There was blood on my hands. Ute Meuser, a German artist and educator, was holding a class on dry felting in the village of Ulley. The technique involves stabbing and jabbing a fluffy mass of yak wool, and occasionally your finger.
While I transformed myself into a live voodoo doll, Ladakhi locals poked and pricked like pros, shaping the wispy strands into ponies, yaks, ibex and other animals of the region. Selling these souvenirs adds to their meagre agrarian income and reduces their dependency on livestock. If only I could pick up the skill, maybe I could supplement my sparse earnings as a freelance writer too...
I could picture myself married to a mountain man as rugged as this region, a bonny baby bound to my back, milking yaks, and yakking with villagers about ploughing, harvesting, meeting deadlines and — snap! My daydream shattered as a dzo stepped on a twig.
A dzo (pronounced ZZZ-oh) is what you get when a yak meets a cow, goes on a date, falls in love and you know.... Boring definitions call it a hybrid of a yak and domestic cattle. If the huge black beast happens to lumber along your path, in a mood as foul as its odour, may the Buddha save you! And if two of them lock horns while a third starts kicking up dust: try not to lose bladder control, jump over the nearest wall and cry when you fall into a poky bush. That’s what I did.
Here, in Ladakh, you’re more likely to be butted in the behind by a dzo than spot a snow leopard. While I did have a close shave with the hairy hybrid, I also tailed the cat. Twirling all those prayer wheels probably turned my luck around.
Dry felting was no sweat (it was too cold), but it drained my patience, not to forget the pinpricks. So I snuck away for a snooze, awakening an hour later to the call of cha (tea in Ladakhi). That’s when I saw Jigmet Dadul from the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust waving frantically. I had just emerged from the loo, exhausted from pulling up three layers of leggings and then zipping up my pants. But I ran anyway. He was signalling a sighting.
Cats and calm: Snow leopards are quite a rare sighting, but even if you don’t see one, there’s plenty to see and do in the little town of Ulley.
Across the valley, not too far away from the village, stood a snow leopard — a male in his prime, having his moment in the sun. I peered through the spotting scope. His thick fur had a yellowish tinge. He was shorter than other members of the big cat family, but his tail stretched much longer. To help maintain balance in this rocky terrain, I was told, and also to curl up with on a cold night.
Yakking away: Ladakhi women make felt souvenirs from the wool of the yak.
While snow leopards are solitary creatures, this one was not alone. We could hear the impatient mews of another cat (they can’t roar), probably a female telling him to get off his lazy backside. The chap hadn’t budged for more than half an hour. He was stretched out on a ledge, as if it were a recliner on a beach in Goa. We made the most of his idle contentment by recording every twitch of his whiskers.
As the sun went down, his highness finally made his way across the valley. The Conservancy team followed, while I stumbled trying to keep up. We got a few more shots before he disappeared behind some rocks along with the evening light.
Next was the uphill task of getting back to the jeep. I huffed one step and puffed the next. More than the snow leopard, I thought, seeing our vehicle around the corner was the best sighting of the day.
Other Close encounters
Rumbak village within the Hemis National Park, has to be approached on foot from Jingchen. Along the way, my guide Gyaltson pointed out blue sheep making their way across a mountain ridge, chukar partridges and other birds of the region.
A frisky goat in Ladakh.
I missed out on the famous Pangong Lake. It is frozen in April and is not the beautiful blue one sees in the summer months from June to August. I will visit it the next time I’m there. The snow leopard, however, may not be an experience that will repeat. They currently number fewer than 500, maybe as few as 200 (exact numbers are not yet determined). The SLC-IT team is working to ensure that the dry felt souvenirs are not all that is left of this endangered cat.
Snow Leopard facts
It’s whitish-grey (tinged with yellow), patterned with dark grey rosettes and spots.
It lives at 3,000-5,000 metres.
It’s found in J&K, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
Barely 200 to 500 remain. No reported attacks on humans.
Do your bit
The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, in association with Mountain Initiatives, organises winter treks to sight the snow leopard. To offer more help:
Join SLC-IT as a volunteer or intern. Or join their membership programme.
Support the Himalayan
Homestay programme (www.himalayan-homestays.com).
From HT Brunch, March 24
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