After a pleasant evening dinner, Dipika woke up at 6:30 am. Surprising for me, as Dipika never woke up so early herself. It was then I realised that she had woken up to see the mountains. The snow! This was new for her. The Himalayas are so wonderful. Last evening when we had reached the hotel, it was dark. All we could see was silhouettes of the mountains. Now, we could see the snow-capped mountains. Where are we? What am I talking about? Let me take you to a bit of a recap.
I was home and that’s when I got a call from The Road Less Travelled team. They wanted me to visit the Himalayas to spot the snow leopard. Last month, I had done a trip to Madhya Pradesh to spot tigers. This was the second instance in 2017. I agreed for it. On listening to my excitement. Another request popped up, which was from Dipika. She had never been to Himalayas, never seen snow. Then we both agreed to go for it together this time.
The weather was my biggest worry. Temperatures of -15degC to -25degC were concerning. For this reason, each one of us needed three layers of clothing, waterproof shoes, head gear, two layers of gloves and a pair of UV-protection sunglasses. Another worry that haunted me were the tyres on the vehicles we shall be travelling in. Thanks to CEAT, which gave us Czar A/T, which would have worked well in snow. This is when I heaved a sigh of relief. We were heading to Kibber village in Spiti-Lahaul. This is where majority of the snow leopard can be spotted. That is only if you are lucky. Many I know have managed to see the snow leopard once while some on their last two visits haven’t even caught a glimpse.
We got on to a flight to Chandigarh. Here is where Shankar and The Road Less Travelled team was waiting for us. There were Gypsies and Ford Endeavours that were our companions for the trip. These SUVs had Ceat Czar A/T tyres. From the airport we headed to Pal Dhaba in Sector 28, one of the landmark places in the city. Everything you eat will be greased with butter or oil. This is Punjab, welcome to this civilisation. For those diet-worried, should leave it back when visiting Punjab. Soon, we headed out to Kufri, where our first night stay was.
Chandigarh is a very noisy city, apart from the hussle-bassle the traffic is chaotic. Very soon, we exited all this noise and headed out towards the Himalayan Expressway. This was a beautiful stretch of tarmac, which wasn’t very crowded. The roads became narrow as we headed towards the mountains. Dual carriage turned into single lane roads. The layering of the tarmac was rough as there were too many bumps. It was by evening we reached Kufri, a small habitat just outside Shimla. Something like the Navi Mumbai of Shimla, which is coming up. As I drove up the entire route, it was indeed comfortable and convenient.
The hotel “Royal Tulip” was a big surprise for me. For such a small town, I was surprised to see the location. This was indeed one of the best places around. An all new hotel with amazing architecture. The rooms were large and funky. At par with any of the five stars. The dinner was amazing and as menu had a perfect blend of Indian and western cuisines. This place was expensive at about INR 12,000 for a night for a room. It was the next morning, when we saw the snow-capped mountains. Today, we were heading to Ski. This was a training session and introduction for many of us. There are Skiing sessions in Narkanda, about 130 odd kilometres from Shimla. Post this, we head out towards Kalpa our night stay. Here is where the roads become narrower and havoc. It was really a painful experience. Thank God that the Ford Endeavour and the Ceat tyres continued to absorb most of the road shocks. A long tiring day ended as we reached Kalpa. The weather was chilly at -3degC. The frost bite was bad, as we didn’t get acclimatised to it. For the next 15 minutes, we did feel uncomfortable. Now, here the hotel was fine. Though, the water in the pipeline had frozen. Everything was arranged for us. Thanks to the team of The Road Less Travelled, we had more than sufficient hot water for us, whenever we needed. They even had their own chefs making piping hot soups and lip-smacking meals.
Kalpa is a small town above Rekong Peo. From here is where you can see Kinner Kailash mountain. It is even viewable from some parts of Rekong Peo as well. Between Narkanda and Rekong Peo, Rampur is a major town. Post these areas, the Hindu habitat reduces and you will find more of the Buddhist culture. The topography will also change. If you travel in winter, then majorly till now what you see are snow clad mountains. Post this, it is all snow covered topography.
There is a change in culture, food, typography, weather. There is zero pollution in the air. Very minimal traffic. This was heavenly. For this leg, we had Ravi who joined our car and we were out shooting images throughout this leg. Dipika was having super fun and Ravi (our photographer) seemed high on energy levels. The roads were narrower, but smoother. However our pace had reduced. Every five minutes the car was stopping. Everyone wanted to capture all these moments, these scenic beauties in their minds, on their cameras. I’m glad there was no network from this point and only my spare BSNL sim card sprung to life from time to time. There is no Airtel, Jio post Kalpa. Vodafone has 2G and Idea, well doesn’t work most of the times. So, you cannot go facebook or twitter live! Post Kalpa you do not have data. We headed to the top of a mountain to Nako village. The Road Less Travelled team dropped a clanger as our lunch venue was the most beautiful one, at least I have ever had at. The helipad at Nako was chosen for this purpose. The view of array of mountains all around was spectacular. This was indeed heavenly. This was so Bollywood movie shoot worthy. I wonder how many movies could have been shot there. The helipad was covered with snow. This meant some amount of drift. I jumped into the Endeavour, shifted it to 2WD mode. And Vallah! Drifting, sliding in the snow, getting some amazing images for our shutterbugs. As OctaneAddict, I did enjoy every moment. This was a controlled slide and it was indeed a lot of joy to kick snow around. Felt better than sand or dirt.
From Nako we headed to Tabo Monastery. This was Deja Vu moment for me. I had been there six years back on a road trip to discover Monasteries. The moment we reached there, the frost had bitten us badly. The wind chill made the temperatures drop below -8degC. Without wasting much time all of us got back into our respective cars and sipped the hot tea and coffee from the thermal flasks. Every day we had a picnic basket in each of the cars with food, hot water, tea, coffee. These were refilled on a daily basis. The support team was also carrying sleeping bags for each of us, if in case there is a land slide or something.This shivered us beneath the skin. The wind chill was spine shaking. The sun was about to wish us good bye, when we headed towards our next night stay, Mane. Soon the orangish sky turned bluish and eventually grey. With the source of heat going away, the melted snow on the road turned into a thin layer of ice. The Ceat tyres had a firm grip with complete control. The Endeavour’s steering wheel was vague still we never had a lost control moment. We soldiered on at night, with only mountains and snow visible everywhere. With bad and narrow roads, we had to reverse a bit on some of the hair pins. The Endeavour has a long turning radius.
Mane was the coldest -18degC. This was the coldest we had been on this trip. We had Home Stay arrangement. A first for me. The rooms were basic with LPG heaters. We had to keep the doors open as LPG smell was suffocating. Each floor had one toilet sharing for every two rooms. There was no water in the pipe so we had to fill it from the big barrel in each toilet. The water in the barrel had begun to freeze. With The Road Less Travelled (TRLT) team, we had least to worry off. Hot water was arranged every time we needed one.
Now, a new thing for many. Most of the homestays here have a kitchen/water boiling room. This is the warmest room around. You can sit in a T-Shirt and a pair of trousers and not feel cold at all. This is where they boil water for utilisation for the home. There is a chimney that goes up all the way, above all other rooms on top of it, on to the roof. These are majorly the rooms occupied by the house bearers.
We had our own individual rooms. As we had switched off the LPG heaters, we were given hot waterbags every night to keep ourselves warm. Next morning, the Endeavour delayed our start. The diesel had frozen and we didn’t get anti-freeze on our way. So, we had to heat the fuel tank and then start it. Once the engine cranked up, we headed towards Kaza. Here we stopped for fuel and network. Again only BSNL works here. Nothing else. If you need affordable warm clothes for the trip ahead, you can pick it from Kaza. It isn’t very expensive out here and the clothes are warm and most of them are even waterproof. Kaza is a major town in this area. Then we were on our way to Kibber. As the Endeavour had delayed us, we had left by 2:30pm post our lunch.
We reached Kibber just when the sun had set. This is a super small village. Things to visit here are Snow leopard, Kibber Monastery and Kye Monastery. There are the three things one can visit. There is one bus in the evening from Kaza that comes to Kibber and returns next day. With the bus, you cannot visit Kye as it is on the way and bus doesn’t stop at any point. Also, if you go by share a cab, the charge comes to about INR 800 to INR 1500 per head depending on the vehicle. Kibber was a homestay too. However, here everyone had to share the same bathroom. To our dismay, there was no English style toilet either.
Next morning, our spotters had already spotted the Snow Leopard and we were not heading to find one. We were moving in its direction. We came down the mountain slopes as our spotters guided us. There we were, about 10 metres away from this rare to be found creature. The snow leopard had eaten a donkey and was sleeping in the mountain’s shade away from the harsh sun rays. After sometime it moved, glared into our camera and went back to sleep. Our bad, we couldn’t see it on the run. Our other spotters told to see two more of them. This was Heaven Almighty! Where everyone was struggling to see one on their trips, we saw one and were now walking towards two more of them. These ones weren’t that close. We got 3 snow leopards in our camera, with the recent BBC Planet Earth 2, it was a record to capture four of them on a camera. They were on another far off mountain, visible with a zoom lens or a pair of binoculars. We saw Ibex, Red Fox and even eagles. We did wait for the Snow Leopard to wake up. About sunset, there were a bunch of Ibexs were walking on the hill top. The snow leopard (on the same mountain), on the mid-part of the same hill sprung to life. It did jump up to attack them. But all in vain. We were glad to see this rear creature move and it did so swiftly.
We will like to offer a BIG THANK YOU to The Road Less Travelled team. It was them that made it possible for such a long trip to get completed with ease. I didn’t have very high hopes from the old Endeavour, but it didn’t let us down. Ceat all-weather tyres were a big bonus for us as we comfortably tackled all the bad roads and good grip around bends and moreover snow-covered routes.
Clothing for -18degC:
- Three layers are needed
- Waterproof shoes upto the ankle
- Two layer gloves (lining and water proof on top)
- Thick cap, some might even need neck warmers
Snow Leopard Trail Image Gallery
Image Credit: Ravi Verma and Dipika Hirani
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