Zanskar, Indian Himalayas
Every now and then, as a photographer I shoot a story that really touches me deeply. You can never tell which one it’s going to be and often you only realize it when you are looking back through your pictures in hindsight. Sitting here in the warmth of my hotel room, I have to admit that the last week I have spent in Zanskar has been one such assignment, one that I will carry with me for ever.
Zanskar’s mountainous landscape is an unforgiving place in winter. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40 at night and avalanches are a frequent occurrence. Add to this the fact that the only road in and out of the area is completely impassable for 6 months of the year and the result is a community of Zanskaris whose hardiness and resilience cannot fail to make an impression on you. It never ceases to amaze me how people who live in such harsh conditions can be so friendly and accommodating. One could hazard a guess that over the years their overly active survival genes would tend to make them selfish people but the reality is the complete opposite. In Zanskar the communities are strong and warm. A knock on a stranger’s door will always result in food and a bed for the night, such is the way of their mountain culture.
In recent years, Zanskar has become somewhat a mecca for trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Those that venture here in winter do so with certain preconceptions, the main one being that it can be a very dangerous place that is not to be taken lightly. Like our team, with them foreign visitors tend to bring state of the art survival gear, cooks, porters, tents… sometimes a whole battalion of helpers designed to make their experience as comfortable as can be. What most of them discover when they arrive and start walking is that they share these pathways with local Ladakhis who are just living their day-to-day lives as they have done for hundreds of years.
Our story here has centred around a group of children who are making their journey to boarding school in Leh. For the winter term, with no vehicle access to their homes there is only one route available to them and that is down the Zanskar river. With the consistently sub-zero temperatures, at this time of the year the waterway forms a frosty road that the locals call chadar meaning ‘veil’ by reference to its icy covering.
Walking the chadar can be a treacherous task that has already claimed the life of one foreigner so far this year. The ice covering is unpredictable and can change its consistency over night as our team discovered when heavy snow fall caused a series of avalanches that resulted in a temporary dam in the river which, when it finally broke, sent a torrent of water down the valleys, flooding the ice and leaving them stranded at high altitude for 7 days.
For the local Zanskari girls and boys, the walk to school takes several days with nights spent in caves . Accompanied by one or other of their parents, many are expected to carry their own possessions, often on home-made sledges that double up as backpacks when the ice gets too uneven to pull on. On such an arduous journey one might expect to hear regular cries of protest but not once did I hear anything of the sort. Led by the most experienced adult the children were always upbeat and resolute, sharing the burden of their bags, the older ones holding the hands of the younger.
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When we face hardship it is never more apparent than in the eyes of children. The Zanskari children I have spent the last week with have been a most amazing inspiration to me. The smiles and laughter. The instinctive sharing of any food they have. A concerned eye as you veer towards thinning ice. These kids are absolutely incredible and there’s no doubt that they inherit their wonderful temperament from their parents. I don’t have children yet myself, but when I do, if they blossom into anything near to the kind of human beings I have met here in Zanskar then I will die a happy and content man.
Yesterday we finally arrived in Leh after a 2 hour drive from the end of the ice, the jeep packed full of children laughing and singing folks songs at the tops of their voices. I’ll leave you with a snap that I stole of a sign hanging above the headmaster’s desk in his office at school this morning. For me it says it all.
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Interested in more stories from Ladakh? Try HERE TASEARCHLADAKH
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I have been here in Ladakh for 3 days already but today was the first day I’ve actually managed to get out and do a bit of sight-seeing. This has been due to the inevitable bout of altitude sickness that has inflicted me these past few days like many people who travel here directly by aeroplane from Delhi, some ten and a half thousand feet beneath us. In fact, the last time I came here, shortly after I arrived I was ill in bed for almost two weeks, so I’m actually quite pleased with my recovery this time round.
I’m here to hook up with our Rivers team who have been traveling with a Ladakhi family across the mountains in Zanskar, to the south of the provincial capital Leh where I am staying at the moment. Unfortunately, they have been somewhat held up by bad weather and consequently our rendezvous has been set back by 5 days meaning that I will be waiting here in Leh for another few days before I set off to trek to the meeting point.
I’ve never been to Ladakh in the winter time before, an experiential short falling that I evidently share with much of the travelling community as I can report back that there is hardly a foreign soul to be seen anywhere around here right now. There are reasons for this of course. Ladakh’s summer tourist season is a short 3 to 4 month affair, due in the most part to the fact that the only two roads into the area, via Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, remain closed and impassable for much of the year. In winter the only way in is by plane so the number of foreign visitors declines drastically, especially of Ladakh’s backpacking community who prefer the cheaper routes in by road. Couple that with the fact that it’s very cold and that most of Leh’s guesthouses and cafes are closed and you are left with a travellers’ consensus opinion that this part of the Himalayas does not make a particularly enticing tourist destination at this time of the year.
Well, I have something to admit to you. Having now been out and about a little, I must say that this is most definitely a great time of the year to visit Ladakh, and that coming off-season will probably give you the most rewarding experience you could ever have up here. OK, it’s going to be a little harder than in the summer. If you turn up unannounced, you’ll probably have to knock on a few doors before you find a cheap guesthouse that will take you in, and don’t bargain for the smell of freshly baked croissants wafting past your window from Leh’s German bakery first thing every morning. However, what you can expect are beautiful snow dusted landscapes, quiet monasteries and beaming locals who appear genuinely pleased to see you braving the winter temperatures.
Being stuck in Leh is no bad thing for me, even if my favourite coffee shop is closed. Last time I came here I spent 2 months riding a motorcycle through this amazing landscape which is something I would heartily recommend to anyone who really wants to have a good look around this astonishing corner of India. Back then, I bought an old Royal Enfield Bullet from an American couple in Leh for about 400 dollars and promptly sold it at the end of my trip to a Swiss couple for exactly the same amount of money. During my 2 month adventure I managed to take a peek at most of Ladakh’s quieter corners including a myriad of local festivals, isolated glacial lakes and even a rare chance to see the Dalai Lama give teachings in the remote Nubra Valley, accessible only by negotiating a somewhat light headed drive over the infamous Khardung La pass, currently the highest motorable ‘road’ in the world at 18 380 ft.
Prior to that trip, I had never ridden a motorcycle before, so don’t think that you need to be an experienced rider to travel the Himalayas on a motorbike. Yes, the first few days in the saddle were scary, but then again it wouldn’t be such a rewarding challenge without a little fear to propel you along. In fact, I would say that of all the places to start riding a motorcycle in India, Ladakh is probably the safest due to the limited volume of traffic on the roads compared to the rest of the country. The main things to watch out for are sand and potholes in the road plus the occasional unbarriered extreme drop off you find flanking a few of the roads, all three problems being easily solved by just driving slowly. It’s important to plan your trips well too, measuring precise distances on maps before you set off since there are only a few petrol stations in Ladakh. You will need to carry extra fuel with you on your panniers, especially if you plan to explore Zanskar, which had no functioning refuelling station when I was there 3 years ago.
Many people who visit Ladakh by bike travel here from Delhi along the notorious Manali road which has become somewhat of a rite of passage for motorcyclists throughout India. It’s a tough two or three-day journey including no fewer than four over 16 000 ft passes, countless water crossings, glaciers and some stomach turning sections of high altitude sandy desert.
There is no way to describe in words the feelings you experience cruising down a deserted mountain road alone in the saddle flanked by some of the world’s tallest snow-capped peaks, wind in your hair, a huge smile plastered from ear to ear. For me, riding a motorbike rates as one of the best ways to move through a landscape briskly whilst remaining connected with it and as a photographer it is such a brilliant way to explore a remote environment like Ladakh, giving you the freedom to stop at will and check out every little unmapped road to nowhere you might discover. One day I pursued such a road that went on for absolutely ages. Determined to find out where it went, after nearly three hours I was about to turn back when the faint cry of a young lady on a distant ridge caught my attention and lead me to the end of the track, and her fantastically hospitable family farming cashmere goats at a sensational spot in the middle of nowhere.
I ended up staying there for 2 days, working with the family by day, and sleeping with them on the roof of their house under the stars by night. It was a truly memorable experience, the likes of which I would never have been gifted were it not for my trusted Enfield.
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This morning, I found myself sitting around in the hotel twiddling my fingers so I had a little root around in my laptop and to my surprise I found an old iView MediaPro catalogue file from that last trip to Ladakh. So, as an ode to my previous summer bike tour around these parts, here are a few pictures from that journey.
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Interested in more stories from Ladakh? Try HERE TASEARCHLADAKH
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Papua New Guinea
I’m back in the sweaty forests of Papua New Guinea again, although this time I’m with the Mountains team. It’s true. Strictly speaking we are actually in the jungle, but as it goes, we’re also in the mountains, so for once it looks like rock beats paper on this occasion.
The realization of this particular story began life back in 2007 when Jane Atkins, our researcher for the desert/grasslands programme happened to be flying over this area in a MAF plane on her way back from a shoot for BBC’s South Pacific in the Sepik river basin. What eagle-eyed Janie spied in the jungle from her window seat prompted an inquisitive investigation that has, 2 years later, led us to happen upon the very same spot.
Now, as far as I can tell, this story has never been documented on film before, so in the interest of suspense and intrigue I’m not going to reveal the details here. However, I will show you a picture of what Jane, and subsequently our team saw from the air, and maybe you can work it out for yourself…
All around this sparsely inhabited region of dense jungle, the ridges are dotted with unusual gaps in the tree line. Needless to say, there are always people living close by and I am happy to say that they are very lovely people to work with, albeit a little superstitious in their cultural ways. Indeed, this part of PNG is famous for its history of cargo cults, a practice that as far as I can see is all but extinct here.
As those anthropologically inclined of you will no doubt know, Cargo cults were the response of many remote tribal communities in the Pacific region to the sudden appearance in the 20th century of technologically superior cultures into their communities. The cults focused mainly on magical rituals designed to imbue the tribes with the material wealth they saw belonging to the foreign visitors, believing that it was intended as gifts for them by their own particular deities and gods. Although the cults have vanished, the deities still very much persist. In fact, they appear to be having a bit of a get-together at our camp as it turns out. At least that’s what the hushed tones of a few of the shadier locals would have us believe. Only 10 dollars to keep the gods happy I can report back.
We haven’t paid yet.
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Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea? Try HERE
Photographer Kieran Doherty in Dubai
While waiting for the sun to set on a snowy Stonehenge, I received a phone call from Tim, ’Do you fancy an eight day trip to Dubai to shoot a story on an urban falconer?’ When someone asks you that question as you are sitting in minus 10 degrees cold, there is really only one answer. So two days later I arrived in Dubai to meet Human Planetʼs Urban team, consisting of Mark Flowers, producer/director, Mark MacEwen, cameraman, the invaluable Andrea Jones, production co-ordinator and Julia Wheeler, the BBCʼs middle east correspondent.
Hereʼs an interesting fact. One third of all the worldʼs construction cranes are currently in Dubai. I imagine itʼs every architectʼs dream to design a building for Dubai. They come in all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you look you can see office blocks, skyscrapers, apartments with penthouses that have swimming pools on the 47th floor. Hotels have motorised gondolas to ferry you from one part of the complex to another. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Verons and Bentleys sit parked outside hotel lobbies. I felt a bit like Jim Carreyʼs character in the Truman Show. Is all this real? Maybe this is the Dubai experience everyone was telling me about? Stepping inside the 7 star Burj LʼArab hotel was just that… Fountains filled with glycerine so that the water doesnʼt separate when it arcs everywhere. Forty seven sushi chefs in the Japanese restaurant alone… Well believe it or not, even with all this wealth, technology and state of the art know how, Dubai still suffers from pigeon infestation and there is only one way to clear them out properly.
This story centred around falconer David Stead, and the schedule of sequences required by the team were too numerous to mention, suffice to say that David probably experienced what it feels like to be George Clooney. Every format of camera angle was afforded him, from helicopter cineflex to steadicam, crane, car mount and tripod… I just had to shoot the stills.
And so for the next six days we rose with the light and shot David flying his beautiful falcons against the impressive skyscraper backdrop that is Dubai. Falcons are the fastest birds of prey in the world, so filming and shooting them mid flight was fraught with difficulties. Trying to keep focus with a hand held 400mm lens on a bird that drops out of the sky at over 100 mph is pretty full on. And I had it easy compared to cameraman Mark, who was having to operate his camera on a tripod. These birds are like thoroughbred horses and can tire very quickly while being directed for the film crew. If we averaged about 4 minutes air time per bird, a day’s shooting could be over in just a quarter of an hour. Each falcon had a personality that kept us all entertained.
David is the most extraordinary of falconers, a man who cares passionately about his birds and their welfare. His ability to control them while they are flying has to be seen to be believed. On our final afternoon of filming, we witnessed Nimr disappearing for almost two and a half hours while she devoured a pigeon squab, only for her to return to David in almost complete darkness, something that had never been done before. This in itself was a very special moment as eye contact and visibility is paramount between falcon and handler.
We were also lucky enough to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man made structure (at almost 3000 ft ) in the world. So if you are squeamish about heights…..look away now.
The last time I worked with a camera crew was in Baghdad while covering the immediate fallout from the Iraq war. This assignment was totally different in every sense but both camera crews strived for the same goal… To tell the story. The rushes looked amazing and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Urban team for allowing me to poke my lens in, around and under them all as they were filming, and of course to David and his sporting cast of falcons.