It was early April, and the winter was still cuddling with the Himalayas.The road connectivity to Leh was closed due to snow piling on the high mountain passes.The tourist season was one and half month away.The summer was staring at the cold desert of Ladakh from a distance.I was in Leh for the Snow leopard’s trek in the Hemis High Altitude National Park.The Hemis National Park in Ladakh is one of the largest high altitude national parks in India covering an area of 4100 SQ Km and is home to the endangered snow leopards.The wildlife enthusiasts and the adventurers around the globe come to the national park in the winter to spot this endangered beast.
It was the first day of my solo hiking to the National Park. The sky was overcast over Leh, and it was a cold morning. The temp was around -6 and -7 degree centigrade and the wind was blowing thick and fast.The thunderous clouds hanging over the mountains were closing in.I was to hike 17kms from Spituk to Zingchen. The cab driver dropped me in the middle of nowhere.That was my starting point for the trek.As he left, I was standing alone in the open with the mountains all around.Putting my 14kg rucksack on my back and holding on to the hiking pole, I took a deep breath and started trekking from Spituk towards Zingchen.
The rain started drizzling after 2-3 km of the hike.The dark clouds were closing in onto the mountains, and it also started snowing lightly. But within no time it started snowing heavily, the visibility dropped to a mere minimum and the wind gathered pace.The mountain had suddenly turned into a white snowball. I was alone on the trail with no one in sight far on the trail.By the time I took out the rain pouch from the rucksack, I was totally drenched in the snowfall.There was nowhere to take shelter nearby in the barren and remote mountain and not a single soul was in sight.I kept my rucksack on the trail and sat beside it to wait for the snowfall to subside. I was shivering in the cold, and the wind was crashing into my back. I thought my hike was over by then, and I was contemplating to go back to Leh.It was a horrifying 45-50 minutes wait till the heavy snowfall relegated to a lighter one.I was taken aback and frightened. I stood there for some time to think what happened there.I was feeling colder as I was static for a long time. I decided to continue my trek and started walking again.
It was a long and tiresome hike of 17 Km through the remote mountains along the banks of Indus river and then an unnamed stream along the trail up to Jingchen. With the gaining of altitude, I was gasping for breath with each step forward. I reached Jigchen at 3.30pm. Jingchen is a remote village located deep inside the Hemis National Park at ~ 13000ft comprising of only four houses. I was to do my own camping at the end of day 1. But battered by the rain and snowfall throughout the trail in that inclement weather, I was tired to the bone.I chose a Homestay instead of camping.From the road, I climbed to the ridge to scout for a homestay.My breath was swelling, and I was literally struggling to take steps to reach the homestay.As soon as I reached the home, I put down my rucksack and sat at the door of the Homestay. A lovely woman came smiling showing the room to me and asking me for tea. I asked her if she could get me a cup of hot Kawah (a Kashmiri beverage) which she said yes. After having Kawah, I dozed off to sleep as I was feeling headache due to the altitude effect.The moon was rising on the horizon, and the mercury was slipping fast. Within no time, I fell asleep in that tiny dark room lit with a half burnt candle.
In the night, I met the all the family members of my host.We sat in the kitchen near the fire discussing how life was in such remote place without electricity and other facilities.I was a stranger to them, but their hospitality towards me was second to none.I was humbled by their gesture. They were living in such remote and extreme conditions, but they were happy, and their smiles were original. We had the local food “Thupka” in our dinner. I never had thupka before, but I enjoyed it being with them.
Next morning, I was back on the snow leopards' trail. The sun was shining and the morning was beautiful. It seemed to be a good day ahead.I was to camp next on Rumbak, 8-9 km farther from Zingchen.The trail was lonely and in the bright sun, i was walking alone in the national park.Suddenly a cluster of boulders started falling from the mountains to the trails.I stopped and slowly moved back to look at the top to see if there could be snow leopards.Unfortunately, they were a herd of blue sheep grazing on the top. In the winter the teams from BBC/Discovery/Wildlife depts. camp in the national park for months for their snow leopard spotting and documentation projects. After 3-4 km I spotted a team was camping in the middle of nowhere. As I shouted hello, there came a Ladakhi boy from the kitchen tent to whom I greeted Jullay. He told me that it was a hiking group was camping there for the snow leopard spotting, and the state wildlife dept manages the camping and spotting. I wanted to talk to the head of the wildlife dept. who was managing the camping there to explore the possibility if I could join them for the spotting treks?The wildlife chief was out on a spotting trek, and I waited there for his return. In the meanwhile, i asked the kitchen staff if I could have some food for which I could pay. The generous staff served me hot lunch for free, and I was over the moon eating lunch as I was starved for days.
The spotting team came back after one and half hour, and I talked to the Wildlife officer requesting him to join their spotting team.He said they didn't have an extra tent to accommodate me, and I had to sleep in the kitchen. I told him I had my own camping gear and he didn't have to worry about that. I cut the deal with him and asked him how much I had to pay.To my utter surprise, he said enjoy the camping and spotting here for free. I fixed my tent and then met each member of the spotting team and also the wildlife team.By that time, I was already familiar with the kitchen staff.
We were ready for a spotting hike at 3 pm.With big heavy lenses, long range binoculars and tripods we started our hike to a spotting point. I had never seen such big cameras before in my life.I was carrying the lenses as if I owned them. It was an arduous hike of one and half hour to this point. The wildlife team fixed the cameras and one by one we start putting our eyes on the lenses to the snowlines at the top.The sun was still there but with each passing moment, the cold was increasing. We spotted some blue sheep but the big cat was not in the sight. Again we hiked to the top of a ridge for spotting and there also we ran out of luck. On that train, the BBC team had fixed their unmanned cameras.It was 5 pm by then, and the sun had gone down.The cold wind was sweeping through the valley, and we started descending the slopes back to the camp.
It was a moonlit night and after having dinner I had gone for sleep. In the middle of the night, one hiker was knocking at my tent asking me if could join them for a hike.As I switched on the torch to see the time, it was 12.30 pm.That was absolutely insane to go for a hike in such deep in the mountains in the middle of the night that too in the snow leopard’s territory.We five of us were ready for the hike towards Rumbak. We brought our knives,put on our headlamps and started hiking towards Rumbak following the frozen stream.The mountain was awake on the bright moonlight and the camp had gone to sleep but we were negotiating our steps on that frozen stream. Every other sound was making us huddle together thinking about the camouflaged beast. We could not go to Rumbak as it was far away and within one and half hour we came back to the camp. It was a night to remember.
I woke up to an overcast early morning.The clouds had engulfed the mountain and were looking ominous.The sun was nowhere in the sight.It was raining light and small snowflakes were dripping onto the ground. I was hiking back to Zingchen alone. After some time, it started snowing heavily. There was no place to take shelter. I continued walking. After some time I saw smoke rising from a distance and I thought there must be something to take shelter nearby.As I walked nearer, I saw the smoke was coming from a tent nearby. When I reached the tent, I saw two men in their mid-50s are cooking something and warming themselves in the woodfire. They were surprised to see me hiking so early in the morning. I asked their permission to take shelter in the tent till the snowfall subsided, and they let me in.
I kept my rucksack aside and sat near the fire to keep myself warm from that shivering cold. After some moments of silence, I began the conversation asking their names and what they were doing there and where they were from.They were from Nepal and working on a road construction project there. Their families were in Nepal, and they had not been home since the last one year. As they were telling their stories, I was simply glued to their stories.Far away from their families, living in the tents deep in the mountains, they were sweating and toiling hard working eight hours daily in that high altitude to earn a living for their families.Their stories filled my heart with joy and happiness.
They offered me the food they cooked in the morning, and I accepted their generosity with all humility. After one and half hour, the snowfall started subsiding and bidding them goodbye I resumed my hiking back to Zingchen. I reached Zingchen around 11 am. There was no vehicle to Leh at that time. I had to wait more than one hour before a truck came carrying sandbags meant for the road construction. I requested the driver to take me up to Spituk, and he happily gave me a lift. We reached Spituk at 12 pm, and Sonam bhai was there waiting for me. We had the Salt tea (Namkeen Chai is quite famous in Leh) that he brought from his home. We sat there for some time looking at the Indus river nearby before we drove back to Leh. It was a beautiful trek in the Snow Leopards’s trail. I could not spot the big cat, but I would cherish the memory of the adventures and experiences forever.
This trip was originally published on thefreedomsoul