The Shepherds of Remote Zanskar, Ladakh
Nature calls. Between the road jolting and drinking large amounts of fluids because of the dehydrating altitude, one of us always had to go (including the crew). We stopped for a pee break in a promising spot loaded with piles of yak turds, convenient to squat behind. Finished, I looked the other way and saw a small shepherd’s summer enclave with women in the middle of making cheese. Cheese making is quite a process. Pour cow/dzo/yak milk into a huge cauldron, and light a fire underneath to turn milk into yogurt. The resultant yogurt mixture is then separated into small pieces, and placed in the sun to dry. Summer houses have stone walls while sticks, burlap and straps serve as a roof.
Similar to the Alpine transhumance, the Zanskar women and children leave their villages every summer to bring livestock higher in the mountains. This group of neighbors lived only a fews hours away from their village. Little baby calfs and dzos (half cow, half yak) were milling around while the adult cattle grazed higher up the mountain. One little calf even came over to lick my leg! (It probably found the two days accumulation of dirt and salt tasty.)
Their hardworking lives never ceased to interest us. Animal dung not only served as fertilizer but is also the only heating fuel available in this region. It was rare not to see a woman gathering yak dung in a basket slung over her shoulders, huge mounds of yak dung along the road, yak dung patties drying in the sun, dried yak patties arranged artistically on roofs. I must have taken photograph after photograph of yak dung. It fascinated me how something so necessary to survival could take on its own surreal beauty and dignity.
Roughly 95% of the Zanskari practice Tibetan Buddhism while the remainder are Sunni Muslims. The population lives in scattered small villages, the largest being Padum with nearly 700 inhabitants. Most of the villages are located in the valleys of the Zanskar river and its two main tributaries. Given the isolation of this region, the inhabitants are almost completely self sufficient.
Cattle rearing and farming is the Zanskari main occupation. Cultivable land is scarce, and restricted to riverbeds, deltas, flood plains and terraces. It was harvest time and fields of wheat and barley were being harvested. Small gardens were filled with vegetables. Roofs were piled high with dried, different colored grasses to use as livestock feed in the winter.
Livestock, and especially the yak, is of paramount importance in Zanskar. Yaks are used to plough the land, thresh grain, carry heavy loads, give milk that is also used to make cheese, butter, yogurt, and the fur is used to make clothes, carpets, ropes. I’m crazy about these shaggy, snorting beasts with their fluffy tails. Many a night I’d wake in our tent thinking Steve was snoring up a storm when it was just a yak outside.
The majority of Zanskari are of mixed Tibetan and Indo-European origins. The scarcity of cultivable land has resulted in a stable, zero-growth population. A high infant mortality rate also contributes to population stability while a third reason is the common practice of polyandry. Polyandry (I had to look up the meaning) is when several brothers are married to the same wife. This practice still survives in small areas of Zanskar.