It seemed like a completely crazy idea.
“Lets do it man” Jay’s voice cracked the silence that had enveloped the nervous me.
“They come down only in the peak winter months, when there is too much snow at the higher peaks, they descend in search of food! December is the best time to go!!!” He affirmed.
To be honest, the idea was fantastic, thrilling exciting but like most such idea’s seem many times to me, it seemed unreal or undo-able for the common me.
Chasing a Ghost Cat (snow leopard) in the peak of winters, in Hemis National Park in the Ladakh region of J&K seemed exotic but unreal, it appealed and at the same time, December, Winter, Harshness kind of weighed on my mind. I wanted to do it, yes, for sure, but, could I? Seriously?
The problem with common sense and common knowledge is they bind you into your limitations, I have done a few treks, but this wasn’t just about walking, this was about braving the conditions. Amidst all my quandaries Jay had already roped in Nigam and another friend Shital for the trek. Eventually I decided to join the bandwagon fully prepared to return in a day if I felt it too difficult!
This plan was being made in August, come December we were equipped with all the gear thanks to Decathlon. We had waterproof shoes, water-resistant socks, waterproof trousers and jackets, water proof camera bags and all set with many inners and warm clothes. Whilst trying all my gear once to see how it fits, my wife couldn’t help but remark,
“It feels like you are going to man a post in Siachen!”
By the time it was to leave, I was too excited to worry about the conditions, everyone I told was gushing with amazement and looking at me bewildered. Most of the guys were like,
“You lucky Dog!”
“Man are you freaking serious?! Ladakh in December?!”
“Snow Leopard dikhega?”
“Won’t it be freezing??”
“Dude, that is one hell of an adventure you are up to!!!”
All these remarks I must confess fuelled the excitement that much more. I was flying much before we actually flew to a fog filled Delhi that had absolute chaos, Flights all delayed and being cancelled left, right and centre. However, after a few hiccups we finally boarded our flight to Leh! Finally I was going to the place I have always wanted to go to. This would be my first visit, albeit by air, but surely not the last, a road trip would surely happen and soon!
The flight to Leh was relatively empty and the way the four of us clamoured for different windows in the flight somehow reminded me of my childhood days where we three brothers would rush for a view from one window to the other, only this time the view was absolutely warranting that sort of reaction from us! Its like you are flying above heaven!
As we landed in Leh, excitement gripped us, we took out our bags and started putting on our jackets, head caps, mufflers, glasses, warmers and stepped out of the flight, the first step into Ladakh! The weather was amazingly bright and sunny, a BLUE sky welcomed us, as we spoke smoke appeared form our mouth, I actually didn’t feel that cold, I was comfortable, I asked what the temperature was like and I was told it was -3 degrees. Phew! It was not that cold eh, it was bearable, however, by the time I reached to the hotel, I was trembling. As you stay more, the cold starts getting to you, first up we are all hunky dory and brave. We stayed at the Siala Guest House, which amazingly at this time of the year had running hot water and that shower, I tell you was so amazing, after the shower we had largely settled and though it was terribly cold we were beginning to get used to the teeth chattering.
The first day was to rest and get used to the high altitude air and the cold, we stayed in our hotel largely drinking loads and loads of butter tea, tea, black tea and coffee that was served with biscuits at all times. By evening one of us was wanting to actually buy some booze, but my friend Jay who has been to Ladakh for Chadar trek too advised against it on the first day. We did venture out to the town for a short walk in the evening to test our lungs and get a feel of the pinch of cold in the late evening.
The weather was cold, but bearable, especially whilst you walked. We decided to sleep without heaters as we were going to be sleeping in sleeping bags without heaters during our trek and I packed myself in 5 layers like crazy in the night below three layers of blankets, as it turned out the night was uncomfortable till we removed some layers that we could manage some sleep.
Unreal ain’t the window looking?! The snow flake design was what we discovered this day, the second day was more relaxed and we moved about to Shanti Stupa and had lunch in the market at Neha Snacks that served yummy Kadhi Chawal. Slowly but surely we were getting over the cold and getting used to the conditions. We were to leave for Zinchen the next day morning.
Early next day morning our guide Rigzin Wangdus came to pick us up and we left for Zinchen, the drive was for about 90 mins where we alighted the vehicles and our luggage was piled onto ponies and we were to begin our trek on foot to Rumbak, a settlement inside the Hemis National Park that was to be our base. It was a stiff 4 hour walk for us, the locals do it in about 90 mins. The area actually is a little difficult to describe in words, for a minute you would feel you are somewhere in the grand canyon, suddenly you would find frozen rivers, dry bushes, loads of dry poplar trees, huge tall cliff’s surround you, I guess its better if I let some of my pictures do the talking about the way to Rumbak.
Sometimes you wonder, what could these people living here be actually thinking?? I mean, why would someone actually live here in these harsh conditions, we did ask one lady who was kind enough to serve us warm water as we entered her house, “Its our home” she said. That summed it up for us. We did learn that they can wear shorts here in summers and that it does become pretty green also at a lot of places which sort of explained how they managed to fill up their food stocks.
Apparently the people in Rumbak village have worked out a homestay system, where each house has a huge sitting area, where in food is served and they let out bedrooms with ‘Bukhari’ (a firewood heating system pretty common in these parts.) They have a rotation system so they all get an equal number of guests and they people there were quite warm and friendly and evenings actually became a super feast time for all of us. We chalked out a schedule of starting at 8 in the morning everyday in the hunt of the Snow Leopard (Ghost Cat) also called ‘Shaan’ by the locals and return by around 4-5pm. Lunch would be Maggi on most days that Rigzin would cook for us as he would carry a mini stove with him.
For 5 days we roamed the area venturing to different directions. The walks were crazy, we would pant like mad, we saw frozen rivers, frozen waterfalls, pugmarks, a Tibetan wolf that we couldn’t photograph, loads of Bharal (blue sheep) but the Ghost cat evaded us, we couldn’t spot it but hell the experience of walking about there, feeling like the owners of that vast landscape, gazing, gaping, panting, gazing again, soaking all that up was an experience we will not forget for the rest of our lives.
Here are a few more pictures of the landscape and the animals we spotted whilst walking about in the Hemis National Park :
The nights there were terribly cold, before sleeping we would take two bottles per person, one would be a thermos of hot water the other a plastic mineral water bottle as you had to mix the two and drink, by the time we would wake up in the morning the plastic bottle would be frozen. Yes, I think the lowest we noted the temperature was -17 degrees celsius. Frankly after the first day I had wanted to return, but gladly I stayed and I managed. After 5 days of crazy walking and no showering, we eventually decided to give up the walk and opted for the comforts of a car. We then drove off to Nubra for a few days via the Khardungla and back.
The fact that I completed each day’s trek was an accomplishment for me, that I did not give it up and did not return, even when 4 of our co-trekkers gave up after one day in Rumbak makes me feel good about myself, the experience of being out there at such a high altitude was enriching. We did garba on a high cliff, gujjus you know! I even posed topless at 13500 feet in bone chilling cold, yes we did do all the wild stuff as well.
This entry has been shortlisted for Holidify’s Travelogue Writing Contest in association with Linger. The content and pictures may not be used without prior permission of the author.
Submitted by: Dhiren Shah
The original post can be found here.