#The Snow Leopard Trail

When I was packing my luggage with trepidation and uncertainty, considering that this was my very first adventure trip, I could only think of cold weathers, lifestyle changes, food troubles, stomach troubles and not to mention elusive wild creatures.  I asked myself “Why did I plan this trip?” I should have probably stayed with a small trek around Mumbai. But, in my heart I knew that I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to get away from the city and challenge myself to achieve something that I had not done so far. Reminding myself of this, I set the alarm and went to sleep. The next morning, the thoughts were the same. The butterflies made all their motions in my stomach till the time I stepped outside Chandigarh airport and saw the smiling TRLT team member welcoming me.

From thereon, my trip was a dream.

I met my fellow travelers for the first time. We were six of us – each one from interesting and different walks of life. We set out in two gyspies (considered one of the best navigators in such off road terrains) and a 4×4 Ford Endeavour. Our first stop, was lunch at the iconic Pal Dhaba in Chandigarh. A full meal comprising of saag, mutton, chicken and more, washed down with lassi. We hit the road.

I consider myself a fairly good driver but I had never driven along new terrains especially along the route to Spiti Valley. The TRLT team invited us to drive the vehicles along the route, whenever we felt like it. I jumped at the opportunity and drove both, the Gypsy and the Endeavour. The best part was that we were travelling in a convoy and there was a driver sitting in the rear of each vehicle. So while we drove all through the picturesque routes, the drivers took charge along mundane or busy roads. With the vehicles being well stocked with a picnic basket, flasks of hot water and masala chai sachets, it was a picnic all the way through.

Spiti Valley

As we left the plains of Punjab and stepped into the hills, the weather turned cool on our route to Kufri. I had seen Shimla only in movies especially 3 Idiots, but at sundown as Shimla came over the horizon, with the moon rising in the background I let out a sigh of wonderment, and tried to seep in the moment lest I don’t see it again. We reached our hotel ROYAL TULIP in Kufri. The TRLT team had completed our check in formalities before our arrival and without a moments gap we were in the comforts of our room. I was amazed at the planning and detailing for comfort and care, by the organizers. This was not just a Kufri moment, but something that the TRLT team gave us every single moment of this trip.

After a hot bath we left for dinner. As promised, the local cuisine started appearing. Soup was a local Himachali yoghurt based preparation – Kheru. It was delicious. The entire meal, including the dessert, was topnotch.

Kheru

The following morning we left for Kinnaur Valley. The roads were beautiful and wide, with the pleasure of a drive and scenery to accompany. However, towards the afternoon, as we neared the district capital of Rekong Peo, the roads started proving difficult. The Border Roads Organisation, were constructing roads at a furious pace, and this landslide prone area, refused to offer much of a view. But then, as we drove towards Kalpa, where we halted for the night, the air was reverberating with an energy which was only akin to the formidable Kinner Kailash range. That full moon night, when we reached Kalpa, the sight of the moonlight shimmering in the snow left us breathless, gasping for more beauty.

Kinnaur Valley

We stayed at The Grand Shambhala – a charming beautiful boutique hotel overlooking the Kinner Kailash range. The temperature was a freezing -10 degrees. But like I said, the TRLT team just continued to ensure that we feel the best. All the rooms were equipped with heaters. The chefs conjured up a full meal comprising of salad, papad, dal, vegetables, chicken, roti and rice, and fresh dessert. The food seemed to be surpassing the high standards every single day. Despite the daunting environment conditions and adversity, the TRLT team managed to provide us with luxury through the entire drive.

Grand Shambhala hotel

I was looking forward to the frozen Nako lake, which was apparently halfway between Kalpa and Mane. Yes, I know a frozen lake should be expected on a frozen route to a frozen valley with frozen, sorry, the only living thing that’s probably way too comfortable in the freeze. But yet, the sight was like ‘Yo and behold.’ It was breathtaking. We literally drove through the road less travelled and probably lesser driven on. But shortly thereafter, as the roads obliged and scenic beauty continued to pamper through our progress to Nako, we were treated to some very interesting views of the Himalayan Red Fox.  At Nako, after savouring the sight for a little longer, we found ourselves sitting on chairs with tables, on a snow covered helipad, all set up by the TRLT team for our picnic lunch by the lake. With the sun beating down, we were on a cliff, with the frozen Nako lake to one side and piping hot food on the other.

Frozen Nako Lake

We crossed the frozen Malang Nala adjoining the Malang glacier before reaching the Tabo Monastery. This beautiful monastery was set in the middle of the village. Though we could not go inside the monastery, we spent time enjoying the serenity of the space. As we drove to Mane that night, the roads were completely covered in snow. We spent an hour navigating through the twists and turns of snow-covered roads. Our stay in Mane, a village of just over 30 families, was a charming homestay. Here we met our guide for the snow leopard spotting – LARA. He is a legend in these parts and is considered one of the most successful guides when it comes to Leopard spotting. The homestay was simple, and with a temperature of -18 degrees, the Bukhari (traditional Ladakhi heating system) kept as warm in body and mind.

At Tabo Monastery

If the night appeared snowy, the morning was a thick sheet of white, till as far as your eyes could see. The snow nearly blinded us with its magnificence. We not only ventured out but also walked around the village interacting with the locals and children – all bright and peppy as they headed to school on a cold winter of -10 degree temperature morning. Hot toast with butter/ nutella, omelettes, poha, masala chai and muesli filled us up. The reported temperature there was -23 degrees. We decided to complete one important activity before the Snow leopard stretch. Dhankar village boasted of their palace that stands testimony of a glorious era gone by. More beautiful and pristine was the Dhankar Monastery overlooking the confluence of the Pin and the Spiti river, which in turn goes on to join the Sutlej. We soaked in the breathtaking view and spent time meditating as well. The monastery also serves as a seminary where local children can educate themselves in the religious texts and we did see quite a few of the children seated, reciting the religious texts.

Dhankar Monastery

The last leg of our onward journey took us to Kibber, where we reached at night. We were at 13900 ft. above msl. Vinayta, our TRLT co-explorer had us all excited as she spoke about the snow leopards visiting the village at night in search of their prey. Our hopes soared with the possibility of a good sighting.

We were woken up early because apparently, Snow Leopards had been spotted. We got read, put on our gaters (over our pants & shoes – designed to prevent snow from going into our shoes) and stepped out, ready to walk through 2 ft. of snow. We trudged along for nearly a kilometre out of KIbber village, with our cameras and go pros ready. We had some food and tea ready with our guides, just incase the trail was longer than what we anticipated.

Snow Leopard

Suddenly, our rather cool guides started motioning to us frantically. THE SNOW LEOPARD HAD BEEN SPOTTED!!!! HALLELUIAH. The next few seconds were brisk movements to get to the right spot, and there she was – Beautiful, Majestic & full of grace, A MERE 10 metres AWAY FROM US. And just besides her, was her kill. She was pleased with herself, and cuddling up to a good, well-deserved rest. I still could not believe my eyes. I had finally laid eyes on the much spoken about, gorgeous, elusive cat. We spent the next hour happy clicking pictures and capturing our moment of joy. With humans around, can the ubiquitous SELFIE be far away. Several clicks later, guides who had gone in the other directions came back reporting the sighting of more Snow Leopards. That really was luck in our favour. After about 15 minutes of maneuvering through the snow, we spotted two more snow leopards, on the opposite ridge, walking and scanning their familiar surroundings. We were separated from these beauties by just one large gorgeous canyon.

Snow Leopard

Can one ever have their hearts fill when faced with beauty? I don’t know. I surely felt that I could stay there forever. Just watching and wanting more! We returned to our homestay with some memories in our camera and some in our minds eye. Some that we could share and some that are beyond compare.

The next morning we left for the fossil village, Langza, when we were informed that the road to the village was snowed out. Langza is a reminder of the time, nearly 10000 years ago when the African and Asian plateaus collided to form the Himalayas. The area in between the two plateaus was a sea and during this formation, a lot of marine life got fossilized in rock. Souvenirs of this age are available freely in Langza. So we decided to go back to Kalpa. With a day of relaxation an general looking around, the evening was dedicated to the ethereal sunset over Kinner Kailash, a classic high energy moment that we had been waiting for.

Kalpa Village

The following morning, after some awesome food at Chotiwala, we headed for Shimla. The roads were back to being the best and we raced back via Narkanda to Shimla. Our rooms had been booked at the Eastbourne Hotel – a charming colonial style hotel in Old Shimla, surrounded by Pine forests. We were craving for a hot water bath. The weather so far was so biting cold, that a bath was a far cry from the desire of the heart. We spent our evening at Café Shimla times and celebrated the end of an iconic trip.

As I sipped on my wine, I looked around the table at this amazing group of people I had met on my first adventure trip. Unlike me, almost all of them were adventure and travel enthusiasts. They were able to reaffirm their love for new experiences and I was able to confirm my spot with the likeminded. We raised a toast to the spotting of the snow leopard, some absolute spell binding views and to TRLT for the most comfortable and well cared for trip that any of us had ever been to.  The smile on my face turned to a broad grin, reaching my eyes, and I envisaged planning my next exploration.

 

PEN NAME : PENDULUM

(DEEPA SHANKAR)

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