Shan is the Ladakhi word for snow leopard. We saw one today.
This is the more remarkable because we have yet to enter Hemis National Park, yet to camp in the snow, yet to try our mountain-tired legs on the dusty slopes of the Husing and Tarbung valleys. Today we went on a day trip to the beautiful village of Ulley, in a secluded valley beyond the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers.
I knew yesterday that there was a chance we might see a snow leopard in Ulley. Three days ago one took a young domestic yak above the village and has been visiting it ever since. It was seen by my colleague Morup there yesterday. With the wholehearted agreement of my new colleague Konchok, who is accompanying us to the park tomorrow, I decided not to tell my group; after the complexity of our arrival in Ladakh, we felt they needed a good night's rest. So I kept quiet and fretted alone through the night.
The journey to Ulley takes more than two hours and, on the gentle slopes leading up from the Indus, we saw Ladakh urial or red sheep but could not find the wolves which Morup had seen here yesterday. As we neared Ulley, the skies brooding and fine snow falling, we needed chains on our wheels to cross yesterday's snow-fall on many tight corners. All the while the news from our friend Nurboo in Ulley was bad: he had not seen the snow leopard today. She had apparently left her kill.
Reaching Ulley we waited for the cold and the snow to pass, sipping fragrant tea in Nurboo's lovely wood-beamed home. At 4,200 metres, Ulley is the highest point on our tour so it was slowly that we made our way up the ridge behind Nurboo's house to scan for Asiatic ibex and, we hardly dared to hope, for the snow leopard.
The ibex were easy; groups of these magnificent animals were on the slopes on either side of the great valley. Then, as we trudged further uphill, there came a shout from above us. Nurboo had found the snow leopard!
Altitude was forgotten, hearts raced, and we scrambled over snow and rocks to reach Nurboo. By the body of the yak she had killed and eaten sat a female snow leopard, content on a full belly, resting in the first rays of the sun to penetrate the day's snow-laden clouds.
We watched her for two hours as she yawned and flicked her tail, ate snow and defecated, and rolled to face one way then the other. Finally she stood and walked a short distance, her exquisitely squiggled flank towards us, and settled almost out of view on a buttress of rock.
This cat, several hundred metres from us, commanded the vastness of a mountain valley and the focus of eleven westerners crowded around telescopes beneath her. Seeing her my clients joined the privileged group of souls who have seen this wildest of animals on its own terms, in its majestic landscape, when it chooses to be seen. She knew we were there and sometimes she glanced towards us with disdain in her ice-pale eyes, but she chose to be seen all the same.
|Snow leopards and ibex, hand made in felt by his son,|
for sale in Nurboo's home
|There's a snow leopard in the centre of this picture.|
|Naturetrekkers watching said snow leopard|
|The view up the valley above Ulley|
Tomorrow we walk to Rumbak, in Hemis National Park, and, from my little tent in the ice and snow, I shall not be able to write here for six nights.
Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii 3
serval Leptailurus serval serval 3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus 2
lion Panthera leo nubica 78
snow leopard Panthera uncia 1