Breaking my Wildcat Jinx: In Search of the Grey Ghost

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A trek of a lifetime to spot the Snow Leopard in Rumbak valley, Ladakh

It is the most elusive cat to spot, the snow leopard or the grey ghost or the ghost of the mountains or as the locals call it, the Shan. This very elusivity drew us to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, braving harsh terrains and sub-zero temperatures, to trek all the way upto the Rumbak valley in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in search of the snow leopard. With 30 tiger safaris under my belt without having spotted a single tiger till date, the trek was an attempt to spot the rarest of the wild cats and break my wildcat jinx. And boy! Did my jinx break and how!

There is a reason the snow leopards are called the grey ghosts. Snow leopards live in an extremely difficult terrain, walking along cliffs and slopes and living in sub-zero temperatures in high altitudes upto 6000m. They usually feed on blue sheep for Bharals and in those high altitudes, they need to be agile and have impeccable camouflage and that makes it really hard to spot these cats.

Without any serious trekking experience under any of our belts, my group of friends and I set out to do undertake this moderate to hard 10 day trek in the bone-chilling cold winters of Ladakh. The Rumbak Valley is the mecca for snow leopard spotting. Every winter, the severe cold drives the Blue Sheep, the staple diet of the snow leopards, to lower altitudes in search of vegetation to feed on. This in turn draws the Snow Leopards down the high mountains, enabling the visitors to spot these elusive creatures at lower altitudes.  Between Jan to March, scores of nature lovers descend upon Rumbak Valley to get a chance to spot these elusive creatures. We also arrived in Leh this March in search of this Grey Ghost.

After a 2 day acclimatisation at Leh, we drove to Zinchen, the last point of the motorable road to Rumbak. After that is a 5-6 hour hike to Rumbak Valley passing by the Husing campsite. The hike passes by frozen streams and picturesque mountains and loads of Blue sheep could be spotted on the way.

Upon arrival at the valley, we had a packed lunch and we were welcomed with spotting on a scope set up to track the Lynx. The Lynx is even more rare creature to spot than the snow Leopard in these parts of the world. I was hopeful that with this spotting, my wildcat jinx was broken and was eager to spot the snow leopard.

We progressed to our homestay in Rumbak Village. As the night approached, the temperatures dropped to -15 to -20C. Our only saviour was the Bukhari or the Ladakhi room heaters which burn wood to keep the room warm. After a difficult first few hours contemplating if I had mountain sickness with the body ache and headache, I passed out into a restful sleep.

The bright next day brought hope and we made our way slowly to the spotting point after an hour’s trek. The whole morning passed uneventfully with the no signs of any movement of the wildcats except the spotting of the blue sheep by the dozens! We struggled to keep our hands and toes warm in the severe cold. We were about to give up but with setting sun, we were rewarded with the spotting of out lifetime! A male snow leopard walked on the ridge of a mountain a km away for almost 30 mins! It was a young male and it’s mating call reverberated through the mountains! It was an experience covering sight, sound and motion!

Now that we had seen what we had come looking for, the next 4 days were spent trekking to different directions from the village in the hope of spotting more wild animals. Though we didn’t see any more snow leopards, we saw much more fauna of Ladakh. On one day, we trekked west from the village and saw a Red Fox at quite a distance, basking itself in the sun. On the way back, we saw a dead red fox, which was being fed by the Black-billed Magpies. The remains of this red fox were the object of the fight between a Lammergeier and the Magpies which kept us enthralled all afternoon. One  another day we trekked up to Yurutse Village, a one household village on the Markha Valley trek route, for an up-close encounter with the Lynx. We ended up sighting many other animals like a Yak, Wooly hare etc and some of us had some fun skidding down the frozen river on their bums.  We also spent time birding and capturing many birds of prey like the Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier etc. After 5 days at Rumbak, we trekked back to Zinchen and drove to Ulley where we were rewarded with spotting of Himalayan Wolf & the Ibex. With so much that we saw, I couldn’t have asked for more, especially since my wildcat jinx was now finally broken!

#snowleopard, #greyghost, #ghostcat, #animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
Snow Leopard or the Ghost of the Mountains or the Grey Ghost
#snowleopard, #greyghost, #ghostcat, #animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
Snow Leopard
#snowleopard, #greyghost, #ghostcat, #animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
Snow Leopard
#snowleopard, #greyghost, #ghostcat, #animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
Snow Leopard

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How to get there & where to stay:

Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zinchen from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village.  Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or in one of the many government regulated homestays in the Rumbak village.

Animals of Ladakh

Animal Spotting at Rumbak Valley, Ladakh

The Rumbak Valley in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh is known for the elusive Snow Leopard spotting. Besides the snow leopard, which of course we were fortunate enough to spot, the area is dotted with many other animal species. Even more elusive to spot is the Lynx, which we could sight only through a scope as the distances were large and our 600mm as rendered completely useless! Even the Red Fox and the Himalayan Wolf could be seen through a scope. Most common amongst the animals is the Blue Sheep or Bharal which is the snow leopard’s staple diet. From the same family, one can also spot the Ibex, Argali and the Urial. Smaller animals like the Wooly Hare and the Pika can also be spotted aplenty.

#animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
The Snow Leopard
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Blue Sheep or Bharal
DSC_7742
Blue Sheep Or Bharal
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Yak
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Ibex
#animals,#fauna, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography
Wooly Hare

Birding in Rumbak Valley, Ladakh

Birding in Rumbak Valley, Hemis National Park, Jammu & Kashmir, India

On a recent Snow Leopard trek to Rumbak Village in Hemis national park, Ladakh region, I got an opportunity to spot some beautiful birds including some Tibetan species uncommon in other parts of the country. The area is home to many birds of prey like Golden eagle, Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon vulture which rule the Rumbak valley. Many other local species like Chukar, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Snowfinch, Streaked Rosefinch, Robin Accentor dot the valley.

Water Birds: Mallard Ducks, Storks, Common Coots etc.

Mallard Duck Male
Mallard Duck Male
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Mallard Duck Female

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DSC_7184

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A pair of male & female Gadwall ducks
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Female Gadwall duck
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Great Egret
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Common Coot

 

Birds of Prey: Griffon Vulture, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle

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Golden Eagle
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Lammergeier
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Griffon Vulture

Native Birds: Tibetan Snowcock, Chukar, Tibetan Snowfinch, Rose Snowfinch, Tibetan Partridge etc.

#birds,#bird, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas,
Chukar
#birds,#bird, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas,
Tibetan Partridge
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Tibetan Snowfinch

Common Birds: Black Billed Magpie, Robin Accentor, Brown Accentor, Grey Tit, Grey Wagtail, Red Billed Chough etc.

#birds,#bird, #ladakh, #photography, #birding, #travel, #travelphotography, #birdphotography, #rumbak, #snowleopard, #trek, #himalayas,
Black Billed magpie
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Grey Tit

DSC_7904

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Grey Wagtail
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Robin Accentor

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How to get there & where to stay:

Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zingchan from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village.  Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or at the Rumbak village homestays.

A 7000 stair trek to Nongriat’s Living Root Bridge

#asia, #bridges, #forest, #hike, #homestay, #india, #jungle, #manmade, #must do, #nature, #nongriat, #photography, #root bridges, #serene, #steps, #travel, #trek, #village, #waterfall, #Meghalaya

 350 seediyan hai. Pehle neeche phir upar jaati hai, phir village aur bridge aata hai. Ek baar main gaya tha. Uske baad 2-3 din tak bimaar padh gaya. Seedhiyon se nafrat si ho gayi thi  (It is 350 odd stairs that go down and then up to the village and the bridge. I did it once and after that , I fell in bed for 2-3 days. I hated the sight of stairs),” muttered Tapan, our driver in Cherrapunjee, once the rainiest place on this earth. From his sombre voice, it was evident that this was his attempt to discourage me from doing the trek to the village, based on his bad experience. The trek to the Living Root bridge of the Nongriat village near Cherrapunjee is not for the weak kneed or the faint hearted as I was soon about to find out.

The living root bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single deck bridge and a double decker bridge.

#asia, #bridges, #forest, #hike, #homestay, #india, #jungle, #manmade, #must do, #nature, #nongriat, #photography, #root bridges, #serene, #steps, #travel, #trek, #village, #waterfall, #Meghalaya
View of Nongriat village (Mid of the mountain on the left)

Dismissing Tapan’s foreboding warning of things to come, I decided to embark upon the trek to the village the next morning. After all it was just 350 steps!  What was he talking about! It couldn’t be that bad after all. After reaching the Tyrna village, the starting point on top of the mountain, I found a guide named Phil. Phil was a smiling young lad, right out of school, who was killing time and making some pocket money by offering to guide in the few months he had before he had to join college. The board at Tyrna village indicated a 3km hike to the Nongriat village and some mild alarm bells were set off in my head. 3km and 350 steps didn’t quite add up!

The path to the village is a cemented staircase in middle of a thick jungle, that first reaches the bottom of the valley and then after crossing the river, another flight of stairs upwards lands one at the village. Very casually, we walked down the flight of stairs, enjoying the beauty around. After about ½ hr of walk down the stairs, with knees beginning to become wobbly, I figured we must have actually done double of 350 steps that my driver warned me about. I asked Phil, how many steps were actually there? To my shock, he said 3500! Clearly Tapan didn’t count properly! Well, shoot me, I said. Phil smiled helplessly. How was I even going to get through it, with my knees already wobbling! Walking down was the easy part I figured. Walking up the steep and narrow flight of stairs could be a death wish! Never mind, I would crawl up. But it was a problem for later.

So we continued. The breathtaking hike through the forest was well worth it. The jungle was enveloped with clouds and the morning dew made everything look fresh and beautiful.  We saw a few villagers coming up the stairs. One was a little girl in a school-dress, not more than 7-8 years, who was walking up the stairs to go to school! It was very hard to imagine that the young kids did this everyday! Just for basic things like going to school and getting a good education!  Soon, we spotted two more villagers who were transporting local produce in heavy sacks strapped to their backs. To see & experience the hardships that the villagers faced day in and day out, was extremely heart wrenching. What made them go up and down the stairs every day? Why couldn’t government make more efforts for them to easily connect with the world outside, like making ropeway trolleys. But observing them gave me the impetus to complete rest of the trek without a whimper.

 

#asia, #bridges, #forest, #hike, #homestay, #india, #jungle, #manmade, #must do, #nature, #nongriat, #photography, #root bridges, #serene, #steps, #travel, #trek, #village, #waterfall, #Meghalaya
A girl treks to the top everyday to go to school – Nongriat

 

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A villager carries his produce to the top of the mountain – Nongriat

 

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The never ending stairs – Nongriat

After the steep flight of stairs down, we arrived at a small village, from where the single root bridge can be accessed. We progressed ahead, arriving at a wobbly iron bridge at the bottom of the valley. Crossing it for the first time, gave me a good scare. While Phil languorously strolled ahead, with wind in his hair and spring in his step, here I was, sweating by litres, clutching the swaying bridge for my dear life and crawling ahead. I did not want to look down at the water stream 30 ft below, for I would have succumbed to my fear of heights and gotten fully paralysed. Miraculously, I survived, only to find another higher and longer iron bridge after a short walk ahead. History repeated itself as this also I survived. Phew!

#asia, #bridges, #forest, #hike, #homestay, #india, #jungle, #manmade, #must do, #nature, #nongriat, #photography, #root bridges, #serene, #steps, #travel, #trek, #village, #waterfall, #Meghalaya
The shaky iron bridge – Nongriat

 After a short walk up on another flight of stairs, we arrived at Nongriat village. Nestled in the middle of the jungle was this quaint and clean village, freshly sprayed clean with the shower that had just started. The village is fully off the grid and hence has become a hotspot for trekkers who want to be engulfed by nature. There were a few homestays I found on the way where trekkers esp from abroad were relaxing.  It is commendable what the villagers have done to encourage responsible tourism while protecting nature. They have contributed towards a community guesthouse for trekkers, have made large dustbins for collecting waste etc. They respect nature by keeping the village clean. It is a harmonious co-existence of villagers, nature & tourists. A short walk from the village, is the Living Root Bridge. The first view of the root bridge mesmerised me and made the arduous trek fully worth every drop of sweat and every ache in my body. It felt as though I had arrived in paradise. With chirping birds that began to emerge after the downpour, the double decker bridge in middle of a thick jungle, set right across a rumbling waterfall and over a gentle water stream, was a sight to behold. The double bridge was a masterpiece in itself, with intertwined roots made sturdy over centuries. The villagers are working on creating a third deck, by twisting and shaping the roots. Perhaps in a half a century, it would be fully made. The water was so clear, cool and fresh and it was enticing me for relaxing dip. I hadn’t got a change of clothes, so I just made do by sitting with my feet swaying in the water and periodically dipping my face in it. Mesmerized with the bountiful  greenery around me, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the place amidst the slight drizzle.

 

#asia, #bridges, #forest, #hike, #homestay, #india, #jungle, #manmade, #must do, #nature, #nongriat, #photography, #root bridges, #serene, #steps, #travel, #trek, #village, #waterfall, #Meghalaya
Welcome to Nongriat

 

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The double decker Living Root bridge of Nongriat

 

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The Double decker Living Root Bridge of Nongriat

Ahh, I so didn’t want to go back. It is quite natural to feel like this in middle of nature, completely off the grid, where one can unburden the stresses of daily life and try to find a rhythm between self & nature. I bumped into a foreigner who completely endorsed my sentiments. He, like me, had come for a day trek and decided to stay back after feeling enchanted by this place. My resort in Sohra doesn’t know where I am, he said very coolly. I wished I could have done the same. But I am a woman with proper plans and it would mean the rest of my trip would have gone for a toss. A small tea shop right next to the bridge was just perfect to have a cup of hot tea and steaming Maggi, before I reluctantly winded my way up.

The rains had cleared up the clouds on the way up and I could see the spectacular landscape of the valley, gasping in awe of how much we had walked. Slowly and steadily, I made my way up, not knowing what was sweat and what was rain drops on me. This time I had counted. It was 3500 stairs (app 5000 steps ) from the bridge back to the top which meant we had done 7000 stairs and total 10000 steps up and down. But it didn’t hurt one bit, for my body and mind had found a gentle rhythm to propel me further. I met an aghast Tapan at the top, for I had completed the trek in 4.5 hours which is quite an average time clocked for the trek. Thank god you didn’t tell me it will be a 7000 stairs trek,  I would not have ever done it, I told him. The loss would have been only mine!

 And yes, my body revolted at the sight of stairs for almost a week after that.

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How to get there:

Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr drive away from Cherrapunjee. From there it will take a relaxed 1.5 hr walk down to the Nongriat Village and then a 2 hr walk up. Budget 4-5 hours including stops.

Where to stay:

If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. However, it is recommended to stay at Nongriat village for a night or two to thoroughly experience the place. Serene homestay is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.

What to do:

Carry swimming trunks and a towel if you want to dip in the stream. If you plan to stay,  walk around on other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. Also trek up for an hour to Rainbow Falls which is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. It rains abruptly making the stairs slippery, so wear trekking boots and waterproof  your camera and phones. Travel light.

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