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SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH

In Search of the Grey Ghost of the Mountains

Birdquest's Snow Leopard Special is an extraordinary adventure in the very best place on earth for seeing and photographing Snow Leopards. Your chances of seeing one are close to 100% and multiple sightings are quite possible in the mating season in February/March! If you are fortunate you will also get some great images, but don't count on it, for 'The Cat' is by its nature highly unpredictable. Join us for a unique experience in Ladakh, a very special part of the world.

Friday 1st March — Thursday 14th March 2019
(14 days)


Leaders: Mike Watson and Jigmet Dadul

Group Size Limit: 9

Tour Category: Mostly moderate walking (but at high altitude) and mostly basic village homestay accommodations and fairly simple camping in cold conditions

The sheer speed of a hunting Snow Leopard is almost unimaginable. (Mark Beaman)

The sheer speed of a hunting Snow Leopard is almost unimaginable. (Mark Beaman)

The bewitching Snow Leopard is one of the most evocative mammals of our planet and on this special tour we will make a big effort to see this once, as far as wildlife enthusiasts are concerned, near-mythical creature in the majestic mountains of Ladakh.

Although everyone knows about this extraordinary mammal, very few people have ever laid eyes upon it, but in the remote valleys of the Hemis National Park in Ladakh in the western Himalayas we stand an extremely high chance of observing ‘the grey ghost of the mountains’. We will have to spend plenty of time scanning wild and barren mountain slopes, but with a week in the area we should be able to get decent views, or better, of this most alluring of cats. The chances are close to 100%! February/March is the mating season for the Snow Leopard, and we actually have a very good chance of multiple sightings during our visit. We will also be doing our level best to get some reasonable images of Snow Leopard during our visit, and sometimes there is the chance to photograph these beautiful cats at closer range, especially when they are at a kill or mating.

Ladakh, 'land of high passes', situated in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in northern India, is by far the best place in the world to get to grips with this fascinating creature. Until quite recently, it was virtually impossible to see a Snow Leopard in the wild and the stories of very lucky people who had bumped into one by sheer chance have been perpetrated ad infinitum. Although the Snow Leopard occurs in twelve countries in Central Asia, sightings of this incredibly secretive cat were always sporadic. But now, with the help of our very knowledgeable Ladakhi guide/tracker, Jigmet Dadul, and his expert team, who have studied Snow Leopards for many years and developed an extraordinary knowledge of this elusive creature, we will explore several secluded valleys of the Hemis National Park, where a healthy population of this enthralling mammal survives.

The fauna of Ladakh has much in common with that of Central Asia in general and that of the Tibetan Plateau in particular. The Hemis National park naturally holds good numbers of other large mammals, including Bharal or Blue Sheep and Ladakh Urial, while smaller inhabitants include Woolly Hare, Royle’s Pika, Red Fox and Mountain Weasel.

Hemis is also an interesting place for birds and we should see Himalayan Snowcock, Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker, Hill and Snow Pigeons, White-winged (or Güldenstädt’s) Redstart, Wallcreeper, Robin and Brown Accentors, Tibetan Snowfinch, Fire-fronted (or Red-fronted) Serin and Streaked Rosefinch. The Hemis National Park is of course the main venue of this tour, but we will also visit the Indus river valley, where Ibisbill and Solitary Snipe live, and another valley where Siberian Ibex can be found along with the Grey Wolves and Snow Leopards that prey on them.

Ladakh is the highest plateau of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, with much of it being over 3,000m (9,800ft). It spans the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges, and the upper Indus River valley. The Ladakh and Zanskar ranges have no really major peaks; their average height is a little less than 6,000m (19,700ft), but few of its passes are less than 5,000m (16,400ft). Ladakh is a high altitude desert as the Himalayas create a strong rainshadow, denying entry to the monsoon clouds. Natural vegetation mainly occurs along water courses and on high altitude areas that receive more snow and have cooler summer temperatures. The main source of water is the winter snowfall on the mountains. Recent flooding in the region has been attributed to abnormal rain patterns and retreating glaciers, both of which might be linked to global warming.

Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture. It is sometimes called ‘Little Tibet’ as it has been strongly influenced by Tibetan culture. We will have an opportunity to visit one of Ladakh's most famous and spectacular buddhist monasteries at Thikse, and we will also be able to explore Leh with its interesting old quarters, City Palace and eyrie-like Victory Monastery.

In the past Ladakh gained importance from its strategic location at the crossroads of important trade routes, but, since the Chinese authorities closed the borders with Tibet and Central Asia in the 1960s, international trade has dwindled except for tourism. Since Ladakh is a part of the Kashmir dispute, the Indian military maintains a strong presence in the region.

Birdquest has been operating tours to Ladakh since 2013.

Tibetan Plateau Extension Option: After the tour, providing there are enough participants wanting to visit the area, we will arrange a short extension to the only easily accessible part of the Tibetan Plateau in March in Ladakh, which is around Tso Kar, a large and spectacularly situated lake in easternmost Ladakh.

Our main reason for visiting this remote area is to experience a completely different part of Ladakh and see and photograph its charismatic mammals and birds. Here we can expect to have great encounters with the attractively patterned Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass). They are usually reasonably approachable here, still in their shaggy winter coats at this time of year. The Tibetan Argali or Nyan may also be encountered. It is the largest wild sheep in the world, standing 3.5 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2m) at the shoulder and sports a very nice set of impressive horns.

We will also come across some interesting birds. Tibetan Snowcocks inhabit the mountain slopes, Tibetan Partridge, the strange Groundpecker and Blanford's (or Plain-backed) Snowfinch are all regularly recorded and we may even encounter the impressive Tibetan Sandgrouse (although this is a less predictable bird here in March than in autumn). Black-necked Cranes have sometimes returned to the area by mid-March (and are often very approachable).

Winter camps of hardy nomadic pastoralists can also be seen in the area and are fascinating to visit. The extension will be of 5 days/4 nights and include three nights in a simple lodge, followed by a final night at an hotel in Leh. The cost will depend on the number of participants. Please contact us if you are interested in taking this extension.

Important: Unless you are very confident of your ability to rapidly adapt to transition to high altitude, based on repeated past personal experience, we would highly recommend that you fly into Leh a day or two before the tour starts so that you can get used to the altitude. Leh area is an interesting place to have some extra time, with some fascinating and spectacularly-situated monasteries. Our office can make hotel, transfer and excursion arrangements on request.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotel in Leh is of very good standard. The homestay accommodation is clean but basic, with a pit toilet. During the camping section each participant will have their own tent. Although the tents are two person tents, we do not feel they are roomy enough for two normal-sized people plus luggage. Couples may of course opt to put luggage in one tent and sleep in the other. As well as the sleeping tents, there is a large dining tent with gas heater, a kitchen tent, a toilet tent and (on demand) a shower tent. The limited roads we use range from good to moderate.

Walking: The walking effort can be moderate if you wish, but the more energetic will have the option for some more demanding hiking if desired. There is often no need for energetic hiking in order to see Snow Leopards. They can regularly be seen from the valley bottoms. However, hiking to higher altitudes may improve the chances of finding a cat at a kill or having some other interesting encounter.

Climate: Predominantly dry, with a mixture of sunny and overcast weather (sunshine is the norm here in Ladakh). Some light snow is likely. Temperatures range from cool to cold, and can be very cold at night and in the early morning, ranging from highs averaging around -3 to 3°C (26-38°F) in the shade (it feels warmer in direct sunlight) to lows averaging about -10 to -15°C (5-14°F). The air is very dry in Ladakh, so low temperatures do not feel as cold as in moist climates. You will need a good down jacket and other clothing and footwear that will keep you warm in such conditions.

Mammal & Bird Photography: Opportunities are good, but with a limited variety of species. You have to be fortunate to get good photographs of Snow Leopards, as opposed to more distant shots.

Photographic Equipment: For Snow Leopards, which are often fairly distant to distant, the ideal lenses are usually a 500mm, 600mm or even 800mm prime, often with converters. (If your budget does not run to big prime lenses, a high quality 400mm f5.6 or a 100-400mm or similar zoom with converters on a crop-sensor type body can be a viable alternative.) For close Blue Sheep and many other subjects, including some scenic shots (e.g. distant monasteries on crags or distant mountain peaks) a 200mm or 300mm will often be useful. Ladakh is full of panoramic views and a wide-angle in the 17-28mm range is ideal. You can get wonderful results with many subjects with a high quality digital compact camera with a 20x or higher optical zoom, but you will most likely struggle with Snow Leopards unless they are unusually close. If you have questions about what equipment you ought to bring, please contact us.

Prices are provisional

Tour Price: £3050, €3600, $4000 Leh/Leh. Single Room Supplement: £100, €118, $131. Deposit: £400, €480, $520.

Includes surface transportation, accommodations, meals, water, entrance fees and tips/gratuities.

The single room supplement only applies to the hotel nights in Leh. During the camping nights all participants have their own individual tent. At the homestay (3 nights) there are twin rooms, but anyone wanting single accommodation is welcome to use a tent.

Base prices for this tour are in US Dollars. The exchange rates applied at the time of costing were: £1 = $1.310 and €1 = $1.110.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

Ladakh, at the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. (Mark Beaman)

Ladakh, at the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. (Mark Beaman)

Most of Ladakh has been majority Tibetan Buddhist since time immemorial, and monasteries dot the lanscape, often situated on prominent hills. This is Spituk monastery close to Leh. (Mark Beaman)

Most of Ladakh has been majority Tibetan Buddhist since time immemorial, and monasteries dot the lanscape, often situated on prominent hills. This is Spituk monastery close to Leh. (Mark Beaman)

Even more impressive is the great monastery of Thikse. (Mark Beaman)

Even more impressive is the great monastery of Thikse. (Mark Beaman)

The 'Grey Ghost of the Mountains', as the Snow Leopard is known, is increasingly becoming used to humans in parts of Ladakh and, while still shy, sightings are becoming more and more regular, even frequent in February and March  (Mark Beaman)

The 'Grey Ghost of the Mountains', as the Snow Leopard is known, is increasingly becoming used to humans in parts of Ladakh and, while still shy, sightings are becoming more and more regular, even frequent in February and March (Mark Beaman)

A herd of Blue Sheep make their way along a mountainside. (Mark Beaman)

A herd of Blue Sheep make their way along a mountainside. (Mark Beaman)

Some of the Blue Sheep in Ladakh seem to think they own the place. Unlike 'The Cat' they have lost their fear of man. (Mark Beaman)

Some of the Blue Sheep in Ladakh seem to think they own the place. Unlike 'The Cat' they have lost their fear of man. (Mark Beaman)

But they have certainly not lost their fear of Snow Leopards! (Mark Beaman)

But they have certainly not lost their fear of Snow Leopards! (Mark Beaman)

Mating tends to be a rough old game amongst Snow Leopards. (Mark Beaman)

Mating tends to be a rough old game amongst Snow Leopards. (Mark Beaman)

Not now darling...  The female is on the left. (Mark Beaman)

Not now darling... The female is on the left. (Mark Beaman)

There is a Snow Leopard in this picture. Can you spot it? Finding one in the vastness of the Himalayas takes skill. (Mark Beaman)

There is a Snow Leopard in this picture. Can you spot it? Finding one in the vastness of the Himalayas takes skill. (Mark Beaman)

The impressive Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier is a common sight in the mountains of Ladakh. (Mark Beaman)

The impressive Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier is a common sight in the mountains of Ladakh. (Mark Beaman)

The strange Ibisbill is resident along the Indus river. (Mark Beaman)

The strange Ibisbill is resident along the Indus river. (Mark Beaman)

Upland Buzzards hunt the high plains and valleys of Ladakh  (Mark Beaman)

Upland Buzzards hunt the high plains and valleys of Ladakh (Mark Beaman)

Grey Wolves are still quite common in Ladakh. (Mark Beaman)

Grey Wolves are still quite common in Ladakh. (Mark Beaman)

The last rays of the setting sun fall on the high mountains of 'Wild Ladakh'  (Mark Beaman)

The last rays of the setting sun fall on the high mountains of 'Wild Ladakh' (Mark Beaman)

A Snow Leopard spots a group of Blue Sheep and starts to stalk them, right in front of our group! (The scratches below his right eye are from a spat with his mate a few days earlier, which we also witnessed!) (Mark Beaman)

A Snow Leopard spots a group of Blue Sheep and starts to stalk them, right in front of our group! (The scratches below his right eye are from a spat with his mate a few days earlier, which we also witnessed!) (Mark Beaman)

After creeping silently down the slope it crouches barely 10 metres away from the sheep, and they graze on, blissfully unaware... (Mark Beaman)

After creeping silently down the slope it crouches barely 10 metres away from the sheep, and they graze on, blissfully unaware... (Mark Beaman)

Minutes pass, and then suddenly it hurls itself forward in hot pursuit. (Mark Beaman)

Minutes pass, and then suddenly it hurls itself forward in hot pursuit. (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep run for their very lives... (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep run for their very lives... (Mark Beaman)

It leaps... (Mark Beaman)

It leaps... (Mark Beaman)

But it is a fraction too late...as in about 7 out of 8 hunts (Mark Beaman)

But it is a fraction too late...as in about 7 out of 8 hunts (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep hurry uphill to safety... (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep hurry uphill to safety... (Mark Beaman)

The Snow Leopard walks slowly away into the crags, looking sad... (Mark Beaman)

The Snow Leopard walks slowly away into the crags, looking sad... (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep, or Bharal, is the staple prey of the Snow Leopard in much of Ladakh. Two males keep a lookout from a rocky crag. (Mark Beaman)

The Blue Sheep, or Bharal, is the staple prey of the Snow Leopard in much of Ladakh. Two males keep a lookout from a rocky crag. (Mark Beaman)

They are completely at home in the steep terrain. (Mark Beaman)

They are completely at home in the steep terrain. (Mark Beaman)

They can put on a dramatic burst of speed, even on loose ground. (Mark Beaman)

They can put on a dramatic burst of speed, even on loose ground. (Mark Beaman)

They are also fearless when it comes to racing down the precipitous slopes, which is just as well as the 'Grey Ghost' bogeyman waits for the slow and the unwary. (Mark Beaman)

They are also fearless when it comes to racing down the precipitous slopes, which is just as well as the 'Grey Ghost' bogeyman waits for the slow and the unwary. (Mark Beaman)

At lower altitudes the splendid Urial gets taken by the leopards, especially in winter. (Mark Beaman)

At lower altitudes the splendid Urial gets taken by the leopards, especially in winter. (Mark Beaman)

Sometimes the leopards have to turn to smaller prey, such as the cute Woolly Hare. (Mark Beaman)

Sometimes the leopards have to turn to smaller prey, such as the cute Woolly Hare. (Mark Beaman)

or the plump Himalayan Snowcock  (Mark Beaman)

or the plump Himalayan Snowcock (Mark Beaman)

or even the noisy Chukar. (Mark Beaman)

or even the noisy Chukar. (Mark Beaman)

Occasionally, especially during the winter, they attack domestic stock, even young yaks or dzos (yak-cow hybrids) like this one. (Mark Beaman)

Occasionally, especially during the winter, they attack domestic stock, even young yaks or dzos (yak-cow hybrids) like this one. (Mark Beaman)

The Snow Leopard Conservancy has built steel-mesh-roofed stock shelters like this one to prevent such attacks and encourage villagers to take a more positive view of their local Snow Leopards. Birdquest has donated the entire construction cost of such a shelter in order to play an important part in conserving Snow Leopards. (Mark Beaman)

The Snow Leopard Conservancy has built steel-mesh-roofed stock shelters like this one to prevent such attacks and encourage villagers to take a more positive view of their local Snow Leopards. Birdquest has donated the entire construction cost of such a shelter in order to play an important part in conserving Snow Leopards. (Mark Beaman)

There is nothing like seeing your first Snow Leopard for raising the spirits, and even more so if you are about to be served hot tea by our wonderful camp crew! (Mark Beaman)

There is nothing like seeing your first Snow Leopard for raising the spirits, and even more so if you are about to be served hot tea by our wonderful camp crew! (Mark Beaman)

The dramatic scenery of the Indus Gorge. (Mark Beaman)

The dramatic scenery of the Indus Gorge. (Mark Beaman)

At the roadhead our baggage has to transfer to ponies  (Mark Beaman)

At the roadhead our baggage has to transfer to ponies (Mark Beaman)

and even the tiny Ladakhi donkeys, barely a metre tall  (Mark Beaman)

and even the tiny Ladakhi donkeys, barely a metre tall (Mark Beaman)

The summit of Stok Kangri, 6,123m or 20,090ft, dominates Hemis National Park. (Mark Beaman)

The summit of Stok Kangri, 6,123m or 20,090ft, dominates Hemis National Park. (Mark Beaman)

Our camp is lost amidst the vastness of the mountains.  (Mark Beaman)

Our camp is lost amidst the vastness of the mountains. (Mark Beaman)

The dining and kitchen tents of our camp, with some bell tents beyond. (Mark Beaman)

The dining and kitchen tents of our camp, with some bell tents beyond. (Mark Beaman)

Our wonderful camp crew serve up tasty and diverse meals, an extraordinary achievement in the circumstances. (Mark Beaman)

Our wonderful camp crew serve up tasty and diverse meals, an extraordinary achievement in the circumstances. (Mark Beaman)

Camping conditions are more comfortable than you might imagine. Our dining tent has a powerful gas heater! (Mark Beaman)

Camping conditions are more comfortable than you might imagine. Our dining tent has a powerful gas heater! (Mark Beaman)

On sunny days the tiny Royle's Pikas emerge from their burrows in the boulder piles and enjoy some dried leaves. (Mark Beanman)

On sunny days the tiny Royle's Pikas emerge from their burrows in the boulder piles and enjoy some dried leaves. (Mark Beanman)

They are often preyed upon on by the inquisitive Mountain Weasel  (Mark Beaman)

They are often preyed upon on by the inquisitive Mountain Weasel (Mark Beaman)

There are some interesting birds in Ladakh, including Robin Accentor  (Mark Beaman)

There are some interesting birds in Ladakh, including Robin Accentor (Mark Beaman)

Fire-fronted Serin  (Mark Beaman)

Fire-fronted Serin (Mark Beaman)

Streaked Rosefinch  (Mark Beaman)

Streaked Rosefinch (Mark Beaman)

Tibetan or Adams's Snowfinch  (Mark Beaman)

Tibetan or Adams's Snowfinch (Mark Beaman)

The stunning little Wallcreeper forages in winter low in the gorges. (Mark Beaman)

The stunning little Wallcreeper forages in winter low in the gorges. (Mark Beaman)

From time to time the males utter their high-pitched, warbling song. (Mark Beaman)

From time to time the males utter their high-pitched, warbling song. (Mark Beaman)

Golden Eagles are common in these mountains.  (Mark Beaman)

Golden Eagles are common in these mountains. (Mark Beaman)

and Bearded Vultures or Lammergeiers pick clean the bones of the Snow Leopard and Grey Wolf kills  (Mark Beaman)

and Bearded Vultures or Lammergeiers pick clean the bones of the Snow Leopard and Grey Wolf kills (Mark Beaman)

In winter the Güldenstadt's or White-winged Redstarts descend from the mountains into the Indus valley  (Mark Beaman)

In winter the Güldenstadt's or White-winged Redstarts descend from the mountains into the Indus valley (Mark Beaman)

Leh, Ladakh's tiny capital, is dominated by the City Palace  (Mark Beaman)

Leh, Ladakh's tiny capital, is dominated by the City Palace (Mark Beaman)

The vivid colours of Ladakh are epitomised by its monasteries. (Mark Beaman)

The vivid colours of Ladakh are epitomised by its monasteries. (Mark Beaman)

The interior of the Thikse monastery is fascinating too. (Mark Beaman)

The interior of the Thikse monastery is fascinating too. (Mark Beaman)

Novice monks blow traditional horns from a balcony. (Mark Beaman)

Novice monks blow traditional horns from a balcony. (Mark Beaman)

Religous studies can sometimes be fun... (Mark Beaman)

Religous studies can sometimes be fun... (Mark Beaman)

Pilgrims come from far and wide. (Mark Beaman)

Pilgrims come from far and wide. (Mark Beaman)

Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate

Birdquest Ltd is Registered in England, Company No. 01568270. The address of our registered office is Two Jays, Kemple End, Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9QY

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