Traveling 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 – I enter the relaxed pandemonium of its capital, Leh.
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.
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.