[Kipling India Travels (KI) is a subsidiary of Explore Himalaya (EH). KI specializes in operating unique tours with class and comfort throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Some of the special tours being operated regularly by KI are culinary tours, Snow Leopard Tour, Birding Tour etc. In this series, we are writing about these tours to share the unique experiences had by KI clients to EH travelers so that our travelers will know, consider, or maybe plan for the next holiday. ]
Precarious climbs and steep falls, bone chilling cold and heart-warming sights, simple trails and meaningful journeys, all embracing mountains and a mythic-like rarity! These are the images that come to mind when we think about snow leopard. To many, it’s still a fantasy to behold the Himalayan gem right in front of the eyes. However, Kipling India’s incredible expedition “The Himalayan Grey Ghost” makes it possible; and let you live through all these and even more.
The Snow Leopard tour that takes you on a journey of Matthiessenian experience to one of the most impressive lands on Earth allows one to have an epic experience of both adventure and enlightenment. However, nothing is promised about such an enigmatic cat who is a master at camouflaging but it is always believed that if you give to nature, nature will give back to you! All you need is a lot of patience and a bit of faith!
On 04 Feb 2017, Kipling India had a group of 5 enthusiasts from USA to embark on this extraordinary journey of spotting Snow Leopard. Starting from Leh, which was once the glorious capital of Himalayan Kingdom Ladakh, the team journeyed through one of the harshest terrains to station at Rumbak, the Snow Leopard capital of the world. After surviving in the thin cold air in the wilderness for about a week, the team’s ultimate test of patience and perseverance was paid off. Though that was the only time they spotted this enigmatic masterpiece, they have truly become one among the few lucky travelers who could have otherwise felt themselves fortunate just to see the mountains.
Day 01: Delhi Arrival
Day 02: Delhi / Leh
Day 03: Sightseeing at Leh
Day 04: Leh – Zinchen – Rumbak
Day 05-13: Rumbak
Day 14: Rumbak – Zinchen – Leh
Day 15: Leh/Delhi
Day 16: Departure from Delhi
04 Feb 2017: All the group members arrived at Delhi International airport for the most awaited journey. It was then followed by meeting and greeting, and checking in hotel- something usual prior to any trip. However, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement- something that made even the arrival day extraordinary.
05 Feb 2017: An early morning flight from Delhi took the members to Leh airport, from where they were picked by Kipling representatives to hotel. The flight of about 1 and 15 mins was not less than an adventure in itself. The fleeting landscape, the dramatic altitudes and the abrupt switch from the humidity of Delhi to bewitching cold desert of Leh was like showcasing the whims of nature. Leh is a small town with compact red mud brick houses and narrow lanes. With its Ladhaki architecture, Buddhist life style and unmistakable mod cons of a touristic centre, it’s not that difficult to fall in love with this place. The members rested the whole day for acclimatization.
A local at Leh Bazaar
06 Feb 2017: The day started with touring activities from early morning. The members observed prayers at monastery and explored the former Palace of the King of Ladakh, the architectural icon of Leh. Built in the 17th century after the model of Potala Palace in Lhasa, and now undergoing restoration, the Palace stands sentinel overlooking the town of Leh. The visit was followed by a drive to Hemis monastery situated 45 km from Leh. The monastery belongs to Dugpa Kargyutpa order or Red Sect of Buddhism and is enriched with a large number of Thangkas or paintings, which are exhibited during Hemis festival, one of the famous festivals in Ladakh.
07 Feb 2017: After spending two magical days in Leh city, the time had finally come to leave the civilization behind, and set off for the true adventure. They drove for an hour to Zinchen, which is the entrance of Hemis National Park. The Hemis High Altitude National Park extends over 4400 sq kms and is widely known for some rare species like snow leopard and bharal (Blue Sheep). It has the highest density of Snow Leopards of all protected areas in the world. The Park is home to six villages Rumbak, Kaya, Sku, Shingo, Urutse and Chilling that inhabit about 1,600 people.
From Zinchen, they had to cover the rest of the journey on foot. They were accompanied by a pony man and his 6 mules loaded with gears and camping equipments to carry to the camp at Rumbak, their stopover for the whole Snow Leopard session. Rumbak (4050m) a small village of 10 – 12 households clustered together, is set amidst rolling mountains and green valley in Hemis National Park. Often referred to as the Snow Leopard capital of the world, it is the most distinguished spot in the world for Snow Leopard sightings in the winter from Mid December till Mid March. However, the place is equally rewarding for spotting other wildlife native to the place like Urials, Blue Sheep, Wolves etc.
08 – 16 Feb 2018: The group spent the next 10 days with their guide Gyalson and Gurmet both with hands-on experience of multiple hikes in the ridges in search of Snow Leopard. They were expert in tracking the minutest evidences like pugmarks, scrapes and scats in the harsh terrain. The area around the Rumbak catchment is one of the best places in the world to see these mythical cats.
Every morning, in this sparsely vegetated alpine zone, was like a ritual. It used to start in quietude and humility- watching the silent sunrise, the enormity of the mountains around and being aware about one’s existence in the vastness of the wild. Not something we can appreciate every day! Stepping out of a tent into the valley erased the concerns of lack of shower or running water.
A regular day at camp
Over the next several days the daily routine didn’t really change as the guides were scouting for Snow Leopard signs and possible sightings from first ray until last light. In the meantime, they also visited the junction of Husing Nala and Tarbung Nala including the high ridge lines. Each day after breakfast group members hiked up the main Lato Nala vantage point at Rumbak Sumdo and spent the day scanning Kharlung Valley and the adjoining areas. It became very apparent from the moment when group members entered this beautiful yet hostile terrain that it would be very difficult to see a Snow Leopard.
A Himalayan Wild Goat
The guides spent the whole time just watching for clues and signs through telescopes. While group members were looking for the Snow Leopard, group members had many opportunities to observe and photograph other mammals that inhabit these mountains. The Bharal or Blue Sheep is the most common, and the group members also spotted Wolly Hare, alpine birds and tracks of Red Foxes during daily hikes.
An awaiting camera ready for the magical moment!
THE MAGICAL DAY!!!
The Big Day finally arrived! The group members were having breakfast when they heard some commotion outside the dining tent. Naturally they got up and went outside when the guides gave them the news they had been longing to hear for last few days. Yes, there had been a sighting of a Snow Leopard on the mountain overlooking their camp. Everyone then made a scramble to their own tents to get their camera gear and get properly dressed. Those few moments of nerve wrecking excitement yet the necessity to remain calm, was later on described as a blur memory by the members.
Can anyone spot Him?
Once they reached the spot, the guides helped them to set up cameras to locate the Snow Leopard high up on the mountain ridge but made sure to be carefully hidden and out of sight. The members just lay down in the morning sun without a care in the world, and started feasting their eyes, and most probably their soul too. Nature finally opened up and gave them what they asked for!
Over the next few days all walked and trekked over frozen rivers and steep valleys and ridges once more to the places the guides knew and had seen Snow Leopards in the past. Each day returning to the little “Home” nestled between the mountain ranges of the Indian Himalayas, was a different person than the one who left it in the morning. As said before, days without the spot was also not wasted, they got to traverse through some of the most stunning landscapes on planet, with occasional sightings of soaring eagles and vultures. Blue Sheep appearing from the shadows, watching humans, then carrying on with their lives, all in full view was just next to magical.
The Home of Snow Leopard as misty as Him
Amongst the fit of adventure also, everyone was well aware about the necessity of being healthy in such extreme condition. It was taken care beyond appreciation by Lobzang, the chef and helpers Stanzin and Rigzen by making it possible to make fresh, warm and tasty food in such next-to- impossible place. They also made sure that the group members get their food on time, whether in camp or in distant spots. On one of the days where group members walked up to a vantage point or pass, they visited a homestay high up around 4500m above sea level. It was run by one of the guides Gurmet’s sister and her family. Though it was a bit of tough walk to get there as the oxygen seemed to be disappearing, the members were mesmerized by the warm hospitality and the wonderful decor of the rooms and kitchen.
17 Feb 2017: On last day in Hemis Natinoal Park before heading back to Leh, the members packed up and the whole team took down all the tents and loaded everything onto the mules and donkeys for the walk to pick-up point which would take around an hour. The heavy-hearted members bade the last farewell to the mountains which was their home for last ten days. Once again the place was empty but it treasured some unforgettable moments of some curious hearted people from distant land who dared to take up the journey to this end, just to behold the exceptional gift of nature.
So, finally everything came to an end! But it was like a new beginning to the members. They returned back to the hustle and bustle, to the madding crowd – but this time with memories to last the lifetime!
If you also want to be an elite adventurer, a humble soul-seeker, an achiever of a rarity or a beholder of “a terrible beauty, with its uncompromising yellow eyes, wired into the depths of its unfathomable spirit, gazing out from the cover of innumerable editions” as described by Peter Matthiessen in his classic travel book “The Snow Leopard”, you are welcome to this lifetime adventure in the Himalayas. Who knows you can be the next one to be privileged!