Ladakh is a cold desert nestled at an average altitude of 3,657-4,570 metres. Despite the aridity and high altitude the region is home to a myriad unique flora and fauna with special adaptations. There are more than 30 mammals and over 300 species of birds in the region. But many of them are being pushed to the brink of extinction due to ambitious human endeavours. Several protected areas have been established to protect them in their mountainous habitats, but their efficacy is less known. One of the most important amongst these protected areas is the Hemis High Altitude National Park.
One sunny afternoon in early July, Yashveer, Kishor, Chris, Tracey and I set out on an expedition to the Hemis National Park. We stowed our bags in a land cruiser and left Leh, the capital city of Ladakh. After driving for half an hour on a seemingly desiccated plateau, we reached the confluence of Rumbak and Rumchung streams. We walked into Rumchung valley, and arrived at the campsite before sunset. There we waited for the horses carrying our camping gear, but pitched tents before long. Soon dinner was served, and I went to bed early to sleep off the fatigue. Chirping of crickets and the jingling sound of a bell on a horse’s neck were the only sounds that broke the silence.
After a days stay in Rumchung, we walked up the Rumbak valley. Dugyas, a camp assistant, became lethargic and complained about the heat, and was relieved when he saw a huge cloud drifting towards the blazing sun. A wind out of the west was cool and invigorating. Two hours walk in the scorching heat brought us to the second campsite. Sonam, the merry cook, sang loudly while preparing lunch. He was a real laughing stock and entertained us off and on. In the afternoon, I bathed in the swift mountain torrent, and lingered around among the willow trees while my washed clothes dried on the sun-baked boulders.
The next few days were spent with the argali sheep in the upper reaches of Rumbak valley. Argali is the largest wild sheep, standing 3.5 to 4 feet at the shoulder; horn length reaching up to 40 inches. One afternoon, my assistant and I climbed to a vantage point that provided a bird’s eye view of the entire valley. It was very difficult to climb in the thin air, and I rested and panted in the crispy air after every 100 m. Soon I was dumbstruck by the spectacular view of the jagged mountains of the Zangskar range in the west. It was a perfect cosmic art indeed!
The 25 or so argalis in the area are the descendants of three individuals that arrived in the valley three decades ago. The people considered the animal’s arrival in the valley as a good omen and protected them. The population however is not growing beyond 25; perhaps the carrying capacity for the animal in this area has reached. Argalis need open areas as they rely on their speed to run away from predators, and such terrain is very limited in Hemis.
After the memorable days with argalis, we moved to Tibles camp, one of my favourites in the area. Chris and I walked across Maskeung valley, a major haunt for argalis. From a ridgeline I spotted a herd of 13 bharals, all male, grazing on a verdant patch at the valley bottom. Soon Chris located another herd of 26 bharals, resting on a south-facing slope above Yurutse. Bharal or blue sheep is the most abundant wild ungulate in Hemis, and is the most important prey of the endangered snow leopard. Unlike the argalis, bharals are comfortable in the rugged cliffs, which they use to escape predation. This predilection of the animal for cliffs segregates it from argali, enabling their coexistence in the area.
The area is also grazed by livestock such as sheep, goat, horse and dzo (a hybrid of yak and cow). Most of the livestock belong to people living outside the park. While walking across a slope covered with Caragana bushes, we came across a herder with almost two hundred sheep and goats. The deep crinkles on his sun-tanned face spoke of the harsh elements prevailing in the area. When asked about the whereabouts of argalis in the area, he said ‘during summer they use the highest pastures, feeding on Delphinium, but descends during winter’.
As we approached the camp at Tibles, it rained. Fortunately, our tents were already pitched by the camp boys, so we had a nap after getting to the place. The rattling sound made by raindrops falling on the canvas tent was a perfect lullaby. Soon, tea and vegetable cutlets were served.
Next day, a thick mist consumed us as we clambered the slope above the camp. When the mist drew apart I saw five bharals, just at a stone’s throw distance. They grazed and asserted rank intermittently. Hiding myself, I sat on a muddy spot, and called my colleagues resting on a spur below. But the animals fled before they caught a glimpse. As we hobbled up to look for them, the clouds burst again, and rain-bound we jumbled under an umbrella. As we reached back at the camp, the tangle of clouds thinned away and the sun shone again. Rest of the day was spent drying dank clothes, reading books and playing cards.
The most exciting part of the trip however was climbing up a peak next to the Stok glacier. One morning after a light breakfast we left camp. At around midday we rested on a nice vantage point, and scanned the valley for animals. We spotted a group of bharals rested on a slope across the valley. On our way back, we came across a shaggy yak standing nonchalantly at the edge of a small lake. Yak is rare in this part of Ladakh. Unlike in eastern Ladakh where people use them for transportation, the yaks here are kept only for breeding. As we approached the camp, clouds gathered again, and it poured in the night. Many of us hunched in soggy sleeping bags among puddles of rainwater, but cheered up in the morning and returned to Leh.