Monday, June 17, 2019
How a Sheep and a Goat Created a Filmmaker
Tundap Wangall taught his new American friends to say, “Jullay!” which is the aloha of Ladakh, meaning “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” even “Nice weather we’re having.”
Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Stanzin Dorjai-Gya never saw a telephone until he was a teenager at boarding school.

And the thought of coming to America never crossed his mind as he tended sheep at 14,000 feet in Ladakh, the “land of high passes” in India’s Himalayan Mountains.

But he and his friend Tundap Wangall were treated to many new experiences this past week as they came to Sun Valley to take part in the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival. They saw the skyscrapers of Manhattan and sailed a boat for the first time, even as they introduced a new and strange world to those taking part in the festival.

Tundap Wangall used to get up a 5 a.m. to make breakfast for his fellow students at boarding school.

“Linda (Cortright, editor of ‘Wild Fibers’ magazine) kept telling me, ‘Stanzin, you’re not the only shepherd. You come to Sun Valley. You will see there are other shepherds,’ ” Stanzin said.

Friday evening Stanzin wore his traditional black robe with its colorful embroidered waist belt and draped traditional cream-colored Kata Tibetan prayer scarves around Festival Founders John and Diane Peavey as he introduced his film “The Shepherdess of the Glacier.”

He spent three years filming his sister in temperatures that sometimes dropped as low as minus-30 Celsius, sleeping with his batteries to keep the life from draining out of them.

The film, which won Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival last year, follows Stanzin’s sister Tsering as she herds long-haired sheep with curvy horns and Pashmina goats, the source of luxurious cashmere fiber despite the harsh conditions of their vast mountainous desert.

The momo dumplings have an artistic flair.

Tsering, wearing a neon pink scarf and carrying a basket on her back, talks to her animals, which resemble lines of cotton balls trudging up the steep treeless mountain slopes.

“Eat the grass,” she says.

“You’re taking pictures of me. I don’t understand that,” she turns to her brother later, taking a break from post holing through knee-deep snow. “I don’t speak very well. I’m surrounded by animals. I’m shy, not educated. In cities people are educated.”

Tsering’s father taught her at 10 to be a shepherdess. Now in her 40s, she washes baby goats in glacier-fed rivers. And she tucks baby lambs in pockets of a burlap bag, slinging the bag like a saddle blanket over one of her animals as she moves her herds.

Tundap Wangall and Stanzin Dorjai-Gya had hoped to have a third friend with them to teach a Tibetan spindle class. But his visa was denied since he was unable to document when he was born in a culture that didn’t keep meticulous written records in the past.

She lives alone for 11 months of the year, a transistor radio her source of companionship. She turns it up when snow leopards venture too close. And she continually heats the batteries by the fire in her tent.

“When the radio stops,” she says, “I feel as if I’ve lost someone.”

Stanzin—one of five brother and sisters--was 5 when he first went to the mountains with Tsering. He  tended sheep for 15 days at a time, then went to school in his small boyhood village of Gya 15 days at a time before returning to the mountains.

Traditionally, schooling has been a poor stepchild in Ladakh, Stanzin said. Teachers were sent from Kashmir as a punishment—“they got a bad assignment at altitude.”

“They said, ‘Because you’re born in high elevations, your brain does not work so good.’ Yet, my mother not know how to read but she know how to make clothes top to bottom. My father know to grow barley.”

As children advanced through school, they had to go further away, said Tundup, who told of having to cross rivers to go to school as a youngster, even though he couldn’t swim.

“With each grade, school gets further away. You can only go so high before you have to move away. To go to high school was an eight-hour drive, an 18-mile walk,” he said.

Both Stanzin and Tundup learned of SECMOL, a special school built in 1988 “for people who didn’t learn well.” The school teaches through hands-on learning, rather than book learning.

The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school attracts volunteer journalists, photographers and writers as guest teachers, and it was there that Stanzin became enamored with audio and filmmaking.

“I wanted to buy a camera so I went to my brother and said, ‘Can you sell a sheep and goat?’ He said, ‘Are you crazy!” Stanzin recalled.

But Stanzin got his camera, along with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Jammu University. And he spent four years working for production houses in France after a French filmmaker named Christiane Mordelet took him under her wing.

It was at boarding school that Tundup and Stanzin learned to make momos—dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables.

They showed a sold-out class how to cook like a nomad during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

Tundup took the lead, rolling out dough made of flour and water and cutting circles out of it with a glass. He then showed onlookers how to spoon a mixture of spinach, garlic, mushrooms, ginger, onion and tofu into it. Finally, he pinched little folds in it as he pressed the mixture down with his thumb.

“The first time I saw momos being made, I thought it can’t be that difficult. I was wrong,” said Cortright. “Nothing this beautiful comes out of my kitchen. This is delicious food using simple ingredients, often made under difficult circumstances.”

Many of those in the cooking class had accompanied Cortright on one or more of her Wild Fibers tours to Ladakh.

“It’s cold—it was below freezing when we were there in early fall,” said Bill Warren, of London, Ontario, Canada. “But the cold doesn’t bother them. Sitting on a rock, coffee in hand as we waited to be warmed by the sun coming up over the mountain—can’t beat it!”

Cortright has built a cultural center on Pangong Lake, a long narrow salty royal blue-colored lake in India’s Himalaya on the border of China. There she teaches the nomads to use spinning wheels so they can make more marketable products to increase their standard of living.

“You have to get permission to go there so we were so lucky to go there,” said Sandy Halonen, a retired librarian and small business counselor who lives near Eugene, Ore.

Halonen and the others stayed in a rustic motel there with no running water and little furniture, save for the cots they slept on.

“It was life changing,” she said. “It’s the most amazing place. The people are so nice, so generous, so serene, so humble And it’s a very emotional experience to see the changing colors on the landscape. Every time I go there, I cry. Every time I leave, I cry. It’s just so moving to be there.”

The visitors to Ladakh greeted each day with skyu, a soup of noodles, cabbage and other root vegetables, which is designed to warm up the body on chilly mornings.

They drank a strong green tea made with butter and salt and a sweet yak tea made with milk and sugar throughout the day to stay warm. And some, like Halonen, even tried ngampe—a barley gruel featuring “naked barley” grown in what is considered to be the highest fields in the world.

“It didn’t look very good, but I said, ‘They seem to like it so I’ll try it.’ The important thing is it was warm,” she said.

Tundup did pushups and pull-ups with the idea of being an assistant truck driver. But he later became an airport policeman after receiving training in special forces in Kashmir. In addition, he is learning to knit and even create knitting patterns.

His trip to Sun Valley has filled him to the brim: “I like very much the scenery, the landscape. I am amazed at the festival. And the houses—they’re beyond imagination.”

Cortright repeated the words of a government official as he addressed 15 Americans sitting on the front row during the ribbon cutting ceremony for her cultural center.

“If money bought happiness, I should be looking at the happiest people in the world. But we’re here to learn from their mistakes,” he said, acknowledging the Americans.

“People like Stanzin and Tundup—they live in one of the harshest climates in the world. Most of us would not survive a week there,” she said. “And they’ve done so much, without even a government handout.”


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