After we left the monastery of Kungri, our next stop was to be the village of Mudh (pronounced mood-h) – the end of the road in the cold desert of pin valley. Beyond this point, it’s only a hiking trail that takes one over the pin-bhabha pass and the five day walk delivers you to kinnaur (where i had come from by bus, five days ago). As we drove, the cloud cover thickened considerably and the temperature dropped therefore. Though this was the month of May, and the start of Summer the sky was a dull grey and visibility poor. Looking across the river, I could not see anything beyond the first wall of mountains and while Tashi didn’t say anything, he too was a bit uncomfortable.
At this point, with only me in the car and the weather closing in, if he had recommended we turn back, I would have done exactly that. To his credit, he never once suggested that we should turn back or that he had to go home – he was very honest that way. We pushed forth and encountered massive snow and ice on either side of the road. I looked ahead and out the windshield on either side there was only packed snow, freshly cut to make a road. This was the kind of stuff I had seen in photos, of high passes and at this time, we were about the same altitude as Kaza! (Mudh is a bit higher)
The landscape was fascinating – like a brown zebra. As by now, I had no clue what I wanted to do next, I only clicked photos while Tashi raced the car. If I had got any sunlight I would have clicked many more.
It eventually got so grey that I felt the clouds were touching the earth and what surface was left was covered with snow. There wasn’t a patch of vegetation. What a contrast it was from yesterday’s fields at Langza and the herd of Blue sheep.
I was thrown out of my fantasy land as the car came to a screeching halt (and I heard a rumbling sound). Tashi got out of the car hurriedly and as I steadied myself and the camera, he was removing a boulder the size of the car’s tyre. I got out of the car but this was the only piece that had fallen off the mountainside to our right. Tashi signalled me to get inside the car, I complied and we both drove onwards quickly.
The snow cover by now was so thick that the river could not be seen at all – on either side there were only walls of ice, higher than our car.
Shortly after three pm, we were in Mudh village, considered to be the main village of Pin valley and the end of the road. From here, the only way forward is to trek. A five day trek over the Pin-Bhabha pass leads you to Kafnu, in Kinnaur.
Luckily for me, the clouds had parted and sunlight filtered through the sky – allowing this yak to pose for the camera. He didnt smile, but I did – I had reached.
In the village, my first action was to try and locate Tara guest house, which had been recommended to me. This is easier said than done, private operators do not work in Spiti and my driver’s BSNL phone wasn’t working well. To top that, the owner of Tara guest house was unreachable on phone.
It was purely by chance that I located the eponymous Tara, all of twelve years old, who helps her father run the guest house. She was a cheerful young girl and her first suggestion, after my polite decline to her ‘’Tea?” question was to go looking for an ibex. So we started walking on this road –
“Through the morning, they were here. “
“Where? “ I said as I looked in front of the house, there was nothing but snow and the mountains.
“Here only, near the river”.
The river of course was flowing under the snow cover somewhere.
Within a few hundred meters of leaving the village’s last houses, the road ended completely. Now it was all snow and we were walking on it. Here’s the view looking back at the village from that point.
As we walked, I slipped (but didn’t fall down), despite my best waterproof, skid proof, gore-tex, highfalutin boots. Tara, wearing rubber shoes and as sure footed as the ibex we were searching for laughed and goaded me on to walk ‘just a bit further’ to look for wildlife. So onwards we went.
The setting of Mudh is interesting – on the right side of the road (as one gets to the village), the mountains rise sharply; on the left of the road is the pin river but it turns somewhere (I couldn’t spot it due to the snow) and behind that is another row of mountains. The point where the road ends there is a funnel shaped curve formed by the mountains – creating a cul-de-sac. Under the snow cover, the effect of this closed space was quite dramatic. It was here that we were to look for the animals.
Tara mentioned that I was a bit late, through the morning, the ibexes were in close proximity of the village. I was a bit disappointed, especially since the delay in arrival was due to my own indecision. Still, she was very chirpy and upbeat and kept me going with stories from the village including how, recently, a few members of her family, while returning at night to the village had encountered a snow leopard on the road – the very road I had traveled on. Under the headlight, the startled leopard had tried to climb the mountainside too quickly and fell down back on the road. Then, sensibly, and observing that the humans were not out there to attack him, he went up the mountainside a lot more slowly and disappeared.
Anyways, for me there was no such luck and there was not a single animal or bird around. Dejected, I asked Tara after a half hour of plodding through the snow that we should turn back and I’d leave. It was spectacular scenery (especially since the sun was now out), but there wasn’t much variety.
On the way back, Tara, suddenly exclaimed – Look, it’s there, coming down – Ibex, Ibex. I looked up and sure there were two ibexes coming down the slope. On this packed snow that I had trouble walking, the ibexes leap like gazelles– it has to be seen to be believed. Here’s a short video.
Fully grown Himalayan ibexes (a subspecies of Siberian ibex) have very large horns and are majestic. I believe what I saw were females and possibly juveniles. I had a limited zoom lens (140 mm at the long end) and the below crops are the best I can manage. Still, the thrill of seeing a wild animal, unexpectedly, without a game drive or some such, is worth the experience.
The ibexes are so sure footed, they climb nearly vertical rocks with aplomb – withi minutes, they had jumped up the face on the opposite end – and then for a fleeting few seconds, one of them looked straight back at my camera.
They continued to climb higher and higher, and just as miraculously they had shown up, they were gone.
Much relieved that the entire drive had not been a waste, I continued back with Tara till we both heard a peculiar ‘kutur kutur’ bird call. So we turned to our left and darted across the snow field – I slipped again and in my haste this time I fell down completely. Thankfully it was just snow, no harm was done to equipment or operator. The result of the dash and the subsequent click was a ‘Chukar’ partridge.
In Sanskrit this bird is called a ‘Chakor’ and it is said to be fascinated by the moon (chand). This mystical indian sub-continent bird, symbolizes intense and often unrequited love. It is said that the Chakor, (Chuker Partridge) stares at the moon constantly with a lot of wanting and longing, knowing its out of reach, yet unable to help himself. Literary mentions for the bird go back to the times of the vedas. There is at-least one hindi film song after this legendary lover that goes – Chand ko kya maloom chahta hai use koi chakor – (The moon does not know that it is the object d’ affection of a chakor). In India, a subspecies of this bird inhabits the himalayan highlands (2000-4000 meters) and therefore is used to cold, arid conditions.
No chakor myself, by half past four I had had my fill of eating snow off the ground and unintended yoga asanas and asked Tashi if we should start back. He was of course more than willing to comply.