In Search of a Mountain Goat

I arrived in Srinagar last year in early August, a week before a planned trip to Ladakh with three old friends who’d accompanied me on a similar trip four years earlier. After a long hiatus, you could now spot a foreign tourist or two walking here and there. As it hadn’t rained much in London for a few months, Srinagar looked much greener than usual. Parks and gardens in London had turned brown whereas the lawns in Kashmir looked lush green. My father had mown his lawn a few days earlier and it appeared completely even.

However, the residents of Srinagar are wary of the rain because memories of the 2014 floods are still fresh in their minds. Besides, it was the wedding season in Kashmir and it was feared that all the Shamianas (marquees) pitched on the front lawns for the weddings would get drenched in the event of a downpour. You hear of cloudbursts in Kashmir more often these days. In my childhood, the people of Srinagar wished a cloud would burst only on a sworn enemy. And an elderly relative once told me that lightning is always attracted to a giant Chinar tree. 

I had experienced heavy monsoon rains in Gurgaon near Delhi before arriving in Srinagar. My ride to the airport was decidedly scary as the downpour at one point looked like a waterfall on the edge of a mountain precipice. During my visit to Delhi in 2021, the rainwater had even entered the International terminal of the IGI airport. But at least this downpour didn’t amount to monsoon conditions. Indeed, the Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali, asserts that monsoons never cross the mountains into Kashmir. 

I found the greenery in Srinagar reassuring after the long dry spell in London. My father had planted a fig tree sapling in his garden which had grown into a full-blown tree and its fruit was ripe and ready in August. I had read somewhere about a judicious farmer in East Anglia who planted fig trees in his garden that were already bearing fruit, thanks to the heatwaves in the UK in recent years. The only annoyance was being bitten by small bugs while sitting in my father’s garden. And I have always found it mystifying how quickly my mother’s washing dries on a clothesline in her garden.

I planned to stay with my friends in the same  out-of-town hotel in Kargil which is located on a bend in the River Suru. The hotel is known as Chhutuk Heights. We had greatly enjoyed our stay there in 2018. This time, my friend had only managed to book rooms for us at the rear of the hotel. But the receptionist allocated rooms for us on the top floor with a good view of the river. All the rooms here have got balconies and you can sit on them for hours watching the river flow by. 

To cross the river during our previous visit and get to the mountain, we had walked over a suspension bridge made of wooden planks and through a small village. I asked a villager sitting near a stream where the road led to and he said that it connected another village to Kargil town. 

A sign at the riverbank warned about a sudden rise in the water level during the summer months. There is a power station nearby and sometimes the water released from the barrage will suddenly push up the level. I had seen a similar sign on the bank of the River Sihl in Switzerland a few years ago. My observant friend, a seasoned traveller, pointed out the wet boulders on the riverbank and commented that the water level must have risen and fallen during the night. 

The night before, we had encountered a few people having dinner in the open, sitting on the grass among the trees on one side of the road. The foliage of these round-shaped trees looked very fresh in the morning light and thin mountain air. There were a few tall poplar trees on the other side of the road. It is mostly their logs that are used in the construction of houses in Ladakh as it is easier to transport them from Kashmir to Ladakh – the trucks don’t carry the full load owing to conditions at high altitude.

Two days later we planned to drive to Pangong, where the total area of Pangong Lake is 699 square kilometres – the size of half of Greater London. Someone had told us that we needed to apply for a permit to go there and so we walked into a travel agency near the Bazaar in the morning. We paid for the permit, together with a small commission for the travel agent, after providing him with a scan of our IDs. 

I wanted to buy a small gas canister and burner to carry with us to Pangong and had seen a shop in Leh Bazaar during our 2018 visit that sold camping equipment. However, the shop was still closed at 10 am. The mobile number of the owner was written on the signboard. I rang the number and the shopkeeper told me that she would open her shop in an hour and I should wait for her. I had no choice because we failed to find another shop in the bazaar selling camping equipment. The shutters finally went up at 11:30 am and the owner showed me a burner that was very nifty because you could fold it and pack it in a small container. The small gas canister we bought had a metal screw-type cap which thankfully didn’t leak in the back of a car, unlike most other gas cylinders that are used for portable stoves in Kashmir. 

We finally left for Pangong around noon. I sometimes confused its name with the capital of North Korea – Pyongyang. Three years ago, there was a clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers at a place called Galwan Valley which isn’t too far from Pangong Lake. The valley was named after a Ladakhi-Kashmiri guide, Ghulam Rasool Galwan, who has written a memoir called Servant of Sahibs. I found the title of the book disconcerting as it sounded ingratiating. During my childhood I sometimes heard children in Srinagar singing the chorus – ‘Memsahib, Salaam! Your servant is behind you’ – while following groups of foreign tourists visiting the old town.

I met a man from Lake Dal in the travel agency where we had applied for the permit to

visit Pangong. He ran a shop in Leh selling handicrafts. He told me that he had spent nine years in Sweden. I asked him if we were going to see any Pashmina goats on the way to Pangong. He told us that since the road passed through Changthang, which was their habitat, we would see quite a few along the route. However, I only saw some wild horses and yaks and almost gave up hope until my friend stopped the car suddenly and asked me to look in the distance. I saw the stooping figure of a woman driving a tribe of goats. We waited until she got closer and I asked her if those were Pashmina goats and she nodded in reply. This rare breed of goat seemed to blend with the barren landscape. Someone later told me that they travelled more than 10 kilometres each day during summer in search of food as there is very little vegetation in Changthang. 

My encounter with this stoical and tenacious woman evoked memories of my late grandmother, who spun the fleece of Pashmina goats on her wooden charkha for many hours each day. The ultra-fine yarn would often snap and she would join the two ends again by moistening her fingers with her tongue and then twist the loose ends together. The spinning of Pashmina is done exclusively by women in Kashmir. I have never seen a man sitting behind a charkha. To some extent it gives financial independence to many housewives in Srinagar. My great-grandmother too was busy at her charkha whenever I visited her. She was fond of giving pocket money to her great-grandchildren and she kept her money neatly packed in a flat cigar tin. I always felt guilty accepting money from her, knowing how hard she had worked to earn it.

Leh was teeming with tourists both domestic and international when we visited in 2018 but the tourist industry in Ladakh suffered a double whammy in 2020: the arrival of Covid-19 and a military stand-off between India and China. However, tourists have again returned in droves, more domestic than foreign this time, it seems. Ladakh first opened up to foreign tourists in 1974 and has been popular with them ever since. A Bollywood film that was released in 2009 and briefly featured Pangong Lake has put it well and truly on the tourist map. 

We drove off-road for a few miles as a section of the road leading to Pangong had vanished due to a landslide. I had seen a sign near a high mountain pass on the way to Leh stating that due to global ‘warning’ there was an increased risk of landslides in the area. It was a stark reminder that we live in an extremely interconnected world where the actions of people living in one place can impact greatly on the lives of others living thousands of miles away. Although Ladakh is known as the roof of the world, the effects of climate change can be felt as acutely here as in low-lying areas.

The sun was setting behind the mountains that surround the high-altitude Pangong Lake when we got there. The sky was clear, turning the water of the lake azure. I was astonished to find a makeshift encampment built on a slope near the lake. In fact, it was the first of a couple more such camping sites. There were a few old wooden houses nearby that looked derelict. However, the encampment was brimming with life. We wanted to look for a camping site to pitch our igloo-style tents but it was already dark and one of my friends argued that it wasn’t a good idea to search for a camping site at night. The encampment consisted of rows of wooden beach-style huts with communal dining halls. When we enquired if we could hire two of them, we were told that most of these huts were occupied but two empty huts at the rear were found and the cost of hiring them for the night was the same as that for a hotel room in Leh. And we appreciated having a hot meal in the evening in such a remote place. 

My friend had warned us that there might be no electricity after we went to bed because he had spotted power generators humming by the roadside nearby – a sign that they were likely to be turned off by the management in order to save expense. When I got up in the middle of the night and tried to switch on the lights I realised that he was right. 

The next morning we drove for more than 10 miles on the road along the edge of the lake. A taxi driver asked us if it was safe to venture out this far and became flustered when we told him it was safe to do so because he’d read some news reports suggesting it was all-out war near the Indo-China border. He was carrying tourists in the back of his cab and wanted to keep them out of harm’s way. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t watched any news for a couple of weeks and hence our world had morphed into a better place. I had almost forgotten about the dreadful war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis back in the UK. And mountains certainly make you forget about the existential threats faced by humanity. During the Cold War, in fear of nuclear fallout, the Swiss built bunkers in the mountains to hide in.

It was overcast in the morning but the lake changed colours as we drove along its shore. We looked for a place where we might have pitched our two tents the night before and drove on pebbles and sand to get close to the water. We decided to pitch one tent, albeit just for an hour, to use our gas stove for making a cuppa. Although it should take less time for water to boil at a high altitude it seemed otherwise to us. We tasted the water of the lake to gauge its saltiness. I thought of the intrepid traders of long ago who walked great distances along the mountainous routes to sell their wares. The Silk Road traversed the Tibetan Plateau and you can still find double-humped camels from a bygone era in Ladakh. I would love to seek them out on my next trip to the roof of the world.

2 replies on “In Search of a Mountain Goat”

Enjoyed reading your adventurous experience especially around Pangong lake. Your visits to the valley & surroundings with your writing is an eye opener for many tempting to travel into such fabulous part of the world. To many yet unexplored medieval times. Great writing.Enjoyed going thru your experiences.

I had’nt watched news in a couple of weeks and the world had morphed into a better place……
Iqbal has a way of explaining things that is so different from others.
Your travel logs are beautifully written and the reader is forced to travel with you in his mind.
I enjoyed this piece as it brings back the memories of my travels In Ladakh as a kid in 1972 and then in late eighties.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *