In a far-flung corner of northern India, the region of Ladakh envelops a mystical “Moonland” of barren alpine desert, where Tibetan Buddhist monasteries hide among some of the world’s most impressive mountains. Long caught between powerful neighbors, the area only opened to tourists in the 1970s. Now photographers like Belgian Yuri Andries flock to this once impenetrable, otherworldly region to document its many contrasts in his series called Moonland.
“Ladakh has a lot of tension going on, with all the surrounding countries,” says Andries. “At the same time, it’s this magical place.”
Ladakh’s strategic location along ancient trading routes lies within the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir—subject of a territorial conflict among China, India, and Pakistan–and maintains some Indian military presence. Yet travelers can drive for hours over the lunar-like terrain without seeing a soul. [See incredible photos of adventures in the Himalaya.]
So Andries rented a motorbike to find the Tibetan Buddhists, Shia Muslims, and smaller communities of Sunnis and Christians living among the peaks of the Kunlun Mountains and mighty Himalaya. Villages stay connected by rocky roads without phone signal, internet, or gas stations, with hardly a single person in sight.
“When [you drive] into a Buddhist village, they immediately invite you into their homes. It’s really something they do. They give you chai, or maybe even momos, the name for dumplings. But sometimes there is a language barrier, and it’s just being in each other’s company, experiencing a sense of trust in one another.”
Those personal connections against an isolated backdrop form a central theme in Andries’ work. “For me it’s a kind of portrait,” he explains. “I did want to bring a glorification of this place. I just want [the people of the Ladakh] to believe in the world I’m showing to them.”
In reality, the region faces a ballooning tourism industry that’s putting a strain on the natural resources that attracted visitors in the first place. Agriculture here relies upon glaciers for water, but these sources must combat slowly rising temperatures due to climate change.
Yet the mountaineers here, who built their roots in Ladakh over the centuries upon a spirit of resilience, provide a model for the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable solutions. Earthen construction draws on ancient techniques, high altitudes suit solar power, and farm-stays let tourists work the land in exchange for accommodation.
Andries stayed at an ecological school and village, SECMOL—founded by engineer Sonam Wangchuk, who also invented the ice stupa. The award-winning innovation creates an artificial glacier by redirecting mountain streams into a geyser, which then freezes during winter into ice shaped like the cones of Buddhist shrines. Come summer, the ice melts to increase the supply for crops when water is scarce. [Read more about how an ice stupa works.]
Locals and, increasingly, tourists appreciate this land of white stupas—both constructed and natural—where prayer flags wave from secluded villages dotting empty plateaus near mountain lakes and hidden lagoons. Finding inspiration in Ladakh, Andries says, “I wanted to show the world where the viewer can believe in this kind of paradise.”