The Warmth Of The Hi­malayas

This ar­ti­cle has been ex­cerpted from a story that orig­i­nally ap­peared in Wild Fibers, Fall 2008.

Wild Fibers - - NEWS - Story and Pho­tos by Linda N. Cor­tright

Iam wear­ing two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, a vest, a goose down jacket and a qiviut hat, and I am en­cased like a body bag at the morgue in­side two mil­i­tary sleep­ing bags. It is Septem­ber 1st and I am in In­dia. More than 12,000 cash­mere goats are sleep­ing peace­fully within a few hun­dred yards of my tent, along with 2,000 yaks, sev­eral hun­dred horses, and what seems to be the loud­est guard dog on the planet bark­ing in­ces­santly at the mid­night air.

“Tell me, Linda,” asks my friend Sto­b­gais, “are you cold?”

“Ah shoo-shoo,” I an­swer in Ladakhi, mean­ing I am very cold.

“Okay, I will make hot wa­ter bot­tle for your feet, then you will be fine.”

I met Kon­chok Sto­b­gais al­most two years ago while at­tend­ing a cash­mere con­fer­ence in Bishkek, Kyr­gyzs­tan. “Yes, I am real no­mad,” he told me when we were in­tro­duced, and then sens­ing my amaze­ment in­stantly be­gan to laugh. “It is true. Some day you come to Ladakh and I will show you.”

Since that first meet­ing, Sto­b­gais has in­deed shown me many things. He has shown me that be­ing a no­mad is not just a way of life – it is a mind­set. It is equal parts self-suf­fi­ciency and in­ter­de­pen­dence. It is where the con­ser­va­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources is the norm not the ex­cep­tion. And in the des­o­late re­gion of the Hi­malayas, the wis­dom is sur­passed only by the size of the heart.

Lo­cated in an area that en­com­passes 140,000 square miles and in­cludes both the Hi­malayan and Karako­ram moun­tain ranges, Ladakh is at the cen­ter of In­dia’s cash­mere pro­duc­tion yet per­ilously sand­wiched be­tween Pak­istan and Ti­bet. It has been at the cen­ter of po­lit­i­cal strug­gle since In­dia was col­o­nized, and it continues to be the site of con­tin­ued un­rest.

While the area is in­hab­ited by herds of wild asses, chubby mar­mots, and black necked cranes, as well as the elu­sive snow leop­ard, it is the cash­mere goat that de­fines the no­mad’s liveli­hood. And be­cause of Sto­b­gais’ great gen­eros­ity of spirit (and our shared pas­sion for cash­mere), I am able to ex­pe­ri­ence a tiny chap­ter of no­madic life. So our jour­ney through the High Hi­malayas be­gins in a lit­tle Suzuki – a ve­hi­cle that seems un­de­ni­ably small to scale such dra­matic peeks, even if its car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity ex­ceeds the might­i­est of yaks.

With the city of Leh as our start­ing point it takes sev­eral hours (at least) to reach the Rup­sho no­madic camp in Norchen Val­ley. We go though Tanglang Pass, the sec­ond high­est mo­torable pass in the world at 17,582 feet, where the scenery is like no place else in this world, but it is not a leisurely drive.

In many places the road has ei­ther been washed away, or there are swarms of both men and women work­ing to rebuild it by hand. They carry large rocks on their backs with scarves cov­er­ing their mouths and noses, while trucks painted as col­or­fully as the saris in down­town Delhi make lit­tle ef­fort to avoid hit­ting them.

Sto­b­gais and his brother-in-law Norbu, who has joined us to help with the cook­ing and set­ting up our camp, are for­ever jump­ing out of the car to see how deep the mud is. Can this lit­tle car pos­si­bly slog through muddy trenches

that nearly reach my knees? But the two of them start fill­ing the tire tracks with large stones that I fear will surely punc­ture a tire, im­pale the gas tank or snap the axle. That is, of course, if we even make it to the other side.

Af­ter com­plet­ing the first of many such har­row­ing cross­ings, where only a few inches sep­a­rate the edge of the road from our car tee­ter­ing over a 300-foot drop, Sto­b­gais lets out a joy­ous laugh as he pounds on the dash­board and an­nounces, “Suzuki is Sa­mu­rai – we can go any­where!”

Right … I think to my­self, per­haps the Suzuki can just take me home.

In my most en­light­ened mo­ments I think of how blessed I am to have this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence amid the ex­otic back­drop of the Hi­malayas with my cher­ished friend who has opened my eyes to a world I never could have imag­ined. At other mo­ments, when I am not feel­ing so en­light­ened, I think I must be ut­terly mad.

At this al­ti­tude there are no trees to in­ter­rupt the land­scape, only miles of rocky desert with pre­cious amounts of browse to sus­tain both man and beast through­out the year. In an­other few months, snow­fall will limit graz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, if not elim­i­nate them all to­gether. But for now there is food for ev­ery­one al­though the tem­per­a­tures have started to drop.

We con­tinue driv­ing for al­most an­other hour be­fore turn­ing off the main road and be­gin off-road­ing across the desert floor. The stones are now ping­ing against the bot­tom of the mighty “Sa­mu­rai” and ev­ery time a par­tic­u­larly large one hits I see Sto­b­gais wince. He has been sav­ing for this car for quite some time, us­ing much of the money he makes as a trekking guide to buy it. But he quickly tells me that his wife, who is a teacher, helped pay for part of it even though she her­self does not drive. “Oh … the woman driver makes me very ner­vous,” he says. “I get off the road when I see one.”

In fact, I have only seen one woman driver while in Leh and I be­lieve Sto­b­gais’ fears are well founded.

Al­though Sto­b­gais is a no­mad by birth (once a no­mad, al­ways a no­mad), very lit­tle about his present life seems tra­di­tion­ally no­madic. Dur­ing much of the sum­mer he is a trekking guide ca­pa­ble of leading groups of twenty or more tourists (with nearly twice as many horses) and a hand­ful of cooks and helpers on high-ad­ven­ture trips through­out the Hi­malayas. But there is no ques­tion that his heart is with the no­madic people and this is the driv­ing force be­hind his role as the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the cash­mere mill in Leh, owned and op­er­ated by a newly formed no­madic co­op­er­a­tive.

Dur­ing the spring­time af­ter the cash­mere has been hand combed from the goats, Sto­b­gais is re­spon­si­ble for trav­el­ing to ev­ery no­madic camp in the re­gion and bring-

Af­ter com­plet­ing the first of many such har­row­ing cross­ings, where only a few inches sep­a­rate the edge of the road from our car tee­ter­ing over a 300-foot drop, Sto­b­gais lets out a joy­ous laugh as he pounds on the dash

board and an­nounces, “Suzuki is Sa­mu­rai – we can go any­where!”

ing back truck­loads of cash­mere to the mill for pro­cess­ing.* He knows which tribes have the very best cash­mere, and he knows how to ne­go­ti­ate a fair price – al­though the mill pays slightly less for the cash­mere than the Kash­miri traders who have been buy­ing it from the start, the dif­fer­ence is more than com­pen­sated in the over­all goal.

“Last year we paid 1700 ru­pees per kilo­gram of top qual­ity cash­mere [about $16 per pound],” he says. “They might be able to sell it for a slightly higher price to the traders, but the no­mads know that they can now share in the prof­its of the mill. It is a much bet­ter sys­tem in the long run – but it takes time.”

It is late af­ter­noon by the time we ar­rive at the Rup­sho camp. There are more than fifty tents – a mix­ture of the tra­di­tional all black yak hair tents along with mod­ern white ny­lon ones spread out over an area that is roughly a quar­ter of a mile long and only sev­eral hun­dred yards wide. The white tents are touted for their porta­bil­ity and ready-made ease, but there is a uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus that they are not as warm, nor as long last­ing, and def­i­nitely not wa­ter­proof when com­pared to their all-nat­u­ral coun­ter­parts. Some of the tents are ac­tu­ally a com­bi­na­tion of hand-wo­ven yak hair at the top with ny­lon flaps for the sid­ing. Our tent is a mil­i­tary para­chute that Sto­b­gais bought at the Ti­betan bor­der. “I tried to pack the reg­u­lar tent, which is very big,” he says. “But there was no room in the car to put it. We will be fine un­der the para­chute. You will see.”

The Rup­sho no­mads are at the up­per end of the “wealth” spec­trum ow­ing in large part to the graz­ing rights they share with the Kar­zok no­mads along Tsokar Lake. The lake has been a crit­i­cal source of salt for cen­turies – some­thing that is of both great nu­tri­tional value to the an­i­mals and trade value to the hu­mans. The salt nat­u­rally ac­cu­mu­lates at Tsokar be­cause the lake has no out­let, caus­ing the wa­ter to be­come quite brack­ish.

“The the two tribes had a fight about twenty years ago. The no­mads be­lieve the fight was very in­aus­pi­cious and that is why the salt sup­ply has grad­u­ally been de­plet­ing.

But it is also true that be­cause of global warm­ing, the lake’s shore­line has de­creased as the wa­ter level has risen.” Sto­b­gais says, let­ting me de­cide for my­self what is at truly the root of the prob­lem.

Sto­b­gais and I be­gin mak­ing a few so­cial calls. It is pleas­antly warm in­side the tents, but the dark yak hair across the roof cer­tainly al­ters the level of day­light. Per­haps this is “mood” light­ing no­mad style. “Jul­ley, Jul­ley,” ev­ery­one says as we greet each other, the all-pur­pose Ladakhi say­ing for “Hello,” “How are you?” “It is nice to see you,” etc. The only thing miss­ing when you smil­ingly sing out “Jul­ley” is the two-fin­gered peace sign.

I have vir­tu­ally no com­mand of the Ladakhi lan­guage and must rely on Sto­b­gais to ex­plain why I am there. The tenor of the room in­stantly changes when I show them a short video from my cam­era of my own cash­mere goats.

“Yes, I re­ally do live with my goats,” I ex­plain, and in the next breath I ex­plain that I spin and knit as well. I learn that both men and women spin in Ladakh. In fact it would be fair to say that prob­a­bly ev­ery Ladakhi no­mad knows how to spin, al­though very few spin cash­mere. It is far too valu­able a com­mod­ity to use for their own pur­poses. And so they use ei­ther sheep’s wool, or yak hair, depend­ing upon the fin­ished prod­uct.

The spin­ning is all done with ei­ther a drop spin­dle or sup­port spin­dle – no deluxe dou­ble-trea­dle wheels to be found in this cor­ner of the world. They pre­pare the wool us­ing hand cards – lit­er­ally. In­stead of open­ing and straight­en­ing the fibers with a pair of wooden carders, they use just their hands. The fibers are opened and straight­ened just by tug­ging them back and forth be­tween their fin­gers – enough to avoid any ma­jor clumps once they be­gin spin­ning. The em­pha­sis is on dura­bil­ity as op­posed to fine­ness. The heavy mat­tresses they sleep on, which are re­ally deep pile rugs, are de­signed to give max­i­mum pad­ding be­tween you and the ground. Thicker is def­i­nitely bet­ter.

More than an hour later when we emerge from the tent I can feel how much the tem­per­a­ture has dropped now that the sun has dipped be­hind the moun­tains. And with the set­ting sun also comes the re­turn of the goats. The camp is lo­cated in a long, nar­row val­ley and within the next hour, herds of sev­eral hun­dred goats or more start mag­i­cally ap­pear­ing on the slopes, and be­fore night­fall ev­ery­one has re­turned and set­tled down in an area ad­ja­cent to their owner’s tent. There are no fences, nor gates to con­tain them, only a small stone en­clo­sure where the ba­bies are kept dur­ing the night to keep them from nurs­ing so their moth­ers will have plenty of milk for hu­man con­sump­tion in the morn­ing. And with noth­ing to keep them in, there is noth­ing to keep preda­tors out.

When dark­ness fi­nally sets in, all out­door ac­tiv­ity

comes to an end and it is time for din­ner and bed. Sto­b­gais is su­perb at en­sur­ing I am warm enough – the ad­di­tion of the hot wa­ter bot­tle at my feet makes sleep­ing at 15,000 feet al­most seem cozy. But as I snug­gle in­side my “bed of many lay­ers,” and try to po­si­tion my head on the soft­est part of my duf­fle bag, I re­al­ize that I have had too many cups of tea. I wres­tle with the idea of dis­en­tomb­ing my­self or of hop­ing that I will just fall asleep and wait un­til the light of day.

“Sto­b­gais,” I call out rather qui­etly. “Where did you put the flash­light?”

Sur­pris­ing as it may seem, nighttime in the no­madic camps is not par­tic­u­larly peace­ful. With miles of moun­tains sep­a­rat­ing me from the buzz of city life, it is the bark­ing dogs on full alert en­gaged in keep­ing away the wolves, wild dogs and any­thing else that might por­tend dan­ger that dis­rupt my mis­tak­enly an­tic­i­pated qui­etude. But in the still­ness that does lurk in be­tween the ca­nine shout­ing, I can hear the yaks softy hum­ming in the night. and soon I am warm enough to drift off to sleep.

When I next open my eyes I can see through the hole in the top of our tent that the sun is just be­gin­ning to rise. I also see that it is snow­ing. I start rum­mag­ing for my still cam­era, my video cam­era and my qiviut hat and as I pre­pare to lace up my boots Sto­b­gais calls out from his sleep­ing bag: “Please Linda, do not start work­ing so soon – you must first have your tea.”

I am con­vinced that if I don’t hus­tle out­side im­me­di­ately, I will risk los­ing the per­fect shot. On the other hand, I have also learned not to ar­gue with Sto­b­gais. “You know, Sto­b­gais,” I say with com­plete res­ig­na­tion, “you are the only man in nearly fifty years that I have ever lis­tened to.”

“Re­ally?” he says with his charm­ing laugh­ter fill­ing the morn­ing air. “That is be­cause you are smart woman.” And then we both start laugh­ing to­gether.

Af­ter a cup of As­sam tea fla­vored with car­damom seeds and three cubes of su­gar I head out. There are eas­ily more than 1,000 goats within twenty feet of our tent, many of them wethers (cas­trated males) that are in no rush to start the day. They are nes­tled to­gether like chil­dren at a sleep­away camp, and as I qui­etly walk among them I think that this is where I want to spend the night, nes­tled in be­tween their soft sides of cash­mere.

The ma­jor­ity of goats are white, but there is no short­age of lit­tle brown and white bod­ies speck­led like a Here­ford cow. Some have solid brown heads, or lit­tle black spots dot­ting their backs like in­verse domi­nos. Tra­di­tion­ally, all white an­i­mals com­mand more money be­cause of the ver­sa­til­ity in dye­ing, but the ge­net­ics of these cash­meres have been mixed for so long ev­ery baby born is some­thing of a mutt. The no­mads are care­ful to use only the best bucks for breed­ing, and the govern­ment prides it­self on hav­ing a

cash­mere herd with some of the best ge­net­ics avail­able. The bucks wear only an “apron” strapped around their mid­sec­tion to pre­vent un­wanted preg­nan­cies, how­ever, and it is by no means fool­proof. Ac­ci­dents hap­pen, just like every­where else.

The cash­mere I have seen from Ladakh is ex­cep­tional. Us­ing only my eyes (as op­posed to a mi­cro­scope) for cal­i­bra­tion, I see that many of the fibers are clearly less than four­teen mi­crons – well within the range of high qual­ity cash­mere. But the cash­mere on the goats at the mo­ment is still quite short since it is still early in the grow­ing sea­son.

It is snow­ing quite hard by now, per­fectly hor­ri­ble weather for tak­ing pic­tures, so I put away the cam­era and de­cide to just sit down and watch. Both men and women are calmly mov­ing about ty­ing the fe­male goats to­gether one by one in a line – their heads al­ter­nately fac­ing op­po­site di­rec­tions. It is time to be milked. They seem sur­pris­ingly will­ing to be snagged into a line but I later learn that with their ud­ders burst­ing they know the line-up means re­lief is im­mi­nent.

Perched on the nubby earth with no yak hair mat­tress for pro­tec­tion, I close my eyes for a mo­ment and try to imag­ine what it is like to go through this rou­tine ev­ery sin­gle day of the year – with­out fail. And then I try to imag­ine what it is like when the tem­per­a­ture, which is right around freez­ing, drops an­other fifty de­grees. And then I think, for just a mo­ment more, about what is must have been like to give birth in the mid­dle of the Hi­malayas with no one there to help – it is not easy be­ing a no­mad.

For some un­known rea­son, a sin­gle brown baby goat from the sur­round­ing herd of thou­sands comes walk­ing to­ward me. It takes a mo­ment for her to over­come the un­fa­mil­iar­ity of my pres­ence – per­haps it is my white face spark­ing con­cern, but within min­utes she is wrapped tightly against my legs as I gen­tly stroke the un­der­side of her chin. There is a felted flower stuck in her ear that looks as if it may have come from a child’s bar­rette; ob­vi­ously her sweet dis­po­si­tion has al­ready en­deared her to some­one else as well.

De­spite the seem­ingly prim­i­tive na­ture of the sur­round­ings, there are in­creas­ing signs of western cul­ture. I see one no­mad wear­ing lime green Crocs, a woman with gold frosted nail pol­ish, a pile-up of pink plas­tic tri­cy­cles, and sev­eral T-shirts with the Nike swoosh. My fa­vorite out­fit, how­ever, is on a woman in full tra­di­tional dress ex­cept for her shoes. Her feet are so small she can wear a chil­dren’s size and so I get to chuck­ling watch­ing her go pad­ding about in sneak­ers dec­o­rated with Barbie dolls.

I re­turn to our tent where Norbu has been pre­par­ing break­fast. Some of the other no­mads have dropped off some fresh meat, yak cheese and but­ter for us to en­joy but I am happy to have a sin­gle banana heated by the fire.

Dur­ing the next few hours I go vis­it­ing – each visit be­gin­ning with sev­eral cups of yak but­ter tea (I think there is a limit as to how much yak but­ter tea a non-no­mad can drink) – and in one tent I ask if I might try my hand at rolling a milk-filled goat hide in or­der to sep­a­rate the milk from the cream. While I am sit­ting cross-legged on the floor, the woman places a hairy sack on my lap and in­structs me to rock it back and forth. It be­haves some­thing like a wa­ter bal­loon wrapped around a twenty-pound sack of pota­toes, and af­ter five min­utes of vig­or­ous ma­nip­u­la­tion my arms be­gin to tire. I know I must look clumsy (if not un­ques­tion­ably out of place) as I try to ma­neu­ver it, but the ex­pe­ri­ence is not about the qual­ity of my phys­i­cal skill, it is about try­ing to lend a hand. With Sto­b­gais close by for trans­la­tion, I ex­plain how much I en­joy do­ing it. The woman starts nod­ding her head be­fore he has fin­ished speak­ing (I sus­pect she knows more English than she lets on) and then an­nounces that I am wel­come to come back the fol­low­ing day and help her some more. Fab­u­lous, I think, I have my first job with the no­mads. On the op­po­site side of the camp, I go visit a woman weav­ing a mat­tress with a back­strap loom. The cen­ter of the de­sign is light gray and made from hand­spun yak wool, but along the bor­der, which has a Ti­betan in­flu­enced mo­tif, the yarn is brightly colored in a va­ri­ety of reds, blues and hot-hot pinks. Dye­ing is not part of this cul­ture’s fiber tra­di­tion and I ask where the colored yarn comes from.

Sto­b­gais trans­lates for her and ex­plains that when she goes to Leh, she buys old sweaters from the sec­ond-hand shop. She un­rav­els the sweaters and then uses the yarn for her weav­ing. She makes up the pat­tern as she goes along and ad­mits it takes up to three weeks to com­plete a mat­tress. Al­though she would like to, she doesn’t have the op­por­tu­nity to weave ev­ery day and the mat­tress she is work­ing on is for her daugh­ter who is get­ting mar­ried. Many mar­riages are still ar­ranged within the no­madic com­mu­nity, and polyandry is still prac­ticed among broth­ers who share the same wife, but within the small group that has as­sem­bled with me, each woman has only one hus­band.

When I first met Sto­b­gais and he in­vited me to come and ex­pe­ri­ence life in his back­yard, I don’t think he knew that I re­ally would. But there was lit­tle doubt in my mind that some­day I would come to this strange and beau­ti­ful land to go run­ning with the yaks, sleep­ing with the goats, and dis­cov­er­ing more about the rich and an­cient cul­ture of cash­mere. What bet­ter place to learn about this most ex­quis­ite of fibers than in the land that bears its name, the state of Jammu and Kash­mir in North­ern In­dia. Where even amid 12,000 cash­mere goats it is still pos­si­ble to be cold at night … Ah-shoo-shoo! Wf

A young cash­mere goat sur­pris­ingly well cam­ou­flaged.

A no­madic child clearly feel­ing un­cer­tain about the pres­ence of a white stranger. Sto­b­gais no longer works at the no­madic cash­mere mill in Leh. He now spends his time teach­ing no­madic women to work with cash­mere and to or­ga­nize the build­ing of the first Cash­mere Craft Cen­ter in the High Hi­malayas.

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