The Virgin Vale (Part 1)
Several years ago, I started making a list of places I want to visit before I die (the list keeps growing), but until Iceland in 2015, I didn’t actually begin to cross the names off. True, I’ve been to Paris, to the Grand Canyon, to the Rockies, but that was before I became a serious photographer so it doesn’t really count. They remain on the list and I’ll have to go back with my camera again someday.
Two years on from Iceland I’ve added a tick next to another place on that list. That I hadn’t checked it off earlier in spite of the fact that I don’t need a passport to go there is, I must admit, something I’m not very proud of, but better late than never. And so I answered the call of the Virgin Vale, the Himalayan valley of Zanskar in Ladakh, the rooftop of India.
There are many different ways to get to Ladakh, and in order to maximise the time I could spend there I chose the easiest and quickest option. I would have preferred to drive up there from Delhi or Chandigarh via Manali and the Rohtang Pass, but maybe I’ll save that for next time. My flight to Leh took off in the pre-dawn darkness and I must have dozed off for a little while once we were airborne. I woke up with the sun coming in through the cabin window, and for the first time in as far back as I can remember, I didn’t need a shot of caffeine to get my morning started as I took in the spectacular view outside. The peaks, ridges and valleys of the Himalayas stretched out under me as far as the eye could see, and my excitement at the tantalising prospect of being down amongst them in a matter of hours would have put a kid in a candy store to shame.
The trip began in Leh at 11,500 feet above sea level, and acclimatization to the high altitude for at least a day was a necessary precaution. Day 1, therefore, was a bit of a bore, spent at the hotel, going over camera settings, thinking about the shots ahead and drinking copious amounts of water. I was itching to get out there and start shooting. I had been planning this trip for months, so being confined to the hotel was testing my patience. But I had heard some horror stories about altitude sickness ruining a trip, and I didn’t want to become another statistic. It was still a long way to Zanskar, another 2 to 3 days of travel through Kargil and the picturesque Suru Valley, and I was taking no chances. I got acquainted with my fellow travelers, exchanged notes and ideas, checked all my batteries, cleaned all my lenses for the umpteenth time, and settled down for the night, looking forward to Day 2 and to setting off westwards and southwards into some of the most picture-worthy landscapes on the planet.
I got acquainted with my fellow travellers, exchanged notes and ideas, checked all my batteries, cleaned all my lenses for the umpteenth time, and settled down for the night, looking forward to Day 2 and to setting off westwards and southwards into some of the most picture-worthy landscapes on the planet.
After breakfast the next morning, we were finally on our way! As our motley caravan traversed the spectacular Ladakh countryside, from Leh towards Kargil, we drove past the Indus-Zanskar confluence where the murky, silt-laden waters of the Zanskar mingle with the iridescent green and turquoise of the Indus, past numerous little Himalayan villages with their gompas and chortens, with Ladakhi women working their fields of barley, and their menfolk tending their livestock. We stopped for a leisurely lunch at Khaltse and then motored on. The presence of Indian Army bases all along the route reminded us that we were in frontier country, China on one side and Pakistan on the other, and I have to say that the Border Roads Organisation do a remarkable job of keeping this important artery, snowed in for much of the year, open and functional. Ladakh is a mecca for motorcycling enthusiasts, and bikers thundering along on their Enfields were a recurring sight along these roads.
Buddhism and Islam coexist side by side in this remote corner of India, with mosques, gompas and monasteries dotting the hillsides, although Leh district is predominantly Buddhist, while the areas around the town of Kargil are predominantly Muslim. Traveling in a caravan certainly has its advantages, not just in terms of company but also in case of a breakdown on the high mountain roads and passes. Cell phone reception is virtually non-existent, adding to the feeling of isolation. Our route took us through Lamayuru’s remarkable lunar landscapes, past the monastery set against the towering peaks behind it, over the Fotu La Pass at 13,500 feet, and across the Suru River (a tributary of the Indus) down into Kargil, where we halted for the night.
Kargil struck me as a place on the way to somewhere else. While I didn’t see any visible scars from the 1999 war, it didn’t seem like a place people actually came to visit. More a halfway house than a destination. A town that meets the road rather than the other way around. A bit unsettling. Our driver, Shabbir, a Kargil local, told me what he remembered about the war, about Tololing and Tiger Hill and the exodus of people from the town. We stayed at a hotel right on the river. It was the last hotel room and bed I was going to have for a while, so I decided to make the most of it. I made the mistake of turning on the TV only to see India get their hides soundly thrashed by Pakistan in the ICC Champions Trophy final. Oh well, at least I had Suru and Zanskar to look forward to.
The following morning, we left Kargil behind and climbed higher into Suru Valley, the sounds of the crashing rapids of the Suru River always within earshot. Flowering meadows punctuated the landscape, their bright hues providing a splash of colour against the towering peaks behind them.
We reached our first camp near Damsna within sight of the 23,000 foot Nun and Kun massifs, but alas! The weather turned on us, everything went cold and grey and wet, the mountains were shrouded in thick cloud, and the golden sunset and night shots we had been looking forward to were now under serious threat. I walked around doggedly in a persistent drizzle trying to get some shots but it was really a pointless exercise. The weather can change suddenly and dramatically at these altitudes and it was a lesson well learnt to hope for the best but to be prepared for the worst. We started setting up camp and hoped that things would clear up by nightfall. A curious passer-by came over to our campsite and quietly surveyed the proceedings as we pitched our tents, not asking or saying anything, but just standing there watching us with an enigmatic look on his striking face. I offered him some chikki (a variety of Indian brittle made with peanuts or sesame seeds), which he accepted with a grateful ‘Bismillah’, and allowed me to take his picture.
The weather didn’t clear that evening or for the remainder of the night, but the delicious, hot thukpa (a chicken or vegetable noodle soup popular in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet) that we filled our bellies with at dinnertime raised our spirits. The kitchen staff were absolute champs, and their cheery banter, songs, good humour and infectious laughter did as much to warm us as the food did. Not surprisingly, the kitchen tent was by far the warmest spot in all our campsites, and I found myself spending quite a bit of time in there. There is an Indian word – jugaad – that loosely translates to mean improvisation, but not exactly. It’s hard to actually explain it in a non-Indian language because it doesn’t describe something someone does as much as it describes something someone is. It’s part of the Indian psyche. But it’s hard to think of another word that better describes the support team that accompanied us.
The kitchen staff were absolute champs, and their cheery banter, songs, good humour and infectious laughter did as much to warm us as the food did.
We didn’t get much photography done that day or that night, and hoped we would wake up to a bright and clear morning. Unfortunately, the morning dawned cold and grey too, and we drove on a little despondently deeper into Suru Valley, climbing ever higher and closer to Nun and Kun, hoping that our next camp would provide us with better luck and better views of the peaks themselves. We drove on through Panikhar and Tesuru towards Parkachik, where we stopped at a roadside stall for some chai. By this point on our journey, the blacktop had ended, and the road onward into Zanskar was basically a strip of rubble leveled by 4-wheel drives and livestock. It had stopped raining but it was still cloudy. The kitchen team had already started preparing our lunch so we shot what we could while we waited. We met a lone cyclist from Ireland who was cycling up from Kargil through Suru and Zanskar all the way to Padum. He was his own driver, cook, logistics and support team, and made us feel very small and inadequate.
After another hearty meal, we continued to our next halt, by which time the rain was coming down with a vengeance. Later that afternoon, we set up camp on a hillside overlooking the Suru River, at a spot that was just a few kilometres away from Nun. But we couldn’t see the mountain through the clouds and rain. An elderly local, seeing our disappointment, smiled and told us not to worry. He said the clouds would part by sundown and the night would be clear. Almost on cue, the late afternoon sun started peeking through the clouds. It looked like our luck had finally turned!
We couldn’t do much with the sunset from where we were. A deep valley surrounded by high mountains. You don’t really have a golden hour in the Himalaya, I suppose. The mountains are just too ridiculously big. The sun sets behind them long before the colour of the sky changes. We did manage some decent shots of the Milky Way that night though, but by midnight the clouds started rolling in again.
Another dull, overcast morning with a light, relentless drizzle. We set off again towards the Zanskar Valley and Rangdum, a little poorer than we would have liked to be in the photography department. Along the way, some of the locals of the furry disposition, seemingly sensing our predicament, obliged us with some fantastic Kodak moments for which we were ever grateful.
It was my first acquaintance with the Himalayan marmot, a rodent relative of the squirrel but much larger, about the size of a large domestic cat. It was also the first time I saw a dzo, that curious yak-cattle crossbreed ubiquitous throughout Ladakh. The yellow-billed choughs were loud, bold and raucous, much like the crows from the plains to which they’re related. The wild horses grazing on the high alpine grass reminded me of Iceland, as did the flocks of sheep and goats. The famed Pashmina goat is a native of these alpine slopes, giving the world its prized Pashmina or Cashmere (an English corruption of Kashmir) wool.
These are some of my notes and pictures of our sojourn through Suru Valley. From here we journeyed deeper and higher into the heart of Ladakh, into the harsh, barren landscapes of Zanskar. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I share my experiences and pictures from this rugged, untamed, beautiful quarter of northern India.