While visiting my parents in India, I decided to take a little break and visit Ladakh for a short photography break. When I was growing up, Ladakh was such a remote location, and the idea of going there was such a romantic notion. Today, however, it takes about 70 minutes in a flight from Delhi — and there are at least three a day.
You have your pick, but I recommend, Vistara Airlines, because currently they probably are the best domestic airline in India. Vistara is a joint venture with Singapore Airlines, and you can see their influence, From the cleanliness of the planes, courtesy of the staff, the quality of in-flight service (including food) and the information updates — they impressed me. If you’re ever traveling to India, and have plans to fly locally, it would be worth the extra effort to try and get on Vistara (if it operates to your destination.)
Enough about the airlines. When I got to Leh (which is the city we flew into), the first thing you notice was how big and busy it seems, even though it is so remote. I suppose that is what one should expect from India and its growing population. But this is Leh, not Ludhiana. Yes, there is a substantial Indian army and military presence. Yes, the civilian airlines use the same airport as the Air Force, but I’m just shocked by the sheer size and scope of the number of people who live in the city. It’s not overwhelming, but it was jarring since I was expecting more from a remote town than anything else.
A lot has to do with a growing push for tourism in the region. Hotels are going up in every corner, and yet you can tell that long-term city planning is not on the local politicians’ agenda. There are already quite a few hotels in the city. Some of them cost even a $1000 a night. But I stayed in a simple, more modest hotel called, Hotel Eco Poplar. It is not going to get Instagram influencers lining up, though I have no quibbles when it comes to facilities. The rooms were kind and generous. Of course, as American tourists, we need to get used to the idea of no central heat or no running hot water. And if you need to take a hot water shower, better wait till 6.30 am, and even then let the cold water run for 15 minutes, before getting a trickle of warm water. Why? Because the hot water is pumped in from a centralized location, where a solar panel array heats it.
The biggest shock for me was that my phone — Verizon — didn’t work in Ladakh. You need to have a postpaid connection, preferably from state-owned BSNL. Other Indian networks such as AirTel advertise their 4G services heavily, but they don’t work. In a way, w week without a phone turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A week without the Internet and the phone is pretty relaxing. No Instagram, no Twitter, no Trump. No tech madness. No getting angry over the privacy double-standards of Facebook. I’ll take that any day. (See Post)
They say that you feel very light headed in Ladakh as the rarefied air leaves you gasping for breath. Yup, it is very real. I felt very light-headed. The atmosphere is very, very thin. It catches up to you, in very odd ways. For instance, on the evening of the first day, when I was out at the Shanti Stupa, taking photographs of the sunset, every time I would try and get up from my crouch, after adjusting the camera, I would feel light-headed, wobble a bit, and needed to find something for support. The last time so felt this light-headed was when I was recovering from my heart surgery. Then I had lost a sense of balance and suffered from blood pressure issues. And this felt just the same.
I would walk barely 30 steps and would start breathing as if I just got off a treadmill. I’m not the fittest guy, but not that unfit. I was shocked by that, but it takes about a day to get accustomed to local conditions. You do get a slight headache. You don’t feel hungry and feel a little irritated. You have to eat to counteract the altitude related problems., I just drank a lot of tea and ate simple Indian food, and by the next morning, I was good as new.
The next morning, we met up our driver, Karma, who is just a fantastic human being. We became such good friends that I ended up on the last evening of my trip to his house meeting his parents and his family. Even though he’s of Tibetan origin, he was born in India, but still lives on a refugee passport. It is lame, after all, if you’re born in India, you should get an Indian passport, and I’m not sure why the government doesn’t see it that way. He’s just a fantastic driver, and just full of life and energy. My other companion on this trip, was Arun Bhat, a professional photographer who was my adviser on all things photography on this Ladakh tour.
We were supposed to drive for about seven hours, from Leh to a place called Suru Valley, which is way past the messy town of Kargil, in the southwest of the Ladakh region. It took nine hours as we stopped in many locations to make photographs, though, in reality, it was more like a survey for locations and compositions, to revisit another time when the light was more delicate. Between my iPhone XS and the Leica M-A, I was pretty well-covered, because I didn’t want to use the camera to take away from what I saw with my eyes. As photographers, we spend so much time looking for the photo that we can easily miss the very reason why we end up in such beautiful landscapes.
The journey was very long, and while the highway, at times, is just fantastic, and paved, and looks like any road in Iceland, or in Alaska, there were places when it got hairy as in some places recent floods had wiped out the roads. All through the drive, I was shocked by the sheer the sheer amount of garbage, in such beautiful locations. And not just paper, but plastic bottles and other plastic-based junk. Mind you, I’m not an eco-fundamentalist, but I think, we are blessed with such natural beauty, and as residents of this planet it is our moral obligation to protect it.
It was quite late in the day when we got to the town of Kargil, which probably was the worst place of this entire trip. Messy and ugly, I couldn’t wait for us to drive through the two towards our night stop in Suru Valley. Along the way, we passed through quite a few densely populated villages. It was ironic because I had been trying to get away from the crowd of people in Delhi.
As an outsider, you can observe subtle changes in the local landscapes and local people very quickly. For instance, if the Leh wore its Buddhist influences on its sleeve, the Kargil region basked in its Islamic vibe. Mosques in picturesque locations to the food options, suddenly everything was different. As we drove through the region, I started noticing the confluence of the past, and the present.
The villages seemed so simple and basic, made out of traditional building materials. And right against s backdrop of mud huts, and crumbling structures, you saw kids with their smartphones. A Ford sedan with poultry and cattle hanging around. You see this 21st Century car right there, with a young guy with his nose buried in his smartphone — like anywhere else. We stopped for tea at a tea stall. And all you saw was the sheer number of smartphones. Some folks were watching the YouTube clips of Ellen, on their phones. It was hilarious to see these guys cracking up, though I suspect none of them spoke English. The Internet is indeed a beguiling devil.
Our drive and the day ended at this place called The Suru Valley Resort — a very generous description. It has four cottages, and they’re relatively modest. The caretaker lives on site, though his village is only a few kilometers to the west. He takes care of the whole thing. It’s as basic as you can get, but you can get a proper bathroom attached to your room. Like everywhere else there is no heat. It was cold in the bone-chilling room, and it was only pre-winter October. No wonder the region shuts down after October.
I tried to sleep. Two blankets and a comforter were not enough. It was below zero. There wasn’t any electricity for most of the evening — and all I could do was try not to be cold. My sleep apnea gear didn’t work — as there was no power. But tomorrow promised a fantastic day of photography and new adventures. Little did I know.
October 8, 2018, Suru Valley, Ladakh