LADAKH – A different view

Text : Moushumi Ghosh | Photographs : Dhritiman Mukherjee . . . . .

LADAKH


Text : Moushumi Ghosh

Travel Consultant, Travel Writer

 

 

Photographs : Dhritiman Mukherjee

Nature and Wildlife Photographer

 


This summer, explore Ladakh from a different perspective, one that is environment – friendly and takes you several steps closer to nature…

Homestays as a concept, though still fairly new, have made their positive impact on tourism across India. But while in some regions homestays spell authentic and increased interaction with the local culture, Ladakh has taken it several steps ahead. Here, in the highest Trans Himalayas, homestays contribute to the native communities’ efforts to preserve Ladakh’s endangered wildlife and promote sustainable tourism. As we set out to traverse one of the world’s most coveted roads, the Manali – Leh Highway, it was our intention to see Ladakh from a different perspective — that of wildlife. I did not know on that chilly morning that my decision to tag along with some wildlife enthusiasts and friends to see the Black-Necked Cranes would indeed pay off so beautifully.

THE JOURNEY :

While the 480-odd kilometers weave their way across rugged roads and spectacularly altering landscapes, nothing quite prepared me for Rohtang Pass, the first of the high passes en route. The 13,051 ft-high pass is more of a high-altitude garbage dump than the pristine pit stop I had previously envisioned; it is, in fact, a prime example of tourists who deem it ‘okay’ to leave behind plastic bottles and snack wrappers in alpine meadows.

After the descent from Rohtang, the road passes through the green orchards of Keylong and other parts of Lahaul Valley, on to Darcha, the last permanent settlement of Himachal Pradesh on this side. Sarchu, a tented camp along the two states’ border, is where most tourists break their journey for a sleepless night of bitter cold and jaw-dropping beauty, and so did we. We crossed the difficult

patch of Pang the next morning, followed by Taglang La (the second-highest motorable pass at 17,469 ft) and finally reached Leh in the evening.

Once in Leh, instead of opting for one of the hundreds of guesthouses popular amongst backpackers, we checked into a comfortable homestay that completely altered my Ladakh experience. The family introduced us to the region’s rich culture and heritage, while pampering us with home-food and good vibes. Besides setting up wildlife conservation funds and utilizing solar power, the Ladakh homestay setup also offers naturalist guides who can show tourists around. This made for a perfect base as we set out to explore Ladakh’s unique flora and fauna.

Out first date was with the Shey Marshes, which are close to Leh and hence easy to cover while one gets acclimatized to the rarefied air. It was a rewarding day, as we spotted almost 50 species of birds, including Hume’s Lesser Whitethroat, Hume’s Short-toed Lark, Common Rosefinch, Blue Rock Thrush, Common Coot, Eurasian Hobby, Booted Eagle, Common Tern, Plain Mountain Finch and Rock Bunting.

CHANGTHANG COLD DESERT SANCTUARY :

Our next destination was the Changthang Cold Desert Sanctuary, which is situated to the south-east of Leh. The average altitude of the sanctuary is 5,000m, and the road here winds its way through the barren valley dotted with least vegetation and several Changpas, the nomadic people of the region. Our driver Norbu informed us that their livelihood mostly depends upon livestock, particularly sheep and goats. During summer the entire family moves about from one place to the other in search of greener pastures. However, we were quite amused to observe expensive cars parked beside most of the Changpa shelters, which, we figured, must be a whole deal more comfortable to migrate in as opposed to horsebacks.

Upon reaching Tso Kar, we parked our car at a distance and walked around the lake in search of the Black Necked Crane and other birds. To our utter disappointment we found hundreds of cattle grazing around the lake but hardly a single crane in sight. It was fairly evident that no bird would dare to nest in this grazing ground. As we set out on the rugged road to a nearby village to camp for the night, we saw a Tibetan Wild Ass, locally called Kyang. The encounter lasted less than 10 seconds, as the beautiful chestnut-coloured animal stood observing us from a distance, and upon sensing our approach galloped away, vanishing into the arid landscape.

We camped just beside the road below the village. A few inhabitants of this region peeped out from their holes observing us and vanished. The small animals were mouse hares, apparently known as Ladakh Pikas. Two of my friends went searching for cranes in the nearby wetland while the rest of us set camp and enjoyed the beautiful, barren valley. It was getting dark, the chicken curry was almost ready, and we would cook the rice next. The sun and the sliced moon were playing hide and seek in the sky, the vast valley was looking magical, and suddenly we heard the excited voices of our friends. They had found a couple of Black Necked Cranes.

We observed the cranes throughout the morning of the next day, and even managed to locate their nests. There were two large creamish-yellow brown speckled eggs in the nest and the birds were completely relaxed, alternately wandering about and feeding and incubating the eggs. It was a wonder that these majestic Black Necked Cranes would walk though the cold high-altitude marshes, in this wild and unconquered land.

My birder friends told me that generally these birds are encountered in high altitude open wetlands; they are shy and vigilant, especially during reproduction — the slightest suspicion makes them leave the nest, or while in company of chicks, are hardly approachable to closer than 200m. Black Necked Cranes are found in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in India. The birds arrive in clearly defined pockets in far eastern Changthang region at the altitude between 4,100-4,700 m. They usually depart again by late October, but their migration route and wintering grounds are still unknown. The main conservation threats of these critically endangered Black Necked Cranes are loss and degradation of habitat.

We thought of not disturbing the illusive birds for long and planned to drive down to Tsomoriri Lake without any further delay. During ourjourney, we spotted the Tibetan partridge, few Chukars, a Himalayan Snow Cock, and a little owl.

THE WETLANDS :

Tsomoriri, the magnificent high-altitude lake, is one of the largest and highest in the Himalayas at 25 km long and 6-7 km wide. This is the breeding ground for Bar Headed Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Brown Headed Gull and Ruddy Shelduck. Other birds we saw here were Common Teal, Sand Plover and Common Terns. Previously, Black Necked Cranes used to breed here, but they have not been seen anywhere around the lake since the last five years.

We spent the night in a homestay in a Ladakhi tribal home in Korzok village loftily perched at 14,600 ft. The star-studded canopy, the sparkling waves of the gigantic lake, the barren land and the hills around had created an othernworldly atmosphere. Morning arrived and we set out to wander around the lake watching birds. At about 11:00 am in the morning we started our journey back to Leh. We intended to see the famous Hemis festival at the Hemis Monastery next day.

NUBRA VALLEY :

Our next mission was to see the endangered Bactrian Camels in the Nubra Valley. We started descending towards Nubra Valley after a short halt at Khardung La, renowned as the world’s highest motorable pass, an intimidating one at that. Nubra, unlike the other places of Ladakh, is a green valley, and on the way we spotted quite a few Himalayan Marmots. Marmots are the largest rodents in India; they look very cute with short, coarse buff-grey yellow fur on their body. We also found Bharal or Blue Sheeps, which look like sheep but their horns grow upwards, curve out and then towards the back. They stay in the crags and mountainous areas. After taking few photographs of Bharal we moved ahead.

Our destination was Hunder. It took an hour from Deskit; the approach road weaves across sand dunes and rocky hills. Hunder is like an oasis, a small settlement shaded by the green of the orchards, the red of the apples, the diverse colours of flowers, butterflies and hill birds. We walked down to the sand dunes, trekked for several hours and located the Bactrian Camels, a flock of them. The Bactrian Camel has two humps and is found exclusively in Ladakh as far as India goes. The next few days were spent here in Nubra chasing butterflies and camels.

Norbu was waiting with the car on the road beside the sand dunes. We got into the car and started our journey back to Leh through the amazing valley.

As we started our journey back to Leh and onwards home, I made plans to return to the Ladakhi wonderland. I enjoyed the land, the harsh environment and the bounty of endemic wildlife with viewings of some of the rarest animals and birds. I would come back in winters again, to see the life of people in this cold desert and mountainous land. I would walk

on the frozen rivers and through the barren valleys. And then I would go to the Hemis National Park in search of one of the most illusive cats, The King of the Wild Ladakh” — the Snow Leopard.

QUICK FACTS :

GETTING THERE :

By Air: Jet Airways has daily flights to Leh from Delhi. By Road: Manali and Srinagar are well-connected by road to Leh, although Manali is the more popular starting point. Regular tourist buses and shared jeeps leave from Manali for Leh every day during season time. Cabs and bikes are available on hire as well.

ACCOMMODATION  :

Hotels, guesthouses and luxury camps are readily available in and around Leh, and in most popular tourist destinations such as Nubra Valley. However, as mentioned above, homestays are a great way to understand local culture, help the native communities develop sustainable tourism and explore wildlife and nature. Himalayan Homestays, supported by The Mountain Institute and UNESCO, is a well-known organization that arranges homestays and contributes to the Snow Leopard Conservancy. For further details, visit www.himalayan-homestays.com and www.snowleopardconservancy.org

FOR MORE INFORMATION :

Log on to www.jktourism.org

 

 

 

 

Image © Dhritiman Mukherjee