India: Snow Leopards, Ibisbill & Monasteries (EWT)
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Ladakh is one of India’s hidden gems. While the tiger parks of central India, and the Taj Mahal in Rajasthan, are indeed worthy of the multitude of accolades thrown their way; to overlook Ladakh, in the extremities of the north, would be an unfortunate oversight for the nature lover with a cultural bent. This region is set within some of the most impressive mountain landscapes that the subcontinent has to offer, drawing apt comparisons with the magical scenery once a honeypot for adventure-seeking tourists in the 70s-90s in neighboring Nepal. In addition to the Himalayan mountains being a draw unto themselves, there lives one of the most fabled creatures on Earth, the Snow Leopard, a cat as impressive as the landscapes in which it exists. Formerly one of wildlife’s ‘Holy Grails’, this heavy-coated cat has become suddenly visible in recent years, with the development of expert local trackers, and an ever-increasing knowledge of the natural history of the species. While a relatively recent form of tourism, it has grown fast, and thus it is no longer compulsory to ensure the hardship of camping during the Himalayan winter in order to see them. Simple, heated lodges with a ready supply of hot water, and plentiful electricity have now made this a more comfortable experience than ever before in very recent years, and opened up this beautiful region, and its premier feline target, to many that would formerly not have been able to come.
Ladakh is in the heart of Tibetan Buddhist country too, and so it would be a crime to miss this absorbing element of the region. While acclimatizing in the city of Leh, (in a wonderful hotel with all the mod cons), we will also experience ancient life, with a visit to the colorful Thiksey Monastery fenced in on all sides by the snow-dusted Himalayas, and within a short drive of another enigmatic species, the Ibisbill, a bird which lives along the banks of the Indus River.
As this is a long way to come, and to a country so utterly inimitable, we also offer two easy one-day extensions running before the main tour. Firstly, a cultural day within Old Delhi, visiting some of its most revered sites, from the Red Fort to Humayuns Tomb. This easygoing day will also ease those arriving from afar to shake off any unwanted jetlag. Secondly, is a day of fantastic birding, and of bird photography at Sultanpur National Park, lying just outside of Delhi. In the wintertime, the lake and its surrounds are bursting with waterbirds, from cranes to storks, and geese to kingfishers, there will be plenty to see and photograph at a place that regularly yields 100 bird species days. Finally, at the very end of all this, is a hardier offering of organised camping in Hemis National Park for several days, to increase the chances yet further of the Snow Leopard, and add yet more wildlife experiences to the trip, where other animals roam the same lands as the leopard.
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Length: 8 Days (19 Days w/ Ext.)
Starting City: Delhi
Ending City: Delhi
Physical Difficulty: Easy - Moderate
Focus: Birding, Wildlife, Culture, Photography
Day 1: Arrival in Dehli
Most flights arrive at night, and you will be met at the airport and transferred to a good local hotel for the night. If you arrive early enough, the tour begins with dinner and a group meeting on this evening. Night in Delhi.
Day 2: Delhi to Leh
An early morning flight will take us north, straight into the city of Leh, and the state of Ladakh. We will stay two nights in a modern hotel in this Buddhist city, where monks hold sway next to sellers of quality rugs from Kashmir, old book shops, and outdoor clothing stores. This day will form an acclimatization day, although in the afternoon, we will check several spots along the Indus River for Ibisbills, and are sure to see our first White-winged Redstarts in doing so that winter in considerable numbers within the scrubby fringes of the river. Night in Leh.
Day 3: Thiksey Monastery and the Indus River
For our second day of high altitude ‘training’, we will enjoy a real treat; the chance to witness the daily prayer rituals of the monks at nearby Thiksey Monastery, which overlooks Leh, and is surrounded 365 degrees by imposing Himalayan peaks, a foreshadow of days to come. The monastery is a riot of Buddhist color and also contains an ornate 30-feet tall Giant Buddha. In the afternoon, we’ll either take it easy, or search for other birds along the borders of the Indus River. Night in Leh.
Day 4: Leh to Ulley
Having been acclimatizing at 3300m/10,000ft in Leh for the past few days, we will be ready to head higher still, to the tiny village of Ulley, just exceeding 4000m/13,000ft elevation, deep in the heart of Snow Leopard country. This is also home to several new simple lodges, which, with their heating, electricity and hot water provisions make this the comfiest ways to look for Snow Leopard in India. In spite of its size, the village can also lay claim to hosting some of the best leopard trackers in Ladakh, whom will be crucial to finding this much-valued beast. The next 4 nights will be spent in a lodge Ulley.
Days 5-7: Ulley and surrounding valleys
Ulley lies at a great strategic position for tracking Snow Leopards, as it lies within easy reach of four separate valleys that all host them at various times, along with some of their prey items, like Siberian Ibex, and the endangered Ladakh Urial. Each day trackers and spotters, with scopes and extensive knowledge of the cat, will head out in search for them, and we will respond to not only their sightings, but also news from surrounding valleys, where other spotters live and are interconnected with the ones we will be using to aid in our personal search. Satellite phones allow villagers to connect which each other in this area, and facilitate the rapid release of news. While in this area, we will also keep an eye out for birds like Brown and Robin Accentors, Fire-capped Serin, Chukar, and are sure to see plentiful Lammergeiers (Bearded Vultures) on the wing, and Golden Eagles in the skies overhead. While rarer, there are also chances for other species, like Wallcreeper and Solitary Snipe too. Nights in Ulley.
Day 8: Ulley to Delhi; departure from Delhi (OR start Hemis Extension)
For those not continuing on to Hemis National Park, we will drive back to Leh, say our farewells and fly back to Delhi, where a hotel will be provided before night-flights out of the capital.
*PLEASE NOTE: Our 2018 tour did not camp and largely followed the above itinerary, and still yielded sightings of Snow Leopard. However as this can be an unpredictable animal, particularly in years of unusual weather patterns (i.e. in terms of snow cover), we also offer an additional excellent site, where organized camping is currently the only option.
Extension: Hemis Post-tour Snow Leopards (4-days)
For those looking to virtually ensure sightings of Snow Leopard, and cannot face departing India without it, we also offer 3 nights camping in arguably the best site to see one in the world. The numbers of people are greater at this site, in terms of visitors, spotters, and trackers that Hemis arguably has the highest hit rate for this animal. It is also home to Blue Sheep, largely absent from Ulley. This will involve 3 nights under canvas. This is a less personal experience, and hardier than that offered on the main tour, but when combined with that creates the optimum chances to see this Himalayan cat.
Extension: Delhi Day of Culture (1-day)
Running one day before the official start date of the tour, this day will purely center on the rich history of the country and capital, and will visit several important historical locations in the city, such as the Red Fort, Qutb Minar, and Humayun’s Tomb. At the end of the day we return to Delhi and the chance to join the next, birding, day in Sultanpur, which on this day alone will yield more bird species than the rest of the tour, due to the higher elevations in winter hosting only a handful of hardy species in this cold season of snow and ice up in Ladakh, and the fact that Delhi is an exceptionally birdy city.
Extension: Sultanpur National Park pre-tour (1-day)
Sultanpur is THE place that Delhi birders, and bird photographers, go to bird and shoot respectively. The park itself comprises of a lake covered in waterbirds in this season, with surrounding agricultural lands adding yet further interesting species too. Some of the possibilities on this day will include hordes of ducks, such as Indian Spot-billed Duck and Ferruginous Pochard; nesting Painted Storks and foraging Black-necked Storks, as well as plentiful landbirds on the surrounding flats, and scrub that borders the lake. These areas can produce Indian Robins, Bluethroats, Desert Wheatears, and in some years the sharp Indian Courser too. Searching the wider agricultural lands closeby could see us finish the day with the rare Sind Sparrow, a crane or two, and a swathe of Bar-headed Geese, the highest-flying bird in the world that routinely migrates right over some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. This day will be packed with birds, and bird photo opportunities. This day runs on the arrival day of the main tour. At the end of the day we return to Delhi.
Extension: Tigers (6-days Minimum)
If you cannot leave India without its most iconic animal, the Bengal Tiger, packages can be arranged to add on to the other tour, of varying lengths from 6 days and more. Please contact the office for further detaiuls of the options available.
PACE: Easy to moderate. As this is timed during winter, the days are shorter than some other tours (lighting up time is around 7am, and dusk is at around 5:30pm). Typically, breakfasts are around 8:00am, with some optional time to search for birds and animals before that); lunches may be taken in the field on some days of the main tour, but chairs, table and cooked food are provided for this). All dinners will be in the hotels or lodges, usually around 7pm. The days are usually 7:00am – 5:30pm at the longest, but generally a little shorter than this. There is some flexibility on timing as some of the daily activities while on the Snow Leopard search, both on the main tour, and the Hemis Extension are governed by the latest news of animal sightings from the carefully selected expert local trackers and spotters, who will be assisting us during this time.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate; people joining this tour should be physically fit, and generally able to cope with high altitudes. We will spend 2 nights in Leh at an altitude of 3300m/ft acclimatizing, and after that will be just over 4000m/ft in elevation for the stay in Ulley, and on the Hemis Extension for a further three nights. Altitude sickness pills are recommended as a precaution. There will be some trekking required, and this is often one way to see the Snow Leopard; this will likely be off roads, and even on ground that is not trails. Thus, good walking gear, and good levels of fitness are required to do this tour. There are no especially long traveling times on this tour; the flight between Delhi and Leh is around 1hr20mins, and the drive between Leh and Ulley on the main tour is only around 3 hours, although generally takes longer as we will inevitably stop for birds or other animals on these journeys. On the extension, the drive between Ulley and our camp base is around 2 hours. Most of the driving is on paved roads, although hour-long stretches may be on dirt roads, although these are of a good standard enough that they do not require 4-wheel drive vehicles.
CLIMATE: This tour is timed for the Himalayan winter, and so be prepared for very cold weather. This timing optimises chances for Snow Leopard and other mammals when it is not uncommon to have extensive snow cover, and -20 Celsius/-4 Farenheit temperatures. It is imperative that extreme cold-weather gear is brought with you, including good quality gloves, hats, balaclavas, heavy winter jackets, and ski pants or something similar. Snow boots are also a good idea too, in addition to hand warmers. The days in Delhi are chilly in the mornings, but usually pleasant and warm during the middle of the day though not a bothersome heat and humidity that it becomes later in the year, outside of winter.
ACCOMMODATION: In Delhi for one night of the main tour (and for any extra nights on the pre-tour extensions), we will be using a modern airport hotel; similarly, the two nights in the city of Leh will also be in a modern hotel. In Ulley, for four nights, we will be using a simple lodge of a lower standard than normally expected on a Tropical Birding tour. However, this comes with generator-supplied electricity until late at night, hot water will be provided, and well-cooked meals on-site. There is no running water, but hot and cold water are provided in large buckets/garbage can size containers to shower yourself with. The bathrooms are shared in Ulley, with 2 bathrooms shared between 5 bedrooms. On the Hemis Extension three nights will be spent camping, with shared facilities too.
PHOTOGRAPHY: The photography at Sultanpur for the one-day extension before the main tour is excellent, and considered one of the premier bird photo sites by Delhi-based birders and photographers. For the main tour, there will be good chances for landscape and cultural shots throughout. The diversity of wildlife in this region at this time is fairly low, and so wildlife photography is limited. While we will obviously try and photograph the Snow Leopard, they are usually best photographed through a telescope, as this is often how they are viewed at distances of around half a mile. There are chances to photograph birds in the area, like Brown and Robin Accentors, Chukar, and Lammergeiers.
Travel Requirements: A passport that is valid for six months beyond the date of departure, and with a minimum of 2 blank pages is suggested. AN INDIAN VISA MUST BE OBTAINED BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR INDIA. For a short term tourist visa, an eVisa is readily available online.
WHAT’S INCLUDED: Main tour: Meals from dinner on day 1 of the main tour to dinner on the departure day, if required. Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7. Tropical Birding Tour leader from the night of day 1 to the evening of day 7. A local team of trackers are spotters (some with their own scopes) will also be provided. These will be specific to the local area. The Delhi to Leh to Delhi domestic return flight. Local transport with a set of skilled local drivers from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 8.
Hemis Extension: All meals will be provided from the morning of day 8 main tour/day 1 of the extension to dinner on the night of day 4, if required. Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 3. Tropical Birding tour leader from the morning of day 1 through to the evening of day 3. A different team of local trackers and spotters will also be employed for this part too, specific to this different area. The Leh to Delhi domestic flight.
On the two one-day Delhi extensions, all meals are included for these days, and an extra hotel night for each of these too. Safe drinking water throughout. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER IN INDIA.
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED: International air tickets to India. Any tips (i.e. to Tropical Birding guide, local drivers, local guides, local spotters and trackers, porters, and hotel/lodge/camp staff. Any visa fees, (A VISA NEEDS TO BE ARRANGED AND OBTAINED IN ADVANCE OF YOUR FLIGHT TO INDIA; THIS CAN BE DONE ONLINE). Any passport fees. Any drinks other than those provided (tea, coffee, and hot chocolate are regularly provided at no charge in most places, though soft and alcoholic drinks are extra). Anything not stated that is included above.