I had the opportunity to visit some Ladakhi nomad camps with some friends not long ago. One of my Ladakhi friends has a cashmere business and he sources the cashmere directly from the nomads, so this wasn’t a typical tourist visit. Another friend who came with us was intending to find a nomadic family to live with for a few months for a photographic project he wanted to do. We found him a family, but I think he changed his mind when he realized just how hard their lives are. Anyway, we didn’t see him after that.
The Changtang Plateau is mostly in Tibet. Only a relatively small part of it is in Ladakh, though it feels huge. The nomads are originally of Tibetan extraction, though their ethnicity seems a bit mixed. Since milk and meat are the only foods they produce for themselves, they have to trade for tea, salt, barley, wheat and the occasional vegetables.
It’s a tough life and you can see it in their faces, yet I found that most of the people I met seemed pretty content.
The Ladakhi nomads are primarily herders. The herds consist of cashmere goats, sheep and yaks. The goats probably provide most of their income, though they also sell the yak and sheep wool. They also milk the animals.
Cashmere goats aren’t sheared like sheep. Rather the hair is combed out, as you can see in the photo above. The coarse outer hairs are separated out and only the soft under coat is used in making fine cashmere garments.
There are basically two kinds of tents that the nomads use. The traditional yak-hair tents, like the one in the foreground, are heavy but really warm in the winter and probably reasonably cool in the summer. The white cloth tent you see in the background is provided by the government, and has no insulating qualities whatsoever. Mostly we saw the white tents, but maybe they still keep the others for winter use. I’m not sure about that.
Nomads are said to be very hospitable people, and the ones we met certainly lived up to that reputation. They served us traditional Tibetan salt tea and flatbread, as well as yogurt made from yak milk with tsampa (roasted barley flour).
This was the shrine of another family. They stay in one place usually for two or three months, but even so, it seems like a lot of work to put up a shrine like this. Much of it is composed of traditional butter sculptures.
This little girl and the baby below were in the same tent. There are some traditional instruments in the background.
While visiting another camp, we stumbled on a celebration for inaugurating a new school. This is the welcome committee. The king of Ladakh came to do the honors, along with a contingent of monks.
Making tea for the guests. This is one of the few decorated tents I saw. The design consists of traditional Buddhist symbols.
When you look at the landscape, it seems like there isn’t much for the animals to eat, but somehow they manage. There are little tufts of some really hardy grass and other plants, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the photos. All you see is rocks until you look closely.