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Old 5th June 2023, 14:47   #1
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Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-img_14992.jpg
Holding up a baby pashmina goat in a nomadic rebo tent in Changthang, Ladakh.

In 2022, I decided to move to Ladakh for an entire season. I rented a shared house to set up base. Thereafter I traveled around Changthang, which sits by the eastern periphery on a self supported journey to really get to know the people and the region. Armed with a little book to learn bhoti (the ethnic language of Ladakh), I was off on my exploration.

This is my story.

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Old 5th June 2023, 14:49   #2
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

With the Next Generation

Mid semester, I taught entrepreneurship to the students in SECMOL. SECMOL is an alternative school for Ladakhi students who have “failed” the normal study system that is in place in India. We adopted a hands-on program rather than a lecture based one. In this 3 month workshop intensive, students were first grouped according to the geographies they came from. Then over a series of group discussions, they ideated and created products that represented their geographical ethnicity using material from the campus.

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A whiteboard to brainstorm

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Students of SECMOL

While the students from Sham valley and Kargil painted artwork, those from the Changthang made a model of the Rebo tent, and another team presented bottled seabuckthorn and barley teas with handwritten labels. The key element here was the students developed products that fully represented their diverse ethnicity within Ladakh. While most tourists view Ladakh as one single homogenous region, this program brought to the fore the many nuances and cultural identities that constitute Ladakh as a whole.

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One of the groups presenting their ideated products

Vanishing traditions in Changthang

Mid year, I took the opportunity to travel extensively into the Changthang region and spent a month living in and around the village of Koyul, having befriended the earlier Goba (bhoti for headman).

Koyul is a small village of about 25 families nestled between Demchok and Nyoma. Herding and farming are the primary occupations. There is no phone network. With the Tibetan border a stone’s throw away, internet is tightly regulated here. The signal one receives is beamed from a central BSNL tower for a couple of hours a day at the most.

I spend my time strolling around the village making small conversations. Living amongst the community gave me time and access to fostering relationships.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-villagers.jpg
Getting to know the local villagers

One night I was invited to a nomadic wedding where I got a first hand opportunity to hear wedding singers and their bagston lu’s or wedding songs. A key part of the wedding rituals, songs are sung to welcome the bride and groom and passed down from one generation to the next in the form of an oral tradition. So important were they that the wedding itself was put off for days together because the only singer in the region was unable to make it down from Hanle on time. But the younger generation is increasingly rejecting these ritualistic roles, most of them embracing the job of a DJ instead, like one young man at this very wedding playing songs from youtube well into the night.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-wedding.jpg
A vibrant Changpa wedding on the far border with Tibet late into the night

The lama at Koyul is about my age, and we befriended each other easily. He invited me to the summer mela near Chisum Le which takes place every year. I observed as villages from around the area came together for a day of rituals, horse racing, and friendly games with the Indian army.

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Horsemen destroying evil omens at the summer mela near Chisum Le

These events were helpful, as the locals had seen me consistently over the past few weeks. I was now being accepted as a part of the community and began making friends.

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Old 5th June 2023, 14:56   #3
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Saving the Pastures

I meet with a Changpa in his Rebo, camped on the banks of the Indus near Demchok. Over tea he laments about how little he earned from selling the raw unprocessed wool to traders who would visit them. On prodding about why he sells unprocessed wool, he laughs, “But we don’t know how to make Pashmina products”.

He was unaware of the actual prices of shawls and sweaters made from pure pashmina in the market or elsewhere, and I dared not tell him. Back in Leh, I find that Looms of Ladakh have been taking the first steps towards training Ladakhi women on creating their own pashmina products, helping unlock value within the local ecosystem.

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Tsering and her father are Changpa’s. They are feeding a new born pashmina kid

"Most of our winter pastures are in the forward areas where the Chinese are now blocking us", he tells me as he points out to the distance across the Indus where he claims the Chinese troops visit regularly.

Large white structures stare back at us — these are Chinese cameras keeping a watch. Winter, he says, is an especially hard time since access to fresh grass and fodder is impossible. I discover Solar lambing sheds which have piloted successfully across a few villages in Changthang since 2005. A simple passive solar based green house that proves helpful in both growing and stocking fodder in the harsh winters. They even keep the younger goats warm enough to survive these critical months. But why more of these haven’t found a place here is a mystery — especially since a major starvation resulting in widespread deaths of the Changthangi goats in 2013.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-changpa-tent.jpg
Changpa’s are nomadic pastoralists. This Rebo tent is their home for the next few months

The Changpa’s have also increasingly become over reliant on pashmina.

Originally, there would be a good mix of sheep, yaks, and pashmina goats. Now most herders only keep the pashmina for obvious reasons. Without adequate yak dung, pastures are thinning out for lack of manure. Goats are also more earnest foragers contributing to the desertification of the pasturelands.

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A lone pashmina grazes near camp. This pashmina was left behind to recover from injury

Last bus to Leh

More Changpas have been giving up the pastoral life of herding pashmina, and have instead gone on to work for the BRO and GREF, building roads at the borders.

The “achi” or sister whose home I am living in leaves every morning to catch the truck that takes her and many others for their day job at a road construction site nearby. "Yes, the work is backbreaking in the sun but I receive an assured daily income which I wouldn’t get if I was in my farm", she tells me. I find it difficult to argue with that. The silver lining is more locals are hired as opposed to bringing in migrant labor from other parts of the country.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-bro.jpg
A lone woman sits at a road construction site high in the Himalayas

Migration to Leh, especially Choglamsar is contributing to the disappearance of villages and culturally rich livelihoods like pastoralism. The key driver? Access to education. Primary schools are few and far between with just a handful of students and fewer teachers across Ladakh. At the primary school in Koyul, there are under 10 students in all and 2 teachers. The head teacher I meet tells me she was managing all the students and the school singlehandedly until another teacher was recently hired from the village of Mudh, which sits about a half day’s journey from here.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-teacher.jpg
One of two teachers at a local primary school

There is an acute dearth of teachers who want to work in such stunning but desolate locations. The 17000 ft. Foundation has been doing stellar work in this area, helping local communities set up schools where there were none and beefing up existing ones with books, teacher training and computer labs. An audacious project of theirs? Geo mapping every single school across the remote Himalayas to help plan and track intervention, trying to stem this gargantuan issue at the root.

Back at the Rebo tent, Tsering’s dad tells me that she will likely not take after him to be a pastoralist. The money is too little for the hardship involved. She will need to move away for education, which he intends to provide for. "I didn’t study at all, and I was a herder from the time I remember. I don’t want my kids to take this path unless they choose to", he tells me.

But what happens to the pashmina and your way of life? Who takes it forward? He shrugs his shoulders as he looks out into the mountains. Somewhere out there is his herd of over a 100 goats grazing under the watchful eyes of his wife and sister, both of whom are shepherdess’. It’s a tough job.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-herd.jpg
Pashmina herds number in the hundreds

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Old 5th June 2023, 14:59   #4
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Man vs Wild

A visit to a Yak herder camp I chanced upon was my introduction to the Shanku. He was tending to the injured leg of a yak which had recently been mauled by what he called a “jungli kutta”. But did he mean a wild feral dog or the Shanku, the Himalayan wolf? Judging by the bite mark on the yak, it did seem like wild feral dogs which have now become a rising threat to both prey and predator in Ladakh. Projects like the successful Shangdong project to prevent killing of wolves by Karma Sonam, the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) PARTNERS predator proof corral project, as well as the stray sterilisation initiative in neighbouring Spiti led by Ajay Bijoor of the NCF are helping ease such concerns.

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Friendly yaks at a yak herder’s camp

In Hanle, I meet with Sonam Dorje, who runs Padma Homestay, named after his wife. He tells me of various conservation efforts he has led, being a volunteer wildlife guide himself in the area. More locals have been involved as trackers and wildlife guides which is now a lucrative source of income. This gives them a greater impetus to conserve the wild life and their habitation. Still with grazing pastures reducing, the sheep and goats have started eating into wildlife habitats and there is always a tussle between man and wild.

"The past few weeks have been full of sightings of the Pallas’ cat", Sonam tells me with excitement. But rampant tourism and the build up of concrete in villages where mud houses were de facto are not helpful. All domestic tourists demand a flush toilet and do not want to have anything to do with a compost toilet. There is less water to go around, already scarce in a region often referred to as the world’s highest desert.

He agrees that the way Hanle is going is unsustainable. Motorcyclists arrive in droves to conquer Umling la, the world’s highest pass that lies just off Hanle. The pressure on local resources is immense. There is only so much water available. "Even the garbage situation has become untenable", he laments. And the money that tourists are spending seem to go only to a fraction of the population in Hanle, the ones who can afford to open a guesthouse with expensive plumbing and sanitation. With a fear of missing out, everyone is jumping into this gold rush with scant regard to the problems that loom on the horizon.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-umlingla.jpg
Umling La, at over 19,000 feet is the highest pass in the world and a key driver of tourism in the region

"Everybody is demanding a sighting of the Pallas’ cat", says Sonam, leaving this shy elusive creature wondering what the fuss is all about. Our meandering talk comes to a halt abruptly as Sonam is called away. He has a full house of tourists to attend to tonight.

Grey Ghost

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A village left vacant for the summer by the Changpa’s

A village just off Tso Startsupuk, a sister fresh water lake of Tso Kar is vacated by its residents in the summer. I walk around the large enclosures with low walls to hold their pashmina goats and yaks. This will not keep wild predators like the Shan, or snow leopard away.

I make my way to the village of Rumchung, which sits barely 30 kilometres away from Leh but is still completely cut off from all modern conveniences that we take for granted. Roads for instance. Rumchung sits perched inside the Hemis National Park, famous for the highest density of snow leopards found in any protected area in the world. Chung means small in bhoti and the village of Rumchung lived up to its name with just 3 houses in the settlement. The lone homestay, marked by a board hanging outside is deserted save for a jolly old man. "My entire family is off in Leh and I am the only one around here. Will you be happy eating what I cook for myself?" I nod yes, eager to escape the creeping cold of the evening in early April.

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Azhang ley counting beads. Buddhism is an integral part of everyday life in Ladakh

Azhang ley, or the elderly gentleman is not alone. He has a cat that keeps him company. Over a steaming bowl of thukpa that the three of us share that night, he recounts owning a large herd of goat and sheep.

"I have sold all of them now. At my age I am unable to take them out grazing and none of my children are interested in this work. I am old and with me this culture of herding goats and sheep will come to an end. And there’s always the threat of the Shan. But we respect the Shan and its habitat. In Buddhism we believe snow leopards are born to remove the sins of our past lives. It is a big sin to kill the Shan", he tells me. Indeed, with the rising numbers of the Snow Leopard, wildlife tourism has exploded in the valley.

He points out to the mountain across the river and tells me about cleverly camouflaged flocks of Bharals and Urials that visit. They are the prey of choice for the Shan. I squint hard into the distance, but my untrained eyes cannot discern anything amidst the rocky martian crags. I get up to head out for a late evening walk. "Don’t stay out too late", Azhang ley cautions me, "you just might run into a bear". I heed his warning and return early.

The next morning, I leave on a day trip to Rumbak. The Rumbak village is a larger settlement, about 10 houses or more with charming barley fields sitting pretty amidst the spectacularly tall mountains. There are many more well furnished guesthouses here than in Rumchung, and the hosts seem experienced with handling tourists because it is the Snow Leopard capital of the world. I watch as a primary health centre is being beefed up and more construction is planned. What is a quaint idyllic village today might no longer be one soon. I wonder which way the balance will tilt in the future.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-rumbak.jpg
A quiet walking path in Rumbak is blocked by an errant yak

My time in Rumchung comes to an end. As a parting gift, I write out the words Snow Leopard in a little pocketbook of my loving host. He stares at it for a while. He cannot read english but folds the book carefully into his breast. I leave knowing the Shan is in safe hands.

Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang-snow-leopard.jpg
My only sighting of a snow leopard, a woollen doll made by a women’s self help group


This article has been reproduced from Medium.

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Last edited by Red Liner : 5th June 2023 at 15:56.
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Old 6th June 2023, 06:13   #5
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 6th June 2023, 06:46   #6
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

What an explorer adventurer you are!
A lovely read this morning!

BTW some of the visuals and pictures are reminiscent of pictures and documentaries Ive seen of Mongolia and the Central Asian Steppes and the South American pastoralists in the Andes as well as what little Ive seen in person of Native Americans in USA.

The horses and horsemen are a treat to watch. The baby Pashmina goats are so cute. I have some Pashmina stoles and I have not researched enough about ‘cruelty free’ but these lovely people, being Buddhists I am very sure will be humane and kind to their animals the way most pastoralists are.

One thing struck me in the story.

“The “achi” or sister”.

You will probably know Achi more as Grandma, in parts of Southern India.

Amazing the way some words are kind of common between cultures. But may mean different things.

Thanks for sharing this. I loved reading it!
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Old 6th June 2023, 07:02   #7
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Dear Red Liner,

What a wonderful travelogue !

This travelogue reminds me of Late Gaurav Jani who made “Motorcycle Chang pa” one year journey across the high altitude Changthang desert in Ladakh.

Your travelogue is different from the regular ones and not for those who venture as tourists to Ladakh. This travelogue enters deep into the essence of Ladakh and into the culture which soon may be forgotten due to internet and the mixing of local culture with the modern world.

During one of my last visits to Zanskar and Sham valley, I interacted with the locals on some occasions. We visited a village called Achinathang and met Mr. Sonam Phuntsog who has received the Bharat Ratna award from the Government. He is a historian who wrote several books on Ladakh and also delivered many lectures in India and abroad on the culture of Ladakh. As I love history, I visited this person to get some more insights as the history of Ladakh is not well documented and is mainly recorded in oral tradition which came down from centuries. The actual sources are rare and the longest documents available are the Royal chronicles of Ladakh, which are not more than 42 pages long.

On another occasion, we visited the village of Ulley which has only 40 residents and is a famous village for Snow Leopard sitings. Here we met and interacted with Mr. Norbu who is a wildlife spotter and does that for a living. His son is a wildlife photographer assists people who visit the region for wildlife.

Please share more stuff as it will be exiting to read.

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Old 6th June 2023, 10:57   #8
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Your travelogue is a relief from the usual chest thumping accounts of Ladakh conquests. It focuses on the people, their social life and the situation of the place beyond an ordinary tourist's view point from Pashmina to Shan to the rising inclination of gold rush (tourism). It is precise and has the right amount and nature of visuals to elevate to the level of a professional documentary. Read it at one go and it left me craving for more such accounts in the future, glanced at your other articles on medium too, bookmarked for future read.

I would have loved to see a video of the wedding ceremony and the rituals for driving bad omen away and of course a peek into the class room of entrepreneurship. You have made the best of your time soaking in the region. Thank you for penning down and eagerly waiting for the next one. Rated 5 stars.

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Old 6th June 2023, 11:03   #9
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

I was wishing this travelogue wouldn't stop. I don't know why, but I had a few tears in my eyes reading your account on life in the "Land of Mountain Passes". Maybe reading about the loss of a traditional lifestyle in favour of greener pastures. But then as a city slicker, who am I to judge?

Over-eager (though well-meaning) tourism should be discouraged in such ecologically fragile places. Tourists should learn how to immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the local people. But I guess when you pay, you want it your way?

This was a great read Red Liner!!!
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Old 6th June 2023, 11:12   #10
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Wow! You are a true explorer. Very well chronicled. The part about the meal with the lonely old man is very cute for the want of better words.

Some things said by the locals on the pressure on their ecosystem is concerning. I haven't garnered much support in the past when I have in the past said that tourism in Ladakh must be regulated. I can only reiterate. Possibly a cooperative model and integrated model will be the way forward.

True travellers like you are rare - people who explore and blend. These places need travellers and explorers - not adventurers or tourists who visit to tick a box. This will really help the local population to preserve and prosper at the same time.

Last edited by theabstractmind : 6th June 2023 at 11:16. Reason: Added line about cooperative model
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Old 6th June 2023, 13:58   #11
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Red liner, wonderful account, you have shared a slice of everyday life in Ladakh, great account
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Old 6th June 2023, 14:30   #12
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

Amazingly narrated experience! Every word depicts the passion you have towards this expedition.

I was fortunate to conquer my dream to reach and ride in Ladakh a couple of weeks ago. At 40 now, I was extremely anxious if I would even be able to handle the 1100 km ride on a RE Himalayan for 6 long days but the wonderful views, landscapes embedded distinctively with on/off roading through the terrain kept my adrenaline high all the way.

Covered in & arounds of Leh-Sangam valley-Khardung la (pass)-Siachen Valley-Nubra valley-Pangong lake-Thang village-Chang la (pass)-Leh. It was more of Exhilaration than Exhaustion.
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Old 6th June 2023, 22:34   #13
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

@Red Liner you are a true explorer.Just loved your experience.May be the snow leopard is waiting for you somewhere.
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Old 7th June 2023, 02:45   #14
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

I am so envious of and at the same time delighted with your travel story. From being able to take on teaching projects, to learning Bhoti, to making a true blue account of the ecology, you have been in Ladakh the way I want to be, not as a tourist, but as one of their own.

Thanks for sharing this. Really grateful for the account and floored with the kind of interactions and exchanges you have had.
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Old 9th June 2023, 09:04   #15
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Re: Lost in Ladakh | Change on the horizon in Changthang

That was a nice little write up. Really enjoyed reading this today. Disappointed to see it end so soon.

Thank you for sharing this.
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