An explorer ventures deep into the wilderness of the remote Spiti Valley, within India’s Himalayan region, for a captivating tryst with one of the rarest creatures known to mankind.
By RIYANKA ROY
I SIMPLY LOVE BEING AMIDST mountains. And so, it’s only natural that Spiti Valley, an ethereal haven sitting cosily in the Himalayan ranges of Himachal Pradesh, holds a special place in my heart and on my bucket list. I had long been intrigued by Spiti, which translates to ‘The Middle Land’ in the local language, referencing its location between Tibet and India. Given my fascination, I often found myself glued to videos online, not only mesmerised by the region’s transformation into a snowy paradise during the colder months (when temperatures fall to a bone-chilling–20 degrees Celsius), but also with its most famous and secretive inhabitant. So, when the opportunity to visit this destination, along with five of my close friends, presented itself, we all dove headfirst into the plans and preps. But this epic adventure wasn’t going to be an ordinary road trip to the mountains; it was an expedition to come face to face with one of the most endangered species on the planet!
It was bright and early when we set off for the ‘Snow Leopard Expedition’, as we all decided to name the seven-day driving tour, from Shimla. Our final destination? Kibber, a quaint, tiny village, home to the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and one of India’s most iconic cats. Excited and clad in our warmest winter wear, we headed out and upwards from the popular hill station, winding our way past picturesque locales like Kufri, Fagu, Theog, Narkanda, and other quaint villages dotting the slopes.
As our driver effectively navigated the first stretch, we left behind the chaos and cacophony of the towns and made our way to Sarahan, hailed as ‘the Gateway to Kinnaur,’ and boasting one of the oldest settlements along the Indo-Tibetan Road, with roots tracing back to the 15th century. It was already dark by the time we reached our homestay at 6PM, and we gladly cosied up inside the blankets, with the heaters turned on, and called it a day. The next morning, we resumed our journey, traversing treacherous, snow-covered routes with steep cliffs on one side and deep caverns on the other. A glimpse of the mighty Reo Purgyil, the state’s highest mountain, was an awe-inspiring highlight. It was late in the afternoon when we reached Nako, a village near the Indo-China border, at an altitude of 3,636 metres. Exhausted yet excited, we stepped out into the deep snow to explore the local monastery. On returning to our homestay, we were greeted by a warm meal of rice and apple curry. Simply delightful!
We started early the next day for Tabo, home to one of India’s oldest monasteries, dating back to 996 AD. Once there, we gulped down cups of sea buckthorn tea, and headed over to the monastery complex, soaking in the last rays of the sun. A sense of anticipation lingered in the air. Everyone was contemplating the possibility of spotting snow leopards, yet no one spoke of it—perhaps we were too scared
to jinx it.
Day Four and we found ourselves navigating our way through Kaza, the bustling heart of Spiti Valley, and finally reached Kibber, hopefully seeing some of the rarest species on the planet, including the red fox, ibex, and the focus of my adventure: the snow leopards or ‘ghost cats’.
“Only one per cent of the global population has been fortunate enough to witness these elusive ghost cats in their natural habitat,” someone in the group informed us on our first evening there, in between slurps of steaming thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup). We were gathered around a bukhara (fireplace) at the Zotpa Hostel owned by Lama Tenzing, who helped us plan our expedition along with our trusted guide, Dorjee. I’m sure we all prayed to be those
Playing Hide and Seek The next morning, the sun beamed bright, casting a deceptive warmth over the frosty –15 degrees Celsius landscape. Stashing some snacks into my backpack and cocooned in several layers of warm clothing, we began our tryst at 8AM, learning that two snow leopards had been sighted nearby.
Following in Dorjee’s footsteps for about five kilometres, we found ourselves in the heart of the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, amid a gathering of avid photographers, all drawn to this spot from various corners of the world. After another half-kilometre trek, we glided down the slope, reaching a vantage point where the elusive snow leopards could supposedly be spotted. Standing at the edge of the cliff, we listened intently as our fellow travellers, who had been there for a while, shared their sighting of a female snow leopard on the opposite mountain, now hiding within a cave. Dorjee and the other guides led us through thick snow on our mountain for a vantage point to see the enigmatic creature. And we waited with bated breath!
As the sun ascended in the sky, its rays intensified, scorching our exposed skin, oddly juxtaposed against the chilly winds that numbed our senses. Despite our unwavering motivation, there were moments when the thought of retreating to the warmth of our homestay crept into my mind. During the wait, some red foxes and blue sheep were spotted, but their presence failed to captivate anyone that day (though, I must add, they are beautifully mystical creatures, too!). Every eye remained fixed on the cave in the hope that the snow leopard would emerge from its rocky refuge, as I kept
questioning my luck!
Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
Fuelled by cups of chai, I persevered through nearly six hours of waiting. Suddenly, the guides uttered “shin, shin!” (‘snow leopard’ in the local language), signalling the presence of a male cat on another neighbouring mountain. However, reaching a spot from where we could see it clearly required ascending and descending another half kilometre on our cliff —a prospect that left me filled with doubt and trepidation. What if the leopard vanished before I reached? Despite my scepticism, I followed my friends, now 10 steps ahead, spurred on by the promise of a glimpse of the cat.
And my patience was rewarded! Blending seamlessly into its environs, the creature was sunbathing, almost invisible to the naked eye. I adjusted the binoculars and zoomed in. And there, a mere 200 meters away, sat this exceptional animal, utterly indifferent to the humans who had gathered to witness this extraordinary sight.
Just as I was settling into the thrill of the moment, a fresh wave of excitement swept through the crowd. Four magnificent snow leopards, a mother accompanied by three cubs, gracefully emerged from their slumber in the afore-mentionend cave. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me, and despite being breathless, I quickened my pace, wanting to reach the vantage point from where I could see them. It felt as if their gaze locked with ours— eye to eye. Goosebumps covered my skin as the encounter surpassed all expectations. I recorded the time—3:30PM—to be noted in my memory book for posterity!
Parting Notes Of Glory
On that unforgettable day, I was utterly spellbound by the wonders of Mother Nature. We stayed there, till the sun dipped below the horizon, capturing the breathtaking scenes on our cameras, and allowing the captivating views to work their magic on our souls. It was a surreal experience, one where time seemed to stand still. And although the day seemed like one of the longest of my life, my heart brimmed with satisfaction. There was a strange sense of gratitude for the privilege of being alive to witness nature’s wonders, for possessing the strength to endure breathlessness at 15,000 feet above sea level, for being amid humble co-travellers, and for having wonderful friends who happily embarked on this remarkable journey with me. As the evening unfolded, we found ourselves gathered around the bukhara at Lama Tenzing’s welcoming abode yet again, relishing the warmth and exchanging tales of the truly exhilarating day. Amid shared laughter and stories, my friend couldn’t resist underlining the fact that we, too, had officially joined the exclusive one per cent of the world’s population fortunate enough to lay eyes on the elusive snow leopards. It seems prayers do come true!