Saturday, April 25, 2009

After Schan Euphoria!

I was literally bouncing as i walked back to Rumbak. Still unable to believe that i actually saw a
Snow Leopard in the wild!! That too out in the open, on the snow for such a long time! I know
about many people who have come back without even a glimpse of one..after trying very hard.. and a few who, after many trips or after weeks of hard walking, having caught a fleeting glimpse of one, disappearing into rocky terrain. And i saw my Snow Leopard
on my third day in Hemis !! This cannot get any better! I felt so blessed!! All the overwhelming
wishes by well-meaning friends and family brought me such luck!!
Rumbak Village
Such a pretty village of only nine households and such simple and wonderful human beings !! I stayed in one of the houses with the 'Goba' family and will always remember their simplicity and warm hospitality!

Praying at the Rumbak Gompa!

I had prayed at every available Latho (small Buddhist shrine) or Gompa ( a Tibetan temple) to see the Snow Leopard! (like as kids we used to pray only during exams!). This Gompa at Rumbak was special and i went there straight after the sighting to offer my thanksgiving prayer!

Tsering Dorje with his sheep at his house!
Just watch how his Sheep love him!! They mobbed him for something in his hands and afterwards he took us inside his house for a drink of Chang to celebrate the Schan sighting!

Latho at Rumbak displaying Bharal heads.

Dolma, my hostess with her cute son Stanzin Namgyal!

My Homestay
I had a small room for myself and Namgyal. It was basic but comfortable. It can get quite cold at nights (-10 to -15 C!), though there was a 'Thap', a firewood heater, which keeps going for an hour or so after you settle down in your sleeping bag! We had all our meals in the family kitchen. The atmosphere was warm and the meals were hot and delicious. These homestays are organised by an NGO, Himalayan Homestays, who have managed to convince the locals of Hemis N.P to protect the Snow Leopard, so that visitors from all over the world will come to see it and they in turn will get income from homestays and other services offered to these eco-tourists. This has been a successful programme, demonstrating a clear and a positive link between wildlife conservation,communities and eco-tourism. I was so happy to experience this first-hand. Do visit their website: for more of this inspiring conservation story.

Another view of the beautiful Indus, on my way back.

A lady from Zanskar selling apricots etc in Leh.
I got back to Leh after spending one more day in Hemis. I considered going to the Sham area, where Himalayan Homestays have another circuit, but the 5000m+ altitude and continued snowfall discouraged me and i decided to return home to Bangalore. I spend a whole day exploring Leh town and meeting friends at the Snow Leopard Conservancy, who had organised my entire trip. They were thrilled that i saw my Snow Leopard. I committed to contribute to their Training programme of Local Guides, as a token of my support for the good work they have been doing for the conservation of the Himalayan wildlife involving the local commuinities.
This lady from Zanskar was seling apricots and walnuts from her area and i bought some from her..notice her classic Aryan build and looks!

School-girls spinning prayer wheels in Leh.

Flight back over the mighty Himalayas!
I returned from Ladakh enchanted by the magic of the land and it's people. And of course, Blessed and mesmerised by the Snow Leopard!! I am already planning a trip back to Ladakh in 2010 (July-August). It will be a three-week expedetion, with the first week exploring the Snow Leopard habitat in the Sham Valley area with Himalayan Homestays. The second week will be exploring the Tso Moriri area, an high altitude lake on the Tibetan border, for wildlife like Kiangs, Tibetan Wild Dogs etc. The third week will be to climb the peak of Lungser Kangri,which is a magical 6666 metres high!! Our Guide will, of course, be Tsering Namgyal!! He is from this area and is basically a mountain guide. Like-minded friends are welcome to join! I will be announcing the actual dates and some more details a year in this space..there are limited spaces !!
I love this 8th century Tibetan poem:
This center of Heaven
This core of the Earth
This heart of the World
Fenced around with Snow
The headland of all Rivers
Where mountains are High and
The land is Pure.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sighting of the Snow Leopard!!!

Trailing the Rumbak shepherds
It was the morning of 9th March 2009. It was such a beautiful Hemis day. Overnight, there was a lot of snowfall. Namgyal and i had decided that the strategy for the day would be to follow the shepherds of Rumbak village... as at times the Snow Leopards are known to be attracted by the presence of domestic Sheep and Goats. The Ladhaki people have a strong sense of community and follow a simple system of sharing work by which all the Sheep of the village are taken for
grazing everday only by two persons of the village by rotation..instead of individuals taking out their own Sheep. This automatically gives people free time to take up other work and gives the every individual a sense of responsibility for the whole community. It really saddens me that we in the urban landscapes have forgotten such simple ideas which re-inforces the fact that man is after all a 'social being'.
Walking in the Snow-covered terrain
It was an amazing experience for me to walk in the snow..i slipped and fell many times on 'hard ice' and it was tough going but great fun! We walked along talking to the two shepherds amidst bleating Ladhaki Sheep and Goats..the talkative of the two was Dorje, who retired from the Indo-Tibetan Border Force and is a Black-belt in Karate etc. We soon left the shepherds and got into a narrow valley called 'Tsatlung' to explore the habitat furthur on our own.

Scanning the rugged montains
Namgyal and i settled down with the scope after a while to scan the vast and desolate terrain. As i braced against the chilly winds and gazed at the towering mountains surrounding us, it struck me how impossible it is to look for a small animal like the Snow Leopard in such a vast landscape!
Namgyal spotted a herd of 5-6 Bharal on a distant slope..struggling to find food by digging up the snow! Even through my Binocs, the Bharal looked like Ants!! Without them, they are like tiny specs on the mountain and a non-naturalist can never find them! I spotted my own Bharal with my naked eyes and Namgyal was very impressed!

Bharal or Blue Sheep!
Bharal are hardy mountain ungulates and biologists are confused whether they are true Goats or Sheep. They are the most abundant prey species found on the rugged Himalayan ranges and the primary prey for the Snow Leopards. These females are the only ones i could see close enough to photograph with my 400mm lens! (photographed on another day!).

Golden Eagles !!
Apart from the Snow Leopard i was really hoping to see these amazing raptors of the high Himalayas, the Golden Eagles! I caught my first glimpse of these two sub-adults soaring grace-
fully in the air in circles!! These magnificent birds are the largest resident Eagles we have in the
Indian sub-continent and are such a treat to watch them in flight!

After an hour or so of scanning, we decided to re-trace our steps through the Tsatlung valley and resume our search in the main valley. As we walked back, we ran into Dorje and his companion. Dorje asked for Namgyal's binoculars to scan a slope for what he thought were fresh Snow
Leopard tracks..meanwhile, i put my back-pack down and started to take some pictures.
Dorje returned the binocs to Namgyal and after 5 minutes asked Namgyal to check a suspicious
'stone' on the ridge, which was looking like a 'Schan' seconds both shouted in unison,

The Grey Ghost of the Snows, the Snow Leopard!!!
I dived to get my binoculars and i just could not believe what i saw through them!! Here is a
Snow Leopard looking down at me..with it's deep, reddish eyes!! It was sitting like a Sphinx!!
I was actually seeing a Snow Leopard in the Wild!! I rubbed my eyes and pinched myself several times..and the tears in my eyes did not help one bit!! A Snow Leopard for heaven's sake!! I did not know what to do..should i get my big lens out? If i waste valuable time in doing that..this mythical creature may vanish! Meanwhile, Namgyal set up the scope quickly.And when i saw the beast through the scope, i almost fainted at it's sheer beauty and presence!
I somehow summoned courage to ferret out my lens;fix it to my camera and take these pictures.
The Schan actually sat there in the same position (the distance would have been at least 300-400 metres!) and kept looking down at us..sometimes in the direction of the distant herd of twitched it's forelegs..swung it's impossibly long,furry tail twice...shook it's head a few times and even yawned once!! It's the real animal, you clown!!
I clicked only a few pictures and mostly saw it through the spotting scope. It sat and sat..for a
good twenty minutes !! And finally, it vanished quickly over the ridge..after holding it's tail up-
wards, tantalizingly for a few seconds!! Gone!! Did i actually see a Snow Leopard or was it an

Searching in vain for a second glimpse!
After getting back my normal breathing and a quick thank you+high fives, Namgyal and me walked as fast as we could to the main valley to try and catch another glimpse of the world's most elusive Wild we were hoping it would walk up along the ridge to the far side. We panted and struggled our way there in about half-an-hour(in normal elevation it would have taken 5 minutes of running!). We scanned through our scope intently..a couple of Red-billed choughs flying over the rocks gave us hope..but it was'nt to be...the Cat decided to be elusive...!!

Celebrating with Ladhaki chai!
We again ran into Dorje and his companion..and we joined them at their modest fire..and drank
some Ladhaki chai to celebrate the amazing sighting of the Schan!! Dorje is the man who made
this dream come true for me!! I hugged him..but had to politely decline his offer of drinking
some 'Chang' (local liquor) with him! I had to walk back to Rumbak! But i promised him that i will join him for a drink at his home later in the evening!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Snow Leopard Habitat !!

Snow Leopard Country
What struck me, as i started to walk in Hemis, was the vastness and the bleakness of the Habitat! The animals which survive here have to be so tough and hardy..with hardly any vegetation or foddor to feed on..especially in winter! And then you have the Schan (pronounced 'Shaan'), the Ladhaki name for Snow Leopard, which survives in such high, steep and challenging habitat! How does this beautiful and most elusive Cat in the world manage to survive here?!

Some more pictures of the bleak but stunning habitat!

Signs of a recent kill!
Namgyal, my Guide and friend for the expedetion, showed me this remains of a male Bharal, which was killed by a Schan about three weeks back (another guide saw the Schan on this kill!). The horns were heavy and must have weighed close to 10 kilos! I wondered, how the Bharal manages to carry such heavy horns on it's head in such steep terrain..especially when a Schan is pursuing it and it's fleeing for it's life?!

Signs of scent-marks on a rock!
I was so excited at every sign Namgyal showed me! This signs of spray must have been quite old..but the marks were still so clear on the rock!

Namgyal pointing out an old Scrap mark of a Schan!

Snow Leopard Tracks!!
I was so thrilled to see the Pug marks of the Snow Leopard in snow!! This was my dream for many years!! They were about a week to ten days old..according to fact, this itself is a big bonus to see in Hemis!

Touching the Tracks!!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Leh and getting to Hemis N.P

View of the stunning Himalayas from the window of the Airbus to Leh
When i looked out from the window on the flight from Delhi to Leh, i was mesmerised by the stunning views of the Himalayan peaks ! These peaks are completely covered in snow and are towering at some 25,000 feet and the aircraft seems to be just skimming over them! It was a sea of the great far as your eyes can see. I was told that it will be a great view and to insist on a window seat..but i was just not prepared to look at something so awe-inspiring!!

The Indus Valley
Soon we were flying over the broad Indus Valley, where the capital of Ladakh, Leh is located. The huge Airbus had to bank sharply to align itself with the runway and it landed without much fuss..Leh is one of the highest airports in the world at 3,500 mts and also a very challenging one for pilots to land and take-off, as it is surrounded by high peaks all around.

The Beautiful Indus River
After two days of acclimatisation in Leh, i took a taxi which drove me across the Indus drop me at the entrance to the Hemis National Park, from wherei was on foot for the next few days..exploring the truly unique habitat.

The road disappearing into a un-known Kingdom!
My favourite picture which shows the the last stretch of the road which took me to Hemis..i felt as if i am going to a mystical land..a land of mythical animals and creatures...which turned out to be so true!

At a modest board announcing the Hemis N.P
One of my dreams is to visit all the National Parks and WL Sanctuaries in India..with Hemis under my belt, i have a good feeling of being to all the prominent ones in India..right from Namdapha in the extreme East to Desert N.P in the extreme West..and many other amazing Parks in the rest of our amazing country. Hemis High Altitude N.P is spread over 3,350 sq.kms and is India's only N.P located north of the main Himalayan Mountain Range.