There are many national parks in India but Hemis is unique in its own way. Hemis National Park is the biggest national park in India . Yes you heard it right !! Not only that, this is one of the highest national parks in India – second only to Nanda Devi High Altitude National Park. Guess this is enough to attract attention of the nature enthusiasts. So when we heard about it, we were determined to cover this in our Leh trip. We were there in the month of Feb, when you get to witness leopard sightings in the Hemis Park. This got us excited all the more.
We took a cab to High Altitude Hemis National Park and reached at the main entrance in about an hr and a half. The route was simply breathtaking. Meandering through the curves of Himalayas and enjoying the beauty of nature we lost track of time completely. Roads were all empty. Guess we were the only travellers there at that time.
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Enroute we saw a group of students playing Ice Hockey on the ground in front of their hostel. The whole experience was very different. Our cab driver told us that it was the same school that was shown in the movie 3 idiots, famously called Rancho’s School. Well the original name of the school is “Druk Padma Karpo School”. The school has a field to practise ice hockey, and it was there that we saw few students enjoying the game. We didn’t stop. After all, the day was short and we were looking for something big.
The smile on our faces was constant. Little did we know that it was soon to evaporate :-(. A little background here – you need a pass to enter the national park . You can get the pass at the tourist reception center in Leh. The previous day we had gone there to get our passes which cost 2500 INR per person. But due to the festival, it was all closed. On enquiring further they told us to directly go to the park and tell them the name of the official who gave us the permission to enter the park. We had nothing in written though – just a phone number with us and loads of confidence.
And that confidence shattered when the people at the entry gate did not allow us to enter the park. They did not believe us – and its not their fault, I mean who would have. We requested a lot, even our driver did on our behalf but they didn’t budge. At the end they asked us to call the person whose number we had with us. But since there was no network on our mobile phones, we could not do that. With heavy hearts and huge disappointment we headed back to Leh.
But we kept trying that number – keeping our hopes alive. After about 15-20 min on our way, we got the signal on our phones. We stopped the cab, called that number and luckily the official picked up the phone. We told him our whole story and I guess he understood our enthusiasm. He gave us the permission and even sent us a written note as a text message on our phone which we were to show at the entrance. With renewed zeal and enthusiasm we headed back to the park and showed the message and got a free entry into the park.
Though we did offer to pay the entry fees but it is only to be paid at the tourist centre and due to the holiday that could not happen. With sheer luck, favouring us, we happened to visit the park. But yeah in all this back and forth it was already 11:30 AM and we were to head back to Leh by 5PM coz it starts getting dark by then. That means we had 5-6 hrs at hand to explore the park.
We had read a little about the park before venturing on this adventure. There are 6 villages inside the park where almost 2K people stay. Stok Kangri peak is situated within the park as well and Markha Valley trekking route also starts from within the park. During a conversation with the park officials we figured that Snow Leopard sighting was happening these days in the village called Rumbak, one of the villages which is within the park. It was a 2 hr hike from the entrance to that village. There were a few groups who had already entered the park that day for leopard sightings.But when we started our hike, there was no one around.
There was a mix feeling of excitement and anxiety of venturing out into the unknown on our own. It was more with fear I guess – since we were all alone. We kept walking – enjoying the blissful solitude of the park. And of course hoping to find the majestic snow leopard when we reach the village. To add to our adventure, we had to stop at a point. We didn’t know which way to go. One seemed to be the way ahead but there was a frozen stream to cross which was tricky. And the other seemed to be route atop a hill. We were confused. After a lot of contemplation and analysis of the 2 routes, we decided on the first one since there were a lot of footmarks seen here.
And we were so right. After that stream, the landscape also changed. It became all the more serene and beautiful. Huge snow covered mountains were visible. In that pollution less and noise less environment we can even hear the silence. Park is a treat for bird lovers. We were thoroughly enjoying our hike in the park. By now we started looking for any signs of civilization as well.
Right then we saw a few colorful tents pitched and horses grazing in the meadow. On moving further we saw a few people. They told us that the village Rumbak is all the more ahead and these were the camps of the people who were there for leopard sightings. They had already gone high up in the mountains with all their gears and equipments.
By this time it was around 1PM. We kept walking and finally reached the quaint village of Rumbak. There were quite a few houses but not many people around. Due to the ongoing Leh festival, most of the villagers had gone into the city. Most of the houses there have been turned into home-stays which offer lodging and food – which includes 3 meals, to the travellers at a decent rate.
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Language can be a little problem but still manageable. We entered one of the houses there to have a look around – of course with the permission of the house owner. It was a wooden house made in Tibetan style architecture – a typical local Ladakhi house. It was made of mud and wood, as are all the village houses. Columns of the house were coloured with beautiful patterns.
But believe me when I say that Kitchen stole the show.Yeah they had put up brass utensils of various sizes on display. They were more like antiques – which we generally use for decor in the cities. Over there, it was being used for daily servings. That was interesting and of course it added a unique charm to the place as well.
The operators that bring groups of people for leopard sighting, bring their own tents and food staff and hence the home-stays were empty except for a few travellers. As we kept walking thru the narrow lanes, women from the windows of their houses started asking if we needed the accommodation for the day. But we did not have that much time in hand. We had to return the same day. We politely declined their requests.
How we wish we could have stayed there for couple of days. We started roaming around the village hoping to find someone who could guide us around. Luckily for us, we found a man, who was working in the field. When we asked him about the snow leopard sighting, he told us that leopard sightings were happening in the morning and the evenings. He even spotted the location for us.
But we were a bit skeptical to venture into the unknown, so we requested him to accompany us. After some persuasion he agreed. And then started another interesting leg of our journey. He took us around his beautiful village. We then crossed to the other side and hiked up the mountain, meandered through the narrow slant route. He was taking us to the spot where the beast was sighted that morning.
Just the thought of it was exciting enough to make us follow him at his pace. Enroute he told us about the path which is taken for Markha Valley trek – one of the very famous trekking route in Leh done in the month of September.
We were busy talking and discussing with him about the village while walking when suddenly we spotted blue sheep – out of nowhere. Now this was something that we had not expected at all. It’s a rare sighting. It was so overwhelming to see the herd walking and grazing slowly with the backdrop of white mountains. For us it was the best opportunity to watch them in their own habitat. It was lovely.
He told us people get to sight leopard more than blue sheep. And some don’t even care because not all people actually know about them. That really was surprising to hear. We were super happy and even tried to go quite near to them. But of course they walked away from us. They are the usual food for leopard. During winters these sheep come down to the village from high up in the mountains. And to hunt them Snow Leopard follows them here. Hence the sightings are quite common in this village.
During that walk we also saw a Golden Eagle, pug marks of a Fox and a wild hare. Of course spotted by our guide. We really missed our binoculars there. Nevertheless all these sightings satiated our hunger for a wildlife safari.We started looking around with the newfound confidence as if we might be lucky with the leopard sighting. But Alas……
Don’t be sad. We had good sightings – we were still lucky. He helped us cross a quite big frozen stream. It was little scary to walk on frozen ice with no boots and hiking poles. But our guide was super comfy there.
Finally we reached the spot from where we had good chances of sighting the beast. He told us mornings are much better with greater chances. But we had to catch our flight back home the next day. Only if we had a day more.
We waited and waited and but were not supposed to be super lucky. By then it was 4pm and was getting late for us. We had to hike all the way back and reach at the entrance of our park by 5. With slight disappointment we started our return journey.
While on our way back, we found a group of photographers who had come with their BIG equipments to capture the leopard sightings. The camp that we had seen earlier was theirs. We started a conversation with them and got to know that there are tour operators who organize such packages aimed at snow leopard sighting costing a whooping amount of at least 2.5 LAKH per person.
So damn expensive. We were happy with our own little adventure.. Also it made us realize, given the facilities in Rumbak, you can plan the whole safari tour by yourself. All you need is a permit, a homestay and a good guide. And you have it all.
So we parted ways with our guide with a promise to return back and stay at his homestay for a day or 2. Though he insisted on not taking anything, but we still handed him a small token of thanks. With the efforts he took and the time he invested, he deserved it. He was happy with that and thanked us.
After that we started running. We ran because it was already evening and it had started to get dark around there.. With our decent pace, we reached back on time. And our driver was waiting for us. We hopped on in the cab and were off to Leh.
Hemis National Park was quite a different experience for us. When compared to other National Parks, Hemis has a unique beauty of its own. In contrast to the other parks, this was pretty quiet owing to the fact that there were no JEEP Safaris, no countless cameras clicking away and no roads within the park. It was all very raw. Yes, there were a few groups alongwith tour operators but the wildlife there was not disturbed by their presence. Entire park is very much in sync with nature, wherein the wildlife and the nature lovers can have a blissful time.
This was all about our expedition of adventure, nature and wildlife in the park. We hope you like our experience, as much as we enjoyed every moment of it.