The ‘exotic’ Bactrian Camel ride in Ladakh

The first view that I had of Bactrian Camels did not disappoint. We saw them from a distance during a clear sunset and they were silhouetted against dunes and snow-capped peaks.


camel 1

The first view that I had of a Bactrian Camel in Diskit, Nubra Valley did not disappoint. We saw them from a distance during a clear sunset and they were silhouetted against the dunes and the snow-capped peaks. I grinned at the thought of all the exciting photographs I would procure, and remembered all the images I had googled of this unique species, bridled with colourful textiles and sauntering through sundry landscapes. Perhaps I was looking for a contemporaneous 1001 nights (it’s always these google images that construct these fangled, deluded hopes). I was here for research work on camel wool, but of course was also (secretly) occupied with what I would get to share on social media. Apart from that, my aim was to document the condition of the animals and I was armed to cuss at all the mistreatment.

camel 2

When we arrived on site, I found myself trudging through the raucous laughter of an extraordinarily large number of tourists. Cameras flashed in my face, the neon pink track-pants clashed with the sea buckthorn bushes and everyone seemed fiercely intent on getting the signature picture riding these exotic creatures. The camels themselves looked markedly different from the images because they had shed their wool for the summer months, and yet I could not help but croon at their ostrich-like awkwardness and floppy double humps. They had an air of nonchalance and I took a liking to their impassive expressions immediately. In fact, I found myself dramatically giving dirty looks to those trying to get on their backs and literally barking at anyone who petted these camels despite them protesting. Several camels were tied together for a group tour and people milled about the herders, itching for their turn. I sat for a while and observed, sullenly nudging bits of camel dung with my shoe and was guarded with the herders whom we had to interview the following day.

camel 3

We returned the next day, loaded with our notebooks and cameras. The herders quite graciously invited us to a tent they had constructed around some bushes and offered us tea. A number of them came and plopped down next to us while a few napped in the corner. We were fortunate to meet the brainchild and head of these tours, who also gave us a historical background. These camels were native to the Central Asian steppes, and made it with the caravans to this region, which was a part of the Silk Route. Those native to this region inherited the camels as well as purchased them from other areas. Traditionally the camels were the chief mode of transport in a harsh terrain, as they could sustain extreme temperatures and required little nourishment.

camel 4

With the incoming of tourism in Ladakh in the 1970’s, and the reduced relevance of the camels as a mode of transport, the idea of these tour rides came about. It made perfect sense since it provided seasonal profits and helped in maintenance of the camels. I had entered the tent with a certain idea about the way the herders interacted with their camels but I stood corrected. A lot of whom we interviewed talked of their camels fondly, and I noticed how after giving them a disciplinary kick they would often whisper in their ears with a calming caress. We learnt about the lack of resources in the area and how limited options of sustenance were for the people. They also informed us that the camels were set free at night and during grazing, it was during the hours that the tourists arrived that they would have to partake in the strenuous search for all the camels in the blistering heat.

camel 5

camel 6

The joviality of the herders as they lay about and joked was infectious and we often found ourselves laughing at the statements the younger ones made. One nudged his friend and teasingly said ‘He has to do this because he was a terrible student.’ In this context, a lot of them said that they did not want their children to share in this occupation as it was physically draining. In terms of their perception of the tourists, they expressed a cultural dissonance with a lot of foreign behaviour but stated that the money mattered and there had to be tolerance towards the source of their income. I stepped out of the tent slightly shaken, and a bit ashamed of how reductionist I had been of a rather complex situation. I had noted that the Bactrian Camels are an endangered species and are predominantly domesticated and their condition as well as alternatives for their sustenance are important themes in the examination of an area in a flux.

Despite the conversation, I refused to take a camel ride. However, I realized the hypocrisy in my sneering at the tourists that requested me to click their photographs with the camels because all of this was part of this oddly symbiotic exchange. Disdain, I understood, was not the solution and perhaps a deeper and more nuanced understanding will lead to a foreseeable improvement in the condition of the camels as well as their herders.

camel 8

I watched the camels in the distance, I saw their elongated shadows in the alpine dunes and I cackled at their ‘sculpted’ backsides. And of course, I clicked my photographs.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samira Bose is a student of History and Mystery. Her current aim in life is to traverse strange terrains of the world and her mind and document the entire process. She insists that the breeze speaks to her, and strives to make many places her home. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samira Bose is a student of History and Mystery. Her current aim in life is to traverse strange terrains of the world and her mind and document the entire process. She insists that the breeze speaks to her, and strives to make many places her home. more
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