‘Acclimatisation’ is not a word you will hear on too many leisure trips. It is also why many travellers choose to visit Ladakh in the summer. Their logic is sound. Winters can be daunting even for the thick-skinned while the thin oxygen levels can test even the fittest out there. I picked the coldest month of the year to visit Ladakh, that’s because I wasn’t just seeking breath-taking landscapes for my Instagram feed. I was in pursuit of the ‘grey ghost', one of the most elusive cats in the world.
The stark, snow-covered landscapes of the Sham Valley provide the perfect habitat for the enigmatic snow leopard. These exteriors were a complete contrast to the warm and cosy interiors of The Grand Dragon Hotel in Leh with its temperature-controlled wooden floors. Lee wasn't just my acclimatisation base, it was also the perfect gateway to explore some of Ladakh’s iconic monasteries that look even more dramatic in the winter. I caught up with Tsewang Namgail, the director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust at The Grand Dragon. Over a traditional Ladakhi feast that included the traditional tingmo bread (pronounced Timo) with mutton shapta – thin slices of mutton in a mildly spiced gravy – he briefed me about how his organisation has been working with locals in far-flung villages like Ulley, on its conservancy efforts.
Deep in the valley
A three-hour drive took me to Ulley, one of Ladakh’s most remote villages – just six families live here and share a solitary satellite phone, the village’s only two-way communication window to the world. It was here at the Snow Leopard Lodge that I met Jonathan Garrigues and his mother who had flown in from France for a 10-day visit to Ulley.
As many as 90 per cent of Ulley’s visitors used to come from abroad. While many like Jonathan spend a week or more, they often go back disappointed. I had just three days; the clock had already begun to tick. The team at Snow Leopard Lodge are among the world’s best-known snow leopard spotters. They prepared me for the worst – a large percentage of guests at this barebones lodge go back without spotting the snow leopard. There’s a reason why the snow leopard is called the elusive grey ghost. It’s not easy to spot (summer sightings are almost unheard of) and inhabits the toughest terrains.
Looking for the leopard
Day one was eventful, a trek through the snow-covered valley around Ulleyin freezing temperatures (around -20 degree Celsius during the day). There was a sudden flurry of activity as we were quickly whisked away to a viewpoint. It was a sighting of a Himalayan ibex that struck the perfect pose atop a peak. While that was a special moment, I couldn’t conceal my disappointment at dinner. We had spent another day exploring the region, visiting a local home and driving through some stunning landscapes, yet with no sign of the snow leopard. We followed a couple of tips from locals, but it didn’t lead us anywhere.
As I tried to keep myself warm under a thick rug on a typical cold night where the temperature had dropped to -22 degrees, I had already begun making plans for a future visit in case we didn’t succeed on the final day. Our luck changed on day three. The spotters got wind of a Ladakh urial (an endemic and rare wild sheep that resides in the Indus and Shayok valleys in Ladakh) kill about 90 minutes away from Ulley.
I managed to keep my date with the snow leopard at Hemis Chu, a gorge off the Srinagar-Leh highway. As surreal moments go, this was right at the top of my list. A moment worth braving the thin oxygen levels, combined with the high altitude and freezing temperatures. The king of the mountains was just 800 metres away. It was one of the best sightings of the year, we were told, with the snow leopard staying for over 90 minutes. We had traversed through some of the most remote areas around Ulley and yet the snow leopard finally showed up just off a fairly busy highway.
Ladakh was full of picture-perfect moments - a pre-sunset panorama along the banks of the Indus river near Stakna, views of the famous confluence (or Sangam) where the historic Zanskar and Indus rivers meet or the imposing Thiksey monastery that is reminiscent of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. But nothing came close to the moment when I caught the first glimpse of the snow leopard. It was a mix of emotions – excitement, relief and a test of physical endurance; a moment I can’t wait to experience all over again. It’s why I might return to Ladakh in the winter.