It was probably one of the most soul stirring landscapes I have ever travelled through in all my life. The spectacular colours of the hills and valleys are next to none. Ladakh is a indeed a paradise no amount of photographs, videos and words can do justice to the untouched natural beauty of this place. As I write this journal, it been almost 2 weeks now that I have come back home; but the Ladakh hangover still seems to stick on…..
After graduation from my undergraduate course, I was relatively free and had more time on hand and was looking at various places to travel to. Being the monsoon season, most of the areas in India had torrential rain and some areas even flooding which made it impossible to travel. But there was probably one place I could go to and it was on my bucket list for a long time – Ladakh. The moment I mentioned I was planning a trip to Ladakh, there was quite a bit of resistance from home considering the civil unrest and ongoing political turmoil in the region. Nevertheless, I decided to travel and about a month before my actual date of departure, I booked my flights and hotels and was set to leave on August 27th to Delhi and to Leh the next day.
On August 5th however, the Indian Government revoked the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (of which Ladakh was part of) and bifurcated the region into two union territories (UT) – UT of J&K and UT of Ladakh. The army was deployed to ensure law and order was maintained and communication was cut off. This created more panic at home with most of them asking me to reconsider my trip. Until this day I was never reluctant to go, but after the decision was announced, I too gave it second thoughts. I spoke to some people in Leh and they assured that all was okay at that moment and would keep me posted should there be any unrest.
View from the flight (Shot on Phone)
It was August 27th, I flew down to Delhi, met a few friends for dinner and connected on a 7 am flight the next day to Leh. The flight into the KBR airport in Leh is one of the most scenic flights I have ever been on. If you ever get a chance to go, ensure that you prebook a window seat and if possible on the left side of the plane. The flights take a few quick turns circling the hills before they descend down into the valley. Our driver was waiting at the airport and was soon at our hotel – Hotel Bijoo – in the centre of Leh town. Beautiful hotel, quiet locality and good food.
Market Area, Leh
Delhi is at an altitude of about 750 ft above MSL while Leh is at almost 11,000 ft above MSL. In an hour and 10 mins, you arrive at such an altitude where the oxygen levels are low. Acclimatising to the high altitude is essential and so I spent the rest of the day resting and doing short walks around the Leh market area. There was one banner in the town thanking the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India for declaring the region of Ladakh as a Union Territory. I was to spend the first 2 nights at Leh before we headed out to other places.
On the second day, I went to the outskirts of Leh to Magnetic Hill. There is a phenomenon that defies gravity in Magnetic Hill. On a particular spot, there is a white box marked on the road. Parking the car with the gear in Neuter helps experience the effect. The car gradually rolls uphill.
Left: White Box marked on the road – Right: Magnetic Hill
River Zanskar and Indus flow through the winding Valley and meet at the Sangam Point a.k.a the Zanskar Confluence in the Nimmu Village. This place is about an hour’s drive from Leh on the Leh-Srinagar Highway. White water rafting is one of the activities for the adventurous. River Indus was the lifeline of the Civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjadaro. It flows from China-Tibet into Ladakh and then to Pakistan.
Leh has a great collection of restaurants and Bon Appetite is one of them. Their continental selection in the menu is worth trying. The restaurant was at just a short walking distance from my hotel. After lunch and relaxing a bit at the hotel room, my driver suggested I go up to the Shanti Stupa for the sunset. At around 4 pm, I reached and a dust storm had set in over the Leh city. The panoramic view was great, but with the storm it wasn’t the best time for photography. I set up my GoPro and one camera for a time-lapse and was walking around the area and also photographing inside the temple near the stupa.
Paintings on the Stupa
After dark, drove back to my hotel and was all set to leave Leh for the next week. At 7, grabbed a quick bite, eggs, bread and bananas and left the hotel. An hour and a half or so later, we were steeply ascending towards the world’s highest motorable pass – Khardung La. At 18,380 ft above MSL, the air was very thin and walking fast for even 50 steps had me gasping for breathe. Though it was cloudy a bit, I was able to take some photographs there before descending down into Nubra Valley. Enroute, there were a few checkpoints where our Aadhar Cards and Inner Line Permits were cross checked and then allowed to pass.
Khardung La Top
Leh to Nubra Valley
Somewhere along the route, I came across this car/jeep that met with an accident a long time ago and was displayed as an exhibit warning passers-by about the potential outcome of driving off the road. I did come across a couple of such exhibits throughout the trip.
Khardung La to Nubra Valley
The Landscape changed quite drastically between Leh and Nubra Valley. Between these two places, I made about 10-12 stops photographing the scenery. Every corner we turned looked inviting to stop. We had a few traffic blocks along the way and lost close to 2 hours waiting. After a stop at a restaurant before Hundar for lunch, I continued to a less-known area in Ladakh – The Village of Turtuk. As I crossed the sand dunes of Hundar, the sun was setting and was too inviting to not stop by.
Hundar Sand Dunes
As we got closer to Trutuk, the tourist crowds began to reduce. There were hardly any cars on the road. We just saw a few bikers on the way. There were heaps of army trucks plying back and forth in the area. The landscape was marvellous, but for security reasons, photography all along was prohibited except at a few spots.
Bogdang, enroute to Turtuk
Finally, arrived after 11 hours on the road at a camp. It was a tented accommodation, but the highlight of the trip. The camp was called Holiday Resort, the most luxurious place we stayed at and the food was served in our tent that night. Early in the morning, I walked up a small hillock with a local guide into the village. The guide then started telling a very interesting piece of information about this place. Until 1971, Turtuk was under the control of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). After the war, India captured the region on December 16, 1971 and since then, this place has been annexed with the Republic of India. During the time of capture, many families were separated. Men working on either sides were not able to establish contact with their families on the other side and most of them never got back.
Portraits of people around Turtuk Village
Though Turtuk was captured by India and politically annexed with the Ladakh district, it is still culturally, linguistically and geographically a part of the Baltistan region. It is predominantly a muslim village and its people speak Balti language. Turtuk is the last outpost in India after which Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir begins. Our hotel was merely 10 km from the Line of Control. Might seem like an unsafe place to travel considering the civil unrest in the area. But, it was a totally different scenario there. It was peaceful and for all those planning a trip to Ladakh, Turtuk is well worth the visit.
A beautiful view from the Turtuk Village
Hundar Sand Dunes
Drove back 90 km from Turtuk to the Hundar Sand Dunes. Spent the evening photographing Bacterian Camels and the picturesque sand dunes. With the passing clouds and the sun setting behind the hills, the scenes on the dunes are rapidly changing.
Hundar Sand Dunes
Though Hundar was a happening place, I stayed at Diskit, 20 minute drive from Hundar, both in the Nubra Valley. Between Hundar and Diskit, there were a few water bodies and at dusk, they formed just the right setting for a mirror reflection of the mountains behind. At Diskit, I stayed at Hotel Sten Del. A comfortable hotel and was ideal for a hot shower. Food however was not very good.
Early the next day, I drove and walked up probably 70-80 steps to the Diskit Monastery. At 6:30 am, Monks come together to offer their morning prayers. I stayed until the prayers were over. The chanting of prayers by the monks reverberates through the hall in which they are seated. Between the prayers, they would stop chanting for a moment and drink something like a porridge which the young monk on the right photo is seen pouring into a cup.
A statue of Lord Buddha close to the Diskit Monastery overlooking the Nubra Valley
A Ladakhi lady
The first thing which comes to anyone’s mind when you mention Ladakh is the Pangong Lake of the Bollywood movie ‘3 idiots’ fame. The climax scene of the popular film was shot on the shore of the Pangong Lake. Left Diskit soon after breakfast and drove down to Pangong Lake. Measuring about 130+ km in length, only 30% of the lake is in India while the rest of it is in Tibet. In the peak of winters, the lake freezes and it is possible to walk on the ice.
Between Nubra Valley and Pangong, there were a few places infested with Himalayan Marmots. I counted upto 17 of them together in one grassy patch. Most of them were shy. One of the first ones we saw scooted as the vehicle came to a stop. They would stand when I was 30-40 meters away and would run for safety into their burrows if I attempted to get any closer. And then, there were these 3 Marmots very used to people. Heaps of tourists crowded around them clicking photos and selfies. I used a 16-35mm lens for this shot. Occasionally, hasty movements would spook them and they would run into their burrows. But eventually come back outside and bask in the sunshine.
A few hours later, arrived at the Pangong Lake. After a 7 hour drive, I was famished and the first stop was at a restaurant opposite the Lake. The weather was cloudy and overcast skies cast shadows on the hills and the lake. It was quite a challenge to find a suitable place to photograph the lake with the clouds around. Using a 10 stop ND Filter along with a 3 stop and 2 stop graduated ND Filter stacked, I made the above 20 second exposure. Later setup my camera for a moving timelapse by the lake shore until sunset. The hues in the sky changed as the sun set behind the hills.
There are a few camps along the lake and 100 Sky Camp where I stayed had a view of the Lake from my tent. It was beautifully located but the winds made the inside of the tent pretty cold at night. I carried my sleeping bag which helped greatly to stay warm at night.
Night sky over Pangong
After the sun went down, photography seldom stops in Ladakh. The pollution-free skies are a playground for astro photography. It appeared to be like inside a planetarium and many of the planets were clearly visible. I caught sight of an occasional comet and was spell bound sitting near the camp looking up into the sky. Just after dinner, I put my camera on the tripod and exposed the sky to capture the milky way.
Our next stop on the trip was Hanle. A small village along the Indo-Tibet border, 6-7 hours away from Pangong. The roads between Pangong and Hanle are mostly gravel/dirt and pretty bumpy. Averaging over 25-28 km/h was a task. As you drive towards Hanle, you go along the shore of Pangong for about 3 hours and then change direction. At some point along the lake, I saw this beautiful arrangement of pebbles/rocks almost 3 feet in height from the ground and the person who arranged these rocks is got some patience. We had to cross the Tsaga La pass and come down on the other side to get to Hanle.
Tsaga La Pass
Hanle is a birder’s paradise and a strong hold of the Tibetan Wild Ass. Herds of asses are a common sight from Pangong all the way to Hanle. Our Inner Line Permits and Adhaar cards were checked at a few checkpoints by the Indo-tibetan Border Police and Indian Army and finally arrived at Hanle for lunch. Padma Guest House is a basic homestay run by a Ladakhi Family. Maggi was the only food they had available as they were unsure of my exact arrival time and I didn’t want to waste time waiting for any other food to be prepared. The owner’s son accompanied me and set out looking for the Black-necked Crane which is a rarity and Hanle is a famous breeding ground for these birds. Enroute to Hanle, I did see a pair, but pretty far from the road.
Minutes away from Padma Guest House, I found a pair of Cranes pretty close to the road. The pair was feeding in a swamp and were not bothered by my presence. I stayed at a distance and with a 600mm lens and teleconverter, I was at an effective 850mm field of view which was ideal. Once the Cranes were ticked off the list, I was on the look out for the next of the target species. My guide searched a few places for the Pallas’ Cat and Red Fox, but was unsuccessful.
The swamp where the Cranes were feeding
Hanle is famous for India’s highest astronomical observatory. To my bad luck, it rained all night and the cloudy weather made it impossible to go up the hillock where the observatory is situated. A group of bikers arrived at the Homestay at dusk and I retired in my room after early dinner. The plan was to spend 2 nights, but since I got the Crane, I decided to move on to Tso Moriri the next day. The routine continued, up at 6 am, breakfast by 6:30 and hit the road before 7:00. Tso Moriri was just 4 hours away from Hanle. I was put up the Lake View Hotel, which is one of the best accommodations in the area. But even that was very basic, with minimal amenities.
First view of Tso Moriri
Tso Moriri at sunset
The sunset was dramatic. The colour of the sky changed every minute during the last 10-12 minutes of sunlight and the above image was one of the last shots in the sequence.
The skies were brilliantly clear and the milky way was visible to even the naked eye. Had it been a bit less cold, I wouldn’t have minded to sit under the night sky all night given that even the hotel room wasn’t very cozy to settle down just then. Chungthang Dogs a breed of feral dogs are a menace in Ladakh and particularly at night, there have been incidences of many attacks on people and some have turned out to be fatal. Taking precautions and avoiding being alone is essential when spending time star gazing.
Tso Kar Lake
3 hours from Tso Moriri is another jewel, not very popular among tourists is the Tso Kar Lake. Tso Kar means Salt lake and the white lake shores are a highlight here. Clear skies and absence of wind made it perfect for a mirror reflection of the lake. The shores are hotspot for a multitude of ducks and other ground birds, most of them are pretty shy. I definitely enjoyed the beauty of Tso Moriri and Tso Kar more than that of the Pangong Lake. To every person visiting Ladakh, I would definitely urge you to prioritise a visit to Tso Moriri and Tso Kar over The Pangong Lake. The sun’s rays are very sharp and keeping yourself hydrated and protected is important particularly at such an altitude. I was supposed to spend half a day and drive to Leh the same day. Since I dropped one night at Hanle, I added a night in Tso Kar was to stay at the Tso Kar Eco Resort. The building was a bit weather-beaten and cracked. But thats the best available accommodation in the area. Unfortunately, if you want to experience the beauty of Ladakh, there are limited choices.
After lunch, I left the hotel to look for some birds. I saw lots of Horned Larks, a few finches and then at a distance was a huge raptor. Initially mistook it for a Golden Eagle, but once I got closer, realised it was an Upland Buzzard. There were many Tibetan Wild Asses or Kiang around Tso Kar. A herd of 10 odd individuals began trotting towards the road then eventually turned parallel in direction to my car giving me just the right opportunity to freeze it.
Tibetan Wild Ass (Kiang)
Tso Kar also has a freshwater lake as well which is one of the reasons why it attracts a lot of wildlife. There were Bar-headed Geese, Ruddy Shelducks and many other species. Next to this lake was a small burrow with water droplets around it. It for sure had a fox or some burrowing animal inside. I waited for more than an hour until sunset, but didn’t see anything come out. Little Owls were another species on my list which I did see and photograph.
It was my last morning in the high altitudes of Ladakh before I headed back to Leh for the last night. Woke up before sunrise and was trying to scan the open area around the hotel to find these Tibetan Sandgrouse. I saw a flock pretty far away from the road and as I started walking closer the flock took off and landed meters away from me. I counted 22 individuals. May have missed a few. After breakfast, started from Tso Kar and drove up the Taklang La Pass, the world’s second highest motor-able road and connected to the Leh through the Manali-Let highway. It was a pretty scenic drive throughout.
Blue Sheep (Bharal)
About 30 km before entering Leh, I saw a herd of Blue Sheep on the face of a rocky hill. The herd was moving down towards a stream for a drink. The mid day sunlight was harsh and since a part of the rock face was in shade, it was ideal for photography. After about 10 minutes there, I continued back to Leh and reached the same Hotel Bijoo where I stayed at for the first 2 nights. Dropped all the bags in the room and first went out for lunch. Due to the remoteness of the places I travelled through, availability of food choices were limited. The monotony of Rice, Dal (pulses), Rotis (Indian Bread) and vegetable curries was getting to me and the food at ‘Tibetan Kitchen’ in Leh town put a smile on my face. The Chef’s special Himalayan Trout and Momos were great. Post lunch, to stand under the hot water shower was another big relief after 5 odd days.
Spent the evening walking around market area in Leh and was served dinner in the Garden at Hotel Bijoo. At 9:00 am, the next day I flew back to Delhi and connected in a few hours on another flight to Hyderabad for a few days before I returned home after a 2 week long trip.
My father Ramnarayanan who is a passionate photographer himself traveled along with me on this trip. Special thanks to Sandeep Dhumal and Bijoo Khan who helped plan the trip and our driver Ali who was patient enough and accommodated to my many requests to stop frequently and also for accompanying me late at night to places with no light pollution for astro photography.
During the 10 days in Ladakh, I used a Nikon D850 predominately for most of my landscape photography. The 16-35mm and 24-120mm were the workhorses for most of the images in this journal. Additionally, I had my Nikon D4s which I used with my 300mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 lens along with a set of teleconverters. The D4s was also used for time lapses. I also had a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens for portraits. I used a GoPro Hero 6 on many occasions too.
Interested to travel to Ladakh? Drop me an email and I will be more than happy to help you plan your holiday. Whether you want to go up there for landscape photography, biking or a leisure trip, I have multiple options for you to choose from.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan