In search of the wild

Ladakh sanctuary

In search of the wild
“What do we have to do to find the snow leopard?” my friend asked a Ladakhi boy at SECMOL, the school we were volunteering at, in Ladakh. My friend had been lucky with big cat spottings at every national park he had been to. “Do we have to go early morning or in the evening?”

“You just have to be really lucky,” the boy replied earnestly.
Five of us were planning to scour Hemis High Altitude National Park to experience the wonder of seeing the endangered big cat in its natural habitat.

The national park, named after the biggest and richest monastery in the region — the 400-year-old Hemis, has four gates. The boy directed us to the trail most likely to attract the elusive animal — the path from Zingchen to Rumbak village. Thus, we set out, our expectations modest. If not the snow leopard, we were certain that we’d see a big, blue sheep.

Pausing for paws

We drove along River Indus from Spituk village till the point where it cuts a deep gorge near the national park entrance. We disembarked at Zingchen, a hamlet surrounded by intimidating cliff faces. Dzos, a mixed breed of yaks and cows, and yaks were grazing.

We were walking into the park, armed with water, chocolates and tingmo (bread) with little idea of where we were going. We jumped over the small stream and thus began our impromptu trek. There are no signs of civilisation, apart from an occasional horseshoe, or decorated ibex horn you’d find in little pockets of the cliffs and hollow telephone poles that whistled in the wind.

We followed a Ladakhi woman, who we had begun to call acchey (big sister), upstream to campsites where men, who had sat for days on end to spot the snow leopard, generously gave us tea and kulcha. During winters, they say, the animal comes down to Rumbak village. “The leopard was sitting near our campsite two days ago,” they told us.
As we climbed uphill, we passed a frozen waterfall adorned with Tibetan prayer flags where acchey offered her prayers. Finally, after three hours of walking, we spot a snow-clad peak in the distance. Bracketed by the brown mountains, reaching up to the impossibly blue skies, the peak was a sight to behold.

We walked towards the snow-clad peak as though we had found our Star of Bethlehem. We reached a junction with two paths — one called the Kanda La nallah was towards the pristine peak and on our left was the path to Rumbak village. There was a map of the area there, with animals you are likely to spot drawn much bigger than the mountains they inhabit. “Why are we looking for the snow leopard? We should go where the giant duck is,” joked one of my friends. As it turns out, we did see the “giant duck”, the Himalayan snowcock, picking through snow on the frozen stream we walked alongside.

On our way to acchey’s house, we walked on a narrow pathway, dotted with occasional dung heaps and cows. The landscape was like entering an imaginative child’s drawing — brown, purple, pastel pink mountains; meadows where horses, cows, yaks grazed, where the “giant duck” hopped on pebbles and where both the sun and moon hung like extravagant ornaments in the clear blue sky.

Curbing excitement

I spotted movement on top of the mountain in front of the village. There was a flurry of activity in that moment. I could hear shouts of panic atop the mountain behind the village-where my friends had gone.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god!”
The one who had climbed the furthest had accidentally started a mini-landslide while descending. Boulders, which changed direction with every impact, were heading toward two of my friends who were trying to scramble out of the way, zigzagging. Luckily, the boulders missed — but the mountain has been christened “Mt Speedy Death and Doom” since. The movement I had caught was in the mountain in front of me.

“Blue sheep!” a local pointed. Neither blue, nor a sheep, a herd of these goat-like creatures were crossing indent in the mountains.

“Blue sheep?” I asked, just to make sure. He nodded. I checked later in the Wildlife Map and Google, and yes, it was the blue sheep. After their climb and the desperate attempts of my camera to capture the blue sheep, we went to acchey’s house for lunch. They revealed that they found, on top of “Mt. Speedy Death and Doom”, what they believed to be the snow leopard’s hair. We had it checked by a local who was quite adamant that it was the hair of a blue sheep. “The fur of the blue sheep changes colour depending on the sun,” he told us.Disgruntled, we trudged our way back to Zingchen, formulating stories behind the blue sheep’s misleading name.

Fact file

There are multiple treks in Hemis High Altitude National Park organised by tour operators in Leh.

Markha valley is another famous trek route in Hemis.

There are four gates to enter Hemis National Park — Martselang (41 km from Leh), Chilling (60 km from Leh), Stok (13 km from Leh) and Zingchen (25 km from Leh).

 If you are a group of women and would like women guides and porters, Ladakhi Women Travel Agency is your best bet.

If you are planning on a trip to Ladakh (especially trekking), set two days aside for acclimatisation.

Apart from Diamox, things that would help in high altitude — chocolates, lots of water, dry fruits.

Do not ignore signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness) — headache,
nausea, dizziness, breathlessness, fatigue. Sonam Norboo Hospital in Leh is well equipped to deal with AMS.

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