The Tibetan-like land of Ladakh makes a last stand against the rush of globalization, leaving it as the do-or-die destination for photographers seeking an unblemished Buddhist culture in a Himalayan-scale landscape.
Text And Photography By Ryan Stevenson
The Western world, clothed in the coarse wool and hemp garments of the Middle Ages, was instantly seduced by the mystical fabric of the East, as though the gossamer threads were spun from the golden hair of angels. And so it followed that numerous caravan trails were pioneered to traverse the vast deserts and mighty mountains of central Asia. Collectively, the many disparate routes came to be known as the Silk Road. This trade in oriental luxury lent its name to the larger exchange of necessities that not only moved east and west, but north and south. Salt from the evaporated lakes of Tibet was exchanged for the grains grown on Himalayan terraces. In an adjunct to the silk trade, caravans brought delicate pashm (cashmere) wool produced in the high and harsh climates to the weavers of Kashmir.
Where the widely dispersed trading routes were confronted by the walls of rock and ice that made up the world's most formidable mountain ranges—Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Karakorams and Himalayas—they converged to funnel through the passes that became prominent in the legendary movements of traders, armies and adventurers. On both ends of the routes, cities of middlemen formed where caravans outfitted for and recouped from their extreme journeys.
Ultimately, the names of these settlements became ensconced in the lore of far-off places: Jalalabad and Lahore bookending the Khyber Pass; Kashgar (Kashi) at the termination of the northern Mongolian routes; and Leh in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, a sort of redistribution point along the route leading south from the Karakoram Pass. The name Ladakh translates as "land of passes" and so it is that the capital of Leh sits at a relative low point between the Himalayas and the Karakorams. What that means is that traders needed only to press their burdened animals over as many as seven to nine snow-choked passes and glaciers between 18,000 and 20,000 feet to make the complete north-south trip from cities like Yarkand in the Taklimakan Desert to Punjab and northern India. Several trading routes descending from Turkmenistan converged at the crossroads city on the Indus River before splintering again into routes leading to northern India, Kashmir and Afghanistan.