The road from Manali to Leh in India goes through some of the world’s highest negotiable mountain passes and leads to the enchanting region of Ladakh, also known as “Little Tibet”. Photographer Saravana K. (33) from Bangalore, India, traversed this 500-kilometer route through the Himalayas by bike from the end of September until the beginning of November 2010. In his gear was a Planar T* 1,4/50 ZE lens.
When Saravana embarked on his cycling trip in September 2010, he did not realize he would experience things that would take him to his limits. The road from Manali to Leh is one of the toughest, but also one of the most beautiful, routes in the world. To complete the 500-kilometer journey you need to be fit, tenacious and able to withstand high altitudes and extreme weather conditions. The road begins at the southern slope of the Himalayas in Manali and crosses several mountain passes, including Rohtang (3,977 m), Baralacha (4,885 m), Nakeela (4,950 m) and Lachulung (5,085 m), as well as the second-highest mountain pass on Earth: the Taglang (5,328 m). The road ends in the town of Leh in the Indus Valley.
The mountains and their pitfalls
Saravana did not expect to reach those limits right on the first day. But while riding his bike at an altitude of 3,300 meters, he got caught in a sudden hailstorm and flash floods. Though not properly dressed for such conditions, he nevertheless fought on through the downpour, mud and cold, since he wanted to reach his stopover point for that day, located just a few kilometers down the road. But when the rains began to gush down the mountain slopes, he changed his mind. “I was worried about being swept off the road and down the steep mountainside,” he recalls. He returned to the valley and found a small tea stall where he could dry his clothes and set up camp. “It was my first taste of the power and unpredictability of the mountains and I swore to be careful from then on.”
A few days later, he encountered a challenge of a different sort. He suffered a toothache that was so bad he even contemplated ending the trip altogether. But he got lucky. In the village of Darcha, one of the last permanent settlements on that 300-kilometer stretch of road, he found a doctor. With the help of painkillers, the toothache subsided, and Saravana was able to continue his journey.
One glance at the pictures Saravana took during this trip makes you understand why he endured so much physical exertion and did not give up. On film he captured massive mountain formations, breathtaking scenery, and interesting people. The Planar T* 1,4/50 ZE was his ideal companion for such images. “I love the clarity and details you get with this compact lens, as well its unique color fidelity,” says Saravana. Since he began photographing with ZEISS lenses, he appreciates taking shots with manual focus even more. “A comfortable focus ring allows you to render details particularly sharp.” The lens’s robustness, for which ZEISS lenses have always been known, also proved its worth during this trip. The lens was able to withstand dust, water, extreme differences in temperature and altitude, as well as the constant shaking caused by the bumpy road.
Happy monks and nomads
In addition to stunning natural beauty, Saravana also became fond of the gracious, cheerful people he encountered along the way. “Nothing captures the spirit and culture of the Lakakhi people better than the Buddhist festivals,” says Saravana. “Each village has its own monastery and the festivals take place throughout the year to celebrate different occasions.”
Saravana was particularly impressed by the simple lifestyle of the Chang Tang nomads, who live from raising sheep at altitudes of 4,500 meters. He found them cheerful and content.
Shortly before reaching his final destination, Saravana was again dependent on the help of others. While cycling near the Pangong Lake (5,300 meters), a fierce, unseasonal snowstorm developed, which made the road impassable for cyclists for several days. With temperatures dipping to 20 degrees Celsius below zero, Saravana accepted a ride from a convoy of army trucks. Though the trucks descended into the valley at a snail’s tempo and had to stop at every checkpoint, sometimes for several hours at a time, this part of the trip became the most memorable. Saravana basked in the realization that he had not only just mastered one of the world’s most extreme cycling routes, but had taken fantastic pictures as well.
The journey along the Manali-Leh highway is over, but Saravana plans to return to Ladakh. His dream is to spend a year in Ladakh in order to photograph its beauty in all seasons and climates.
Saravana K. (33) from Bangalore, India, studied computer science and was a successful senior system architect for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies. But he was always eager to explore the world, and since mid-2010 he has devoted himself to his passion: travel and photography. Saravana saved money to pursue his dream and currently finances it through occasional jobs. More photos and information about Saravana and his travels can be found on his blog, which he plans to build into an international network for world travelers to share their experiences. Adventurers like Saravana will soon be able to write their own travel blog, and share their photos and experiences with others in the community.