From the first day of Wiltonian Daryl Hawk’s recent exploration of Ladakh, India, challenge and excitement were plentiful. Before he ever took off for Ladakh Airport — commonly considered one of the most dangerous in the world — there was an uproar after the airline canceled his first flight.
“The first day brought anxiety because a riot almost erupted between Indians who wanted to go to Ladakh and everybody who worked for the airline. The airline said the weather was too poor to land in Ladakh, but they had fabricated the whole situation,” Mr. Hawk said at his studio last week. “They didn’t have a senior pilot for the flight.
“Passengers were moving in on the airport employees like they were going to grab them. They had invested money in hotels for summer vacation,” he said.
Eventually, on the third attempt, Mr. Hawk arrived in Ladakh and met his guide and driver — albeit two days late.
Though his planned itinerary was in shambles by the time he reached the northernmost part of India, he said last week, he successfully achieved every goal he had set for the trip, including a private interview with the figurehead king of Ladakh.
“No matter how much you plan or fine-tune an itinerary, it can change in a second. But I got to all the right places, covered all the areas I wanted to and achieved all of my goals —just not in the right procession,” Mr. Hawk said.
Many objectives filled the Wiltonian’s three-week trip, including the documentation of cave paintings, spending a day with nomads on the Tibetan plateau, tracking endangered snow leopards, and visiting a number of ancient Buddhist monasteries, but a total traverse of the area was his priority.
“The main goal was to be one of the first Westerners to do a complete traverse across the entire region of Ladakh, and I’m happy to say this was accomplished. It was a very spiritual journey, a very solitary 4,200-mile traverse,” he said.
His trip took him from northern India’s westernmost border with the disputed Kashmir region — where heavily armed soldiers were a daily sighting — to its border with China-controlled Tibet — where more heavily armed soldiers abounded.
This all-inclusive trip among the lightly populated mountains of India represented one of “the most in-depth documentaries ever done on this little region,” Mr. Hawk said.
“Ladakh has the magical, serene solitude of a Buddhist kingdom with the intense smorgasbord of color you see everywhere in the ancient monasteries, and in the beautiful, colorful clothing Indian citizens were wearing. There was a euphoric feeling you get there that I have very rarely experienced.”
During the first days of his trip near the Indian border with Pakistan, Mr. Hawk visited a tribe of people called the Drokpas, who are culturally and physically distinct from those living in other parts of Ladakh. Their religious practices are more like those of pre-Buddhist religions.
“They have ancient traditions and a way of life preserved through songs, hymns and their way of dress — though there were only about 200 people left where I was. I talked to the elders about the possibility of the tribe going extinct. They said it was possible because there were no opportunities there, they are basically living off the land,” the explorer said.
After, he approached a town named Dah — where the residents had little experience with Westerners.
“I felt like I found Shangri-La in Dah. I had never driven for such a long time on such a remote road in all of my travels,” Mr. Hawk said. “I didn’t see anyone for hours, then all of a sudden I see a sign that says ‘Dah.’ All of a sudden you knew you were in a valley, and saw all of these purple apricot trees. It was a slightly breezy day, and the flowers were blowing everywhere. I was hiking up a path into who knows what remote village. I couldn’t believe how interesting and beautiful these people were.”
While in the western half of Ladakh, Mr. Hawk also had the chance to be the first Western photographer to document cave drawings, which the people there are only beginning to recognize as important historic artifacts.
“This is supposedly the area with the most undiscovered petroglyphs in the world,” he said. “There is the potential to find more and more of them here. There are lots of geologists coming to Ladakh with that specific purpose.”
Before long, Mr. Hawk was preparing to traverse the Khardung La Pass, also known as the “highest roadway in the world,” he said.
“So much of my life has been a series of road trips and journeys on slow, winding roads leading me into the unknown. Finally being on the highest road in the world, that to me was a very, very good adventure. What was it going to be like? How I was going to respond to it?”
The pass is up to 18,000 feet in elevation in some sections, and is “not really well maintained,” Mr. Hawk said.
During his traverse, Mr. Hawk also visited a number of ancient monasteries with the intention of documenting their current, deteriorating condition. Part of the mystery of these temples, he said, included their tenants’ reluctance to perform upkeep on the buildings as part of their religious beliefs.
One of the most spiritual experiences of his trip, Mr. Hawk said, was a multi-day trek in search of snow leopards — famously aloof animals tht are endangered.
“I knew they were there. I could feel their spiritual presence around me,” he said. “I knew they were around, but I just wasn’t meant to see one.
“Just to know I was walking the paths they walk on makes all the difference to me.”