A luxury adventure through the rugged terrain of Himachal to see the Snow Leopard in all its majesty
Day 1: Land in Chandigarh. Drive to Kufri
Day 2: Kufri to Kalpa with a stopover at Narkanda
Day 3: Kalpa to Mane with a stopover at Tabo monastery
Day 4: Mane to Kibber with a stopover at Dhankar monastery
Day 5: Expedition to the mountains in search of the Snow Leopard
Day 6: Drive back from Kibber to Kalpa
Day 7: A much needed rest day in Kalpa
Day 8: Kalpa to Shimla
Day 9: Shimla to Delhi via Chandigarh
The Partners in Crime
2 Maruti Gypsys and 1 Ford Endeavor custom fitted with CEAT AT wheels
Snow Leopards are found across Russia, Siberia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, Tibet and Nepal. In India, Himachal is a haven for Snow Leopards in India. The Pin Valley National Park, the Great Himalayan National Park and Pangi & Bharmour in Chamba have a sizable population of Snow Leopards.
But our port of call for a rendezvous with this majestic wildcat was the Spiti valley. These rare creatures are a shy breed that are uncommon sightings. For some, it is a 2 month pilgrimage to be able to sight a Snow Leopard. As many in the group like to say, we were the luckiest bunch.
The Spiti Valley, during winters, is a hostile place where few dare to step foot. With low oxygen levels and extreme temperatures, it is almost uninhabitable. And all of us received an exhaustive prep list from The Road Less Travelled – the organisers of this luxury drive trail. A bible of what to do and what not, what to carry and how to ward against the vagaries of nature.
Day 1: Arriving in Chandigarh
All equipped, we landed in Chandigarh with expectation of a meeting with the Snow Leopard and apprehensions of what was to come our way on this adventure. We were welcomed by Shankar Da (Shankar Ganesh), our guiding light for this trip & an avid traveller himself, all our fears were allayed. The cherry on the cake: our rides for the trip.
This was to be a trip full of exhilarating adventure experienced in the best luxury possible and of course some great food on the way. And as promised, our first stop was for some good food at the Pal Dhaba in Chandigarh. On offer was Chicken Masala – a spicy chicken gravy with succulent meat coupled with Mutton Rara – a special Himachali gosht that made with garam masala and nutmeg. The Mutton Rara left us licking our fingers to the end. We topped it off with a lassi (not to be missed when in Punjab) and set out for our first destination – Kufri.
As we cruised along the highway, passing through one of the villages, we saw a couple of girls in salwar kameez and trainers – running like they were training for something. A quiet reminder of how Bollywood (read: Dangal) isn’t too unreal.
The scenic drive through Punjab and Haryana would be the last time we were going to see plains and drive on wide traffic-free roads for 7 days – a realization that hit us as soon as we entered Himachal. At the end of a 5 hour drive, we were at our first taste of indulgence on this travel: Hotel Royal Tulip. A great new property with impeccable service and great views – worthy of a 5 star.
The food we were served matched up to the standards. We relished a Himachali delicacy – the Kheru – a soup made out of curd alongwith Pahadi meat, Khurmani ke kofte and Brownie with ice cream to top it off.
Day2: Kufri to Kalpa
The view from our balcony in the morning was breathtaking and called for a chai out in the cold before we packed up to go. In a way, this was also preparation for the cold we were going to experience on this journey.
The Gypsy takes to the mountains as naturally as a fish takes to water. And fitted with the CEAT Czar AT tyres, it was a joy as we drove it to Narkanda – our first stop for skiing. Some time spent gearing up, a little more on instructions and we were zooming past each other on skiis and falling over like nine pins ever so often. A new skillset gained and a new experience attained – the first of the trip.
We stopped on the way at Rampur for a quick lunch before heading off to Kalpa – this time in the comfort of the Endeavor which, coupled with the CEAT tyres absorbed the worst shocks on a pretty rough road.
After the long day full of driving, we reached Kalpa which was freezing at -3 degrees. The weather outside was cold and the ice sleets on the short walk to the hotel made it tough to walk. But all that was forgotten as we were welcomed by our hosts at The Grand Shamba-La in Kalpa with some much needed hot tea. The Grand Shamba-La stands out as an oasis in the desert and we were all thankful to The Road Less Travelled for the fact that we were living there. The hotel has a fully equipped movie screening room with state of the art acoustics, a meditation centre with original Buddhist scriptures and an attic that was a storehouse of knowledge for all things mountain – from books on the land, the people and the flora & fauna.
This was also our first feel of the hospitality of The Road Less travelled. While water in the pipes was frozen, the team ensured that we never ran out of warm water to drink and wash and most importantly hot water bags to allow us to sleep snug at night. And the food served up by our TRLT chef for the trip, Negi-ji, was as good as you would expect out of a restaurant.
After an attempt to capture the milky way that was foiled by a glorious full moon, we decided to call it a night.
Day 3: Kalpa to Mane
We woke up to the sun streaming through the glass doors and windows. And the sight outside our windows was one of utter magnificence. The Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh gets its name from the Kinner Kailash Mountain. And the Kinner Kailash was shining in all its glory right in front of our eyes. And the morning was spent having tea while looking out at the Kinner Kailash in spite of the cold.
After a deeply satisfying morning with positive vibes of the mountains, we set off for our next destination: Mane.
While the drive to Kalpa was fairly comfortable, this is where the challenge began. We were driving along the Satluj along an almost untarred road. And we were encountering mild landslides and stones pattering the car roof. Our pace was slowed down, but the the Gypsy and Endeavor were still going strong – thanks to the hard work from team TRLT.
As we drove on, there was a stark difference in the landscape – rocky mountains gave way to sandy slopes. As you go higher, the oxygen and moisture levels deplete and stone formation slows down. We were now approaching the cold desert of Spiti.
Our first stop was a tea break on the bridge overlooking the Satluj-Spiti milan. The two rivers meet and become Satluj here on. The next stop – to our pleasant surprise – was the Nako helipad where we were served a casserole lunch that was still warm. A good lunch and some drifting on the snow-clad helipad later, we set off for our destination.
Enroute, we were getting closer to the Buddhist culture of Himachal. We encountered a Kora – stones with Buddhist inscriptions that people circumambulate. And then we did a quick visit of the Tabo monastery (which was sadly closed).
Crossing a Mahindra convoy of 12 cars, we rode along an absolutely frozen road up to our homestay for the day in Mane village. The homestay was a 10 minute walk at -18°C that froze us to our bones but then we stepped into a super warm house. The house was heated by a Bhukhari – a traditional furnace/chulha that is used for cooking and for keeping the house warm.
Tired and cold, we were served our delicious dinner – Chicken fry, Palak paneer and yellow daal – each better than the other. Looking back, we realize that the good food and warm hospitality was what kept us going in the harsh conditions we were enduring.
Day 4: Mane to Kibber via Dhankar
Everyone woke up excited, today we were going to our final destination – Kibber.
But before that, a little about Mane. It is a small village settles amongst snow-capped peaks on all sides. And our homestay had a open windows that looked out into the vast whiteness. In the morning, we were greeted by ice instead of water in the washrooms and icicles by the windows.
Equipped with dried apricots, we set out to take a tour of the village. It was a quaint place with friendly people who we engaged in a few conversations about their lives – getting quite some pearls of wisdom from them. But it was the young children heading to school that really brightened up our morning.
With the engines needing heating up, we finally left for Kibber a little late. This was going to be a cold 5-6 hour drive. And we were very well prepared for it with the TRLT team equipping each car with a basket – warm water, coffee, tea and snacks – all at arm’s length. The perfect luxury to have on a mountain drive.
On our way, we stopped over at Dhankar monastery – an ancient marvel that is situated at the base of a lotus with 8 mountains forming the petals. Meditating in the main prayer room is said to have healing effects on the body and for us, it was a truly calming experience.
Soul replenished, we headed to Kibber and were at our homestay withing 2 hours from Dhankar. While Kibber doesn’t have any hotels or homestays open during the winters, The Road Less Traveled had ensured that the best homestay in town was open for us. Nothing very fancy, but the old school interiors of rooms and the eco-toilet coupled with the family dining room (which was always warm) had its own rustic charm.
The night ended with some great Tibetan food – Thukpa, Momos and Chowmein. And with hot water bags and heaters in every room, the extreme cold (-23°C) wasn’t that big a bother anymore.
Day5: Snow Leopard Spotting in Kibber
And the day we were all waiting for was here. All worries and niggles from the previous days were forgotten as we set out on our Snow Leopard Trail. While this was our aim from the first day, we were hearing stories about how multiple groups in the past had failed to make a sighting and that had us a little worried.
But we were the luckiest bunch of people to have visited the Snow Leopard land. Within 30 minutes of us setting out, the trackers had spotted an old lady – An 11 year old snow leopard that was gorging on a dead donkey.
As we reached the location, we were taken in by the grandeur of this creature. This one was about 5-6 feet long with a tail that was possibly longer than the body (a Snow Leopard’s tail helps it balance and make swift turns while maintaining a steady pace). Everyone stood still for a few moments – admiring the sight that was in front of us. By this time, the old lady had drank the blood of the donkey – giving it a high and making it sleep. I say we were the luckiest bunch because we saw this snow leopard from about 10 metres away – an extremely rare sighting.
A steep 45 degree climb back up from the cliff had us huffing and puffing. But as soon as we reached the top, we were served our lunch – piping hot garlic soup and biryani. The garlic soup is an essential in these climes as it helps the body get over altitude sickness.
Post lunch, we set out on another round of chasing the snow leopards. This time there were 2 but they were a little far off – on the opposite cliff from our viewpoint.
Both Snow Leopards were asleep and we had to wait out in the snow for about 2 hours before we saw any action.
An ibex had strayed out of its pack and unaware of the Snow Leopard, it was slowly approaching the sleeping cat. As we sat there with bated breath, through our binoculars and cameras, we could see the Snow Leopard slowly come alive from its slumber and prepare for its prey. It yawned and stretched and then fixed its eyes on its prey.
As the Ibex drew closer, the Snow Leopard was taking silent, measure steps to move closer. This had now become a National Geographic style drama with our hearts racing in anticipation of what was going to happen.
When the Snow Leopard was about to attack, we heard a loud call – probably from the Ibex pack that alerted the to-be prey about the danger that lay ahead. Aware and scared, the Ibex made two quick vertical jumps over two cliffs and ran for its life. The Snow Leopard could only watch as it gave up on what would have been a futile chase. Much to our disappointment, it returned to its original perch and once again, decided it was time to rest.
Tired and almost-frostbitten, we returned to the homestay to hot tea and an amazing dinner of Greek salad (which was absolutely delicious), pasta and Pizza (which was made without an oven). We also had the privilege of witnessing a cultural show by the natives. They sang songs about the mountains and about love & loss – all leaving us craving for more.
Day 6: Kibber to Kalpa
By now it had been 4 blissful days out of network for us and thanks to the beauty around us, we were never even aware of it. We had truly come to accept life without phones and internet. There was enough and more to do and see.
But the extreme weather and lack of oxygen had taken a toll on most of us. Having accomplished the Snow Leopard sighting, we decided to leave a day early from Kibber and head back to the lower altitude of Kalpa.
On the way back, we crossed the beautiful Key Monastery – a beautiful structure built on the mountain. Truly a marvel for the era it was built in.
As we reached Kalpa, the weather was warmer and the higher oxygen levels were giving us a spurt of energy. We spent the night on the rooftop looking at the Milky Way and spotting shooting stars.
Post an exquisite Mutton & Paneer dinner coupled with lots of stories, we all got some much needed sleep.
Day 7: Relaxing at Kalpa
Once again we had the chance to absorb the beauty of the Kinner Kailash from our rooms. This was going to be a well-deserved rest day for us. A good Paneer Parantha breakfast gave us enough energy to do a trek to the Dalhousie cottage situated atop a mountain in Kalpa.
After the small trek, we rested a little more and the evening was spent listening to good music and playing card & board games. Dinner was special as we were served another Himachali speciality – Siddu – a dish made of khus and atta served with sweet and spicy chutney.
Day 8 & 9: To Shimla & home bound
The final drive to Shimla was like home stretch for us. Enroute we stopped at Chotiwala Dhaba – a small hole-in-the-wall place with great food – to have Makke ki roti and Sarson ka saag along with some of the tastiest Rajma-chawal we had ever had.
Hotel East Borne – our last hotel for the trip was one of the remnants of India’s colonial past. An old school hotel that did not compromise on space and luxury. This is a huge hotel built on the edge of Shimla, near the Secretariat that gives you the best of both worlds – architecture from the past refurbished well to keep the place modern enough.
Dinner was planned at the famous Cafe Shimla Times – another Shimla classic that almost never fails to give a good experience. Always crowded, the best part of CST is the live music that is played. We thoroughly enjoyed the music coupled with a delicious dinner of Thai Basil Chili Chicken, Shawarmas and Burritos.
The last day was our drive back to Delhi through the hills, back to the plains of Punjab. A quick lunch at Haveli and we were ready to go home – to the comfort of our own beds.
The Trip of a Lifetime
For many of us, this was a first in terms of adventure and the hills. Yet, we never felt that we were experiencing some of the most hostile environments on earth – thanks to team TRLT. Their arrangements were truly luxurious all through & their eye to detail was impeccable. This experience will definitely stay with us for a long, long time.
To know more about The Road Less Travelled, you could visit them at www.theroadlesstravelled.in or give them a shout – Shankar Ganesh (+91 9821020317) or Vinayta Raheja (+91 98203 69058)