Saturday, November 20, 2010

In search of Yarn & Goat

Earlier this year I found myself on the road to Srinagar.
Kasmir has always been one of those places that I have really wanted to visit & here I was inspite of warning about curfews and shootings, off to finally travel there with my friend Mieke.


We found a wonderful houseboat on Dal lake owned by Lafit Ji, and were overwhelmed by the friendliness & generousity all the people we met there . What people say about Kasmir & Dal lake is true. 

It really is one of the most beautiful places in the world, at least the places that I have visited.

Srinagar was under curfew, so we were not able to go to the workshops where silk is grown, but the women here still spin it into lustrous yarn. We were lucky to be able to go to a collective and see the women from the family spin the fine pasmina wool into the most gossamer of threads.
A fine art indeed...all I managed was clumps of wispy hair!

The journey to Leh from Srinagar was exhilarating. It was doubtful if the road to Kargil would be open, due to heavy rainfall & the curfew. Finally we managed after 3 changes of jeep to find one that would take us. Up & up we twisted & climbed, the road snaking up & down through mountains and passes, at points clinging to the rockface on a narrow gravel road.

The landscape changing from rolling green hills and meadows to a stark elemental beauty where the occasional monastery perched high atop a rocky ridge. 

We arrived in Leh and found the guesthouse that Mieke had prevoiusly stayed in, up the hill away from the centre of town. Splashed out on a room with hot water...the shower was BLISSFULL...washed the dirt and grime away from our 2 day jeep journey & felt a little less weary. A word of warning about’s very high up, so a little thing called ‘altitude sickness’ is something to bear in mind. This can vary from a mild headache to full blown nose-bleeds , nausea, & even death in some cases. I was wheezing like a man in need of an iron lung with a headache.Luckily I just felt that I had been punched in the chest and had been smoking 60 a day since I was 5. Not easy walking uphill with a 20 kilo rucksack. After a day or so, the light dizziness abated, and it no-longer felt that I had 10kg rocks attached to my legs and chest. 

Leh & Ladakh had the other-wordly quality for me. Yes. Technically speaking we were in India, but the people & culture were a race apart. Tibetan Buddhism flavoured everything from the tea to the architecture. There is a strong Kasmiri presence here too, & I found the place & people enthused with a calmness & stillness that is rare to find.

Are coincidences coincidental..hmmmmm...I don’t know. 
On the ride from Srinagar to Kargil, I sat next to a young guy called Gohar who just so happened to be returning to his post in Kargil in the department of Animal Husbandry. He gave me the number of Dr Feroz din Sheikh, who is Spuerintendant Incharge of the section in Leh who kindly agreed to meet Mieke and me. 

Pictures of hairy 4 legged friends & husbandry in remote places abounded at the office in Leh, & I felt a goaty rush of excitement as we were invited to see the pasmina farm on the outskirts of Leh. Finally I would get to see what a Pashmina goat really looks like. Pashmina is called LE-NA or CHANGRA in local dialect.

We went out to the farm and finally met the little bleaters...They were so pains me to say it...CUTE!! I just wanted to stroke them..They were friendly, inquisitve & slightly boisterous. It was so kind of Dr Feroz, and all his staff at the project to take time to show us the goats.

The wool grows between the skin of the goat, and the long hair in winter to keep them warm. It is harvested at the end of the cold season at the end of May/beginning of June. The woolly fuzz has to be combed out from the goat. using a special comb called a KRED It is never sheared.  The pashmina wool is never cleaned before it is sold, but sometimes separated/dehaired from the longer outside fibres by hand. It is then bought by the trader, then washed, carded, hand-spun, and finally woven into what is known as a pashmina shawl. We in the west  have been known to call it Cashmere. This is why anything with real 100% pasmina yarn is so expensive, & the Leh/Ladakhi wool is the finest of all, coming in at 7 microns on average, compared to the coarser quality produced from Pashmina goats in Mongolia or China.

Now to clear something Pasmina killed, unborn calves aborted for their soft down...ALL UNTRUE.
Pashmina Goat = Changra = Capre Hircus = cute & domesticated
Le-na = Pashmina Fibre = Pashmina = Cashmere
Bstod = Tsos = Tibetan Antelope = Chiru = Pantholops Hodgsoni = Wild = Impossible to catch 
Shahtoosh = Bstod-khul = Fibre from Tibetan Antelope

They are 2 separate & distinct animals. Unlike the friendly Pashmina goat,The Tibetan Antelope is wild and cannot be domesticated or approached. This is why it is shot & killed to get its fine wool. It takes 3 large Chiru to make one shawl. That’s why it’s become an endangered species & shahtoosh shawls are illegal.

What with a trip to the ALL CHANGTHANG PASMINA GROWERS COOPERATIVE MARKETING SOCIETY LTD in Leh -which is a wonderfully organised factory where all the pasmina wool comes in and gets turned into fine yarn by the villagers in a modern, sheltered environment with the profits being distrubuted between the members 

to my new friend  Nazir Ahmad- who has a small shop in the old town selling yarns  & shawls of yak, goat sheep & pasmina that are spun at their own house /mill in Thiksay just outside Leh


to the wonderful lady who had a shop selling traditional Ladakhi wear(a LOCAL shop for LOCAL people) 

My head was spinning & brimming over in a dazed frenzy of craft & materials. So much so, Mieke & I had to frequently take rest at the German Bakery for all manner of REAL sandwiches, wraps, pasta , cakes all to die for and homemade. That’s without talking about the abundance of woodfire pizza-ovens and great Indian food-(yes! as anyone who travels alot knows, dal and a roti or something stewed until it is just an unrecognisable oily pulp is often the norm which drives one to becoming slightly obsessed by food).  Really lucked-out on food in Leh, & am drooling as I write this now.

Stark beautiful surroundings, people genuinely courteous & friendly with a local culture still mostly intact & not ruined by too many tourists demands.

The monasteries visited were labaryntine in complexity, colourful, dramatic, & charged with an intensity.

Winding  our way up thru the mud walls of the old town, 
to get to the monumental Palace of Leh

panting & sweating we then zig-zagged up a seemingly never-ending path to get to the fort which was perched on a ridiculously high out-cropping of rock, even more lung failingly higher

after heaving our carcasses FINALLY over the final steps we were struck dumb by the beauty of the place & the awe inspiring sensation of being at the top of the world.

      The last day was spent relaxing... eating....walking thru the bazaar one more time...& contemplating. 

We were off that evening back to Manali via the torturous road that leads through the second highest pass in the world : The Rohtan Pass
we started off our 20 hour plus journey in a minibus at midnight.

The roads got bumpy as we started to climb, and soon we were off road high 
up in the night, crossing a frozen plain of mud as the road had was difficult to sleep, but exhilarating as we snaked up & up, then down , then up & up again. Vegetation giving way to a landscape of grey & ice, shorn of any colour, but inspiring by the sheer sense of isolation.

The road continued to twist & turn as we were jolted from precipice to precipice,  almost being volted into the void below. There was never much space between us and the edge, the driver  a master of every twist & turn.
A couple of times  the icy mountain torrents swept down from above & washed away the road in plumeting jets of water. Vehicles stranded mid-stream.
Thankfully the trust JCB'S came to the rescue

After an hour or so the way was again passable & up & up & up & up again we climbed

The rainbow cheered us all up & marked the high point of our journey as we descended into the Manali valley, jostling with many other vehicles .Some going up, some going down. 

Down & down & down again we twisted & turned.
Finally we made it into Manali & then Fasciste where hot food was to be bought & we collapsed onto cushions bone-weary & gorged ourselves. Itchy & dazed with fatigue we succumbed to the haze of beer & good grub, staggering up the stairs to pass out after one of the most scary but exhilarating road trips I have ever been on

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