Amchong Dorje is my father’s age and flutters with the same second wind that makes the sixties swing. He wears a baseball hat just like I do, and is a terrific road-trip DJ. “Do you know what Taglang-la means? Tag (pronounced stakh) means tiger and lang means this,” Mr Dorje imitates the striped cat midway through a leap. Much like Aunt Jennifer’s tigers, these big cats enjoy an unparalleled primacy in Tibetan iconography.
La, as any self-respecting traveller to Ladakh knows, means pass. We just passed this hallowed milestone—a crucial passage for traders and travellers on the Silk Route—and in a state of reverie at having reached 17,000 feet (my personal best), I end up telling him that if I ever have a child, I’ll name them Tag. Amchong lets out a loud guffaw. His faith in me as a capable front-seat companion is rendered stronger by the minute, starting from the one when the ladies in the group (I’m the only male traveller) decided to ride with a group of bikers and Shoba George craftily whisked me out of Jigmet Wangchuk’s hip iSuzu, into the front of Amchong’s car.
Shoba and Jigmet are two of the four people at the centre stage of this incredible trail through Ladakh. She runs the boutique travel company The Extra Mile and he is the founder of Mantra Himalaya, a local outfit that curates alternative itineraries across the region with an emphasis on sustainability and community benefit. We are well into the second leg of The Pashmina Trail, a week-long immersion into the region and Ladakhi cashmere’s historical and present-day hubs.
On the day we land in Leh, we are taken to Uleytokpo, a sunny village close to Sham Valley. We check in at the Ule Ethnic Resort, a scenic cottage resort perched on a flattish cliff overlooking Zanskar. Uleytokpo is at a lower altitude than Leh, and perfect to get our acclimatisation done while making day trips to Alchi chos khor and Lamayuru monastery, and a salutary hike to a secluded village called Tar.
Since travel in Ladakh is all about proper acclimatisation, Changthang, which is at a higher altitude, belongs in the second leg of The Pashmina Trail. The story of pashmina might technically begin at the herder settlements, but this trail kicks it off at Leh, with a colourful workshop on dyeing and weaving under the patient and perceptive guidance of Stanzin Minglak and Sonam Angmo, co-founders of the slow-fashion label Lena Ladakh. The duo hand us two skeins of regular sheep wool and one of pashmina, to be soaked in dye. After the dye bath has done its magic on the skeins, we take them to wash, after which Ming’s father will hang them out to dry. Upon drying, they will be made part of the tapestries we make sitting out in the lush, poplar-shaded backyard.
Making our way through the old-world alleys of Kharyog, or Old Town Leh, we show up at the Textile Museum in Nowshar, started by designer duo Jigmat Norbu and Jigmet Wangmo of Jigmat Couture, torchbearers of the bold, modern Ladakhi sartorial sensibility. The three-storey building houses painstakingly procured specimens of the region’s textiles, traditional looms, a vintage camera collection in a private gallery among other exhibits in its premises. The depth of architectural detail both on the exterior and inside complements its location in Old Town—to the right of the building is a former caravanserai from the high noon of the Silk Route.
The almost-fragile beauty of the old town probably doesn’t surprise residents anymore. But it leaves me in a trance—one imagines that from Tsemo Fort, this corner of Leh can be compared to a giant anthill, segregated into rectilinear boxes in tortilla, tan and tawny brown. The nine storeys of Leh Palace, built under Sengge Namgyal, Ladakh’s first monarch born of an interfaith alliance, are supported by wooden beams, and considering it was constructed circa 1600, it seems like a pretty solid structure.
Interestingly, for all the talk about its lack of colour and its muted stature in contrast with the lush landscape of its neighbour Kashmir, Ladakh is actually home to some of the most evocative hues. It doesn’t take long for the mountains to turn ash-like from clayey and sea-green from sandstonish. Likewise, smooth ridges give way to jagged edges in a matter of just turning a bend.
That is probably how Amchong developed an eye for it: having driven countless visiting geologists around, he claims to know exactly where a certain mineral might be found. This place is a veritable goldmine of mineral deposits—the rich concentration of uranium and is a known fact. Local legend also points to the presence of large reserves of gold close to Kharnak. In 2007, the Indian government considered embarking on an exploration of gold in Ladakh. Gold prospecting across Baltistan continues to be a low-yield investment of time for optimistic locals. Regardless, it’s soft gold, or pashmina, that’s the true preserve of these parts.
A few days ago, we drove to Lamayuru to explore the oldest monastery in the Union Territory. Upon entering Lamayuru, the formidable, jagged hills suddenly changed their form to bright, clayey outcrops distinguished by their many folds. The phenomenon has resulted in the area gaining the epithet of Moonland—an occurrence that is as incredible as the Magnetic Hill and the magnificent salt flats and thermal springs of Tso Kar, where black-necked cranes and kiangs run free.
Our friend from Mantra Himalaya, Urgyan Thinle comes from Lamayuru, which the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer described as “a green oasis in front of a yellow amphitheater of petrified clay”. Research suggests that the place is a lakebed from 40,000 years ago, which is the reason behind the distinct landscape. The oldest monastery in Ladakh, Yuru Gompa, built in the 11th century, boasts the kind of serenity that is hard, if not impossible, to find even in a land as blessed as this. Only one out of the five original structures here have survived the ravages of time.
The other remarkable historical cultural centre that I get to visit on this trail is the enigmatic Alchi chos khor, which, like Yuru Gompa, is one of the 108 monasteries commissioned by the venerated Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, a scholar/translator from Tibet. Alchi’s monastery isn’t quite a monastery but a Buddhist temple that famously survived plunder or sacking by marauding conquerors from Central Asia. The complex, as old as Lamayuru monastery, is ramshackle and quaint, and the evident loss of its structural strength can be put down to climate change—accounting for both irregular rain and snow and warmer weather—not to forget the increased tourist numbers in the past few decades. Even so, Alchi’s murals and ornate Buddha statues remain its biggest draw.
The temple walls feature thousands of murals depicting nobles and celestial beings, ornate mandalas, and royal scenes from as far as North Africa and Persia in striking arabesques. The syncretism of Alchi’s art has been attributed to its patrons, who commissioned not only Kashmiri artists, but Hindu, Jain and Muslim artists from far and wide, to make the arduous schlep to Ladakh and leave their imprints here.
Alchi Kitchen, culinary trailblazer Nilza Wangmo’s sophisticated but laidback Ladakhi restaurant, affords a scintillating traditional lunch spread comprising stuffed khambir, chutagi, apricot pulp, Ladakhi-style dumplings—and views of the not-so-distant mountains in the way of a Swiss chalet.
For the next couple of nights to follow, we move to Stok, a half-hour drive from Leh. While the ladies are shown into Chulli Bagh, a sprawling modern resort that is basically an apricot (chulli) orchard, I am going to the unbelievably atmospheric Stok Palace, a magnificent stucco structure watching over this sleepy village. The car wends its way up the road hugging the promontory, and I step out into the jingling of prayer chimes and the whistling wind. If the ascent doesn’t leave you breathless, its splendour will: the ornate windows and foyer overlook a sprawling courtyard first, and then white chortens speckling the flat expanse of the village. It’s almost twilight when I look out of the three windows of my room by turns, deciding to unlatch the glass windows and set the gossamer silk curtains free to flutter in the night.
We make a number of excursions with Stok as base, including an early morning jaunt to Thiksey. Reaching the monastery via a nice daybreak drive, we quickly move to the terrace, where two young monks sound a call to prayer, their silhouettes stark against the rolling mountains aglow with morning sunshine. Beneath us, this warren of temples, chortens, halls, run-down halls and the like, resounds with synchronised chants. Into the prayer hall, where this daily spectacle is now in progress, we enter gingerly through a low door and seat ourselves along its length. This is the famous morning prayer of Thiksey.
At dinner, after a tour of the onsite museum and temple, we find ourselves in the snug dining quarters of His Highness Jigmed Namgyal. To visitors, he’s just Ka-Jigmed, an articulate, affable, progressive royal with a penchant for history and motorcycling.
Back in Amchong’s car, swaying to ’90s Bollywood hits and contemporary Tibetan chartbusters, I’m headed for Kharnak in Changthang in southeastern Ladakh, the cold plateau where the wanderings of the Changpa—nomadic shepherds of Changra goats, on whose belly grows the rare, soft, warm and very dear pashmina of these parts—have historically crisscrossed.
The nomadic camp is the pivot of this trail. It’s like watching the beginning of the life of pashmina, the opening scene of which for us is wave after wave of hundreds of changras scampering down the slopes. The golden hour is riding their soft backs as they descend clamouring like schoolboys, their bleats echoing all over the valley. Meanwhile, a kid with a wispy, white coat with blotches of brown, lets out plaintive yells from a little pen.
“The poor thing has probably smelled its mother in that flock,” Urgyan tells Tamchos. Tamchos, a smiling, persuasive young man in his early twenties is Urgyan’s cousin from Kargil who is here as part of the Mantra staff.
Before the goats, sheep, yaks and drimos make their way down, and are showed into their pens, Urgyan, who has been my only male company all these days, takes me to a village house owned by Norbu and his family. While a sale of sheep-wool rugs and carpets goes down in the courtyard and the group finishes their butter tea, Norbu offers me a spot of dried yak meat.
Approximating a tree bark gone tender in appearance, this life-giving bite-sized snack is a privilege extended to me by the family; yak meat is survival food, eaten only for harsh-weather sustenance. At our weaving workshop, I recalled experiencing a sense of focus, a fuzzy feeling of hygge as I took the pashmina diving under and over the warp threads, adding fringes along the bottom and picking the right colours from the yarn pile. As I register the warmth of this viand, it evokes all the sensory testimony of the difficulties that cloud nomadic life at this altitude. Pashmina harvesting, spinning and weaving remain primarily a wintertime activity because of unavailability of weavers during the brief summer. The colder months are no joke in Ladakh—in Rupshu, winter can last up to eight months, and the degrees can fall up to minus 40.
The trail offers group-specific customisations, and for ours, Shoba has made the seemingly last-minute addition of Tso Moriri. On our way up to the world’s highest Ramsar Site, we cross Puga, a place gaining in importance ever since a promising geothermal potential was discovered close by. Puga is famous for a residential school for Changpa children that the government established in 2007. The coming up of the school provided the embattled itinerant inhabitants of Changthang with a promise of empowerment.
The Changpa are no strangers to challenges to their livelihood and trade. If invasions and ensuing treaties handing the monopoly of pashm to Kashmir have left them disadvantaged historically, the recent Chinese incursions have continually robbed them of their pasturelands. And now, climate change threatens to transform their habitat, life and livelihood forever. Among the herder families left here, most have replaced their yaks with diesel 4x4s and their reybos with canvas tents, and the community’s steady exodus to Leh is a matter of worry for the local textile trade. Whether the Puga school and other initiatives will stem the flow remains to be seen. Amchong, a Tibetan refugee, believes his children, engaged gainfully in metros across the country, don’t miss home that much.
As we close in on Tso Moriri, its aquamarine expanse glinting from kilometres away offers a brief distraction from these problems. The brackish lake, stretching for 100 square-kilometres, stands surrounded by rolling, bleakly beautiful mountains. From the sunset point, we stare into fjord-like formations and glaciers shining like plaster fillings in gorges. Handing me a pair of binoculars, Urgyan tells me about the construction of Umlingla, the world’s highest motorable road to the east, at 19,300 feet. We’re staying at Rupshow Residency, a bed-and-breakfast-style establishment run by enterprising Changpa women.
On the long drive back to Leh the next day, a proper shower is on everybody’s mind. Thankfully, at the very opulent Grand Dragon Ladakh, we get much more than that. Some catch up on much-needed shuteye, others like myself look forward to our dinner at Syah, put together by Chef Pankaj Sharma. The inventiveness with which this menu has been scored is a rarity: basic salad makes way for a foraged-weeds preparation; dastuk is done with endearing delicateness; tender lamb features in the skeu. It’s an exquisite seven-course dinner, topped off with some fine apple wine.
We raise a toast, then another, and one more. Before we make our way back to Grand Dragon, I think of Mr Dorje’s words once more: “Sir, in Tibet, they often say: if a valley can only be reached through a steep pass, it’s only either good friends or bad enemies that come.”
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.