Ladakh, part three


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November 11th 2016
Published: November 15th 2016
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With no luck on the snow leopard front at the lower valleys, on my fifth search-day I headed higher towards Yurutse. Apparently there are no snow leopards around Yurutse itself (not sure why - although there are Eurasian lynx there), but the trail along the way is through snow leopard territory. Yurutse is not so much a village as one homestead (which is also a homestay). There is a whole network of homestays through the Hemis National Park, every village and one-building town has at least one of them and they are all the same price (currently 1200 rupees per person). I wasn't going to stay at Yurutse because it is only an hour's walk from Rumbak so it didn't seem to make any sense to do so. In terms of altitude: Leh is at 3500 metres, Rumbak is at 4050 metres, and Yurutse is at 4200 metres.

From Rumbak I walked back towards the second campsite, but before reaching that there is a steep dirt track up a hill. That is the start of the Yurutse trail. It is another horrible donkey-track looping round the hillside and then dropping down to the river. After crossing the river (the channels are only narrow, so no need to get your feet wet) the trail then resumes up the valley. After maybe half an hour it leaves the valley floor and travels along the hillsides, and after another half an hour you reach Yurutse. I kept an eye on all the surrounding hills and ridges but no snow leopards did I see. However I did come across a sizeable flock of gamebirds some way ahead which I assumed would be chukar. When I put the binoculars on them, however, they proved to be Himalayan snowcocks, the bird I most wanted to see when up here but which I had thought if I did see them would only be specks on a distant hill. I started taking shots from afar, gradually moving closer until they were no more than thirty feet away. They were giving vague curlew-like calls but didn't seem too concerned, although they still kept their distance as they moved along the hill. Beautiful birds.

At Yurutse I was greeted by a flock of chukar in the small field out front. On the roof of the building was a yellow dog, slyly watching me approach, but like the two dogs living at Rumbak he was friendly in an I'm-keeping-away-from-that-strange-man way. At the other end of the field was another flock of partridges, and these turned out to be Tibetan partridges - the third Himalayan gamebird of the day! I'd seen one Tibetan partridge in China a few years back but these ones were much more relaxed, albeit not very approachable where they were.

It seemed like the best thing to do now that I was at Yurutse was to just keep going higher. Half an hour after the homestead I came to the first base-camp for people going over Kanda La which is up at 4900 metres (La is a mountain pass, so "the Kanda Pass"). This was the start of Tibetan argali territory, a type of wild sheep. At this time of year they should have moved up and over the pass, but as it seemed to be unseasonably warm still I hoped I might get lucky. I have seen argali in Mongolia, but I always like to see animals again if I can. There was a sign near the base-camp showing the valleys and saying (in English and Ladakhi) that this area was reserved for argali so no grazing of donkeys or yaks was permitted. However I still saw yaks higher up, and the trail was dotted with donkey droppings.

I could see the toilet building at the second base-camp way up the mountain, so I headed that way. The trail between the two base-camps follows along above a shallow valley filled with low red scrub and this turned out to be filled with woolly hares. Every so often one would bound away across the hill and then pause, tail flicking, waiting to see what I would do. I had been thinking that there wasn't much chance of seeing lynx here because they feed on the hares. The hares in the village only came out in the late afternoon so I figured the lynx would be hunting by night, but seeing the hares here active by day makes me think it might be possible after all. I only went about halfway to the second base-camp because I started getting a high altitude headache, so instead I just sat on the hill to have lunch while watching for animals. No lynx appeared, but I did see a mountain weasel (again, like I saw in China!). It was the first windy day I had encountered, and it was a mite chilly on the open slope so I headed back down.

Back past Yurutse I found a small group of bharal. One was staring intently back down the trail along which I'd come. I looked back and saw the yellow dog sitting on the hill watching me leave, probably regretting not having taken the opportunity to savage me when I first passed by.

The following day I returned to Yurutse. No snowcocks or Tibetan partridges, but there was a pair of red-billed choughs. Interestingly, I only ever saw the red-billed choughs in pairs or as singles, while the yellow-billed choughs were always in large flocks. On this day I kept going all the way to the second base-camp, headache be damned. I had passed several groups of bharal already, but when I was scanning the hills around the second base-camp I saw a large herd of sheep on a far slope. They must be argali I thought. But no, they also were bharal. I had got a worse headache than yesterday, but the trail ahead looked pretty inviting. Maybe there were argali up round the other side of that mountain. I sat around at the second base-camp for a while, ate my lunch, and then forged on ahead. I didn't go all the way to Kanda La, so I'm not sure how high I got that day, but I found no argali. I think they must have all been over the other side already.

On the way up between the base-camps I saw four woolly hares. On the way back I counted fourteen without even trying. In the afternoon they just sit on the hillside, often at the mouths of the Himalayan marmot burrows (which are all in hibernation now, so I didn't see them), and their fur almost glows in the sun. You don't even need binoculars to find them, they are that obvious. I spent most of the rest of the day hanging out hoping for lynx and seeing nothing but hares.

In the evening I took an Ibuprofen for the headache and hoped I'd wake up in the morning.

.........................................

Snow leopard diary. Day seven. I am disconsolate. How long can a man go without seeing a snow leopard before he goes mad?

I went back to the Husing Valley and on the way saw three small groups of bharal, so at least there were a few more down there now. A wallcreeper, a golden eagle, and a pair of red-billed choughs made a change from the usual nothing.

There was supposed to be a track that went from somewhere beyond Rumbak village to the top of the Husing Valley, so for the eighth day I thought that might be worth checking out - still the Husing Valley but also high up. There was some sort of miscommunication though and I never found this track. Instead I just went all the way to Stok La, a mountain pass like Kanda La and likewise set at 4900 metres. Heading from Rumbak (in the opposite direction to the Yurutse trail) I at first walked for an hour and a half along a wide river valley, facing straight into the rising sun. If there's one thing destined to make someone go insane it's a slow death-march in the Himalayas into the rising sun. Eventually the trail starting going upwards into the hills, shaded from the sun a bit more. There were domestic yaks and ponies up here, but of wild animals
Rumbak villageRumbak villageRumbak village

the spires in the far distance is where Stok La is
I saw only red-billed choughs, a pair of Himalayan snowcocks, and a large moth whirring its wings in the sun to warm up. Marmot burrows were scattered here and there, and wolf prints were prominent on the trail.

Eventually I reached the jagged mountains through which Stok La passes. The final track was a zig-zagging ascent up a near-vertical slope. There's a weird optical illusion which happens up here. When you are on a steep slope and look down you may as well be clinging to the side of a building. But looking upwards from the bottom of that same slope it looks like a gentle rise which you could probably rollerskate up. It's very strange. Anyway, soon I was at the highest non-aeroplane point I have ever been, 4900 metres (16,000 feet) in the Himalayas. Awesome. Still no snow leopards.

On the ninth day I was back at the Husing Valley. I was getting desperate now. Only two days left. Despite everything, the Husing Valley still seemed the best bet. Particularly because a male snow leopard had the previous night walked down the entire length of the Rumbak valley trail and then turned up into the Husing
print within a printprint within a printprint within a print

snow leopard print on top of a shoe print, on the Rumbak Valley trail
Valley. His footprints were in the sand all the way down. (I say a male because I'm told males and females have differently-shaped pads, and apparently this one was a male). On the way down I saw a white-throated dipper on the river. There were several pairs of brown dippers which I saw every day, so this new one was unexpected. I have seen both species living on one stream in China too, and I still don't understand how they can when they have the same feeding behaviours. Presumably one feeds on larger invertebrates than the other so they don't directly compete. Another new bird for the trip was a female white-winged grosbeak, again a bird I had previously seen in the Chinese mountains. I only saw twenty or so bird species while in Ladakh, and only three of them were lifers - most of the others were ones also seen in China. There were slightly more bharal today - three small groups along the Rumbak Valley and the regular group in the Husing. Did I see a snow leopard today? No, I did not.

So far the days had gone pretty much like this:
Day one: Husing, no snow leopard.
Day two: Husing, no snow leopard.
Day three: Husing, no snow leopard.
Day four: Tarbung, no snow leopard.
Day five: Yurutse, no snow leopard.
Day six: Yurutse, no snow leopard.
Day seven: Husing, no snow leopard.
Day eight: Stok La, no snow leopard.
Day nine: Husing, no snow leopard.

The tenth day was not an exception: back to the Husing, no snow leopard. I spotted a red fox near the first campsite which was the first of the trip, so that was something.

The eleventh day dawned. Would the eleventh day be the eleventh hour that saves the day? I had a taxi coming up at 2pm to collect me. It was do or die. I mean, I couldn't exactly work harder to find a snow leopard because there's not much you can really do except wait for the animal to show itself to you, but I kept my hopes up at least. I said goodbye to the homestay couple and the chukars and the robin accentors, put on my pack, and set off for the Husing Valley one last time. There was even a woolly hare sitting at the last building to say goodbye. I sat up on the ridge in the Husing for my last remaining hours. As if to say "just give up already!" the wind picked up for the first time into a gale, threatening to throw me off the mountain. The taxi came. I went down to the road and left, with the brook laughing merrily behind me and the wind whistling "better luck next tiiiiime Israaaaaaaael..."

................................................

So I didn't see a snow leopard. I honestly think this particular year was a late winter, because it did seem unexpectedly warm, and that reduced my chances considerably. However the advice I was given up there was that Jan-Feb is the very best time to look because that is when they are breeding and hence are much more obvious (they lose their natural shyness). Of course November was also supposed to be the best time to look. Anyway, I always say it is better to look for an animal and fail than to not bother looking at all. Previous situations like the Baikal seal and golden snub-nosed monkeys sting because my failures were caused solely by human agency. A failure to see a snow leopard, however, is just part of the game - and really I just spent two weeks roaming around in the Himalayas by myself, and that is a total win! And it's not like I spent a lot of money on it!

To make it a little better, on the taxi ride back to Leh there was a group of four male Tibetan urials just by Zingchan. The three wild sheep at Hemis are separated by altitude. Right at the top are the argali, much lower down are the urials, and in between are the blue sheep. In summer the blue sheep overlap with the argali, and in winter the blue sheep move downwards and overlap with the urials. I was hoping to see urials (they were a new species for me) so it was a good finish, even without an ounce.

The next day I flew back to Delhi and found myself in the middle of a currency crisis which has turned the whole trip on its head...


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Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) on cliffsBharal (Pseudois nayaur) on cliffs
Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) on cliffs

you have to look carefully but they are there. It was pretty impressive watching them scale sheer rock walls.


15th November 2016

Ladakh
i am enjoying your blogs, S I, despite the lack of snow leopards.

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