The small village of Ulley in Ladakh is a hotbed for snow leopard spotting and Ladakhi hospitality
It was -27 °C and the daylight was fading. Even though my fingers were numb, my face had a wide smile. As I stood almost 150 feet above the Srinagar-Leh National Highway craning my neck looking at a ridge above, I was fixated only on him. In Ladakh, they call him ‘Shan’. In layman’s language, he is known as the snow leopard.
The adjective most commonly associated with a snow leapord is elusive. Shan’s piercing glare was looking down at me. My admiring gaze kept looking up at him through the telescope. For a few minutes, all I could see was his head and those sharp eyes. Then he swished his bushy tail. As it turned out, this snow leopard was a poser. He majestically strutted a short distance down the ridge before merging with the landscape. Nicknamed the grey ghost because one minute you are looking at him through the spotting lens and the next he is gone, snow leopard spotting is surreal.
All this time, I did not realise how 90 minutes passed just like that. Such is the magnetism of this elusive cat. As I sat in the vehicle sipping hot chocolate before being driven back to Ulley Village, which was my base, I kept relieving the euphoric experience on a loop. I had landed at the Leh Airport a few days ago and headed straight to The Grand Dragon Ladakh, which was a mere a few minutes from the airport. To acclimatise, the first day was reserved for rest. To help brave the chill, we were offered some garlic soup.
“Garlic soup helps warm the body, to increase blood circulation and the body’s oxygen supply, which is crucial to acclimatise in Leh,” explained Danish Din, Director of The Grand Dragon Ladakh. Din is instrumental in promoting the conservation of snow leopards in the valley, further generating income for the residents of Ulley Village.
In the evening, I met with Dr. Tsewang Namgail, Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy- India Trust (SLC-IT) who gave me some background on Ulley. What makes Ulley special is the positive transformation of the villagers from killing snow leopards to now being sensitised and embracing the animal. “They used matchlock guns to kill the leopards as it attacked their livestock since the pens (enclosed areas for the livestock) were roofless. To tackle this sitaution, we now install wire meshing preventing the snow leopards to enter the enclosed areas,” explained Namgail who has been tirelessly working towards snow leopard conservation.
Another initiative was creating homestays for visitors, giving them an opportunity to spot snow leopards while experiencing local culture and cuisine. I came to know that out of the six families living at Ulley Village, four have turned their homes into homestays. The men work as snow leopard spotters and trackers. The 40 odd residents of this village also make dry pin felt souvenirs of the predators and its prey species like ibex and urial.
Filled with anticipation, we drove to reach the picturesque village in Ladakh. A warm meal awaited me at the dining hall of The Snow Leopard Lodge, which was started to accommodate visitors for snow leopard sightings. Stanzin Farma, Manager of The Snow Leopard Lodge, mentioned that guests can spot snow leopards at Ulley Village, Saspoche Village, Hemis Shukpachan and Yangtang Valley.
The next day, while strolling around the village, Nilza Angmo waved out to me. She runs a homestay. I was introduced to authentic Ladakhi meals during my visit to her homestay, which included khambir (Ladakhi bread) served with butter tea for breakfast, rice, lentils and vegetables and skew (a pasta preparation with meat and vegetables). As I munched on the delicacies on the open porch, a few dzos (male hybrid between a cow and yak) and dzomos (female hybrid between a cow and yak) ambled by.
During my stay, Norbu, the Chief Spotter of Ulley Village , took me to spot a Himalayan Golden Eagles nest, a herd of ibex, a fleeting herd of urial and a feisty red fox. As I left the village, I took back the warm hospitality and the words of a Ladakhi proverb, which says that “a snow leopard is as beautiful as 10 women, as strong as 10 men and as wise as 10 astronomers”.