The monsoon leaves no stone untouched in the whole of India it seems.
Not even 11,000ft above sea level in Leh, Kashmir. Arriving in early September I’d just missed the rains, but their footprints were left in the walls built precariously throughout the city. Mortar tumbled down into gutters, and previously secluded gardens of vibrant green began to peek through to the streets.
“They’re fantastic,” my host says as he serves a pot of tea, “we wait all year, it becomes unbearably hot and then…” he sits down heavily to make his point.
I was here very much on my own, a solo trip away from the UK to clear my head and really work on my photography. I didn’t want the distraction of other people’s wants and needs to stop me from building my portfolio. So after 3 weeks in Mumbai for a festival, I took a flight away from the crowds up into the Himalayas, what felt like the outskirts of our planet. I’d landed a few hours earlier, and the altitude was just starting to get to me, apparently, the liquorice tea I had been given would help.
As my host and I spoke, c. Realising the opportunity, I grabbed my camera and ran up the stairs of the guest house and further up a ladder onto the roof. Before me were the sprawling rooftops of Leh and above them, a rainbow arcing between the high peaks. I didn’t want to risk losing the shot and raised the viewfinder to my face, edging along the roof as I shot. I would like to say that it was worth it for the shot, but it wasn’t. Maybe if I’d been allowed to continue edging along I could have framed it right, maybe if I’d had some more time. Maybe, if the monsoon hadn’t been all-pervasive, and the walls of the building better made.
I had shuffled onto the corner of the guesthouse’s storage shed, for some reason positioned on top of the guesthouse. Before I’d had a chance to realise my mistake, I felt the ground slip away as the wall crumbled, looking down with just enough time to have that ‘this is going to hurt’ thought. I crashed through a corrugated fibre roof and to the bottom of a stairwell two storeys below. Pieces of rock and mortar tumbled down on top of me, and as the dust quite literally settled, the pain came. I looked at my knee, and it definitely wasn’t in the place I’d left it. The next thing to well up was a sense of utter stupidity. I was a world away from my family and friends in the UK, I had actively sought to be here, and however lucky I was to limp away from this, I was going to have to pay for the damage and definitely couldn’t do what I’d come here to.
Hostels being what they are, all it took was this shift in mindset, and three days later I was crammed in the back of a Land Rover with four other people, two of them photographers too. We drove up and out of Leh, over one of the worlds highest motorable passes Khardung Lah (17,400ft) and into the Nubra Valley. Together we felt the air thin and watched train upon train of military vehicles snake their way through the moonscape of Kashmir, forever patrolling the border of Pakistan.
In Diskit we camped under the Milky Way, shivering out in the cold to take photos (my wide-angle lens had perished in the fall, so I played a supporting role). For hours the five of us lay on sand dunes in the middle of the Himalayas, staring at the universe pass overhead, sharing stories and jokes now so personal no one could decode them except us. The next day we drove to TurTuk, a village unknown to outsiders until 2010, and then we ventured on to the border. Our cameras confiscated, we explored a village with no nationality. We watched school children who left the military-funded campus in between India and Pakistan disappear into the surrounding mountains.
We also happened to be rock climbers, and together unloaded bouldering mats and, as one local described it, with hard heads we explored the geology. We became a team, a group of people from entirely different backgrounds, but who spent a week supporting each other. Hudson and I shared walking sticks when he fell on a climb and sprained his ankle. Annie, Brett and I were never without our cameras in hand. Sarah would explore barley fields with Brett, talking about home, philosophy and permaculture farming techniques. Each night we would clamber into the Land Rover to warm up and play cards until we all fell asleep where we sat.
I had come to Kashmir looking for a personal adventure, to somehow remove myself from social ties as if it were a more pure experience to be alone. That is not to say there isn’t value in travelling alone; if I’m honest until now it’s all I’ve known to do. I flew out of the Himalayas with a heavy heart, immediately feeling like I’d forgotten to pack something. I took out my camera and started to scroll through my photos, past the week just gone; the portraits of friendship in the context of the world’s highest peaks, and to one of the pictures from that rooftop. Not my best.
Had it been worth it?