Camping with the Changpas- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

As soon as the clock strikes 5.30 in the evening, the scenic village of Kharnak, nestled in the sprawling Tibetan Plateau of Ladakh, comes to life. Hundreds of sheep, yaks, goats, and a few dogs and shepherds, descend from the awe-inspiring, inhospitable desert mountains, raised 5,000 metres above sea level. Kharnak is a discreet summer village of the Changpas, one of the few surviving semi-nomadic tribes that rears Changras—the feisty, fluffy goats that grow the precious Pashmina wool on their bellies. 

As the excited animals wander around the village, bleating loudly, occasionally trying to get inside the only built structure of the village to get some respite from the biting cold—temperature at this time of the year hovers around 2°C to minus 6°C—the Changpas, young and old, chase their stock to herd them back to their pens. The camping tourists of the conscious travel company Mantra Himalaya—the only ones allowed to camp here—join in, imitating the shepherds, throwing their hands in the air to get the goats to behave. The city dwellers, though, give up soon.

Altitude sickness, fleeting headaches, nausea and breathlessness make it hard to even walk a few steps here. “Camping here is a great lesson in humility,” says Jiwan Kaur of Mantra Himalaya. The terrain is harsh with winter temperatures dropping to minus 40°C. The summer sun is cruel too. So strong, it burns your skin. The air is thin and oxygen-limited, and there is no piped water or electricity.

The Changpas do not use the fine Pashmina they rear. “It’s too delicate for the land we live in,” says Dorjey Stanzin, chairman of the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society. The rebos—the hexagonal tents they live in—are made of yak and camel wool. Their clothes and bedding are made of sheep or goat wool. The women rear the animals, spin the yarn into fine threads on a wooden loom and then weave them. “They are among the finest weavers who have made their clothes for centuries,” says Stanzin Minglak, co-founder, Ladakhi fashion label Lena Ladakh, which offers work to these women.

women handspinning woollen threads

The community’s life is a fine example of sustainable living. Even today, they use a dry toilet that saves water and also acts as a composting pit. It is apt for the fragile environment and microclimate of the region. Apart from weaving their clothes, they also make their own cheese, the specialty being yak cheese, which is dried on top of the rebos. They also dry yak meat and store it for the brutal winters when the food available is extremely limited. “It makes for nutritious winter food for us,” says shepherd Sonam Yangdol, who has been living the nomadic life for over 20 years, since she got married, raising almost 300 Changras.

Her rebo, like most others, has a Buddhist shrine right in the centre, where bowls of water and incense sticks make up for the deity’s humble offerings. On the opposite side is a single gas stove, a modern introduction that has replaced the yak and sheep-dung chullah, on which Yangdol makes rice, stew and these days, also chapattis, imitating the city way of life, especially for her two visiting sons, studying in Leh. “They don’t like living here anymore,” she says, adding, “They find it too uncomfortable and difficult.” Yangdol too has been contemplating living in Leh with her sons. “But I am too attached to my livestock and this way of living. I will be lost in the city,” she says.

The changing climate, especially the frequent rains in the region where the waters from the skies were an alien concept even until the 90s, has been making life harder for the Changpas. “Our rebos are not water-resistant. When it rains, they leak, making it damp and cold,” she says.

Outside in the pen, the livestock gets wet, their wool muddy and dirty, and diseases spread. “We have had a few incidents of sheep and goats dying because of infection caused due to rain, impacting the quality and quantity of Ladakhi Pashmina,” says Dorjey. That’s a big blow to their earnings, demotivating youngsters to continue the semi-nomadic way.

There is a heap of woollen blankets, laid on a thick woollen carpet, which makes for the flooring of the house. Another corner is reserved for bags, a mix of suitcases, cloth and plastic bags. Then there are barrels of water, which Yangdol fetches from the rivulet running across the village, and a handful of utensils, cups and saucers. The most fascinating is a long, cylindrical copper vessel. She pumps it several times to churn delicious butter tea, which instantly warms the body. It’s time to slide inside a sleeping bag and doze off to the sounds of flowing water.

As the rising sun sprinkles gold on the plateau, the village begins to wake up. You see smoke coming out of the small chimneys inside the rebos and people fussing over their livestock. After a quick cup of butter tea, packed with yak cheese and meat, the shepherds and their animals head out once again, for the next adventure.

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