Sumdho on Ladakh’s Changtang Plateau

High on Ladakh’s Changtang plateau are Tibetan refugee settlements in which Tibetan nomadic herdsman live. The Changtang plateau extends from Tibet into the northwestern region of India and rests at altitudes from 14,500 to 19,000 feet. It is a land of high desert and beautifully scenic lakes. A harsh land with short summers and long, arctic-like winters, the Tibetan refugees have been able to make a living, mostly by raising sheep and goats. This week we’ll take a look at one settlement called Sumdho.

Ideally, photography is about light. In this case I shot in this village only at dusk, night, and dawn, and had none of the epic light that you’d want. I considered scrapping this post all together, but I thought it still had merit. Sometimes when you’re traveling you’re only in a place for dusk and dawn and the skies are not epic, so here’s a post from just such circumstances.

We arrived in Sumdho at dusk

We arrived in Sumdho at dusk, a mastiff dutifully guarding a home

Yongchen Zema welcomed us into her home, she served us thukpa and many cups of tea. Here she talks with us late into the evening, while knitting.

Yongchen Zema welcomed us into her home, she served us thukpa and many cups of tea. Here she talks with us late into the evening, while knitting.

A bowl of thukpa, a soup made with dumplings and yak meat

A bowl of thukpa, a soup made with dumplings and yak meat

The night we stayed in Sumdho, we were treated to young Tibetans practicing the Tibetan dances that they will perform during the summer.

The night we stayed in Sumdho, we were treated to young Tibetans practicing the Tibetan dances that they will perform during the summer.

A crowd from the village gathers to watch the dancers practice.

A crowd from the village gathered to watch the dancers practice.

A Tibetan woman throws a stone at a neighbors goats in order to keep the herds separated.

A Tibetan woman throws a stone at a neighbors goats in order to keep the herds separated.

A nomad's saddle

A nomad’s saddle

A yak skull with the phrase Om Mani Padme Hum and rams horns adorn a wall.

A yak skull with the phrase Om Mani Padme Hum and rams horns adorn a wall.

A Tibetan man prepares to take his herd out to pasture  at dawn.

A Tibetan man prepares to take his herd out to pasture at dawn.

Tibetan goat herders lead their flocks to pasture as the day dawns.

Tibetan goat herders lead their flocks to pasture as the day dawns.

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23 thoughts on “Sumdho on Ladakh’s Changtang Plateau

  1. Forget the epic lighting! These pictures show that it’s not necessary to tell a compelling story. That’s a credit to your experience and talent! I particularly like the shepherd portrait because the goat to the left is looking eagerly at him for the cue to go out and find something edible. Well, that and the fact that the shepherd is proud and dignified.

  2. My favorite is the woman knitting and chatting. I might make a sketch of it. Also, some of the not-so-good light ones could still be composed into paintings or punch-hooked mats. Have you read Filed Notes by Barry Lopez? Your explorations of people-land relations remind me of his.

  3. The house, the landscape reminds me of the Hopi nation in a strange and interesting way. I really like the picture of the skull, that’s a unique image. And the lack of light gave a real feeling for the place and how the people live.

  4. Maybe light IS important in photography, but I think your images should tell a story………exactly like it is…….so therefore, your photos at dusk and indoors are absolutely perfect. There are no street lamps and bright interior lights, so to increase the exposure would have destroyed the true picture of their lives.

    Love all your shots, but that last one is superb. It shows the barren landscape and snow covered mountains which make the backdrop of village life. Thanks for sharing the photo of the Thukpa – having many books on Tibet, I often wonder exactly what their food looks like. I’ve seen the women making cheese and butter tea on film, but never seen what the meat & dumpling soup looks like.

    I think many of my Tibetan films/documentaries show festivals, bright colour and their ‘Sunday Best’ clothes, but one doesn’t necessarily see their everyday lives.

    Once again, thanks for sharing.

  5. Hey Vicki, I appreciate your comments. I definitely do like shooting with natural, or available, light. With today’s cameras and ISO settings, it’s nice being able to shoot things as they really are. The salt butter tea, at 24-30 cups a day, gets a little hard to take sometimes. ; ) I do like shooting in documentary style, where you see life as it’s truly lived, so I really appreciated the compliment!

  6. This is a great post. I enjoy “seeing” through your images these far and interesting places, the people, their culture and the environment. The last images is spectacular!

    • Technically, this is “Little Tibet” and is in India. Besides the geographic border, it is the same Tibetan plateau. These photos were made in early May, daytime temps were in the 60’s (F) and nighttime lows in the upper 30’s. By now it’s likely in the low 80’s to mid 50’s. But it can be cold anytime there is significant cloud cover.

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