The view of the Indus Valley over the rooftops of Thikse Monastery, now home to around 80 monks of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) Order of Buddhism. The Indus Valley is the heart of Ladakh, with its agricultural land supporting the country's densest population numbers.
Ladakh – Long Read

Over high passes on the trail of Pashmina

Photo by Timothy Allen

Ladakh – Long Read Over high passes on the trail of Pashmina

Hello Ladakh, the remote Himalayan region of India near Tibet that has long been an important cultural crossroads where Islam from the west meets Tibetan Buddhism from the east. Cut off from its ancient trading routes into Asia and Tibet by the closure of borders by China, it has begun to open up to visitors who come to experience a traditional but fast-vanishing way of life.

Jeff Fuchs
Jeff Fuchs Explorer

High, high in the mountains, where the air is almost too thin to breathe, the mule train picks its way, hoofs clicking on rough rock, carrying its precious cargo for the boutiques of Fifth Avenue and the Champs-Élysées. Nothing was more valued or precious on this route than pashmina, silky to the touch, combed and pulled from the tough goats that live in these mountains. It made its way from here through snowbound passes into markets that still bulge with it, before being traded down into the hot, dusty plains of India and beyond, there to be sold in fashionable and expensive clothing lines.

Tashi, a local guide of understated strength, points to a windswept series of ridges north of our camp. “There is where the smart thieves would wait,” he says. In days gone by, bandits added to the hazards of blizzards and disorienting snow passes. They would hide among the peaks, knowing that the time and place to strike was when the caravans were comfortable and secure. Robbing the tough muleteers was not without risk and the chances were best in this slim basin before the 5,600- meter Parangla Pass. I look around, imagining the brigands planning their ambush, moving in at dawn with knives in hand and wearing leather skin boots to keep silent on the stones. Much within these mountain realms was down to grit and knowledge but, if the brat twins of fate and luck were against you, nothing could save you.

This landscape holds greater, present danger. The entire valley is awash with glacial melt and any heavy rain or mass-melt of snow would make this gorge a death trap of floodwaters. The jagged peaks holding up the sky around us are daggers that seem to know their own quiet power. Then there is the weather: Thupten, a still-muscular guide, has told me of sights he still remembers vividly from more than 60 years ago. “We came upon families that had been destroyed by blizzards, ripped apart by wolves and left in pieces in the ice,” he says. “It is not something I ever want to see again.”

Destroyed by blizzards, ripped apart by wolves

Sadanand, one of the leather-skinned horsemen with me, starts to load a mule, oblivious to my imaginings in the grey light of morning. His chatter snaps me back to the present. I am almost halfway into a month-long expedition to trace an unheralded but vital mountain corridor of trade that wandered from Himachal Pradesh, up into Ladakh and the Changtang Highlands. It is a powerful land of wolves, snow leopards and pashmina, the great commodity of this region that makes this the “Route of Wind and Wool”. Ahead of us today is the fearsome Parangla Pass and we prepare with extra doses of tea, and a few more calories of chocolate, while ensuring the mules’ loads are as taut as possible. Grinding days have brought us thus far and more grinding days will take us further. “Consistency is the secret to success,” says Tashi repeatedly. “There is never a guarantee though.”

By the time we near the pass, my breath is coming in deep, drawn-out heaves and we are spread out over several kilometers, with mule and men finding their own pace. We are all small figures on the ancient pathway and this smallness feels good, as though it is a sensation that belongs. Pace and consistency carry the day on these routes while adrenalin keeps clarity at razor sharp levels. Winds hit the body and face out of nowhere as I crest the last little bit of rust-colored rubble and suddenly the mind forgets the lungs’ work and the sightline opens up to Parangla’s north facing slope: an entire expanse of gaping white ice. Wafts of snow blow into the sinus cavity and my molars feel the icy blasts that curl over the pass. Landscapes can temporarily paralyze thoughts at times, as though they have conspired with the senses to simply shut everything down with their impact.

Sadanand makes his way with the mules up to the summit. He finally dons a warm jacket over his hunched body and leans against the cairn of stones gathered by travellers for worship, a prayer of thanks to the gods for helping us this far. His feet are clad in woolen socks and an over-sized pair of Crocs. His lined features appear to have absorbed every ray of sun ever created.

We begin our descent in silence

Over this pass, mules, yak, and even sheep would struggle with their loads heading north as we do, or returning with their high mountain goods. Sheep were the favored transporter for hauling salt. “They are easy to feed, and a flock can haul huge loads,” says Sadanand. “And when the journey is done they could be eaten”.

We begin our descent in silence, tiny black figures against the white spine of the pass and a giant plate of ice. The mules do odd little dances as they try to find grip on the slick surface. We are entering into a zone of such isolation that, as Tashi points out as we pass the skeletal remains of some poor beast, even the nomads have deserted the place.

We are heading north and down into the Parang River Valley, most of which sits at four and half kilometers high. Off to our left a blue-white fury of glacier water shoots down in a forceful stream that weaves and wanders. In every small valley, from the mouth of every local, there is talk about the rapid melting of ice and snow atop the great peaks. Steady flows of melt- water will course down the mountainsides during our entire journey. Tashi simply shakes his head when looking at the white-topped peaks. “Once they looked sacred, but now they are weeping,” he says. As the winds pick up and the light dies down, we sit by a flickering campfire. Sadanand’s five decades among the heights are as good a barometer of the mountains’ health as any statistics. “The mountains will never die but the white peaks are almost a memory now,” he says. “These mountains have their own laws, and their own lives.”

Days later, I leave him and his flatulent mules behind as I enter the relaxed pandemonium of Ladakh’s ancient capital, Leh. Sitting north of the Zanskar Range, and huddled under the ruins of Leh Palace, it basks and buzzes while still managing to ooze ancient energy. Its name means “encampment of nomads” and the market is a reminder that this land of trade corridors is a land of intense DNA. Sitting at the crux of Tibet, India, and Central Asia, Ladakh encapsulates rich cultural infusions from every direction in amounts that fill the senses. It is no less than a tapestry of intense cultural blending, forced together for the six months of winter when snows still isolate the city. Savvy wool sellers from Kashmir, powerful Yarkhandi traders (known for their fierce tempers and direct ways), shaggy wool-encased nomads, Sikh tea-sellers, road workers from Bihar, all join with the native Ladakhis and Indians from further south.

Impossibly soft Shahtoosh from the Tibetan chiru antelope

I ask one Leh market trader what was most the valuable commodity. “Anything that was needed would always be more valuable than something of luxury,” he says. “The exception to that was pashmina. It was what was desired by all.” Pashmina – still intensely valuable – lies in heaps. Kashmir (the even finer wool of baby pashmina goats), kulu (yak wool) and even the illegal and impossibly soft Shahtoosh from the Tibetan chiru antelope is available. It is illegal because the rare animal must be slaughtered and the wool I guiltily touch is soft to the point of cream.

Within the Muslim quarter, where calm somehow rules among the bakeries and flow of locals, I speak to a shopkeeper who seems to sell a bit of everything. His immaculate white beard, long robe, and topi (cap) lend yet another kind of rich cultural patina to the world of trade. “Trade was about people and about enjoying time together for tea,” he says. “Business never stopped and neither did the coming together”.

Pashmina – sourced by nomads upon the high barren grasslands of wind far away from pollutants of man – has allowed these fiercely independent nomads a source of remarkable income. To and from the market towns, and in and out of the hands of middlemen and middlewomen, and to distant lands where other hands would fashion the strands into works of magnificent value, pashmina’s travels were legendary. If one could follow a single thread of wool, it would carve a trail that would be scarcely believable.

Leaving Leh behind, we move on, picking up a new guide as we head north from the Upper Fu Valley and into the land of sands: the Nubra Valley. Though trade in large part over the borders of Tibet ended in 1958, smaller routes continued to flourish and it is upon one of these minor routes that we pass. Another snow pass waits and a land where glaciers rule and most of it is up.

They move as if attached to one another

While I look forward to the soothing white of the ice, it is something slightly blue that first silences us all in blunt wonder. In a camp at 4,900 meters on a slight slope of rough grass, we see six broad male Bharals (blue sheep). Deep chested and neat, they steadily make their way down with one huge male leading. They move as if attached to one another and, while cautious, show no fear. If they are present, so too must be their main predator: the elusive and ghost-like snow leopard. They continue to move across the horizon, keeping their tight formation. It is as though the mountains have sent a power to silence us into worship; they have stirred something that the brain knows but the conscious mind does not, something primordial.

Shortly after crossing the 5,000-meter Lasermo Pass, I climb higher, driven by a longing to see a snow leopard and explore the strands of ice. The world of valleys below looks like it has been raked into patterns like a bleached Japanese Zen garden without any vegetation. Lands here and further east of us have little recorded history before the 10th century and there are moments when I look down and imagine that it remains a land without any records at all beyond what the ice-covered peaks have taken in and observed.

The glaciers feed streams which tumble downward into the wide Nubra River, itself a tributary of the Shyok River (‘The River of Death’). In its turn, that feeds the great Indus River. Waters melt, memories fade, and routes are scoured over by winds and sand. Only precious pashmina remains in all of its pomp and vibrancy.

Our journey has two vital human components left to give some perspective and life to the route of wind and wool. These elements are vital simply because, in the absence of any substantial documentation, they can provide so much lifeblood to this faded route through the sky. The first is a man and the second is a community. We reach a town near Hunder to speak to someone who remembers the days of trade and who as a boy, helped tend his father’s shop when traders showed up to barter.

Almost 80, Abdul Raza is elegance personified. Long limbed, slow moving, and immaculate, he embodies something eternal. Sitting with him cross-legged on rugs, my own thoughts wander as he recalls the days when his father dealt with the rugged men who wore the route on their faces. These dirt-bound, calloused men lived and died on the great trading connections through a landscape of dust, motion and mountain empires.

Trade completed lives and exposed people to outside worlds

As Ozil translates, laughs and clarifies with huge hand gestures, Abdul reminds us how much traveled on the routes besides wool. Silk, finished carpets, silver, gold, coral, turquoise, tea, and even charas (a form of hashish made from the resin of the cannabis plant) moved through to the markets.

The day’s light fades but Abdul could wax eloquent for hours. “Trade was important because it completed lives and exposed people to outside worlds,” he says. “It allowed us to look through a window and enjoy things from far away. The main routes of trade south to Leh, west into Pakistan and north into Central Asia were never still, except in winter. They were the best of times.” I have heard this said so often of this indomitable route: that it was necessary, entirely difficult, but wonderfully social.

Having hit this northerly point of the Nubra – and as far as I am legally allowed to go – I shoot south once again down through Leh. My destination is a source of pashmina wool, a land I am always keen to revisit: the yul (‘lands’ or ‘country’) of the nomads.

Over the Tanglang Pass and west into a series of valleys, we come to a place that time seems to have relinquished and given to the winds. Sixteen homesteads remain of this clan and their yak-hair tents ripple in the winds. Stone corrals stand like guardians against the never-ending wind. I feel the fragility of this community the moment we see the sparse tents. It is the fragility of the intensely strong.

Our arrival has stirred the community but there are few members left to stir. It is a population (and a way of life) that is ebbing just as the glaciers do, as more and more members move to the city of Leh. The remaining members persist in their continual migrations, packing up all they own and moving on many times a year. This life requires a rare tenacity and effort.

A beautiful and fierce woman of the sun and winds

The headman is absent but his wife, a beautiful and fierce woman of the sun and winds, treats us as if we are lost but welcome traders. She tells us that her husband and half of the community will return later in the day with the herds and flocks from their high grazing lands. And come they do, appearing from the midst of a far-off cloud of dust raised by the many hundreds of livestock moving restlessly forward.

Pashmina goats have allowed these distant nomads to remain nomads. Harvested in spring, the wool is traded and sold for necessities such as grain and small luxuries like salt. It is only in the highest places that the animal’s coats thrive and grow, only the most remote and inaccessible of lands that give this luxury of warmth. But these people of the earth echo that the snows are disappearing. One toothless man with cleavers for hands speaks of passes that were once impassable being “opened up by the skies” to allow for caravans and herds. The mountains, and their way of life, are in peril.

The herds come in closer as the sky darkens. An ancient woman, her skin has folded in on itself, asks us why we have come. As I answer in my broken Tibetan, she interrupts, gesturing to a tent. “You must eat, and have some tea,” she says. The bonds of hospitality are never forgotten in a land where people either join together or perish alone.

We drink the rich tea in a cozy tent, comforted by the bleats and snorts of the life-giving goats outside, while the wind billows the yak-wool walls in its never-ending hunt for a way in.

Other stories about Ladakh