Nomads in Ladakh: Hard Living at High Altitude

NomadsAbout a month ago I had an unfortunate accident during a trip to India, which resulted in nasty fractures of my upper arm and required extensive surgery (I will spare you the details, at least for now). Now at home with an arm full of metal and screws and a scar a little less than a foot long adorning my arm, I am left nursing my injury and indulging in self-pity (my husband and a few friends will tell you I do self-pity very well.) But self-pity and ice cream, which is my favorite treatment for all ailments, only get you so far and this seems to be the perfect opportunity to remind myself once more how lucky I am to be recuperating in a comfortable home after having received competent medical care. While traveling, I meet people all the time who live in the harshest conditions and for whom an injury like mine would have devastating consequences.

I met one such group in a trip last fall. While touring the Rupshu valley, a high altitude desert in the southeast of Ladakh, we visited briefly a small settlement of nomads, the Changpa (Changpa means “northerners” in Tibetan). Though only 160 km from Leh, one has to drive many hours on windy roads and travel over the Tangla La at an altitude of over 17, 000 feet to get to the Rupshu valley. The surroundings are magnificent as the area is dominated by the peaks of beautiful mountains, and a sky as clear as I have ever seen. (And a perfect sky for a nightly sighting of the Milky Way as you will see.) Wild asses are roaming around in a pack in the vicinity of the stunning Tso Kar Salt Lake (or White Lake) and of its neighbor, the Starsapuk Tso Lake. But for all of this beauty, the Rupshu valley is not an easy place for dwellers. The land is inhospitable and the climate is extreme; in the winter; temperatures below -40°F are not uncommon. While camping there in mid-September, nights were spent trying to keep warm as best I could (and failing miserably) and every morning I would find that my “hot water” bottle had turned into a block of ice.

We visited a Changpa nomad’s settlement of about twelve tents, some of them made of yak wool. Life for the Changpa revolves around raising yaks and goats. Taken away by the men to be fed during the day, the goats are then milked by the women when they return to camp at night. When we visited them, the Changpa were getting ready to leave for their winter location the next day. So in addition to milking the goats, the women were busy making butter by gently shaking a goat skin full of milk for what seemed to me like hours at the time. (I tried to do it and my hands were exhausted after about 10 minutes). Even though they were quite busy (they basically had to packed everything they own), the Changpa were very hospitable; each family we visited kindly offering us a cup of tea. And the loveliest treat was to meet Padma, a sweet 3-year old who was proudly wearing the most girlish dress I had seen in a long time over her warm clothes.

No more complaining about my mishap. I have an easy life.


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  1. Lisa Brockman April 5, 2015 at 14:37 #

    Look at you getting your B+W on! And doing it quite well. Really nice post and beautiful images. Well done.

    • franceleclerc April 6, 2015 at 11:22 #

      Thanks Lisa, and thanks for the ice cream.

  2. Julie Danis April 5, 2015 at 15:41 #

    Striking photos. The Milky Way was extraordinary to see, for a girl living in a city.

    • franceleclerc April 6, 2015 at 11:22 #

      Yes for me too. I always though it was a chocolate bar 😉

  3. Kathy Hornsby April 5, 2015 at 16:18 #

    What a surprise to see B/W photos from you, France! The B/W is very evocative of the challenging, austere landscape and the hard, gritty lives of the Changpa. Thank you for a glimpse of their way of life and for reminding your readers that we need to keep our complaints in perspective!

    • franceleclerc April 6, 2015 at 11:26 #

      Thanks Kathy. Yes B&W is unusual for me. I don’t expect to do much more but we never know. I thought it was fitting for the subject and my state of mind 😉

  4. Alison Armstrong April 5, 2015 at 18:03 #

    Beautiful evocative photographs taking me on a journey. Now I want to go there! I am continually amazed by the endless variety of ways in which people find a way to live life. Hope your arm heals soon.

    • franceleclerc April 6, 2015 at 11:28 #

      Dear Alison, Yes the world is full of surprises as you know better than most and people are resilient in unexpected ways. My arm is healing, not fast enough for me but I’ll get there 😉

  5. michele zousmer April 5, 2015 at 20:28 #

    love the post and the images. I met nomads like this on my trek through tibet and never forgot how diifficult their lives were. we have to be grateful for all we have. glad you are keeping busy recuperating. i know you will be back out there shooting as soon as you can.

    • franceleclerc April 6, 2015 at 11:32 #

      Michele, You are right, the Changpa are essentially from Tibet and a lot of them are still there. Yes, I hope to be back shooting soon. Maybe we’ll do it together.

  6. Tim Lee April 5, 2015 at 20:33 #

    Thank you for the blog post; these are some wonderful images France, so intimate, so touching.

  7. Sara Levinson April 10, 2015 at 13:53 #

    Wandering about your healing bones, but happy to see nothing stops you from being productive. Thanks for sharing these images. I love the choice of B/W…creates very strong visual impact…so appropriate for the subject matter. I just got home from Myanmar and Thailand, fighting jet leg. Are you in Chicago?

    • franceleclerc April 11, 2015 at 09:49 #

      Thanks Sara. Bones are healing OK just slowly 😉 I have to keep busy to distract myself from my woes. Yes I am now in Chicago, just got back in town this week. Good luck with the jetlag. Hope you had a fabulous trip.

  8. Emilie April 14, 2015 at 05:51 #

    Sorry to read that you have been sidelined, I’m sure not for long .
    Ice-cream & sympathy a good combo.

    I hope you do more B& W … sepia .
    There’s a total engagement in pictures like these, you have to search more for the mood when colour is absent.

    • franceleclerc April 15, 2015 at 14:25 #

      Dear Emilie, I was certainly hoping that ice cream and sympathy would heal my bones quickly but it has already taken longer than I would have liked. Nothing I can do I’m afraid 🙁

      I thought B&W would work well here given the setting. I am glad you like it. I think you are right, in some situations color can be a distraction. It can overwhelm everything else. But I am still a fan of “color”. Best regards, France

      • Emilie April 15, 2015 at 21:43 #

        I love colour too 🙂
        There’s plenty you can do like….eat more ice-cream!
        Hope to read in your next blog that things are on the up & up.

  9. Peter Sheppard April 18, 2016 at 02:03 #

    Wonderful photos again !!
    Watch those bones.
    Just in case of interest, click link, then click first thumbnail:

    • franceleclerc April 18, 2016 at 11:23 #

      Yes Ladakh is a special place. I am watching my bones but it does not seem to be enough 🙂