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.
In 2015, a good friend of mine, 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 the future. This tour took months of planning and I can simply say that it was all worth it and I would definitely be going back there in the future.
We started our journey on a Sunday afternoon in September. I am from Mpumalanga in South Africa 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 on time for our flight at 09H00 on the Monday morning. With our camera bags packed and our suitcases filled to the brim with unnecessary winter clothing (South Africans don't really know a lot about very cold conditions :-) , 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 the middle point and base town from where we would visit the different parts of Ladakh. Almost 24 hours later, on the Tuesday morning we arrived in Leh. The final flight to Leh is a short 1 hour flight and we could see the snow-capped Himalaya Mountains beneath us before descending to Leh. Leh is situated in a big valley between these high mountains. The view from the air is breathtakingly beautiful.
We were warned about the high altitude of this area and immediately after getting off the plane at Leh we could feel the effect it had on our bodies. 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. The Shanti Stupa is a Buddhist white-domed stupa on a hilltop in Leh and overlooks the city of Leh, 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 situated approx. 50 km’s to the West from 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 3500 meters. Alchi is a small little town between the mountains with great views of the mountains and valleys. That night we slept in a small guest house in Alchi and the food were 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 motor-able pass in the world at a height of approx. 5400 meters. 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 exactly 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 spent 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 the pass.
We spent the next 2 days in the Nubra Valley photographing sand dunes, monasteries, mountains, mountain reflections, tourists riding on camels, local people, etc. A very interesting 2 days indeed.
On Sunday morning we headed east towards Pangong-Tso. Our journey for 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 along the Shyok River 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 14H00 that afternoon we got our first views of Lake Pangong, an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 meters. It is 134 km long and extends from India to Tibet (China). The colors of this lake in the afternoon are amazing and as the sun shines directly on the lake and through the clouds it changes color 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 sides 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. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the guest house in Leh charging camera batteries, downloading photos, getting a good shower, and resting.
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 4,522 meters. It is the largest of the high altitude lakes entirely within India and entirely within Ladakh in this Trans-Himalayan bio-geographic 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 neat Tso-Moriri. The next morning, with 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 color from different shades of brown to almost entirely white. On our way to Tso-Kar, it stopped snowing.
Tso-Kar, at a height of 4530 meters, is a smaller fluctuating salt lake situated in the Rupshu Plateau and valley in the southern part of Ladakh. It is well known 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 families 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.