In the high Himalayas of Northern India, the world surrenders to silence. Majestic mountains loom tall over vast stretches of barren land, ice capped peaks glimmer against deep blue skies, and altitudes reach well over 4000 meters above sea level. In lands that appear inhospitable to all but the wind, the Nomads of Changtang endure. The faces of these traveling pastoralists are moulded from the very land they live on. Cracked lines carve windblown cheeks, and hands are worn like leather. These folks are as hardened as the elements they withstand; which in a single day can range from clear blue skies to blinding snow storms.
In this mighty emptiness the only power greater than nature are the Deities who command it. Stone structures known as Latos are built high atop the mountain peaks to honour and appease the village Gods. Nomads fervently worship these spirits in hopes that nature will be kind to their needs. On this particular day of the Tibetan Calendar the Gods have decided that it is time to move.
Just before dawn smoke begins to rise from the opening of Thartchen and Dolma's tent. The nomads are getting an early start on packing their meagre belongings up to set off on a foot-journey to their winter camp. Every few months new grazing pastures are required to ensure that resources remain plentiful. Life here is unalterably centred on livestock. Goats, sheep and yaks are milked daily before a family member accompanies them on a day-long journey to feed. Their milk is churned into butter and generously dolloped into the infamous salt tea constantly on offer; wool is spun to weave colourful carpets; meat dried and preserved for soups. Nothing is wasted in a place that is hundreds of kilometres from the nearest shop.
In the darkness of pre-dawn, the nomads entire existence is bundled onto the backs of horses and they are marching through the rugged stretches of high-altitude desert––framed by the humbling sight of soaring mountains. The pace at which they walk leaves me gasping for air and I periodically stop to rest. Herds of animals and nomads accustomed to this breathless environment smile knowingly as they pass.
By midday, with the sun high in the sky, I realize there is just no way that I can keep up and neither will I slow them down. My head is spinning, my lungs panting, and my legs burning. I pitifully wave goodbye to the lot of them.
The land has conquered me. I thought myself something of a nomad, yet these hearty souls who move for their survival elevate my understanding of just what vigor and verve are truly required to thrive in this life.
Defeated, I languidly walk back to my car, feeling momentarily appeased with the hot shower and fresh food that await.