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Going to Ladakh is like going to another planet! To say the least, it quite a mind-numbing experience. I often travel to these parts for both work and pleasure. The azure of its skies, a remorseless sun and barren mountain ranges, welcome you to this trans-Himalayan landscape. The snowy passes and the deserted valleys filled with rarified air makes it harsh, but an out of this world experience. 
 

The colourful culture and it's smiling people have left an indelible imprint on our hearts, minds and souls of people at home and abroad since it was opened to tourism by the Indian government in July 1974. It has become a sine qua non for every traveller. Shrouded by an aura of mystery, it has always been projected as the archetypal Shangri-La. In its first year, 527 (including 27 Indians) visitors made that trip but today close to 300000 people visit the high altitude desert every year.

 

But, apart from the pristine beauty, the region’s strategic location has played an essential part in shaping the history, culture and the very essence of life and people, here. Through its high passes and dusty valleys, ancient trade flourished. In fact, cross-border salt trade with Tibet from the plateau of Changthang continued till as

late as 1960. Ladakh was like an international trade hub and merchants from central Asia, China Tibet and across the Karakoram would either make a pit stop before progressing further or traded their goods with merchants from other parts of the world. Saffron from Kashmir, tea from China, charas from Sinkiang, Pashm from Changthang, apricots from Baltistan, salt from Tibet, the tide of commerce was in full flow. 

 

Three parallel ranges of the Himalayas, the Zanskar, the Ladakh and the Karakoram run through the length and breadth of Ladakh. Between these ranges, the Shayok, Nubra, Indus and Zanskar rivers flow and most of the population lives in valleys of these rivers. The area was an entrepot for the fabled silk route trade between central and south Asia – a global hotspot of sorts, an ancient cosmopolitan. Today the Ladakh division of Jammu and Kashmir is divided into Kargil (14,036 sq km) and Leh (45,110 sq km). District Leh with an area of 45100 sq km makes it one of the second largest districts in the country (after Kutch in Gujarat). The District is bounded by Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the west, China in the North and east, and Lahaul & Spiti of Himachal Pradesh in the southeast. 

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“Ladakh might seem isolated, tucked away in the midst of mountain ranges among the world’s most formidable; nevertheless in the old days it was situated squarely between some of the great mercantile towns of south and central Asia, and there is evidence that traders many have been crossing its mountainous terrain as early as the ninth century AD… Thus over the centuries the caravans congregated at Leh to prepare for the crossing of the Karakoram, or to recover from it; and gradually there; and at the other staging posts along the different lines of march, a network of serais and other facilities was established, which further reinforced the advantages of the route.”

Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia. Janet Rizvi, 1996.

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“Ladakh is not an experience that soothes you. It does not calm you down. It’s just the opposite. It’s a barrage of harsh challenges thrown at you and when you survive them, Ladakh - is a major ego boost.”

The Ladakh Paradox by Ananya Borgohain (The Pioneer, October 2016).

 
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Thongnang Chun. 

(in Bhoti language it means close view.)

Thongnang Chun is a step away from more traditional visual imagery of Ladakh, which has been dominated by landscape or panoramic views. In the series, I have tried to connect the viewer to the scene through a more detailed look. The series includes different elements of Ladakh from its famous brackish water lakes, the harsh terrain and the sapidity of the Buddhist tradition. Ladakh, as a high altitude desert, has always attracted travellers and inspired explorers from across the world for centuries. Apart from the pristine beauty, the region’s strategic location as a central Asian trade hub played an essential part in shaping the history, culture and the very essence of life and people. Through its high passes and dusty valleys, ancient trade flourished. Saffron from Kashmir, tea from China, Charas from Sinkiang, Pashm from Changthang, apricots from Baltistan, salt from Tibet, the tide of commerce was in full flow. The series derives itself from the traveller’s PoV (point of view) to which Ladakh has been associated from time immemorial. It is a more personalised and a closed view of the visual aspects attached to the region.  

 
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Ri-Ri Tso Moriri.

Tso Moriri
Tso Moriri

Korzok
Korzok

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Tso Moriri

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Tso Moriri lies about 250 km southeast of Leh and is about 19 km long & 7 km wide at its broadest point. The lake draining a catchment area of 120 km square, is enclosed by the rolling hills of the Tibetan cold desert which are over 6000m. Just like the Pangong lake, Tso Moriri too is an endorheic lake and has a fragile ecosystem. Increased tourism is an imminent threat.

Korzok on the northwestern banks of the Tso Moriri is the highest village in India at an altitude of 15,075 feet. It lies in Rupshu valley and at the heart of the Changthang plateau on the eastern side of Ladakh. It was an important halt on the central Asian trade route that connected eastern China to the Indus valley. 

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“Do you know how the lake got its name? The standard version is based on the translation of ‘tso’ to ‘lake’, and ‘ri’ to ‘mountain’. A more popular version, however, is based on the legend of a ‘chomo’ (Tibetan Buddhist nun) of Korzok who, one winter long ago, rode a yak onto the frozen surface of the lake. Realising that the ice was too thin, she shouted out to the yak, ‘fi-ri !’ which, interpreted one way, means ‘watch out, we’re falling!’ But she shouted too late, the yak went on, the ice broke, and the lake swallowed them both up. And got itself a name, or at least an additional legend to its name, a distortion from ‘chomo ri-ri’ to ‘Tsomoriri’.”

Subhendu Kaushik, Equations Quarterly on third world tourism (1995).

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Pangong Tso.

Different Shades of Pangong
Different Shades of Pangong

Different shades of Pangong
Different shades of Pangong

Fjords at Pangong
Fjords at Pangong

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Different Shades of Pangong

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About 160 odd kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Leh, across the mighty Chang la, lies the brackish water lake of Pangong. It is a trans-boundary lake that has straddled India and China, for more than half a decade. Millions of pictures from travellers on social media, photographers, filmmakers, cinematographers have added to the glamour of the lake. Delicately poised between India and China, the actual LoC passes through it at Khurnak fort. The lake extends for about 50 km on the

Indian side and having done the entire stretch, via Tsaga La and Chusul, then to Merak - Man - Spangmik - Lukung is an absolute pleasure. This is a sensitive border region, and one requires prior permission from the Leh DC office to travel through the area. Most of the road runs along the southern bank of the Pangong and is a perfect way to enjoy the brilliance of changing colour patterns under a beating sun. Increased tourism has helped the locals to make some money but its impact on the fragile ecology of the place is quite serious.

“… before us stretched a lake like a sheet of molten lapis lazuli, merging into intense ultramarine in the distance and into radiant cobalt blue and opalescent Veronese green towards the nearer shore, fringed with gleaming white beaches, while the mountain that framed this incredible colour display was of golden ochre, Indian red and burnt sienna, with purple shadows. Yes, this was the luminous landscape of my dream, rising out of the blue waters in brilliant sunshine under a deep, cloudless sky!”

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The Way of the White Cloud by Lama Anagarika Govinda.

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Lukung.

Spangmik.

Even though Pangong Tso is a salt-water lake, it completely freezes in winters. It is among the highest brackish water lakes in the world at 4,250 metres. But owing to the salinity of the water, it has low micro-vegetation. Barring some small crustaceans, there is no aquatic life though, some herbs and shrubs species do grow around the lake.

Actual remnants of the Tethys Sea, which found no run-off when the plateau started to rise, formed the Pangong Tso. The lake has no outlet and is replenished by the melting snow of the peaks from the catchment area, functioning like an endorheic basin. As a protection from UV radiation zooplankton in the lake synthesises photo protective compounds that function as sun-screen. 

Man.

Even though Pangong Tso is a salt-water lake, it completely freezes in winters. It is among the highest brackish water lakes in the world at 4,250 metres. But owing to the salinity of the water, it has low micro-vegetation. Barring some small crustaceans, there is no aquatic life though, some herbs and shrubs species do grow around the lake.

Merak.

In October 1962, during the Sino-Indian war, this area saw heavy military action; and since then has been a sensitive border issue. The eastern end of the lake is disputed between India and China. About 35 to 40 % is in India. The area has a predominant military presence but there is no restriction of movements if you have an inner line permit.

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The Changthang region is blessed with numerous lakes like the Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, Tso Kar and many more, which are mainly fed by glaciers and are active reference systems of global climatic change. Due to the extreme environmental conditions, these ecosystems have a relatively simple food web and react more rapidly and more sensitively to environmental changes. Even minor impacts can significantly affect the physical and chemical properties of soft water high altitude lakes and induce change continuously.

Avian Diversity of Ladakh Wetlands (Indian Institute of Science).

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At the western end of Tibet the Tso-mo-gulari, a series of five lakes, lies at an elevation of 14000 feet in a narrow valley winding over 100 miles from east to west, among magnificent snowy mountains. The upper lakes, which drain from one to the other and are fresh, lie in the Tibetan territory and are but imperfectly known; the lowest and largest lake, Pangong Tso, which has no outlet and is saline, lies in the Indian province of Ladakh or Little Tibet, and is visited almost yearly by British sportsmen. As two main lakes, Pangong and and Nyak Tso, with a length of 105 miles, a maximum width of 4 miles, and an average width of only 1.8 miles where covered with water. The basi appears to be due to glacial erosion, and the lake, as their scenery indicates, belong to the same type as the famous valley lakes of Switzerland. 

Pangong: A glacial lake in the Tibetan plateau. Ellsworth Huntington.  Milton, Mass. 1906.

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Chagga La.

The Road Less Travelled

The most intensely gratifying aspect of travel is to explore areas that are still untouched and in proverbial terms, are 'virgin'. The way to Pangong Tso via Chusul and Tsaga La definitely falls in this category. Pangong, as we know, is one of the highest saltwater lakes in the world and extends into the Chinese territory for another 80 km. This route is only open to Indian citizens because of its proximity to the LoC with China, and one must obtain an inner line permit from the office of the District Magistrate in Leh, to take this road. Here, the brilliance of the trans-Himalayan desert is at its best, and the road less travelled, if taken offers an excellent opportunity to experience it first hand.

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The serpentine-like dirt track, moves along the Chinese border on a barren yellow landscape, often dotted with bunkers on either side. The Tsaga post operated through the year, even in the harsh cold winter offers a hawk-eye view of the entire area and is considered as one of the most strategic frontline outposts of the Indian army. There is a sense of uneasy calm, a hint of nervousness that one could feel while traversing through this part of Changthang. Survival of the fittest if clearly the mantra be it a beast or man.

“Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” : Ibn Battuta.

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The battle of Rezang La.

“It’s sad that any time we talk about the India-China war of 1962, horrible words like debacle, disgrace, disaster come to our minds ... It’s a war that this country ideally would love to forget but cannot because it’s etched in our memories as one of the saddest chapters of our independent history. And it’s sadder still that because of that overwhelming sense of failure in that war, we tend to sometimes almost deliberately ignore the one chapter that I think is without parallel in the modern post Second World War military history, the battle of Rezang La on November 18, 1962 ... Charlie Company of a battalion called 13 Kumaon was divided into several platoons on one ridge of two kilometres, protecting the airfield of Chushul which was vital if India was to hold Ladakh. It was attacked on the morning of November 18 by maybe 5,000-6,000 Chinese with heavy artillery support. A crest behind this ridge prevented Indian artillery from being able to support these jawans. And what did these jawans do? They fought to last man, last round. That’s an expression you hear in movies and read in war comics, but that is something that actually happened in the battle of Rezang La.”

Shekhar Gupta on NDTV's Walk the Talk (2012).

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Nicheyee

Gonpa.

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Ladakhis will not think in terms of a fundamental opposition, for instance, between mind and body or reason and intuition. Ladakhis experience the world, through what they call their ‘semba’, best translated as a cross between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’. This reflects the Buddhist insistence that wisdom and compassion are inseparable.

Ancient Futures: Learning fron Ladakh by Helene Norberg-Hodge.

Ladakh was ruled by several dynasties who brought their culture, religion and traditions to this region, giving it a unique feature. Irrespective of the rugged terrain and inaccessible areas, monks and scholars passed through them and built monasteries all over the region. Some of these monasteries are in ruins while others are still functioning as buddhist educational and religious centres. For a traveller, the monasteries of Ladakh are not just a cultural and architectural delight but they also offer an insight into some of the most ancient sacred sites and their significance in shaping the history of the region. 

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