We rattled over the rugged peaks of a wild, remote landscape of the high Himalaya – in a truck open to the biting wind. After a few long days crossing this frozen land, we reached a small Tibetan camp of yak-haired tents wedged in between jagged peaks. One side India, the other side Tibet (or the Tibet Autonomous Region, as the Chinese call it).
The first morning, out early, I met Sonam, collecting water at the frozen river. Her eyes sparkled, wide and inquisitive. She seemed compelled to watch my every move across her frozen landscape. With every glimpse of each other, our smiles connected in mutual fascination.
It was bitterly cold, the mountains already seized by winter. From December until spring, an intense cold paralyses the region, isolating the people here from the rest of the country. Sonam saw I was really cold and beckoned me to her home – a black yak-haired tent on the edge of the camp, somehow nestled into sheer rock. This became home for my winter stay in Changtang on the Tibetan plateau, with Sonam’s father Gaysto, mother Yangyen and their family.
In the high Himalaya, the rhythm of life is determined by needs of the livestock. Their herd of sheep, goats and yak are their lifeline – the animals’ welfare is paramount to nomadic survival. Sonam would lead the sheep and goats across the silent white mountains in search of grazing land.
Out from dawn to dusk every day, she’d sing to her four-legged friends, seemingly content, alone all day in the wilds of the winter elements. She wore an old coat that her father had made, after her mother had spent weeks preparing the skin. Her cheeks were cracked and scorched red, smeared with yak butter in an attempt to protect her face from the wind, a face that looked older than her actual 12 years.
This image was from one of the days I accompanied her, bearing witness to her daily life and the hardship of survival in this high-altitude world.
We were on the move most of the day, hugging the base of the peaks, trying to avoid the full force of the freezing wind. We had no words of a mutual language – yet we chatted all day, shared stories that played only into our imagination; she’d sing and giggle and take my hand. Eating only dried yak meat and sipping on Tibetan butter tea, it seemed to keep us going all day.
She knew her land and which way to roam – I was in awe of the ease in which she navigated the mountains and of her wild, curious spirit. For me, this image tells her story – a tale of strength, resilience and determination, living on the edge of existence, like no other 12-year-old I’ve ever met.
Her ancestors are the spirits of these mountains, the sky and the rivers, that guide her. Sonam let me in to her world and shared with me who she is. An incredible honour, forever treasured.