“Welcome to the rock garden”
On the 4th day of our visit to this area, while visiting a Buddhist Monastery, a monk greeted us and said, “Welcome to the rock garden”. This greeting made my trip, as this explained exactly what this area is all about.
This is the Ladakh province of India. Ladakh is situated in the Northern part of India, between Pakistan in the west and China to the east. What makes this area great is that it is entirely within the Himalaya Mountain range which has some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. The area is almost like a high altitude desert, with vegetation only visible in the lower valleys where most people and villages are. Higher up in the mountains there is almost no plant life but the amazing textures and patterns of these massive mountains are simply breathtaking.
We decided that we wanted to visit this area in autumn, in September, as this means that temperatures during the day will still be enjoyable and during night time it won’t be too cold. Snow is visible on the highest peaks and this time of year, with winter slowly approaching, the chances of snow in the higher areas are very possible. We didn’t really know what to expect from the weather so we packed for all types of weather.
Afriscapes hosts a couple of landscape photography expeditions and workshops in South Africa and a few months ago Dawie Malan and I decided that we want to explore a lesser known area of India with the idea to host a photography tour there in future. This tour took months of planning and now on our return after a 2 week trip to this area, I can simply say that it was all worth it and we would definitely be taking people there on a photography trip that will give them the chance of taking photos of beautiful landscapes, lesser known cultures and a variety of people.
We started our journey on a Sunday afternoon in September. I am from Mpumalanga and Dawie is from Cape Town, so we decided that we would get together a day before we leave to finalize everything and make sure that we have everything ready for this trip. We stayed over at a guest house near OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg on the Sunday so that we would be ready and in time for our flight at 09H00 on the Monday morning. With our camera bags packed, suitcases filled to the brim with unnecessary winter clothing, we were ready for our journey into the unknown.
It took us 3 flights and almost 24 hours to get to our final destination in India. Our first flight was from Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi, The second from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi and our third flight from New Delhi to Leh. Leh was our base town from where we visited different parts of Ladakh. The final flight to Leh is a short 1 hour flight and we could see the snowcapped Himalaya Mountains beneath us before descending to Leh which is situated in a big valley between these high mountains. The view from the air is breathtaking.
We were warned about the high altitude and immediately after getting off the plane at Leh we could feel the effect. Leh is situated at an altitude of approx. 3500 meters. Our driver waited for us at the airport and took us to our guest house in Leh. The first part of the day we spend resting and acclimatizing. Later the afternoon we visited the Shanti Stupa which is a Buddhist white-domed stupa on a hilltop in Leh and overlooks the city, providing panoramic views of the city and the surrounding mountains. We also visited the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. Prayer flags on and over the hills at these places made great photo opportunities.
On Wednesday morning we left for the town of Alchi, which is about 50km to the West of Leh. Acclimatizing to the height and lack of oxygen was very important thus our decision to spend our first 3 days doing almost nothing more than sightseeing and a little bit of landscape photography at altitudes of more or less 3500m. Alchi is a small little town between the mountains with great views off the mountains and valleys. That night we slept in a small guest house in Alchi and the food was great. As most of South Africans do, we eat a lot of meat, and the idea of eating only vegetables, pasta, rice, curries, eggs and pancakes for the next 2 weeks was something to get used to.
On Thursday morning after breakfast we started our trip back to Leh. Again we spent most of the day sightseeing and visiting monasteries. Back at Leh we could contact our families via the Wifi available at the guest house and in the afternoon we visited the market to see what’s for sale and to have lunch at one of the many little restaurants.
Friday morning after breakfast we headed up Kardung La, claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world at a height of 5400m. To get to the Nubra Valley, our home for the next 2 days, we had to travel over this pass and we knew that this will be a very tough day for us, mentally and physically. We heard and read a lot of stories about people suffering from altitude sickness when travelling over this pass and we really didn’t know what to expect. Passing the 4000 meter mark we both started to get a bit of a headache but soon afterwards, strangely enough, we started to feel better. Even at the top of the pass we felt great and we spend almost half an hour there taking photos. After the photo session, and visiting the small shop at the top, we headed down on the Northern side of the pass towards the Nubra Valley. Again, the views were spectacular and our landscape photography part of the journey finally started. At the top we could see snow and ice along the road and soon it became warmer again as we headed down.
We spent the next 2 days in the Nubra Valley photographing sand dunes, monasteries, mountains, mountain reflections, tourists riding on camels, local people and more.
On Sunday morning we headed east towards Pangong Tso. Our journey that day through the Shyok River Valley was one of the best days of the whole trip and the views along the river and through the mountains were really spectacular. Not a lot of people travel this road and there were times that we were the only people in this valley for a couple of hours. On this road one can really experience the mighty Himalayas and become one with nature and your surroundings. At around 14:00 that afternoon we got our first views of Lake Pangong, an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350m. It is 134 km long and extends from India to Tibet (China). The colours of this lake in the afternoon are amazing and as the sun shines directly on the lake and through the clouds it changes colour from green to blue and then sometimes turquoise. Simply amazing views to say the least. We spent the rest of the afternoon, a couple of hours in the evening and the next morning with sunrise doing landscape photography along the shore of this beautiful lake.
The Monday morning after breakfast we headed back towards Leh, travelling over Chang La, another very high pass in this area, a little bit lower in altitude than Kardung La. The climb and descent is very steep and requires a careful drive. The effect of altitude on our bodies was much worse over this pass than on Kardung La, possibly because of the faster ascent. We spent less than 10 minutes at the top before descending to the valleys down below. The rest of the afternoon was spent resting in the guest house in Leh and charging camera batteries and downloading photos.
On the Tuesday morning after breakfast we headed towards the small town of Chumathang. There are a few small restaurants here making it a good spot to lunch and to visit the hot springs. We managed to get a couple of interesting late afternoon and early morning landscape photos here.
The Wednesday morning we headed further south towards Tso Moriri, another high altitude lake in the area. Great views and very good photo opportunities were to follow. The lake is at an altitude of 4,522m. It is the largest of the high altitude lakes entirely within India and entirely within Ladakh in this Trans-Himalayan biogeographic region. We managed to get very good panoramic photos of this area that afternoon and we also visited nomadic people living on a plateau between the mountains near Tso Moriri. The next morning at sunrise, while doing landscape photography next to the lake it started snowing, definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. All the time during breakfast and for the next 2 hours after that it continued snowing and soon the mountains and surrounding landscapes changed colour from different shades of brown to almost entirely white. On our way to Tso Kar it stopped snowing.
Tso Kar, at a height of 4530m, is a smaller fluctuating salt lake situated in the Rupshu Plateau and valley in the southern part of Ladakh. It is well nown for its wildlife that includes black-necked cranes, Tibetan grouse, wild Kiang (wild asses) and foxes. The shore of Tso Kar is partly covered with a salt crust, which makes for very interesting photo opportunities. The next morning we were doing landscape photography along the shores of this lake at -4 degrees, the coldest morning of the entire trip.
After breakfast the Friday morning we packed our bags and headed back towards Leh, travelling on the Manali road, over another high pass in the area with spectacular views of the mountains and valleys down below. This was our last day of this trip and yet again we saw and photographed amazing scenery.
We headed back home on the Saturday morning, another 3 flights to get back to our family and friends in South Africa. As we took off on our flight from Leh, looking at the majestic Himalaya Mountains below, my mind worked overtime, thinking of the new and wonderful views we have seen on this trip, all the spectacular photos we managed to capture and the interesting people and cultures we came across. The words “Welcome to the rock garden” came back to me and I promised myself, that this Himalayan rock garden will definitely see me again.
Des Jacobs, Afriscapes
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