Our Jalamteas’ Nannuo Shan unfermented Puerh from one of the areas I hand source, finds a fan and gets a great review from witty tea blog “Steep Stories”.
“Wolves are what we (nomads) fear most. They know us well and though I fear them, they are important for the land. They know how to wait and they know when to strike. My mother used to call them the “old masters”. Words from a Himalayan nomad about the ‘old master’, the wolf.
Tangible bit of language about a nomad’s recall of the great hunters of the mountains, the wolf (njun’kè in eastern Tibet). This nomad became serious when recalling the wolves’ abilities and importance within the great mountains. Hopefully we won’t lose these colourful anecdotes of life and relationships. As the nomads often say, “first one has to listen”.
The Enduring Obsession and Importance of the Himalayan Trade Routes
The face of Lhamo, 23, of Ala Dhotok (Stone Roof) at over 5,000 metres in Eastern Tibet. Her ‘community’ involved nothing more than a loose trio of yak wool tents that rippled with wind. As our team passed within site on our way to cross the Nup Gong Pass, Lhamo insisted that we sit and fortify ourselves with tea and a fires’ warmth.
Her home, belongings, yak, and family – all of the necessaries – were within easy reach at all times. Her’s is another of the timeless faces and personalities of the mountains.
It is northwards into Central Asia and the old kingdoms of Turkestan that beckon but borders now are things of great sensitivity and we are heading south again. We’ve headed as far north as we will be permitted to go. The mighty heights have long been places and playgrounds of the powers. Strategic, and otherwise, the Himalayas have rarely had any say about their fates. It is a morose and slightly unreal feeling that this journey is winding down.
The people element of our journey – always vital – is once again dictating where we go and now we head to a wind-blasted bastion of ferocious elements and a very mortal holdout to the modern world’s attentions: the lands of the ‘ndrog’ba’ (nomads). Misunderstood, and both admired and criticized by an outside world that knows little of them, the nomads were the traditional source of pashmina wool.
Both Michael and I had long been fixated on the nomad’s enduring strength and vibrant warmth. Successive journeys in past years through their domains had only served to reiterate their simple understanding of the land. They mirror closely the mighty lands that they called home in all they do and they have never forgotten to listen to their lands. For all of their great strengths and appeal it was (and still is) their utter warmth and graciousness amid such fierce surroundings which had long held me to them.
As we head south again through Leh, this last bit of journeying that we do marks a physical end to our expedition. The grinding is almost done but it never sits entirely well this feeling of ‘an end’. Somehow it is a lie. Our destination is one of the great sources of pashmina…the beginning point and origin of wool’s journey is our finishing point. It is fitting in some way. The notion that pashmina – a craved luxury of the distant and mighty centres of trade, of culture, of esthetic development…the fashion houses and wardrobes of those with ‘everything’ – comes from a land of such impetuous and rampant natural force, seems perfect.
The community that we seek and eventually find is a carved out valley at over four-and-a-half kilometres into the sky. It is a land that has been scrubbed down by winds and nothing remains that isn’t attached to the earth. Everything that hasn’t been blown away by the winds, is here to stay. Landscapes and peoples here have been carved into angles. Surfaces of the living and inanimate have been chiseled and callused. The people’s features have been lined and leathered, voices are hoarse with a lifetime of fighting the raging air and cold.
‘Community’ is a difficult word at times but here it seems absolutely correct. This is entirely ‘communal’ this collection of 15 or so tents, but it feels like a sparse sprinkling of life. Tents that shudder hide the beds, the fires, and part of the interior life of these great movers of the mountains. These are the remaining homesteads where not so long ago there were three times as many families. This life-style is being abandoned and at some point it will simply disappear.
Karma and Kaku are as curious and carefree as kids and slowly the small and almost shy community comes out, in one’s and two’s, to greet us. Stares are gentle stares. Smiles are genuine smiles or at least that is what my sun-blasted eyes choose to see.
Yak, goats, – and most men – are absent from the community. They are either “away” sourcing supplies, or out with the herds in grasslands a valley or two away.
Sun bombs through the clouds, once in a while lighting a different world than the dull grey sheath of winter coming…and winter is without any doubt coming. Winds come at us and funnel into the sinuses and these winds carry the promise of snow.
Layered up in thick wools, smoke-stained tuques, and smothering scarves, women sit on rugs weaving on ancient looms that seem perfectly imperfect. Balls of yak wool sit beside them awaiting their turn. It is timeless scene apart from a bright coloured thermos. In these communities, our strange appearance is quickly dealt with as hospitality is offered up and the old adage of the mountains “cooperate or perish” is once again proven. Who we are isn’t so important and this idea of ‘foreignness’ is not a huge one. We are travelers who come gently and all we wish is to observe. We have brought extra supplies to share as to come empty handed would simply burden. Care packages of onions, greens, and peppers are lined up for each tent’s occupants and slowly a member of each tent comes to take their little haul back to their tent.
Michael, myself and our bright yellow tent are together once again but his time we are amid other tents. Black wool tents. The whole valley, the very lives of these nomads is inextricably bound to wool and movement. Yak wool for protection, for shelter, for warmth, and pashmina – the commodity of all commodities up here – provide enough revenue that they may maintain these lives ‘away’.
Our brat sun disappears and that winter grey comes in with feasts of winds and the odd popping sound on fabric as bits of ice race down from above. I look at our tent thinking of all of the places we’ve put her up and all of the shelter that her thin walls have provided.
The woman of the community who – like so many places of the mountains – are the sources of so much power, scurry preparing the stone holds for the animals. East of us there are bodies coming. Bodies which send dust up to be carried away by the winds.
The day is coming to an end for the nomads and for their herds, and for us. The goats rumble in a wide swath of bodies, accompanied by their hulkish black mates, the yak. All of the precious wool comes forward as the light in the sky begins to fade. Night has come to claim her own.
One of the immortal faces of the mountains…even though only four-years old. A nomadic girl, whose predecessors were a clan of ‘guardians’ for trade caravans on the top of the world. Caravans of precious salt, tea, and wool passed through these regions and were vital links throughout the Himalayas.
It seemed that little Drolma (not at all fazed by an outsider sitting in her tent taking tea) could look into the very bones with those eyes of hers. Already the elements have touched her with sun and winds forever ruling. She and her grand-mother lived together close to 5,000 metres on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. and her grandmother reminded me that all life was linked to the mountains. She could not imagine other worlds without them.
-Back for the final instalments of our expedition along the Route of Wind and Wool.
Leh is gentle pandemonium, but this is an overstatement really because it is more a case of Michael and I being overly sensitive to every horn, four-wheeled vehicle, and body that comes close to us. As is so often, I have the urge to simply bolt back into the great silences where I can hide and my mind can function with the winds and stones as my guide.
We have a day of exploring the city’s old trading quarter. Pashmina is everywhere; on signs, in heaps of colour, and on the mouths of locals. It is still alive, this luxury wool off the backs of goats. None of its luster has been forgotten nor lost.
This ancient Himalayan capital and its automobiles and structures make me quite ready within an hour – after a shower – to head back ‘up’ into the hills with our supplies and a pack of mules. But first, we must wait and allow for Karma, Tashi, and Kaku to enjoy the temporary sites, sounds and little luxuries of the cities. Part of journeying in a group knowing needs, taking what’s needed, and then moving along when ‘everyone’ is keen and clean.
West out of the city our reunited team heads. Then, up the Phyang Valley we head bending up into a green series of villages that sits like a beacon amid the dry desolation. The valleys become tighter and once again there is that feeling that we are embraced and protected by these elements and landforms.
Sadanand is gone and in his place we have a man who in some ways is the antithesis of our lined – and missed – warrior. Neat, quiet, with a voice that seems to disappear in the wind, he and his horse team are a team of apparent perfectionists. Understated, careful in movements, and almost dainty movements this muleteer and his charges are almost clinical.
Kaku is newly shaven and looking far better than the rest of us. Karma, unchanged as always is showing only the merest hint that he is once again content with our return to the route and the mountains. The only change in Tashi is that all clothing that he wears is completely clean and the few valiant whiskers that had been attempting to grow over the past weeks have disappeared. Michael and his hunger to be up in the mountains are evident.
We move up and the altitude’s wide effects is hitting the team for whatever reason. We are not higher, nor is the route more difficult. Altitude’s effects are not simply height alone. Air pressure, metabolism, and temperature all seem to be playing at various team members. Our horseman is another epic character as it turns out, but his ‘epic’ qualities are linked to an understated competence and knowledge of his horses and of the land rather than Sadanand’s bulletproof, iron entity. There is no grumbling from this new muleteer and his horses and mules genuinely seem to enjoy his company. He needs not scream or even threaten. Gentle little sounds and soft sympathetic looks maintain our animals’ pace.
The ‘Bharal’ (Blue Sheep) is more goat than sheep (I’m told) and more grey than blue. They are also the main delicacy of the Snow Leopard. This solitary cat has been on the fringes of my mind for the entire journey. I’m sure it has gazed upon our caravan at times and I often wonder if we’ll be granted a view, but for whatever reason I’m sure that we’ll only see one, if it allows us to. But, it is the Bharal and its form that takes the breath.
At camp one night, at close to five thousand metres, a group of six males descends slowly and passes within a few dozen metres of us. These thick-chested silent animals are so close to eachother that they cannot help but brush eachother as they move like a phalanx of the natural world. Alert (for the silent cat that must be around), but seemingly at a bit of ease, they pass us without so much as an acknowledgement; keeping only one of those famed baleful goat eyes on us. We evidently don’t rate as dangers. Powerful and graceful, they are magnificent and strange in their shape and deliberation. We are entirely silent and even Karma is wide-eyed…even the sultan of calm is impressed and I feel a happiness at this knowledge.
Lasermo La is a pass that was once crossed with regularity by caravans heading to and coming from the Nubra Valley. Now it is utterly quiet in its appraisal of all things. We get up it by late morning and the light of a furious sun lights up the top of the world. Continuing up the plate-like glaciers Michael and I move towards six-thousand metres. What matters is to be able to look down upon the curling ridgelines of stone and the glaciers being blown by winds into frozen waves. Nothing else matters and not for the first time I’m utterly loathe even considering leaving the heights. “Stay in the present” I am reminded by a little voice inside. Much as I’d like to listen to it, I ignore it, and simply let the breath that heaves in me take over. These spaces and their accompanying winds will long remain in the mind and blood and they are instant memories when they hit you.
The Nubra waits with heat for us. My dreamlike lusts to see a Snow Leopard have come to nothing. Wolf scat was found along our route but not one discernable trace of the solitary and very legendary cat. Dust, a drop in altitude, and the inevitable feelings of gentle edginess come too. We are leaving the sanctity of the heights and moving back down into the lands of ‘two-footers’, the land where we people apparently. Sand dunes, Bactrian camels, and a little closer to the border with Pakistan, the valley holds softer winds and more memories of the days of trade.
Yarkhandis, Dards, Changpa nomads, Sikhs Kashmiris, Newaris…all of these peoples, and a dozen others were active and have left their DNA in this region. A region that is a crucible of Central Asia, Tibet, and India and it positively hums with these cultural infusions even now. The DNA remains in the business ways, it is in the sands of the Nubra Valley and it is in the nearby glaciers, whose tempests took many a life.
Two figures we meet in the valley – one a trader, and one a sage witness to trade – remind me that trade was very much more than simply commodities and economics. The ancient witness reminds us very clearly that trade was like a window letting in light. It was about sharing, and it was about adventure and it was entirely about relentless movement.
Another in the series of ‘mountain immortals’ and their equally timeless words. Neema, at 89 years old, says of his days upon the Himalayas’ Tea Horse Road:
“The mountains and mules had a contract with eachother. If we traders didn’t care for the mules, the mountains wouldn’t care for us”.
Neema evidently cared.
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