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Published: February 6th 2017
In 2015 the "top 25 most endangered primates" was put out by the IUCN, and the photo at the top of the page was of the Chamba sacred langur, which is found only in the Chamba Valley in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh, in the Himalayan foothills adjacent to Pakistan. (The pdf can be viewed here: https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2015-033.pdf). As soon as I saw the photo I knew that was a monkey I wanted to see but the chances of that seemed low because when was I ever going to be anywhere near such a remote valley? Turns out that it is actually easy to get to - a long bus or train ride links New Delhi directly to the town of Pathankot, and from there is a shorter bus ride to the mountain village of Dalhousie, and just outside Dalhousie is the Kalatop Wildlife Reserve in which the langurs can be found. Simple.
Originally I was going there in November after Ladakh - I had already bought the train ticket from Delhi to Pathankot - but India's demonetisation changed the plans. I decided it would be a shame to miss it out, although going there now meant it would be
mid-winter. But still, that's why I've been carrying all my cold-weather clothes around with me for the last two months instead of ditching them when I left the Himalayas last time! Best course of action for this version of the visit seemed to be to just fly in from Ahmedabad rather than spending a few days on trains and buses. Pathankot has an airport but it isn't used for commercial flights much, so I got a SpiceJet flight to Dharamshala which is about 130km away.
It was a long "day" getting to Dahousie from the Little Rann of Kutch. I was up at 6am at Desert Coursers and after breakfast got a bus to Surendranagar to look for the Indian eagle owls as mentioned at the end of my last post. In the afternoon Devvratsinh and his friend dropped me back at the Surendranagar bus station. There was a discussion about my age (they thought I was thirty ) and why I didn't look it (I said birding keeps you young), and then there was a discussion about how I look just like Dan Bilzerian who is an American poker player famous in India for girls. They showed me
a video and indeed we do both have beards. I'm not sure there's really any other resemblance. Although perhaps that's why I get so many people wanting to take selfies with me. At 6pm I got a bus to Ahmedabad where Bhavani Singh's other son Parmarth met me and we hung out at KFC and a cafe until midnight before he drove me to the airport. Parmarth also didn't really believe my age, but rather than Dan Bilzerian thought I looked like someone from National Geographic (so an explorer instead of a poker player). He liked the idea of my travelling but was seriously weirded out by me not having a phone. He had never met anyone without a phone before and couldn't imagine how a person could function without one. My flight was via Delhi but didn't leave Ahmedabad until 6.20am and I couldn't check in until 4am, so there was more waiting. I did get an hour of sleep before boarding though. In Delhi (where the morning temperature was six degrees) there was a four-hour lay-over and I managed another hour's sleep. The Delhi flight landed in Dharamshala at 2.10pm where, despite being in the foothills, it was
warmer than Delhi had been. The airport for Dharamshala is, I had read, in a little town 13km south called Gaggal, although it turned out it was actually south of Gaggal too, and called the Kangra Airport even though it wasn't in Kangra. Not confusing at all. I got a bus from the side of the road outside the airport to a place called Nurpur, and then another bus from there to a junction (perhaps Lahru, looking at a map, but I'm not sure), and then a third bus to Dalhousie, arriving there at 7.30pm which made 37 hours of travel on two hours of sleep. In the morning I found out I wasn't even in Dalhousie...
When I got off the bus in "Dalhousie" it was dark and a bit rainy. I went to the first hotel I saw, which was the Gateway Homestay. Nobody there spoke any English and I was too tired to bother trying, so I went to the next one along, called Dalhousie Hills Hotel. This was 1500 rupees per night, a bit higher than I wanted. The owner Sanjeev asked how much my budget was and I said 500 rupees. Somewhere between 300
and 1000 is okay, but if you say "below 1000" that is always interpreted as "1000", so I generally say "500". Sanjeev went back to the Gateway Homestay with me and sorted a room out for 500, but then said that for the next nights I could stay at his place for 500 - I think probably because foreigners are a bit of a rarity here, certainly in winter. The Gateway Homestay was actually a hotel and not a homestay at all. It could have been nice, but it was just really dirty, so for the rest of my nights here I stayed at the Dalhousie Hills.
It was cold at night, happily for me. I'd been wanting some proper coldness for ages. I wore several layers of my clothes to bed, and in the morning the inside
of the window was sheeted in ice. Excellent. I went and had a talk with Sanjeev and discovered that I was actually in a town called Banikhet and that Dalhousie was a further 6km up the mountain. The reason the bus had stopped there was because the road was iced up and it had been too dangerous for it to continue.
Unfortunately I also discovered that several days of snowfall had completely closed the road above Dalhousie, the road that leads to the Kalatop Wildlife Reserve, and it wouldn't be clear for at least six or seven days. I had made some advance plans in terms of flights, so this was a bit of a blow because it meant there was no way I was going to get to the reserve.
Kalatop is 13km past Dalhousie, which normally I could walk easily if there was no bus running, but apparently the snow was chest-deep so that was out of the question. Another 11km beyond Kalatop is an alpine lake and meadow called Khajjiar which I had also planned on visiting. I had found a survey of the reserve's mammals online and there were some nice species up there such as serow and goral, and apparently in winter there was the possibility of seeing ibex and Himalayan tahr on the crags surrounding Khajjiar. Apart for the mammals it was also good pheasant territory, with kalij and koklass being "common", and with cheer pheasant and Himalayan monal also there.
I knew there was a tourist information centre at Dalhousie so decided
that I would head up there and see what I could find out, especially in terms of seeing the langurs elsewhere around the area. Sanjeev told me I would be able get a bus up to Dalhousie that morning because the road would be okay. I went outside - the junction was about half a minute's walk away - and waited for a bit. Then I thought I better ask the policeman who was in a little sentry box in the middle of the junction. He said emphatically that there was no bus, only taxis. I asked a taxi driver how much to Dalhousie and he said 400 rupees. Shared taxi? No shared taxis. This seemed very unlikely. I went back to ask Sanjeev, who came out to organise the shared taxi. The driver started yelling at him, I heard the word "foreigner" (Indians often mix English into their Hindi or local language), but I got a seat in a shared taxi for 100 rupees, probably well over the local price. When a few more people were on board we were off... well, except that the car wouldn't start. After several attempts at leaving a bus came along (the bus
which didn't exist), so I got in that instead. But then the bus only went about 1km before the road got too slippery, so I ended up walking to Dalhousie.
The walk turned out to be well worth doing. Between Banikhet and Dalhousie it is forest all the way. In fact with Kalatop closed off, staying in Banikhet proved to be a much better choice. The parts of road in the sun were fine but other areas were just ice from one side to the other and it was safer to walk on the snow along the side. Cars, motorbikes, and even a couple of buses were just abandoned by the roadside all the way along. I passed numerous (Indian) tourists coming down from Dalhousie pulling their wheelie-suitcases behind them, because there was no way taxis could bring them down to the buses. The next day was worse for walking because the snow at the sides had frozen over and become as slick as the ice on the road.
I took quite a while to get up to Dalhousie, partly because of the ice, but mostly because I kept stopping for birds of which there were a lot,
albeit of only a few species. Best "new" bird was the rufous sibia, which I thought was some kind of laughing thrush at first, but there were also white-tailed nuthatches, Himalayan bluetails and brown-fronted woodpeckers, as well as various birds I had seen a couple of years ago in the Chinese mountains like black-throated tits. At one point I caught a glimpse of a large bird with colouration reminiscent of a barbet, but I thought there was no way a barbet would be up this high in the snow - but in fact it was a great barbet, much larger than most barbets and seemingly quite common up here.
I also saw Chamba sacred langurs, which was nice. I had thought they would be more difficult to find. There are several military stations along the road, and at the first one there were two langurs sitting in a tree. I couldn't get anywhere near them, what with them being inside a military compound and all, but I took some record-shots just in case they were the only ones I saw.
I even managed to find a working ATM on my way up the mountain! I know I'm keeping
a running commentary on Indian ATMs, but they are so unreliable here and yet so important to be able to access. Just on this leg of the trip there had been only one at Ahmedabad airport, which wouldn't work; two at Delhi airport, neither of which worked; and five in Banikhet, none of which worked. The one I found on the mountain was just by the largest military station, and it worked every time I tried it. There was another one inside the base as well, but that one did not work.
As I came into Dalhousie a couple of Psittacula
parakeets flew across the road into a tree. I tried my best to find them to get a look at what they were, but they had either departed out the other side or just buried themselves amongst the leaves. I think they had to have been slaty-headed parakeets, which would have been a new species for me, but I had to leave them as unknowns. There were rhesus macaques in town too, really big rhesus macaques with thick golden fur, but they didn't cause me any trouble.
The guy at the tourist centre said the road to
Kalatop might be clear in two or three days but I think he was being optimistic. I had lunch at a restaurant nearby and headed back down to Banikhet. There were more sacred langurs on the roof of one of the military buildings just downhill, but their positions meant the photos were again more record-shots than anything. At least I was seeing them, even if I wasn't getting any worthwhile photos. Much further down the road I passed the first military station and tried to see the pair of langurs from the morning but they had gone. Not too far though. Just a bit further on they walked right across the road about twenty metres from me. They are amazing animals, much bigger than the other Semnopithecus
langurs due to their high-altitude habitat, and appearing even larger because of the thick fur.
The next morning I was intending to walk up to Dalhousie early, looking for birds and langurs along the way, but just a hundred metres from the hotel I happened across a whole lot of birds by the roadside - grey-winged blackbirds, chestnut thrushes, yellow-billed magpies, black-headed jays, blue whistling thrushes - and then spent the next
two hours on the scrubby hill above the road with birds everywhere I turned. Unlike the mixed forest higher up, around Banikhet it is all coniferous forest, with just a scant understory of rhododendrons and a scraggly shrub with inch-long spines which I do not like. I found a small rubbish dump up there which was attracting various birds too, including a grey-headed woodpecker and three species of laughing thrushes (streaked, variegated, and chestnut-crowned). Another great bird from there worth mentioning was the rusty-cheeked scimitar-babbler. The next morning I went up on the hill and there were almost literally no birds, which just illustrates the randomness of birding!
There's a short cut to Dalhousie which I had found out about the day before, which goes up through the forest rather than along the road and comes out into the big military base (the one by the working ATM). I used this after finally running out of birds on the hill above Banikhet, and found more birds on that route including numerous spectacled finches and a collared grosbeak. In the military station there was a big troop of sacred langurs sitting in the morning sun grooming each other. Males, females,
babies; probably thirty or so in total. I'm glad langurs are so peaceful towards humans. If macaques were as big as these langurs there would be chaos all over Asia, with people being ripped apart and eaten. It would be like a zombie apocalypse except with macaques. I have no worries about getting as close to langurs as they will allow in order to take photos, but with macaques I'm always wary (sometimes to the point of paranoia).
I had two days left in the area, but on the last day I got really sick, probably food poisoning, so stayed in my room. The day before that though (day three) I thought I would spend on the hills above Banikhet. This didn't really work out very well. Unlike the previous bird-filled morning, today there were barely any birds all day, although new for the trip were a pair of kalij pheasants and a couple of warblers. There are lots of warblers everywhere up here but generally speaking I can't tell warblers apart because they all look so similar and are so fast and ever-moving. Today I got good enough looks at some to see they were lemon-rumped warblers and
also a grey-hooded warbler. That last one is pretty easy because it is bright yellow with a grey hood. Both the warblers were lifers too so even better.
So even though I never got to Kalatop, and hence potentially missed some great birds like cheer pheasant and Himalayan monal, I had achieved the goal of seeing the Chamba sacred langurs. And that makes three of the "most endangered" primates on the IUCN's list which I have seen in the wild (the other two being western purple-faced langur which I saw in Sri Lanka recently, and the Sumatran orangutan which I saw back in 2009).
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