Spiti – In the Land Of The Grey Ghost
Ajith Devakumar visits Spiti in its whitest splendour hoping to lay eyes on one of the most mysterious animals on the planet, the snow leopard. Though he fails to sight one, he has other magical experiences and vows to return for more.
Photo: Ajith Devakumar.
“Who in their right mind would attempt something like this?” was the question I heard most often in the lead up to my trip into the Spiti Valley – it’s a frozen wilderness, a high-altitude cold desert in the Trans-Himalayan region between India and Tibet. Located in northeastern Himachal Pradesh, Spiti is closed for five months of the year because the landscape is blanketed under heavy snow, with temperatures often dropping to -25 0C. I chose to visit towards the end of March, when winter would be in retreat, but the weather would still be biting cold.
One way or the other, I ended up spending a week in the mountains on an epic adventure. I went in search of the snow leopard, a cat so elusive that it is justifiably the stuff of legend.
Photo: Rahul Rao.
THE FIRST LEG
Reaching Kaza, the epicentre of Spiti and its largest town, involved a two-day journey from Shimla through some of the most impassable roads imaginable. We had to stop at least thrice to clear landslides along the way. Because it’s so close to the Chinese border (the Sumdo check post manned by Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol is only 35 km. from the international border) foreigners must carry an ‘Inner Line Permit’. And distances are measured in hours, not kilometres. The rule of thumb is to give yourself a buffer of six to eight hours to account for time lost to “acts of God”. Trans-shipments – where you get off one vehicle, walk across a landslide hit section and get into another are a way of life here.
I followed the advice given to newcomers in letter and spirit. On reaching Kaza (3,650 m. above sea-level), I stayed overnight at a homestay, to acclimatise and avoid that awful condition called acute mountain sickness (AMS), before moving onward to Kibber.
When I got to Kaza, a bustling town in summer, I saw it wearing a deserted look at this time of the year. I picked up supplies to add to my survival kit, including biscuits and the ubiquitous Maggi noodles, before hitting the road to Kibber village (4,270 m. above sea-level) located on an escarpment just below the Kanamo Peak (5,964 m. above sea level). This was to be my base for the week. Sitting in the warmth of your home, Sanctuary readers are unlikely to fully comprehend just how cold it can be up there. Just one foray into the snow, in search of wildlife, any wildlife, and I found myself aching to return to the warmth of my homestay room, with the inviting cup of hot tea that is automatically offered to all who come in from the cold. Close to Kaza, and with an office of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in the village, Kibber is a popular choice for researchers and photographers alike.
Photo: Ajith Devakumar.
CITY BOY, TOUGH LIFE
I soon got used to dry pit toilets and angling my cellphone in precarious positions so that a weak signal could be picked up. Spitians, who must deal with such visitor idiosyncrasies on a daily basis, are warm and fun-loving people who literally laugh their way through the bitter cold and obvious hardships.
Given the harsh living conditions, there is a symbiotic relationship between human inhabitants and the fauna of this region. Not surprisingly, one can see the evidence of wildlife around the village itself. My very first walk revealed a Himalayan red fox that stared back at me with intense curiosity for close to half a minute before vanishing into a ravine.
When I wandered four or five kilometres beyond the village, I found myself struggling through knee-deep snow. I was exhausted within moments. But the ever so brief sighting of the red fox earlier in the day had triggered my resolve and I kept my eyes glued to my binoculars, scanning for any kind of movement amidst the rock fissures in the landscape around me. The haze and snowdrift kept fogging my spectacles and the challenge, I discovered, was how to figure out a way to clean my lenses without suffering frostbite on my exposed fingers! That’s how cold it was! It was as I was fiddling around with my spectacles, that a movement in the distance caught my local companion and guide’s eye. Instantly the adrenalin kicked in. Were we in luck? The movement turned out to be a herd of foraging Himalayan ibex. I was delighted! They cut across our path and allowed us to observe them for over 30 minutes. Our spirits up, we stayed around for another couple of hours in the undulating terrain. But we had no luck and had to return to base satisfied with that one sighting.
Photo: Ajith Devakumar.
GREAT LANDSCAPE, ROUGH WEATHER
I woke to a straight-out-of-a-Christmas-card morning, blessed by patches of blue sky and bright sunshine. A fortifying breakfast of Tibetan bread, saw us head up to the Chomling plateau, a six kilometre hike from Kibber. It took me two laborious hours, but for my local companions it was just another ‘stroll in the park’. As I looked around me, I could see that one side of the plateau opened up to the Rong Nala gorge, and on the other side was a steep ridge. This was probably the closest I could hope to get to a ‘snow leopard highway’ (if such a thing exists!). I had done my homework and knew that as many as eight gorgeous individual snow leopards shared this terrain. Settling down, equipment around me, I began the fairly monotonous exercise of scanning the ridge, using my binoculars and camera-mounted long lenses. It was a lesson in patience and put in perspective the utter rarity of actually seeing a snow leopard in the wild. After a few hours of gazing intently at nothing in particular I managed to spot a herd of bharal, the primary prey of the snow leopard. My purpose intensified as I willed the legendary predator to move out from its shadows. But that was not to be. Day soon turned to dusk. It was time to begin the long trek back to base, the walk was embellished by the briefest sighting of a Great Rosefinch, the only splash of colour in an otherwise brown and white canvas.
Day three in the valley dawned with a sliver of sunlight, which soon turned to cloud. I began the long trek up to the Rong Nala gorge earlier than usual (seven a.m. as against 8.30 a.m.), to take advantage of the access offered by the frozen snow. This day was much like the one before, with just one sighting of a distant Golden Eagle and a flock of Tibetan Sandgrouse. We chose to walk further up the escarpment until we came to a ledge where the clear spoor of a snow leopard in the form of scat and scrape marks was on display. The place did appear to be a regular haunt of the ‘boss’ and our guide pointed out a hoof of a bharal that had been excreted, undigested, by the cat. Just walking in its home, filled the air with anticipation. We felt as though our quarry was right there somewhere, but refused to be seen. The trek back mirrored my dark mood.
One look outside my window early next morning and my heart was filled with dismay. It was a whiteout. The dark clouds from the previous evening had unburdened about four inches (10 cm.) of fresh snow all around us and it continued to pile up high as I very tentatively stepped out to test the ground on which I contemplated walking. The visibility was a mere 30 m. All plans to trek to the Rong Nala gorge were abandoned. But I could not resign myself to just sitting inside, ruing the fact that a whole day was lost. Instead, I decided to walk the circuit to Chicham village. And again ran into a red fox that bolted deep into a ravine after throwing me its trademark, very intense stare. The weather continued to play spoil-sport for the next two days. Defeated, I was forced to abandon any dream of further treks and began to pack for the journey back to Kaza.
Carrying our bag outside to load into the car, I was amused to see a huge stove, connected to an LPG gas cylinder, hooked on to the Sumo engine to warm it up. A large crowd had gathered around for what I thought was the typical Spitian way of saying goodbye to their guests. It was not so. The entire crowd of about 15 people began piling into the Sumo instead! It seems that on account of the deep snow on the road, we needed to weigh down the vehicle to prevent it from skidding. The strategy worked and after some hair-raising turns we made it back to Kaza in one piece. From here we began our long journey back home. No, I never saw a snow leopard, forget photographing one, but the homestay experience, the hikes along some of the most pristine habitats in the country and exploring that surreal landscape was unforgettable. Back in Shimla, I swore I would soon return to the stark wilderness of the Spiti Valley.
Photo: Ajith Devakumar.
THE KIBBER WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
On the right bank of the Spiti river, sprawling across 1,400 sq. km. of cold desert, lies the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary. Despite being a high-altitude desert, the sanctuary boasts an astounding variety of flora and fauna. From rare medicinal plants, to mammals like the lynx, pika, snow leopard and Tibetan wild ass, and birds like the Himalayan Snowcock and Bearded Vulture, the sanctuary also offers breathtaking views of the region’s peaks – Chau-cahu Khanamo and Chau chau Khan Nilda – and is accessible by road from Lhalung, Langza and Kibber village.
Also located in Spiti on the left bank of the Spiti river and covering an area of 675 sq. km., is the Pin Valley National Park. The stark, barren landscape of this park occasionally gives way to alpine meadows that in summer put forth myriad wild flowers. Pin Valley is home to several species of rare fauna such as the wooly hare, Tibetan gazelle, blue sheep, Asiatic ibex and of course, the snow leopard.
Photo: Ajith Devakumar.
Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti district, is only accessible by road from either Manali or Shimla. The road from Manali via the Rohtang and Kunzum passes is open in summer, whilst the Shimla route is open all year around. Landslides are frequent and the roads are in desperate need of repair. Keeping this in mind, it’s advisable to forgo the local bus service and hire a private vehicle to and from Kaza. The closest airport is at Bhuntar and the nearest railhead is Jogindernagar.
Related Links: Climbing Mount Kanamo.
Pin Valley National Park.
Author: Ajith Devakumar, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 5, October 2014.