On a Snow-Hooded Himalayan Trail: The Story Of Serken

Into the Mountains
Into the Mountains…

There are only 3000 to 6000 Snow Leopards estimated to be alive today- they are an endangered species. By some conservative estimates, you would be 10 times more likely to be struck by a lightning, than having the absolute luck of seeing the majestic Snow Leopard. Serken (in local name) is considered to be a symbol of God. With these thoughts in mind, five layers of warm clothing and strong, sturdy shoes I set out on a journey to feel the Himalayas. A lot of effort was put into bringing together all necessary life belongings into one rucksack. The aim was to keep it as light as possible. I was going to climb steep rocky mountains in -10 degrees celsius (it was late October), explore the frozen valleys and live with the locals of the Spiti-Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh, India.

When I arrived at Chandigarh in the morning, three free souls and one self-driven car welcomed me at the airport. We hopped in and shortly hit the highway to Manali. A night spent well and an energy packed breakfast filled me with thrill and enthusiasm to drive further. Through the snow peaks and huge rocks we paced our SUV to stop right at our next destination- Chatru. Unlike the usual tar or cement roads, the roads here were made only of gravel. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a landslide right beside me. Mother Earth pulled down everything from big boulders to minute sand particles and threw them at us puny humans! Everything was grey, hidden under the vast dust cloud that rose in the sky. Gravity showed its aggression to us. It looked like a trailer. Earth- like an angry goddess; trying to tell man that she is far more powerful than any human being could ever aspire to be!

A big speed breaker and a bumpy bridge, got me back to the present and I saw that we had by now passed the landslide. The grey had disappeared and I had reached Chatru, just before dusk! The stars shimmered and glittered, as only the stars under the grand Himalayan sky can. There were only two huts where we could ask for food. The temperature fell rapidly but the small hut, the family we met, the fried eggs and noodles they cooked for us brought much needed warmth and love! After setting up the tent I watched stars change position for about two hours and discussed how enlightened our life was to be experiencing pure nature first hand. We also discussed struggles of life while talking to the only family we had met. They had no permanent address- they lived six months in Chatru and the other six in a village at a lower elevation. They were filled with joy to meet us, to share their dinner with us and allow us to spend a night on their land- it wasn’t often that they had visitors this late into the year. They told me people like us, make their life beautiful. I strongly believe the struggles you choose determine the level of carefree and happy life you lead!

The next morning I woke up to numb feet, ice in my hair and chirping birds. There were a pair of singing River Chats flying all over the place. The tributary of Spiti river flowed freely by the side. After waving goodbye to the family who provided us shelter we moved ahead to Dhankar Village. On the way we spent another night at a pristine lake that we bumped into after our not so perfect google search. We took a narrow, winding road that led us to Chandra tal lake- the Lake of the Moon- one of the highest lakes in the world. We spent the night under the starry galaxy and woke up to clear blue water which literally turned the Himalayas upside down.

When the Himalayas turned upside down
When the Himalayas turned upside down

Dhankar Village was 8 hours away from the Lake of the Moon. After a great bumpy make-your-own-way ride on gravel, the stars twinkled their smiles upon us one by one. The night fell dark- we were about to reach Dhankar Monastery. It was 9 PM at night. To my ecstasy, the monastery lights shared the space with twinkling stars at the horizon. I shouted with joy “Yay, we found a home”. All of us got really excited to see civilization again! Faint with hunger, we decided to distract ourselves by turning our attention to our daily “wildlife talks” and discussed how we were 4000 meters above the sea level. My friends curiously asked me about the wildlife found here! I told them about the Short-toed Larks that we had seen flying in flocks at the lake, the majestic Himalayan Griffon that perched on the rock, the Ibex which we couldn’t see and then we discussed the mighty and elusive Snow-Leopard.

Himalayan Griffon in all its glory!
Himalayan Griffon in all its glory!

“The Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), lives in high altitudes about 3,000–4,500 meters from the sea level. It can walk on the rocky steep slopes of the Himalayas and is usually seen only above the tree level. Sources say that there are only 6000 of these individuals left in the wild. They have been facing major threats like climate change and habitat destruction owing to the greed of homo sapiens. They can hunt prey three times their size. They are about 125 cms long- not counting their tail length. They have an extremely useful tail which can sometimes be used to protect them from the harsh snow.” Can we come across a Snow-Leopard here? Asked a friend who was currently concentrating on driving and reaching the horizon with lights. “Yes”, I said, “If only fate is on our side! It is an extremely rare and elusive animal, and finding one is like finding an angel falling from the sky” My friends laughed as we continued making our way.

After about thirty minutes, while we were still driving and I was lost in the stars that followed us, my friend who had never seen even a Snow-Leopard photograph, shouted out- “Snow-leopard!” as he brought the car to a grinding halt. Wait, what, that isn’t possible- I thought. “No, it can’t be”, I said still lost in the stars. “It is, there is no other creature this size with that long a tail. Her eyes are shining in the car’s headlights, at least take a look, you girlgonebirdzz!” He exclaimed. I got up from my recumbent position and to my surprise an adult solitary “Serken” as the locals would call it was sitting comfortably on the cold, very steep mountain beside me. I hurriedly got my torch and focused straight on the animal, keeping a safe distance. “Yes, a female Snow-Leopard!”

We stopped the car to get a better look. I tried photographing it but it was too dark. It stared at us as we stared back. I tried to climb up to get a better picture, careful not to make any sudden movements and scare it away. The result was this shot that I managed to capture after 30 minutes of slowly and painfully inching forward. By then I had closely monitored her behavior towards me- she looked calm and peaceful, she just wanted to relax on the mountain! We stayed like this for another 30 minutes, staring at each other before my friends dragged me away and I went to the car reluctantly. That night we holed up at the monastery, where the monks told us that yes indeed a Sow Leopard had been dragging away their livestock over the last few weeks. They mentioned that spotting a Snow Leopard is very rare and that we were one of the luckiest travelers that year! I slept fitfully, dreaming of the leopard, chasing it through the mountain crags.

Next day morning, at the break of dawn, I jumped out of my bed and drove towards the place where we had spotted the Serken. Alas, it was gone! I jumped into the narrow gap between the mountains and started pulling myself up. Although the Serken was gone, I was fortunate enough to collect her hair and a few droppings. I secured these valuable samples up in air- tight zip-lock bag to get them tested at a lab once we returned to civilization. The Serken was a majestic sight, one that crowned our entire trip. It was more than the icing on the cake, for me personally, the Serken took the cake itself! :)
 PS: This article was published on Travelettes — an online platform for women travelers to share inspiring stories. Read it here. Also don’t forget to show your love in the comments, by sharing it with your friends and with my Travel Funds. Thanks!

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