about this mythical place in books like Wonders of the Himalaya by Francis Younghusband and Trans-Himalaya: Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet by Sven Hedin. I had also seen some photographs of the fantastic landscape and culture by photographers like Prabudhha Dasgupta and Daruisz Klemens. I had watched films set in the trans-Himalaya and Ladakh. I was fascinated with this land so close to India yet so distant in landscape and culture.
When I returned to India in 2007, the first place I wanted to visit was Ladakh. But I didn’t just want to take a flight to Leh. I wanted to drive across the Great Himalaya to recreate the journeys some of the explorers made to get there. So, after buying a car capable of handling the road to Ladakh in late 2007, I made the trip next summer as soon as the passes opened. By that time I was very much interested in bird photography, and Otto Pfister’s trip reports and book helped me come up with an itinerary of places I wanted to visit. Little did I know then that this first trip would just be an introduction to this land of wonder. That I would be addicted to its grand landscape, culture, people and wildlife.
Ladakh is usually described as a high-altitude desert but it much more than just that. It is a land of high passes, lakes the color of turquoise, isolated monasteries, ancient rituals and, of course, a fantastic cold desert of monumental beauty. It is situated at the crossroads of High Asia with the Great Himalayas to its south and the eastern Karakorum mountains to it north. It is separated from Kashmir by the Zanskar range and from China by the Pangong range. Within these terrific boundaries is a landscape that will leave a person breathless. Sometimes, literally.
Ladakh is also home to some fascinating wildlife with iconic species not found elsewhere in India. The Black-necked Crane breeds in many areas of Ladakh including the Tso Kar lake and the Puga marshes. The White-throated Dipper is seen dipping for food in the many streams around the high passes. Tibetan and Himalayan snowcocks are heard calling high up in the mountains at sunrise. Herds of the Tibetan Wild Ass are found roaming the plains of Changthang. The Himalayan blue sheep is found on rocky slopes all over the region. Golden eagles, lammergeiers and upland buzzards soar in the valleys as thermals rise in the afternoon sun. If one is intent and patient, they will also find the Hume’s Groundpecker on the way from Tso Kar to Tso Moriri.
In summer, when the rest of India is swept by the monsoon, snow on the high passes of Ladakh melts allowing access to the ‘Kingdom in the Sky’. The moisture laden monsoon clouds are blocked by the Himalayas and the open passes allow access to various remote areas. One can reach Ladakh by road via Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Or, by taking the Zoji La pass from Srinagar.
The base for all excursions is Leh, the capital city. Surrounded by the awe-inspiring mountains of the Ladakh range, Leh retains a distinct charm. Leh was the heart of commerce between the East and West, and had one of the busiest markets on the Silk Road. The old town is a maze of mud-brick houses built on narrow lanes. The new part of town with its hotels and restaurants is the bustling hub of activity during the summer tourist season.
To the north of Leh is the beautiful Nubra valley. And, to its south the great Himalaya. The rugged Zanskar to its west. And, the Changthang to its east. This book is an anthology of photographs I have made during several trips to Ladakh. I hope you enjoy it, and are inspired to visit Ladakh. It will be one of the most marvelous trips of your life.