The eye-piercing brightness of Brobdingnagian expanses leaves deep imprints on my retina. I close my eyes for a brief moment and a whirl of colour, light and texture assails me. Grey mountains with deep veins of white snow throb above white sands punctuated by tussocks of green. A fleeting glimpse of a ribong hare freezes into a nondescript white rock, whilst kiang mirages shimmer indistinctly in the afternoon haze.
Miles of kaleidoscopic mountains rush by; red mushrooms sprouting on a cliff face, giant snow leopard paws benevolently blessing those who pass, deep flutes of brown engraved in rock. Colossal, leathery, monitor lizard cushions on the horizon give way to Google Earth 3D images of deltas snaking upwards through the clouds. Lulled into a gentle complacency by watercolour swirls of green and mauve, I am roused by gashes of orange and red that slash open the innards of the mountains. I feel as if I am in a LSD-induced trance. But no, this is real. This is Ladakh.
For years, I imagined a trip to Ladakh, but the expense was daunting and so the idea was perpetually shelved. Then in the summer of 2019, a chance opportunity to understand how nature-based ecotourism could be fostered in various Himalayan landscapes, dropped into my lap. Dispatching younger teammates across other well-trodden parts of the country, I selfishly reserved the ‘land of the high passes’ for myself, and my sharp-eyed colleague, Yatish.
We are soon headed to the windswept, northern plains of the Changthang plateau, a mosaic of wetlands and steppe grasslands, home to fabled wildlife, and prized skeins of cashmere. In this still landscape, Changpa herders wend their lonely way; pastoralists, whose perambulations with pashmina goats (and sheep and yaks), is the source of this acclaimed wool. Rigzin Norboo, an attractive, weather-beaten Ladakhi with a faraway look in his desert-brown, Nubran eyes, has us hurtling down the steep descents, and inching across the highest passes in the world.
The panorama is chameleonic, transforming by the minute. In this dramatic geological theatre, human beings are blips in the tumultuous upheaval of the Himalaya that brought the bottom of a sea to the top of the world, millions of years ago. Cosmic, many-tiered vanilla and red monasteries cling precariously to razor-edged cliffs, inching nearer to god. Blooming amidst the browns is yellow- gold mustard, fringed by fields a startling shade of emerald, and squat, mud-brick cream houses. Scatterings of white and green, yak-hair, Changpa rebos (tents) with herds of goats and sheep pop up by the side of rivers and streams. But I see almost no Changpas about. Apart from volleys of motorcyclists criss-crossing the terrain, there is little evidence of tourists either. Surprising, because it is July, and wetlands like Pangong Tso are on every tourist’s map. Probably, the political unrest we are told as we encounter few tourists throughout our travels in Changthang. The local people are perturbed, for tourism in the short summer months is what tides them over the long, harsh winter.
I am astounded by how easy it is to spot wildlife and how confiding they are in a Buddhist land where all life is sacred. Flocks of more brown than blue bharal and their moulting, fluffy young skitter the cliffs. Plump, dusky-pink Chukar partridges with red bills, black masks and pin-striped flanks dart in front of our car. Magnificent golden eagles glide across the blue. Yatish, with his young eyes, spots a Lammergeier on a cliff. Himalayan marmots gambol by the wayside, while the shyer pikas dash into the sandy soil.
Very soon, we reach Tso Kar, the white lake, in the middle of nowhere. The nearest village Thukjay could be mistaken for a deserted outpost in the Wild West, a ramshackle clutter of guesthouses, hotels and tents on either side of the highway. In the background are broken down, largely abandoned khampas, built for Changpas who would rather prefer wandering the great outdoors.
We chat about tourism with Norboo, our guesthouse host, while eating dal and rice by the wayside. Always smiling, he patiently whips up whatever our heart desires, from local Ladakhi tsampa and thenthuk to more everyday fare. He has, I imagine, faced a far more difficult nomadic life than a few demanding tourists. Now a retired former nomad, he splits his days between the Changthang in summer and a small grocery shop in Leh in the winter.
In the white glare of afternoon, we visit the salt-encrusted marsh. Olive cushions of mushy grass yield way to a vast white expanse. Although it is high summer, the snow has been slow to melt on the mountains and we are alone in a white wonderland of salt and snow. Distant honks soon have us dashing up and down the stained, slushy, white hillocks, struggling to breathe in the gossamer-thin air. But we do not let up, for there in front of us are a conjugal pair of very vulnerable black- necked cranes. They lift their heads and call to the heavens in a courtship display, ethereal against the blue and rose-tinted peaks. Before too long they get down to the more mundane task of foraging. They are lifers for me, as in fact are most of Ladakh’s birds. Our cameras click mechanically, hoping to record these graceful, scarlet- crowned grey birds with shiny black tail plumes, for posterity. After all, visits to Ladakh may come just once in a lifetime; mine has happened as I reluctantly step into my fifth decade. The cranes tired of our intrusive company eventually depart, majestic winged silhouettes, frozen in mountain crystal.
Staying at Norboo’s is Ravi, a solitary mathematician who has spent several years walking and hitchhiking across India to see birds. This is his second visit to Ladakh, and he knows each nook and cranny. In his company, we discover that the Little Owl’s favourite haunt is an abandoned shang dong or wolf trap. The owl has a mate too, and after peaking curiously at us for a while, he gets angry and hisses us away. For all we know his nest is in the wolf trap.
Ravi hugs his Otto Pfister guide on the birds of Ladakh, and his leather-brown face animates when he talks of birds. He lives a spartan lifestyle, skipping meals, eating and sleeping where he can, apparently unencumbered by the cares of this world. This morning he has trudged on foot to a twin freshwater lake, Startsapuk Tso. He tells us that the Tibetan sandgrouse can often be seen in the morning close to the cliffs near Norboo’s guesthouse, but we have no luck as we scan the rocks. Instead, he takes us straight to a high mountain ridge on which a saker falcon perches, almost invisible in the sepia.
The evening is a birding bonanza too as Ravi trills out a bunch of exotic sounding names and points out the twite and Brandt’s mountain finch in the gloaming. A Hume’s groundpecker ferries nesting material back and forth to a tiny hole alongside the dirt track. Tibetan larks hop at our feet begging for crumbs the way sparrows do, and coral pink, horned larks forage nearby.
Tso Kar should be on every wildlifer’s list. Local NGOs are training youngsters on bird, and butterfly guiding. This will generate much needed revenue for young Changpas, many of whom are migrating to Leh. I meet one of their former trainees, a bright, young girl, who raises mushrooms, when she isn’t guiding tourists across Ladakh. I marvel at the independence of Ladakhi women, some of whom are successfully running trekking companies.
A place of genuine equality with gender- neutral names. Where a Tsewang could be male...or female. But training the Changpa of Tso Kar is proving difficult. These are the only nomads of Ladakh who choose not to farm, depending solely on pashmina.
The next morning, we drop Ravi by the side of the road as he waits for a passing vehicle to take him to his next birding destination. I watch him as he walks away, unfettered as any Changpa nomad, and I envy him for his conviction. I am an ecologist, but my ecological footprint lies heavy; on the land, and on my heart.
The journey to Tsomoriri, a relict lake of the ice age, takes us over rocky, boulder- strewn terrain via SkyAngchu Thang, the highest plateau in the world. Despite a throbbing migraine that has plagued me since the ascent from Delhi, I cannot take my eyes off the scenery and wildlife. A red-breasted robin accentor offers easy views. Desert wheatears and red and black redstarts are everywhere. Tiny, violet flowers sprout in little clumps, typical of desert flora, while two species of hare—the cape and woolly—stare at me, unfazed. To them humans are harmless curiosities.
We stop to share water with groups of Changpa, under the surly gaze of shaggy dogs; Rigzin interpreting for us. The geographies of their Changpa lives are etched into kindly, saddlebag-toned faces, each line and furrow telling of days spent under the merciless sun in this desolate land. Bleating, adorable, fluffy kid goats and lambs surround us, which the Changpa gently shoo away—an interlocking bond between human and animal, based on mutual trust and dependence. I remember a scene from The Shepherdess of the Glaciers, where the Changpa filmmaker Stanzin Dorjai’s sister says she would gladly sacrifice her life for one of her animals.
Korzok, nestled close to the sky-blue waters of Tsomoriri, is an exceedingly picturesque warren of narrow lanes flanked by mudbrick Ladakhi houses, with fringing wooden eaves. Streamers of Buddhist prayer flags festoon the houses, creating fluttering aerial arteries of messages to the gods. Looming over, and apparently dead ending the village lanes, is a mountain peak, deeply veined with snow. A gilt-beribboned monastery standing spectator to this idyllic scene for more than four hundred years is the site of the famous Korzok Gustor. I find I am charmed by this hamlet where barley grows on the world’s highest farms. We stay at the Goose, a homestay, snug near the bukhari in the kitchen, where we chat with the other guests, a young Indonesian girl riding pillion across the Changthang, and a retired Sikh who backpacks across the world with his wife. The tourist demographic to Ladakh has changed over the years, from foreign tourists to Indian ones. The recent proliferation of large hotels and guesthouses replacing the eponymously named, wildlife homestays, caters to the new breed of tourists who want air-conditioned rooms with attached bathrooms, running water and flush toilets. This in a cold desert where water is precious! Dorjee, who recently converted the Ibex homestay to a guesthouse and owns another new hotel, is unapologetic. “I was tired of being told my homestay is dirty, and with few amenities,” he says. “It hurt. Besides, there are no clear guidelines, on what a homestay really is, how many rooms are allowed.”
Early the next morning the Indonesian girl and I buy striped yak- hair socks from our host. The historic Hanle (Aanle) along the ancient Tibet-Ladakh trade route beckons us with whispers of romance, history and intrigue. And bloodshed, I remind myself as we pass miles of military bunkers semi-camouflaged in the rocks—just 20 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control with China.
The night skies of Hanle are amongst the clearest in the world, and I dream of lying under the stars gazing at the powdery arc of the Milky Way. Yatish, however, is agog with anticipation at the thought of spotting an elusive, near threatened Pallas’s cat, a comic, grumpy, flat-browed, wide-jowled, furry creature with yellow, traffic-signal eyes and a bushy tail. So much so, that every domestic cat in Hanle (of which there are many) morphs into a Pallas. An illusion fostered by Paljor, our skinny guide who excitedly points to yet another tabby in the fields, yelling “Pallas!”
The thundering Indus, a river I associate with the birthing of human civilisations, appears tame today, cordially accompanying us on our journey, as it twirls through the plains, turning everything green in its wake. Large herds of Tibetan wild asses gallop across the floodplains, as Yatish and I carry out a car transect of kiang numbers. They turn out to be Yatish’s lucky mascots. All his wishes are fulfilled on days when they wander into view.
We soon descend into an immense amphitheatre where roiling waves of green and amber lap against a distant chiaroscuro of grey and umber cliffs. The late afternoon sun immerses the fields and houses in a glow of golden-pink light, as colourfully dressed dancers disperse from the green. We take several turns around the Hanle River that evening vainly looking for the Pallas or Tibetan wolves. But as the first waves of disappointment begin to wash over us, a red fox pup emerges in the middle of the green to dance in the dying rays of the sun, white-tipped, bushy tail unfurling. He picks up cloth rags, bouncing them in the air like any carefree canid pup, oblivious to our presence. And our joy spills over. But he is a lone fox, his siblings killed by feral dogs.
As a dog mom to more than 40 rescues, it is painful to hear of the rampages of the dogs of Ladakh, spurred by lax garbage management, and sheltered by lonely defence personnel and animal-loving Buddhist folk. Mass sterilisations are impossible because of the topography, and garbage management appears to be the only solution since culling is against the law. Meanwhile, I see pictures of vicious dog kills, packs of dogs indiscriminately hunting crane young, blue sheep, ibex, red fox, et al, endangering Changthang’s precious wildlife, and possibly diluting the gene pool of Tibetan wolves with whom they breed. As we head back to the homestay, I harden my heart to a blonde, furry puppy playing just as unconcernedly as the fox kit. I remind myself he might well grow into a vicious fox killer one day.
We never do get to see the Pallas’s cat. Perhaps Yatish’s lucky mascots have deserted him on the Hanle leg of our journey. But our eyes are moist as we leave this magical valley, and the red fox pup, as an arcing rainbow hints at treasures yet to come. Avdesh Kaushik, a Mumbai-based bird operator who is shepherding a flock of eager birders, stops to point out a Eurasian eagle owl with two chicks, mere specks in the rocky crags. Although the long, white streaks of poop staining the cliffs are a dead giveaway, we would probably never have spotted them. We stare up the massif in awe. One brave, balaclava-clad, grey chick raises his head to gawp. It is bad form to disturb nests that can attract predators and heeding the parent’s glower, we contritely depart.
Slender-billed mergansers with burnished copper heads and silvery mantles swim with their young close behind, glittering in platinum-rippled streams. Victorian lace-bibbed and bewigged great crested grebes struggle to look dignified with a crowd of chicks bobbing on their backs, taking the occasional tumble into the water. Nature in the summer in Ladakh is fecund with life and everywhere we turn we have nests being built, eggs being laid, young being born and anxious parents struggling to pass on their genes to yet another generation.
We spend our last night in Changthang at Pangong lake, our freezing tents buffeted by howling winds and streaming rain. The infamous winds of Pangong have not let us down, and for once we are glad to escape. We have spent a glorious midsummer living a dream in Ladakh, and my heart is heavy as I leave. For it is a place like nowhere else on earth. But as I cross the world’s second-highest pass Chang la, I know that the wildlife yet to be seen, and the highest mountain pass yet to be crossed, will bring me back to this land of snows.