Into The Cold: The Adventure Begins
Nestled at a height of 3500 metres, Leh airport is situated in a valley and landing and take off is the job of only very skilled pilots. I believe that this is one of the highest airfields in India and the airport is controlled by the army.
This year the region has received heavy snowfall and we were doubtful whether the flight would take off. On the first day, we waited at Delhi airport for the weather to clear in Leh. No luck, but the next morning we were back at the airport, and on our way to Leh.
We had a full flight with locals and adventure seekers - trekkers, professional and amateur photographers and a crew from the UK who had received news about a fresh sighting of the near extinct snow leopard.
A White Wonderland
We were met at the airport by our drivers and reached the hotel, which was amazingly warm and comfortable…great rooms, food and service.
However, we didn’t feel like doing much and there was a total loss of appetite, too. Many people visiting Leh take Diamox to combat altitude sickness but our mentors were against it so we suffered the headaches allowing the body to acclimatize naturally. And it did!
On Day 2, our group met early to drive 45 minutes to Stakna Monastery. It was bitterly cold, and most of us had headaches, but the view and the atmosphere with early morning mist lifting of the Indus waters got us mobilized. Fresh snow on the trees and shrubs created a white wonderland.
A bit of history: Stakna was built in the 16th century by a Bhutanese saint. It's situated on the banks of the Indus river and it's name literally means 'Tiger's nose' because it looks like one.
Shanti Stupa, Leh, and it’s surroundings
Before driving up to the higher altitudes, we spent 2 days in Leh to acclimatize and made short trips to three monasteries in the area - Stakna, Shanti Stupa and Thikse.
We visited Shanti Stupa to try and catch the sunset, but the sky was overcast. None of us complained as we got a fabulous view of the valley (most monasteries are built on hill tops). I loved the way these monasteries blended so naturally into the landscape.
A touch of history: Shanti Stupa was built by both Japanese Buddhists and Ladakh Buddhists, as part of the Peace Pagoda mission. It’s situated at a height of 3,609 metres (11,841 ft) and is probably one of the most visited sites in Leh, because of it’s location and the views.
Thikse Monastery, Leh
Thikse is located at an altitude of 3,600 metres and was built in 1430 AD.
It houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, thangkas and wall paintings.
One of the main points of interest is a 15 metres high statue of Buddha, the largest such statue in Ladakh, and it covers two stories of the building. Local artists took four years to build it with clay, gold paint and copper.
We drove up from Leh to Chumathang, a small village on the banks of the Indus. The homestay we stayed at had a hot spring nearby and we were treated to running hot water in the bathrooms 24/7. A luxury for sure, but no showers allowed for our group!
The road from Leh to Chumathang meandered along the banks of the Indus river and we made frequent stops to photograph the landscape.
Camouflaged in this beauty, we encountered a small herd of Kiang (Tibetian Wild Asses). It was difficult to spot them as they blended in perfectly with their surroundings.
In the winter these graceful and fleet footed animals develop a thick dark coat.
A famous river; the backbone of Ladakh
The Indus river weaves it’s way through 3 countries - originating in Tibet, it flows through Ladakh in India and enters Pakistan, finally draining into the Arabian Sea after it’s long course of 3,180 kms.
Puga, at an elevation of 4300 meters approx. was the next stop on our ‘photo’ itinerary.
At first glance it appeared to be a massive field of white snow, but as we drove along we noticed that flowing rivulets had carved their course through the snow and in places geysers belched hot fumes into the cold air. This is an area of geothermal activity which has led to the presence of hydrothermal fluids; hot water, mineral deposits and sulfur fumes.
We trekked through the snow to the geysers and reveled in the beauty of these natural wonders.
For me, the going was tough as I struggled to kick off a cough I had picked up in Delhi. The lower levels of oxygen and freezing temperature (-19 degrees centigrade not factoring in the windchill) weren’t much help either!
The Changpa, camp at Puga during the winter months and their herds of goats, sheep, yak and horses graze here.
The Changpa; a nomadic way of life
In the winter months the Changpa come down from higher altitudes with their herds.
They live a simple life and their kids attend the community school. Some of the children we met, could speak a smattering of english too!
Small solar panels help provide their living quarters with some power through the night.
Their enemy no.1 is the snow leopard who is known to attack their cattle at night, making not one but multiple kills at a time. To ward off this danger, the Changpa keep ferocious guard dogs - the massive Tibetan Mastiff! They are chained all day and left outside to guard the herds when darkness descends.
"Not all those who wander are lost” - J. R. R. Tolkien
Mother nature has her way of creating fabulous works of art which vary season to season, and year to year.
My photo mentor, Dennis’ advice to me was, “Look for the image within the image”.
These patterns, shapes and textures are my humble offering.
An amazing adventure ends
We tried to visit 2 mountain lakes at higher altitudes, but the roads were snowbound, and the vehicles got stuck.
We returned to Leh and the next day many of us flew back home.
Visiting Ladakh is an item on several people’s bucket-list and I feel blessed to have been there. Visiting the area in winter is even more challenging and I wanted to do this before the knees gave way and the bones started to creak!
I reached out to many friends for advice on how to prepare mentally and physically for this experience, and I’m most grateful to Sara Kulshreshta, Manish Lakhani, Derek Poon, Dennis Dorr and Ron Noble for getting me geared up.
Sukimin Thio of Nikon Indonesia - thanks a ton for loaning me a camera. 'I Am Nikon' as was my dad, and is my son.
I couldn’t have asked for a better team to travel with. They encouraged me to keep going when I thought that I was done. I went to Leh with allergic rhinitis, thinking that I would recover in the pure mountain environment, but that didn’t happen. I coughed all night long for the week that we were there and my room mates kindly put up with the disturbance. Sorry, about that!