A visit to the land of Changpa Nomads and Sapphire Lakes

Tsomoriri Lake in Changthang, Ladakh at an altitude of 4550m. Photo credit: Mayank Soni

One of the main highlights of my Ladakh trip with Adventure Sindbad was the visit to Tso Moriri (4522m high); the cobalt-ish sapphire blue landlocked mountain lake in the far south eastern corner of Ladakh. All I had known and seen was from the photos of the lake, as part of the last leg of the Parang La trek that starts off from Kibber, in Himachal following the summer route to Korzok in Ladakh and in passing had learnt about the Changpas, the nomadic herders of the Pashmina goat who roam the vast plateau of Changthang — a Trans-Himalayan area extending beyond into Tibet. But by the end of our 3 days travel to Tso moriri and Changthang, the highlight of my travel drastically changed from a visit to the Tso Moriri to the time I got to live a day in the life of the high altitude nomads, locally called the Rebos, a name that comes from the black Yak wool that is used to make their tents.

Although a highlight, I had relatively no expectations of how the travel would pan out, I didn’t even have a mental scale to gauge the reality of the place to the photos I had seen. Expectations make every new experience something less of what it should be. This no-expectations mindset helped me to enjoy every bit of our 3 days travel to Korzok and back.

Changpa Nomads of Changthang plateau, Ladakh. The white tents have just sprung up in the last 2 years as an easy alternative to the heavy Yak wool tents Photo credit: Mayank Soni

As it was a recce trip to different areas of Changthang plateau very close to the border, we traveled in minimalistic mode. We huddled up in a Maruthi Eeco, barely qualified for the terrain that we were going to travel on, without taking a beating to all its systems. But to make up for it, was the expertise of our very affable and skilled driver Norbu, who also doubled as our liaison with the Rebos.

Drive to Korzok
The day before we left to Korzok, we had bad weather in Leh, that had dampened my spirits and was praying to the weather gods, to give us bright sun filled days for this travel and we were lucky to had our prayers answered, it was glorious weather throughout. Taking the pass-less approach to Tso Moriri, we took off on Leh -Manali highway and had a pit stop for breakfast at Karu and the guys were buying a box full of veggies for the nomads, for fresh veggies aren’t easy to come by — what a reality check for us folks from the city. Then we drove on the highway that twisted and turned like the meandering river Indus that flows alongside all the way to Chumathang. Travelers like us need to be thankful to the many Army regiments that dotted the highway (Trishul Eagles, Trishul Sappers etc) and the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) for making roads where it is basically cutting through a mountainside to make flatlands and make them good enough for the supply trucks. All along the 8–9 hrs journey I was thriving on excitement and didn’t wanna close my eyes lest I miss this beautiful drive and it was beyond anything I had seen — blue skies with tufts of white clouds and never-ending mountains — sometimes barren and craggy, sometimes colourful and striated. It was a mesmerizing drive and I kept thinking, this route would make for some legendary bike trips.

Famous for the therapeutic hot springs, Chumathang was our lunch stop. These hot springs are natural geysers and are found just a couple of feet off the banks of the river. If you were to sit on the right boulder, your right hand could be touching the cold river water and your left could be warming up in the steam rising from the hot springs. These springs are not just ‘hot’ they are scalding hot. Lunch was a standard meal of rice, black masoor dal and veggie sides.

Scalding water from hotsprings rising from underneath just next to the majestic glacial waters of river Indus at Chumathang, Ladakh.

Just a little further to Chumathang was the check post at Mahe where our inner-line permits were submitted and verified. Taking a detour, we crossed the Indus and rattled on towards Sumdo, a tri-junction. On the way we were lucky to witness a whole herd of wild mountain goats or bharals who nonchalantly grazed on not bothering about the presence of us. They were on the other side of the stream and we were transfixed for a while watching them at such close quarters.

At Sumdo, there’s the other road that comes from Taglang la and Tsokar crossing Puga — home of the nomad school and another set of natural geysers. A little snippet from our friendly Ladakhi ‘Acho’ was that plans were made by the government to harness the natural geysers (hot springs) potential as a geothermal energy source, but were shelved as the environs became inhospitable for more than half the year in the winters.
And on we drove as we passed by Kyagar Tso, the smaller lake before Tsomoriri and then spotted the twin peaks of Chamsher and Lungsher Kangri, and then lo and behold the sight of the blue mountain lake glistening in the sunlight — I was spellbound and couldn’t wait to walk on its shores.

Typical Nomad Encampment behind Korzok Village in Changthang. Huge swathes of ground surrounded by high mountains. Photo Credit:Vishwas Raj

The Changpas
Behind the village of Korzok is a vast plateau walled in by the mountains — Mentok Kangri towards the east and the smaller brown hills all around. There was a small settlement of changpas. We saw a tribeswoman, with sun-burnt matted skin hand-weaving a changpa carpet. Around her were a few snot ridden kids with haggled hair and a warm smile. While the guys gently approached them as Norbu — our liaison driver helped, I saw these women eyeing me with not so welcome looks.

Old Changpa Lady weaving a colourful carpet in Changthang. Photo credit: Vishwas Raj

Feeling unnerved I walked on further and found a man cleaning teacups by the stream, a nice warm smile got me invited inside the Rebo tent, a home, made by weaving yak’s hair, and supported by the dug out encampment of stones. It was a home nonetheless, with the Bokhari taking the spotlight right next to the prayer area. It was a respite from the bitterly cold wind. The hot salty butter tea(gur gur cha) along with friendly people warmed me up. Hostility and a then a warm welcome. I was in for more surprises the next day.

The night will be remembered for long, it was the bitterest cold that I had ever experienced. I was layered up head to toe and under two quilts, yet my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering and my eyes wouldn’t stop tearing, I had no control. All I could do was try to sleep and wait for the first rays of sun to hit me. As soon as I saw the sunrise over the mountains I was up and out. Walking through the little hamlet of Korzok, where the women were lining up their sheep to be milked and were shrewd enough to let me not take a photo without paying them. Fallout of the rise in tourism. So I walked on and spent the morning by the shores of Tso Moriri, giving me company was a battalion of ITPB soldiers on their exercise routine.

Regular early morning sights at the Changpa Nomad encampment…smoke coming out of the chimneys, bleating sounds of the goat and sheep. Photo Credit:Mayank Soni
The pashmina goats being tied at the necks for milking in the morning at Changthang in Ladakh. The ritual normally happens twice a day. Photo credit: Vishwas Raj

Post breakfast, the day was to be spent with the nomads, and we learnt that there was a celebration of sorts, there were visitors — monks, relatives, from Hanle. It was a celebration of a family moving into a new home, leaving their current tent along with a major share of the Pashmina goats to the eldest married son. Parents and other siblings would move into a nearby tent. We invited ourselves into one of the tents, the lady was very hospitable and let us hang in her warm Yak hair’s tent, the perforation made it bright and well lit and she kept the butter tea coming. What amazed me from this encounter with the lady was her kindness towards us — four complete strangers, encroaching into her space and clicking away photos like it was nobody’s business and yet all along she smiled and went on with her chores.

A Changpa Lady smiles as she makes butter tea for us — her guests. Notice the text made of black Yak wool which cuts out the wind but lets in the light. Photo credit: Mayank Soni

Then out into the scorching intense sun, yet piercing cold wind — we walked our way beyond to the next camp to another tent, where the monk from Hanle (the one whom I had met the previous evening) was reciting prayers and blessing the household. Yet again we were welcomed with kindness.

By that day afternoon, I felt at home with the nomads.
A monk praying inside a Rebo tent in Changthang. Prayers are elaborate and last a whole day along with younger monks. Photo credit: Mayank Soni
Then it was the time to go see the saphhire mountain lake -Tso Moriri. We went on to a small hill on the side, lined with cairns. It was a vantage point to see the lake. It was right out of a postcard, the vast blueness, the undulated mountainous backdrop, the silence and the cold wind — it made me happy and melancholic at the same time. It made me think of the journey — the physical and the emotional, that I went through to get there to that place at that point. No photograph will ever do justice to the subtle and pristine beauty of a place. It is not the sight or the senses, it is something beyond all that.

We wanted to catch the goats on their way back from the mountains, like a slowly moving white dust cloud the Pashmina goats hurtled down the slopes. Our friend the ace photographer, walked on and on unperturbed to capture his muse.

Changthangi — the pashmina goats return home to Korzok village after a whole day of grazing around Tsomoriri Lake. Photo credit: Vishwas Raj

In the evening, for the last supper in Changthang, we were invited by the family of Jishe and Dorje. Unfortunately, the matriarch had to head out in search of a missing goat and the cooking duty was taken up by Norbu, graciously. Huddled up hungry, with the Bokhari keeping us warm. It was a fine evening spent with some Chaang ( the local brew) and good conversation with friends.

Drive back
The next day we left for Leh, driving by Tso Kar (white salt lake), over Morey Plains and crossing over one of the highest pass — Taglang La(5328m).

Red Fox seen on the way back from Tsomoriri to Tsokar. Photo credit: Norbu
Tibetan Argali skull was massive and heavy…easiy about 15Kgs. Imagine the size of the real beast! Photo Credit:Vishwas Raj

We got lucky and sighted a red fox, some marmots and over the grassy wetlands of Tso Kar, the magnificent black necked cranes. Thukje was our lunch stop and at the inn was a massive skull of a horned beast — a Tibetan Argali. The skull itself weighed about 15–20Kgs.

The drive back was scenic to the core. A swathe of barren dry land and for miles no human in sight. It was sunny, with blue skies, good roads and amazing landscapes, with some good music made for a great drive back. Even though I had well acclimatized, the drive over Tanglang La did give me a headache ( lots of water and driving down to lower altitude eased it out completely).

I had no precedent to this travel, everything was new, exciting and exhilarating The lack of luxury was a luxury in itself, conditioned and accustomed to luxuries turning into necessities, it was refreshing to witness the difficult terrains and weather, the simple life — the hard life, the generous and kind nomads.

It was a rare experience…something that I will cherish for life. There is a magic in the mountains, of course, one can list innumerable reasons as to what that magic is. But in the end, there is something you cant put a pin on, there is something that makes you wanna go back, creates a yearning, a want that becomes a need.
Mountains are not just calling, they hook you on for life.

Sumathi G

Adventure Sindbad offers a 10 day photography tour to Changthang called “Guardians of Pashmina” aimed at documenting the fast changing lives of the Changpa Nomads. Check website for more details.

More Details on the Website — Changthang Photography Tour