The mystical place of Ladakh is located the far flung corner of India where Tibet, Kashmir, Pakistan and India meet. This barren alpine desert in the Himalayas, also known as the Land of Light, the Land of High Passes, or The Roof of The World, is a land of sweeping extremes. Centuries of harsh climates and volatile neighbouring relations have cultivated a unique culture amongst the Ladakh who endeavour to live in intimate harmony with their land. In his series “Moonland”, Belgian photographer Yuri Andries observes the relationship between its people and their unique world.
When you’re there in real life, and you have all your senses with you, you really can’t help but be dazzled by this place.
“When you think of India, you think of bright colours, dense population, pollution, noise, chaos. But Ladakh is the opposite of those things,” says Andries. Once impenetrable, the region of Ladakh was only accessible to the outer world in the 1970’s. Before then, there were no official transport links out of the region. In a place bristling with conflict, the people of Ladakh navigate a tranquil existence rooted in a unique hybrid of spirituality that draws upon influences from Tibet, Kashmir and Central Asia. “I spoke to many people and the most I got was “It’s just one God. He thinks it’s Allah, and he thinks it’s Buddha, but it’s just the same.””says Andries.
LIFE ON THE MOON
Nomadic Shepherd taking a rest. Altitude approx. 4000m above sea level.
Shadowed by the Indian Himalayas and undulating yearly climates, life in Ladakh is an eternal dance between its people and their environment. Isolated for centuries by the volatile politics and inhospitable climate of the region, the Ladakh people have eked out an intimate existence with the land, relying closely on its harvest and animals for their livelihood. With temperatures that sore from 35 degrees in the summer to – 35 degrees in the winter, the Ladakh people have pioneered inventive methods of harnessing renewable energy. Winter snows are redirected to freeze in geysers that melt slowly watering the summer crops, the land’s high altitude is utilised to provide efficient, solar-powered fuel, whilst farm-stays allow eco-tourism to thrive as tourists till the land in exchange for accommodation and experience.
THE LOST LAND
You can drive for hours without seeing a soul.
Photographer Andries rented a motorbike and set off to traverse the lunar- like terrain, exploring the villages that dot the length of the province, connected by rocky, potholed roads without any connection to the modern world. “It was always a mix between being worried about my tyres, or fuel,” he recounts, “but on the other hand you’re just surrounded by nature and it’s a part of yourself as well. It feels really liberating. If you stop the bike you hear nothing. Then suddenly there’s a golden eagle circling above your head and it’s just you and the eagle. It’s magic.”
White Horse in Valley near Chumanthang
The journey through the region of Ladakh extended the length of 232 kilometers. Cresting the peaks of sharp rock formations and vertical passes that soared 6700 metres above sea level, the photographer weaved between terrains of inhospitable, rocky outfaces, and billowing green patches of oasis where camels lounged. Travelling through a land untouched by many, the photographer observed “everyone just stopped working the land, and looked at this strange person coming into their village”. Nevertheless, in the wide expanse of the region, the welcoming embrace of home was never far. Many villagers invited the traveller into their home, providing respite from his travels by extending a local meal of dumplings or seat to rest. “It’s special,” he recounts, when you don’t speak the language. You have to exchange a sense of trust just being in each others company.”
with Yuri Andries
TBE: How did you hear about the Ladakh area and what drew you to it?
I believe I was roaming on TED talks and I found this talk about an eco-village or school that ran on 100% sustainable energy. So I looked on Google Earth to see how this region looked on the map, and I saw it was isolated by the Indian Himalayas. So I started to read about this place more. When you think about India you think of bright colours, dense populations, pollution, cows, chaos. But Ladakh is actually the opposite of most of those things. And I read about this Druk Lotus School, where the children meditate and this just struck to my imagination. Then I read about how it is a desert climate and it can get to -35 degrees in winter, and becomes like 35 degrees in the summer, so very big contrasts. So I just wanted to see how these people lived. It started as a fascination for India but then I saw this region which is kind of the opposite of everything I thought about India, so I wanted to see that.
Could you describe the people that inhabit this area?
They are very welcoming. It happened a lot when I drove on my motorbike through a village. They invited me for chai or momos, which is actually the name for dumplings in Ladakhi. And yes, they always want to invite you. Especially the Buddhist people. And the place, it’s very vast. It’s difficult to travel, like driving your bike for 60km on the sharp rocks can be a challenging thing. Especially when you don’t have a phone connection. I had a little bit of connection, but the card was not working properly. So if I wanted to call my family or my girlfriend, I had to go to an internet phone thing, and most of the time there it didn’t work too. So only if you’re lucky. So it was nice to have this, how you say, digital detox.
How has the way of life changed in the past few years?
Most of the time they were self-sufficient, but that has become a problem now because of climate change. The glaciers on the mountains are melting, so that’s a big problem because they use this for irrigation. Because of that, young people are needing to leave to the bigger cities for more job opportunities. In the capital you will find lots of coffee houses, tourist shops and many tour operators so that becomes kind of a problem. But it has made this interesting concept which are called Farm-stays. This is for the traveller who wants to experience the real Ladakh. As a traveller you can just go to a farm and work with the Ladakhis on the farm. In exchange you get food and you get to see the real Ladakh, and learn how to cook real Ladakhi food. So the tourist industry is really growing.
Since the Bollywood film ‘Three Idiot’ came out, it’s really changed very fast. Now every Indian wants to see Ladakh. But they only want to see things that were in the movie. That includes Druk White Lotus School, that has became a tourist thing too. So instead I went to Tso Kar, which is next to the highest village in India. I think most of my pictures, like the landscape pictures, the nature pictures came from that trip.
Why did you decide to call the series Moon Land?
Well it’s one of the many nicknames for Ladakh. Giving nicknames to a region triggers your imagination, and I just wanted to keep it simple.