Pashmina Shepherds

Southeast of the Pensi La four men move steadily through the rockfields below the Dhulang Dhulang glacier. They are dressed in grey tunics of a coarse fabric and loose kafkhan pantaloons, simple shoes and distinctive beanies on their heads, woven from soft thread – the prize product of their land – cashmere.

In the meadow beside them, twelve pashmina goats nuzzle at the summer grass. Swathes of wildflowers rise from the rich summer field, Himalayan poppy as blue as the sky with yellow pollen stigma peeks from behind a cluster of heavy glacial boulders. The goats are white as snow, their coats full and soft as the down feathers of my sleeping bag which kept me warm whilst bivouacing last night at 4000m.

The shepherds’ expressions are serious and their eyes fixed on the trail – seven more days to Kargil. They have travelled the old road from Srinigar, Kashmir. One of the few people to still walk the trail over such distances. One of them has a shoe sole that is peeling. He squints at the sun and a pair of cheap sun glasses fall to the ground, their arms already broken off so they do not rest on the ears.  These are poor men – at least by the material terms we are comfortable with. Their riches are in the goats, which they have brought here to graze in the high altitude passes of the Zanskar.

These grasses, nourished by the summer sun and glacial melt water are where local people annually take yak and dongzen to graze and be milked. In stone hovels suitable for summer accommodation great churns have been used for centuries to prepare curds and whey from the milk. Women sing harmoniously as they work. Folk songs of a buddhist people who have managed the land and husbanded their animals in this rugged environment, for longer than any other tribal or religious group. Paneer, the soft cheese of Ladakh is dried and sifted into small crumbly lumps in the afternoon warmth of day whilst children play by cascading streams.

The four pilgrims of the ancient textile trade pass by the herder camps. They are outsiders in these buddhist lands, but buddhists are accepting of all faiths – men of islam included.  For now, the men rest beside a mani wall. Prayers etched on large river-smoothed pebbles have been placed in their hundreds on the eight by one metre long wall at the edge of the village. They offer mantras of selfless devotion and dissolving of the ego to the windward peaks above Langmur Village.

Homesteads speck the barley fields up from the mani wall. Behind the wall, the men have rested their packs and the goats are drinking in a stream gulley which runs near by. Their backpacks are the old externally-framed mountaineering variety, probably aquired from a former foreign expedition in Padum or Tsongde.  The leader of the group, steely eyed, takes a clothe hamper from his bag. Inside is tsampa- ground barley.    Between a tripod of rocks, donkey dung is burning with a touch of kerosene. A worn kettle balances above the flames and in it, a handful of tea leaves fuses with the melt water.    When the tea is drunk, the tsampa is thrown in as nourishment.

The Suru Valley is several days further, where the barley has already ripened and is being harvested. The summer has been kind and the men are optimistic for their herd. The cashmere will fetch a good price in Kargil.