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Witnessing the Grey Ghost -With Apoorva Joshi

By 04:40:00

I have made this conscious effort to try to get to one new place each year and try to be where I want to be.

It was on this path where I stumbled upon the option of treading into the ‘Middle Land’.

Spiti, one of the still unexplored and unarguably beautiful stretches of the Indian Himalayas means ‘Middle Country’ and is called so because it’s nestled aptly between the Himalayas of Tibet and Himachal. I truly believe that this landscape is out of a land of fairy tales and fantasies . 

I cannot begin to understand the feeling of being at +14000 feet above sea level, taking in the valleys pristine charm and knowing that you are to experience life in one of the few ancient civilisations has survived for nearly a thousand years.

My introduction to this high desert mountain valley began as I started interacting with a friend who I believe not only became one with this landscape but also was fortunate enough to closely witness The Mountain Ghost.

A true connoisseur traveller and I believe to be one of the most passionate adventurers; Apoorva Joshi shared his experiences in the valley as he witnessed the famously elusive and increasingly rare SNOW LEOPARDS.

The snow leopard expedition took Apoorva 2000 +kms  and 14,000+ feet into the high altitude ranges , into parts of the country that only a fortunate few experience  .

Rudyard Kipling in his novel "Kim" described Spiti passionately At last they entered

a world within a world—a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of a mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains.” and as  a "place  where  the god lives”.

Based on my interactions with him I believe that fortunately things have hardly changed in the valley and that makes it a perfect habitat for other Himalayan species like the Blue sheep and The Himalayan Ibex as well.

As he passionately described the area and his experiences, it nearly sounded like I was being told of a legend, where it is said that the snow leopards could actually dissolve in the mountains.

Popularly identified as the character, Tai- Lung in Kung Fu Panda , the Shan ( in Ladhaki) , Irbis (ирвэс in Mongolian), Ilbris( Илбирс in Kyrgyz) or the Hem Tendua (हिम तेन्दुआ in Hindi) this feline is considered to be one of the most enigmatic.

Adapted to living in the cold, barren landscapes of the 3000 – 4500 metres plus altitudes, the phantom stalker of the Himalayas are found in rugged mountains of Central Asia across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan, to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan and at high altitudes in the home Indian states of J & K, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim & Arunachal Pradesh.

I came across a number of ‘ can you spot ‘ images[1] where this near- perfect predator and nearly hundred- pound cat is invisible.

This is due to its nearly artistic mix of colours  on its white, yellow and grey coat ;with solid spots covering the head, neck and lower limbs, while rosettes—large rings enclosing smaller spots—cover the rest of the body.[2]

Intrigued by this, I decided to read up on the animal and I can now truly understand the aura this species carries.

I was in awe as I listened to Apoorva talk about the few days he spend in the extreme winter climate, practically cutting off the valley from the regular world. 

Treading under glaciers, tramping above the snowline at a snail pace controlled by the high altitude conditions and patiently searching for blue sheep and the magical feline. 

But I think the hardship, cold, hunger and fatigue paid off when the team spotted not 1 but a group of 3 leopards tracking through the snow line.

I’m not sure if I have the patience and energy to first to hike, brave the cold and then also deal with disappointing days only to chase a pipe dream of getting just a glimpse, but I have a new found respect for the wildlife enthusiasts who fight the day light and tread through knee deep snow deeper into the mountains as the temperatures only plummet.

If I were to ever take a walk on the wild side and experience the wildlife our country has to offer, it will have to be with Apoorva and his lucky streak…

[1] Image: Inger Vandyke.

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