Expedition Update: West, Up, North

 

-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.

Leh's ancient mountain appeal

Leh’s ancient mountain appeal

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.

Leh's old district, where trade flourished

Leh’s old district, where trade flourished

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.

An old seller of wares and trade goods reminisces in Leh's old town

An old seller of wares and trade goods reminisces in Leh’s old town

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.

Packing up once again. Kaku pleased to be heading out on the road once again.

Packing up once again. Kaku pleased to be heading out on the road once again.

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.

Back upon the road with a new team.

Back upon the road with a new team.

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.

Michael back upon the route

Michael back upon the route

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.

Ancient ice, dozens of metres thick lines the crests of the mountains

Ancient ice, dozens of metres thick lines the crests of the mountains

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.

A view of the ridge lines.

A view of the ridge lines.

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 sands of the Nubra valley offer up distinct contrast to our beloved mountains

The sands of the Nubra valley offer up distinct contrast to our beloved mountains

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.

That little black speck middle left is Michael as he tracks across the ice

That little black speck middle left is Michael as he tracks across the ice

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.

Glacier 3 - Jeff Fuchs

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.

One of the 'ancients' who filled in detail on the Route of Wind and Wool

One of the ‘ancients’ who filled in detail on the Route of Wind and Wool

 

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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