Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tso Kar-Taglang La-Leh-Dras-Srinagar

J&K complete logs here

After the lucky sighting of the Little Owl at the Thupche village and after a quick visit to the monastery there, we were back to the resort for some hot food and much needed rest. The rooms were insulated from the cold winds as they were concrete structures and not tents. I missed pointing out the sightings of Kiang or the Tibetan Wild Ass we had while on our way to Tso Kar from Polokung La. These Ass are found only in pockets in India and this is one place where they are found in huge numbers. In short, you need to come here to see the Kiang, the largest of the Wild Ass species. They are the country cousins of the Indian Wild Ass or Khur that is found in LRK/GRK in the state of Gujarat.

What you get to see here is plain dry fields extending as far as the eyes can see and then the hills and the mountains at the far end rising like the phoenix with ice caps here and there. In the winter months, it’s bitterly cold and snowfall is common around these regions and the lakes freeze. Closer to the resort is Startsapuk Tso, a fresh water lake that houses a variety of birds and that is where we were headed in search of some commonly seen species that included the Tibetan Sandgrouse, Black-necked Cranes, Snowfinches and other water birds.

We had elaborate plans of long birding at Tso Kar, but that somehow didn’t materialize as birding was tough and lady luck not favoring us, still we spent two nights looking out for birds. We missed the very common Tibetan Sandgrouse and the Upland Buzzard was a very distant, far off sighting. We spent the whole day roaming around Tso Kar looking around for birds and we did encounter quite a few of them in good numbers as also the Kiang’s (they run just like that, without any provocation, and keep running). There are no defined tracks to follow (except for those that are carved out due to vehicles regularly moving on the stretch) and our car got stuck in slippery sand at a place and we had our task cut out in getting it out to a safe zone that drained a lot of our energy. It’s not easy spending the extra energy in a high altitude place where every step you take consumes your energy more than that in a normal place.

Black-necked Crane’s, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Twite, Great-crested Grebe, Bar-headed Geese were some of the highlight sightings that we had during the course of the day. Next day, we decided to do some early morning birding and by afternoon start our return journey towards Leh with a definite stopover. Luck, even distant seemed favoring us as we sighted the majestic Golden Eagle yet again (we were seeing it so commonly now all around) and then the rare Saker Falcon (that breeds in these high altitude ranges) and then the Upland Buzzard all in a matter of two hours and that’s how it is. The Golden Eagle had perched on a cliff and was camouflaged pretty well at a distance, the Saker Falcon was perched much higher and far on another cliff and the Upland Buzzard had perched on top of a cliff very far away almost invisible until it flew and we noted the characteristics through the bincoulars.

After having a heavy breakfast and a small photo session, we left as we had to cross over another high altitude pass, Taglang La, where possibilities of sighting the Tibetan Snowcock was presumably high but as luck had it, we didn’t and that made us change our further plans and halt at Rumtse village hoping to sight the rare Snowcock the next morning. It was snowing, chilly and rough weather atop Taglang La and very few people or vehicles around and the roads were missing in many stretches. We stayed at the J&K tourism guesthouse at Rumtse, small but decent accommodation with manageable food cooked for the night. We roamed around Rumtse village (a very small one indeed), looking out for birds and to call up our respective families as mobile network was nonexistent and I and Amith drove up to see some gompa’s closer nearby while PK and Kannan took a long stroll for some more birding.

Early next morning, we spent good time driving around Taglang La but as luck would have it, we didn’t see any signs of Snowcocks and the weather too was not very favorable towards us. We saw the Bharal’s again on the snow clad hills and quite a lot of Wooly hares all around. We started our return journey stopping whenever any of us would sight a bird at a close proximity or at a distance. Kannan and I alternatively stole winks sheepishly under the pretext of looking out for birds as we had nothing to do on the long journey but sit and wait for something to show up. In one such instance, we hit a bounty at a place where we abruptly stopped and were rewarded with sightings of Mongolian Finch (that’s a rarity!), Great Rosefinch, Twite, Chukar Partridge and Fire-fronted Serin’s all closer to a village called Lato, a splendid natural treat for Kannan on his birthday. From there, we headed to Leh with couple of small stops in between and by the time we figured out the location of the army camp and settled, it was late.

Some shopping, dinner and we were back to the camp for much needed rest; our final day at Leh as early next morning we would be heading back towards Srinagar with a halt at Drass. We checked out early in the morning with a quick stopover at the small lake near the airport to have a re-look for any good sightings and then proceeded towards Drass. En-route, we saw a short deviation towards Alchi monastery and decided to pay a quick visit to the place where we were rewarded with sightings of Pied Wheatear and Oriental Turtle Dove and were treated to some finger licking hot Maggi that was much needed. We reached Drass by late afternoon enjoying the vistas all along the way and catching up on some sleep while Amith was doing the hard work of driving.

We were back at the army camp and a break is a good while traveling between Leh-Srinagar as it’s a long journey and those mountain roads to negotiate. Later in the evening while chatting around dinner time, we were advised to start early, very early next day to cross over the dreaded Zojila at the earliest and we followed it and were happy as it turned out to be a messy stretch, much worse than what we encountered while coming. We left Drass around 4 in the morning only to be stopped at the check post before Zojila as the weather conditions were unfavorable that we soon realized. A little while later, we were allowed to pass along with few other cars (only smaller vehicles were allowed) and soon unfolded the gravity of the situation as the roads were only slushy and were becoming hard to negotiate.

Just passing through the Zojilla, Amith’s keen ears picked up a few dogs barking incessantly a little away on a slope to our far right. The voices of bear, bear started resonating in the car as we jolted to a sudden halt and all eyes wandering around the barking dogs. Soon, a bear (the debate of it being a brown or a black Himalayan bear is still on) emerged on the slope while the dogs continued their barking surrounding the bear as the nomadic settlement from where the dogs arrived was close by. We guessed some action to happen but the bear was eager to get away while the dogs content in chasing it away. After 10 good minutes and the bear appearing to move away, we resumed our journey as we still had to steer clear of the slushy Zojila at the earliest. By now we were the only vehicle left as the other vehicles had passed us and with a constant drizzle and unwilling sun to shine, it was a tricky good hour we spent to cross the entire Zojila stretch, all eyes wide open and pepping Amith with F1 style navigation.

We halted at Sonamarg for lunch and a quick walk around the park near the river that was full owing to copious rains over the last couple of days. Soon, we got to know that entry to Srinagar was banned as a curfew was on owing to PM’s visit to the place. Having heard that, we now had the task of finding a place to halt for the night and after some intense searching, we ended up at Manasbahl, about 20kms before Leh. Luckily it worked out well for us as we got to sight the Little Bittern, Jackdaw, Black-eared Kites in the small lake at the same place. Later, we mingled with the locals and for discussions on various topics till we chose to end the day.

People in Kashmir, like any of us are peace loving and would love to remain the same and something more evident was their reluctance to travel anywhere as lot of questions about militancy, war crop up wherever they go that makes them feel uncomfortable. A cozy little homestay where we stayed near the lake; good but expensive food; hospitable host who was very friendly; elderly locals who were more than keen to indulge in discussions on various topics made our short stay a memorable one.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Pangong Tso - Chumathang - Sumdo - Tso Kar

J&K complete logs here.

After surviving the howling winds and a chilly night, I pulled up myself to step out and have a look at what was on offer. The campsite was facing the lake and vista views of the lake and the rising sun was what awaited us (well, actually the sun was up very early when we were in deep slumber). The howling winds had reduced and so did the chillness and the sun was blazing in all his might with clear skies.

We drove up to Mann (few kms further away) for some birding and all I did after looking at the birds was just sit and get lost in the tranquility and surrender myself to the sublime beauty of the place next to none. I didn’t know what to do, I was completely lost and felt like a puny, tiny object on this earth in front of the mighty Himalayas and the widespread blue mesmerizing Pangong Tso.

By now, the sun was blazing with all his might and it was getting hotter by the hour and all I could manage to do was sit on the ground and stare into oblivion, a feeling of being in a place that is imaginative or was I hypnotized with a blank mind staring at the natural vista or was I out of my mind thinking all these…

A good hour passed by with me in this state of mind till the other folks returned and brought me back to the real world and the after effects of this state of my mind continued as I chose to remain a silent spectator till we moved out of this place.

This lake and some specific locations here have become tourist hotspots after the movie 3 Idiots and as a result of it, you’ll find signs of trash, hordes of people on a ‘picnic’ and the exhibit of insensitivity that we display everywhere.

After a dose of simple breakfast and birding around, we left Pangong towards Tso Kar, another high altitude lake and the place for the critically endangered Black-necked Cranes but we were sure of a halt in between due to numerous birding opportunities we would encounter on the way. We had to take the route backwards via Chang la and then deviate towards Karu and then Chumathang. It was already late afternoon by the time we reached Chumathang and opted to stay there and continue further the next day. We chose a small hotel to stay right next to the highway that was probably the only hotel around that offered a place to stay. There were some natural hot springs within the compound area from where hot water bubbled out even in the extreme cold. These regions in Ladakh are not so frequented by tourists and in many stretches, ours would be the only vehicle to be moving around. Wherever and whenever we stopped on seeing a bird, we would be curiously watched by the locals around and our cameras and binocs would be their main discussion theme.

Next day, we left early towards Sumdo as we had a lot to cover and had some prime birding spots en-route that had plenty to offer. We had plenty of birding on the way till we reached Upper Sumdo where again we were kept occupied by relentless birding all around. Except for a few houses, there was nothing much in Upper Sumdo but the bird life kept us occupied. In particular, the White-throated Dipper that gave us a hard time at Mushko valley was frittering all around the place here and spent ample time with us allowing to observe its behavior, feeding pattern and also gave us the opportunity to take some good shots of it from multiple angles.

We also came across a herd of Blue Sheep or Bharal that had come down from the hillocks to feed on the lush green grass and they showed us a glimpse of natural talent of maneuvering cliffs and rock climbing skills. In seconds, they would vanish from our sight and be seen on a steep cliff high above and their ability to merge within the surroundings keeps them safe from the lurking predators. Bread, Jam, Nutella and Ready-to-eat dry Noodles was our breakfast that we had in midst of the continuous birding that we were doing.

From Sumdo, we drove towards a school at Puga, where there were a couple of bird sightings reported and also offered a lift to a teacher from that very school who was very happy when we agreed to drop him. As luck would have it, we were blessed with distant sightings of the Black-necked Cranes and Tibetan Wolves en-route Puga that literally had us thanking all our stars and gods that we pray to. We were confident of seeing the Black-necked Cranes, but Tibetan Wolves was a bonus that we were rewarded. They were sighted in a distant meadow near a hot spring and we chose to stay till the wolves and the cranes moved away from there. Our effort of having embroided t-shirts from Leh with the cranes paid off as we could now happily state that we had indeed seen them.

From Pugo, we traveled towards Tso Kar through another pass, ‘Polokung la’ on a literally non-existent road with an ascending gradient and except for a single vehicle we didn’t pass by any other vehicle on this stretch for the many hours we spent traveling. Polokung la had multiple sightings on offer for us as we got to see the Groundpecker, Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagles, Ravens and many others and the Groundpecker being the highlight of the place.

We reached Tso Kar Eco resort just before Thupche village that looked deserted passing by Tso Kar and blessed with another sighting of the Black-necked Cranes. The Eco-resort is mainly a club of few individual rooms and one dining hall and nothing else. The temperature was dipping as the hour passed by and we raced to the village to scout for the Owl species found there and after a thorough scanning we did see the Little Owl happily perched on an electric pole.

Back to the eco resort after this, we had a proper meal and retired for the day with plans of extensive birding around Tso Kar the next day. The accommodation was decent and comfortable and these being concrete buildings helped negate the howling winds. We were in a far fetched location, literally cut off from the world with patchy or non-existent network and the only news that would reach here was the communication received through the satellite phone booth.

(how many Bharal's can you see...?)

So overall we had good sightings for the day that included Blue sheep, White-throated Dipper, Black-necked Cranes, Tibetan Wolves, Groundpecker, Lammergier, Little Owl, Ravens, Royals Pika and hot springs at Chumathang.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Leh - Chang La - Pangong Tso

J&K complete logs here.

Further to what I had said in the earlier post, below is an Alpine Accentor, found in the high altitude region feasting on a noodle nibble discarded atop Khardung La. Polluting here is an serious issue and we all are responsible for it. Our way of contribution was to carry back our trash/plastics from such places to the nearest town for disposal.

After navigating the terrain twice through the mighty Khardung La, we got our vehicle checked once more before proceeding towards Pangong Tso and Tso Kar lakes as now the travel would be through remote places with fewer people and fewer facilities. Also, point to note is that you may need to carry additional fuel in cans if your travel is for more than 2 days from Leh, else you might face the probability of getting stranded in a no man’s land till you are rescued and in that eventuality, the highest possibility is of being rescued by one of those army truck convoys that keep moving between bases.

With the vehicle check getting delayed, we utilized the time to do some shopping and finally headed towards another high altitude pass, the mighty Chang La, world’s third highest pass located at 17688 FT. It was a long journey and we had multiple breaks on the way to gaze at some birds or to drink in the scenic views that was on offer. Stops for food/drinks was very limited and we had quite a long distance to cover before ending the day.

Birding on the way, we finally reached the top at around 3pm; quite late actually and stopped for a quick scan for the birds and to have the much needed Maggi in lieu of lunch that we had skipped. Compared to Khardung La, this pass is relatively less crowded and less noisy as most of the vehicles that pass here are the ones traveling to the remote Pangong Tso.

Snowfinches, Rosefinches, Accentors, Ravens, Choughs kept our binocs and cameras occupied till Chang La and thereafter a lone Red fox, numerous marmots and a few woolly hares kept us happy. The roads were pretty good except for few stretches here and there and we were soon approaching the magical lake, Pangong Tso. As stated earlier, there were hardly any souls or people moving and we were kind of traveling in isolation. A vehicle or two would pass us once a while, else it was only ourselves in the whole terrain. No people, no shops, no food, no water… absolutely nothing. You just keep following the dirt track till you reach your destination and in case you are stuck somewhere, keep praying that someone should find you!

Daytime in the mighty Himalayan region is lengthier and it used to get dark only post 19:00 hours, and this meant we had long days every day, wake up at odd hours in the morning and hit the bed late at night that meant only a few hours’ sleep every day literally. As we started descending towards Pangong Tso, we could clearly see the crystal clear blue lake from a far distance and the views were amazing, difficult to describe but worth experiencing. A huge fresh water lake at a high altitude of about 15000FT, 30% of it in Indian territory and the rest 70% in Tibet. The 30% of the lake that is in India itself is mighty huge and there are camps setup at strategic points for hosting the tourists. Choices vary from luxury to very basic and the food served across is almost the same. These camps wind up by October as the cold starts getting unbearable and they return back next summer just before the tourists start arriving. During winter, the whole lake is frozen and only a few hard souls choose to stay back in the area.

We had to do a little bit of searching and enquiring for accommodation and finally chose to stay in tents at Padma Hotel, a setup of cluster of tents and a small building for the host. We were walk in guests and luckily got some dinner and we feasted as we were without a proper meal through the day. Sleeping in tents in the bitter cold is a challenge and I had to use multiple layer of clothing and bedspreads to feel comfortable. In such cold weather, your activity freezes and you don’t feel like doing anything other than snuggling up in the bed.

Pangong and Chumathang up next…

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