The Snow Leopard Trail 2018
Jobs fill your pocket but adventures like these fill your soul!
At the outset let me be honest, I’m quite not a fan of trekking but when it comes to adventure, a big yes. A fine evening, I get a message from our dear editor, Faisal Khan, that he’s sending me to a vacation (The Snow Leopard Trail 2018) organised by The Road Less Travelled. Now, the best part about Faisal is that he doesn’t ask me whether I can attend a particular event or not, he just drops a text mentioning “sending you to this event”. Being a travel-loving person, I hop on to every opportunity and never say a no.
I, in fact, had absolutely no idea what The Road Less Travelled or The Snow Leopard Trail was all about. A quick Google search on the Snow Leopard Trail and The Road Less Travelled gave me a fair idea of what exactly I could expect from this 9-day excursion. Honestly, the very idea that we could spot a Snow Leopard and also the fact that I would be given a car (Maruti Gypsy) to drive from Kufri to Kibber (the destination) got me super excited because one, I love wildlife and two, I love to drive.
To give you a fair idea of The Road Less Travelled, it is a travel company based in Mumbai which conducts luxury tours for an affordable price. Shankar Ganesh and Vinayta Raheja head the travel company. Shankar was a part of our trip and ensured everything was taken care of, including our food and stays. This was a 9-days trip, so I literally had lots of packing to do. Clothes, cosmetics and since this was a journey to Kibber (in Spiti) where temperatures in the evening and early morning are in the vicinity of up to – 20 degrees, I also had to pick some winter-ready apparels like thermals, gloves, cap and jacket.
Shopping done and I fly down to Delhi from Bengaluru on 25th February to join Rakesh Dhareshwar, who was the official photographer of the trip and a Bombay-based doctor named Chetan Shetty accompanied us. Myself, Rakesh and Chetan were being driven from Delhi to Chandigarh to join the other 9 members of the trip. The three of us bonded quite well owing to the fact that we belonged to a particular state. A special mention to the parathas we had on our way to Chandigarh at Amrit Sukhdev Dhaba at Murthal. A light dinner and a good night’s rest and we were all set for the trip of a lifetime (for me at least).
From Chandigarh to Kufri (after Shimla) we were being driven and that quite disappointed me as I was expecting that I could get to drive from Chandigarh to Kibber all by myself. Turns out that fate had different plans but I did get to meet the other travelers who were on the journey with me. Post 3-4 hours after the start of the drive, we halted for lunch at Haveli.
Over lunch, everyone introduced themselves and so did I. After all discussions and lunch was over, I got to know that I was the only unmarried person in the group and the youngest of the 12 members. While the drive continued towards Kufri, I started feeling motion sickness (which I generally don’t when I’m in a car) and threw out twice which made me weak and I didn’t quite enjoy the journey till Kufri. A glass of lemon soda did make me feel better though. We reached Kufri at around 5 in the evening and all I had in mind was to take rest as I had to drive a Maruti Gypsy (equipped with Ceat Czar tyres) from the next day onwards.
All geared up and after the breakfast, we were ready to roll. 5-10 kms into the drive and we stopped for fuel. The roads from Kufri to Kinnaur (our halt for the second night) were a mixed bag of sorts. There were good as well as bad section of roads and the Ceat tyres did their job pretty well. By the way, our Gypsy was equipped with Ceat Czar 215/75/15 tyres. Four hours into the drive and we stopped at Chotiwala for lunch. Chotiwala is quite a famous place and is known for its homely food. A budget-friendly place too! We reached Kinnaur by 7 in the evening and it was freezing cold (4-degrees to be precise). Fortunately, we had heaters and hot water bags which made us sleep comfortably throughout the night and from today, we had a kitchen team traveling with us who would take care of our food for the remaining 6 days primarily because we had to halt at homestays for the nights.
Driving in these mountainous stretches of roads makes you deeply think as to what the purpose of your life is
By 9, we finished our breakfast and checked out of the Kinner Villa (the hotel). Our plan was to reach Tabo by evening and halt for the night. We stopped for lunch at the Nako helipad and since the scenery around was so beautiful, we did click some pictures and the drive till Nako helipad was quite tiring as most of the roads were under construction. The Ceat tyres do deserve a mention here. We reached Tabo at around 6 in the evening. I had to do with not one but two cups of hot tea to keep myself warm. After listening to a folk song the homestay owner sang for us, it was time to fill our stomachs. Post dinner, we crashed and the next day’s drive was something to look forward to as it was the last leg of the onward journey.
It was morning and we had to freshen up and leave the homestay. I took my toothbrush, paste and facewash and headed to the washroom, the helper courteously says ‘Pani nahin hain’ (meaning there is no water). I mean Pani tha, but only to wash our faces not our…hope you guys understand. It was basically an Eco Toilet where we had only tissues at our disposal. Post the first-hand experience of using the Eco Toilet for the very first time, we headed towards the kitchen and fueled up. Today, I was behind the wheel of the Gypsy and man I did enjoy the drive. The roads were narrow but were in proper condition. Our plan was to reach Kibber.
En route we stopped at the Dhankar monastery for a quick round of blessings from the Buddhist monks. We then drove to Kaza helipad where we had lunch. On our drive to Kibber, we did halt at a gas station which happened to be the ‘world’s highest retail outlet’ at 12,270 ft above sea level. We reached Kibber by around 5:30 in the evening and decided to just chill at the homestay for the night. Over dinner, everyone was busy planning the next two days of our stay at Kibber while The Road Less Travelled team was busy sending the spotters and scanners to sight the Snow Leopard. Post dinner, everyone hit the bed in anticipation of spotting the Snow Leopard the next morning.
Other fauna found in this belt are the rare Red Fox, Blue Sheep and the Himalayan Ibex. The next morning after a quick breakfast, we drove to the first spot and sighted the Himalayan Ibex. In fact, it is common to spot the Ibex and the Blue Sheep in Kibber but sighting the Snow Leopard and the Red Fox requires a lot of patience. Approximately two and a half hours of searching, we returned disappointed to the homestay for a quick lunch. Post lunch, we drove to another spot to sight the Bhaisahab (Snow Leopard is known as the Bhaisahab among the village people). On the way, we did see some fresh pug marks of the Snow Leopard which got the entire team super excited. Spending 3 hours on the spot, we decided to return (disappointed again) to the homestay as neither we or the spotters and scanners could sight the animal.
On our way back to the homestay, we saw another bunch of travelers waiting to sight the Red Fox. We too decided to wait and at least spot the Red Fox. To our surprise, the Red Fox appeared from nowhere exactly at 5.20 PM (as told by the other travelers) and unfortunately looked at a vehicle and started running for cover. However, a member of our group did manage to get some stills of the Red Fox. The fox visits the village of Kibber almost every day in search of food and we were also told that it eats anything and everything. We still had a day to sight the Snow Leopard and everyone still hoped to find one the next day as we had met other travelers who had spotted the Bhaisahab a few days earlier.
The alarm rings at 7 in the morning and everyone is seen doing their regular morning chores pretty excitedly. On our way to the spot, we spotted the Blue Sheep. After a quick photo shoot, we headed in anticipation of sighting the Snow Leopard but returned disappointed. Everyone was still in anticipation that we would get a message from the scanners and spotters the next morning so that we could get a few pictures of the leopard. The next morning, post breakfast, we waited till 8 AM for a revert from the scanners and spotters but turns out fate had different plans for us. So we decided to make a move. Since the previous night was snowing, the entire Kibber village was filled with snow and the views were very beautiful.
The roads literally weren’t visible so we had to tread slowly until the snow on the road disappeared. The snowy roads disappeared once we reached Tabo and we did pick up pace to reach Rampur (Hotel Nau Nabh) for the night halt. Honestly, their hospitality wasn’t the best. While we reached Rampur at around 8 in the night, it was raining. One thing that caught my attention was the Ceat tyres. They took almost everything mother nature had to throw at them and nowhere did they give us a problem (absolutely no punctures or anything). The tyres treaded on the snow, smooth tarmac roads and rough roads that were under construction.
You must go on adventures to know where you truly belong
Finally, the next day morning, I had to bid a goodbye to my Gypsy as according to the plan, I and my other fellow travelers would be driven to Chandigarh. The Ceat tyres were reliable and not just road-friendly but bad road-friendly and snow-friendly too.
To give you a perspective about Ceat, the company was established in 1924 (1979 was the year when Ceat was established in Asia) in Turin. Ceat is one of Asia’s leading tyre manufacturers with a presence in global markets as well. Ceat makes radial tyres for anything on wheels you can think of, 2-wheelers, auto-rickshaws, cars, trucks and buses, light commercial vehicles, tractors, trailers and even earthmovers. Headquartered in Mumbai, the company produces over 15 million tyres a year.
Rampur to Chandigarh was an 8-hour drive and we managed to reach Chandigarh by around 7 in the evening. We stayed at ITC Bella Vista for the night and were looking forward to the dinner at Pal Dhaba. After a quick drink at the bar in the hotel, we were driven to Pal Dhaba. Once we reached, we were surprised to find not one not two but three Pal Dhabas, all owned by three brothers. We went to the original Pal Dhaba (which was started first) and were treated with the best parathas and raithas. Alu Parathas and the Vegetable Raitha are to die for and do not forget to try a hand at the Rabri and Kulfi, after the lunch/dinner, of course. While I do not eat non-veg, my colleagues were all praises for the non-veg food too. So try that also, if you are a non-vegetarian.
Driving in those mountainous roads, getting to meet new people who’ve become really good friends and of course, getting to experience the artistic views of the landscapes and the Himalayas is something that not everybody can get to see even in their lifetime. So a big thanks to The Road Less Travelled team (we also had a separate kitchen team who cooked delicious meals for us at the homestays, a big thanks to them as well). I could go on and on praising The Road Less Travelled. Their efforts of making us all feel better and good throughout the entire journey were just astonishing only because of the fact that as we went high and high above the sea level, facilities started diminishing and yet none of us felt short of anything. I and my fellow travelers got whatever we asked. Honestly, when The Road Less Travelled tells it is a luxury tour, it is indeed a luxury tour! Looking forward to another trip with this fantastic team. Last but not the least, heartfelt gratitude to Ceat tyres. Himachal, you shall be remembered!