For centuries, the rich fleece grown by Himalayan sheep was harvested for the world’s cultured capitals. How did it get there? Outpost editor-at-large Jeff Fuchs heads to the plateaus of India to retrace the ancient trading routes of pashmina wool.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
Himalayan expeditions should offer up something beyond simply summiting a peak in record time, or racing across an environment with barely a glance sideward. In the words of Sadanand, an epic Himalayan horseman for his 65 years, they take and demand “listening, economics and prayer” to fuel, travel and survive—and so should leave behind a sense of unparallelled accomplishment.
It is perhaps the listening component that is most fascinating. For one so used to the mountains’ every mood swing, having lived the last 10 years within them, Sadanand’s statement hits me instinctively as something vital, perhaps even the very essence of this journey I’m now on. Such immortal words—coming as they did while trudging along our own journey of what was left (and remembered by elders) of one of the Himalayas’ great and largely unheralded trade routes that was once a conduit and high-altitude pipeline for an ancient luxury found in these mountains: pashmina wool.
These routes that touched the sun and sky were, up until very recently, the only way to access some of the most isolated communities high upon the Tibetan Plateau. What they have left behind is a cultural tapestry of DNA, fusions of tradition, and legacies of passageways that brought some of the world’s most luxurious fibres out of the desolate heights and into virtually every fabric market in Central Asia. Economics, culture and the natural elements in this windblown part of the Himalayas were always, as Sadanand so poignantly observed, bound inextricably to each other.
His words came on day two of meeting this grizzled man who looked to have been in every battle ever fought. And they hint at a fast disappearing habit of taking time to listen to the tales of the elders, which can net a tangible idea of what these precious trade and nomadic routes were about, and crucially, how to find those very pathways today.
They also come at exactly the time when our own team must face crossing the magnificent Parang Pass. A stunning natural barrier but gateway along timeless caravan routes, Parang marks an ancient border between the Spiti Valley and the region of Ladakh in remote northern India and Kashmir. East of here, close to us lies the fractious borderland that marks India and China’s dividing line.
My trek partner, Michael Kleinwort, and I coined our expedition “The Route of Wind and Wool,” simply because this route—like so many that stretched over the great span of the Himalayas—had so many names but not one that was common. Both wind and wool were constants (and still are) within Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, the northern Himalayan Indian state. Wool, as one local trader put it, was “the eternal wealth” proffered by this region.
We have 10 days of trekking behind us already, which began near the hillside community of Manali. We have a little over three weeks to our final destination (to the extent our permits will be effective), which will see us passing through the ancient Himalayan capital of Leh on our way north to the Nubra Valley, with its sand dunes and Bactrian camels. I mention permits simply because it is unclear at this point whether they will be sufficient to get us there. But we will hope.
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Sadanand is our muleteer for the portion of our expedition that will take us from the Tibetan-infused valley of Spiti and over the wonderfully unpredictable 5,600-metre Parang Pass into the Parang River Valley towards Tso Moriri—the great lake in the sky. It is a zone of such desolation that our guide and interpreter Tashi tells us that even the nomads have abandoned it.
Salt, tea, grain, trinkets and wool have all passed along this route for centuries. Lèna, as pashmina wool is known in these western parts of the Himalayas, has remained an almost fabled product—its soft warmth has been prized by the nobility across the globe. The irony is that this sought-after item, which ends up in the courtiers’ shops of the cultural capitals, can be traced back to some of the most isolated regions on the planet.
Pashmina goats—found throughout these windswept spaces, where everything but silence is rare—and their precious winter wool are the most valued commodities on the Changtang highlands of northern and western Tibet. These regions, now cut by man’s contraption—the border—once extended far into northwestern India, and it is upon one such strand that a team of six of us, along with laden mules and horses, are moving along.
Distances in these mountains were not measured in days and nights so much as they were by way of peaks, lakes and towns; a journey of three weeks was often described as one with “eight passes and three lakes.”
Centuries of trade, the history of which wasn’t recorded, transported goods throughout the region that we tread upon now: north into Yarkhand, Khotan and what is now the Uyghur stronghold of northwestern China, Xinjiang; across Ladakh into Pakistan; and most importantly for us, the myriad wandering trails that seem to link all of these vanquished capitals in the Western Himalayas.
Parang Pass awaits us in all of its understated force and power. Parang and its notorious blizzards devastated caravans and obliterated trails, disorienting traders and pilgrims alike. And if the elements didn’t decimate you the infamous brigands and thieves were always another facet of Himalayan travel that traders would have to contend with. Thankfully, the days of thieves upon the route have passed, though the days of mules and horses have given way to belching vehicles and diesel engines.
Ascending Parang, our caravan is spread over a distance of perhaps three kilometres, spotting the landscape like a rosary. So much of expeditioning involves simply grinding through the days, trudging onwards and keeping the senses tuned to the windy solace, with the legs and lungs doing all the labour. Our pathway is etched into the coppery-coloured rock, relentlessly moving upwards to the flat bow of the pass. The space we make our way through is a giant bowl that gives way to a hint of a ridgeline, where the primordial pathway ascends.
Winds begin their sermon, humming ominously as Michael, Tashi and I approach the pass. Sadanand leads the mules alongside Kaku, who is an indestructible do-everything chap, and Karma, the relentlessly calm cook. Summits for mountain peoples have never been epic, but rather something to be thankful for, prayed atop and moved off of with a minimum of fuss. To dwell is to tempt the deity’s wrath.
Parang Pass, like many, is a pass of two faces. During days of sun it is a glorious gateway; but during times of wind and snow it can turn into a place that devours life in short order. Cresting the summit of the pass the winds hit from all directions at once. A world unto itself, we are able to see over the Parang and into the next landscape that we face. This one is white-faced and encrusted with grey tones and ice. The southern section we had made our way up had been clear of ice and snow—but this north-facing deck is a veritable tribute of Himalayan cold.
So much of Himalayan trade has been about not simply the exchange itself but the relationships developed over the course of travelling the route. It was also about simply surviving the journey.
Along the route of wind and wool the fiercely independent Tibetan nomads, themselves part of clans and tight family groups, would bring their combed stocks of pashmina wool down from their communities in the spring. Gently combed out of the prized winter coats of the Himalayan mountain goat, which grows its fleece soft and fine as armour against the fierce climate, the microfibres of wool would arrive to communities or middlemen who would then sell it to the fabric spinners.
From the Tibetan highlands wool travelled to all points of the global compass, and it was lucrative. It was the one product from these mountain people that was highly sought after: the higher the geographic region where the goats roamed the more valuable was the wool; the more remote a region the more the wool was coveted. The routes themselves were also used to send grains and horses and other vitals in the reverse direction.
Our own routing takes us past Lake Tso Moriri, along whose blue crystalline banks nomads would convene when trading their goods.
West of us, Leh, the ancient market capital, awaits. When we hit Leh it is gentle pandemonium; but this is an overstatement really, because it is more a case of Michael and I being overly sensitive to every horn, four-wheeled vehicle and body that comes close to us. As is so often, I have the urge to simply bolt back into the great silences where I can hide and my mind can function with the wind and stones as my guide.
We have a day of exploring the city’s old trading quarter. Pashmina is everywhere; on signs, in heaps of colour, within the chatter of locals. It is still alive, this trading in the luxury wool that comes from the backs of goats. None of its luster has been forgotten nor lost.
This western Himalayan capital and its automobiles and structures make me quite ready within an hour (but after a shower) to head back up into the hills with our supplies and pack mules. But first we must allow Karma, Tashi and Kaku to enjoy the temporary sites, sounds and little luxuries of the city. Part of journeying in a group is knowing one’s needs, weaknesses and moods, empathizing with others, taking what’s needed, then moving along when everyone is keen and clean.
West and out of the city our reunited team soon heads. Then up the Phyang Valley we trek, winding skyward until we reach a series of green villages that sit like a beacon amid the quiet vast horizon. The valleys become tighter, and once again there is the feeling that we are embraced and protected by the elements and the land-forms.
Sadanand is gone, and in his place we have a man who in some ways is the antithesis of our missed warrior. Neat and discreet, with a voice that seems to disappear in the wind, he and his horse are a pair of perfectionists. Understated, careful in movements and almost dainty, this muleteer and his charges are almost clinical.
Kaku is newly shaven and looking far better than the rest of us. Karma, unchanged as always, is showing only the merest hint that he is once again content with our return to the route and the peaks. The only change in Tashi is that all clothing he wears now is completely clean, and the few valiant whiskers that had been attempting to grow over the past weeks have disappeared. Michael and his hunger to be up in the mountains are ever evident.
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We trek up and the altitude’s effects began to hit us, for whatever reason. We are not higher, nor is the route more difficult. The side effects of altitude are not simply caused by the height alone. Air pressure, metabolism and temperature all seem to be playing on the various team members.
Our horseman is another grand character, as it turns out; but his fine qualities are linked to an understated competence and knowledge of his horses and of the land, rather than Sadanand’s bulletproof, iron-like fortitude. There is no grumbling from this new muleteer, and his horses and mules genuinely seem to enjoy his company. He needs not scream or even threaten. Gentle little sounds and soft sympathetic looks maintain the animals’ pace.
The bharal (or Himalayan blue sheep) is more goat than sheep (I’m told), and more grey than blue. They are also the main delicacy of the snow leopard. This solitary cat has been on the fringes of my mind for the entire journey. I’m sure it has gazed upon our caravan at times, and I often wonder if we’ll be granted a view; but for whatever reason I’m sure that we’ll only see one, if it allows us to.
Yet it is the bharal and its presence that takes the breath. At camp one night, at close to five thousand metres, a group of six males descends slowly and passes within a few dozen metres of us. These thick-chested silent animals are so close together that they cannot help but brush up against one another as they move like a phalanx of the natural world.
Alert (for the leopard that must be around), but seemingly at a bit of ease, they pass us without so much as an acknowledgement, keeping only one of those famed baleful goat eyes on us. We evidently don’t rate as danger. Powerful and graceful, they are magnificent and strange in their shape and deliberation. We are entirely silent and even Karma is wide-eyed…the sultan of calm is impressed, and I feel a happiness at this knowledge.
Lasermo La is a pass that was once crossed with regularity by caravans heading to and coming from the Nubra Valley. Now it is utterly quiet in its appraisal of all things. We get up it by late morning and the light of a furious sun illuminates the top of the world.
Continuing up the plate-like glaciers Michael and I move toward 6,000 metres. What matters is to be able to look down on the curling ridgelines of stone and the glaciers being blown by winds into frozen waves. Nothing else matters, and not for the first time I’m utterly loathe to even consider leaving these heights. “Stay in the present,” I am reminded by a little voice inside. Much as I’d like to listen to it, I ignore it and simply let the breath that heaves in me take over. These spaces and their accompanying winds will long remain in the mind and blood, and they are instant memories when they hit you.
The Nubra Valley waits with heat for us. My dreamlike lust to see the elusive snow leopard has come to nothing. Wolf scat was found along our route, but not one discernable trace of the solitary and very legendary cat. Dust, a drop in altitude, and the inevitable feelings of gentle edginess come too. We are leaving the sanctity of the heights and moving back down into the land of two-footers. Sand dunes, Bactrian camels, and a little closer to the border with Pakistan, the valley holds softer winds and more memories of the days of trade.
Yarkhandis, Dards, Changpa nomads, Kashmiri Sikhs, Newari—all of these peoples and a dozen others were active here, have left their DNA in this region. A region that is a crucible of Central Asia, Tibet and India, and which positively hums with these cultural infusions, even now. This DNA remains in the business ways; it is in the sands of the Nubra Valley, in the nearby glaciers whose tempests took many a life.
Two figures we meet in the valley—one a trader, one a sage witness to trade—remind me that trade was very much more than simply an exchange of commodities and economics. I am told by the elder that trade was like a window letting in light. It was about sharing, and it was about adventure—and it was entirely about relentless movement. *
- Jeff Fuchs is an editor-at-large for Outpost Travel Media. He lived in the Himalayas for almost two decades and explores the ancient trails of human history (the Wool, Salt and Spice routes, the Silk Road) and led our In From the Outpost PERU team across the Andean highlands in search of the spirit of ayni.