Close to Home on the World’s Highest Road

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The road beckoned. This time, on a backpacking expedition in search of an inner Shangri-La during the summer of 2011, my mission was to hitch-hike and trek the highest navigable motorway on earth. A watershed of geographical and cultural diversity, straddling Himanchal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir in northern India, the Manali-Leh route is 485 kilometres of daring mountain passes – open for only four months a year – cutting through pristine alpine and moonscape topography.

Nestled on the upper reaches of the Kullu and Parvati valleys, my journey began in Manali. Here, according to legend, Manu, the Hindu equivalent of Noah, set fire to his boat to recreate human life after floods destroyed the world. It is also the gateway to Ladakh, affectionately known as ‘Little Tibet’; homeland to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist cultures on the planet, established over a millennium ago by medieval pilgrims and kings.

Manali to Leh 3

‘’You’re pretty brave to be doing this! Should’ve just taken a bus!’’ A jovial German engineer jested as he hauled us up the Rohtang La, at 3978m, the first major pass enroute to Leh. ‘’What’s life without a little adventure?!’’ I quipped, as the seasoned Mitsubishi rover sloshed through an icy glacial stream. Grateful for a head start I pitched camp alongside a giant boulder and was soon huddled beside a roaring fire, clasping my steaming thermos and gazing spellbound into the starry night sky.

Yearning to veer of the gringo trail, here I was…at the mercy of the moment, the wind at my back and in the presence of majestic Himalayan peaks, colossal custodians of a timeless realm.

Several unforgettable days followed. I was welcomed by wide-eyed, maroon and gold clad monks to stay in cliff-perched monasteries, gompas, where I attended morning puja ceremonies filled with bellowing recitals of Buddhist sutras by lamas in baritone.

The warmth of the Ladakhi people was something to behold, epitomizing lovingkindness and peace. Along the journey I caught rides in military trucks, tractors, fruit pickups and private jeeps, on passage north toward the snowy Silk Road frontier lands at the extreme edge of China and the Indian subcontinent.

Manali to Leh 2

Having averaged an altitude of 4000 metres above sea level, at the climax of my epic I climbed to the highest elevation on this extraordinary path, Tanglang La pass at 5,328m, where I met fellow intrepid travellers, ecstatic to be in such a magical place.

In a tented dhaba we sipped yak butter tea and reminisced over stories about shoestring adventures in far-flung corners of the globe as the horizon melted from mauve to midnight blue.

At last in Leh, at the Shanti Stupa, I sat awestruck at murals and statues of Maitreya, the future Buddha, and Avalokitesvara, the thousand-armed god of compassion, and reflected on the stunning trip I had taken.

Thousands of miles from home, high on the Tibetan plateau, I realized that home is not where you live, or even where you are born, but is the quintessence of your true self.

Manali to Leh

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THE SUN BEHIND THE CLOUDS – A Photographic Journey Through North India

 

Boddhisatva mural at Amchi, the oldest monastery in Ladakh | Ladakh
ANCIENT ARTWORK | Boddhisatva mural at Amchi, the oldest monastery in Ladakh | Ladakh
Grain fields in Tar village | Ladakh
WHISTLING WHEAT | Grain fields in Tar village | Ladakh
An afternoon laugh with Dorje, a warm-hearted farmer in Tar | Ladakh
VILLAGE SMILES | An afternoon laugh with Dorje, a warm-hearted farmer in Tar | Ladakh
Prayer flags stretch across a the top of a pass in the Ladakhi Himal | Jammu & Kashmir
MANI MOUNTAINS | Prayer flags stretch across a the top of a pass in the Ladakhi Himal | Jammu & Kashmir
Abandoned stone hut on a Himalayan trail | Ladakh
DOORS OF PERCEPTION | Abandoned stone hut on a Himalayan trail | Ladakh
On an morning stroll through the hillsides in Tar | Ladakh
EYE FOR ADVENTURE | On an morning stroll through the hillsides in Tar | Ladakh
Effulgent Boddhisatva in a monastic cave outside of Amchi | Ladakh
THE CENTER OF THINGS | Effulgent Boddhisatva in a monastic cave outside of Amchi | Ladakh
The ethnic and linguistic melting pot Leh, the end-of-the-world feel capital of Ladakh | Jammu & Kashmir
CULTURAL CROSSROADS | The ethnic and linguistic melting pot Leh, the end-of-the-world feel capital of Ladakh | Jammu & Kashmir
Villagers corralling livestock to a river in Ursi | Ladakh
MAN AND MAMMAL | Villagers corralling livestock to a river in Ursi | Ladakh
ALTERNATE DIMENSION |Otherworldly alpine scape on the trail | Ladakh
ALTERNATE DIMENSION | Otherworldly alpine scape on the trail | Ladakh
ODE TO ENLIGHTENMENT | A millennia old painting of a Buddha playing a lute | Ladakh
ODE TO ENLIGHTENMENT | A millennia old painting of a Buddha playing a lute | Ladakh
LENS OF ADVENTURE | Break time during an epic trek through the Himalayas on a cloudy day | Ladakh
LENS OF ADVENTURE | Break time during an epic trek through the Himalayas on a cloudy day | Ladakh
DEMONS AND DEITIES | Supernatural entities battling over good and evil at Amchi Monastery | Ladakh
DEMONS & DEITIES | Supernatural entities battling over good and evil at Amchi Monastery | Ladakh
POPLARS & PEAKS | Trees used to build houses stand proud in front of lofty Himalayan summits in Leh | Ladakh
POPLARS & PEAKS | Trees used to build houses stand proud in front of lofty Himalayan summits in Leh | Ladakh
A THOUSAND LOTUSES | A Buddha of boundless compassion in a cave outside of Saspol | Ladakh
A THOUSAND LOTUSES | A Buddha of boundless compassion in a cave outside of Saspol | Ladakh
SOLAR TRAIL | A spacey solar panel is dwarfed by the foothills of the Himalayas outside Leh | Jammu & Kashmir
SOLAR TRAIL | A spacey solar panel is dwarfed by the foothills of the Himalayas outside Leh | Jammu & Kashmir
CARAVAN OF DREAMS | Storage house crafted out of an old Volkswagen outside of Leh | Ladakh
CARAVAN OF DREAMS | Storage house crafted out of an old Volkswagen outside of Leh | Ladakh
REFRACTED HORIZON | Having some fun with new settings during a clear twilight | Ladakh
REFRACTED HORIZON | Having some fun with new settings during a clear twilight | Ladakh
STATUE SILHOUETTE | Giant effigy of Guru Padmasambava, who transported Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century A.D. | Tso Pema
STATUE SILHOUETTE | Giant effigy of Guru Padmasambava, who transported Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century A.D. | Tso Pema
POLLEN PANE | Stunning sunflowers in full bloom in the middle of summer in the Himalayas | Leh
POLLEN PANE | Stunning sunflowers in full bloom in the middle of summer in the Himalayas | Leh
PORTALS INTO THE PAST | Dome shaped palace openings in Lodi Gardens | New Delhi
PORTALS INTO THE PAST | Dome shaped palace openings in Lodi Gardens | New Delhi
MYSTIC MONTAGE |Amazing artwork by medieval Kashmiri and Ladakhi sages outside Saspol | Ladakh
MYSTIC MONTAGE |Amazing artwork by medieval Kashmiri and Ladakhi sages outside Saspol | Ladakh
MOGHUL MAJESTIC | 16th century Moghul palace in Lodi Gardens | New Delhi
MOGHUL MAJESTIC | 16th century Moghul palace in Lodi Gardens | New Delhi
TOO GOOD | Elated to be in the mountains surrounded by surreal landscapes
TOO GOOD | Elated to be in the mountains surrounded by surreal landscapes on a trek | Ladakh
CATHEDRAL OF HEAVEN | Prayer flags wrap around a pole in a dramatic Himalayan backdrop | Ladakh
CATHEDRAL OF HEAVEN | Prayer flags wrap around a pole in a dramatic Himalayan backdrop | Ladakh
SUPERNATURAL | An unfathomable being emerging between flowing prayer flags | Ladakh
SUPERNATURAL | An unfathomable being emerging between flowing prayer flags | Ladakh
SIMPLE STYLING | Adorable kids happy to pose for a shot in Hemis | Ladakh
SIMPLE STYLING | Adorable kids happy to pose for a shot in Hemis | Ladakh
VALLEY OF A THOUSAND VOICES | Picturesque Ladakhi valley nurturing apricot orchards and field of wheat | Jammu & Kashmir
VALLEY OF A THOUSAND VOICES | Picturesque Ladakhi valley nurturing apricot orchards and field of wheat | Jammu & Kashmir