COOL CATS

Mike Un­win con­tin­ues his long search for a sight­ing of the elu­sive snow leop­ard in Ladakh

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

The snow leop­ard just won’t be snapped. Or will it?

It’s a snow leop­ard, at point-blank range. I freeze as the cat’s am­ber eyes bore into my own. The ears flat­ten and lips curl in a silent growl; the lithe body hugs the rock, shoul­der mus­cles bunch­ing to leap. I can see ev­ery bristling whisker.

Sadly, it’s only a pho­to­graph. Each time I en­ter the din­ing room of our lodge, the framed im­ages on the walls seem to mock me: snow leop­ard track­ing; snow leop­ard with cubs. Yes, I think, as I join my com­pan­ions for a chicken biriyani, I don’t doubt that some­where out there – out in the swirling bliz­zard be­yond these ice-frosted windows – there’s one prowl­ing around. And I don’t doubt that some in­trepid pho­tog­ra­pher once got lucky. But us? Se­ri­ously? The chances of our lay­ing eyes on such an elu­sive beast in these im­mense moun­tains seem neg­li­gi­ble, at best.

I’m in Ul­ley: a tiny Bud­dhist com­mu­nity of some seven house­holds perched 12,500ft up a moun­tain val­ley in Ladakh, north­ern In­dia. Our small party ar­rived three days ago from the state cap­i­tal of Leh. Fresh snow­fall turned our “road trans­fer” into a five-hour ex­pe­di­tion, inch­ing up end­less hair­pins, with windows mist­ing and snow chains fall­ing off tyres as we climbed ever deeper into the clouds.

Not want­ing to dampen spir­its, I keep my doubts to my­self. Af­ter all, our guide and snow leop­ard ex­pert, David Sonam, has as­sured us that Ul­ley is a top spot for sight­ings. Last week, a fe­male with two young­sters was seen just above the vil­lage it­self. What’s more, our head tracker is lo­cal leg­end Tchewang Norbu: snow leop­ard whis­perer ex­traor­di­naire. Still, I can’t shake my mem­ory of

The Snow Leop­ard, the nat­u­ral his­tory clas­sic in which au­thor Peter Matthiessen spends six months comb­ing Ti­bet in a fruit­less search for the epony­mous beast. As the story me­an­ders in­creas­ingly into Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy, the an­i­mal be­comes more myth than re­al­ity. Now, af­ter three days peer­ing into the im­pos­si­ble vast­ness of these moun­tains, I can see where Matthiessen was com­ing from. I’m be­gin­ning to think we’re chas­ing a ghost.

Thank­fully, Ul­ley is a de­light: a clus­ter of sim­ple dwellings fes­tooned in prayer flags and ringed by a cho­co­late-box panorama of tow­er­ing peaks. Our home­s­tay – a pur­pose-built tourist lodge – sits at the cen­tre, look­ing down a per­fect val­ley. Vil­lage life goes on around us: yaks are milked in the yard; hay is piled high on the roofs; chil­dren scam­per through the snow, peek­ing shyly at the cu­ri­ous strangers. Inside, we en­joy com­forts that our hosts have never known, with gas heaters, scat­ter cush­ions and hot, sump­tu­ous meals. A dis­creet wake-up call her­alds a cup of tea and a steam­ing bucket of hot wa­ter. But, still, the con­di­tions take some get­ting used to. At night, the tem­per­a­ture touches mi­nus 20C (-4F). We strug­gle in and out of mul­ti­ple lay­ers of cloth­ing and, at this al­ti­tude, just bend­ing to tie boot­laces has us gasp­ing.

Each morning, the sky sets the mood: daz­zling blue af­ter fresh snow­fall means per­fect vis­i­bil­ity, so spir­its soar; a white-out, with cloud spilling over ridges like an over­boil­ing por­ridge pot, brings de­spon­dency. But it’s not our spot­ting that counts. As we gather over break­fast, Norbu and the team are al­ready out­side scru­ti­n­is­ing the slopes or fil­ing down the hill­side, re­turn­ing from a dawn search for tracks.

For us, walk­ing proves trick­ier. On our first morning, we tramp uphill be­hind the vil­lage for an hour, gain­ing per­haps 500ft in height. This mod­est ex­er­tion leaves us shat­tered, and stop­ping to scan through binoc­u­lars is a good rea­son to rest. The sheer scale of our back­drop is be­wil­der­ing but, as we get our col­lec­tive eye in, wildlife emerges: huge-horned ibex cross­ing the high slopes like bee­tles on a bed sheet; a fiery red fox stalk­ing par­tridges in belly-deep snow; a golden ea­gle spi­ralling sky­wards. Tri­pod tracks in the snow lead me to a moun­tain hare, which bounds away on snow­shoe feet.

Drives take us fur­ther afield. We de­scend to a rush­ing melt­wa­ter river and climb a sum­mit of prayer flags to drink in the view. And at ev­ery stop we

re­sume the scan­ning. Hot cof­fee and spicy wraps ap­pear from the ve­hi­cle as we rub hands, lower snow gog­gles and raise binoc­u­lars.

Then, on day three, the sign we’ve been wait­ing for. We clam­ber ex­cit­edly from the ve­hi­cles to ex­am­ine fresh pug­marks in the snow. Overnight, a snow leop­ard has crossed the very road that we walked along yes­ter­day afternoon. “We know this male,” says David, point­ing out his yel­low-stained ter­ri­to­rial sig­na­ture at the foot of a boul­der. “He climbed up there last night, hunt­ing ibex.” I fol­low his gaze, trac­ing the trail up a gully un­til it is lost to all sight ex­cept Norbu’s: “He may still be up there.”

Snow leop­ard tracks have not al­ways brought such ela­tion in these parts. Back in Leh, three days ear­lier, we vis­ited the of­fices of the Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­vancy, where young con­ser­va­tion­ist Tse­wang Nam­gail de­scribed how his moun­tain up­bring­ing once taught him to re­vile snow leop­ards. “I once had a lot of anger inside me,” he told us, de­scrib­ing an at­tack on his un­cle’s vil­lage that left 12 sheep dead. To­day, he is help­ing this en­ter­pris­ing NGO ad­dress the con­flict through ini­tia­tives such as com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion and bet­ter live­stock hus­bandry. He has also pi­o­neered eco­tourism projects – in­clud­ing our home­s­tay – that of­fer real in­cen­tives for im­pov­er­ished vil­lages to pro­tect their wildlife.

Our time in Leh taught us about more than snow leop­ards. Sen­si­bly, the itin­er­ary in­cluded three nights in the town, both to ac­cli­ma­tise to the al­ti­tude – Leh sits at 9,840ft – and to taste some lo­cal cul­ture. From our base at the Grand Dragon ho­tel we ven­tured out on foot, climb­ing ice-en­crusted steps past thick-furred stray dogs to the mud-brick walls of the tow­er­ing royal palace.

Tak­ing to the ve­hi­cles, we left town to fol­low the In­dus river across the high desert plateau past wild ravines and craggy monas­ter­ies. And each day the al­ti­tude felt a lit­tle eas­ier as, on David’s ad­vice, we topped up on the lo­cal spiced green tea, kah­wah.

At Spituk monastery, just out­side town, we found a fes­ti­val in progress. We joined the throng, fil­ing up the steep ram­parts, through a musty rab­bit war­ren of in­ner cham­bers and out into an open court­yard, where crim­son-robed monks cor­ralled us into cross-legged rows. From ap­par­ent chaos, we watched an ex­tra­or­di­nary performance take shape. Suc­ces­sive groups of dancers en­tered the arena, decked out as mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ters in out­landish cos­tumes and gurn­ing, lac­quered face masks. Snow swirled around gy­rat­ing per­form­ers and spell­bound au­di­ence alike, while monks kept up a blar­ing, atonal ac­com­pa­ni­ment on cym­bals, gongs and python-sized horns. For three hours I had no idea what was go­ing on. It was grip­ping.

Five days later and the fes­ti­val is long for­got­ten. It’s a blue-sky day and we’ve re­turned to yes­ter­day’s tracks. Norbu and his team have had their te­le­scopes trained on a panoramic sweep of ridge and val­ley for the past hour when sud­denly there’s a com­mo­tion among them.

“See the ibex?” says David. What ibex? Now I’ve got them, spark­ing a mini avalanche as they gal­lop across a gully and leap up a cliff on the other side, stop­ping as one to stare back the way they came. “Shan!” breathes Norbu, eyes glued to his scope. No trans­la­tion needed. But where?

David re­lays Norbu’s di­rec­tions and we all scram­ble for shared ref­er­ence points in the dis­tant jum­ble of rock and snow, des­per­ate for a glimpse. “You see that gully…” “Which gully – the one on top?” “No, no, to the left. Be­low that slab of cliff – looks like a map of Aus­tralia.”

A new an­i­mal en­ters my binoc­u­lar field from stage right. De­tails are hard to make out at this dis­tance but there’s no mis­tak­ing that low, prowl­ing pro­file – nor the huge tail, still switch­ing with the ir­ri­ta­tion of an am­bush thwarted. There are gasps as we all get on to it, watch­ing to­gether as the cat pauses at the foot of a cliff then springs up in two fluid bounds to a ledge. It may be a kilo­me­tre (0.6 miles) away, but it’s a thrilling sight. High fives all round.

For an­other hour, we peer through the scopes in hope that it might jump down and come closer. But clearly it is do­ing what cats do best: curl­ing up for a snooze. And, as the cloud rolls in, we are forced to call it a day.

Back at the lodge we peer at each other’s photos. Let’s face it, none of our shots will be go­ing up on the wall. But close-ups miss the point. The snow leop­ard is an an­i­mal of vast land­scapes; the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the wild and the un­reach­able. To have watched one mov­ing against its grand moun­tain back­drop, its prey scat­ter­ing be­fore it… My heart is still rac­ing.

And if we’d failed? Well, there are no guar­an­tees in these moun­tains. Per­haps the near­est monastery would have shown me the path to spir­i­tual ac­cep­tance. Af­ter all, it worked for Peter Matthiessen.

‘Shan!’ breathes Norbu, his eyes glued to his scope. No trans­la­tion needed. But where?

THE KING OF THE MOUN­TAIN The prowl­ing snow leop­ard is mas­ter of this wilder­ness; be­low, a fes­ti­val at Spituk monastery

Mike Un­win’s long-dis­tance photo of the snow leop­ard FAR-OFF GLIMPSE

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