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Travel to Ladakh, encounter a snow leopard

You may never see the animal yourself, but when you trek in Ladakh, be sure it’ll see you

brunch Updated: Sep 18, 2017 19:28 IST
Sathya Saran
Far below the path, slim trees bend their boughs in the wind, and a river gurgles along.
Far below the path, slim trees bend their boughs in the wind, and a river gurgles along. (iStock)

Is the snow leopard watching, I wonder, as I walk. They say you may never see this most elusive of cats, but that does not mean he is not around.

The hope of sighting a snow leopard has brought me to the Hemis Wildlife Sanctuary in Ladakh, a desolate, quiet, wasteland that I plan to inhabit for the next four days. It is already June, and reason says that the leopards must have moved to the higher, snowy reaches of the area. But it is an unusual year, with rain and snow predicted, and reason has bowed to hope. So I scan the rugged mountain sides that rise along our path, and squint through the brightness of the noonday sun to check the crags and the summits for any sign of life.

Far below the path, slim trees bend their boughs in the wind, and a river gurgles along. It flows down a gentle slope in sharp contrast to my road, which is slyly sloping upwards, making me stop to catch my breath in the already thin air.

Fact File
  • Easier treks that do not include a high mountain pass are possible. Spituk to Stok is one of the easier ones, though it also includes a pass.
  • All treks should include a guide. There are no signages en route, the villages are far flung and isolated.
  • Trekkers are expected to stay with the villagers who are supported by government organisations. Rates per person are pre- fixed.
  • Some villages have camping sites. But trekkers must carry their own tents.
  • Do not feed the marmots. They are greedy and unafraid.
  • Travel light. The knapsack will seem to get heavier as the air gets thinner.

Lost in one’s own space

The author on the way up the ascent to the 4,900m pass (Praveen Singh)

We are a small group of diverse ages. Our plan is to walk to the villages of Rumbak, Yurutse, cross the Gandala Pass to reach Skiu, and end at Chilling. Now, after the initial acclimatisation, during which we try to stay together, we tacitly decide that we will stay in each other’s sight, but set our own pace. It is an arrangement much like the journey of life. Each of us indeed walks alone; the sharing of goals is incidental.

Walking alone has its advantages. With no words to mar the quiet, I can hear the occasional bird down below. And my own thoughts, which turn to the snow leopard. But it is too early to expect any sign yet; the motorable road is still close behind, and the cloudless sky has added sweat to my brow. Sharing mind space with the leopard in my thoughts is the fact that we have to cross a mountain pass. Will I manage, I wonder, considering I am breathing like a locomotive at this altitude? Time will tell.

Rumbak village is to be our first halt. A mere four-hour walk away. But time means nothing in the middle of nowhere. I have been cut off from the Internet for a week already, and my phone has been little more than a camera.

Why, I ask myself, as I stop to catch my breath yet again, am I doing this? I have asked myself this question many times over the years since I started trekking. The reasons are many: a love of mountainous spaces, the need for excitement, the pull of nature, all twisted into a rope that tugs at me when I am sitting comfortably at home. So here I am! Q.E.D.

Home away from home

Horses carry essentials from Leh to the remote villages and can often be seen grazing on a green meadow (Sathya Saran)

By the time we reach Rumbak, I have jumped across three gushing streams, missing my footing across one to land in slush; I can feel a blister rising under my toe, and I have scraped my arm against a thorny bush. We stop in view of the village to eat our packed lunch, I examine my foot, and realise it is not a blister, but a knot in my sock chaffing against the skin. Relief.

By late afternoon, we are in limbo. Ensconced in a room at a homestay that contrasts dramatically with the outside with its brightly coloured dhurries and blankets. I fall into a dreamless sleep to awaken to a pre dusk softness outside that veils the rough rock edges and throws a lace-like haze over the stone houses and the hill beyond.

My more enterprising co-traveller decides to explore the village and disappears up the nearest mountain. Over a sumptuous dinner of hot rotis, dal, vegetable and salad, I peer jealously at photographs he has taken on the mountain of blue sheep grazing.

Sharing stories

The sloping mountainside shows nothing but sky ahead. I become a girl in pigtails. For the first time, I reach the top ahead of everyone else.

The next few days follow the same pattern. In Yurutse, we meet many foreign groups over dinner. A Japanese family, a Swiss mother and son, and a loner who makes his bed wherever he finds space. They are full of stories, bristling with energy.

As we set off, our mood is buoyant. Day two is easier, but the climb is steeper. I look down and meet an upsurge of panic. But my trusty trekking stick rings against the stones underfoot, and bids me to walk on, unafraid.

The others are dots in the distance, but Tashi, our guide waits on a stone, a Rodin study in patience. Tashi carries in his face the quietude of the mountains; he says little but his eyes see everything. He sees the ambition in the long strides that challenge the thin air, and he utters a word of caution. He sees too the hesitation in my eyes as he speaks of cresting the pass at 5,000m and explains to no one in particular that there is no hurry, and every hurdle can be surmounted at one’s own pace.

Scaling great heights

Dramatic rock shapes add variety to an already colourful rocky wasteland (Sathya Saran)

The morning of the climb starts with snow. It is beautiful, but I remember what I have overheard over last night’s dinner, when a trekker coming down the pass in a snowstorm called it ‘a journey through hell!’ But the sun comes out and we set forth.

We pass herds of goats, their woolly beards waving in the wind. Donkeys and horses overtake us on their way to green pastures that are oases in the wilderness. Before long, I note, everyone, except Tashi, is panting. We could be playing a strange game, stragglers on a curving upward path, stopping at random intervals to bend over our sticks and wait till the heart slows enough to let the legs move again.

At last the sloping mountainside shows nothing but sky ahead. I become a girl in pigtails again. For the first time, I reach the top ahead of everyone else. But Tashi points: the Gandala Pass is in the distance. And covered in snow.

We stop for lunch. And with the sugar of a sweet fruit drink swirling in our blood, push on. The horses are distant specks down below. We cross groups coming from the other side of the pass, some panting like us, and exchange smiles. For all of us the climb is over, the slope is downwards on both sides, and that is reason enough to smile.

My heart is light, I have done it, I tell myself. And will do it again.

The way down

The mountains spread around me like an amphitheatre. Three great ranges, the Karakoram, stuff of legends; the Ladakh range and the Zanskar range. I want at that moment to become an eagle, and fly endlessly over all the peaks. I could live here, I think. Here, there is no want. Nothing is important. Nothing matters. Not even myself. The mountains, the sky, the sloping ground falling away on either side, it is enough. And fills every nook and cranny of my being.

But a brisk wind starts, whipping up the snow, and forcing me deeper into my coat. I know it is only a dream, this wishing to find eternity here, in this pass so close to the heavens. The demands of comfort and company will press their hooks into the psyche soon enough, and force me to seek them out.

We start down towards the village that lies a few hours ahead. Our last halt before we drive back. I lead, running and sometimes skipping down the slope. My breath allows me to sing. I stop and rest on a rock, and ruminate over a piece of gum. I look up at the snows. The leopard could be somewhere there, I think, watching me. Knowing we won’t need his help now, Tashi has ambled off and is lost in the distance. My companions have stopped too, somewhere behind me, on some mysterious agenda of their own. I wonder what it could be.

Then, almost like visible smoke the sound of a harmonica, that one of them plays so adeptly, floats down to reach me.

It’s a perfect moment. I take a deep breath and hold it all in. For that one moment, alone, in the mountains, I am complete.

Brunch Insider
  • The nine-storey Leh Palace is among the top sights in Ladakh. It is a dun-hued edifice, which is an architectural icon. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • Coffee lovers can unwind at Coffee Culture in Zangsti and sample a wide variety of lattes as well as brewed coffees. (Source: Condé Nast Traveller)
  • Those travelling with family can put up at The Grand Dragon Ladakh hotel for a comfortable stay. (Source: TripAdvisor)

Author bio: A senior journalist and former editor of Femina, the writer has also authored several books, including a biography on filmmaker Guru Dutt

From HT Brunch, September 17, 2017

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