Ladakh, part one

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October 27th 2016
Published: November 15th 2016
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the Main Bazaarthe Main Bazaarthe Main Bazaar

the big block building top-right is the Leh Palace
So, I've been in Ladakh for the last few weeks. If you haven't heard of Ladakh it is the state right at the top of India, several thousand metres up in the air, on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The back-story of me being up here on this trip is a mix of plan changes and split-second decision-making, which is really all too complicated to go into in detail. I'd never really had any previous intention of coming to Ladakh. It is where all the big-boy mammal-watchers go to look for snow leopards, with their wallets stuffed full of crisp thousand dollar bills, and it seemed far too rich for my tastes. I had a plan instead to go to Mongolia at some point in the future and do it low-key, just me and the mountains and the leopards. But during the planning stages for India, with all the inherent shuffling of ideas which go along with that, the city of New Delhi made an appearance.

New Delhi hadn't been in the original plan at all, so once that was in I had a look at what sort of animal spots were nearby and that's when I noticed that Ladakh is really not too far away. Should I? Yes, I should. As soon as the thought seriously entered my head I realised that big-cash tours weren't necessary for Ladakh, despite those dominating everything on the internet. There are villages all over the place in the mountains, homestays and monasteries, roads with buses and trucks. It didn't take more than a couple of seconds for me to decide I would be going there after all. First I had to find out the logistics of the season - it would be coming into winter and that immediately meant I had to abandon my foremost plan of getting there cheaply overland because all the roads into the capital city Leh from lower altitudes would be closed, so I would have to fly in and out (although the roads around Leh itself would be open because it is very dry up there, meaning there is little snow).

Something I really wasn't looking forward to in Ladakh were the dogs. Bird trip reports almost never mention dogs in any way - but where-ever I go, there are the dogs! I'm like a mad dog magnet. I had googled Tibetan mastiffs to
view from my guesthouseview from my guesthouseview from my guesthouse

the distance is somewhat hazy, but the Rumbak Valley is somewhere dead-ahead I think
show Mr. Andy what they looked like (and how freakin' big they are!) and one of the photos that came up showed a pack of them. I clicked on that and it took us to an article about how there's a huge feral dog problem in Ladakh because, being a Buddhist area, the dogs can't be put down, and now the dogs have started eating people. I'm dead serious too. In the Nubra Valley area the packs aren't just attacking and mauling people, they are literally hunting them for food and eating them.


I flew to Leh and back (from Delhi) with Jet Airways. They changed the flight times twice. On the Leh-to-Delhi trip they diverted the plane via Sriginar, adding an hour to the journey; and on the Delhi-to-Leh flight they moved the departure time from 6.15am to 5.40am - but then the flight was delayed so I turned up early to the airport for nothing. The Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi has been voted world's best airport two years running, in 2014 and 2015. It certainly is a nice airport, although their free WI-FI requires a phone (when you connect you have to enter a cell-phone number, and then a text is sent with the code to log on) making it useless for someone like me who doesn't have one; and it only gives you 45 minutes internet anyway which seems a little paltry. When going through security I took my laptop out of my carry-on bag as you always do before it goes through the X-ray machine. Then I had to take out my camera. Then I had to take out my camera lens and binoculars. I literally had to unpack the entire bag before continuing on to departures. But my water bottle went through without question (for those who don't fly, water bottles aren't generally allowed through security, because of water bombs I guess). Coming back from Leh there was an additional security measure I'd never seen before: after depositing your checked-baggage at the check-in desk, you then had to go outside the building to the loading area to physically identify your bag so it could be marked a second time before it was taken to the plane - any bags not identified get left behind.

The view during the flight over Ladakh was pretty spectacular, over desert-coloured mountains patchily blanketed in snow and glaciers but with only the tops showing in the sun, the lower slopes being hidden in the blackness of shadow, so it looked like they were just floating in mid-air. On the approach to Leh the plane passed the runway, went over the crest of a low mountain, and then swung round to come in from the other end, banking so low it felt like the wing was about to scrape the ground. Landing in Leh it was four degrees Celsius, about thirty less than New Delhi. There were only about ten other people on the flight. The airport is 5km out of town and the only way to and from is by taxi. There should be a bus - there's a bus stop right outside the gate - but everyone in town denied all knowledge of there ever being such a thing. Before I left Ladakh (literally on the last day) I managed to find out that the airport bus service stopped running about five or six years ago. The taxis are 250 rupees; I shared one into town with a Japanese guy and a Vietnamese guy. Because we were going to two different guesthouses the fare was 300 rather than 250, but that still meant it was only 100 rupees each (about NZ$2).

I was staying at the Khan Manzil Guesthouse which was 600 rupees for a room. Leh pretty much shuts down for six months of the year because only snow leopard hunters and crazy people go there in the winter. Almost all the hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops simply close and the residents either hole up in their houses or move back to villages in the mountains. The Khan Manzil would be closing the following week; I was the only person there. On the taxi ride from the airport I had noticed the abundance of donkeys in the streets, and even more so the super-abundance of dogs. There are a LOT of dogs in Leh. I said to the owner of the guesthouse that there were a lot of dogs about and he immediately said "don't go out at night". During the day they are fine but apparently at night they get bitey, especially during winter when there is little food about. I never had any trouble I must say. Every single dog in Leh seemed as harmless as a guinea pig. Mostly they just lay in the sun and slept.

The first step when flying into Leh is acclimatisation to the altitude. Leh is 3500 metres above sea level (that's 11,500 feet to Americans). I have been higher - up to 4600 metres (15,000 feet) while looking for pheasants at Balang Shan in China - but in China I was generally moving upwards in stages, from one reserve to a higher reserve to a higher reserve. In this case I was going from just a couple of hundred metres above sea level direct to 3500 metres in one hop. The recommendation is to rest up in Leh for a couple of days before heading up higher into snow leopard country in the Rumbak Valley. My plan was to rest for two days, on the third day go birding at the Indus River by Shey and Thiksey a few kilometres outside town (ibisbill being the speciality there), and then on the fourth day go up several hundred metres in altitude to the Rumbak Valley where the snow leopards should be.

So for my first day I did nothing much. Leh is a typical Tibetan town, with dusty streets and friendly people. English is widely spoken and unlike Indian English it is easily understood. If all of India was like Ladakh I would be very happy. I wandered round town a little and took photos and tried to find any restaurants which were still open. I needed to find a Lithium battery for the altimeter/thermometer on my Swiss Army knife but the only shop which sold them had none that worked - so no temperature readings for my stay unfortunately. I saw four species of birds (feral pigeon, house sparrow, great tit, and Eurasian magpie) which I also saw every day afterwards in the town. I also found a place called Ladakh Eco Tourism which seemed like a sensible place to organise things for getting up to Rumbak. As it turned out this was actually the official outlet for the Hemis National Park so I struck lucky.

Between five and ten snow leopard tours go up the Rumbak each winter between September and March. They stay in tents at a campsite near the prime location of the Husing Valley, have cooks to keep them fed, and guides and spotters to find the snow leopards and lead the punters to them, and they pay big dollars for the excursion. I, of course, had neither the inclination nor the budget to do any such tour. My trip would involve staying in a homestay at nearby Rumbak Village and wandering around by myself. More eyes means more chances of finding snow leopards, of course, but at the same time if the cats are there then they're there. To me a big part of it is the search itself, the fun of being out there and looking is just as important as seeing the animal in the end. There was actually a tour in progress up the valley when I arrived in Leh. They were up there for seven days and came down the day before I went up. They didn't see a snow leopard. This was sort of bad news and good news. Bad news in that it didn't bode well for me, but also good news in that if I also failed I wouldn't feel as downcast as if they had seen snow leopards every day and I didn't. And really if I wasn't going to succeed in seeing one then I'd rather pay $600 to not see one than a couple of thousand to not see one. No other tours arrived while I was up there, and generally I saw nobody at all except when in the village itself.

At Ladakh Eco Tourism I found out the prices of what I needed, although some of these prices later proved somewhat contradictory with what I was told when I came back down from Rumbak. I won't name names because I don't know the truth behind one or the other, I'll just call the people concerned Man A and Man B. The first man is who I arranged everything with and to whom I paid some of the costs; the second man (at the same office) is who I talked to at the end of my stay. There are roughly 50 rupees to one NZ dollar, so you can work out the following costs pretty easily (i.e. every hundred rupees is two dollars); if working in other currencies you can figure out your own conversions. So first is the taxi ride up there from Leh. The taxi fares are set - all the taxi drivers carry an official fare booklet - and they are all shared-taxis so the cost is split between whoever is in the vehicle. From Leh to the little "village" of Zingchan is about an hour and costs 1637 rupees. In fact now the road goes all the way to the first campsite by the Husing Valley, presumably so the people on snow leopard tours don't have to walk. Next is the National Park permit: Man A told me this was 300 rupees per day. I gave him 3000 to cover ten days. I never saw this permit (supposedly that day was too late to get it done, the next was a holiday, the next something else...). When I came back down Man B told me the National Park permit was 20 rupees per day. There is also an additional snow leopard fee if looking for these, of 1500 rupees per person per day (Man A implied this was a one-off fee; Man B said it was per day). I argued that I wasn't on a tour, I was just wandering the same as any solo trekker, so Man A said he would get the park office to waive this.... so I think I still came out ahead in costs? The homestays in the park's villages have a set rate which had gone up from 800 rupees to 1200 rupees this year. An Indian guy I met at Rumbak told me it was 1000 for Indians and 1200 for foreigners; later Man B told me it was 1000 in summer, 1200 in winter. In any case I paid the homestay 1200 per night which included all food and water as well, and that was the only costs during my days up there. If you have your own tent there is a camping fee of 200 rupees per day - I don't so the homestay price is still cheaper than renting a tent apparently. The final cost for me was a guide from the taxi drop-off point to the village of Rumbak. I had no idea if this was an easy trail or if I might get lost, so to be sure I decided to get Man A to guide me up there (and then for the remaining days I would just go it alone). Man A said a snow leopard guide was a whopping 5000 rupees per day - obviously acceptable when split between a big group - but because he was just guiding me to the village he would halve the cost. This still seemed remarkably expensive but I took it, and as it turned out it was a total waste of money because the trail is impossible to get lost on. But I'll come to that in the next installment, after leaving Leh. The upshot of it all is that for two and a half weeks in Ladakh I spent less than NZ$600.

So, my first day in Ladakh was spent doing very little around Leh. My second day was almost as little-spent. Altitude sickness isn't something to be taken lightly because it can be fatal, so I didn't want to rush up the mountains too quickly. When I came back from breakfast on my second morning I found a note under my door. Another guest had arrived (all the flights into Leh arrive quite early), and remarkably it was a girl from New Zealand named Kayla asking if I wanted to join up to explore Leh. I almost never meet New Zealanders when I travel, so it was quite unexpected that the only other guest would be one of my own kind. She was from Auckland but she can't help that. I wasn't doing anything else, so we wandered round town a bit - she had to buy some warmer clothes because her luggage had gone awol in Sydney and she only had light clothes. The airline kept promising her the bag would be brought up to Leh but in fact it never was; it stopped in Delhi and stayed there until she went back. In one shop I bought a silver ear-ring in the shape of the Om symbol, which apparently is a good luck symbol. I figured I'd need all the luck I could get when looking for snow leopards!

Then we went to the Shanti Stupa above town, partly because it is one of the local attractions and partly so I could walk up some steps (lots of steps!) to get in some mild pre-mountain exercise. A wallcreeper flew by and I described what it looked like to Kayla and how it resembled a butterfly on the cliff when looking for food. She was impressed. Wait, that's not the right word. Unimpressed. She was totally unimpressed. We also found a little Himalayan agama Laudakia himalayana on the slopes by the steps, the only reptile I saw in Ladakh (and a bit of a surprise actually, given the temperature and altitude).

On the third day I was intending to go look for ibisbill by the Indus River. Unfortunately my stomach had other ideas. Apparently after the Delhi Belly I had a few days previously, the Ladakh Attack came in. The problem with being at altitude, also, is that the symptoms of altitude sickness are often exactly the same as regular normal sickness (e.g. nausea, headache, etc) which makes one worry a bit more than one otherwise would. And because I rarely get sick unless it is something serious like dengue fever I feel doubly miserable when I do. The guesthouse owner said I should get some Norflox from the chemist. I had to take two of these a day for five days - the pills were so big it was like swallowing baby mice; you can actually feel them moving down your throat as you swallow them. But they worked immediately and the next morning I felt fine except for a bad headache, for which I went back to the chemist and got some Ibuprofen. These were made in India so probably weren't even real, but they worked too. The sheet of Ibuprofen tablets cost 11 rupees which is about 20 cents. At the same time as these two pills I was also still taking Acetazolamide for the altitude (starting one or two days before ascent, and for two or three days afterwards). Interestingly, when I stopped taking the Acetazolamide is when I started feeling better...

I figured I'd go to Shey and Thiksey when I came back down from snow leopard hunting, but didn't because of time. However, for the sake of completeness, the strategy for a budget birder is to take a shared-taxi for 20 rupees from the Leh Main Gate (in the morning, about 9am) to the village of Choglamsar just out of Leh, and from there another shared-taxi to Sindhu Ghat and then walk along the river to Shey. Then you can take another shared-taxi from Shey to Thiksey and look along the river there. It all shouldn't cost more than 100 rupees in total. I saw ibisbill last time I was India, at Nameri National Park in Assam, so I wasn't too worried I missed out this time.

In the afternoon there was a pair of black-eared kites circling over Shanti Stupa (visible from the guesthouse roof), being mobbed by a flock of about thirty magpies.

The fourth day was when I was supposed to be going up to Rumbak but I put it off one more day to be sure I was alright. Then at 8am on the 30th October, day five in Ladakh, I was finally on my way to look for snow leopards.


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