Ladakh: Barren Land of Life

With Sean Kernan and Jock Montgomery

  • September 10–23 2017, a 14-day photography tour and creative workshop


Coming to Ladakh for the first time, the vast landscape dominates one’s vision. The intense light at altitude enhances the contrast between stark snowcapped Himalayan peaks and glistening river valleys; human habitation and history seem almost non-existent. If you are attentive to detail, focus your lens, explore a broader depth of field, you will realize the richness of human life pervading these dramatic landscapes.

You are surrounded by the remnants of an ancient trading crossroad between Kashgar, Tibet, and Kashmir. Even in the most remote valleys you will find fortified Tibetan monasteries. Blending into the hills are farming villages. Traversing the barren land are nomads. Roaming the land are large animals like ibex, Tibetan wolves, and urial. As photographers, we are there to weave together this rich tapestry into our own unique interpretation.

On this adventure, we are fortunate to be accompanied by an internationally renowned photographer, writer, and teacher Sean Kernan. He knows how to turn photographers into creative artists as well as challenge everyone to push their craft to the next level. One of his focuses will be group activities that help us get into a creative state and help turn ordinary scenes into extraordinary images. The trip is open to photographers of all levels, as well as non-photographing spouses.

Don your jacket. Grab your camera. Travel with us to a land so remote that the locals will tell you that only the greatest of friends or fiercest enemies ever come to visit.

Personal Invitation from
Sean Kernan

Sean Kernan discusses the creative process and his unique approach to photography

Photographic Exploration

As photographers, Jock and Sean think the best ‘seeing’ happens when we wander. Our job is to make this happen and support each participant. We will also offer provocative assignment ideas and exercises designed to get us past our habits.

The focus is on working with and understanding light, defining your composition and creating compelling content. As you work towards nurturing your shooting style, you will learn how to take in and personalize those breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities. Throughout the workshop we arrange to have feedback sessions and reviews, both group and personal.


  • Learn from internationally renowned writer, photographer, and teacher Sean Kernan and photographer and adventure travel guide Jock Montgomery
  • Visit Thiksey Monastery, a 17th-century structure modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Hemis monastery, the largest and wealthiest in Ladakh and other notable monasteries: Thiksey, Stakna, Basgo and Lamayuru
  • Spend two nights in a remote farming village on the edge of the Karakorum mountain range
  • A local wildlife expert leads a walk to view larger animals of Ladakh, including ibex, urial, and Tibetan wolves
  • Meet the Brokpa, an historically important ethnic group with unique customs and physical appearance
  • Visit with the Drukpa nomads who are camped beside the cerulean waters of Tsomoriri Lake, and surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
  • At Tso Kar lake meet locals collecting salt along the shoreline that is used primarily in Tibetan butter tea
  • Take in the rugged Himalayan scenery at Tanglanglha pass, one of the highest motorways in the world

Ladakh, India

Thiksey Monastery

Ladakh, India

A monk at the entrance to Stakna monastery chanting hall

Ladakh, India

A fertile Himalayan river valley

Ladkah, India

Lamayuru monastery

Recommended Reading

by Sean Kernan

Looking into the Light



Compass Rose Expeditions’ Reading Lists


Ladakhi woman

A Ladakhi elder

Being flexible and open to new opportunities is the cornerstone to seeking out and shooting compelling photographs. We make every effort to keep our plans flexible so we can take full advantage of photographic opportunities as they arise.
Please note: three meals a day are included in the cost except for first and last days as noted in the itinerary.
Map of our Journey

Day 1, September 10: Arrive Delhi

On arrival at Delhi International airport, you will be welcomed by our representative and transferred to a nearby hotel, the Pride Plaza. You will be on your own for the rest of the day, (no meals are included).

Day 2, September 11: Leh

You should have booked Air India flight AI 445 departing Delhi 05:55 and arriving Leh 07:15. If the flight cancels and you must overnight in Delhi, we will arrange transportation back to the hotel, but you will have to pay for the hotel and any meals.

*Please be aware; although we have had good luck in the past, Delhi to Leh and return are Himalayan mountain flights with weather that can occasionally be unpredictable. Flights may be delayed or even canceled while the plane is on route. Other airlines offer acceptable flights to Leh, but Air India is the only one who will try to get you to Leh asap, and usually without charging anything.

In the early morning, a local guide will take you to the airport. Be sure to book a window seat on the “A” side for better views, and have your camera handy! The Himalayan scenery is spectacular, and on a clear day, you can see as far as K2 in neighboring Pakistan.

We check into the Lotus Hotel, a warm, family run establishment, decorated in Ladakhi style. The hotel sits above the main town, just a short walk to the main market. Today our priority is to take it easy, and in doing so there should be no problems acclimatizing to the 3,500-meter elevation. Jock lived in Nepal for 12 years and has been on countless trips at altitudes much higher than Leh. He will give a talk to the group about the altitude, and signs and symptoms to be aware of; the salient points being, to take it easy during the first couple of days, staying hydrated and communicating with Jock if you have any concerns whatsoever.

After lunch, Sean and Jock will discuss the itinerary, the surrounding landscape, various cultures, and give you a few anecdotes from our previous visits to Ladakh. We also want to hear from everyone about your experiences in photography, both big and small! Most importantly, we will get you onto a new path, thinking about photography in unique and creative ways.

Day 3, 9/12: Leh

As light breaks over the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, we drive southeast to visit several well-known monasteries situated in dramatic settings. Built in 1655, Shey is a Tibetan monastery known for its giant copper and gilded statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. Thiksey monastery, noted for its similarity to Potala Palace in Lhasa, is a twelve story complex that houses many items of Buddhist art including stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings, and swords; as well as a striking fifteen-meter statue of the Maitreya, the future Buddha.

We have lunch with a local family in Stok, a farming village full of photographic opportunities. A traditional Ladakhi meal will be served in a beautifully decorated home. As a display of wealth and prestige, the dining room walls are lined with high-quality pots and pan, and the furniture is made of intricately carved hardwood.

We return to Leh in the late afternoon.

Day 4, 9/13: Leh

An early morning start to chase the light takes us back past some of the places we visited yesterday and further upstream along the Indus River valley.

We turn up a dry side valley and at the roads’ end reach Hemis, a sprawling monastery complex, the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. This 11th-century structure has gilded stupas studded with precious stones, as well as an impressive collection of ancient books, manuscripts, and various relics. Hemis is said to be home to a secret gospel of Jesus that dates from when he visited Ladakh. This story has been debunked, but Sean has a fascinating personal account of a mysterious German visitor who demanded under a call from God to be allowed to see Christ’s writings.

We return to Leh for lunch and in the afternoon spend time editing our work, and sharing our results with our group.

Day 5, 9/14: Leh

At dawn we walk along hillside covered with Buddhist stupas and take in the morning light as it touches the backside of Leh Palace, perched on a hilltop. After visiting the palace and an adjacent monastery we spend the morning wandering on our own amongst the back streets of Leh, an important trading center for all Ladakhis. There are numerous alleys, with local shops selling a variety of local products. (And of course there are plenty of shops selling goods for tourists too!)

In the afternoon return to the markets in Leh or be taken back to some of the places we have visited earlier in the trip. This opportunity to revisit locations allows everyone an important opportunity to fill in gaps in their creative work.

Day 6 & 7, 9/15 – 9/16: Ullei

We depart Leh for a few days and our first stop is Basgo, a fortified monastery located on a hillock covered with unusual mud and conglomerate rock formations. Inside this seldom visited monastery, the walls are covered with brightly colored murals depicting the Buddha’s life, and there is a massive gilded statue of Maitreya Buddha. The World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving important architecture, restored Basgo monastery.

We continue to Ullei, a tiny village, which sits at the end of a dead-end road and is nestled among jagged Himalayan peaks. Only a few families live here. They grow barely, wheat, potatoes; and raise goats, sheep, and yaks. They will be our hosts for the next two days. And we will be welcome to photograph them going about their daily lives.

One of the villagers is exceptionally knowledgeable about local wildlife and is an excellent photographer. He will take our group out in search of urial, ibex, lammergeier, and perhaps wolves. There will also be ample opportunities to photograph the early morning and late afternoon light as it moves across this remarkable landscape.

Day 8 & 9, 9/17 -9/18: Camp amongst the Brokpa

We continue driving southwest along the Indus River to two Bropka villages, Dha and Hanu. We spend two nights based at a luxury camp with well-appointed canvas tents, excellent meals and amenities.

The Bropka have a current population of around 4,000, have lived in cultural isolation for centuries and possess unique practices and beliefs; all of which remain something of a mystery. They have distinct facial features–possibly European–and the women wear elaborate floral headdresses. They follow ancient religious practices known as Bon-Chos: They abhor cows and chickens and any of their by-products and accept fraternal polyandry, (brothers have the same wife). Using a 19th-century linguistic argument, some claim the Bropka are of pure Indo-Aryan stock. From this questionable argument has arisen a theory that they are descendants of ancient western visitors and represent a pure genetic line of Arianism.

We will organize creative portrait sessions and are welcome to visit and photograph the Brokpa people’s rural way of life.

Day 10, 9/19: Leh

From the Brokpa villages we drive to Lamayuru monastery, the oldest in Ladakh. This 11th-century monastery was built in a rugged and dramatic mountain setting and is home to some 300 monks.

We join the Srinagar-Leh road, follow alongside the Indus River and make our way back to Leh in time for lunch.

This afternoon we have time to review and share our work to date and consider further refinements to our photography.

Day 11, 9/20: Tsomoriri Lake Camp

Today we drive southeast towards the headwaters of the Indus River and have more opportunities for early morning landscape photography. We will probably return to one or two of the monasteries we have visited previously so we can fine-tune our work at these now familiar locations.

In the afternoon we arrive at the cerulean blue Tsomoriri Lake set behind a lush grassland, beneath tanned hills, and flanked by snow-capped peaks. Here we spend time visiting with and photographing the friendly Drukpa nomads of Tibetan descent, who live in yak hair tents and tend livestock of goats, sheep, yaks and a cross breed of cow and yak called dri.

The setting is also excellent for time-lapse photography as shadows of snow-covered peaks cut across the water and high altitude clouds drift across the sky. At night, trails from countless stars can be captured.

Similar to our accommodation at Dha-Hanu, we stay nearby in luxury tents and enjoy excellent meals.

Day 12 9/21: Leh

After shooting in the early morning light beside Tsomoriri Lake, we drive to Puga valley, known for its geothermal features. We visit Tso Kar, a high altitude salt Lake, where the salt washing onto the shore is collected and sold by Drukpa nomads in nearby markets. This spot is popular with bird watchers who especially come to see the black-necked cranes with their spectacular 2.5-meter wingspan soaring against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains. The area is also home to the wild ass, Tibetan gazelle, and Tibetan wolf.

In the afternoon, we continue driving west and ascend Tanglanglha pass. At 5,328 meters, this is one of the highest motorways in the world. We can always stop at various places to photograph the dramatic treeless windswept mountains. We continue our scenic drive to the ancient trading town of Upshi and finally return to Leh.

Day 13 9/22: Leh

On this final day in Ladakh, you might choose to do some more photography (or last minute shopping!), but the main focus will be on finishing up our projects and comparing ideas with others as we prepare for our last slideshow. After dinner we gather to share photographs and stories from our wonderful adventures in Ladakh; the land of high Himalayan peaks, and friendly welcoming locals!

Day 14, 9/23: Departure from Leh

We have an early breakfast, and before heading to the airport say our sad goodbyes to the people and places of Ladakh.

Return to Delhi on Air India flight AI 446 departing Leh at 07:55 and arriving Delhi 09:20 (am). Due to possible delays, flights out of Delhi should be scheduled for the late afternoon or evening.

Jock Montgomery

Jock Montgomery

Jock Montgomery

In 1983, Jock moved to Nepal to train raft guides and lead river expeditions and treks across much of the Himalayas. He was based in Kathmandu for twelve years and now makes his home in Bangkok, Thailand.

He is in demand as a commercial and editorial assignment photographer. He teaches and leads private photography workshops throughout Asia.

He has been leading adventure travel tours since he was a teenager. He now leads river running, sea kayaking, trekking and mountain biking trips; as well as expeditions across the Himalayas, throughout Southeast Asia, North America, Greenland, Patagonia and the Galapagos islands.

More about Jock Montgomery …

Sean Kernan

Sean Kernan

Sean Kernan

Sean Kernan is a photographer, writer, and teacher who came to photography from theater.

He has exhibited at galleries and museums in the U.S., France, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and Korea. He is the author of two monographs, The Secret Books (with Jorge Luis Borges) and Among Trees.

His photos and articles have been published in numerous magazines in the U.S. and Europe.

More about Sean Kernan…



Ladakh, Himalaya, India


Photography Project

Photographs of people and religious sites in Ladakh

Trip Dates

September 10 – 23, 2017

Prices (in USD$)

  • $4550/person, with 6-7 participants
  • $4150/person, with 8-12 participants
  • $500 single room supplement

Payment Schedule

  • Deposit: $800 (non-refundable)
  • Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure

Cancellation Fees

  • 61-90 days prior to departure 50% of trip cost
  • 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of trip cost


What is Included

  • All ground transportation
  • All entrance and photography fees
  • Hotel porter tips
  • All meals, except on the first day (only dinner is included), and on the last day (only breakfast in included)
  • Bottled water
  • Accommodation as specified

What is not included

  • Airfare (including the flights Delhi-Leh-Delhi)
  • Customary and optional tips for local guides
  • Immunization
  • Personal expenses including laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etc.
  • Overweight luggage charges


1) Send Deposit

An invoice will be sent by email with instructions for payment. A non-refundable deposit is required to hold your place on a trip. If paying the full amount, an itemized invoice will be sent. (Same price for cash or credit.)

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2) Complete Trip Application Form

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 3) Purchase Travel Health Insurance

Traveler’s health insurance is required for all Compass Rose Expedition trips.

We strongly recommend trip cancellation insurance.

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 4) Send Copy of Passport

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