Bumping along in the high Himalayas
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
BUMPA laughs, wincing as he does so. He is telling us about his testicles, squashed and painful after eight hours riding pillion on a motorbike on bumpy sideroads in the high Himalayas.
There is a nice congruence between the state of the tracks, the state of his testicles and his name.
We are newfound friends, unexpectedly in the same place at the same time. A three-man Bhutanese documentary film crew, a two-man Ladakhi wildlife survey team and a one-woman Australian birdwatcher, we have been thrown together in common pursuit of the decidedly uncommon blacknecked crane.
Bumpa is the cameraman and today has been searching for crane chicks — it’s the final footage the crew needs.
His recovery is taking place in a small stone-and-yak-dung house in Samad village, on the edge of the Tso Kar floodplain in Ladakh. The altitude is 4530m and the air is thin. The nearest town is Leh, a five-hour drive away, along 150km of hairpin bends and over the world’s second-highest ‘‘motorable’’ pass.
The 70 or so households in Samad are almost deserted for the summer; their inhabitants, nomadic Changtang people, have moved with their animals to higher summer pastures. The village is a j igsaw of houses and animal enclosures that emerges unobtrusively from the surrounding landscape.
Walls and doorways are decorated with the skulls and skins of yaks, and with wind-battered prayer- flags. Dehydrated sheep and goat pellets gravel the pathways.
Communal water pumps are shared by several families, as are communal long-drop toilets. There is no electricity, no phone, no internet access. Life is uncomplicated here.
Our base is one of these lowceilinged, flat-roofed, earth-floored houses. In deference to my gender and
ALAMY need for privacy, the men have cheerfully decamped into one of its two small rooms, which now serves all purposes — preparing, cooking and eating food plus working and resting. On the floor are mattresses, where we sit during the day and where they sleep at night. A two-ring gas cooker is in the corner, beside a makeshift shelf holding tea, spices, tinned milk, oil and salt. There is a bag of rice and of flour.
Bumpa drinks sweet tea and eats flatbread as he props, upright, in the doorway.
The collective sympathy soon runs out for Bumpa’s discomfort. Kinga, the film’s producer, can’t wait any longer to see if there is footage of chicks. Moving carefully, Bumpa sets up his gear to replay the day’s images.
Behind us, through the dusty window, we hear the resident pair of cranes on the floodplain trumpeting as the camera rolls.
A rare black-necked crane.