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Melting Peaks, Shrinking Cultures, and the Narrowing of Human Possibility

An auto-ethnographic monograph written among the semi-nomadic Changpa People.

— Indo-Tibetan border, Himalayas.

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After driving 18 hours through narrow slushy roads and surviving two landslides, one avalanche, and a broken bridge, I finally arrived in Korzok – the highest town in India and one of the regions where the nomadic Changpa people can be found.

 

At an elevation of 15,000ft above the sea level, this small village in Ladakh is known to be one of the highest towns accessible by car on Earth – a windswept desert plateau surrounded by steep mountains where no tree grows, a place where life seems unbearable but where a group of people continue to survive and thrive.

Curious children came running. Intrigued, but unfrighten, smiling faces greeted me ‘Julee!’. Trying not to think about the return journey so much, I surrendered to the majestic desert landscape and embraced the calmness and stillness of the people. Despite the harsh environment and limited resources typical of a desert region, I found big smiles everywhere I looked. Women interacted openly with men, children played with the elders, and teenage boys unashamedly carried babies on their back. People seemed content. "Why so much joy?" – I wondered.

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I began my hike into the deserted landscape with Phuntsuk, a young Changpa boy who abandoned the nomadic life to pursue his studies in the state of Punjab.

 

We walked four hours through a vast and wide corridor surrounded by steep mountains. I carried an extra bag this time, packed with supplies and offerings for his family. It included cooking oil, rice, biscuits, kerosene, matches, among other commodities that the Changpa usually obtain from their occasional trips to the village town.

Phuntsok had not seen his family in 6 months, and I wondered how he felt about it. Partially curious, but somewhat trying to establish a bond with quiet Phuntsok, I asked him: “How is it like to be away from home? Do you prefer being in Punjab with your friends or at the village with your family?”

 

The response that followed became my mantra for the remaining of this trip – “I like being at school in Punjab when I'm there, and when I’m back at the village with my family, I enjoy being in the village”. The metaphor was obvious. One should dance while the music is being played. In other words, one should strive to be content and make the most of the present moment, here and now.

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Once a fully nomadic people, the Changpa now migrate with their herds in predictable patterns throughout the year, carrying their raybo tents made of yak wool wherever they go as they adapt to the limitations of their environment. As we walked for a few more miles against the monsoon winds, a handful of raybos started to emerge in the horizon. I was curious to see how Phuntsuk's family would react upon his return. 

 

As we arrived in the Changpa settlement, we could see Phuntsok’s mother – Dolma – in the horizon, washing the dishes in a small stream facing the opposite direction from where we were walking. She looked surprisingly calm on his arrival, as if her son never left. Her first words? “Phuntsok, pass me those dishes”.

 

This seemingly-cold and detached reaction was paradoxically filled with love and appreciation. Later I came to understand that life among the Changpa unfolded in a detached, but warm and loving manner. Dolma then poured water in a pan to gather the bits of food left on the bottom – “to provide a little extra nourishment for the animals” – she mumbled. For the Changpa, barely anything is thrown away. Indeed, a new use is found for everything – a frugality that has nothing to do with stinginess, but from a deep respect and gratitude for the limited resources of the land.

As the sun set behind the mountain peaks, the sky turned dark and Dolma invited me inside their home tent. I lowered my head and squatted in through the shallow entrance of the raybo. It was a simple, cozy place and way more spacious than one would expect from the outside. For me, entering that tent resembled a shift between worlds. But for some strange reason, it also felt familiar.

 

“Sit down” – ordered Dolma, as she lit the fire using animal dung collected earlier that morning. Her face emerged from the dark as the fire ignited, uncovering the heart-warming feeling of a mother in the presence of her son. Her hands were rough and showed signs of decades of manual labour, but her gestures were graceful and her grasp delicate. Dolma worked very hard, and she seemed to put the wellbeing of everyone else before her – just like my mother. She reminded me a lot of her, and in a way, I also felt like I had returned home.

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Dolma offered me the famous butter tea, a salty type of green tea mixed in a long cylindrical wooden chum traditional to Tibet, from where the Changpa have originally migrated. I had heard about this strong-flavoured tea when I first arrived in Leh – the largest town of Ladakh – but I did not expect it to be this intense.

Soon more family members began to arrive. Phuntsok’s younger sister Pema, who carried her small baby cousin on her back, entered the tent first so she could help her grandmother in. They both greeted us with uninhibited smiles and great self-confidence. Brothers Tinley and Rabten – Dolma’s two husbands (the Changpa are polyandrous) had just returned with the goats from their daily grazing trip and were the last entering the tent. Again, they too greeted us with big smiles ‘Julee! Julee!’.

Rabten (which means steady-fast in Ladakhi), had a radiant, but innocent and child-like smile. With a vibrant, full-of-life movement, Rabten sat next to me by the fire. Tinley (which means enlightened activity in Ladakhi) sat next to Dolma near the altar, and gently began to polish the copper and brass bowls with which the Changpa make their daily religious offerings. Tinley on the other hand appeared more grounded. There was nothing in him that revealed excess. His movements were subtle and conscious, and his presence filled the tent.

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Despite the family’s evident kinship and visible differences in temperament, there seemed to be no clear distinction in power relations. It was hard to tell whether anyone had a specific role in that tent. Every task was embraced with incredible social fluidity and without clear distinctions between gender or age groups. There was no discussion about who did what. However paradoxically, everything that needed doing got done, competently yet serenely and unhurriedly.

Sitting in that tent was like watching an improvised theatrical play unfolding gracefully in a harmonious tempo: sister Pema passed her baby cousin to quiet Phuntsok before taking over the stove, while her mother Dolma grabbed extra blankets from the wooden chest. Rabten finished cutting vegetables and helped grandmother Sonam putting on an extra layer before going out together to collect fresh goat-milk. Phuntsok, still with the baby on his lap, molded a large piece of dough to make chapati bread. Tinley finished replenishing the offerings in the altar and got up to fetch water from the nearby stream. Dolma who had kept an attentive eye on the tandoor stove the entire time, fuelled the fire with more dung before lighting up a candle for the altar. She then grabbed the Tibetan praying wheel and began to spin it, while murmuring the sacred mantra “om mani padme hum”. Dinner was served shortly after, and in a circle we began to feast. I felt at ease with these people, and they too seemed quite relaxed in the presence of a strangers – as if I had sat in that tent many times before.

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Life in the Himalayan desert seemed unbearable, but not for the Changpa. There were no trees in sight, and vegetation scarcely grown in small patches next to narrow streams – just enough for the yak and dzo to feed. With regards to the extreme low temperatures of the winter, well, the Changpa did not fear the cold, they took advantage of it. The people worked hard, and there was always something to be done. Paradoxically, they worked at a remarkably gentle pace, and seemed to spend a long time accomplishing each task.

The fabric that makes the raybo tent takes approximately three months to weave. That's excluding the time-consuming task of shearing the yak fur with hand tools, separating the wool into thin strands, and the entire cone-spinning process that had to be done before even beginning the weaving. But people in the village appeared to face their duties in a relaxed manner. The concept of ‘hurry’ was inexistent, and people seemed to embrace each and every task in a meditative manner.

Among the Changpa, elders are usually appreciated for their wisdom and experience, and are regarded as important members of the community. Indeed, their slower pace did not prevent them from making a meaningful contribution, and for that reason they were generally active until the day they died.

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Work was generally accompanied by singing, joking, and laughter, and for that reason the distinction between work and play was not always clear. Besides the demanding tasks necessary for their survival, people seemed to have an unusual amount of leisure when compared to the typical western way of life.

Stress was virtually inexistent, which explained why they didn't seem to have a word for it in their language. They enjoyed a peace of mind that was uncommon to me, but which I was getting accustomed to. I remember telling Dolma one morning – while helping her collect dung in a nearby field – that some people in my country were so unhappy that they had to see a doctor. Dolma raised her head with laughter and gently patted my back – till this day I wonder whether she realised I was telling the truth.

One morning, as I washed my face in a nearby stream, I spotted Rabten on the horizon walking in my direction. He carried one small goat in each hand. As he got closer, I noticed that the goats were dead. I was perplexed and asked the obvious question: “what happened?”. With a half-smile on his face, Rabten replied “the wolves were hungry”. The absence of bitterness and anger in his tone and expression puzzled me.

“How do you feel about it? Aren’t you upset?” I asked.
— “Why be angry? They too deserve to eat," explained Rabten as he walked past me, leaving a trail of blood behind. 

 

The seemingly lack of attachment that I had seen in the face of such disturbing episode intrigued me. This was the first of many symbolic moments that reflected Changpa’s attitude towards live and death, which are based on an intuitive understanding of impermanence.

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One evening, after returning with Rabten, Tinley and one-hundred goats from a rather exhausting grazing trip up and down the mountains, my legs trembled as I squatted inside the raybo. There must have been around twenty people inside this cramped and smoky 5 square meter tent. Rabten and Tinley joined shortly after – accompanied by two other men. There was food, storytelling, singing, and a lot of planning. The men were leaving early morning for a 3-month long migration to high altitudes.

What would they miss? I wondered. After all, they would be away from their wives, children, and the comfort of their raybo. When I asked the question, they laughed between themselves and nobody replied. It felt as if I had asked a rhetoric question from which I ought to know the answer. But they soon realised my bewilderment. Tinley replied for the four of them: “How can we possibly know what we will miss if we haven’t even left?”

The night died off quickly, and so did the fire. There was a moment of warm silence as the last embers gave in. At this point, only a small oil-lamp illuminated the room, giving just enough light to distinguish their faces.

I planned to wake up shortly after sunrise – hoping to wish the men farewell. But when I stepped outside the raybo, I noticed that the herd was gone. The men had left quietly before the sunrise – Dolma explained. I felt sad, and perhaps a little frustrated for having missed them. I knew Tinley and Rabten would not return until September, which meant that I would not see them before leaving, and possibly never again. We have had great adventures together, and I surely was going to miss them. But if there was one thing I learned from the two brothers was to be fully in love with all things, yet completely detached at the same time. There was little room for sentiment or nostalgia in the cold, windy mountains of Ladakh — something that I was getting accustomed to.

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The bright blue sky quickly turned dark as thunders ripped the sky behind the high peaks.

Dolma left the raybo and walked up to a small slope five yards from tent. She stood still for a few minutes with her hands behind her back.

She slowly moved her head in all directions to survey the sky, while occasionally pausing to observe the behaviour of the goats – who seemed agitated. I could sense something was going on. After a while, Dolma turned back at me and pointed to the horizon where dark-grey clouds began to form – “Storm is coming”, she warned me.

Dolma asked me to retreat inside the tent, where she served me butter-tea before crawling back outside.

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The temperatures dropped quickly inside the raybo, and I decided to put to test the traditional fire-starting skills that I had learned with Dolma. As the fire started to crackle, I noticed the smoking going up the chimney which pierced through the 30”-wide opening above our heads.

 

As the strong winds brought the smell of approaching rain, an unprocessed thought that I had the very first day I entered that tent came haunting me: “what do they do when it rains?”. Apparently, “rain is so rare that is easy to forget it exists” – I remember reading in an old book on the region. “We will be just fine” – I reassured myself. Well, what followed next was sure to remind me about the existence of rain in the region for some time to come.

Dolma – who had been absent for almost an hour – returned to the raybo just before it started raining. She had been out to pick up a waterproof cover that one of her husbands had purchased a while back from a neighboring Changpa – who acts as the community’s main supplier of outside goods. Dolma knew the rain had come to stay and hoped to use the cover to waterproof the tent. But she returned empty-handed. Apparently, the man had sold Dolma’s cover to another neighbor who had taken more than what he had ordered.

 

Dolma looked serene and showed no signs of resentment or bitterness. “Aren’t you upset?” — I asked. “Someone needed an extra cover this time. Maybe it was urgent and they needed it more than me. Why be in despair?” — answers Dolma, as she reaches a book from under the altar. It was Phuntsuk’s old textbook, which Dolma has been using to learn basic English. She gave the book cover a wipe and recommenced her studies – as you would when your home is about to be inundated.

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Dolma asked me to call Phuntsok. She thought that maybe he could find a way to bring a waterproof cover from the other settlement. But the storm has disrupted the signal and I was not able to reach him. Soon enough the rain began to flow inside the tent. As I stood in desperation, trying to come up with a solution to protect their home and everything within it, Dolma gets up to go on and do a thousand of other things in a gentle and unhurriedly pace. It wasn’t long until everything around us was soaking wet, including ourselves. Meanwhile, lunch was being cooked, goats were being milked, and prayers were being recited – just like any other day in the Changpa valley, welcoming things as they are.

Dolma was 56 and she was the toughest, hardworking woman I probably will ever meet. With the youth leaving to bigger cities in look for a ‘better future’, adults and elders are left behind with too much to bear. On the last day, as I packed my bag, a flashback of my last conversation with Phuntsok took over my mind: it was early afternoon and we were sat outside the raybo. Phuntsok was practicing his slingshot skills while I cleaned a yak skull that I had found that morning. Phuntsok waited patiently for his uncle horse-ride that would take him to town. It was mid-August and it was time for young Phuntsok to return to the state of Punjab for another year of school. “So... how do you see the future of the Changpa?” – I asked Phuntsok as he shot his last pebble.

 

“Future? This is the last generation. In ten years, there will be no herders, no raybo, and no Changpa”.

 

As I began my hike back to civilisation, I could feel myself trapped in a nostalgic, half-remembered web of emotions and fragmented episodes of connection. As if the countdown to the disappearance of these people from whom I had learned so much, had began.

Phuntsok’s answer was indeed a hard one to digest, but did not come as a surprise. Having previously stayed in Leh to conduct preliminary research for this expedition, I was well familiar with the reasons that have led many to exchange the traditional way of life for a kind of “half-baked” modernity. The increased need of labour force in development projects was advertised through an irresistible, but one-dimensional, picture of modernity that obscured the psychological stress, drug addiction, pollution, and homelessness that soon became the reality of many. The Tibetan mani walls inscribed with prayers for the good of all sentient beings were now shadowed by billboards that enshrined new gender archetypes of the beautiful and the brave – too attractive not to be emulated. The images of luxury and power dictated people’s priorities and desires by fuelling the need for external recognition – even if it meant to wear a time-keeping device one could not read.

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One morning, as I walked out the usual narrow dusty road that connected my homestay with Leh’s main road, I spotted a group of men sat on the floor near the intersection. They were selling turquoise gemstones – an ornament of great importance to the Ladakhi people. The turquoise were carried by the women who proudly displayed their ancestral collection on a majestic headdress during important festivities. Turquoise is for the Changpa a symbol of cultural heritage, wealth, and also reflected neatly the high status that women held within the community.

Traditionally, the turquoise stones were passed down from mother to daughter during an important rite of passage. On that dusty intersection, a family’s ancient inheritance was being reduced to weight guided by a measure unit invented by some distant culture, as these men attempted to scratch a living from a cash-based economy.

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Before I started firing them with questions about the Changpa, I tried to establish some rapport by showing my genuine appreciation for the stones they were selling. The encrusted marbling on those turquoise suggested that they were carved from very old formations. “Those stones are beautiful” – I told one of the men, which remained silent. "Where did you get them from?” – I tried one more time. But he looked in the opposite direction and showed contempt in his demeanor. They were clearly reluctant to engage with me. "Maybe they don’t speak Hindi” – I thought.

I got up, patted the dust off my knees and without much hope for an answer I opened my map wide and tried one last time “I’m looking for the Changpa. Do you know where I can find them?" The men stopped what they were doing and looked up at me with a wide-eyed and unvarnished expression. They signaled with their hands for me to sit down and bring the map closer.

Their in-depth knowledge about the geographical landscape and the nomadic-patterns suggested that they had been Changpa herders themselves, but now appeared to be seeking some sort of liberation from it. Those trading the village life for a quasi-modern paradigm were destined to blindly embrace a western model which taught them to have contempt for, and feel ashamed about their own roots and traditions. Looking back in retrospective, the local people I had met in Leh – in juxtaposition with the semi-nomadic Changpa – were not only divided from one another, but also from themselves.

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Dolma's family kept telling me about all the timesaving commodities their relatives acquired after migrating to Leh: gas cookers, electricity, telephone, and some even had a jeep. But they also told me about how scarce their time had become: “I used to travel 210 km every month to visit my cousin, but now he doesn’t have time to talk to me”.

 

The western model of development that found its way to the remote region of Ladakh is based on the false promise that those who follow it will achieve the same quality of life enjoyed by a few western nations. The social, cultural and spiritual poverty I saw in Leh was the result of a slow, but surely destructive process of disintegration from one’s roots and traditions.

The individual-centric model derived from the enlightenment period that now found its way to the cold, windy mountains of Ladakh, has indeed liberated people from the constraints of religion, tradition, and superstition, but it has also casted the individual adrift – in every sense of the word. For the Changpa, the Tibetan Buddhist teachings played a fundamental role in shaping their attitude towards life and death. Their prayers serve as an anchor to the present moment, and their offerings a reminder about the importance of reciprocity.

 

The Buddhist foundations not only filled their lives with meaning, but also made the difficulties that come with living in such a desolated geography a bit more bearable. Despite the changes brought by climate change, the nomadic-Changpa still operate under a mode of reality that is bound by a healthy interdependence with their environment: taking just what one needs, no more, no less. As opposed to the illusory sense of insufficiency and increased competitiveness common among those who migrated to the capital, the Changpa's awareness about the limitation of their resources do not encourage feelings of scarcity or rivalry, but of harmony and cooperation.

 

By surrendering to the harshness of the environment, the Changpa seemed to have reached a deep state of acceptance and tranquility with themselves and with one another – for they know full-well that to adopt an individual-centric mode of existence in these mountains would simply result in one thing: death. Modernity has of course provided the Ladakhi people with undeniable benefits. It provided them with life-saving medicines, revolutionised their capacity to move around the country, made them physically safer than ever, and granted them with unimaginable levels of comfort. But it also alienated human connection, furthered anonymity, and contributed to the polarisation between men and women.

As Dolma scans the Himalayan peaks, she tells me about how much the landscape has changed over the years. She nostalgically recounts a time when the ice covered the ground beneath her feet. Today, the climate-change-induced receding of the glaciers poses a serious threat to half a billion people living in the Himalayan region.

 

As the Himalayan ice caps continue to melt and give way into one big river, so too are the 5,000 indigenous voices being silenced and dissolved into a larger, but lonelier whisper. As the glaciers continue to shrink, so too are our cultural, social and spiritual possibilities being narrowed into a monochromatic way of being.

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