Survival on the Route of Wind and Wool meant not only enduring blizzards and traversing disorienting snow passes; it meant evading the brigands and bandits who would wait for caravans laden with precious wool, gems, salt and other commodities from the mountains. These rugged thugs knew well the worth of the goods of the “heights” and where to sell them. They also knew that the equally rugged muleteers and traders would not yield their bounty easily.
Above where our camp lies, 30 to 35 kilometres and seven hours of hard trekking north of the small north Indian village Kyit Kum (it’s impossible to know exactly where we are because GPS devices are forbidden this close to the Chinese and Pakistani borders), spires of stone rest like teeth against the sky. Beyond them, a snow pass awaits; one that can – and often did – eat up life in short order. If the thieves didn’t get you, the elements might.
Brigands knew that the time and place to strike was when and where the caravans – mule teams ushered on by Tibetan masters and often accompanied by guardians, village chiefs or travelling monks – were at rest. Robbing caravans was tricky but in this slim basin before the 5,600- metre-high Parang La (“la” means “pass” in Tibetan), their chances were greater, perhaps because the muleteers were exhausted by the time they reached this point or maybe because this place is so remote that pursuit would have been unlikely.
From where I stand, almost 4½ kilometres above sea level, amid the scrubbed and chiselled geographies north of the Spiti Valley, men and mules have been taking their chances for five centuries or more. Up until the 1950s, when trade petered out in this politically sensitive area, this route was a well-trodden conduit to some of the most desolate and dizzying regions on the planet.
Nothing was more valued along it than pashmina wool, sourced on the world’s highest plateau. Combed and pulled from tough pashmina goats and silky to the touch, the wool was a commodity that could find buyers anywhere. Pashmina has remained a mountain-grown luxury product and evidence of this can be found in the markets of the region, which bulge with the stuff.
Right about where the hunched and leather-skinned horseman Sadanand, one of my companions, loads his mule, is, I imagine, where bandits would have attempted their strike. Thieves clad in leather skins and boots could have moved in silently at dawn.
This entire valley, however, is awash with glacial meltwater, up to a metre deep in places, and any heavy rain or mass-melt of snow would make this gorge a death trap. I wonder whether this ever happened while a raid was underway but my morning reverie comes to an end as the present tense makes itself felt in the windless morning of grey light.
Mountains here run the gamut of stunning imagery and descriptions but the ones we face to the north are sharp, upward-pointing daggers that seem to be aware of their quiet power. A long way behind us are the dozen homes of Kyit Kum (meaning “peaceful land”), an entirely Tibetan village. Most of the Spiti Valley was part of the old Tibetan empire.
Sadanand, Tashi, Kaku and Karma (local men hired specifically for this journey because they have trade, altitudes and the mountains in their DNA), fellow explorer Michael Kleinwort, I and six valiant mules are all in motion as we prepare to break camp and make for the famed (and feared) Parang La.
Kleinwort and I are almost halfway into a month-long expedition to trace a once-vital mountain corridor of trade that wandered from Himachal Pradesh up into Ladakh and the Changtang Highlands. It crosses a land of wolves and snow leopards, and our team possesses a resilient combination of neurosis and ferocious tenacity – it wouldn’t be successful any other way.
Sadanand, who we hired near Kyit Kum, is a 65-year-old eccentric who, more than anyone, carries the essence of these mountains we travel over.
He moves over this terrain like a hound that cannot quite forget the hunt.
Karma is quietly spoken, a brilliant cook and so much more. He effortlessly holds our team together with his ability to remain calm, whatever is thrown at him. Kaku, the man-boy, is a soldier performing any task that needs doing and Tashi, with his scarred cheek and short, powerful body, seems the perfect, understated leader, knowing when to speak, when to act and when to allow others to do their thing.
As for Kleinwort and me, this is not our first wander along a Himalayan trade route. Our obsession with retracing these ancient routes is based in both a sense of adventure and the desire to explore how cultures, DNA and traditions link communities across the “top” of the world. Our team and supplies allow us to wander at will … or simply get lost.
Preparations for our ascent of the pass include extra cups of tea, ensuring the mules’ loads are tied as tight as possible and throwing down a few more calories of chocolate. Days of hard grind have brought us this far and many more will take us further.
MY BREATH IS COMING IN DEEP, drawn-out heaves as we near the Parang La. Our team is spread out over a two-kilometre strand, with mules and men moving at their own pace.
Wind hits me as I crest the last bit of rust-coloured rubble and, suddenly, the mind forgets the work the lungs are doing as into view comes Parang La’s north-facing slope: an expanse of gaping white ice. Wafts of snow blow into my sinus cavities and my molars feel the icy blasts that curl over the pass. Landscapes such as this tend to paralyse thought.
Sadanand makes his way with the near-mutinous mules up to the summit.
He finally puts a jacket over his hunched body and leans against the piled stones that have been assembled here for worship. His lined features, which appear to have absorbed every ray of sun that ever shone, have come to resemble a map of the route we find ourselves on.
Over this pass, mules, yak and even sheep would once have struggled with their loads, heading north, as we do, or returning with their high mountain goods. Sheep and mules were preferred, with the former being the favoured transporter of salt.
“They were easy to feed and a flock could haul huge loads; and when the journey was done they could be eaten,” one of the few surviving caravan traders, Yeshi, had told us when we interviewed him at his home, in Manali.
Silence enshrouds our descent from the pass onto a giant plate of ice. The mules do odd little dances as they try to find a grip on the slick surface, which plunges downwards. We are entering a zone of such isolation that, according to Tashi, even the nomads have deserted it.
We are heading down into the Parang River Valley. Off to our left, a blue-white fury of glacier water jets down in a forceful stream that weaves and wanders. The ebbing away of ice and snow on the mountaintops has become a kind of parallel story to our journey as I’ve become engrossed in the “health” of these mountains. In every small valley, from herders and horsemen, there is concerned talk about the receding ice and snow atop the great peaks. Our own historian of the heights, Sadanand, with typical bluntness, remarks that while the mountains will never die, “The white peaks are almost a memory now.”
While his words hint at exaggeration, with five decades spent in the heights, he is as good a barometer of mountain health as any statistic.
Camp is pitched beside one of the dozens of rivulets of the Parang River. A rain squall forces us to scramble into tents. Sleep comes with the help of the winds and, thanks to Karma’s magic, warm bellies.
DAYS LATER, WE’VE SHED Sadanand and his flatulent mules, though I greatly miss his eccentric energy and juggernaut strength. I also miss his endless narratives on topics spanning everything from the love lives of horses to the vices of those who ride them.
We’ve arced west around Tsomoriri, a lake so grand it has created its own micro-climate. We’ve trudged through the dilapidated nomadic community of Karzok Pu and herds of pashmina goats, which seem at once indestructible and delicate.
Our world of desolate spaces becomes one of relaxed pandemonium once we hit Ladakh’s ancient capital, Leh. Sitting north of the Zanskar Range, the town buzzes while still managing to ooze something of an ancient energy.
We’ve stared at peaks, glaciers and valleys that disappear into dark holes, but in Leh we are reminded that Ladakh, sitting at the crux of Tibet, India and Central Asia, absorbs rich cultural infusions from every direction in amounts that fill the senses. Savvy wool sellers from Kashmir, powerful Yarkhandi traders (known for their fierce tempers and direct ways), shaggy wool-encased nomads, Sikh tea-sellers and road workers from Bihar all join with the native Ladakhis and Indians from further south.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” says Kleinwort.
Valuable pashmina lies in heaps. The even finer wool of baby pashmina goats, kulu (yak wool) and the illegal and impossibly soft shahtoosh, from the Tibetan antelope, or chiru (illegal because to produce the wool the rare animal must be killed), are all available in Leh. The shahtoosh our guilty fingers inspect is soft to the point of creaminess.
“Anything that was needed would always be more valuable than something of luxury,” says a trader. “The exception was pashmina. That was desired by all.”
Sourced by nomads on the high barren grasslands far from the pollutants of man, pashmina continues to give these fiercely independent people a source of income. The wool travels to and from the market towns, in and out of the hands of middlemen, and on to distant lands, where other hands fashion the strands into works of magnificent value. If a single thread were to be followed, its journey would be scarcely believable.
EASING WEST OF LEH, our team feels renewed, although that might just be my own desire to be back amid the expanses of wind making itself known.
Our course tracks north from the Phyang Valley, heading into the land of sands: the Nubra Valley. Although trade over the Tibetan border in large part ended in 1958, smaller routes have continued to flourish, and it is along one of these minor routes that we now travel. Another snow pass awaits – and a land where glaciers rule.
Our six fresh mules are disciplined and a new, tranquil horseman seems to be from a different world to that of our gnarly Sadanand. This muleteer gently coos to the beasts and they respond sympathetically to his voice.
While I look forward to the white, soothing lines of glaciers, it is something blueish that silences our camp. We have set up our tents at 4,900 metres, on a slight slope of rough grass, and, as Kleinwort and I sip tea, his eyebrows leap up and he points over my shoulder. Moving down in a phalanx of powerful bodies are six broad male bharals (blue sheep).
Deep-chested and immaculate, they steadily make their way as if attached to one another, one huge male leading the group. Their width and obvious strength catch the breath. Even our Mr Unflappable, Karma, has come out of his kitchen tent, awe written across his face.
If bharals are present, so too must be their main predator: the elusive snow leopard. They continue to move across the horizon, keeping in tight formation. It is as though the mountains have sent a power to silence us; they have stirred something primordial.
“THESE MOUNTAINS SHOULD be white,” Tashi says, gazing at a gaping strip of chocolate-coloured rock in the distance.
We are making our way down a slab of ice, under which a deep roar of coursing water can be heard. The mules are eager to move and, after a moment, our horseman heeds their urgings and continues.
We’ve passed over Lasermo La and, despite being at an altitude of 5,000 metres, we are stripped down to single layers as the sun’s rays are on full power. Ladakh translates as “land of passes” and however daunting they may be, many are byways into further valleys, ranges and communities. Some, though, simply lead to more emptiness.
Kleinwort and I separate from the team to wander higher. This is a world of white, furious heat and I want to look at the ribs of the mountains and glimpse the strands of glacial ice. I wonder, too, whether the snow leopard, which has been like a vapour trail in my mind, is a visitor to these parts.
Standing on a glacier that seems to extend into the sky, the world of valleys below looks like it has been raked into patterns. So much about the mountains is in flux; waters melt, memories fade, routes get scoured over by winds and sand.
THE HEAT IS DRAINING WHAT energy we have left as we descend into the Nubra Valley. Its open sand dunes, populated by Bactrian camels, while beautiful, seem to leave us lethargic. The Nubra River, which spreads its waters in a wide splaying fan, is a tributary of the Shyok River (“the river of death”), which is in turn a tributary of the great Indus. Glaciers feed these waterways as ever-rising temperatures transform solids into streams.
We reach a town near Hunder, intending to speak to a man who, as a boy, helped tend his father’s shop when caravan traders showed up to barter.
Almost 80 years old, Abdul Raza is elegance personified. Long limbed, slow moving and immaculate, he embodies something eternal. Sitting with him on rugs, cross-legged, my thoughts wander as he recalls the days when his father dealt with men who wore the route on their faces – dirt encased, calloused men who lived and died on the great trade routes.
Raza paints a landscape of dust, motion and mountain empires.
His mouth finds words that neither Kleinwort nor I understand.
Through Ozil, who translates, laughs and clarifies with huge hand gestures, Raza reminds us that much else travelled on the routes besides wool. Silk, carpets, silver, gold, coral, turquoise, tea and charas (a form of hashish) were all transported through this area.
The light fades but Raza’s recollections continue. There is nothing broken or sad about his passion and, though he drifts, he stays with us entirely.
“Trade was important because it completed lives and exposed people to outside worlds. It allowed us to look through a window and enjoy things from far away,” he says.
HAVING HIT THIS NORTHERLY point of the Nubra Valley – as far as we are legally allowed to go given that the land ahead is disputed by India and Pakistan – we head south once again, coming back down through Leh. Our destination is a source of pashmina wool: the yul (“lands” or “country”) of the nomads.
We have passed over Tanglang La and skirted west, into a series of valleys that leads us to a wind-blown community. Sixteen homesteads remain and the clan’s yak tents ripple. Stone corrals stand like guardians against the winds … always the winds.
Our arrival has stirred the few members of the community left here.
It is a population – and a way of life – that is disappearing along with the glaciers. Those who remain migrate up to six times a year, picking up all they own and packing up their lives.
The clan elder’s wife, a stunning and fierce woman, treats us as if we are lost but welcome traders. She tells us her husband, along with half of the community, will return with their herds and flocks later in the day from their high grazing grounds.
And come they do. From far away, we can see the dust rising from hundreds of bodies.
It is only in the highest of highlands that the pashmina’s coats grow and the goats have allowed these hidden communities to survive.
The herd, numbering more than 1,000, comes closer as the skies darken.
An ancient woman whose skin has folded in on itself stands wrapped in wools and asks us why we have come. As I answer in broken Tibetan, she interrupts me, gesturing to a tent, “You must eat and have some tea.”
Sitting in the yak wool tent, we take our refreshment as the wind continues its performance, unable to quite drown out the bleats and snorts of the goats outside.
Jeff Fuchs is currently writing a book about his journey: The Ladakh Himalaya: Retracing the Ancient Trade Route of Wind and Wool