Photography oriented trips are a visual Marathon. You are always on the move; your eyes are still looking, scanning, cataloging and telling your brain what a photo worth making is. I usually drive around with a local and then stop at a location that clicks. Pun intended! And then I would spend either minutes or hours at a location, and work it.
But after a while, your eyes start to tire, and you stop looking. It usually happens on the last day and today was no different. Luckily, Arun Bhat, who helped organize this trip and our man-Friday, karma, were there to push me. “Why don’t we drive up to Tanglangla,” and stop along the way and look at some Monasteries,” Arun had suggested. The drive to the second highest motorable pass in the world (maybe) is beautiful, and with early snows coming, the roads are going to be empty and pass through a beautiful landscape, worth looking and not just photographing.
We drove along the Indus and stopped at Stakna Monastery, which gave me a birds-eye view of the region around. It was an ideal location to capture the images of Thiksey and Matho monasteries. Being so close to the monastery, made me wonder about monk life, and when will I be ready for it. If there is dystopia ahead, why not spend time merely doing simple things and meditation? This thought has now lodged itself in my brain, and it won’t let go.
As we drove further away from Leh and the monasteries, the mountains became higher and the views more spectacular. I would stop by the side of the road, wander around and let my Leica M-A capture a few things that caught my eye. The wandering would often result in nothing, but after a dozen stops and two rolls of film, I ended up in a sparsely populated valley from where you could see for miles. And just like that, a location presented itself.
Colors, shapes and shifting clouds had a degree of synchronicity, and it was time to set up the tripod. The scene needed 15 stops, and 16 minutes to get the right long exposure. It took three tries. I had my keeper for the day, even if I had to sacrifice my 10-stop ND filter from Wine Country Camera, which by the way is terrific filter without any color cast. I will be ordering one when I get home.
Today, thanks to my tired eyes, turned out to be all about abstracts, I looked for compositions that married the saturated colors of glistening rocks in the afternoon sun. And there were many. So many that I kept thinking to myself, how can a landscape be so diverse in its appearance. How the winds move, the waters flow and the earth rotates probably decides how it all looks.
By the time we reached the top of the pass, I had finished three rolls of film — an unusually high number for me, for generally during the day I make about 100 photos, both analog and digital. I am not complaining, for I think I have a few images that will eventually become starting points for my artistic interpretation.
As we approached the Tanglangla pass, about 4900 meters or about 18000 feet, I could start to feel the rarified air. Having taken my blood pressure medication only an hour earlier, I began to feel a headache and slight difficulty in breathing. But it soon passed, and apart from moving slowly, I started to find a few isolated beauties in the grand vista around me.
From the top, you can see for miles and miles. The mountains and the heavens seem to be in an embrace that would make Bollywood censors blush. The clouds act like a rogue dupatta (a wrap in American) and the fresh October snow blankets everything in white. It all glistens. The sky is so blue that it makes you wonder about the pale imitation we see at lower altitudes. We were at the top for about 15 minutes. I used the long lens to pick out some abstracts, but I was happy with my Leica 50mm Summicron as it allowed me to compose the landscape the way I wanted. Another roll down!
It was a great afternoon but time to head down. It wasn’t a good idea for me to risk the lack of oxygen, but man I will remember being surrounded by snow and peaks. Hell, I even took a photo of myself in that spot. As we drove back, I could feel the end of the trip. The lengthening shadows of the evening sun turned the landscape dark very quickly — but not before I caught the tango of light and shadow on mountain peaks. The side light made for interesting abstracts, and so I kept making a few photos, and hopeful that, they turn out as good as what the visual delights my eyes had feasted upon.
On our drive back, we stopped for tea at Padma’s tea stall in Upishi. She was the only female entrepreneur in the small village, and it made sense to stop at her booth. She made a sweet tea, and it just hit the spot. And then we drove right to Leh, where we went to meet Karma’s parents who are in their eighties.
Karma is technically a Tibetan refugee even though he was born in Ladakh. I don’t understand the logic of denying him Indian citizenship. It was terrific to meet his parents and the right to get a context on where he has come from and how hard he has had to work to achieve what he has. Another cup of tea later, it was time to go to the hotel and hit the sack.
My flight is at 9 am, and we have to be airport by 7. I am excited to see my parents, but I am sad to leave this beautiful part of the world.
Conclusion: If Kerala is God’s own country, then Ladakh is the gateway to heaven. You can feel the spirituality, and not just in the monasteries that dot the landscape but in the people. The landscape is telling you more than you can visually and intellectually comprehend. It is a magical wonderland, that is India’s own Iceland, Alaska and Patagonia all rolled into one. It won’t remain that for long. Humans are ruining it. I have seen trash everywhere in the most pristine of locations. There is so love or respect for the environment, and the country is going to lose the great gift of this beauty.
Photo made with Nikon D850. Focal length 70mm. Aperture f13. Exposure time: 3 minuted and 22 seconds.