Travel photographer Susan Blick has discovered "Heaven On Earth" in 'The Land of High Passes' in Northern India. So sit back and let her take you on a travel journey like no other...
Ladakh, you arrive and it’s instant! The fresh mountain air. The warmth from the high altitude sun. The friendliness of the people. And for some, the near-immediate lack of oxygen! Ladakh is as close as you can get to heaven while on Earth.
Ladakh’s capital Leh is one of the world’s highest. You fly into 3,500 metres and on your first day must avoid all exercise (sounds like my kind of destination!) you’re also instructed to drink lots of water to keep hydrated. Most people adjust fairly well after their day of rest and by the following day are able to do some city sightseeing followed by some out of town adventures.
Once you leave the confines of the capital it won’t take you long to come to the conclusion that Ladakh really is a land of big skies and landscapes. Sweeping plateaus hemmed in by 5,000+ metre peaks with Buddhist monasteries perched on mountainsides make it a photographer’s dream.
Travelling out of town usually means traversing high altitude passes and whilst moving between valleys and plateaus you drive over some of the world’s highest motorable roads. Khardong La, the World’s highest public road which is well-maintained and strictly guarded by the Indian Army, takes you to the sand dunes of Nubra Valley. Here the big attraction is the double-humped Bactrian camels a reminder of the Silk Road trading days. These days however they earn a much better living for their owners as every evening at around 5pm hundreds of domestic Indian tourists gather for the obligatory camel ride into the setting sun. With a backdrop of picturesque sand dunes and million year old river cliffs it’s little wonder the place is so popular.
After the stunning dunes of the Nubra Valley you’ll be hungry for more adventure. Safe in the confines of a jeep with your highly experienced driver at the helm you’ll navigate river beds full of huge granite boulders and drive switchbacks that offer jaw-dropping views at every turn. In good time you reach the pristine waters of Pangong Lake, which separates India from the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Half the lake sits in Tibet (China), the other half in India, it acts as a natural border. Pangong Lake at 4,300m was once an ocean between the European and Asian tectonic plates. The collision of these plates created the Himalayas, but also trapped 604 square kilometres of saline water between them, the remnants of that sea is today’s Pangong.
More evidence of the immense power of the natural world can be seen in the gnarly twisting rock faces and million year old river and sea beds raised above you as you drive through time itself. As if this amount of adventure and photography wouldn’t suffice, travellers are blessed with the opportunity to cross another high altitude pass. This one is Chang La, it’s the World’s third highest at 5,000 metres. These journeys aren’t for the faint of heart. Avalanche warnings abound as at times you drive through tunnels of fresh snow often 10 feet tall. If the altitude doesn’t raise your heart rate the roads certainly will! Continually you plead to your driver, whom with much patience and kindness, affords you another photo stop at yet another stunning viewpoint so you can capture the thick snow, the icicles and the steep vertical drops.
But hey, it isn’t just massive vistas that will leave you in awe in Ladakh, its charming and gentle people have their pull too. The region is made up of numerous indigenous groups that are often still a mix of animist, but increasingly Buddhist, in their beliefs. The Bon religion, a Tibetan folk religion characterised by ancestor worship is still prominent in village life especially so in the more far flung reaches of the region. Traditional nomads, some of the world’s most isolated and homogenous can be found here too. Moreover, the last true Aryan races live in huddled villages on vertical mountain faces in the far North-West of Ladakh bordered by Pakistan. Nomads who wandered looking for better pastures ventured East from Gilgit in Pakistan and settled along the Indus River on one of Ladakh’s most isolated frontiers. The Dropka people as they’re known have long claimed to be the purest form of the Aryan race with bloodlines reaching back to the conquests of Alexander the Great’s armies in 300 B.C. With a distinct culture and a very unique style of dress these tribes are increasingly on itineraries.
Petroglyphs 2000+ years old have been found carved on rock faces throughout the mountains. These records from milennia past record scenes of giant ibex, snow leopards in abundance, men hunting with long bows and women dancing in form. Like all ancient rock art it is a journal through time.
Like tourism everywhere, it’s taking its toll. Ladakh is modernising at an unprecedented rate, but luckily for travellers and photographers alike the Ladakhis to date have remained true to their culture, and the natural world that carved the beauty of this incredible landscape has been left untouched affording more eyes to look upon it in awe.
If you're raring to go after reading this article and seeing the awesome photos, consider joining Susan on her next tour. Contact Susan Blick Photography (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register interest in next year’s photo tour.
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