By the fourth day in Ladakh, without my phone and Internet, my mind and body had finally tuned into the rhythm of the place — slower, simpler and silent. After spending a night at the Hotel MoonLand in Lamayuru. It is called MoonLand because the region around the Lamayuru is supposed to remind you of moonscapes with its bright yellow mountains, high but shaped into curves with time being etched into the rock face. The monastery, which gives Lamayuru its name was built in the 10th century is one of the oldest in Ladakh.
I woke up super early and went for a walk. You could smell the early morning fires starting up, cutting like a scythe through crisp morning mountain air. Somewhere the bells around the necks of cows made tinkling noise. I needed coffee; instead I got a chance to reflect on a lot of personal stuff — and no, I don’t mean work. And perhaps that was a sign of the day to come.
The day started early, with me sitting on the hotel’s roof, watching the sun come up, warming the cold air that enveloped the hotel and those of us braving the chill. It was photographically one of the most satisfying days of the trip, but it was one that challenged me as a human at a deeply emotional level. As we left Lamayuru, we saw a small family of a mother and two daughters and three other kids, walking to work – probably to build someone’s hut. We had to stop for a minute and talked to them for a few minutes.
They were from Nepal and were out here trying to make a living. It just broke my heart to see kids who should be kids having to be grown-ups. And that put me in a melancholy mood for the rest of the day, whereby the only thought in my mind was — why do we have so much and want more when people have nothing – and I mean nothing. It all became into even sharper focus later in the day when we stopped at a tiny village of Hanupata, in middle of nowhere.
The time has not changed this village for an eternity. The only running water is the weak stream that slowly flows down from the high mountains. The huts are very basic made from local materials — mud, wood, and hay. On the drive into the city, you see poles that would eventually house electricity cables, being erected alongside the dirt road. Turns out that even the dirt road is a relatively new addition. Up until very recently, you had to trek there from Lamayuru. It took a few days to get here. The electricity cables are nowhere to be found, but the Prime Minister of India has promised electricity in every home. That is if you believe the billboards you see on the side of the highways.
We stopped in the village to give away sunglasses to the residents. Many of the residents of high peaks Himalayas have difficulty with sight due to the intense sunlight. A group called Himalaya Eyes Project is giving away glasses to all these people. It is a worthy cause, and that touched me deeply, and hopefully, you will hear more about this soon. We gave away the sunglasses in the village’s community hall — a 10×10 room.
The sheer joy on the faces of people was a sight to behold. There they were, some with clothes that had been patched and patched since the Clinton administration, excited to share whatever they had with us. They made me Butter Tea, some more tea, and more tea. We had Maggi Instant Noodles. They were served them in vessels that make my mom’s utensil collection downright nouveau. We were there were for about two hours, and I left with a happier person.
Life is tough for folks who live in these tiny villages. The young leave for cities and big towns after they get educated. That’s where the jobs are. That’s where the modern idea of success lies, hiding in shadows. What is left is history and old-timers who keep the past, present. This is the network effect. The electric cables bring television which brings in information and then comes the mobile network, and more information. The networks bring an idea of modernity and ambition and thus disrupt a way of life.
Since our initial plan to visit the Zanskar valley had come a cropper due to the irrational mob of Kargil cab drivers, this decision to drive down the backroads turned out to be a good call. No rain, no snow, and just bumps. And by golly there were bumps. By the time I went to sleep, every single bone in my body felt as if it had played a game of football, American, and not the real kind. The drive which was about 80 miles took me to remote parts of Ladakh. And that’s when I fell in love.
There has a lot been written about Ladakh, but words don’t prepare you for divinity carved in stone. You see mountains so high as if there were trying to rip the soft blue skies with their jagged edges. The sweeping vistas were so vast that they gave your eyes a workout. Mountain faces, etched and carved in some mad science patterns.
I looked up. I looked down. All I saw was the sheer scale. As you watched, standing 4000 meters above sea level, the bright sun would burn your neck. Step into the shadows, ten feet away, and cold wind would slice your body. I saw nothingness. And yet I saw everything. I stopped thinking. When the wind stopped, I could hear my breath, as it went in, and felt its warmth as it came out. The silence was absolute. It might have been my mind playing tricks, but I heard bells tinkle somewhere.
After a while, I started to breathe with my eyes. And that’s when I began to see. Yaks, tiny dots, grazing in the distance. Meadows of mountain grasses merging into the pastel hues of the mountainside. You saw shrubs scratching out a living. You saw shapes in the sides of the mountain. You saw a hundred shades of rock. You saw snows that won’t melt for another six months. You heard the water. You saw blue jays playing hide and seek.
You can be fooled into thinking that there are two primary shades of Ladakh — blue and brown. After all, you rarely see a sunrise or a sunset as the peaks that tango with heavens masks the sun itself. You feel the sun or its absence, but you don’t see it come and go. There are no pinks and no oranges we get used to at lower altitudes. And even when you do see the sun, it is at its brightest.
In case you were wondering why, it is because the air at these levels is so rarified and there is such little moisture, they light doesn’t get refracted. There isn’t any light scattering. The reason why you see very orange sunsets is that of moisture and particles in the air. The red color of the spectrum travels the farthest, and as such you tend to see more reds in places like LA. At such high altitudes, the color spectrum is the entire colors as white, and you don’t see any color separation except the blue.
But there are colors in the landscape. The blue masks many shades of cyans. Rivers are blue or cyan, depending on how light moves. The browns hide many shades of red, yellow, green and slate. The yellows too are as diverse as the reds, and magenta. And there are always many shades of brown. These colors make the landscape. These colors are in the mountains sides, which sometimes resemble a multi-tier meringue cake, and sometimes like an ice cream cone melting under the hot sun that beats on this magical land.
If you looked up, you saw clouds, peaks playing footsie in a carpet of white. I was mesmerized by the landscape, which changed color with the sunshine. The minerals in the stone made me red, deep purple, copper, green and grey. The mosses were so golden that it seemed as if the mountains were on fire. Red lichen, that gave a beautiful hue to the slopes. And you looked to the left you saw rocks in red, yellow and bluish grey arranged in patterns that made you wonder, when did the aliens arrive. And then I realized, I was one. No one was supposed to be here. Except for the yak herdsmen who shook my hand and hugged me.
Julley they said – hello and goodbye – as they climbed on the side of the mountain as if it was nothing but a garden path.
You could stand there, or get the tripod, plonk the camera, and start looking through the lens to see if there are things that interest you. For me, the biggest challenge is always finding that shape, that composition, and that abstraction. It doesn’t happen that easily. It doesn’t happen on the first trip. It just is how it is.
Landscape photography is a futile exercise in repetition and re-discovery. You have to wonder, what is the best angle, the best light and best way to make the portrait of a mountain, presenting it at its alluring best. As someone who likes to capture time with long exposures, this is even harder. You have to trust your eyes that you have the right composition. And the right amount of time to turn that into a memory you want.
Long exposures take a lot of time. There is a lot of waiting around. You get very hot in hot places because you are not moving. You get very cold on a mountain top at about 4300 meters. Like I did. But when you see the results, you know the shivering, the frozen fingers, and a runny nose was all worth it.
I made a lot of photos. There were two I think I love. But I didn’t have a computer, but I saw them on the back screen of a camera I am using. It is not mine. It is not familiar at all. It is frustrating. I can’t believe the lack of logic in designing the software and features in this camera. Yes, you are right if you guessed it was a Nikon.
I already know some of my more cherished photos were on the rolls of Kodak Portra 400 film inside my all mechanical Leica. It is a camera I trust. I trust its ability to deal with my imperfections. I am okay with a roll being exposed to light because like an idiot I forgot to wind it all the way. I love it because like my eyes, photos are not always sharp. But it sees the reality in a way I see it.
The day was a beautiful day – a reminder of human nothingness. A day that served as a reminder that we are all so fortunate to be doing what we are doing. It was a day when those beautiful, soaring mountains grinned and told me softly the message we ignore– that long after the two-legged animals are gone, we will still be here, laughing at this idea that somehow humans can control the future.
The day ended after an 80-mile drive, in a hotel next to another monastery in Alchi. I slept for eight hours. I can’t remember when was the last time I did that.
A note about photos: This collection of photos made on the fourth day of my visit to Ladakh in October 2018. As always, they were made on my trusted Leica M-A with 50mm Summicron. I prefer to shoot wide open, even when focusing at infinity. All photos were made on Kodak Portra 400 and developed at Richard Photo Lab. Adjusted to add slight contrast, as I request my scans to be flat.