Published in Robb Report
LLAY VALLEY, LADAKH –– Squinting into the telescope, I scan the craggy ridgeline for a flicker of feline movement. Not that I’m expecting to spot any predatory silhouettes. After all, I’ve travelled halfway around the world to remote Ullay Valley in Ladakh – a sparsely populated, high-altitude desert region of India’s Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir – well aware that encountering the Central Asian snow leopard here is far from guaranteed. Still, on my first afternoon in Ullay I can’t help sense that a famously elusive ‘Grey Ghost of the Himalayas’ is somewhere up on a snowy cliff just beyond my field of vision, watching me with pale green eyes.
“That’s where the shan usually hide, straddling the top of those high ridges,” explains the telescope’s owner, Tsewang Norboo, using the Ladakhi term for snow leopard. After a brief pause for me to catch my labored breath – I’m struggling to acclimatize to Ullay’s 14000-foot elevation -- we continue ascending the snow dusted slopes above his mud and brick home. An expert wildlife tracker, Norboo recently partnered with adventure outfitter &Beyond to bring Westerners to Ullay, a prime snow leopard habitat only now opening up to tourism. Here in one of wildlife watching’s final frontiers, my chances of spotting Asia’s most enigmatic animal are as good as it gets, especially considering the season.
“Winter is the best time to track snow leopards in Ullay because they descend to the sub-alpine zone to stalk prey that grazes at lower elevations during colder weather,” explained &Beyond’s South Asia operations manager, Dushyant Singh, when we met earlier in Delhi. He added that their padded paws also leave telltale tracks in the snow as they stalk wild blue sheep, ibex, marmots and hares, making them easier to spot. Even so, I try to keep my expectations in check.
A shan sighting anywhere in the Himalayas in any season is rare, as celebrated travel writer Peter Mathieson discovered in The Snow Leopard, his award-winning account of his 1973 quest in search of one. “Its uncompromising yellow eyes, wired into the depths of its unfathomable spirit, gaze out from the cover of innumerable editions,” he writes. “It is, I think, the animal I would most like to be eaten by.”
“When I was a child I feared the shan,” recalls Norboo as we trek further up the valley. Hungry cats would occasionally snatch sheep, goats and baby yaks from his father’s livestock corrals during the night. “Some farmers would shoot them with old matchlock rifles,” he says. Such retaliatory killings – along with habitat loss, poaching for the illegal trade in snow leopard pelts and bones for medicinal purposes – put this once undisputed monarch of Central Asia’s mountains and steppes onto global critically endangered lists. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that only between four and seven thousand remain.
In 2000, a Ladakhi wildlife conservationist named Rinchen Wangchuck came to the rescue. Head of the Indian chapter of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, he first taught villagers how to build predator proof fences to protect their livestock in winter. He also created a successful livestock loss compensation program. And with a grant from UNESCO, launched an award-winning Himalayan Homestays program that provided basic rural hospitality and hygiene training and supplies to villagers interested in generating income from hosting tourists.
Eventually Wangchuck was able to convince many rural Ladakhis that snow leopards could be more beneficial to them alive than dead. And although he passed away in 2011, his dream of transforming Ladakh into ‘the snow leopard capital of the world’ is slowly becoming a reality. “By taking appropriate conservation steps we can ensure the snow leopard’s long-term survival,” says Wangchuck’s successor, Tsewang Namgall, adding that preserving iconic animals like the snow leopard, ibex and Tibetan wolf is becoming a source of pride for Ladakhis. Today, snow leopard numbers and sightings are up across Ladakh, attracting more adventurous tourists. Rural Ladakhi attitudes toward wildlife conservation are also changing as more locals benefit from tourism, finding work as homestay and tour operators, nature guides and wildlife spotters.
Rural Ladakis like Norboo, who first opened a homestay in the whitewashed mud-brick house he shares with his wife, Dolma. Seeing the potential of wildlife tourism, he then built the Snow Leopard Lodge. Kerosene heaters warm its cozy guestrooms and its communal spaces decorated with colorful woolen Ladakhi kilim rugs and ornate Tibetan furniture. Bustling with activity, its spacious kitchen lined with copper pots offers an authentic taste of Ladakhi hospitality, serving hearty traditional dishes like thupka (noodle soup with chunks of yak meat), momos (Tibetan dumplings) and skyu (vegetable stew). All washed down with sweet yak butter tea.
Ullay is a half a day’s drive from Ladakh’s capital of Leh, where I spend two days acclimatizing at the Grand Dragon Hotel after my one-hour flight from Delhi – the recommended minimum to avoid potentially fatal altitude sickness. Surrounded by impressive gompas (monasteries) dating back over a millennium, this ancient town of 30,000 is a fascinating introduction to Ladakh, which only started accepting foreign tourists in 1974. Predominantly Buddhist, Leh has much more in common culturally and ethnically with
neighboring Tibet than with the rest of India. A long-abandoned royal palace said to have been the model for Lhasa’s Potala dominates its labyrinth of steep, winding streets and bustling bazaars. Its grey stone walls are a ghostly reminder of Ladakh’s former importance as a major trading center along the Silk Road that ran through the Karakoram Range.
From Leh, the road to Ullay follows the sacred Indus River (from which India derives its name) to the town of Nimmu, where it intersects with Ladakh’s other major waterway, the Zanskar River. The increasingly narrow mountain track then veers north past the village of Likir, home to one of Ladakh’s most famous gompas. Finally, it winds up a series of dizzyingly steep switchbacks bordered by precipitous cliffs and into snow leopard country.
I had planned to spend the next few days exploring Ullay and its neighboring valleys, tracking wildlife on foot and by SUV with Norboo. But the Himalayas have other ideas. Shortly after we return from our initial trek, an unseasonably harsh late season blizzard dumps the largest amount of snow seen here in half a century. During lulls in the storm I venture as far as I dare from the lodge, wading through thigh deep snow to photograph this tableau of rural Himalayan life. On one outing I spot a pair of Ibex nimbly climbing toward a summit and wonder if a hungry leopard crouches, ready to pounce. Another time, I lie in the snow staring at the amphitheater of austere peaks surrounding me, reflecting on my insignificance amid such elemental indifference.
Returning to the lodge one afternoon as the last rays of fading sunlight dapple a distant mountain range, I curl up by a kerosene heater to watch a video of a pair of snow leopards Norboo recorded using a non-invasive motion-triggered remote infrared camera. Unaware of its presence, they stare into the lens, their white-gray coats spotted with large black rosettes almost luminescent in the moonlight. Then one suddenly pounces on an ibex carcass, savagely ripping off strips of flesh. It’s a primal scene I had hoped to witness in person. But the Himalayas have another, greater lesson for me. Acceptance.
As he wistfully recounts in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen never met the mythical creature whose ‘terrible beauty’ he envisioned as ‘the very stuff of human longing.’ But his Buddhist faith led him to accept the world for what it was rather than what he desired it to be. “No! Isn’t that wonderful?” Matthiessen replied when asked if he had seen a snow leopard. In the end, it didn’t matter because the journey mattered, not the outcome. As does mine, bolstered by the hope that by travelling to faraway lands like Ladakh in search of snow leopards we can contribute to the preservation of the Grey Ghosts of the Himalayas.