As his oxygen-starved brain at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) sent crippling pain down his spine before he blacked out, the former McKinsey and Co. analyst says he had a moment of clarity: This place could really use an ambulance.
That was a year ago, when the nomadic shepherds of Kashmir saved him and lost 35 of their flock. This year, Afzal plans to go back to the pass near India’s borders with Pakistan and China and see if he can get the goats to pay for that ambulance.
They are no ordinary goats. The shaggy, wide-horned beasts produce pashmina, the finest cashmere, a silky soft cloth that can fetch as much as $200,000 for a shawl in the boutiques of Paris and New York. Most of that mark-up goes to a long chain of buyers, weavers, traders, middlemen and wholesalers. The goatherds get ₹ 2,700 per kg of raw wool, less if they’re offered meat or cloth as compensation.
Afzal, 39, a native of Kashmir, wants to get more of the profit back to his home region to save an industry that is in precipitous decline from a lack of investment, Chinese competition, and a series of devastating winters. He hopes some of the money will pay for amenities like roads and hospitals.
For the past four years, Afzal has joined the nomadic families from August to October as they guide their flocks along dizzying cliff paths, risking avalanches and cloudbursts, to meet buyers who come from as far as France to obtain raw wool.
It’s a long way from the life he once had. As a young analyst at the McKinsey Knowledge Center in New Delhi, he earned more than $150,000 a year, enough to put him in the top 0.3% of India’s wealthy elite.
“I had a great salary, great accommodation, good food, good friends and was traveling all over the world, but there was always something pulling me back to this place," he said. “I could see people back home, friends and family, who were struggling, who were dying. It was devastating."
“It was like two worlds apart and I was in the middle," he said. Natasha Wig, McKinsey’s external communications manager in Mumbai, declined to comment when asked about Afzal’s time with the company.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than Afzal’s “Silicon Valley" lifestyle and the life of the herders.
At sunrise in the valley of Kharnak, goatherds and their families emerge from brown, cotton tents, tethered against the winds by rocks and rope.
The shadows lift slowly here as the sun creeps above the snow-capped peaks. In the shade of the barren valley floor, women and children huddle in sweaters and blankets sipping Yak-butter tea, while men begin to unlock cobblestone pens that corral more than 7,000 bleating goats.
There are 17 families here now. A few years ago there were 40, before about 25,000 goats froze or starved to death across the region during a bad winter in 2013.
Herder Tundup Chosphel, 27, gasps when told how much pashmina costs in the boutiques of Paris. His 400 goats provide only enough for him and his family.
Each day he and his flock roam 15 miles across the Changtang plateau, where temperatures fall as low as minus 40 during winters that can last nine months. When one collapsed and died on 8 August, frothing at the mouth, he brought it back to the camp.
“We will eat it," he says simply. “We don’t have many vegetables out here."
India accounts for less than 1% of the world’s annual pashmina production, which is estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes. That’s far behind China, with 70%, and Mongolia, with 20%.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last year launched a ₹ 30 crore campaign to increase output and provide housing and basic resources for the shepherds.
“Until now, these people have been largely exploited," said Tundup Namgail, chief technical officer at the District Sheep Husbandry Office in Leh. “We are doing something, but I doubt it’s enough for these families."
Afzal’s approach is to raise the nomads’ earnings by teaching them to spin and weave cloth, and by investing 7% of sales back into the region where he grew up. The hard life in the mountains where he spends the summers is in contrast with his comfortable family home in Jammu, a 3-acre estate with tended lawns and a private aviary full of colorful birds.
One of his childhood classmates, Seetu Kohli, invested $250,000 in his venture and runs the showroom in New Delhi’s tony Qutab Minar district that will begin selling Afzal’s Village Pashmina brand shawls this month. A second outlet is planned for Mumbai, and Afzal is looking for investors outside India.
“I’ve spent my life investing in luxury lines, trying to find the rare gems that work in India," said Kohli. “India needs to take back ownership of the pashmina business."
It’s a big challenge. Consumers in the US and Europe can buy mass-produced cashmere sweaters made in China and Mongolia for as little as $35. India’s product scores on quality, said Janet Rizvi, the author of “Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond."
“India has perfected the labour-intensive art of hand weaving," she said. “As far as premium quality is concerned, this is it."
Indian pashmina cloth can take months or even years to hand weave, with intricate patterns that sometimes include gold and silver thread. Across Kashmir, from brick-and-mud homes in the cities of Srinagar and Jammu, to the highland valleys of Ladakh, men and women use hand-looms to weave and embroider.
Their future may depend on persuading shepherds like Tsering Chosgail in the passes above them that it’s still worth rearing these unique goats.
“No amount of money can save us, it’s just too complicated," says Chosgail, 29, sitting cross-legged in a dimly lit medical tent wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and a pink scarf. He says the weather has become too unpredictable and winters have become colder. “To be a shepherd is to struggle." Bloomberg