The Trans-Himalayan Villages, PART III: Off To Lugrang
We wanted to venture into the Tibetan nomadic settlements next but if only wishes were horses, beggars could ride. It involved obtaining special permits and there was no guarantee that it would be granted. Rumours had it that permission for this year was discontinued after bad weather caused many
roads to wash away. Luck never favours cowards, so Rishi and I both decided to take our chances. Dr. Dorje, a close friend of Rishi’s boss and a man with connections, literally got hounded until he got us what we needed. It could easily be a matter of debate, who was more happier, Dr. Dorje to have got me
off his back (thus stopped giving him nightmares) or us having the stamped and signed papers! Greedy as I am, 7 days seemed too less but thought against pushing my luck any further!
Searching for this area in any Indian map (barring those only the armed forces and government administrators have access to) would yield nothing but disappointment. Except for names of some places, the area officially does not exist. Rishi turned out to be invaluable and had prepared a map with whatever information was available to us. We agreed to give this every bit of our energy and effort and made a resolution that failure was not an option.
With an overnight halt in another tented accommodation (I had stayed here during the previous year) which provided running water and attached toilet, we started early in the morning. Once we left behind the familiar terrain, the landscape began to look more and more like Tibet prior to Chinese Army invasion – wild, harsh and untamed. There was no sign of human habitat and we would only stop our vehicle to watch a herd of Tibetan Wild Ass locally known as Kiang (Equus kiang) grazing busily. They would briefly look up at as and in the next instant with a dismissive shake of head get back to feeding.
Strictly off limits to civilians and completely forbidden to foreign nationals these villages are inhabited by the pastoral communities. Not long ago it was a region known for its pastures, but recent studies have shown that over grazing and sudden rise in the population of the sheep after the migration of the Tibetan refugees post the Sino-Indian war in 1962 has reduced the pastures and the sustainability of these grasslands is currently a major environmental concern. Except for the scanty grassy patches near
a freshwater lake bank, the region is by and large devoid of vegetation. The agropastoralist nomads known as Changpa are said to have originally migrated from Hor in Tibet around 800 A.D. With a single annual crop yield rearing Pashmina goats and selling the wool is their primary livelihood.
The nomadic pastoralists have been herding livestock on the Tibetan plateau for at least two millennia (they were preceded by the nomadic hunters) and live in tents or seasonal camps known as rebo. These tents are used as shelter for at least 6 months a year and are made up purely of the black hair of matured yaks. Weigh about 30-53 kg and may take 6-15 days to complete depending on the size of the tent. After the collection of sufficient yak hair, onpo or an astrologer is consulted to fix a date to start the weaving of the same. It is believed that even a single white hair will shorten the lifespan of the rebo.
Once the date is fixed a special skilled weaver with the help of 3-4 assistants takes on the task of designing and preparing. The tent is designed in such a way that it can be separated in two parts, so that it is easier to carry on two horses when transporting it from one pasture to another. A good and strong one may last for 20-25 years inspite of use in harsh climate and effectively withstand heavy snowfall, rainfall and wind without allowing any leakage or seepage. On the 2-4 corners bunch of black yak hair is tied to a stick and planted on the ground to ward off evil spirit.
More and more Changpas are switching over to commercially produced tents both for cost and time effectiveness, as well as for the lack of skilled labors. The Changpas are notorious for infrequent bathing habits (once a year or less), usually are garbed it torn and dirty clothes. It thus rarely fails to surprise outsiders to often find expensive four wheelers parked outside their tents! With changing time along with local cuisine of tukpa, mo mo and soldja, instant noodles and packaged fruit juice have also made a way into their daily diet.
The Tibetan Mastiffs are ferocious guard dogs belonging to the nomads and attack without any provocation. On our way, we had to briefly stop at an ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) check post to submit a copy of our permit. Rishi clueless about what was to happen next had got down from the vehicle to stretch his legs. A huge and monstrous dog had suddenly attacked him, torn off a part of the trouser leg and sunk its teeth on the right calf flesh. It would have done further damage if the sentry at the check post didn’t chase it away. Incidentally, these dogs are also a major threat to the breeding migratory birds and their chicks. Rishi naturally was in a bit of shock, though received first aid and the wound was dressed, nevertheless worried about contracting rabies (on my suggestion that it could be just the opposite, only managed to draw a faint smile from him). Surprisingly the ITBP personal had no first aid kit (we were glad for our own) or knowledge! After reaching our destination, we asked him to take some rest and sleep off his tension. Ali in the meantime engaged himself inspecting the vehicle and making small repairs. Sitting quietly out in the meadow watched a Changpa lady mind the grazing cattle. There was a light and shadow interplay nearer to the base of the mountain in the horizon nearby. While wondering what it would be like to never end this journey, was startled by an overhead flock of Ruddy Shelducks locally known as Maroo with their 'aaung aaung' in flight nasal honking. The daydreaming being rudely interrupted, realized that soon there would be a flight to catch and a family to go back to. However, I would always be dreaming Ladakh – a land unlike any.
The author has refrained from names of villages and details of routes taken to visit them to protect these places from present waves of rampant or irresponsible tourism seen in many other places of Ladakh.