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!
This time last year, I had just returned from a 6 week trip to Ladakh, North India. I’m only now getting back to editing the pictures from the second half of the journey and re-reading my scribbled diary notes.
This blog post picks up the journey at the point we left Leh, the capital city of Ladakh and drove to the Changtang Plateau, following the Indus River upstream. We were heading 140 miles south-west to Tso Moriri, the largest high-altitude lake in the trans-Himalayan region.
The narrow road looked as if it had been freshly carved out of the mountainside.
As we climbed higher, each turn revealed a new perspective of the valley below.
A group of tourists on classic Royal Enfield motorbikes overtook us on the way up. We would see more of these legendary bikes over the next few days.
The landscape at this stage of the journey was bare and unforgiving. Tufts of greenery clung bravely to the rock face, their dark spidery roots partially exposed. I looked up anxiously at the large boulders balanced precariously on the steep slopes either side of the road. Surely the vibrations of the heavy army trucks which thundered along here would be enough to dislodge just one of these rocks and send it tumbling into the path of an oncoming vehicle?
Occasionally we’d pass a hamlet - with fields of carefully irrigated crops, neat vegetable patches and tall, graceful willow trees (the branches of which are used for fencing and roofing).
Gradually the geology changed - rocks smoothed out into soft folds and gentle curves, eroded over the years by the ice, snow, wind and rain. These rock faces then gave way to layers of purple and green slate, spliced with sparkling quartz and mica. It is this slate which gives the mountains their distinctive blue and lilac hue.
At other points we passed expanses of fine and delicately coloured scree leading down to the riverbed.
Each bridge across the Indus in this region proudly bears a sign indicating the date of construction and the army regiment that constructed it. The bridges are made of overlapping metal plates which shifted and clattered noisily as we drove across, one vehicle at a time. A noticeable increase in army presence, particularly at strategic points such as bridges and checkpoints meant that taking photos became a risky business.
We stopped for chai at a roadside cafe in a rather drab army outpost; the surprisingly well-stocked bar was perhaps another indication of the number of soldiers stationed in the area.
In the next post we reach an altitude of 4,500m and take in the striking beauty of the salt lakes.
To see more spectacular landscapes in Ladakh, take a look at this post about monasteries around Leh.
It’s an 11 hour bus ride from the small oasis town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane in the Sahara Desert back to Marrakech - through the Draa Valley, the towns of Tamegroute, Zagora and Agdz, on to Ouarzazate, and across the beautiful Atlas Mountains. On the way out, travelling from Marrakech to M’Hamid, passengers would disembark at each stop, and an equal number of people would get on, so the CTM bus was always full, and I had different travelling companions next to me for each stage of the journey - a curator at the Marrakech Museum for Photography & Visual Arts, a PhD student researching ecology and tourism, a geography teacher, a film buff and a guy who described himself as a Spiritual Tourism Operator. We would get into conversation, and the first question was always about where I was going.
"M’Hamid" I replied.
The response was consistent.
"Wow, that’s a long way!"
On the return I was better prepared for the journey, and made sure that I sat on the right side of the bus to avoid the sun glaring in through the windows so that I could take some photos.
As a photographer, it’s one of those frustratingly beautiful routes when you have a constant urge to ask the driver to stop every 100 metres or so, as you pass through such varied terrain and epic landscapes:
The urge to stop grows stronger towards the second half of the afternoon when the rocks glow, Grand Canyon-style.
Around the high desert city of Ouarzazate we enter the area known as the ‘Hollywood of Morocco’ - home of huge film studios and the location for many an epic film, from David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator and The Last Temptation of Christ.
The landscape is both arid and lush, as we climb slowly towards the snow line of the Atlas Mountains, each hairpin bend revealing another stunning view across the peaks above or the valley below.
The rose-pink and grey-green landscapes are intensified by the late afternoon sunshine.
We reach the expanding outskirts of Marrakech all too quickly, exchanging mountains, traditional villages, and olive trees for newly built apartment blocks, luxurious mansions and hotel complexes. I’m holding on to the stark beauty of the desert, the warmth of the people I met there, the simple shared pleasures of daily life and the joy of many different cultures, traditions and peoples meeting together in the ancient oasis town of M’Hamid, as they have done for generations.
After the magic of the final concert of the Taragalte Festival the previous night, the mood this morning is subdued and laid back.
Most people are preparing to leave - some stayed up the whole night as they had a 4am departure.
I pack my bags, and take a few portraits before I leave the Sahara:
This is the man who guarded our group of tents:
And this is Majid, one of the traditional musicians from the group Oualed Chatta.
Nomads round up their camels.
Festival director Ibraham Sbai shares some music and tea in the shade at Le Petit Prince bivouac.
And there’s a final picture with Oum - the patron of the festival - seen here with Lahcen, a member of the organising team.
There’s just time to take a couple of obligatory group shots before we all leave.
The next post is of the beautiful 11-hour journey back to Marrakech.
Sahara Roots started a tree-planting programme in the oasis of M’Hamid El Ghizlane in the Sahara Desert three years ago, as part of the Taragalte Festival. Over the last ten years desertification has become a serious problem for desert villages like M’hamid. Planting trees that thrive in these arid conditions, is one way of dealing with the issue.
On the last day of the festival artists and guests are invited to help plant a new batch of 16 tamarisk trees using the unique Groasis waterboxx method.
Wanda Hebly from Sahara Roots explains the concept. The waterboxx doesn’t need much water - it collects dew, and rain and incorporates a condensation system which ensures that every precious drop of moisture is used. The drip system allows a tiny amount of water to reach the graft - and so encourages the root to seek water, which in M’Hamid is about 15 metres below the ground. After a year the waterboxx is lifted and re-used for new grafts.
Oum, the patron of the festival, and star of the final concert in the festival, plants the first tree.
Others then take their turn, until there’s a whole line of grafts in their waterboxx behind Le Petit Prince.
I too am invited to plant a tree - and thanks to my fellow photographer Abdellah Azizi, there are some pictures to prove it!
I label my tree carefully….
and Lahcen from the Taragalte Festival assures me that he’ll keep an eye on it until I return next year….
Berber women from the nearby villages squeeze their way into the traditional woven tent near the main stage of the Taragalte Festival, finding a place to sit on the floor, their children on their laps. Others crowd round the entrance, or peer in through holes in the tent, whilst the men hover at the back.
These women have been the creative energy behind the Carpet of Life - an innovative textile project to reinvigorate traditional Berber rug-making techniques and generate income through a unique commissioning programme, supported by the NGO Butterfly Works and the Taragalte Festival. The women hand-weave and knot rugs to traditional Berber designs using strips of recycled clothing donated by the commissioner. The results are vibrant carpets that give the rug-makers a good source of income, and help to ensure the continuation of an authentic craft that has been handed down through the generations. The commissioner gets a one-off work of art that is both traditional and contemporary, giving a new lease of life to clothes that have a particular significance to the owner.
On the last afternoon of the festival the women gather to celebrate their achievements. I worm my way through the crowd, trying to find a space from where to photograph the ceremony without the setting sun shining right into my lens.
A traditional singer starts to chant; her hands, heavily decorated with henna and jewellery, make elaborate, angular gestures.
Sometimes she covers her face in this slow, ritual dance.
The young woman who coordinates the Carpet of Life has the task of handing out personalised, framed certificates to each woman who has participated in the project.
The sense of pride and solidarity amongst the women is experienced by everyone attending the ceremony.
There’s a post about more artwork at the Taragalte Festival created with recycled materials here.
Le Petit Prince camp at the Taragalte Festival is the hub for seminars, presentations and film screenings.
There are talks about the fragility of nomadic life in the Sahara, we hear from musicians and cultural operators about the current political situation in Mali and about Azalaï’s Laboratoire Nomade supporting new musical adventures involving African and European artists.
Halim Sbai, co-director of the Taragalte Festival introduces a session.
Ibrahim Sbai, co-director of the Taragalte Festival, sits amongst the audience to listen to the presentations.
And of course, there’s always tea….
The three festivals have joined forces to collaborate on a new initiative with a powerful cultural and humanitarian message: La Caravane Culturelle pour la Paix (the Cultural Caravan for Peace). Taragalte (the original name of M’Hamid El Ghizlane) used to be a meeting place for the trans-Saharan trade caravans, linking Morocco to Mali and other parts of the Sahara and Sahel region. The idea behind the project is to raise awareness of the real threat to culture, music and the environment in the region and to promote peace, tolerance and solidarity. After Taragalte, the artists will travel to Burkina Faso - to the capital city Ouagadougou and to nearby refugee camps - and then on to Ségou in Mali, to play music, exchange ideas and share their cultural heritage.
At one point during the presentation, the man sitting next to me asks if he can borrow my pen.
He starts writing in Arabic, and a few minutes later stands up to announce that he would like to share a poem he’s just written. Roughly translated, he says that it’s a poem celebrating the hospitality and generosity of the people of M’Hamid.
After all the talking and debating, the musicians in the room strike up and everyone rises to their feet to dance. It’s yet another beautiful and spontaneous shared experience at the Taragalte Festival.
If you’d like to read more about the Taragalte Festival’s other activities, please click here.