My Roles: Ethnographer, Designer, Photographer, UI Developer
Team of 5
Highest Road is a project funded by a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant. For this project, I traveled with my team to Ladakh, a region in Jammu and Kashmir, India, to document the highest altitude roads in the world as they were reconstructed. Every year immigrant workers come to Ladakh to reconstruct these roads at extreme altitude after avalanches, rockslides, and flooding destroy them over the winter. During our time in Ladakh, the story that unfolded was very much a coming of age story. We found a Tibetan Buddhist culture, with its identity rooted in its isolation from the outside world, at an awkward point in its development. That time when everything has grown too fast, but not quite fast enough. Increased connectivity to the region has increased tourism and sparked socioeconomic change, but the lack of connectivity for six to nine months out of the year still hold the people back from fully adopting a new way of life. We found that the roads themselves act as what could best be described as, the metronome of Ladakh’ s development, dictating the pace at which this region is developing. As the road quality increases, connectivity does as well, which drives change within the culture. The irony within this is that most of the women and men who migrate to Ladakh to rebuild this road, have been left without a means to make a livelihood by the cultural development occurring where they are from. As the metronome of development slowly quickens, Ladakh’ s isolation will become a thing of the past and much of their culture will change for the better as their education systems, economy, and medical infrastructure grows. That being said, what is Ladakh to become as its culture changes? Our story is about this complex, real time, tug of war between inclusion and isolation and all that goes along with it.
Personally, I was lucky to be a part of this expedition and would say this was a lifetime experience. Ladakh was one of my favorite places on earth, and it was National Geographic! Being the only Indian living in close quarters with a team of North Americans was also an interesting cultural experience. A melting pot of Indian, American and Tibetan culture. A lot of pre-defined misconceptions regarding American and Indian conceptions of each other were clarified, which one can understand not from media portrayed, but only when you make each other part of your lives.
I learnt that no matter where you are from, the human experience, emotions remain the same.
It was a period of tough challenges due to inhospitable weather of Ladakh, the high altitude, camping in extreme conditions. There were times when we were researching in high danger zone of avalanches, and even saw one happening. There were also challenges to be faced with the Indian government system, various rules and regulations.
One thing I noticed the difference between a tourist and a researcher. Tourist comes to see what they want to see for example a lot of westerners come and experience Ladakh as a rich old Tibetan place and want to preserve it as how it was pictured, and exotic. Whereas the people have their own sentiments and wishes and expressed that they are not specimens of a museum, they have their own specific needs and wants.
Our Journey can be followed here:-
This experience has been submitted to national geographic as part of the grant submissions.