The Manali-Leh highway has inspired many hipsters to live out their Kerouac-esque fantasies and document their adventures on Instagram (if only Kerouac had access to this marvel of an app). Few, however, embark on an experience singular to them. It is from this faction that we’ve come to expect the most interesting, untold stories for they see, do and involve themselves in otherwise barely explored settings.
This July, photojournalist Manpreet Romana embarked on a cycling expedition from Manali to Zanskar, before hiking through the Shingo La pass. One of the most intense off-road trips in the region, it’s one of many Romana takes to “cleanse himself” and take his mind off the harsh realities of his job. An award-winning photographer, Romana has seen it all, done it all, and then some. Sample this – while embedded with the US Marines in Afghanistan in 2009 as part of an AFP assignement, Romana photographed an IED explosion in wartime.
On this very personal journey across North India’s mountainous belt, Romana cycled from Manali to Leh, then onwards to Padam in Zanskar via Kargil. From there on, he set off on an arduous five-day long hike on the Shingo La— the apogee of his trip. He collected these visual documents along the way and weaved together a story of the lives of those he met. Here’s his account.
Below are edited excerpts.
These children posed for me as their mother, Tensing Palkit, prepared food. I camped near their house in the village of Tashi Tongze, the last village before you cross Pensi La pass.
This is the Drang-Drung Glacier, near Pensi La pass. As you stand there looking at the glacier, it looks so picture perfect – almost as if someone has designed the whole thing. It was very cold and windy the day I reached, then I climbed Pensi La. I so wanted to camp opposite the glacier, but weather wasn’t good. It was windy and cold; I was shivering in the middle of the afternoon. The thought of cooking a meal in the wind and cold made me decide to go down further and camp.
Tashi Choktup, 50, poses for a picture in his kitchen. Choktup runs a guest house in Phey. I had been riding for six hours, was really hungry as there were no eating joints on the way. I came knocking on his door, there was no food readily available but he offered to cook for me. After the meal, when I asked for a bill, he said, “Now we are friends. You can pay me whatever you feel like.” That put me on the spot! Tashi also organises trips on the beautiful winter trailer – the Chadar Trek – for small groups.
Angela, a German cyclist, takes a picture of Markus, a Swiss cyclist. Each of us cycled solo till Padam, then decided to trek together as it would be easier for us to hire horses to carry our cycles and stuff. On the first day, our horse man arrived with one horse less, so we had to push the bikes. It’s tough to do on the narrow paths, for hours on end. It required all the energy that we could summon; though it was very tiring, it was a memorable day for us.
I snapped Markus crossing a makeshift suspension bridge on his way to Phuktal monastery in Zanskar. These precarious suspension bridges are made from tree stems, which are knitted and jointed with the metal wires which run across the length. They shake as you walk on them, but it’s an experience worth trying.
Two young llamas play at the Phuktal monastery. When I asked the boy sitting on top what his name was, he yelled ‘Dog’ and they ran away.
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Photographs by: Manpreet Romana