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Up Above the World, So High: How I Spotted Ladakh’s ‘Grey Ghost’

I’d do the thin oxygen and high altitude all over again – and it’s why I think you should visit Ladakh in winter.

Updated
Travel
5 min read
Up Above the World, So High: How I Spotted Ladakh’s ‘Grey Ghost’
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Altitude check: 4,100 metres.

Day-time temperature check: –20 degrees centigrade.

I’m high up in Ulley, a remote village in Ladakh’s Sham Valley (three hours from Leh) with just six families. January and February are the coldest months to be in Ladakh. Only a fraction of Ladakh’s visitors ever touch down in the winter. The Chadar trek along the frozen Zanskar river has become a driver for winter tourism in the region.

Altitude check: 4,100 metres. Day-time temperature check: –20 degrees centigrade.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

But I chose to go off the beaten track, in pursuit of the grey ghost, even though the odds were heavily loaded against me.

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How I Prepped to be a Wildlife Spotter

As I navigated the tiny mountain path in Ulley village, the comfort of the temperature-controlled wooden floors of my first pit-stop in Ladakh seemed like half a world away.

My interest in the grey ghost was kindled at The Grand Dragon. Ladakh’s most luxurious hotel with local design elements is just five minutes away from the Leh airport where touchdowns are dramatic in winter. (Yes, pre-book that window seat with a clear view if you’re planning Ladakh in the winter.)
The Grand Dragon Leh incorporates local design elements.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

It was at The Grand Dragon that I met Tsewang Namgail, the Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust. Over a traditional Ladakhi feast that included the traditional Tigmo 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.

Soul food: Thukpa dunked with momos.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Tchewang Norbu is an icon in the wildlife circuit in Ladakh. As a young boy, he would walk his father’s yaks, through the same paths that were part of my village trek. These walks intrigued him about the local wildlife – a curiosity that would eventually make him one of the world’s most renowned snow leopard spotters.

The Himalayan Ibex at the top of the hill in Ulley.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
There’s a reason why the snow leopard has earned the ‘grey ghost’ moniker. It’s one of the world’s most elusive and equally reclusive animals. It was Norbu and his team of spotters at the Snow Leopard Lodge in Ulley that overturned the odds and brought me the one piece of information I wanted to hear since I set foot in Ladakh.

Our Spectacular Snow Leopard Sighting

Two hours later, I was treading more stealthily than a cat at a vantage point just off the Leh-Srinagar highway near a gorge at Hemis Chu where a Ladakhi Urial (an endemic and rare wild sheep that resides in the Indus and Shayok valleys in Ladakh) kill had taken place the previous night.

We spotted the snow leopard.
(Photo Courtesy: Snow Leopard Lodge, Ulley)
For the next 90 minutes, we would witness one of 2019’s most spectacular snow leopard sightings from just 800 metres away. Norbu is ecstatic and tells me that I’m lucky to spot the grey ghost within 24 hours of my arrival. There are times when guests spend up to 10 days at Ulley and go back disappointed.

Over the next two days, I overcame withdrawal symptoms from being disconnected with the world, enjoying slice-of-life moments in this charming village where locals never stop smiling despite the stark landscape and oppressive temperatures.

Wildlife spotters in action at Ulley.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Ulley is a hub for wildlife enthusiasts (90% of the visitors come from abroad) – I spotted more spectacular local fauna including the Himalayan Ibex and the imposing Golden Eagle during my three-day stay.

The calm of Ulley was a complete contrast to the blistering pace of the world’s fastest sport. Ice Hockey enjoys widespread patronage across Ladakh including schools. It’s why Leh’s Karzoo Rink hosted the national championships that also featured a few international stars from Canada who were also tested by the altitude and the outdoor venue (most International fixtures take place in indoor arenas).

Ice hockey action.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

After a whole morning in the rink it was time to explore Ladakh’s emblematic monasteries. I soon realised that winter minus the large crowds was the perfect time to get into the zone at these monasteries.

Each experience was truly calming. It started with morning prayers at Thiksey, Ladakh’s most imposing monastery spread over 12 floors that is reminiscent of Lhasa’s famous Potala Palace. Monks across ages come together with a chanting routine that creates a magical energy.
Thikse monastery.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
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Hemis Monastery, 90 Minutes From Leh

The Hemis Monastery.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

It was almost late afternoon when I wound up at Hemis monastery, some 90 minutes away from Leh where the popular annual Hemis festival is held in June. The original plan was to stay on for sunset at Hemis, I’m glad I made an impromptu change and ended up catching a pre-sunset panorama along the banks of the Indus River near Stakna enroute to Leh.

Winter landscape at Stakna near Leh.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

While this moment made my Instagram timeline, the snow leopard sighting will remained etched in my mind forever. It was worth braving the thin oxygen levels, combined with the high altitude and freezing temperatures. I would do it all over again and it’s why I think you should visit Ladakh in the winter.

Stay: The Grand Dragon (www.thegranddragonladakh.com) is Leh’s finest address and the perfect base to explore Leh and its surrounds.

Touchdowns at Leh airport seldom disappoint, especially in winter.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Plan your visit: Snow leopard sightings mostly happen between November and March. Most monasteries are not teeming with tourists in the winter. Ladakh can be tough even for fit individuals. Plan a medical screening in your home city before you arrive in Ladakh; consult with your doctor for pre-visit medication that can help you with oxygen levels. Reserve your first day for acclimatisation.

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(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, a Consultant and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)

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