Without a doubt, travelling in Ladakh brought out the landscape photographer in me. It also made me wish I’d studied geology; I’m fascinated by what the richly coloured rock strata, the sharply eroded gorges, and the variations in shape and form of the mountains and valleys reveal.
One such landscape in the Zanskar mountain range near Lamayuru is known locally as Moonland - a vast expanse of rock formations created by the erosion of deposits from the bed of the glacial lake that was once here.
The road and the vehicle on the right hand side of this picture give an indication of scale of this strange geological phenomenon.
At sunset the etched and pockmarked granite stone glows golden yellow.
We were able to view Moonland from the Hangro Loops - a series of 18 tight hairpin bends on the Leh-Srinagar Highway.
There’s a choice between the ‘new road’ and the ‘old road’ at this point on the Highway. One advantage of the old road is that the tankers and heavy trucks prefer the shorter, (and frankly, less scary) new road. Our driver handled the bends calmly and skillfully, accelerating round the steep anti-clockwise ascents with confidence, despite the fact that the edge of the tarmac disintegrated into a vertical slope of fine scree descending to the road below.
Some sections of the road were still undergoing repair as we drove through.
Despite some initial nervousness about this section of the Leh-Srinagar Highway, we deliberately chose to travel up and down it several times over a couple of days, marvelling at this extraordinary feat of engineering and the striking landscapes.
The first sighting of Lamayuru gompa (monastery), as we rounded a sharp hairpin bend on the Leh-Srinagar highway, didn’t disappoint in its drama. We arrived at sunrise, after another 4am wake-up call. (I wish I could say that I became accustomed to early starts on this trip, but I think my bodyclock is wired in such a way that I’ll always find them challenging!)
The monastery seemed strangely deserted, but an elderly monk obligingly unlocked a few doors and showed us round.
He pretended to be camera-shy, but I think he was secretly enjoying all the attention. The fact that there was no one else around meant I could take some photos of interior details without being disturbed, albeit in very low-light conditions.
I love the decorative detail on these traditional musical instruments:
The intensity of the colours inside the temples is astonishing.
This is one of the most astonishing sights in Ladakh - the green waters of the Zanskar River flowing into the Indus. The confluence of these two great rivers is seen here from one of Ladakh’s most historic and dramatic roads, the Leh-Srinagar highway, which we followed through the deep river gorge between the Zanskar and Ladakh mountain ranges.
The bridge in the distance and the speck of a vehicle on the far side of the river give a sense of scale.
The Leh-Srinagar highway took us North-West of Leh, towards the Zanskar mountains and to some of the most important and ancient gompas in Ladakh, of which more in the next post.
From the highway, Basgo gompa and the castle ruins perch majestically on the mountainside above an oasis of poplar trees and meticulously planted crops.
That night we checked in to the charming Ule Ethnic Resort in Uleytokpo, near Alchi. Each well-appointed bungalow has a private verandah and a river view.
And there was room service; a chilled beer before dinner was inevitable.
There are considerably worse views to contemplate, I thought, as I crawled out of my tent after a fitful night’s sleep at 4,500m on the shores of Tso Kar.
This remote and beautiful spot in the Changtang Plateau had been ‘home’ for just one night.
I wondered what happened to the owner of this abandoned boot I found near our camp….
But this picture is crying out for a caption, and wins the prize for the ‘comedy shot’ of the whole trip.
The journey back to Leh took us across the Taglang La Pass, one of the high mountain passes for which Ladakh is famous. Reaching an altitude of 5,328m at its highest point, it claims to be the second highest passable road in the world.
These passes are only accessible during the summer months; at the top the road was still being cleared of snow.
Decaying prayer flags draped these two chortens perched on the edge of a steep scree slope at the top of the pass.
"Unbelievable is not it?"
Tso Kar means “White Lake” - so called because of the salt deposits that encrust its shores. Salt was an important commodity in Ladakh - the Chang-pu nomads collected it from the highlands and transported it down to the Indus Valley to barter it against grain.
Despite being the smallest of the highland lakes, in many ways Tso Kar offers a more rich and varied landscape than Tso Moriri and Tso Kiagar; marshy wetlands, vast salt plains, strange little grassy hillocks, and the vivid colours of the lake itself.
In the next post you can see how the lake takes on almost mythical qualities at sunset.
After two nights of sleeping in a small tent at 4,500m in the Changtang Plateau in Ladakh, I was definitely beginning to feel the effects of the altitude. I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, feeling breathless and a little claustrophobic, my heart racing. The mild panic-attacks were not helped by the fact that I had also caught a chill, or perhaps it was some kind of allergy. Either way, my breathing was hampered. And rising before the sun was beginning to take its toll too; the combination of high altitude and lack of sleep made everything slightly fuzzy.
We left Tso Moriri and drove North-West to Tso Kar, stopping at the highest point on the pass to leave a string of prayer flags.
Our drivers never failed to do this, just as they always reminded us to walk in a clockwise direction around the chorten stones.
Prayer flags are never removed; gradually over time the old flags disintegrate, but they are continually replaced by pilgrims, travellers and tourists, to mark their safe passage across a high mountain pass or their visit to a place of spiritual significance.
On the shores of Tso Moriri in the Changtang Plateau in Ladakh, I found many stone piles, neatly constructed from pieces of flat slate. Some were devotional monuments, or chortens, others were simply markers. Some were decorated with prayer flags, and perhaps contained sacred artefacts or texts.
Here you can see the village of Korzok in the distance.
Antonella contemplating the view.
Towards the end of the afternoon, as the sun began to sink low behind us, the moon was already rising on the opposite side of the lake.
Just after sunrise we drove the short distance from Tso Moriri to Tso Kiagar - one of the smaller high-altitude lakes in the Changtang Plateau in Ladakh. The lake was serene and breathtakingly beautiful, epic in its silence, broken only by the occasional cries of the birds that thrive in the unique wetland ecology here.
We watched the nomads skillfully steer their large herds across the pastures, bringing them right down to the water’s edge.
The small nomadic community greeted us with mild curiosity.
The view looking South towards Lake Moriri.
At an altitude of almost 4,500m, the small, but dramatic Tso Kiagar (Lake Kiagar) came into view.
White salt deposits encrusted the edge of the lake with abstract designs.
It was here we saw our first herds of pashmina goats. The Chang-pu herders, a nomadic tribe of Tibetan origin, tend the goat herds all year round, moving them from highland to lowland pastures in the summer months when the snow melts.
We arrived at Tso Moriri (Lake Moriri) mid-afternoon, which gave us time to photograph the lake and the surrounding landscapes in the early evening light and to watch the moon rising over the peaks.
Tso Moriri is 30km long, but large sections of this high altitude lake in the Changtang Plateau in Ladakh are inaccessible to visitors, to protect the unique wetland ecosystem created by the snowmelt that flows into the lake, and the birds and wildlife it supports.
We set up camp on the Northern side of the lake, at the bottom of Korzok village, one of the oldest and highest settlements in Ladakh. The sun disappeared behind the mountains, taking the heat of the day with it.
By 9pm It was beginning to feel quite chilly, and at 4,595m, I was definitely feeling the effects of the altitude. I wanted nothing more than to snuggle down in my sleeping bag. The real surprise of the evening was to discover that our brilliant support team of drivers, cooks and assistants had made us each a hot water bottle!