Photo Essay by Thomas James Parrish

It wasn’t the five magnificent horses stirring up the dirt and dust beneath the snow-capped mountains that I noticed first. At that distance, it was hard to tell what these creatures really were. What caught my eye was the vibrant pops of colour they carried, which contrasted against the otherwise barren pallet of the far north Himalayan Road. Bright red chairs, orange and emerald buckets, deep-blue tarpaulins and sunshine-yellow satchels sang out as the animals trudged their way forwards along the crest of the pebbly ravine. Pack horses carrying seemingly far too many goods, telling a story of mountain tourism and how its demands are met in Leh, Ladakh. 

The road to Leh was far from the most comfortable journey I’ve embarked upon, but what it lacked in elbow room and smooth tarmac, the 15 hours from Keylong made up for in visual masterpieces. 

We were stopped at one of several passport checkpoints - on little more than a dirt track through the mountains - when the horses passed by and were ushered off the road and down to the stream some 50 metres below. They were shepherded by their guide, a weathered Indian man with deep set eyes, who used a thick stick to the rump to encourage them down the gully. When the lead horse became entangled in a guiding wire and panicked, it kicked chaotically on the steep and slippery surface and a dust cloud erupted from the bedlam. I help my breath, hoping she would not lose her footing as she ran on at full speed, with items falling loose from their confides on her load.

As I’d stood helpless and intrigued by the wild scene, I had captured an image that I feel perfectly represents my time in the Himalayas - and India itself. A scene of resilience, struggle, madness and beauty. It felt like an age before all six horses finally met safely by the water. As the dust settled, the only evidence of the near catastrophe came in the shape of a few red apples rolling gingerly down the hill. 

This was India. Unpredictable and unimaginable. 

I spent six months travelling the far reaches of the country’s northern states. From the rainforests and tea stops of Singalila National Park in West Bengal, to the mountains and monasteries of the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. Inspired by my dad’s photography from the 1980s – which brought extraordinary lands and people into the living room of my childhood home – I’d gone in search of scenes and stories of my own. 

A similarly memorable interaction came as I sat on the platform at Ajmer Station - the closest train station to Pushkar, Rajasthan - and was entertained by a group of children. The station was their playground. Jumping on and off idle trains, poking their heads through windows and chasing rats on the tracks, occasionally waving to me from all ends and sides of the platforms. One of them, however, was more interested in keeping me company than being caught up in the game. Assam sat with me for almost an hour until it was time for me to board. Exchanging broken English and Hindi, we learnt what we could about each other when we weren’t taking turns snapping each other’s portraits. His inquisitive eyes and innocence made this encounter one of my most cherished interactions, and this photograph is a reminder of the people we meet - and then leave behind - in the pursuit of adventure.

Many of my favourite travelling memories took shape aboard the Indian railway. Outside, the ever-shifting landscape danced by, as if winding on a roll of film from the past. Inside, the sapphire-hued beds of sleeper class offer a temporary home during the dozens of hours spent in transit. Here, responsibility and obligation drifted from my mind, as the only pressing issues became disembarking at the right time and securing my belongings. Having fleetingly let me guard down as we travelled west along the Ganges from Varanasi to Haridwar, these two matters saw me to leap from a moving train. 

My alarm sounded at 4am in preparation for my estimated arrival into Haridwar at 4.30. As I awoke, I registered the train was idle, already at a station. Assuming that we were early and wouldn’t leave until the timetabled departure in 30 minutes, I began my now-ritualised, pre-getting-off-the-train activities. As I rolled up my sleeping bag, the train jolted and sparked into motion. With stations typically hundreds of kilometres apart, I couldn’t afford to miss my stop. 

The train picked up momentum as I franticly gathered my belongings and made my way to where the cars were joined - where disembarking occurred and where the last length of the platform had become a fast-moving treadmill beneath me. I jumped. 

The challenges of India are unrelenting. The joy that it promotes is unmatched and its seamless transition between the tender and the tranquil, and the vibrant and the chaotic needs to be experienced to be fully understood. In six months, I only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer, and I’d love to say I enjoyed every moment of my time here, but that would be a blatant lie. Travel isn’t always perfect - there are times we miss a familiar bed or crave a sense of stillness - but it’s the imperfections, the near-misses, and the utterly ridiculous that make it all the more dazzling and desired.

The article content is reproduced from https://lodestarsanthology.co.uk/.