Trekking the Himalayas – No Longer a Pristine Land

A beautiful photo story by Singaporean-based photographer Nandakumar Narasimhan, as he recounts his trek in the Himalayas. Nanda’s journey took him through Leh, the largest city in India’s sparsely populated Jammu and Kashmir region. The photographer who has been teaching photography at Phocus Academy for 5 years manages to pull you in his story with these amazing photos. You can almost feel the chilly sub-zero winds.

For more amazing photography, Nanda’s photo exhibition titled 'Himalayan Winter: Frigid Frames from a Frozen Land’ is ongoing. Details can be found at the end of the page.

Words and images by Nandakumar Narasimhan
Edited by Nur Safiah Alias

I have always been fascinated with the hardy people of the Himalayas and their ability to battle some of the harshest winters on the planet. On this trip, picking up the camera for shooting was very often the last item on the agenda. It was more important for me to find out how they lived and how they beat the winter, and to share with them my motivations for trekking through their lands.

So, rather than pointing my camera at every person and opportunity, I took a much slower approach to photographing the subjects during this trip. Most photographs, barring a few, were taken after getting to know the person, his or her lifestyle and profession and also some of the person’s family members.

The path I stuck to…

Chadar Map copy

Map of Chadar Trek


The original trek (very long ago) was from Leh to Zanskar. Most people from Zanskar would have done this trek at least once in their lives. The trek was not done for fame or fortune. It was done simply because there were no roads from Zanskar to Leh until the 90s. Even then, it was so long that the locals still prefer trekking through ice.

Only, it wasn’t a trek to them, they just called it a shopping trip. In Hindi, they would say “Ham maze mein nahin, saman kharidne ke lie Leh jate the”. It means: We have nothing on the table, so we used to go to Leh to buy things. It was the only way they could buy supplies for the winter.

Most experienced guides who have trekked at least a couple of decades on this route start from Nimmu and proceed to Zangla and even further till Tzazar, Pishu and Karsha. Today most tourists start at Tilad Sumdo and go up to Neraks, technically not even entering the region of Zanskar. It generally takes 7 days for a return trip.

I, being slightly crazier, went all the way to Charak Do (an additional 2 day’s trekking) and from there, by car into the interiors of Zanskar. My trip took a total of 12 days.

The trek was great but the environment has deteriorated since the days my guide first did it. Many of the trees that were used as fuel for cooking were now gone and I was glad we used kerosene fires wherever possible.What used to be a route of necessity has now become a route so filled with trash and human waste that in a few years, I am sure the river water will become undrinkable.

One guide, one cook, one assistant, and three porters accompanied me. On the way up, I saw groups of twenty trekkers; with a crew nearly twice that number. The romanticisation of the trek by the mass media makes many think that the trek is a walk in the park.

But many people back out a few days into the trek, as it differed markedly from their expectation of being able to glide on the ice and take snow-filled selfies. The guide told me that 3 of his 5 treks done in 2013 ended half way after tourists were unable to take the physical stress.

My support team thought I would be one of them after my kneecap started hurting and I could not hide my limp anymore on the second day. But I having missed the trek last year due to work commitments, I had made up my mind to finish it.  I also brought along more than 15kg of camera gear.

 “What used to be a route of necessity has now become one so filled with trash and human waste that in a few years, I am sure the river water will become undrinkable.”

Come meet my guide

Meet Mr. Tenzing Mik Mar who was my cook for the trek. He cooks just about anything Indian but my vegetarian diet prevented him from showing off his skills to their fullest.


Mik Mar copy

The right side of this diptych shows the difficulties the entire crew went through when the ice gave way in many places and became waterlogged. Mik Mar was basically carrying the whole kitchen (His colleague Dorje helped him with it). His load weighed around 35 kilos at the start of the trek and went down to about 20kg at the halfway mark with all the eating and burning of fuel.

Look carefully at the picture and you can see his life support system sticking out of his jacket pocket – a bottle of obnoxious rum. Terrible stuff that tasted so bad I don’t even remember the brand name. But before the start of every day’s trek, and after lunch, he would take a swig and claim it kept him steady on the ice. I have never seen him slip or fall so I guess it worked.

You would think he was perpetually intoxicated and problematic but no, that was not the case at all. He cooked three splendid meals a day consistently without any problems and guided the rest of his crew when the guide was behind with me.

 “Sir, will you drink a bit now?”

He is 42 years old with 5 kids (2 daughters and 3 sons).  His first wife passed away and he remarried but he still struggles to provide for his kids. So he sent one of his sons to Karsha Monastery and the monastery looks after the child providing him with an education, meals and a roof over his head.

Speaking fluent Hindi but only able to write his name in Tibetan, this guy is one talented cook and trekker. His most commonly used phrase in Hindi: “ Sar, thoda piyege abhi?” (Sir, will you drink a bit now?).

And yes, those are the S$8 gumboots that all of them wore. 

Making a call from an altitude of ~3800m

Waterfall at Nyrakpulu

Waterfall At Nyrakpulu, Camera: Mamiya RB67 with Sekor 50mm f/4.5, Film: Kodak Portra 400

Most people who walk the Chadar end their trek here at Nyrak Pulu. This village is the gateway to Zanskar and a good resting point before turning back. I however, went deep into Zanskar, which was an additional day of trekking followed by a road trip to the village of Zangla.

On the fourth day, we reached this majestic place.  The waterfall freezes over completely in winter and makes for an impressive background for tourist selfies. While most people like to shoot silky smooth waterfalls by dragging the camera’s shutter speed, I felt this waterfall should only be photographed frozen in motion.

It was a well-deserved rest after 4 days of trekking in a “hotel room” that comprised just one stove and two windows. There were no lights or any other electrical appliance. I appreciated electricity a lot more after the stay at that hotel.

We wanted a car to cross some distances covered in ice, so I had to contact a driver to arrange for him to meet us at Charakdo, our next stop.

What we had to do to contact the driver:

  1. Climb up a good 500m of steep slope to get to Nyraks village
  2. Use the only fixed phone line in Nyraks to call the only fixed line in Zanskar (The Zanskar line connects the village to India and not the world – I couldn’t call Singapore and neither could my relatives call me on that line)
  3. Wait for the person from the phone office to inform the drive
  4. Hope that the driver is at home so that the message can actually be passed

Fortunately, the message went through. Otherwise we would just have to hang out with the construction workers who were building a road from the other side up to Charakdo.


Life lessons from a local village teacher

A Selfie of me with Dhankar fort behind us

Taken on Mamiya RB67, 65mm lens, Fuji Neopan Acros (dunked in Rodinal). The building on the left is a dilapidated Dhankar fort that served as a vantage point for rulers to see invaders.

My guide who picked us up was a local village teacher. This photo with him (I’m the one on the left) was taken in the village of Dhankar, approximately another 400m above the village of Sichling (~3500m above sea level). He drove me there and showed me many things…

… like how a car skids on ice. On one perilous bend, he turned the steering wheel but the car just kept going straight and stopped a few metres shy of a 100m drop. He was perfectly cool during the skid and said calmly, “It should come to a stop soon”.

“It should come to a stop soon.” – Nanda’s driver when their car skidded on ice.

He had interesting opinions and I could not have asked for better company during this crazy drive. One of his principles in life is “agar kisi se nafrat karna ho jo utna hi karna ki agar dobara milna ho to sharminda na hona pade” which roughly translates to “If you intend to hate someone, only hate him/her to the extent that if you have to meet him/her again, you don’t feel ashamed.”

His other guiding philosophy is, if you ever have your picture taken, always take off the overcoat so people can see your body profile. Thats his jacket on the left of the frame and that curly wire you see leading on to me is the 6m cable release to allow selfie captures.  The RB67 has no self-timer so I bought this crazy contraption.


Young monks who love to eat paduk

Young Monks in Karsha Monastery, Karsha Village, Chadar Trek, Leh, Himalayas

Young Monks, Karsha Monastery, Karsha Village Camera: Mamiya RB67 with Sekor 50mm f/4.5 Film: Kodak Ektar 100



An elderly monk saw my guide and I clearing the snow on the roof of one of the buildings, so I could pitch my tripod for sunset. He immediately sent these two kids up to help us.

They really did not have to but the sight of anyone appearing even slightly inconvenienced seems to affect the people here. The two kids came up and asked me to pass them the broom I was using (seen on the right of the image). I told them there was no need for it anymore but if they did like to help they could hang around and talk to me. I found out a bit more about the boys and finally asked if I could take a photo of them.

“No, its dinner time and they’re cooking paduk today!”

And this was the resulting image. The one on the right was curious and asked me where he should be looking because he saw me looking down into my viewfinder.

Detecting a bit of haste in his voice after the picture was taken, my guide asked him if he was rushing for another lesson and he said, “No, it’s dinner time and they’re cooking paduk today!” Paduk is a local soup-based meal made from rice flour.

The monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect, which is characterised by their uniquely shaped hats. Kids who stay and study here get to decide on their career paths after they turn 20 years of age. They can choose to work in the outside world and get married or stay on to become monks.


Cold words from a 60 year old Monk
Monk at Stongdey Monastery, Chadar Trek, Leh, Himalayas, India

Monk at Stongdey Monastery Camera: Mamiya RB67, 65mm f/4.5 Portra 800 film. Film: Kodak Portra 800

Perhaps the most painful shot taken on the trek was of this monk at Stongdey Monastery. It was mentally, physically and technically challenging.

The first thing he said upon hearing I came from Singapore and Bombay was “So what you are doing here in winter? Committing suicide?” I laughed uneasily not expecting such a welcome from a man of his profession.

I had to remove my shoes to enter his room. Immediately, my feet began to freeze and I had to keep moving my toes to feel their existence.

“So what you are doing here in winter? Committing suicide?

Then the technical challenges began. Light streamed in from a little window on the monk’s right. Initial attempts to record the monks’ prayer ceremony failed miserably even with ISO 3200 film. There was just too little light for any action shots.

The 1×1 ft. window lit up the monk with the drum in the background. [Camera settings: 2s, f/5.6, ISO1600] The monk stayed still and held a natural smile.

He is over 60 years old and has spent over 40 years at the monastery. I did tell him he looked very young and he said, “We try to smile as much as possible and don’t get stressed over things”.

After the shot, the monk invited me to the monastery’s kitchen and offered tea and biscuits. He warned me to be careful as he felt I was too skimpily dressed for the winter. I thanked him for everything and made my way down.

The one thing we had in common

My hands were tired from all the climbing, shooting and carrying. The people in the mountains had rugged hands. They hardly wear gloves, displaying their scars from all the hard work needed for survival in this hostile land. That, possibly, was the only commonality I shared with the wonderful mountain people.

But their warm hearts, unimaginable hospitality and willingness to help somehow seem incongruent with their physical scars. In paintings, angels always seem to be painted without scars or flaws but in reality they have borne the scars of many good deeds. Especially when those good deeds were done for the benefit of random strangers like myself. They opened their houses to me when I was cold, lit up their stoves for feeding me when I was hungry and carried my burden when I felt weak.

I put away my camera and fatigued, I walked away with my hands behind my back.


My failure in visiting a land untouched by mass tourism

Despite the warm hospitality, I left the Himalayas feeling like my heart was chilled over. I was fatigued and fed up. I did not visit a land untouched by mass tourism.  There were too many truckloads of inconsiderate tourists on the trek with little respect for the land and the people, and too many photographers jostling their way to take tokenistic images of the locals and scurrying on to the next destination of their list.
Tourism has become a picture-gathering race …
It’s about time we stopped… and understand people before pointing our cameras at them.
The “touristy” part of the trek was so littered with many wrappers, bottles, batteries and human waste that it looked like any other street in India, except this “street” was white in colour. Only after I went where no selfie-snapping tourist had been before, did I experience these places and faces.

Tourism has become a picture-gathering race for humans and little or no attention is paid to the damage we bring to these places with plastics, chemicals and our utter disregard for the way of life. It’s about time we stopped, look at, talk and listen to and understand people before pointing our cameras at them.

Himalayan Winter: Frigid Frames from a Frozen Land‘ runs from now to 28 Sept 2014 at the Camera Rental Centre (CRC) Spaces, #02-01, 23 New Bridge Road.  

More details on can be found on the exhibition’s Facebook page.

If you want to learn to take photos like this, visit Phocus Academy’s website for workshop schedules and prices.