Tag Archives: Ladakh

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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