Via Lactea!

That means ‘Milky Way’, in Roman. We will get to that shortly, but I want you to watch this short video first.

To drive or not to

Lying at the comfort of my couch in Bangalore, I’d seen several such travel videos of travelers driving through precarious roads paths. I’d always wonder why people did that, for what joy, until all of a sudden I found myself in the exact situation.

So how did that happen? Well, here is my story. I know this is a long post, but there is no way I can say this in fewer words ๐Ÿคท๐Ÿฝ.

I’ve made several attempts to photograph the Milky Way in the past, but it never worked for me. Either the clouds washed up the skies or unexpected rains happened. If the weather Gods were kind, some moron decides to keep the cottage lights on, all night long. I can recount at least 5 failed attempts to photograph the Milky Way.

The unreasonably mad desire to photograph the Milky Way in the pristine dark skies of India brought a bunch of us together to plan a trip to the Himalayan mountain range. My friend Pratap, took the lead to plan the trip and assemble a group of like minded people. We were 6 of us from Bangalore, 5 professional photographers and me ๐Ÿ˜› who went on this Milky Way expedition.

Our initial plan was to go hunting for dark skies in Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. You see, when you are planning a Milky Way expedition, your options are very limited and unfortunately there is not much flexibility. Your travel dates are fixed based on the moon phase, your location is filtered on light pollution. You better go to places that ranks 1 in brotle class skies to maximizes your chances of photographing the Milky Way. Once you reach the location, you have to do a day time scout for a location which is far away from light pollution. Even a single source of a white light can make or break your chances of getting a good milky way shot.

After all this, pray that clouds don’t wash up the skies, hope it does not rain, hope it does not snow, and hope some moron does not switch on a light!

Finally, hope your gear is rigged up right, and you don’t make silly mistakes with the camera exposure.

You get the drift, don’t you?

Our planning started several weeks prior to the trip. Initially, we planned assuming we were headed to Spiti, but the devastating floods in Himachal Pradesh made it impossible for us plan our trip. We eventually changed our destination to Zanskar. Our whatsapp group was buzzing with information and packing tips. Right from power bank to toilet rolls, we discussed everything ๐Ÿ˜Š.

This was no ordinary trip – there is no mobile network or electricity in large parts of Zanskar, so getting information about stay and other arrangements was a challenge. So much so that our exact place of stay on few nights were unknown till the last minute. But anyway, that dint discourage us, we turned a blind eye and went ahead with our Milky Way chase.

Our first destination was Leh. We took an overnight flight from Bangalore with a stopover in Delhi. We landed early in the morning and had a very satisfying local breakfast – freshly baked local bread with butter, you know that cant go wrong ๐Ÿซ“.

Freshly baked local bread

We spent the rest of the day at a gorgeous resort acclimatizing to the high altitude. As much as I loved the place, I knew I should not get used to it. The rest of nights were all at camps and basic places, with or without electricity, mobile network or heck, even hot water ๐Ÿ˜ฐ.

We spent the 1st day at Leh, pretty much doing nothing, but weirdly, doing nothing itself was quite tiring. High altitude makes your heart thump, and for an average South Indian, every step feels like a challenge. Maybe it was the fatigue of the overnight flight. I was pretty knocked out and had zero patience to do anything with photography, let alone astro photography. I just wanted to crash.

So day 1 was flat out – talk about all the excitement to watch the Milky Way ๐Ÿ˜†.

The cloudy skies dint motivate me either. The fact that I had few more nights put me at ease and sleep peacefully without feeling guilty of wasting an opportunity to photograph the Milky Way.

I woke up the next morning to one of the best views of my life. Snow capped mountains, gorgeous landscape, chirping birds, the turquoise blue Indus river flowing in its full glory, and a little Monastery straddled in the mountains.

The layers of mountains were slicing the tender sun rays giving a surreal feel.

Layered mountains

I spent the morning soaking in the beauty of the place and photographing butterflies and bees, not something I had planned to do on a astro photography expedition.

Butterfly

The plan for the day was to drive to Lamayuru, roughly 100kms from Leh, via small towns like Alchi, Nimoo, and Khalsi. Lamayuru, is also known as the ‘Moonland’, as the Lamayuru’s landscape is supposed to resemble the moon scape. I’ve not been to Moon, but now I know what to expect ๐Ÿคญ.

As we approached Lamayuru, we started scouting for potential Milky Way shoot locations. We reached the place a little late, so we could not spend more time on location scouting. We settled in for the first place that looked reasonably ok to shoot the Milky Way.

We quickly checked into our hotel room, which also had a spectacular view of the Lamayuru Monastery in the backdrop of the Himalayan mountains.

Lamayuru Monastery

We freshened up and went back the Milky Way spot we had recced earlier in the day.

I was both anxious and excited for the night. Knowing my luck on all previous occasions (including the previous night at Leh), I was mentally prepared for another washout night. As per Photopillls app, Milky Way supposed be visible around 7:20PM, and we were there at 7:00PM, setting up our gear.

While the sky was clear, the vehicular light pollution from the highway, and the single source of light from a close by restaurant was quite disappointing. I had half the mind to walk up to the restaurant, pay him the money, and ask him to wind up his business for the night.

I only wish, I could afford to do that ๐Ÿ˜’.

It was 7:20PM, and as expected we started seeing the Milky Way. This was my first time ever to see the Milky Way so clearly bortle class 1 sky. It truly felt unreal. The initial few minutes, my mind went blank, as I stood in front for the mighty Milky Way staring at our galactic center, feeling a bit lost for words. I could not believe what I was witnessing and perhaps I was a bit emotional too. I quickly regained myself to reality and rigged up my gear and prepared to capture what was in front of me.

Milkyway at Lamayuru

Up until this point, all my knowledge on photographing the Milky Way was theoretical. I now had a chance to put everything I knew into practice. I took several shots, before I got the one above. As the night progressed, we could see the Milky Way drift behind the mountains. I guess we all got the best possible shots given the light pollution situation we were in.

The next day we started our journey towards Zanskar. Our first destination was Padum, a historically significant town in the history of Zanskar kingdom. For us, it was significant because Padum was the last place for both electricity and mobile network ๐Ÿฅฒ.

The road from Lamayuru to Padum was beautiful, well, for the first 15 minutes. Post that for next 8 hours, the road was…hmm, there was no road ๐Ÿฅต.

It was rocks, pebble, sand, and gravel, carved out of the mountains, disguised as ‘road’. Thanks to the dead lifts at the gym, my back was able to bear the continuous surge of shocks and bounces.

Also, credit to our driver for navigating these roads with grace and patience. Of course, we also had to jive to the non-stop Ladakhi music pumping out of the car speakers for long hours. So much so that towards the end of trip, I actually started grooving to Bhoti music ๐Ÿ•บ.

But in all honesty, despite the horrible road condition, the sight of Zanskar river gushing through the valley was breathtaking and beyond anything I’ve seen in life. We stopped the car numerous times just to spend few minutes to soak in the beauty of the landscape, as much as we could.

Anyway, after the grueling road journey, we finally reached Padum. We were late, and our Milky Way location scout again took a hit. We did manage to find a location slightly away from the town, but then the light pollution was quite painful to deal with.

The only way I could avoid some light pollution was by dialing in on a longer focal length, but a longer focal length means uninteresting foreground.

Milky way at Padum

We spent two nights at Padum. On the 2nd night, we managed to find an interesting place with a better foreground compared to the previous night. And to our luck, there was power-cut in the village which reduced the light pollution to some extent. But then folks have generators in Padum, and all it takes is a single source of light to frustrate an astro photographer ๐Ÿ™‚

Turn left to Milky way

I’d have loved this image so much more, if the lights at the foot of the mountain were absent. I know there are techniques to remove/reduce that white light in post processing, but I’m not there yet ๐Ÿฅน.

Here is another shot of the Milky Way, I thought the never ending grass land made an interesting foreground for the gorgeous Milky Way.

Milky way over the grass land, Padum

Padum was good, but our real hero destination was 4 hours away, in the heart of Zanskar valley, a mountain face called Gombok Rangan or Gonbo Rangjon or the God’s mountain. Located at an altitude of 14,800 feet, near the village of Kargyak. Gonbo Rangjon is on the checklist of anyone visiting Zanskar.

The locals workship Gonbo Rangjon and its considered a sacred mountain.

The anticipation to see the mighty mountain and photographing the night sky with backdrop of the mystic Gonbo Rangjon had started many weeks ago. All our planning was made keeping this one location in perspective, well at least the bulk of our planning.

Kargyak, is cozy little village, maybe about 20kms away from Gonbo Rangjon. We stopped our vehicles at the village for a cup of hot tea. The thing with Ladakh is that every place you stop, you feel like taking pictures of the landscape. While the tea was being prepared, a bunch of us started clicking pictures of the mountains and lakes, I mean, what else do you expect from a bunch of photographers ๐Ÿ˜….

While I was busy shooting, one of the locals asked me to take at Gonbo Rangjon. Little did I know, the place where we stopped for tea, was the first point of view of the beautiful mountain. Of course, our tea break extended to a prolonged photo shoot as we unpacked all our gear…tripods, filters, cameras, lenses, drones, and whatnot.

But, yup, this was worth every minute we spent there.

First view of Gonbo Rangjon

I probably messed up the above picture. I was trying to use a variable ND filter + Polarizer for the first time. I dint know how to properly use the 2-in-1 system, and somehow created a fairly flat image. Nevertheless, this is a special image for me as it was the first view of the mountain to which I got emotionally connected to ๐Ÿ˜‡.

More on that soon.

Meanwhile, the drivers grew a little impatient and asked us to wrap up, although the two drivers we had were really sweet and co operative through the entire trip. We wrapped up, and headed towards our campsite at Gonbo Rangjon. This time around, we reached the destination well in advance to do the location scout. But then, there was no need to scout as the camp we were staying at was the location.

We were right next to the serene mountain, green meadows, yaks grazing, and the Zanskar river flowing in her might. The sight at the campsite was sheer bliss. I quickly made friends with the Stanzin Nantak and his wife, the folks running the camp. Super sweet folks and they took such lovely care of us.

Stanzin and his wife prepared hot rice and dal for us, which felt straight out of heaven. A great lunch, and a quick post lunch siesta was much needed after that grueling journey over the last few days.

We were fully ready for the night. We had done the augmented reality check of the night view, we knew the co ordinates of Milky Way, its position, timing, and everything else that we needed to know.

As the sun set, we positioned ourselves and waited anxiously for the celestial beauty to emerge from the pristine dark Himalayan skies. While we did, we started noticing vehicular light pollution from the other side of the mountain๐Ÿคฆ๐Ÿพ.

Gonbo Rangjon has a connecting road from Manali, which is used by a lot of bikers. The road is still under construction, but that really does not deter the bikers to ride, irrespective of the time of the day.

As the night unfolded, darkness prevailed, and our eyes adopted to the pitch dark environment, and our night vision was activated. How cool is that? Our eyes have the ability to see through dark, at least to the extent of basic navigation.

All the six of us set up our gear and started shooting. Stanzin from the camp was kind enough to get us hot water in a flask and kept constantly nudging us to hydrate ourselves. It was windy and cold. We were patiently waiting for the Milky Way to position itself at the vantage point, and when it did, we got our frame and created our images.

Milky Way over the sacred Gonbo Rangjon, Zanskar

A common misconception is that the night sky, especially in brotle 1 skies is black. But if you spend time in the dark skies, you can start noticing other cosmic wonders. For instance, the sky in the image above is not black or dark, but it has a faint reddish air glow.

The lesser the light pollution the clearer the skies, and the clearer the sky, the deeper you can see in space, the deeper you see, the more air glow. About 150 kms above the Earth’s atmosphere you see green air glow and at around 350 kms above you start noticing the red air glow.

The serene mountain, its reflection, and the air glow

At one point, the sky was painted green with the green air glow. I love this image of Gonbo Rangjon, its reflection in the water, and Saturn positioned just above it.

It was about 10:00PM, we decided wrap up the photo shoot. We did all sorts of compositions, time lapses, and panoramas, before we wrapped up the shoot.

Stanzin and his wife, had prepared a nice hot meal at the camp. Steaming hot roti and dhal again felt like pure joy. Post dinner, some decided to call it a night, and some, including me decided to go back to the mountains. It felt like the mountain was truly calling us back โ›ฐ๏ธ.

From the camp, Gonbo Rangjon was positioned South – East, and I decided to set up a star trail on both sides of the mountain i.e North facing the star Polaris, and South -East with Gonbo Rangjon in the background.

I started with the Polaris star trail shoot, estimated time was 2 hours, till about 12AM. There was literally no one here at this point. I was right in the middle of the road, the camp to my right and the Zanskar river towards the left. From the river bank, I could hear all sorts of sounds – perhaps they were Yaks or some other animal. I really don’t know, but it was certainly feeling a bit edgy, ๐Ÿ˜จ but I ignored the sounds and continued my mission .

At around 11:15PM someone at the neighboring camp decided to switch on the camp light and torches โ˜น๏ธ. Perhaps the animal sounds from the river bank was spooking them as well. I abandoned my shoot half way, but never the less got enough shots to make the start trail.

Star trail over Polaris

Notice the horizon and you will see the night sky colors stacked up – blue, green, and red.

I went back to the mountain, to do the South East start trail, two of my friends were shooting start trails and were half way through their shoot. I was a bit reluctant to start the star trial at 11:30PM, as I knew the other two would wind up their shoot soon. But heck, I knew I was not going back to the location anytime soon, so I set up my gear for another long shoot.

It was 12:15AM, my friends were done with their shoot and decided to pack up. It was now me all alone, in the dead of the night, crystal clear skies full of start, planets, galaxies, and the Milky Way. Meteors and shooting stars were in abundance. The vehicular light pollution and lights from neighboring camps were also gone. The sound of Zanskar river gushing in the background overpowered all other sounds.

I knew I was the only soul awake for as long as I could see. I was having my moment at Zanskar. The initial few minutes felt normal and exciting, but as time moved, things started feeling, perhaps a bit mythical.

I felt the skies moved, Gonbo Rangjon appeared much larger than it was, felt it was much closer to me than it was, like as if it was trying to come to me and say something. I felt the grass was trying to grow on me to keep me grounded. My heart rate was clearly high. All of a sudden, in my mind I could feel flashes of the faces of people I love the most, moments that I cherish and preserve close to my heart.

My eyes were moist for no reason ๐Ÿฅน.

It was cold and windy, my feet was freezing, and I tried my best to stay calm and composed, Gonbo Rangjon, looked over powering. I knew I was tripping on the stillness of the night. It was beyond me to comprehend whatever was happening.

My star trail was supposed to go on till 2 AM, but at around 1:45 AM, I decided to abandon my shoot and get back to the camp. I was unable to keep myself composed. Of course, I had enough shots to make my final image.

As I walked back, I took another good look at the mountain in the night sky and paid my obedience. I knew this mountain will remain special to me forever ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿฝ.

My moment with Gonbo Rangjon

The next day morning, we were to drive to Rangdum near Suru Valley. I was kind of sad that we were leaving Gonbo Rangjon, after all, Gonbo Rangjon was our hero destination.

But I was wrong.

Rangdum is in Suru valley, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. Think of tall mountains, lush green grass lands, yaks and cows grazing at their own pace, and the beautiful glazier river flowing gently at the foothills of the mountain. That is Rangdum for you.

Rangdum

En route, we passed through the the legendary twin lakes – Lang Tso & Stat Tso lake. Again, we spent a lot of time photographing these lakes and just soaking in the beauty of the landscape.

By the way, I’d be really surprised if you’ve read my blog post so far. If you have, then I do hope you are clicking on these pictures and viewing them in an enlarged format. Small thumbnail previews just don’t do any justice โ˜บ๏ธ.

About 45 minutes before Rangdum, we stopped by at the Pensi La Pass, located at 14,400 feet above sea level. Pensi la pass connects Zanskar to Suru Valley, and also has the view of the most gorgeous Drang Drung Glacier.

Drang Drung Glacier, Pensi La Pass

The view of the icy frozen glacier river tucked in between the mountains was sight to behold. It was noon, but the cold wind blowing from the mountains plus the high altitude made it quite a challenge to spend more time at the location. But at the same time, we all unanimously agreed to shoot the Milky Way at the exact same location.

Of course, we quickly launched Photopills app to check the positioning of the Milky Way core and the timing. We figured that the Milk Way would pass through in the skies above in the back drop of the Drang Drung glacier. There was no way we could miss the opportunity.

We drove to our camp in Rangdum, dumped all our luggage, had a quick lunch, and re packed our gear to get back to the glacier. It was cold and windy. I layered up with all the thermals and jackets I had carried on this trip.

We arrived at the Drang Drung glacier at blue hour, just to ensure we set up our rig properly. Of course, the Milky Way was out and staring at us through the glacier. While I was taking a few test shots of the Milky Way, something interesting happened.

A bunch of star link satellites ๐Ÿ›ฐ๏ธ cut through the milk way giving me a unique composition ๐Ÿ™‚.

Starlink satellites over Drung Drang glacier

As expected, the night was freezing cold. The as such cold winds got 10x colder as they passed through the icy glacier and hit our bodies. My finger tips and feet froze. I had setup my gear for a time lapse, the shoot time was 2 plus hours, so you can imagine what me and my friends endured that night.

Was it worth it? Well, you tell me –

Milky Way over Drang Drung Glacier, Pensi La Pass

I’m usually overly critical with my pictures. I find at least 10 different things that could have been better, but this one, I’ll give it a pass. I love โค๏ธ it. By the way, Pratap did help me post process this image to perfection, I’ll be grateful to him for this ๐Ÿ™‚

We were at the end of the trip. The next day we drove down to Suru valley. Although Suru Valley is in Ladakh, the vibe at Suru valley is different. It is more Kashmiri than Ladakhi.

We did see the Milky Way at Suru, but the light pollution made it impossible for us to shoot. But I did photograph the famous Nun Kun peaks.

Nun Kun peaks

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from the trip. Do click on each of the images and see them in full size ๐Ÿ˜Š

Pratap has documented this trip on his blog with exact itinerary and information on places where we stayed and camped. Do check that if you are interested.

This is my second visit to Ladakh, but I know I’m not done yet with Ladakh. The Himalayan mountains are addictive โค๏ธ.


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4 responses to “Via Lactea!”

  1. Nice travelogue and beautiful picture.

    1. Glad you liked it, Manish ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Captivating world of the Milky Way through your stunning collection of photos which inspired a deep sense of happiness. What a way to witness the splendor of the cosmos in person.

    Coincidentally read this blog after watching a podcast of Brian Cox about cosmology, and that made me like this even more!

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Nitesh. Photographing the Milky way is indeed a great a spectacular experience ๐Ÿ™‚

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