Changpas of Ladakh are a lesser-known tribe. When we hear the word tribe, the image that pops into our minds is that of a ferocious clan, adorned with shells and headgear, faces smeared with black paint, who hate outsiders. Add the prefix semi-nomadic and the image grows even stronger. Imagine my surprise at discovering that the Changpas of Ladakh welcome people into their make-shift homes with warm smiles and piping hot tea.
It is difficult to believe that in a day and age that connects people even to live darshans with Gods, there exist pockets of the world where people live in almost complete isolation, cut off from all modern ways and devices.
It is something I’ve always wondered – why do people seem so rooted in their old ways when better and more comfortable ways are within reach? And then I am struck by my presumption that our lives are happier than theirs. One only has to spend some time with these people and watch them spin yarns, feed their animals, or simply put on a kettle of tea, to know that in fact, the opposite might be true.
The Changpas are a semi-nomadic tribe, originally from Tibet. Found mainly along Rupshu, Kharnak and Tso Moriri, in the Changthang region of Ladakh, these tribes have demarcated areas that they migrate between. The Changpas rely almost entirely on livestock for all their needs. This pastoral life is fraught with difficulties, especially at these altitudes. Almost every task undertaken by Changpas is directly or indirectly tied to their animals.
A typical day in their life begins with letting their sheep and yaks out of the pens. Families take turns in leading the herds to grazing fields. It is mostly the sheep that are looked after and the yaks are let loose to graze by themselves. The Pashmina sheep are undoubtedly the main source of income for these people, contributing the most revenue to Ladakh, second only to tourism. The shepherds watch after them all day, while back home, the others prepare bags of grains to feed the animals on their return. The weaker ones are given special care and attention, but all of them are looked after meticulously. As the springs begin to run dry or the grass is buried under layers of snow, the Changpas migrate in search of greener pastures.
The migration of Changpas is a spectacle to behold. It is a marvel to see them wrap up almost their entire lives to fit on the backs of their yaks. As the march to their next destination begins, generally by dawn, the Changpas mount their horses and leave behind their temporary homes, the smoke sometimes still billowing from the doused fires of their Bukhari. The procession stretches up to almost 2 kilometers, with the clan moving in a tightly packed formation along with their animals. Traversing through the vast plains, they dot the stark landscape dramatically, with rows and rows of constant movement.
The relationship between the Changpas and its animals is almost sacred. Not only do they migrate for the well-being of their animals, but their entire lives revolve around them.
Living between 12000-16000 ft, where no crops grow, it is obvious that they rely on their livestock for all their needs and livelihood. It is no wonder then, that they treat their animals almost with a sense of veneration.
However, the Changpas follow Tibetan Buddhism, a religion that preaches non-violence. Their consumption of meat, therefore, instills in them a deep sense of guilt and they truly believe that they are leading sinful lives.
Most Changpas spend their entire lives believing that they must pay penance, and there are always mantras on their lips or prayer wheels in their hands while performing their chores. This thought seems to form the backbone of their religious pursuits and there are deep-rooted religious ceremonies that mainly involve purification and forgiveness of their sins.
It is funny how a nomadic life follows such a set cycle. There is more structure in their lives than ours. The people perform the same chores and activities day after day, taking no breaks, whatever the weather conditions. Even once they are back home after a gruelling day, they do not sit idle and help finish odd jobs. Neither do the people staying at home rest. There is a constant flux of activities, again centered around their animals. Despite these harsh conditions and incessant movement, they find the time to break into songs, while shaking curd vigorously in a bag made of goat skin, or hand grinding barley purchased from Leh into Tsampa (roasted barley flour). The barley is also used to make Chang, an alcoholic drink almost synonymous with festivities and gaiety.
Life here is tough, especially in the winters with temperatures dropping to almost -50 degrees. Perhaps, this tough life is the reason behind the polyandry that exists in this society. Although we may consider it unusual at best and immoral at worst, it is a practice that makes sense in these harsh conditions. The summer months are better, a time to spend weaving carpets out in the sun, while the children prance about. The people take full advantage of this and prefer doing all their activities outdoors.
Be it the Losar celebrations, or the Jyabten puja that follows it, the shearing of their sheep or the fun-filled Sta Gyuks, the people participate with gusto and cheer. The Changpas do not fear icy Himalayan winds, or depleting grasslands, a snowstorm or the harsh terrain. Everything is taken into stride and dealt with, without being morose. There is only one response to every problem, and that is to change what can be changed and accept what can’t. There is no time lost in moping around, and as such, these people seem to possess a zen-like quality that is enviable.
The world demand for pashmina and cashmere has worked extremely favorably for the Changpas, and bestowed them with a supple earning. This has led to a different kind of migration – one to the cities. As more and more young people take to the larger towns and cities like Leh, it seems like a distinct possibility that the traditions of the Changpas might dilute down. As jeeps replace horses, one feels a sense of nostalgia for this unusual life, centered around animals. A life spent in barrenness, but one that is so full. A life of hardship, no doubt, but also one worth the wrinkles. As questions of existentialism surface on my mind from time to time, I think about these people who have found meaning in a continuous cycle of doing the same things. While I struggle to leave behind what does not serve me, I think about the ease with which they shrug off their entire life, wrap it up, load it on a yak and set forth on their journey.
Thank you very much to you and your team for arranging this fantastic tour. One of the best pick from this tour was your meticulous planning and promptness of service. All arrangements were fantastic, be it a delivery of vehicle at Chandigarh airport, hotels particularly at Chandigarh, Leh, Nubra, Pangong. However the best was at Jispa, Kargil and Srinagar for different reasons. Jispa was simple but authentic with very tasty food.
Rajesh & Gauri Natu
Graphic Designer, Apple
Sunil, after I ran 21k Marathon I bragged about it for years. The same is being repeated again, with my ambition to drive across the Himalayas, which was almost faded with Srinagar under curfew. You and Chetan were the spark to our fire that we could do this drive and without a single trouble. Driving is a passion but driving thru places where there are no roads is trouble, but your breakup of program and awesome car condition helped us actually sail thru. Three cheers and five stars.
Absolute Networks, Mumbai
Wow. wow, wow. What a experience! We took the route of Delhi - Jammu - Srinagar - Leh - Sarchu - Manali - Delhi. Sunil Kapoor gave us excellent service which includes his next to new 4WD in immaculate condition and all hotels were top class. Coming from Australia, we were bit nervous in start but when we met Sunil, we had full trust and all went very positive. Sunil gave us perfect instructions and everything was according to plan. Thank you Sunil and your team for our one of the best experience in life you have provided us.
Director, Webential, Australia
Eight of us from Sri Lanka got Sunil to arrange a self driven tour to Leh and we are very happy with our decision. He was punctual, trustworthy and met our expectations. The service provided was very professional. As foreigners it’s hard to arrange such a tour by ourselves and Unwind outdoor filled in the gap perfectly. All places we stayed were nice and decent. Should specifically mention about the two Scorpios which we instantly fell in love with. They were very well maintained ...
Friends from SriLanka
After days of research, we finally came across a facebook page called ‘Unwind Outdoors’. It seemed like our dream was going to be finally true. Very reasonably priced and Sunil from Unwind was like a know-it-all person.
The itinerary was so crisp and so very well laid out that there was no reason for us to worry other than coping up with nature’s fury.
Clifford Chance, Delhi
We did a SUV self drive trip from Chandigarh to Ladakh and back organized by Unwind Outdoor.
Highly recommend Unwind Outdoor as Sunil and Manpreet took care of everything we needed (car, hotel bookings, sightseeing and food recommendations, permits) and everything was organized seamlessly. Sunil was very patient with all our queries, giving suggestions and options to suit our preferences.
Ashish & Neha Thadani
Great to see the know-how of the Unwind Outdoor team regarding every aspect of the Srinagar - Leh - Chandigarh self drive trip. From weather conditions, to road conditions, to health/clothing requirements, and also driving instructions - Sunil and Manpreet are warm, meticulous and knowledgable. Villa Himalaya in Sonamarg surpassed all our expectations and ensured that our expected standards for the rest of the trip were extremely high.
Symbiosis Law School, Mumbai
Thanks Sunil for arranging a wonderful trip. Everything went well and we were in good hands with friendly and competent drivers. Accommodation was good and tents were comfortable beyond our expectations. We didn't have problem with food choices. It was a totally rejuvenating vacation and experience for us. Thanks from us in Singapore!
We had an amazing 9-day from Manali to Leh. Serene, breathless and picturesque. High altitude sickness was a big issue for us but we were in good hands.
Unwind Outdoor was superb in arranging and coordinating the trip. Taking care of all arrangements and checking-in on us. Kudos to Sunil and his team.
Assistant Director, Jurong Town Corporation, Singapore
We travelled as a couple & completed a self drive trip from Delhi-Jammu-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Tso Moriri-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi. Itinerary was meticulously designed to be a mix of adventure and comfort. Hotel choices were best. Support was available at all points in case of emergency.Vehicle provided was top notch. Thanks to Mr. Sunil Kapoor for personally putting in efforts to maintain such high standards.
Nikhil & Neha Mazumdar
Manager L&T, Mumbai
Six of us (two families) travelled to Leh in Jul / Aug 2015 and we had an excellent experience with Unwind Outdoor. From the very beginning of our excited planning phase, Sunil has been willingly suggesting us options, number of days, places to visit etc. He has all the knowledge of the terrain, passionate about trekking and traveling himself, so he understands travel-crazy people such as me and my quirks.
We landed in Leh in time for cloudbursts and flashfloods and landslides (along with mud and rocks sliding too). Despite Nature's fury, Sunil and Skarma made sure we were utmost safe and comfortable. These guys are just not into travel business, they help people fulfil their travel dreams. Truly! Go guys!!
Barclays Bank, Bangalore