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