In our first film, Riding solo, I came across the "Chang pa" - a nomadic people living in the Changthang, a high altitude desert in the Himalayas. The two months spent with them living in their tents and traveling together left a mark and they fondly called me the "Motorcycle Chang pa", since I was traveling on a motorcycle.
In retrospect, Riding solo… feels incomplete, as it does not show Changthang in the winters - when the Chang pas adapt to endure the -40 degree celsius temperatures and high speed winds. So, it is to complete the unfinished job and more importantly to travel with the Chang pas for over a whole year that I start our third film. And what better name for it than "Motorcycle Chang pa"?
Read about my journey right here as I spend my first winter in the harsh climate of Ladakh, hoping to return with a stunning film.
- Gaurav Jani
After my brief stay in Leh to pick up food supplies, I was back in Changthang and the first priority was to get used to walking long distances at the high altitude. I started going on Lukze (taking the sheep out for grazing) with the Chang pas. And in a couple of weeks I could comfortably cover three to four kilometers in an hour. The efficiency came not from the fact that I was now well acclimatized to high altitude, but that I had started to enjoy these long walks. On previous occasions, my city mind would always judge the landscape, the situation or the circumstances. The Chang pas, on the other hand, form a perfect harmony with the landscape by not analyzing anything. By doing so, they become one with nature and don't stand out. It is just a matter of changing the mindset - once you achieve this delicate balance, long walks are not tiring, but almost like a meditative trance.
On 28th December I came to know of a unique aspect of the clan of Chang pas I was living with. To manage the grasslands, all the yaks belonging to the villagers are kept 10-15 kilometers away from the campsite and on a rotation basis, four members from the village have to stay with the herd of yaks for three nights and four days. The practice is called Yakze (taking the Yaks for grazing). The moment I came to know of this, I wanted to be part of the group leaving that afternoon. The Chang pas advised me not to go as it was late December and the temperature was hovering around -25 degree Celsius at night. But I insisted and that is when they told me about the risk involved. For Yakze, the Chang pas carry only food, utensils and sleeping bags. No tent, no heat furnace. After the day's grazing, we just have to sleep out in the open for three nights. Thanks to mindset I was in, I neither thought of it as an adventure nor something that was crazy and had to be experienced. I just wanted to be there and so started packing. Chang pas insisted that I pack my tent, but I wanted to do Yakze the way they did it.
For a centuries old tradition like Yakze, we did make a contemporary start. Instead of walking the initial 10 kilometers, we got a car ride from the village to the base of the mountain from where we had to trek to the place where Yaks were kept. One reason for the car drive was that on the first day we all were loaded with food. Apart from rice and bread, each one of us was carrying at least 5-7 kilograms of meat. On our return journey, there wouldn't be any car to pick us up since our packs would be very light. We began climbing up the mountain taking one-minute breaks after every 10-15 minutes. After four kilometers of climbing and gaining 1,500 feet in altitude, we reached a place called Shibuk at an altitude of 16,300 feet. We were greeted there by a sight of almost 700 yaks and the party of four Chang pas who had tended them for the past couple of nights. Chang pas have domesticated the Yaks for transportation, milk products and meat. Yak hair and hide are also used for clothing and making Yak wool tents. Yaks are supremely adapted to live in high altitudes and sub zero temperatures. Yaks can easily survive at -40 degree Celsius temperature and is an essential animal for Chang pas to inter-depend on. The reason that four people from the village have to constantly look out for the Yaks is because of the Tibetan Wolf locally known as Shangu. A pack of nine Tibetan wolves had killed a fully grown Yak the previous evening, so inspite of the day's long walk, everyone had to be on high alert. We all sat inside a stone pen structure with a fire in between that also cooked our food while keeping us psychologically warm. The fuel for the fire was dry Yak dung. All the eight Chang pas treated Yakze like a picnic. I have never seen these guys so happy, talking loudly and cracking jokes, maybe they were just happy to be away from their wives. But in between all the jokes, one of them would get up and gaze around the herd of Yaks and run to bring the stray ones back.
Once dinner was over, it was time to get into the sleeping bags. Just the mere touch of the sleeping bag which was lying out in the cold made my brain freeze. You just have to endure the first 10-15 minutes after which the body heat makes the bag warm. The night was uncomfortable as I had a tough time protecting myself and the camera gear inside the sleeping bag from the extreme cold outside. In the past I have derived insane pleasure from doing things which are out of the box, and sleeping out in -26 degree Celsius definitely tops the list. But staring at the beautiful starlit night I felt an overwhelming feeling of happiness and ruminating thoughts on this satisfying journey. Inspite of all the difficulties, the Chang pas are not interested in displaying the fine art of suffering and that eventually rubs off. So the feeling of doing something out of the box gave away and I was now a part of the process which Chang pas did for survival. Once you look at it as a challenge, then you think about performance - about winning or losing. My belief in a head strong attitude died that night. It is not about overcoming something, it is about coming to terms with it. It is not about winning, but living it. This is probably the secret to why Chang pas are always happy living in one of the toughest conditions known to mankind in the world.
Everyone was up early in the morning and after the morning tea, the party of four Chang pas started their trek back to the village and now the herd of Yaks was our responsibility. The grazing ground was about four kilometers from the place we had slept. Once the yaks were taken there, all we did was sit around and drink butter tea, milk tea and coffee, go relieve ourselves and start the drinking session all over again. But in between the sips, the Chang pas had their eyes fixed on the Yaks and on possible attacks by Tibetan wolves. No wolf sightings on the first day and by evening all the yaks were brought back to the sleeping ground and dinner was cooked over another round of jokes.
The second day we followed the same routine, drank butter tea and milk tea while keeping a tight vigil on the Yaks and possible wolf attacks. The only difference was the weather. By mid afternoon, the clear sky had dark clouds moving in and soon a light snowfall started. Three of us rushed to the camp, while two guys stayed back with the herd to bring it back in the evening. The three of us divided duties - one would break the ice from the frozen stream for the extra water we needed in the night, as in the evening four more Chang pas were coming to relive us from the Yak duty. Another had to collect Yak dung and dry firewood and I had to go to the camp to pack and protect everyones sleeping bag from the snowfall. Panic soon set in and we made several rounds to collect Yak dung as we reckoned that it would be a very cold night and we would need 2-3 fires going for the nine of us. Within an hour we had a shit loads of Yak dung at our disposal.
At dusk, the Yaks returned to camp and we could see the four Chang pas arriving from the adjoining mountain. Surprisingly the sky cleared up too. With no threat of snowfall, we circled around the cooking fire and the silly talks continued till we went to sleep. When one consumes so much of butter tea and milk tea it is natural to wake up in night to relieve oneself of a bursting bladder. And when I woke up at midnight to do just the same, the clouds that had vanished were back and we were now covered in two inches of snow. The temperature outside the sleeping bag was so cold that I could not even think about getting out there. I just ducked my face back again in the bag and prayed for some sleep.
Sleep did not come and slowly the other guys started waking up to take a leak, but none dared to venture out of their sleeping bags. Soon everybody was awake and along with bursts of laughter I could hear "My balls are freezing", "I can't feel my butt". Now it's your outlook in life that decides whether we were in a good or a bad situation, but the giggles of all the eight guys and the occasional hooting from the sleeping bags told me everyone was actually ecstatic to be under two inches of snow. The only problem - everyone wanted to take a leak real bad. The conversations started from within the sleeping bags and at around 4 AM, a resolution was passed that everyone would stand in the sleeping bag and relieve themselves, which we did with frantic shivering and laughter.
By 6 AM the snow had made its way inside the sleeping bags. It just became impossible to lie down in the cold and soggy bags. So we had no option but to get out. I could see the designated cook preparing tea, putting tea leaves in the pan and then ducking inside his sleeping bag with a loud giggle to again come out after five minutes to check on the progress for a second and then ducking back in.
The feeling of watching the dramatic change in landscape cannot be described in words. To simply put it, I was witness to a magical and awe inspiring act, both by nature and by the Chang pas. It was the 30th December, 2010 when we walked back to the village after completing our Yak duty and everything around us was in the purest shade of white. Changthang was taking us into 2011 in a grand style.
Back at the Chang pa settlement, everyone was happy. The first snowfall of the season was late by almost three months, but it came nevertheless. There is a saying in Changthang - "If it does not get white, it won't get green". If there is no snowfall, there won't be any grass for their livestock in the summer. So the fear of drought that the Chang pas had was washed away by the snowfall that lasted for three days.
First day of the new year is always special, but 5th Jan holds more importance to me. On 5th Jan 2011, 60kph, the motorcycle club I belong to was turning nine years old. The club members were celebrating the ninth anniversary with a ride in the desert state of Rajasthan in western India. Looking at the cold and snow covered roads, I decided to do a 52 kilometer ride to a high altitude pass at 16,700 feet. This was the day I actually felt COLD. At first, the cold gave my body a little pain, then after sometime I started losing sensation and slowly my limbs started to go numb. After a point I lost all sensation. After that, I could just hear a beeping sound between my ears.
A phenomenon occurred after everyone in the settlement came to know about me surviving the Yak duty and my ride in peak winter without any problems. Before I went for the Yak duty, every passer-by would ask me "Thandi hai?" which in English meant "Are you cold?". After the Yak duty, the question gave away and became "Thandi hai", so instead of asking me if I was cold, they just told me that they were feeling the cold. Karma, which the villagers call me was now well and truly part of the settlement.
Days after the snowfall, the temperature dipped to -35 degree Celsius and stayed there. And with the fall in temperature, came a string of problems. The camera tripod jammed and one of its three legs broke. My trusty watch that showed me temperature and altitude stopped working. Two out of the five hard drives in the back-up machine in which I used to store all the film footage crashed. To go on filming, I have to empty the data from the SD cards into the back-up machine, erase the cards and resume filming. But with the back-up machine not working, the filming came to an abrupt end. The only way to resume filming was to replace the two hard drives which had crashed.
Since I could not film and since the snow had blocked all the roads going to Leh, I decided to stay with some Tibetan nomads who were living at a campsite 12 kilometers from the village. In the third day of my stay there a drunk Tibetan guy came to the tent and insisted that I give him a motorcycle ride. The deliberation went on for almost one hour after which he turned violent as I refused him the ride. The guy could not even stand properly and it is dangerous to ride a motorcycle on the slippery snow. He started throwing stones at me, the tent and at the motorcycle. Luckily he was too drunk to take a perfect shot. Since the stones did not work, he ran towards me to start a fight, I had no option but to defend myself, hit him back and pin him to the ground till other villagers came and took him away. While he was being taken away by his family a warning was given that he would come back in the night to kill me. One more sleepless night and the following morning I left the Tibetan settlement to be back with the Indian Chang pas.
Days passed by without any filming and as soon as the snow levels receded on the road, I took a car ride to Leh to replace the bad hard drives with new ones. On reaching Leh, I was greeted by another bad news - possibly the worst - the denim brand that was sponsoring the film had backed out without giving any valid reason, choking us for funds which we desperately needed. 60kph members came to the rescue - Nikhil Bhimra flew into Leh bringing the hard drives, Vinod Panicker (from One Crazy Ride) and Dipesh Shah provided the funds needed.
With things not going my way, I decided to take a drastic step. It is my belief that when one enters a phase of bad luck, decide to do something that shocks and baffles bad luck itself. And with Changthang in prime winter, the decision I am taking about the rest of the journey is the most audacious thing I can come up with. Only time will tell if I made the right decision.
After weeks of struggle to get the permits required for my long stay in Changthang, I only managed to leave Leh on 21st October - a perfect time for not riding a motorcycle in the Himalayas. Expectedly, I encountered white landscapes and bone freezing temperatures the very first day, enroute Chang la pass, at an altitude of 17,500 feet. Five kilometers before the pass, the soft snow gave way to thick ice, making up for a slippery ride. In the three hours it took me to cover those five kilometers, I slipped and fell off the bike more times than in my 10 years of riding.
It was a revelation on how simple tasks like walking, lifting the motorcycle or even taking a picture became mammoth tasks with freezing numb hands and feet. But compared to descending down the steep icy switchbacks, all these were kids play. For almost seven kilometers I rode with both feet on the ice to balance the bike and clutch half pressed in first gear to give little acceleration when needed. I knew that if I slipped on this stretch it would have taken me forever to somehow find the balance on the ice to lift up the fully loaded bike.
Thankfully, there were no spills during the descent and before the Changthang plains opened up, I had a good lesson of riding on ice, which I was sure would come handy in the months to come.
Changthang looks and feels strikingly different in the winter. The green grass was gone or had merged in color with the brown earth. The several blue green streams had either turned dry or were frozen. But the Changthang element that stands out the most in winter months is the high speed winds and the wind chill factor accompanying it. Wind speeds reach 70 kilometers per hour and can bring the temperature down to -15 degree Celsius in broad daylight.
On one of the ride shots, the wind suddenly picked up and on my return trip to fetch the camera, I found the camera lying on the ground and the door to the SD card compartment broken. The camera records the media on the SD card and as a safety feature, if the SD card door is not shut properly it does not record. In my case this safety feature turned into a nightmare. Luckily the door was hanging loose on one hinge and I used glue tape to put it back in place. So each time I need to change the SD card I say a little prayer because if that hinge breaks the perfectly fine working camera will stop recording and the film will come to an abrupt end.
On entering Changthang, I was eager to meet the Chang pas I had interacted with in Riding solo to the top of the World. Sadly, I could not meet some of them, but was fortunate to meet and stay with Tsewang with whom I had formed a special bond. It was on meeting Tsewang again that I realized how blessed I was to meet such a great soul while traveling. In spite of being a stranger, I had been taken in by him as a part of his family and the warmth and love had not changed in the six years since I met him last. Visiting Tsewang was like going home. The most special moment for me was Tsewang watching Riding solo… For me, he is the hero of the film, symbolizing both the gentle and tough nature of the Chang pa nomads. It was his open nature and willingness to share a lot of personal and general information that so many of us have a better understanding of the Chang pas. Tsewang watching Riding solo… was the most emotional and fulfilling screening of the film and there I was, with the camera again, making another film to which Tsewang had given the title - "Motorcycle Chang pa".
It is natural to discuss what all has changed on meeting a good friend after six years. One thing that stood out the most in Changthang is change; a lot of families are no longer nomadic, tents are giving away to permanent houses. Once lovely dirt tracks which were an integral part of the landscape are being resurfaced with stones and tar, killing the wilderness and the ride. Hundreds of Indian Army camps have mushroomed all over Changthang to counter the Chinese build-up. It was heartbreaking to learn that due to old age, Tsewang no longer lived a nomadic life. His flock size which was more than 2,500 goats and sheep had reduced to 200 and was tended to by his youngest daughter while he devoted his time towards taking loving care of his granddaughter. It was naturally upsetting for me to see things changing at such alarming pace in Changthang, but Tsewang had accepted it all with amazing grace. Maybe I was despising the change within me and reflecting it upon Changthang.
Tsewang unknowingly made me realize that it was foolish to live in the past. Riding solo… had been a dream journey; those moments and experiences could only be re-lived in memories. This was a fresh start. And armed with this realization, I left Tsewang. Riding solo… ends at Tsewang's tent and the "Motorcycle Chang pa" journey fittingly starts from the same tent.
Amidst all the different clans of Chang pa in Changthang, I wanted to live with this one clan who amongst all the Chang pas live at the highest altitudes all year round. This would mean that I would get to see the best and the worst of the Changthang winter. And on 2nd November, two months since I had left Bombay, I found the clan and requested permission to pitch my tent and live along with them. Usually I would have been asked a lot of questions regarding my intentions for staying, but I think the one thing that saved me was the motorcycle. It is insanely cold to ride a motorcycle in November, so no questions were asked; everyone was concerned about the cold and insisted that I stay there.
The clan truly lives up to its reputation - the campsite was at 15,000 feet and the one time I could muster up the courage to record the temperature late in the night, it was -20 degree celsius (-4 degree F). I tried my best to put up a brave front to the Chang pas who rightly had concerns about me surviving the experience. I had very little food and clothing to keep me warm. The only wait was for Mr. Otsal (owner of Otsal guest house, Leh where I had stayed) to come from Leh and bring with him the two month supply of food and most importantly, my winter clothing and solar panels. Till then, I had been riding and living in my leather jacket and a pair of jeans given by our sponsor, Lemax jeans. The thermal underwear helped me survive the next few days till I met Mr. Otsal at a pre-decided spot and brought the stuff to the campsite.
My initial period of stay at the camp was spent in just observing and living the Chang pa experience - not filming much. The camera does make a few people uncomfortable, but slowly everybody accepted me as a part of the community. They find it difficult to pronounce and remember my name, so they call me "Karma" which in Hinduism and Buddhism means - the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.
Two weeks into my stay at the campsite, the small stream which was giving us the essential supply of water completely froze up. So everyone would climb 3 kilometers up the mountain to fetch water from a small spring. During this time the snowfall is the main source of water, but it was disturbing to see no snowfall even in mid November. An alarming sign of global warming and climate change in the Himalayas.
The Chang pas decided to shift the campsite 10 days after the water problem and it was on 24th November, that I got to not only witness a migration but also be a part of the caravan. The shifting started at 5 am in the morning while the temperature was -25 degree Celsius. But taking the tents down, packing and loading the belongings etc was done with great spirit and a minimum of fuss. The next campsite was 9 kilometers away but the distance was covered in a swift three hours of walking. For me, being part of the caravan and the centuries old migration process was the most special moment in Changthang.
A few days later we shifted again. This migration was special as the Chang pas, after one year, were returning to their village where everybody had a small mud house. The homecoming was also to celebrate Losar - the Tibetan New Year on 6th December. For almost five days the Chang pas partied.
We would soon leave the village and shift to a different campsite and different experiences. I am glad to be living and witnessing these great human journeys taken in such extreme conditions.
It is mid December now and still no sign of snowfall, which does allow me to ride the motorcycle on sunny days. I ride out a lot on "Gobar missions" - to search for dry Yak dung used for heating and cooking. I am glad of the way this unplanned journey is shaping up. The only scary moment till now was when the truck in which I was going to Leh to pick up food supplies almost slipped into the valley after skidding on ice. It was a miraculous escape, but the truck had to be abandoned as it was just a matter of time before it would fall into the valley.
The journey of "Motorcycle Chang pa" was to start in the first week of July. But unfortunately, funds were not in place. Thankfully, Lemax Jeans associated themselves as a sponsor and supporter of the project. As soon as that worked out, I went down with a nasty bacterial infection and was able to leave Mumbai only on 2nd September 2010.
To avoid riding 1200 kilometers in the unusually wet Indian monsoon, I decided to transport the bike via train till Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan. Wishful thinking - I had to ride the next 1000 kilometers in heavy rains.
At Darcha, from where the high altitude desert terrain starts, the rains stopped. The unusually heavy rains accompanied by debris from the road widening work had turned parts of the mountain roads into deep slush. The air, especially on inclines, was rife with smell of burnt clutch plates and gasoline fumes from struggling machines. Sights of broken-down vehicles parked on the side of the road were frequent. Instead of enjoying the scenery of the beautiful Manali - Leh highway, I was forced to concentrate hard on the road.
The Manali-Leh highway is like an old friend. But this time, my progress is slower than usual. My new primary camera, a Panasonic HMC-150 HD, needs a lot of fine adjustments for perfect exposure - something that I'm learning on the way. But easier to pack and unpack is my Canon 550D, a Digital SLR that also shoots HD video. In bad weather, the small size of the Canon helps a lot. Ironically, it takes me longer shoot with the Canon since I have to use a separate audio recorder - the Canon only records in undesirable mono. I have to give a clap at the start of a shot so both the audio and video can be synced in post-production - just like it is done for regular films.
Protecting the equipment from the elements and at times bringing it out just to record the rough weather is always a difficult choice especially when I have to make it last for a whole year in extreme conditions. So far, the Canon has stopped working a few times in the early morning cold (-15 degrees Celsius). The tripod has to be tied to stones to prevent it from toppling in the high speed winds here.
My motorcycle has also been giving some problems. Usually it behaves like "Loner", my trusty companion, but sometimes it annoyingly behaves like a Royal Enfield. All this "fun" at high altitude is usually accompanied by headache and discomfort, but the excitement of working with new equipment and most importantly on a new film has surpassed it all. Whatever be the case, I am having a ball!
The three and a half days taken to cover the 475 kilometer Manali-Leh highway during Riding Solo... stretched to ten days this time. The bad weather was a lot to blame but this time, there's a hunger for more shots too. In any case, covering distance is not the main agenda. Actually, going slow on this highway, I've learnt quite a lot of things. For instance, there's an ancient myth that people get aroused when traveling on a particular stretch of this road. I also learnt of a small temple just off the highway where a skull is kept - passing truck drivers offer food, alcohol and cigarettes at the temple.
I was aghast when I reached Leh. The rest of the country may have been reeling under heavy rains, but Leh had been struck by a series of cloud bursts on midnight of 5th August and had been devastated. But the resilient Buddhists of Leh, under the guidance of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, have taken it in their stride and moved on.
It has been an inordinately long stay in Leh due to issues with the special permits I require to shoot in Changthang. After almost two months I'm ready to leave in search for the Chang pas, and to experience my very first winter in the harsh cold of the highest desert in the world - Ladakh.
Thanks to all who have supported and continue to support us for this dream project. Thanks to Lemax Jeans for being the sponsor of the film and to Nemo Equipment and Tucano Urbano for their respective camping and travel gear. Nemo's lovely Tenshi tent has acted like an un-breachable shield against rain and snow. Tuncano Urbano's equipment - be it the gloves, tank bag, duffel bag, motorcycle cover, rain gear and especially the knees insulation pads - have kept rain and cold away in the toughest of conditions.
We will update our progress every few months hoping to share the details and excitement of our new film in the making. Season's greetings to you and wish you a great new year ahead.
- Gaurav Jani
Motorcycle Chang pa is our most ambitious film yet and we are short of funds. Some great sponsors and supporters replied to our request for funds and equipment, but we're still falling short. Help us make this film possible by either buying DVDs of our past films or by donating.
We also invite corporates to support and sponsor this project. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org