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By Karen E. LangePhotographs by Mattias Klum

With the help of the Dalai Lama, a Western photographer is welcomed by the isolated monks and nuns of Hanle Valley in a remote corner of India's Ladakh.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

It's after dark when photographer Mattias Klum approaches the last army checkpoint on the road to Hanle, a little-known settlement in India's northern Himalayan region of Ladakh. From Leh, the capital of Ladakh, it has taken Mattias 12 hours by four-wheel drive to get here. Preparation for his visit took much longer: Permission to visit Hanle and its gompa—a 17th-century monastery on the ancient trade route that once linked the kingdoms of Ladakh and Tibet—was more than two years in coming. Now he shows the guard his permit from the Indian government and a letter from the Dalai Lama himself. But Mattias's request to pass is met with disbelief. Examining the documents, the guard informs him, "This is not true."

The guard's reluctance to let the foreigner continue on is understandable. Other than a handful of scientists bound for the government-run observatory in Hanle, most Westerners have been denied access since the end of the Chinese-Indian war of 1962. Fearing that spies from China might slip over the border into Hanle, which sits just 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the disputed frontier, the Indian government declared the area off-limits. But after a careful review of Mattias's documents, the guard at last allows him to pass.

Enforced isolation has slowed the pace of change in the Hanle Valley, which is home to roughly a thousand people—about 300 of whom reside in the village of Hanle. When Mattias arrives at the monastery, the monks are cautious at first, unsure of what a photographer does. But the Dalai Lama's letter, which they place on a throne reserved for a visit from His Holiness, reassures them, and they become more at ease. The monks talk with Mattias and slowly begin to understand why he wants to take their pictures. They wonder what kinds of attention and perhaps help his work might bring the gompa, a crumbling stone edifice where 10 monks live and another 33 come regularly for prayers.

Gradually these sons of local herders allow Mattias to photograph life at the monastery, which is steeped in the Buddhist ideals of humility, patience, cooperation, and compassion—values that are also embraced at a nunnery across the valley. Indeed, Hanle's high-altitude desert requires everyone to keep a tight reign on selfishness and pride. Survival in the harsh climate means family members must put aside individual interests to work together and overcome personal conflicts as they endure long winters in close quarters.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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VIDEO Photographer
Mattias Klum
describes his "humble approach" to working among the monks and nuns of Ladakh.

AUDIO Hear the complete interview (recommended for low-speed connections).
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Listen to the prayer chants of Ladakh's monks and nuns.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Hanle Valley is home to the world's highest observatory—the Indian Astronomical Observatory—which began operating in 2001. The valley is ideally situated for astronomy: It's high, perched at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters), wide (unlike the innumerable steep, narrow valleys elsewhere in the Greater Himalaya, Hanle encompasses a vast plain); and dry (there is no snow or rain). The view is so sweeping and the air so clear that photographer Mattias Klum and his translator, Matin Chunka, spotted Hanle monastery from 25 miles (40 kilometers) across the valley, while still a two-hour drive away over rough terrain.
Hanle lies on the easternmost edge of India's Ladakh region, in an area called changthang in the Ladakhi language.  The word is a compound of changpa (nomads) and thang (plains), and tent-dwelling changpa still herd sheep, goats, and yaks across the expansive thang. But construction of the observatory starting in the late 1990s introduced modern influences to this portion of the seemingly timeless changthang. The government facility uses solar-generated electric power and partners with research institutions around the world through satellite links and the Internet. Access to electricity is still intermittent for most other valley residents, but a recently installed television transmitter may someday bring them a view of the larger world.
—Nancie Majkowski
Did You Know?

Related Links
Indian Astronomical Observatory: Hanle
Make a virtual visit to the world's highest observatory and view an image gallery showing the optical-infrared telescope in its remote Himalayan desert valley setting.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Read about the life and work of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, 1989 Nobel peace-prize winner, and head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
The Tibetan Nuns Project
The project establishes nunneries to educate Tibetan Buddhist refugees and native women of the culturally Tibetan areas of India.
Isuzu Challenge: Indian Himalayas 2001
Retrace drivers' progress as they traverse Hanle Valley midway through an expedition in the "highest motorable region of the world."


Coxall, Michelle, and Paul Greenway. Indian Himalaya. Lonely Planet,
Farrer-Halls, Gill. The World of the Dalai Lama: An Inside Look at His Life, His People, and His Vision. Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh. Sierra Club Books, 1991.
Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion
Publications, 1995.
Rizvi, Janet. Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Shakya, Tsering. "War in the Himalayas," in The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press, 1999.
Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. HarperCollins, 1993.
Wahid, Siddiq. Ladakh: Between Earth and Sky. Norton, 1981.


NGS Resources
Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Ladakh—The Last Shangri-La," National Geographic (March 1978), 332-59.

Garrett, Wilbur E. "Mountaintop War in Remote Ladakh." National Geographic (May 1963) 664-87.


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