BETWEEN GIANTS - Nomadic Struggle in a New Ladakh His feet crunching over the rocky desert ground, Ring Tsing Chuong nears the end of a 160-mile journey that he makes several times a year to visit his family. Upon reaching the campsite, nestled in a small pocket of the Rupshu Valley, calls of 'Julay!' emerge from inside tents as the heads of his friends and family members poke through their flaps. A member of the small Changpa community in Ladakh, Chuong has just returned from the capital city of Leh where he works in the flourishing construction industry. His people, the Changpa, are one of several groups of indigenous nomads who have inhabited the high plains (almost 15,000 feet above sea level) for generations. However, more than the altitude and extreme weather that characterize their home, it's Ladakh's shifting political and social climate that threatens their way of life.
Growing up, Chuong herded Pashimina goats, the lifeblood of his community for generations. The Changpa drink their milk, eat their meeat, and burn goat droppings for fuel. For several hundred years, they earned their only real income from the sale and trade of wool to neighboring regions. In recent years though, the Changpa population -- like that of other nomadic groups -- has seen dwindling numbers as Ladakh adjusts to a tourism boom that has been dramatically altering the country's economic landscape for the last two decades, spurring more nomads to leave the plains and venture into Leh.
Times are hard for the Changpa, and it's beoming increasingly difficult for them to hold their community intact. In fact, most nomadic groups in Ladakh these days largely comprise elders and young children. The able-bodied members have left and now return only semi-annually to visit loved ones and deliver what staple gods they can afford to bring along. Imported commodities such as propane, rice, and motorized vehicles have replaced the local resources that were used for centuries in their place and create new dependencies for Ladakh's oldest inhabitants. In short, the fine balance that life in Ladakh requires is being tested, and the modernization India has brought to the region is failing those who preceded it.
The nomadic lifestyle that sustained many indigenous groups for hundreds of years is being traded for a chance at a newer notion of success, and scores of Ladakhis migrate from the furthest corners of the region each year in pursuit of their own chunk of the tourism trade. Everything seems to be changing. Leh receives funding from the Indian government to educate the country's youth in English and economics, and many adults from indigenous communities find employment as laborers or in the service industry. Cash crops have replaced sustainable farming in Ladakh's more fertile valleys, while growing import/export trading is undermining the traditional localized economy.
Recent winters have hit the Rupshu valley particularly hard, and snowfall has covered much of the grazing grounds for Changpa herds. Hundreds of Pashmina goats - a vital source of income - starved to death. It seems likely that this sort of economic disaster may force many remaining nomadic populations to permanently abandon their traditions and make a desperate attempt to settle into Ladakh's new economy. 'The nomadic migration to Leh has always been a part of life in Ladakh,' explained David Sonam, a native Ladakhi who has spent extensive time with the Changpa. 'But the hash weather this year means that many more Changpa will settle in town to find other work. If they lose their goats, what will they have left? They will have no other choice.'