Kora founder Michael Kleinwort treks through the depths of Northern India’s Ladakh region following an ancient trade route, in search of nomadic Yak wool herders
It is 3 hours since we began the ascent. The heaviness of the valley floor has given way to an eerie calm. In a silent valley high above, we force our way up another moraine pitch. The rhythm is one set by what the lungs and heart can take. Each ten paces I stop, knowing better than to look up.
I want to move faster and finally reach the pass, but each bend in the trail, each rise, leads to a higher ridgeline. I want to be free of my pack and boots so that I can run – to shake off this lethargy. Instead I lean forward and gasp some more, heaving in the thin air in dry gulps.
We rest together on the lopsided stage to an amphitheatre of peaks. Sculpted of blood-red rocks, their frozen faces stare down at us unmoved, jowls smoothed by the winds and burnt by the sun, age lines cut deep by glacial melt. It is a strange place – a purgatory before the pass – and nothing seems to live here, as though it is a place meant only for the pass and the mountains.
It takes 4 hours to reach the 5700-metre altitude Parang Pass. The team makes small offerings in thanks of our safe passage. There is no time to linger because stretched out below us clinging to the north flank of the pass is a vast glacier. Travelling these routes safely is not about speed, but consistency – and grit. Nomads have warned us that it is vital always to keep moving – and to stay together – whatever the conditions.
We are here for different reasons. My trek partner, Himalayan explorer Jeff Fuchs, is here to continue his decade-long cataloguing of ancient Himalayan trade routes. I tag along in the hope of making contact with nomadic yak herders. My aim is to buy their wool.
In the course of five weeks we have wound our way through the mountains of Northern India’s Ladakh region and across the Changtang plateau, following what remains of an ancient trade route.
It is in fact a network of interconnected routes, the length of which was probably seldom, if ever, travelled by one trader and his caravan. Traders would more often exchange goods en route – each covering one section. In this way, wool, spices and salt arrived in the market towns that sit where the plains and the northern limits of the Himalayan range meet.
Today these paths are little used except by the nomads; they are fading with the memories of those that walked them half a century ago.
It is a route that demands patience at times, and resilience at others. We grind over glaciers and remote mountain passes, sidestep barefoot through rivers and hunch our way across windswept plains.
The altitude for the duration is above 4000 metres, and on the Changtang plateau we spend days above 5000 metres. Once nomadic communities could be found in these valleys. Today they are rare, and those that persist with this unrelenting way of life have moved elsewhere at this time of year – higher still, we are told, for the summer grazing.
We must resist the urge to follow. We meet a few wandering sheepherders and some abandoned herds of yaks. Sometimes we skirt a military outpost.
We are fortunate that the conditions are mostly favourable – in fact sometimes too favourable: the sun is our most frequent concern. Often it leaves Jeff burned and me parched.
The rest of the team – made up of Karma, our cook, our guide Tashi, Kaku the indomitable do-it-all man, and our horseman – are made of something different. Almost unbelievably, Sadanand, our 65-year old horseman – in his fifty-third year of trekking these mountains – crosses the passes, glaciers and rivers in the same two pairs of socks and green, plastic sandals.
We spot herds of bharal, blue sheep and pass a few, curious kiang, wild ass. We are told that there are many snow leopards here, along with wolves and bears. In other parts, life appears to have moved on. Silence fills these flat-bottomed valleys, broken only by crumbling rocks– these mountains are slipping back into the ancient seabed from which they once emerged.
When we must, we drop down into fertile valleys to collect supplies from farming communities. Much of the time we have only ourselves and the wind and mountains for company.
There is a rhythm to this existence that is addictive. It is why the men who accompany us leave their families to return each year. After a month, the trail ends abruptly on the edge of some sand dunes dotted with camels; this time at least, we can go no further.
Michael Kleinwort is the founder of Kora (www.kora.net / @koraoutdoor)