Ladakh – A Travel Photographer’s Delight
A racy, over-whelming whirlwind of world’s highest desert!
I have been to Ladakh twice. At the outset, I am taking the liberty of sharing the pre-visit experience of my first visit, since it was both perplexing and scary.
My first visit to Ladakh was as a mentor for a Fashion & Nature Photography Workshop. It was late June, which I was told was peak summer in Ladakh. Our ‘Ladakh Expert’ gave us a strange checklist of stuff to carry that included oddities like Diamox tablets, oxygen cylinder, thermals, earmuffs and skullcap. Why would we need these crazy woollens in summer?!
Upon checking, I was told that during the day, high altitude (average altitude – 14,500ft.) and resultant higher UV radiation would necessitate stuff like sunglasses, hat, sunscreen lotion, etc., while the evenings would necessitate other things like thermals, ear-muffs etc. as the temperature drops drastically since it is a desert, and there is a high wind-chill factor.
I was still perplexed about Diamox and the oxygen cylinder. The explanation for those was that there is much less oxygen than what we are used to in the plains; Diamox would help our blood stream absorb whatever little oxygen is available, and if that still isn’t enough, the oxygen cylinder will come in handy.
Frankly, I went there somewhat freaked out. Upon landing in Leh (the regional HQ of Ladakh), our first Diamox tablet was administered. Upon reaching our hotel, we were briefed to spend as much time as possible in bed for the first 24 hours, as it would help us get acclimatized to high altitude. But then, Day 2 onwards, Ladakh was all it had promised to be – scenic, mesmerizing, quaint and full of surprises at every turn one took – all my anxiety had vanished by then.
Though every corner of Ladakh is delightful, let me share some must-sees here. The places of interest (besides Leh) are – Nubra Valley, Lamayuru Monastery, Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri (Tso = Lake). Just a small aside to fill you in on the region and its construct – Ladakh comprises 2 districts – Leh and Kargil. It is an autonomous region administered by the Hill Council. It is called the roof of the world since it the highest plateau in the world.
Nubra Valley is a 7-8 hour drive to the north of Leh. During the journey, you drive past the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardung La (Altitude – 18,318ft.), which is snow-covered all year round, and the small township of Diskit, which has a huge Buddha statue and a beautiful monastery. The valley itself is a sandy desert with river Shyok flowing through it.
This is also the home of the Bactrian camel – a unique 2-humped creature. You should plan and spend a night in one of the campsites there. While returning, do take a short detour closer to Leh to visit the Hemis Monastery that lies within Hemis National Park – home of the famed-yet-elusive Snow Leopard.
Lamayuru lies to the west of Leh and is halfway to Kargil. While the end-destination is just a beautiful monastery, the journey is worth the visit to this place. The mountains along the way are rocky, yet many-hued – ranging from browns to oranges to greens. If you take the old road to Lamayuru, you’ll also see multiple road loops below.
There is a spot where your guide will stop the vehicle and ask you to disembark to see Indus-Zanskar confluence. Then, there is Patthar Sahib, a holy shrine for Sikhs. You will also come across the famous Magnetic Hill, where, despite the road sloping up, the vehicle auto-rolls upwards when left in neutral. Closer to Lamayuru, you’ll also see Moonscape – a string of hills with textures resembling the surface of moon. Do make that extra effort and see Alchi monastery en route. This monastery is unique as it is made entirely of mud. In case of any flash flood in the area, this monastery is likely to vanish in a jiffy.
Pangong Tso is towards the east of Leh and should ideally be planned as an overnight trip. The drive would take about 8 hours and along the way, you’d pass through Chang La – the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world (altitude – 17,560ft.). The first view of this lake is likely to take your breath away as the water and sky is the same shade of deep blue. The mountains around the lake are various hues of the earth.
The lake also has a sizable population of sea gulls (Pangong is a salt-water lake – hence the sea gulls)! This 140 km x 3.5 km (Average Width) lake is 40% in India and 60% in China. Here, the low night temperature and high wind-chill factor will necessitate the use of thermals and other woollen accessories. During the night, you’ll see more stars than you have ever seen in your life. Hence, the place is ideal for astrophotography. Just as an aside, the last scene of the Bollywood hit – 3 Idiots – was shot here.
Tso Moriri lies to the south of Leh and is a detour from the Leh-Manali highway. While it is a much smaller lake than Pangong, its beauty is unique. During early summer, you are likely to find melting ice needles at the entrance of the lake as that area gets relatively lesser sunshine than the rest of the lake. Also, the lake lays within a wildlife reserve that is home to Tibetan Wild Ass, Red Fox, Marmots and a few migratory birds.
Through most of your journey, you’ll be driving along river Indus and will also come across some smaller lakes. Closer to the lake, the drive is bumpy and you are advised to leave the road and take the sandy paths in the plains heading in the general direction of the lake.
Though there are many monasteries in Ladakh, the ones of note are Shey, Thiksey, Hemis, Alchi, Lamayuru, Diskit and Vishwa Shanti Stupa. If you have done the various trips outlined above, you’d have already seen Diskit, Hemis, Alchi and Lamayuru. The other 3 are close to Leh and should be visited during the initial acclimatization phase. On the way to Shey and Thiksey, there is a place called Sindhu Darshan. Most likely that this will be your first glimpse of river Indus. The annual Ladakh festival is held at this very venue.
My concluding observation is that for most of you, a trip to Ladakh is likely to be hectic. At the same time, it is equally likely that you’ll come back with a resolve to visit this place again. I know I did!