LADAKH ON ROYAL ENFIELD – INDIA
(A PHOTO DIARY OF OUR TWO-WEEK MOTO EXPEDITION IN THIS PART OF THE WORLD)
After our two-week moto trip in the incredible Spiti Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh, it was time to move on to another destination : Ladakh!
The Ladakh region stands in the very north of India, bordering with Tibet (China), Pakistan and the state of Kashmir, which is currently disputed by the three countries surrounding it. Kashmir has become the most militarized place on earth in the recent years, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers on its soil. It’s even been closed to foreigners just few weeks before our arrival, and there were more and more tensions between India and Pakistan… So we were not very reassured about the situation, but we knew that it would still be interesting to go and many Indians had told us that Ladakh was safe anyway.
So… We were in the city of Manali, and we made the decision to travel to Leh, the “capital” of Ladakh, by local transport. We could have been there by motorbike, but we preferred to rent one there, so that we would not have to come back to Manali to return the moto, and to participate in the local economy.
We first took a bus to Keylong where we spent the night, and where we met three guys from Indonesia. They were extremely nice so we had the idea together to share a private jeep to cover the resting 400km on the next day. This is how our trip has begun…
We left very early in the morning, it was still dark, and we went up to a first 4800m pass! Most of us were sleeping but we stopped there for breakfast… It was a beautiful day and we were already happy about our choice of having a private transport. We could stop everywhere we wanted and we would enjoy that long and beautiful journey much more than on a local bus!
The landscapes along the way were amazing! The region is extremely dry, very high in altitude, and very few people live there…
Except the military! During all the way to Leh, we crossed dozens of military convoys and passed by many military bases… Strange feeling to enter a militarized area, and plenty of questions were going through our minds. We somehow wondered why we wanted to go to a place like that. It looked definitely different from every other trip that we’d done so far. At least, it made us want to learn more about the geopolitical situation of the region!
But the weirdest thing was probably the fact that the people we met during our stops were extremely nice and smily! This situation did not seem to affect them at all, and they were living their lives as if it was the normal.
We could already notice the change between the people from Manali and the people from Ladakh. Most of them were looking more like Tibetan or Nepalese. It felt like we entered a complete different country! And as soon as we drove over the highest pass of the day, Tanglang La (5100m), we descended in altitude and followed the beautiful Indus river to reach Leh.
The city of Leh stands at 3800 meters above the sea level. It’s a very cosmopolitan place where buddhist monasteries rub shoulders with mosques. It has one main pedestrian street with beautiful views on a buddhist palace that is worth a visit!
But Izabela and I don’t like to spend too much time visiting cities. They usually become our base to discover the region, a place where we like to rest, have some good food, think about where to go next, and rent motorbikes…
That’s why I don’t have too much to say about Leh, and why I don’t have many photos to share… My camera usually stays in its bag and it feels good not to take any photo sometimes! However, there is at least one image that I want to share with you, because I like it. It’s a photo of 3 nice kids I played football with in the streets. They were really cute and very funny!
In Leh, we heard about a buddhist festival that was going to take place at the Hemis monastery, 40km away. So the decision was made. We rented motorbikes with our new Indonesian friends, and we hit the road together! We had a lot of fun on the way, stopped at Thiksey monastery, which was unfortunately full of tourists with no monks inside… but the arrival at the festival was completely unexpected!
Hundreds of buddhist monks were gathered and seated under a huge tent to watch people dressed in a traditional way dancing on a stage, like these men for instance…
But also to listen to what seemed to be political representatives. They were sometimes speaking in Ladakhi, sometimes in Indi, and few times in English. That’s how I understood a little bit what they were talking about. During this time of “tensions” with Pakistan about the situation of Kashmir, they were repeating how important it is for Ladakh to remain in India and not to take part in the separatist movements that exist in Kashmir…
I was honestly not expecting the festival to be like this. And photographically speaking, I was a little bit disappointed at the beginning. I expected people to dance, to ride horses, to race, to compete with bows and arrows… I don’t know why but I think I had seen a festival like this on TV, in Tibet. So I thought it was going to be the same here.
But I didn’t give up and I searched for images outside. I wish I could find an isolated monk, walking around, in this simple and arid environment. I like photos which are beautiful in a simple way, with not too many elements in the frame, and evocative…
I found what I was looking for! Here I liked the position of the monk, with his arms crossed in his back. I placed him on purpose on the right side of the frame to express all that space that they have to contemplate and meditate… I also liked the shadows on the mountains, and the limited color palette. I managed to shoot two or three images that I quite like!
TSO MORIRI LAKE
We also came to Ladakh to travel to its high altitude lakes. The idea at the beginning was to go there on our own, with rented motorbikes. But we got along very well with our new Indonesian friends so we naturally thought that it would be more fun to share a transport again!
The most famous lake is certainly Pangong Tso, because of an Indian movie “Three idiots” (that I recommend)… But there are also less known and less touristic ones like Tso Moriri and Tso Kar which attracted us more!
So we easily found a private jeep in Leh to go to these two lakes, and we drove a full day through the arid and desert Indian Himalayas to reach this place…
The color of Tso Moriri lake has a deep dark blue that reminded me Titicaca lake in Peru, that I love! We also had a very nice partly cloudy weather, and the clouds were beautifully painting shadows on the mountains. This kind of atmosphere is one of my favorite! It was also very windy and we were at 4500 meters above the sea level. So it really felt like we were into the great wild! We told ourselves that the reward would have been bigger if we had reached this lake on our own by motorbike…
Later, the clouds turned a bit more dramatic, so I kept shooting. And I preferred enhancing the contrast between the dark clouds, the warm golden mountains, the deep blue of the lake, and the partly illuminated field in the foreground. The light play was amazing, and the shadows added relief to the scene… That’s also an image that I like!
The village where we stayed stands by the lake and below beautiful snow-caped mountains. It’s very small but it has a beautiful monastery in the center. It was very easy to find a homestay but the prices were surprisingly high! Probably because of how remote the lake is and how short the touristic season is too. We were also the only foreigners this day. It was in September…
The life was slow and simple here. Most people that we met were monks and locals devoted to religion…
The next lake we wanted to visit was Tso Kar and it was half a day away from Tso Moriri. But on the way, at 4800 meters, we saw a woman alone, seated next to a very simple tent, in the middle of nowhere! We stopped to see what she was doing, and to know why she was here alone, so high in the Himalayan desert. She was actually sewing socks while her husband was probably taking care of their goats or sheeps…
She was beautiful. She also looked very nice, friendly and she didn’t mind to be photographed. We happened to know later that she comes from the Changpa Tribe, a semi-nomadic Tibetan people found mainly in the Changtang region in Ladakh.
While photographing her, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lifestyle of this people considering the fact that during more than 6 months in the year, their land is covered of snow with extreme negative temperatures. We were there in September as I said, and at night, the temperature went down to -5°C already…
TSO KAR LAKE
After this fortuitous meeting, we went down to 4500 meters again and we arrived at our destination. We first reached the small and only village by the lake to get some food and find a place to sleep. This time, as we were in a much more remote lake than Tso Moriri, the accommodations were more simple and basic! We only found a big tent to stay, knowing that we would be very cold during the night… But this was not a problem for us as we’re quite used to it! The plan then was to enjoy the entire afternoon around the lake. And what I can say, it’s that we’ve been nicely surprised!
Our first impression was “Oh… it looks like Bolivia!” with its high altitudes lagoons and salt lakes in the Sud-Lipez region. What a scenery and a playground for us to spend the entire afternoon! The water was so calm, so the refection was perfect! I found this composition with this leading line in the foreground, taking the eye to the reflected mountains. And the white ground on the left side contrasted well with the dark sand and the blue lagoon and sky… I think this is my favorite shot from this place!
The lake was also full of birds. So I enjoyed trying to photograph them, even though it was not so easy because I only had with me the 18-55mm lens. It does not allow me to zoom a lot…
After a while, we saw a little group of Indians coming to the lake with their Royal Enfield, followed by a jeep. It reminded us how nice it was to travel like this, and we were already missing the sense of freedom and adventure that we had with this amazing motorbike! So this time, it became obvious for us that we would continue this trip only with this moto!
But still, we were here and we had to enjoy this moment with our friends. These Indonesians, believe me, were the incarnation of sympathy and happiness! It felt so good to hang out with them, to sing and dance!
The light was also magnifying this beautiful moment so I had to record that!
But then it was really time to come back as the sun was going down behind the mountains. We had to walk by ourselves until the village and we had not notice that it was really far away!
We had to get there before it becomes too dark!
We all took different directions at the beginning, and then an obstacle forced us to be even more split… We were stuck in a complete wetland and we had no way to get around it.
At the end, we had no other choice to walk into the water and get our feet wet. And it was getting colder and colder…
But with calm and perseverance, we all made it to the main asphalted road and we finished the last portion with our cellphone torches… It took us I think an hour and a half in total to reach the village!
We finally spent the night in the tent with our hosts, which were really nice. They served us food next to their heating in the middle of the tent, perfect to dry our feet and get warmer. The night was about to be really cold. As I said previously, the temperature went down to -5°C…
The two kids were really shy at the beginning but then they got used to our presence. They finally played with us all night and we all enjoyed a warm dinner…
In the morning, after a freezing night, we finally warmed up with a special Indonesian coffee, made by our friends. They were actually real “coffee addicts”, and one of them has his own plantations. His coffee has been rewarded as one of the best in the world, so everyday, we could enjoy a delicious cup with them around our breakfast with the warm morning sun…
This ritual by the way seemed to amaze our little host…
It was time to go! We still had a long way to get back to Leh. And we’ve had a last surprise just few kilometers away from Tso Kar lake… Indeed, we met the most emblematic animal of the region. A sort of wild horse that lives only on the Tibetan plateau. It’s called the “Kiang” or the “Tibetan wild ass” (funny name!). So we stopped for a while to observe an entire family in its natural environment…
NUBRA VALLEY AND PANGONG TSO LAKE
Finally we were free again !!!
Look at how happy my wife was !
As I said before, we decided to rent two wonderful Royal Enfield Classic 350 as we were missing this feeling of living the adventure of our lives! And what’s better than the world’s highest motorable road to start our journey?
Only 40km away from Leh, the Khardung La Pass stands at almost 5,400 meters above the sea level. And it’s the gateway to the scenic Nubra Valley where we wanted to go.
It’s a very beautiful road with a perfect asphalt. So we’ve had a lot of fun driving up and down the pass!
We also met on the way typical inhabitants of the region which were not supposed to be here… It was pretty funny to see them on the road, but we were also a bit scared by the size of it! I stopped to photograph them, and I was not feeling totally safe…
The horn of these yaks were impressive! I was a bit scared to stop but I had to record that anyway! Their presence was also meaning that we were descending and getting closer to civilization again, because the Nubra Valley is relatively low in altitude. From 5400 meters high, we had to drive down to 3000 meters! The nature was still dry, desert, but we were little by little seeing some vegetation along the river beds. Once we arrived at Diskit, the main town in the valley, and found a cosy and cheap hotel to stay, the weather and the light turned dramatic again and the landscape became absolutely gorgeous!
I love this picture! I love this kind of environment too! The Nubra Valley is somehow famous because of its sand dunes and its camels. It is something special to be in a desert region and still see the snow on top of the mountains! So after resting a bit in the hotel room, we decided to go and see these dunes at Hunder town, just a few kilometers away from Diskit. There was still surprisingly some vegetation in this desert…
And on the way, we passed by an incredible scene that I had to photograph!
Another surprise! This desert valley is actually full of little lakes. This white horse was amazingly reflected in the water and I loved everything in that scene! The animal is contrasting very well with this hostile environment. The light was also nice and I love that shadow game… This remains one of my favorite shots from this trip! But I was not expecting what was coming next. After reaching Hunder sand dunes, and walking a little bit… another incredible vision appeared from nowhere to me…
A group of camel riders perfectly reflected again in a small little lake! I could not believe what I was experiencing and photographing! I couldn’t miss these shots! So I kept shooting until I got them closer and in the center of the frame, with still this amazing golden light and shadows…
I was really happy after having taken these images, so I decided to leave the camera for a while… I could fully enjoy the valley and relax with my wife. Everyday, we kept driving to discover the surroundings, but Diskit was our base as we had some good food there and a nice hotel room. We flew the drone several time, as Iza likes vlogging. You can actually have a look at her vlogs on her Youtube channel if you’d like to see more : HERE
We finally stayed three days… And the last day, the weather turned pretty bad! We’ve experienced a sand storm and a very dark sky… Here you can see the Diskit monastery surrounded by huge mountains during this storm.
It was actually snowing on the top of the mountains, as you can see, so it scared us a little bit. We had indeed to come back to Leh in two days and another very high pass was on our way : Chang La Pass (5300m above the sea level). We were fearing the snow as it would make the trip more difficult and dangerous…
But before that, we had to go to the famous Pangong Lake… So the next day, we hit the road again!
It was a wonderful day! The weather was finally excellent and this road turned out to be one of our favorite in this entire trip !
We finally made it to this wonder after a long and tiring day!
The clear blue sky that we’ve had made the color of the lake so blue! There is one little part where you can walk and have these nice reflections. From the other side, it looked incredible too and the snow-caped mountains also reflected perfectly in the lake…
Later in the afternoon, in search of a place to sleep and when the sun started to go down in the sky… I shot this beautiful picture with this interesting pattern in the water!
This remains also one of my favorite images. It looks like a painting. I love the different colors on the mountains and the reflection in the still parts of the lake…
We finally ended up in a simple hotel and that was it for the day. We needed some rest.
Driving on these roads is more than incredible and we always have splendid rewards at the end of the day, but it’s exhausting! When normally photographers wait for the sunset or wake up early for the sunrise, Iza and I were resting and recovering from this tiring adventure!
CHANG LA PASS
Here will be a little illustration of how tough this kind of trip can be! From Pangong Lake, we had to pass through Chang La (the second highest motorable road in the world – 5300m) to come back to Leh. And this hasn’t been as easy as we expected… At the beginning, everything started well and we were enjoying again the beautiful scenery on our way.
And suddenly, I get a flat tyre at exactly 5000 meters!
This is definitely the kind of thing that you don’t want to have at such altitudes where there is no signal, and nobody living here to help you. We could only count on people who where passing by and taking the same road. So for more than an hour, we stopped every vehicle to ask if they had a pump or something to repair the tyre. We did a big mistake this time to forget to take the necessary tools with us to cope with this kind of situation. In the Spiti Valley, we had all that tools and when we had a flat tyre, we could at least inflate it until we found a mechanic (if you haven’t read the article about our first two-week mototrip in India, I encourage you to have a look at it : The Spiti Valley on Royal Enfield).
But here, for this trip, we made this beginner mistake… So after more than an hour, a car finally had a pump and could inflate the tyre. We had no idea how long I would be able to drive with it, but we had to try at least to reach the top of the pass. What I successfully did, but with my tyre completely down once arrived… What’s more, the pass and the road were totally covered of snow!
We were at 5300 meters above the sea level, and nobody to fix that problem. My tyre was really destroyed… But we couldn’t stay here and we had to move on. Once again, we found someone who could inflate the tyre, so we started descending with the hope to go as low as possible to reach a village where maybe someone would be able to fix that.
Thing that we didn’t manage to do. After ten minutes, my tyre was completely down again. So I drove really slowly until we reached a military camp! They were all trying to understand my problem. Their english was basic. But then, one guy told me “Don’t worry, ALL IS WELL !” (reference to the movie Three Idiots that you’ve got to watch!). We said “Okay”… without knowing how they would be able to help us.
They stopped a truck and asked the driver to load my bike! This way, we could come back to Leh safely and fix that! It was a good idea…
We had to pay him the equivalent of 8 US dollars for this service, which is honestly “nothing” if you consider the troubles we were going through… And it allowed us to be in the truck cabin with a local man who was by the way very nice! He was driving like crazy, of course! With Ladakhi music played really loud in the speakers… But this was really a unique experience!
We were following Iza, and I got shots of her with a perspective that I would have never had normally! I was loving it!
So later, we decided that it would be nice to change roles, so that she could also experience this from the cabin and record this moment for her future vlogs. Here is another nice picture oh her taken from the truck…
And we finally made it to Leh, completely relieved! We got the bike down and called the owner. He was extremely nice since he came to give us another motorbike. This way, we could come back to our hotel while he would try to fix that with a friend. At the end, we’ve had to pay him 10 USD for this service and the tyre…
It’s been a real travel lesson that we’re not ready to forget! But what an experience and a story to tell!
The last place we wanted to visit was the Lamayuru Monastery, which caught my attention when I was younger. I had seen indeed a TV report about it when I was maybe 10 years old… and it really amazed me! Now, we were just 2 hours away from it, so we definitely had to go there! After a nice and easy 2-hour drive with our motorbikes, we arrived at Lamayuru village, and we met this wonderful smiling woman on the road!
We stopped for a second to ask if she knew a nice place to stay for the night. And she kindly proposed us to stay at her place, since she owns a homestay! Her beautiful smile definitely seduced us, so we had no reason to refuse…
The room was simple but with a lot of space, and it had a big window with a view on the monastery… And her rooftop was even more perfect! We liked the flags and the overall atmosphere of this place. It was authentic. Everything we love!
After a little nap, we decided to go for a walk. The life in the village has remained very simple! Like our host, many people were drying their seeds, even by the road. And they all had this common thing, they were all smiling! It felt good to walk around in all these little streets to reach the monastery…
I found the view of the village from higher very interesting! I loved the arrangement of all these old white houses stuck to the rocky mountains! The light was also giving this lovely golden tint…
When we arrived at the monastery, we were glad to see all these little monks playing together, running after a ball. There were many photographic opportunities for me. I especially took advantage of that late afternoon light and I tried to make something with the shadows….
I think I did well with the next one! I really like the expression of the kid and how he stands out in this light. I was already happy with what I shot. But we wanted to discover more. So we walked even higher to try to get an overview of this wonderful place…
This woman looked like a pilgrim, with this dog following her… It seemed that time had stopped here. We were witnessing what Ladakh used to look like in the past!
And here, some monks on a bike were giving a nice scale to the monastery. Can you spot them?
The monastery and the surroundings were actually very quiet. We saw very few people…
So it was a peaceful afternoon, and a perfect place after all to think and meditate about this entire journey!
It was our last days in the region and we’d lived something extraordinary! Traveling on these motorbikes made this trip the adventure of our lives! I guess that you can easily imagine how good it feels to reach all these wonders by yourself, and the sense of freedom and the adrenaline you get when you drive in these huge Himalayan mountains…
It was time to go. On the next day, we had to fly to Delhi.
And as an ultimate reward, we’ve been given seats with a window from which we could enjoy the nature where we traveled to on our beloved Royal Enfield! A moto and a trip that we’re not ready to forget…
I hope you enjoyed the article and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen here to tell as well as possible how we’ve experienced this journey… I try to improve more and more my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings on how I live these adventures. I’d be curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!
I remind you that you can also read, if you haven’t yet, the story of our first two-week mototrip in the Spiti Valley. You will find the article HERE.
If you’re more into videos, I invite you again to watch Izabela’s vlogs on her youtube channel (HERE). She describes well, in live, how we feel in general when we travel like that. We also have many drone footages in these vlogs, so it might interest you to see these places from another perspective!
And finally, you can follow us on our social medias. We both have an instagram account :
IG : @nicolascastermans
IG : @iza_handerek
I have a 500px account where I only showcase my landscape photography : https://500px.com/nicolas-castermans
And a Facebook Page where I tell when I post a new article on this blog. So if you want to be sure not to miss the next ones, feel free to add it as your Fan pages : Baikara.
Thank you for your time and your support! My next article will be from our experience at the Taj Mahal, and the sacred city of Varanasi… Stay tuned!
Beautiful photos!!! Come to Brazil and meet Cananeia !! I have a hostel if you want to come here will be very well received !! visit the instagram of my hostel @a_pousadinha
Thank you Ricardo! For sure I will in the future! Brazil is a country that has always attracted me…
Thank you Nicolas for this wonderful article and the extemely nice pictures. Where are you guys from? European I guess? Not that it really matters, but I also shoot with Fuji, therefore I love the colors in your photos, I plan a trip to Ladakh. Probably in 2021. Only thing is I do not know to drive motorcycles. Must look for another way to move beside the public busses. Something where I can – as you did – stop at every beautiful inviting sight.
Thank you so much Bernie for taking the time to read the article, and for your really nice comment! My wife is from Poland and I am from France. If you have a decent budget, then having a private driver is not too expensive in India. We met many couple or groups of friends traveling like that. It allows you to stop whenever and wherever you want! If you need some recommendations, tips… for your future trip, feel free to ask! 🙂
Read this after ur spiti one.U r gifted.
An interesting fact about Pangong n Tso Moreri.
Till recently it was believed they had no life n fishes in it given the high salt content.
But wonder of wonder…the central fisheries research institute of the Indian Govt has recently discovered fish in them.
Life has a funny way of being present at unimaginable places.
Hello Ajay. First of all, thank you very much for your comment and nice words! It’s much appreciated 🙂
And very interesting to know that life can indeed exist in such unexpected places. Thanks again !
I thoroughly enjoyed your story. The photos are the visual complement of the article. Two years back I was there in Ladakh on the bike trip and so reading this is like reliving that adventure. ?
Thank you so much Saifur! I’m really glad you took the time to read the article and that it made you relive the adventure!
There are some great photographs in that lot. I am too old now to travel that way, but some of the shots were terrific.
Hello Martin! Thank you very much for you comment!! I hope you can at least travel with me with with photos and the text 🙂
My question is non-photography related but more travel related, as this looks like a potential trip that I would love to do!
I’m just wondering about renting the Enfields, how much did they cost? Do you need a licence to rent them? What was the loop you did, and how many days was it, etc etc?
Hello Kyle! In Ladakh, we traveled around 10 days with the Royal Enfield. But we also travel 2 weeks in the Spiti Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh (if you haven’t seen my previous article about it, you should definitely have a look as it may interest you to go there too). So in total we traveled more than three weeks with this motorbike. Renting is quite cheap… In Manali, you can easily find for 1200 rupees per day (which is around 17USD) but as we rented them for two weeks, we’ve been able to bargain the price and get these bikes for 800USD per day, so like 11USD…
As for the license, you just need a car license. They don’t pay attention if you have a proper moto license. I personally don’t have this moto license and it’s never been a problem.
So we did a loop from Manali to Manali in 14 days, going through Kaza, Tabo, Nako, Reckong Peo, Kullu… Then we took a private transport to reach Leh city in Ladakh. From Leh, we went to the Khardung La Pass, the Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, Tso Kara and finally to Lamayuru.
Hope this can help you Kyle and feel free to ask if you need more tips 🙂 Cheers!
Beautiful pics and penned down so well
It felt I re-visited the place again after 2 yrs
Hello Masuma! Thank you very much for your comment and your kind words! Much appreciated 🙂