I recently returned from leading another incredible small group in North India. With henna hands and Holi-colored hair, 13 ladies and I shared a collective experience that included supporting women entrepreneurs and trailblazers. After the tour, I was invited to visit LUNGMAR, an exclusive snow leopard camp in the Trans-Himalayas of Ladakh.
At Sodha Travel, we often share how India is several countries within a country. Its vast and diverse geographic landscape includes regions like Ladakh, a high desert nestled between the Himalayan and Kunlun ranges. There are 12 countries in the world to spot snow leopards, but Ladakh is one of the most accessible. Other destinations require either more advanced trekking or multiple days of driving from larger cities. In India, the snow leopard’s geographical range encompasses a large part of the western Himalayas, including the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The Journey Begins in Leh
After a short flight from Delhi, I arrived in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. I spent the first couple days acclimatizing to the 11,500 ft. elevation, taking gentle walks and exploring nearby monasteries. (Note: I highly recommend the Grand Dragon for an exceptional stay in Leh.) From Leh, it was an easy one-hour drive to the entrance of Hemis National Park, believed to have the highest density of snow leopards in any protected area in the world. This is a notable accomplishment, as the “Ghost of the Mountains” was once considered a threat to livestock and consequently hunted by the villagers. Now, through educational and financial initiatives, the locals are an important part of spotting and protecting the vulnerable cats. The efforts were piloted by LUNGMAR’s team of highly-awarded veteran trackers and guides, including famed conservationists Dorjay Stanzin and Abdul Rashid.
A Luxury Camp in the Red Valley
LUNGMAR, or “red valley” in Ladkahi, is designed to conserve critical habitats while celebrating the local culture. Although most of Ladakh is inaccessible during the winter months, the camp operates snow leopard expeditions from November - March. (They are open for summer activities from April - October.) The luxury camp is the first of its kind in High Asia, with centrally-heated suites and tents beautifully appointed with Tibetan-inspired furniture. The main lodge houses the dining room and sitting area with a small library and daydream-worthy views of the surrounding landscapes.
It was at the lodge where I met Rigzin, a guide and guest experience coordinator who was a treasured part of my LUNGMAR experience. She excitedly informed me that the other guests, who arrived earlier in the week as part of a wildlife tour, had spotted the snow leopard several times - a promising sign for my tracking in the afternoon.
After lunch, I hopped in the 4x4 jeep for a short ride up the valley. After meeting the group, the expert spotters led us to a trailhead with a short but steep climb where we would slowly watch the sun dip behind the peaks. As we waited with anticipation, I chatted with Brad Josephs, a naturalist interpreter who leads global wildlife expeditions. Suddenly, one of the spotters pointed due north: “There it is.”
Spotting the Snow Leopard
I will admit that I was not expecting to become so emotional. Although filled with gratitude for the incredible opportunity, spotting a snow leopard was not necessarily at the top of my bucket list. However, as I peered into the binoculars and saw the big cat walking across the russet-tinted hill, tears started streaming down my face. It was pure magic.
What made the moment even more beautiful was the response from Rigzin. Noticing my gentle sobs, she explained that the emotion was likely from the connection I was making with a new species. Animals and humans, like every living being on the planet, are interrelated. As it was the first time I was spotting a snow leopard in the wild, my tears were the result of a sentient bond. What a profound sentiment.
The Ghost of the Mountains
You may remember the snow leopard scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As Walter (played by Ben Stiller) sits with the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Pean), a snow leopard emerges from behind the rocks. Instead of taking the photo, Sean backs away from the camera. Puzzled, Walter asks him, “When are you going to take it?” Sean reflects and replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment - I mean me, personally - I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”
The next hour was spent drinking chai and observing the Ghost of the Mountain sitting reverently in the fading sunlight. We were even lucky enough to spot a second snow leopard, walking along the crest of an adjacent slope. While I was not disciplined enough to simply be in the moment like Sean O’Connell - photos were captured - it was a stirring reminder of our interconnectedness.
Ready to plan your private snow leopard expedition?
Interested in tracking the snow leopard at LUNGMAR? Contact Sodha Travel's team of India Specialists to reserve your private expedition in Ladakh.