A bumpy ride to paradise

Gurgling rivers

Gurgling rivers  

With a jeep piled high with camping equipment and rations Shikha Tripathi drives among pastoral nomads and dashing white kiang on the dusty road through Changthang plateau

Straight out of the old world marked by silk routes, cold deserts and reclusive nomads, Changthang plateau in Ladakh has held the allure of a bygone world for me. Meaning ‘Eastern flat land’, the high-altitude plateau is largely a part of Western and Northern Tibet, and a portion of itspills into India through south-eastern Ladakh. Once dominated by an ancient culture known as Zhangzhung that later merged with the Tibetan culture, Changthang, for me, is the romance in the yellowing pages of travelogues by ancient foot-bound explorers.

 Even before we left Leh, I was enthralled by Heinrich Harrer’s description of the mystic place in Seven Years in Tibet. I hadn’t watched the movie yet, so I had the pleasure of imagining the desolate splendour and wild beauty that he experiences while escaping to Lhasa. There are hypnotic lakes and infinite highlands, he said, and Changthang held that promise of paradise.

We left from Leh, our jeep piled high with camping equipment and rations, and its insides packed with six of us, and our dog, Lucy. A big part of the decision to go to Changthang was also to make Lucy visit her roots, for Tibetan Mastiffs are believed to have their origins in the plateau.

We left early morning and drove east towards the border. We were headed to an area known as the Rupshu Valley, which is home to a host of migratory birds. While most of the Tibetan Changthang is now protected and contains the Changthang Nature Reserve, the second-largest environmental reserve in the world, the Ladakh Chanthang area stretches for nearly 1,600 km and is only a fraction of it. However, not only is it also home to the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, but it has also been a historically important route for travellers who’ve journeyed from Ladakh to Lhasa. The area is surrounded by two major lakes; the Pangong Tso which is hugely popular, marked by burgeoning crowds, and which I had no desire to return to despite its beauty, and the Tso Moriri, the gorgeous lake, which is relatively less of a hotspot.   

Barely 40 kmoutside Leh, we left the smooth tarmac at Upshi for a dirt road that lasted nearly four hours. After crossing the settlement of Sumdo, I caught the first glimpse of the lake in the evening sun. As we neared it, a jumble of migratory birds slowly rolled into view. Bar-headed geese, black-necked cranes, and brahminy ducks and put on a spectacular display. While the avifauna here is stunning and there is a lot of unique wildlife here, including bharal or blue sheep, marmots, the Tibetan sheep, red fox and more, what I truly yearned to see was the kiang. The Tibetan ass is a rare, wild variety found here, whichs also the only untamed species among its clan. Somewhere deep down, I longed to relive that wonderstruck moment on seeing a galloping herd of kiang on my first trip to Marsimek La in Ladakh many years ago.

 We crossed Korzok, one of the world’s highest-inhabited villages, which is nestled on the south-west bank of Tso Moriri. Away from the village and the handful of campsites, we chose a secluded spot right by the lake and set up camp for the night. Drinking hot soup and watching the colours of the sinking sun dissolve into the blue of the lake, I knew that the dirt road ride was worth every bump. I spent the following day just looking at the changing colours of the lake, which are as resplendent as the wings of some of the birds there. Nothing defines the idle quotient of the day more than the fact that by the end of my stay there, I had learnt to skip pebbles on water. Our stay could have been longer, except that we had to move camp to a spot by the stream higher up the next evening. Ignorance is bliss, and we only got to know later that camping by the lake was prohibited. This place was above the Korzok village, close to where the Changpas, or the nomads of Changthang, reside. Meaning the ‘northerners’, the Changpas are pastoralists that roam the plateau in search of pastoral lands for their livestock. Since the land they inhabit is too inhospitable for farming, the nomads’ quintessential livelihood is their cattle, which include yak, goat and sheep. It was the search for a bowl of yoghurt that took us to their settlement higher up, which was a short drive up the rugged road from our campsite. A few odd shops in Korzok directed us to them for fresh dairy purchase. En route were some of the older nomads, on their way to the local Korzok gompa (monastery), dressed in long, flowing robes and rotating their small prayer wheels. We crossed the same stream flowing by our campsite, albeit higher up, and entered a vast, green plateau, akin to the Changthang of my imagination. Fully grown yaks sat stoically like boulders, while baby yaks grazed in abundance against snowy peaks. Sturdy tents made of yak wool dotted the bucolic imagery, and we hollered outside one. The nomads barely understood us, but some gesticulation and a few photographs later, the barter was successful. We returned with our prized mug of yoghurt, half of which was spilled on the way, while some made it to our dinner plates that night.

After the time spent around Tso Moriri, we had to leave. It would take nearly an entire day’s drive to exit Changthang via Pangonago. That, however, was no deterrent, for the landscape of Changthang is nothing short of a pictorial feast. All along , it’s a rollercoaster ride through multi-hued mountains, massive grasslands, arid stretches, virgin lakes and high passes. One more time, we clambered into the jeep and started the drive across this plateau of unmatched beauty. As the day came to an end and we reached closer to the More plains, a herd of the graceful, brown and white kiang dashed across the road in front of us. I revelled in the sight, for it was a fitting goodbye. 

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:26:29 PM |

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