The nomad people in Changtang, Ladakh

The region of Changtang is a high altitude plateau (average elevation 4500 meters) mainly located in western and northern Tibet, but a small part of Changtang crosses also the border into Ladakh. Changtang in Ladakh is the home of the Changpa nomads, a semi-nomadic Tibetan ethnic group. The Changpa speak a dialect of Tibetan and practice Tibetan Buddhism. There are also more than 7000 Tibetan refugees residing in the region whose settlements are scattered across the plateau.

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The vast majority of Changtang is uninhabited and inhospitable for farming. The nomads are pastoralists and raising mainly yaks and goats. Pashmina goats grow a thick, warm fleece and they are able to survive the harsh winter in the region, where the temperatures plunge to as low as -35 °C. These goats provide the wool for Kashmir's famous Pashmina shawls. The nomads sell the Pashmina wool to buy rice and grain.

Usually the nomads stay in one place for 3 or 4 months before they move on to another spot. They prefer to settle in prepared places, where stone walls give shelter to their goat and yak herds. Nearby the settlements there are water springs and grassland for the goats. Moving around with all the equipment is not that simple, especially for nomads who only have goats and no yaks or horses. In this case a truck or a 4WD is needed for the transport of the tents, the stove, the gas cooker and all the carpets and blankets. The nomads might lead a simple and hard life, but the interior of a nomad tent is usually quite comfortable which also includes a Buddhist altar.

Almost all nomad children get a chance to go to school and usually they attend a boarding school all-year. The parents are quite happy about the education of their children because they believe the children can have a better life. Although the older people are proud of their traditions they know, that the new generation will probably not follow the hard life of a nomad. The education level of the children opens a chance for a job in Leh or other cities in Ladakh.

To visit the region Changtang in Ladakh a special permit is necessary. It's no wonder that there is no public transportation in this area, so it would be a good idea to hire a 4WD and a driver, preferably a driver who knows the region very well to find the settlements of the nomads. The trip usually starts in Leh, from there to Upshi, crossing the pass Taglang-La (5328m) and then to the salt lake Tso Kar. The first nomad village is Thukse nearby Tso Kar. In Thukse there are many stone wall shelter for the nomads, but often these camps are abandoned. There is an unpaved road from Thukse to Puga, and there is a good chance to find other nomad settlements, either along the unpaved road, or in a valley not far away from the road. From Puga it is only a short distance to the beautiful lake Tsomoriri at an altitude of 4595 m, the largest of the high altitude lakes in the Trans-Himalayan region. The drive back to Leh via Chumatang to Upshi is a wonderful road along the Indus River and certainly one of the most beautiful drives in Ladakh.

All in all a trip to Changtang, the nomads and the lake Tsomoriri will last like 4 or 5 days and still is a real adventure. But you should be well prepared, especially if you intend to stay overnight in a nomad tent: also in summertime it is very very cold at night and you need a warm sleeping bag!

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