FLEECE OF­FER­INGS

DE­SPITE THEIR HARD­SCRAB­BLE EX­IS­TENCE IN THE HIGH-ALTI­TUDE DESERT OF IN­DIA’S RE­MOTE LADAKH RE­GION, THE CASH­MERE GOAT HERDERS OF THE CHANGTH­ANG PLATEAU PRO­DUCE SOME OF THE WORLD’S SOFT­EST AND MOST HIGHLY PRIZED WOOL.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Deb­bie Pap­pyn

De­spite their hard­scrab­ble ex­is­tence in the high­alti­tude desert of In­dia’s re­mote Ladakh re­gion, the cash­mere goat herders of the Changth­ang Plateau pro­duce some of the world’s soft­est and most highly prized wool.

VERONIQUE VERMUSSCHE HAD

her first brush with cash­mere dur­ing a trekking trip in the Hi­malayas. Stuck for hours in Lhasa’s air­port be­tween flights, the self-taught Bel­gian de­signer came across a wool shawl in a gift shop. Knit­ted by a Ti­betan ar­ti­san, its fabric was so del­i­cate and warm­ing that it gave her goose bumps. It also gave her an idea: to cre­ate a line of chic, con­tem­po­rary cash­mere ap­parel made from the finest goat’s wool. Launched in 2016 with a col­lec­tion of shawls, capes, and cardi­gans, that brand—Tuinch—is now one of Europe’s most ex­clu­sive lux­ury knitwear la­bels, show­cased in de­signer shops from Lon­don to New York and Hong Kong.

Work­ing with tra­di­tional ar­ti­sans in In­dia’s Kash­mir Val­ley, Veronique says Tuinch is one of the few fash­ion la­bels to source its wool di­rectly from Hi­malayan herders. That com­mit­ment has brought her back to the re­gion of­ten in the pur­suit of the soft­est and purest cash­mere and pash­mina wool. I had read of her ar­rival on the fash­ion scene with great in­ter­est, so when Veronique in­vited my pho­tog­ra­pher hus­band David and I to join her on a sum­mer­time trip to north­ern In­dia, we quickly packed our bags. The itin­er­ary in­cluded vis­its to her Kash­miri knit­ting fac­to­ries and a four-by-four ex­pe­di­tion out to the Ladakhi part of the Changth­ang Plateau, where we’d be vis­it­ing the sea­sonal camp of no­madic Changpa goatherders. Who could say no to that?

Our first stop is Srinagar, the sum­mer cap­i­tal of the In­dian state of Jammu and Kash­mir. Sit­u­ated on the banks of the River Jhelum in the Kash­mir Val­ley, the moun­tain-ringed city is at its pret­ti­est on the shores of Dal Lake, a shim­mer­ing ex­panse dot­ted with bright lo­tus flow­ers and cedar­wood house­boats framed by in­tri­cate fret­work. In the ter­raced Mughal gar­dens built cen­turies ago around the wa­ter’s edge, school­child­ren scam­per among the foun­tains and ponds as re­splen­dently dressed Kash­miri women ad­mire the sea­son’s roses. For all its rep­u­ta­tion as a restive re­gion, the Kash­mir Val­ley feels like the most tranquil place in In­dia. This is es­pe­cially so amid the gar­dened grounds of our ho­tel, the Lalit Grand Palace. Orig­i­nally built as the res­i­dence of a ma­haraja in 1910, it is still adorned with hand­some fur­nish­ings, car­pets, and hand­i­crafts by lo­cal ar­ti­sans. That night, we drink gin and ton­ics in the ho­tel’s old-worldly Dal Bar. Through the win­dows, we can see the dis­tant lights of house­boats glint­ing like stars above the dark­ened lake.

Early the next morn­ing, we drive to the Old Town area of Srinagar just as it awak­ens: tiny shops slowly open their doors and the nar­row streets come alive with prospec­tive buy­ers. An­cient-look­ing wooden houses that I wrongly as­sume to be aban­doned soon morph into busy work­shops and ate­liers where Kash­miri men em­broi­der gor­geous woolen and cot­ton fab­rics, or block-print lus­trous pash­mi­nas. We then stop by the banks of the Jhelum, where small groups of men are wash­ing raw cash­mere in the olive-brown wa­ters. They strike the wool against the rocks with full force and then tum­ble them in creak­ing old dry­ing ap­pa­ra­tuses. The near-vi­o­lent ac­tion on the river­bank is a stark con­trast to the serene si­lence we later find in one of the ru­ral work­shops Veronique works with. Here, Kash­miri women spin wool with­out say­ing a word, their fin­gers glid­ing over the fine strands as the spin­ning wheel hums a hyp­notic tune. We also visit a fac­tory where young men dye the cash­mere in bub­bling pots be­fore it’s hung out­side to dry in the scorch­ing af­ter­noon sun.

We’re back in Srinagar’s Old Town the next day to meet some male weavers who cre­ate beau­ti­ful cloths from pash­mina yarn on tra­di­tional floor looms. David and I ob­serve them in com­plete si­lence. The ar­ti­sans’ deep con­cen­tra­tion and solem­nity makes the weav­ing seem al­most a sacred ac­tiv­ity. There are no

ra­dios play­ing in the back­ground or cell phones beep­ing; just the sound of the loom’s gen­tly clank­ing har­nesses and the whis­per of the shut­tle through the weft. In­spired, Veronique sits down with the weavers and starts to knit with her own nee­dles and pash­mina. Ev­ery now and then the men look up from their work, peer­ing from be­hind their small eye­glasses to watch her.

Veronique loves knit­ting and does it when­ever she has the chance, even on planes. “When I fly, I al­ways seem to be sur­rounded by busi­ness­men in dark suits,” she tells me. “They must think it’s very funny to see this sin­gle lady knit­ting away in her seat. But you know, it’s the best med­i­ta­tion.” Veronique says this cheer­fully as she works on a fleecy scarf. “This will come in handy where we’re go­ing. It’s go­ing to be cold at night on the Changth­ang Plateau.”

From Srinagar,

we make our way 400 kilo­me­ters east to Leh, the one­time cap­i­tal of the for­mer Hi­malayan king­dom of Ladakh. Lo­cated 3,500 me­ters above sea level in a high-alti­tude desert, the town feels a world away from In­dia’s teem­ing crowds. In June, the vast, cloud­less sky above the Hi­malayas is a deep blue color, the per­fect back­drop for the pale white monas­ter­ies dot­ting the arid land­scape.

Soon af­ter ar­riv­ing at the air­port, we are whisked away in a four-by-four along the In­dian Army–built Leh–Manali High­way as it fol­lows the me­an­der­ing In­dus River. Tonight, we are bed­ding down at the lux­u­ri­ous Chamba Camp near Thik­sey Gompa, a monastery that’s one of the most im­por­tant re­li­gious sites around Leh. To make the most of our scenic sur­round­ings, we are sleep­ing in tents. These are no or­di­nary tents, mind you, but cus­tom-made can­vas suites with hard­wood floors, four-poster beds, and Raj-era trunks. Chamba Camp is re­ally the only lux­ury op­tion in Leh and the sur­round­ing area. It’s also the per­fect base for ex­plor­ing the town, hik­ing, bik­ing, or raft­ing on the In­dus River, or spend­ing a day with the monks of Thik­sey Gompa. Once checked in, we reg­u­larly spot the build­ing, perched on a small hill, from the camp’s volup­tuous gar­dens. From our break­fast ta­ble on the deck of the restau­rant tent, I can even hear the sound of the shankha, a horn made out of a conch shell, dur­ing the call for prayer or be­fore a puja, a sacred cer­e­mony.

Af­ter vis­it­ing the monastery, it’s time to trade our lux­ury tent for a sim­pler ver­sion. We’re mov­ing to the re­mote Changth­ang Plateau, which ex­tends from the wilds of eastern Ladakh deep into Ti­bet. Cat­e­go­rized as a cold desert, it is one of In­dia’s five listed bio­di­ver­sity hot spots, with short sum­mers and blis­ter­ingly cold Arc­tic-like

win­ters. But in spite of its harsh climes and sparse veg­e­ta­tion, a unique biotope has emerged, sup­port­ing an­i­mals like en­dan­gered black-necked cranes, elu­sive snow leop­ards, and Hi­malayan blue sheep. It is also the tra­di­tional home of the Ladakhi-Ti­betan Changpa no­mads, whose way of life—and the sup­ply of the world’s finest qual­ity pash­mina wool—de­pends on their abil­ity to con­tinue graz­ing their herds of goats on its thin, top-soiled grass­lands, which some­times stand more than 5,000 me­ters in alti­tude.

We’re able to get in close con­tact with this com­mu­nity be­cause we’re trav­el­ing with Veronique. She’s picky about where her de­signs are sold but even more so when it comes to sourc­ing cash­mere. For the rest of the jour­ney, we have to pack oxy­gen bot­tles, warm clothes, and a good sleep­ing bag. Our drive will take a full day from Leh via moun­tain passes and twist­ing gravel roads. We will be go­ing en­tirely off the grid, just the way we like it.

Be­fore the crack of dawn, the four-by-fours are packed and ready to go. Our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is Tso Moriri, a lake spread over an area of 120 square kilo­me­ters at a dizzy­ing el­e­va­tion of 4,525 me­ters above sea level. Perched on the lake’s north­west­ern shore, the ham­let of Kar­zok is noth­ing more than a col­lec­tion of shabby mud-brick houses, most in need of se­ri­ous re­pair. There are a cou­ple of small shops and two guest­houses. It’s ba­sic, but for true ad­ven­tur­ers the views over the of­ten crys­tal-clear and tranquil Tso Moriri are mag­i­cal.

We’ve come at just the right time: there’s a small fes­ti­val and the Changpa no­mads have all de­scended on Kar­zok to per­form a cer­e­mony with much singing and danc­ing. Ev­ery­body is dressed ac­cord­ing to their tribe and which cor­ner of the Changth­ang re­gion they come from. Their wrin­kled, sun-beaten faces—and their at­tire—are a por­trait of the harsh lives they live. Some men are dressed in heavy jack­ets with layer upon layer of sheep­skin; some women wear thick felt coats. Their sil­ver jew­elry and head­wear is brightly adorned with moun­tain co­ral, Hi­malayan lapis, and even an­i­mal teeth. I’m struck by the fact that these sim­ple Bud­dhist fam­i­lies sup­ply the world with its most del­i­cate and ex­pen­sive wool.

Dur­ing the win­ter, when tem­per­a­tures plunge far be­low zero, the Changpa no­mads take shel­ter with their goats in small ham­lets. But warmer months are spent on the end­less pas­tures of the Changth­ang Plateau, liv­ing in yurt-like tents that of­fer pro­tec­tion from the icy wind and chilly, starry nights. Their goats roam the val­leys and fer­tile river­banks be­fore re­turn­ing home at dusk. The whole fam­ily helps out with the af­fair—even the kids take care of the baby goats who stay be­hind while the adult goats leave to graze. Far from the busy­ness of our lives in Europe, Veronique, David, and I fall into a gen­tle rhythm dic­tated by na­ture, shar­ing yak-milk tea with the no­mads in their warm tents when the wind picks up and freezes our hands and cam­eras. We bring them cook­ies bought from the only shop in the vil­lage and they pour us more but­tery tea. At night, we lie freez­ing in our beds, once in ba­sic tents in a small tourist com­plex, days later in an unas­sum­ing guest­house, won­der­ing how cold it must get in the yurts of our new friends.

Next to Tso Moriri sits the camp of one no­madic fam­ily with hun­dreds of goats; this be­ing June, it’s shear­ing time. But the goats are not re­ally shorn. They are taken one by one onto the laps of the Changpa and gen­tly combed to re­move the best and most del­i­cate plucks of wool. Veronique joins in—it’s about as close as a de­signer can get to the start of their sup­ply chain. “The Changpa re­spect these an­i­mals,” she tells us. “They are their life, their liveli­hood.”

Af­ter each goat is combed, it is marked with a dab of paint and re­leased again to join the herd. Tea is drunk and more cook­ies are handed out. We spend the whole day with three gen­er­a­tions of this no­madic fam­ily who live to­gether in the same camp but in dif­fer­ent yurts. When all the wool has been col­lected, they sell it for a fixed price per kilo to a co­op­er­a­tive owned by the gov­ern­ment.

Through a trans­la­tor, I ask one of the no­madic ladies if she would like to live a more mod­ern and com­fort­able life. Her an­swer, to­gether with a shy smile, is a de­ci­sive “no.” This is their life, to­gether with their beloved cash­mere goats up here in the Hi­malayas, far away from the mad world be­yond this wild moun­tain range.

Changpa no­mads in tra­di­tional dress near the shores of Tso Moriri, one of the high­est lakes in the In­dian Hi­malayas.

Right: On the road be­tween Leh and the high-alti­tude lake of Tso Moriri. Op­po­site: A baby cash­mere goat in the arms of a Changpa no­mad.

Right: Cash­mere goats are well adapted to the harsh Hi­malayan con­di­tions.Be­low: Tools used for pluck­ing wool. Op­po­site: Veronique Vermussche at a Changpa camp help­ing out with the comb­ing process.

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