Bakarwal nomads by the tent in Ladakh Kashmir © Hamish Scott-Brown

Photographic Journeys Himalayan drive – Leh to Srinagar

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“First you are a Traveler, then a Photographer``

Laksman Iyer
Founder & Director of Sentient
(Institute for Professional Photography in Chennai, India)

Equipment: Nikon D3S, 50mm 1.4 , 28mm 1.8
Location: Dras, Leh-Srinagar Highway, Ladakh. India
Photographic Journey: Photographic Journey to Ladakh & Kashmir

Ladakh is a challenging enough landscape, even before you tackle the amazing Leh-Srinagar highway snaking it’s way west out of Leh and south into Kashmir.

 

If your travel photography holiday compels you to visit, experience and become involved in some of the starkest, bleak, rocky and jaw-dropping landscapes, then try this exhilarating and spectacular 3 day drive.

 

Winding through mountains, landscapes of Bakarwal nomads, sheer drops and meeting some of India’s 10’s of thousands of truck drivers that make this route weekly and monthly and keep Ladakh’s trading lifeline open.

straight road in Himalayan Ladakh ©Hamish Scott-Brown

Take to the road, prepare your cameras and enjoy the next 3 days driving –

I knew it would be an adventure!

Vinayak, my travel business colleague had told me this would be a jaw dropping adventure roadtrip, but now that I was about to embark on it, it was becoming all I could think about. Safety, excitement and the photography opportunities ahead on such an iconic yet remote place. The night before in Leh I stocked up on some emergency snacks and charged the hefty Nikon battery packs.

These old batteries weren’t great in the cold !

The camera kit I had for this particular trip was older, but reliable and I’ve always sung the praises of the bomb proof Nikon D3s rig.

Solid, heavy, not the fastest AF around nowadays but sometimes you just have to gravitate to a camera body that you know feels good in your hand and that will keep on clicking despite it’s 200k clicks.

A few lenses,

  • the 28mm f1.8,
  • the 50mm f1.4,
  • an older 24mm f2.8 I had
  • and the trusty Nikon 85mm.

 

Our driver Stanzin,  was naturally a local Ladakhi and he’d earned his ‘stripes’ and was well known for being safe, punctual, and quiet.  He also drove a Mahindara – That’s important out in India and when you just want to know you’re heading on the right road in a mountain range like the foothills of the Himalayas.

Driver in mirror on Himalayan road ©Hamish Scott-Brown
Pay out for the very best driver you can afford.

I planned a journey in the 4×4 on the Leh-Srinagar Highway to Drass and to take our chance for photographic opportunities on the way.

This mountain highway, like the Karakoram highway (KKH) is one of the highest motorable roads in the world and closed off each year between Nov and March due to high snow and rockfalls, road collapses and freezing conditions.

In fact Dras is widely known as the coldest inhabited place in the world next to Siberia.

 

The mountains loomed above us as we climbed first to 12000 feet and then on to 20000.

Huge broad and deep valleys opened on left and right as we snaked upwards. The diesel strained, groaned and thumped its way past hundreds of lorries crawling their way rom Kashmir to Ladakh and on to Pakistan.

Every so often we joined a clot of vehicles inching past a recent rock fall, or around the narrow bends, missing the returning traffic by only centimetres.

a line of trucks on a mountain road in kashmir © Hamish Scott-Brown
Reputed to be one of the most dangerous passes in the Himalayas, Zoji La (3500m)
Leh-Srinagar Highway and the infamous Zoji La Pass
Expect to drive on and experience some of the most dramatic landscapes imaginable.

In need of some respite from the noisy droning, vibration, churning and violent heaving of road travel we stopped at a safe viewpoint and layby, taking in some warm coffee from our thermos.

Nearby we saw the tents of a family of Bakarwal nomads. The Bakarwals move with their animals finding the best pasture for the season, moving upwards as the snow retreats to the lush meadows and returning to the lower slopes in winter. The men were away on the higher pastures tending the goats, sheep and packhorses.

A Bakarwal nomad mother and young feeding baby in a tent near Dras Ladakh © Hamish Scott-Brown

The woman was busy preparing food and making the tent comfortable rearranging rugs and skins, sweeping out the dust. Children played noisily around the encampment venturing not far up the steep slopes. Inside the tent, a young mother was breast-feeding a small child no more than days old.

Granny watched the children play with a goat occasionally showing concern and yelling a harsh warning for rough play.

a Bakarwal boy with his mother in Ladakh ©Hamish Scott-Brown
Granny watched the children play outside of the makeshift tents and took great care that there was always a distance between us and them.

We struggled to make ourselves understood in our few words of their language. Despite this they welcomed us to their tent home by gestures and shared a cup of hot sweet tea.

I was able to take some stunning portraits of the children and women, capturing their simple life and few possessions.

Choosing monochrome in the post process enabled me to emphasize this simplicity and to focus on the faces that tell a thousand stories of different cultures brushing against each other that morning.

Technical –

Shot entirely on an older Nikon D3s rig I have and despite it’s 12MP restrictions, there’s a lovely personal connection I have with this particular old tank of a camera body.

The images are consistently sharp, clear and contrasty enough on the jpgs it writes to the clumsy old CF cards, that I’m still doing very few RAW conversions on this camera. Qquite often I use the same technique as I’ve adopted now on the newer lighter Fuji X series that I also use. Lighter, smaller and compact yes… but I’m still to be convinced of their overall brute resistance to dropping on a hard(ish) surface.

The Nikon has proved itself worthy of that carelessness as a pro-user.

 

If its B&W, then I’ll shoot it B&W as a jpg. Then with a little careful correction and grading in Lightroom to the highlights and shadows (with some presets I have purely for B&W)  on B&W jpgs out of camera  what you see is what you’ll get.

Batteries always suffer on trips like this and the cold utterly kills them if you’re not careful so keep them warm as you can at all times.

Engage (if you can) as best you can with your subjects – this was difficult on this drive as Stanzin (the driver) , was the only Ladakhi speaker and remained in the car at all times and I was left to do the signing and talking  up on the high ridge where the tents were pitched

Rickshaw on Leh-Srinagar highway Ladakh ©Hamish Scott-Brown
Some miles on as we headed for Kargil before sundown.  I met met a man traversing India through the foothills with a rickshaw ! As you do  !

Travel

I’m becoming a lover of Emirates amazingly good value (twice daily) Economy Class flights from my home airport base of Birmingham to Dubai.

 

From here it’s now possible to fly almost anywhere if you are heading East and Delhi is a short(ish) hop (3hrs or so) and then the daily dawn flights to Leh with Vistara and GoAir are plentiful and cheap.

 

Not all manage the landing first time due to the weather and crosswinds at 3,500m.   Hence why they leave at dawn before the air currents at Leh’s military airport close off the runway for the day

 

If you are interested in taking this road trip and seeing what the elements can throw at you.  Maybe you already know you would like to challenge yourself a little more, develop your skills in photography and have a small group tour where it’s hands-on learning with me but want a little more advice and help in planning your Photographic Journey?

Great !  Just click below and talk to us about Ladakh and The Leh-Srinagar Highway

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Hamish Scott-Brown

Professional Photographer / Co-founder & workshop leader