The allure of the ‘grey ghost’ in one of the most remote places on earth is what brings most travelers to the mountainous, trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, India. With thick grey, white, and spotted black coats that give them a natural camouflage, the elusive big cats are almost impossible to see with an untrained eye. And while they have evolved to live in some of the harshest conditions—including India’s Hemis National Park—snow leopard numbers are scarce. Not only that, they are incredibly hard to spot and photograph in the wild, which makes our Quest for the Snow Leopard itinerary even more appealing to big cat enthusiasts and culture-seekers alike.
There’s so much more to this mystical winter journey along the Silk Road than the sighting of snow leopards too. The entire experience of being in the Himalayas, surrounded by magnificent landscapes, remote mountain villages, and ancient kingdoms is unparalleled. There are Buddhist monasteries offering intimate cultural encounters, unique Himalayan and Indian cuisine, the opportunity to stay in an authentic, traditional homestay, Snow Leopard Lodge, or soon-to-open luxury camp LUNGMĀR. You’ll stand in awe of staggeringly beautiful scenery, and experience a quiet that’s hard to describe—offering the opportunity to truly disconnect. Plus of course, the unique wildlife viewing opportunities with knowledgeable guides and scouts make an expedition here one of the most extraordinary experiences we offer.
It’s truly just you, a handful of other people, the wildlife, and the mountains. “You land in this tranquil, quiet place and it’s all monks, monasteries, and snow leopards in the middle of the Himalayas,” says Amit Sankhala, our India expert. “If you’re trying to get away from everything for five or six days, be out in the wilderness, and have the most amazing scenery while you’re sipping your coffee and looking for snow leopards in the wild, this is your trip. It’s pretty surreal when you’re looking at that landscape, especially when the snow has fallen on the mountains—it feels like you’re on a different planet.” We sat down with Amit to chat about what it’s like to travel to Ladakh and go on a quest for the elusive snow leopards of the Himalayas…
Extraordinary Journeys: So what’s the journey like to get to India’s Ladakh region where you go on a snow leopard safari?
Amit Sankhala: You’ll land in Dehli, and then the next morning you’ll take an hour-long flight to the town of Leh where you’ll spend a couple of days acclimating to the altitude before heading up into the mountains to Hemis National Park. It’s the biggest town in Ladakh—the northern region of India in the Himalayas—with the most spectacular scenery.
Thirty minutes into the flight you’ll have the most amazing view of the Himalayan landscape, and when you’re landing they even announce the fact that the aircraft gets quite close to the mountains (don’t be scared this is how we land here). It’s a military outpost—a most peaceful place, but a deployment point to Pakistan and China. The whole town used to cater to the military, but over time it’s also become a big tourist destination in the summer for Indians as well as a destination for big cat seekers in the winter.
EJ: Can you tell us a little bit about the acclimatization process for being at such high altitudes for the snow leopard safari?
AS: You’ll have to acclimatize for a day or two minimum in Leh because you are pretty much going from sea level to 3,400 meters. Basic acclimatization techniques are all you should expect. You need to take everything very slowly and you’ll get used to the air. At first, you’re going to feel like you’re getting tired fast, and maybe a little bit lightheaded because you’re getting less air.
The first day needs to be easy and we plan it that way. You can walk slowly to the market and move around. If you’re climbing stairs, do it at half the pace you’d normally do (or take the elevator everywhere). You also can’t just lie there all day and do nothing, or sleep all day because you also need to get the blood flowing. Drinking lots of water and tea are also important. Plus, there are pills you can take that your doctor can recommend that help with acclimatization. The main thing is that you can’t be running around, picking up heavy cameras with long lenses, photographing things—you won’t know it’s going to hit you, but if you don’t go slowly, it will hit you and by then it’s too late.
We spend a couple of days in Leh, checking out the monasteries, palace, and local culture including bread-making demonstrations. If after two days you haven’t acclimatized well enough, we’ll spend an extra day in Leh or fly you back down (don’t worry, we’re always carrying oxygen tanks in just in case).
EJ: Are travelers allowed to visit inside of the monasteries in Ladakh and if so what’s that experience like?
AS: On day two or three of the trip, we make a point to go to the Thikse Monastery (located on top of a hill in Thiksey approximately 12 miles east of Leh). It’s only possible to enter during the winter months when there are very few people visiting the region (in the summer thousands of people flock to Ladakh for vacation). In winter, nobody comes to see them so they don’t mind if you walk right into the monastery, where just eight to 10 monks are meditating or chanting, drinking their buttermilk tea—take photographs. There are a lot of kids, in this culture, and it’s a blessing and an honor for a child to become a monk. Some of the monasteries are hundreds of years old with beautiful inscriptions, and it’s very powerful. It’s amazing to be there because there’s nobody else there—just you in a monastery in the middle of the mountain.
EJ: Do you watch from afar or can you interact with the monks?
AS: You can interact with them. You’ll always have an interpreter with you, a Ladakhi guide, who is Buddhist and has an understanding of all the different kinds of Buddhist philosophies, and able to explain how everything works. After Dharamsala—where the Dalai Lama lives, a bit south of Ladakh—this is the biggest center of Buddhist monasteries anywhere in India. When the migration happened, in the war with China taking over Tibet, the Dalai Lama came to India, and India gave them refuge. Ever since all these monks have been situated here from Dharamshala. It also used to be a kingdom—the king of Ladakh still exists today—and has a palace as well, which you’ll visit in Leh.
EJ: So, once you’re up in the mountains what does a day of snow leopard tracking entail?
AS: By about 6:30 am, our scouts go to different strategic locations, and ridges where they’ve seen snow leopards previously. They are communicating with the scouts in other nearby villages via walkie-talkie.
Travelers can also get up that early in the morning and head up to the top of the Snow Leopard Lodge to the lookout right above the rooms where the scouts will already be on watch. There is a great vantage point to check out what’s happening. Travelers can have their coffee, hot chocolate or tea delivered up there while the sun rises. The scopes are already set up to use. Breakfast is at around 8:30 am, and by 10 am there’s a briefing about what the plan for the day is, and what direction or valley you’re going to head based on the sightings. Once you’re out in the field, lunch is always hot and delivered to you wherever you are—no matter how remote the location. They’ll bring in tables, and chairs, and serve soups, biryani, and all types of Indian food. Then you continue tracking the leopards. You return to the lodge at around 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm, and then you’re inside for the night.
EJ: What’s the likelihood of seeing a snow leopard?
AS: Seeing a snow leopard of course is a big tick off the list for many people when they come. I would say about eight out of 10 of our small groups see snow leopards. It’s a pretty good ratio, sometimes you see them up close if there’s a kill, and sometimes you see them through a scope far away. There is a possibility you won’t see a snow leopard so you need to come with the expectation that this is a quest for a snow leopard and not like an African safari where you’re guaranteed to see a lion. For people that do see them, it’s the holy grail of cats. We have to set the expectation—you can’t come expecting to see a snow leopard. You have the best chances here, but there are no guarantees.
EJ: If you do find a snow leopard, what’s the experience like and how close can you get?
AS: It depends. If the snow leopard has had a kill it will stick around and you can get within a couple of hundred meters. But, it’s not like seeing a lion that comes right next to the vehicle. Most of the time you’ll see them through a scope, but it truly varies.
EJ: What kind of wildlife, apart from the elusive snow leopard, can our clients expect to see?
AS: When you go into snow leopard country, you’re not just going to see them. It’s a quest, taking you to the mountains with the most amazing scenery on earth (according to me, and I’ve traveled to over 60 countries). There is an opportunity to see so much life. People can expect to see Ibex, blue sheep, wolf, and fox. There’s also fantastic bird life: lammergeier, golden eagle, and if you’re lucky the ibisbill and the Himalayan snowcock. Earlier this year we had an amazing sighting of five wolves chasing away a snow leopard.
EJ: How physically demanding is this trip—does it require any hiking experience?
AS: The average age on this trip is 65-70 years old. We’re not expecting anyone to have trekking experience. If you’re that fit great, but you can be driven everywhere. The road conditions in Ladakh are excellent compared to the rest of India because there’s such a big military operation up there. The roads are always ready.
Sometimes we will walk when we get to a particular spot. You have to be able to do basic hikes. The amount of walking varies from day to day based on leopard sightings. If there’s hiking involved we’re gonna take it slow and we’ll have porters that will carry your gear. You can take it as slow or fast as you like—everyone will adjust. You’re not going to slow down a group because you’re slower, we have multiple guides so somebody will walk with you.
EJ: What if clients want to be more active or do some walking?
AS: Absolutely, it’s one of those things, the world is your oyster once you’re up in the mountains. You want to go for a hike, yes. You want to climb a mountain, sure. Multiple guides are always at the lodge. You can even decide one day to go for a hike, and you won’t miss out—when there’s a snow leopard sighting everyone is there.
EJ: Do you recommend planning a private adventure or joining a small group trip for a snow leopard safari?
AS: Generally, we try to run this expedition as a small group trip with six to eight people because it’s good to have more eyes out there when you’re looking for snow leopards. While we push people to join one of our small group departures, of course, you can book a private trip, alone, with your own guide and vehicle, but generally, all the activities at the camp are still done as a group.
If you have a family of four or five people with adult children or those in their teens, this could be a very cool trip for them. Once you’re there, you have six days totally disconnected from the world—you don’t have a phone connection, you don’t have a TV to watch, you don’t have any of that, so it’s nice to have good conversations in the afternoons and evenings. It’s always a good group of people because generally whoever picks a snow leopard safari is usually a well-traveled person.
EJ: What makes the original Snow Leopard Lodge so special?
AS: The Snow Leopard Lodge is a community-established, community-owned property—a community homestay so to speak. It’s just outside the national park, but there’s no boundary so there are snow leopards everywhere. It has nice rooms with attached bathrooms, but no running water. The food is nice, but you’re not eating a fancy dinner. Everything there is included, meals, guiding, and your vehicle. It’s sitting at 4000m. The guides and scouts at Snow Leopard Lodge are very well established after so many years.
EJ: How did the Snow Leopard Lodge go from being a single-room homestay to what it is today?
AS: Snow Leopard Lodge started out as a small homestay with one room, owned by one of Ladakh’s top snow leopard trackers Norbu and his wife Dolma. They would pile up six or seven clients in that room with a heater in the middle. One time he saw my big camera and said, ‘you have a big camera, you should give me your phone number,’ and I said why? Then he said, ‘The next time a snow leopard kills my yak, I’ll give you a call. Because he knew the pattern: once a snow leopard kills a yak, it’ll feed on it for four or five days. Then the wolves, fox, golden eagles, and more come. He knew exactly the pattern and how he could make money by showcasing it rather than killing the snow leopard. Back in the day, the ideal thing would’ve been to kill the snow leopard because suddenly he’s lost the only yak he has and it takes forever to get compensation from the government. Over time they brought in good servers, and good chefs, and then an investor came in with their expertise and showed the Norbu and Dolma how to work together with the community to turn it into the professional safari lodge that it is today.
EJ: Is there a focus on conservation?
AS: We highly support an organization up there called the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Before the pandemic, we generated over 40k towards the conservancy through tourism dollars, travel organizations, as well as a grant through the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund.
The villagers have the regular human-wildlife conflict that people face around the world. If you’re surviving on a particular yak, that is your livelihood. So if a snow leopard comes and hunts your yak, then what do you do? Those were the biggest issues. What the Snow Leopard Conservancy has been doing is building fences where all the livestock including sheep are kept inside.
One of the programs we focused on was teaching the monks about snow leopard conservation. Education is a big part of conservation, and all the villages come to the monasteries to hear the teachings. We went from monastery to monastery, educating them, which helped them value and understand why it is important to save snow leopards in the wild.
They’ve also helped to create the first homestays in Ladakh—where people can stay along the trekking routes in the summer. And that’s how Snow Leopard Lodge even started, we’d camp a few days and spend a few nights in a homestay to have an alternative income to farming in the winter.
EJ: There is some excitement around the new property that’s opening this November in the Ladakh region, LUNGMĀR, owned by Dorjay Stanzin and Abdul Rashid, famed conservationists and snow leopard trackers. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what clients can expect?
AS: The recently established LUNGMĀR is a remote bush camp style property at 3500m elevation. It’s in a completely different valley, and it has a different level of luxury. It’s fancy, compared to the other options in the region, and relative to where you are. The lodge has seven Kurkhang heated tents designed in a military style. The shared bathroom that you walk to (this is all valuable information when you’re going out at -10 degrees celsius and you have to dress up to go out). And inside the stone and wood building, they also have five ‘Predators Suites’ with attached bathrooms and hot running water.
I see the Snow Leopard Lodge and LUNGMĀR as very two very different clientele. I don’t think one has more advantages over the other.
EJ: How would you define ‘luxury’ in snow leopard country?
AS: The fact that you have running water, hot showers, an attached en suite bathroom, gourmet meals, and rooms that are insulated—in snow leopard country is what we consider luxury.
EJ: How much time do you recommend spending in camp?
AS: An 11-day trip includes six nights at the lodge which includes five full days at the camp.
EJ: What’s the climate like?
AS: In the winter during snow leopard season it gets down to negative 5°C to -10°C (41°F to -14°F) at night time, but then you’re warm inside because it’s dark by 5 pm. Daytime is very pleasant from -2°C to 2°C (28.4°F to 35.6°F). It’s not bad if you’re wearing the right clothes.
EJ: What kind of clothing do travelers need to pack and wear?
AS: We recommend layers, rather than one big jacket because daytime is usually really nice with blue skies, but it can get windy in the hills. Touque, gloves, merino wool socks, a base layer, and a balaclava are essential. So is a good pair of ankle-height hiking boots, and a pair of snow paints.
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