Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Gray Ghosts of the Himalaya"

Greetings All,
Our travels have brought us to Ladakh in far northern India in search of the elusive Snow Leopard. We began our journey in Leh, the capital of  Leh district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, with our naturalist guide, Avijit Sarkhel.   At an elevation of 11,562 feet we had to spend a few days here to acclimatize to the high altitude.  

City of Leh

A 2-hour drive brought us to Hemis National Park, quite possibly the best place to see Snow Leopards in the wild.  A short trek brought to to our campsite in  Husing Nala.  Along the way we spotted a small herd of Bharal or Blue Sheep quite close to the road.  This was a good sign as Blue Sheep are the preferred prey of Snow Leopards.  Where there are sheep, the Snow Leopards can't be too far behind.

Bharal or Blue Sheep

That evening we explored the valley but the cats remained hidden.  The next day we moved up toward the Rumbak Valley.  Our guides were surprised at how little snow there was.  "Normally all these brown hills you are seeing should be covered in snow" Dorje, one of our local guides commented.  This meant that the Blue Sheep and hence the Snow Leopards would stay higher.  We had our work cut out for us.  We spent 2 days scanning the high ridges of over 15,000 ft from a plateau at the confluence of two valleys.  We spotted some flocks of Blue Sheep on the surrounding ridges but no Snow Leopards. 
Scanning for Snow Leopards

We made the decision to move up higher and stay in the tiny village of Rumbak.  It not only gave us a better chance to find the Snow Leopards but allowed us to spend time with the local people.  We were the guests of Phunchock and her family at her homestay.  

Phunchok Next to a Chulha Stove
We were here for just 3 nights but the people who live here have to survive the brutally cold winters. Homes are heated by small stoves burning yak dung or willow branches.  We were fortunate to have one of these stoves in our room to keep us warm.

Peggy in our Room

The fields lay fallow during the winter and the livestock have to forage on the meager vegetation or eat fodder grown during the summer and is now being stored on the roofs of most homes.

Rumbak Village

On our third day we decided to head up the Rumbak Valley in search of the hard-to-find felines. Suddenly Dorje Tsewang, our assistant local guide, shouts "Snow Leopard!"  Somehow he had spotted a Snow Leopard sitting on the top of a ridge about a mile and a half away!

Can you Spot the Snow Leopard?

Through our binoculars and a spotting scope we could get a good view of the cat.  Marc was able to get a reasonably good photo with his new 500mm lens with an 1.4x teleconverter.  Hauling all this heavy camera equipment finally paid off.

How About Now?

We watched the leopard for about 15 minutes before he disappeared behind the ridge.  Oh well, at least we had seen a Snow Leopard!  We sat and waited for him to return but he didn't.  There were flocks of Blue Sheep on the ridge below.  Had he been following them?  To keep warm we walked further up the valley before heading back to the spot from which we had seen the Snow Leopard. Jigmat and Tsering, two of our local staff,  had just arrived with our lunch.  They didn't believe we had seen a Snow Leopard.  Just as we were finished eating, the Snow Leopard returned!  It was about a hour and 40 minutes since we had last seen him.  He walked along the ridge, stretched and began stalking the blue sheep.

The Snow Leopard Returns!

We watched in anticipation as two groups of Blue Sheep moved closer to his location.  One group appeared to be a bachelor herd.  They were oblivious to the Snow Leopard's presence, sparring and even dominance mounting.

Blue Sheep Sparring

Surely we would witness a kill...  The Snow Leopard was in the perfect position and the Blue Sheep were unaware.  "Come on cat make your move!" we all implored.

"Come on Make Your Move!"

Suddenly, all the Blue Sheep ran over the ridge and disappeared.  Had they detected the cat?  Had the cat made a kill on the other side of the ridge out of our view?  The Dorjes went down valley to see if they could see the Snow Leopard again.  We waited for awhile then followed them.  They had briefly seen the leopard again so apparently he hadn't made a kill.  Oh well, it was a thrilling encounter just the same!

The next morning Dorje knocked on our door to tell us a pair of Tibetan Wolves had been spotted on the ridge across the valley.  We threw on our clothes and just outside our door Dorje had set up the spotting scope so we could get a good look at the couple.

Tibetan Wolves

Today we hiked to Yurutse Village to search for Lynx or maybe to see another Snow Leopard.  We headed down to the river valley where we saw lots of wolf tracks but no wolves.  Dorje spotted fresh Snow Leopard (presumably female) urine on a rock and there were also fresh Snow Leopard tracks on the frozen river.

Snow Leopard Tracks

We headed up a side valley toward the village.  It was a glorious day with bright sunshine, snow covered peaks and cobalt blue skies.  The views were magnificent. 

View up the Yurutse Valley

Dorje was constantly scanning but did not spot any wildlife.   We arrived at the village which was only one very large home built a hundred years ago in the traditional Tibetan style.  Only a father and son were currently living there.   

Yurutse Village

We sat and scanned.  A large flock of close to 50 Blue Sheep were grazing low down on a ridge on the opposite side of the river.

Large Flock of Blue Sheep

The following day we left Rumbak.  On the hike back to the car park we were hoping to see one more of these magnificent cats but they remained elusive.   We drove to our next site, Ulley Village, where Snow Leopard sightings have been good in recent years.  Ulley is also a great place to see Asiatic Ibex.  The following morning a herd was spotted high above the village.  We drove then hiked up to get a closer look.  We hid behind some rocks to watch some magnificent males spar.  They were butting heads with the full force of their weight.  Marc actually captured a male on two legs!

Sparring Asiatic Ibex

The next day we drove to Hemis-Shukpachen where a pack of Tibetan Wolves had recently been sighted.  We didn't find the wolves but spotted a big flock of Ladakh Urials on a ridge below the village.

Ladakh Urials

Two old males with massive horns were lounging on the ridge a short distance away. 

Male Ladakh Urials

That night and into the following day it snowed!  We were hoping that the new snowfall would bring the Ibex and Urials lower and that the Snow Leopards would follow but sadly this did not happen.  In searching for the cats we came across other wildlife in the area.  A cute Large-eared Pika scurried between the rocks stopping briefly for Marc to get a photo!

Large-eared Pika

All too soon it was time to leave Ulley and return to Leh.  The freshly fallen snow made for a spectacular return drive.

View on the Drive Back to Leh

The following morning we had an equally stunning flight over the Great Himalaya Range.  From this great height we got a better picture of the domain of the Snow Leopard.  

Great Himalaya Range

With so many mountains, valleys, ridges and rocky outcrops to hide in it's no wonder that finding these cagey cats is so difficult.  At least now we had seen one of these remarkable felines and know first hand that ghosts do exist!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

A very sincere thanks to our local guides Dorje Skiu and Dorje Tsewang for their constant scanning and spotting some of Ladakh's elusive wildlife!

The Dorjes Scanning
Our route map:

Route Map

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red Pandamonium!

Greetings All,
Our travels have brought us to India in search of the elusive Fishing Cat.  I was expecting to go deep into the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, far from human encroachment, to find these mainly nocturnal, solitary cats but instead we headed for the suburbs of Kolkata!  How could such a secretive animal live among 14 million people that inhabit Kolkata and the surrounding areas?  We were soon to find out.  We drove about 10 miles to the northwest of Kolkata where we met Bappa, a local man who has been studying and protecting Fishing Cats in this area.  The plan was to set up a hide next to one of the ponds in the area and wait for the cats to come and fish.

Typical Pond
I was a bit apprehensive as Avi, our trip leader, warned that leeches, venomous snakes and mosquitoes also inhabit these areas.  He provided us with leech socks made of nylon and extending to the knee to keep the leeches at bay.  Now what about the snakes?  Avi explained that you could hear the Russel's Vipers approach but that the Banded Kraits were more of a problem.  They were silent and their bite feels more like an ant string.  By the time you realize you've been bitten, it's too late.  "Great", I thought.  We walked through a small banana plantation to a small pond where a hide had been set up.

On our Way to the Hide

It looked mostly enclosed.  I was a bit reluctant to get in but the local guides assured me that there were no leeches and no snakes.  Avi helped Marc set up his camera outside the hide on a tripod.  A slit had been cut through the mosquito netting so Marc could operate the camera and flash from inside the hide.  Now all we had to do was to wait for a cat to show up around dusk.

Marc in the Hide

We sat in silence for 3 hours not moving too much.  As dusk approached the Muslim call to prayers wailed over a loudspeaker from the nearby village.  The Golden Jackals howled a response but no Fishing Cats appeared.  I switched my headlamp to red so I could scan for snakes in the dark and fortunately there were none.  It became too dark to see so we brought out our night vision monocular.  It didn't work well through the mosquito net so if there was a Fishing Cat out there we'd never see it.  The guys came to retrieve us at 7:00 PM.  We'd try again early the next morning.

We returned to the site around 4:00 AM, scanning a few ponds on the way in but not seeing any cats.  A few jackals were scavenging around the village garbage dumps.  We entered the hide waiting for dawn.  Bappa came to retrieve us around 7:00 AM and told us he had seen a Fishing Cat on the way in.  We weren't so lucky.  As we were returning to our van, Avi got a call that a fishing cat had run out while the guys were taking down our hide!  This was getting down right exasperating.  We'd try again for a third and final time this evening.

On our final attempt for the Fishing Cat,  the pond was visited by a greater Coucal and a Pond Heron but sadly a Fishing Cat did not show up.

A Greater Coucal  Paid us a Visit

Bappa excitedly arrived around 7:00 PM and told us to hurry up, a fishing cat had been found!  We raced off in our van to a village where some locals met us and led the way to a nearby pond.  One guy said to wait 15 minutes and the cat would appear.  I was a bit skeptical but sure enough a male fishing cat appeared on the bank of the pond.  By this time the whole village was out to see the cat or maybe the crazy foreigners with their fancy cameras.  The cat hung around long enough for Marc to get photos.  

Male Fishing Cat!

Male Fishing Cat!

By this time the crowd had become too large and boisterous so the fishing cat left.  This was the craziest cat encounter we've ever had!  

After our successful encounter with a Fishing Cat we turned our attention to searching for the seriously cute Red Panda.  To find the pandas we had to fly from Kolkata to Bagdogra to the north.  From here we drove to the border town of Kankarbhitta to check in with the authorities.  The town was jam packed with trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and people.  It was more chaotic than Kolkata.  


We had to check in with the local immigration authorities in India and Nepal.  We needed to be able to cross the border when looking for Red Pandas to the north - except there were no border crossings in that area.   After bouncing between the Indian and Nepal border stations a couple of times we got the necessary authorizations in our passports.

Finally we were on on way.  As we drove higher it became cloudy and colder.  It was dark by the time we reached the foreigner check in office at Maney Bhanjang and a further 15 minute drive brought us to our guesthouse in Chitray.  The next day we transferred to jeeps for the bone jarring drive to Singalila National Park.  The park lies along the border between India and Nepal under the looming Kanchenjunga Range.  

Kanchenjunga Range from Singalila Ridge.  

Here a large tract of rhododendron, oak, and bamboo forest has been preserved as prime Red Panda habitat.  Our first day of searching yielded no pandas but some nice birds.  

Blue-fronted Redstart

Black-faced Laughingttrush

On our second day of searching we investigated a tract of forest beyond the village of Kayakatta where Avi had seen pandas on a trip last October.  Sure enough, a beautiful female Red Panda was sleeping high up in an oak tree not far from the road.  

Female Red Panda!

The Red Panda is a small arboreal mammal native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China.  It most closely resembles a raccoon but is not related to them.  In fact the red panda is the only living species of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae.  Its wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 mature individuals and continues to decline due to habitat loss and poaching.  They feed mainly on bamboo and acorns but are omnivorous as they also eat eggs, birds, insects, and small mammals.
We returned to the same spot which we had dubbed "Panda Corner" the following day to see if the Red Panda was still there.  She had moved off but a large male was sleeping in a nearby tree!  Marc got a few good photos before the thick fog moved in making viewing and photography difficult.

Male Red Panda!

Avi got a call that 3 pandas had been spotted by the entrance to the park!  We raced off to see them.  When we arrived one of the trackers met us and led us down a steep path.  Lo and behold there were 3 pandas, a beautiful female with 2 nearly grown cubs.  Marc took many photos of the cubs playing with each other and mom.

Red Panda Cubs!

We watched them for about 45 minutes until they climbed down from the tree and disappeared into the forest.  We returned to the lodge to have a beer by the warm fire thrilled with our amazing encounters with the Red Pandas.

The next two days we searched for Red Pandas in Nepal.  In a small village not far from the border, the Red Panda Network operates tours from here.  To learn more about Red Pandas and how you can help go to:

We didn't find the Red Pandas in this area but on the way back to our lodge we spotted some beautiful birds near Kayakatta.  

Male Kalij Pheasant

Spotted Laughingthrush

On our final day in the park we headed down the same trail near the entrance to look for the Red Panda family.  When we got to the bottom, the 2 trackers had not found them.  We were about to head down further when the trackers spotted them in a tree just behind us.  We had a pretty good vantage point but the trackers and another group had found a spot above.  

Red Panda Family!

Avi said the view wasn't much better above so we stayed below.  Finally we moved up to where they were.  The 2 cubs had come down to feed on the bamboo at eye level!

One of the Red Panda Cubs Eating Bamboo

Shortly after we arrived, the 2 cubs climbed down and took off followed by their mother. 

Female Red Panda

What a thrilling time spent with the Red Pandas!  We hope that the governments of India and Nepal will continue to protect these docile and endangered mammals and their fragile forest habitat.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc 

Our Route:

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Kingdom of a Million Elephants"

Greetings All,
We got a very chilly reception when entering Laos on January 25 - not from the people but from Mother Nature.  A Siberian cold front had swept down reaching most of Southeast Asia.  It was cold, just at freezing.  A parked van had ice on the windshield and icicles on the roof. 

Ice on the Windshield!

We said goodbye to Zang and Hung and met our new guide, Choy (pronounced Joy) and a new driver, Mr. Ping.  It was easy getting out of Vietnam but more complicated to get into Laos.  We went to one window and gave them our passports and a photo.  They gave us our passports back and 2 forms to fill out.  It was cold doing this outside.  We handed in our forms and passports and had to pay $36 each for a visa.  It took awhile to process.  Many locals and a couple of Israelis showed up so it got a bit chaotic.  We had to go to another window to get our passports and pay another $3 each.  At yet a third window we had to pay another $2 each before going to a final window to get our temperature taken and pay another $1 each.  Finally, we cleared all windows and were on our way into Laos.   

We rode in the van on a cold downhill stretch of road.  It was warmer at the bottom and not raining so Marc and I opted to ride our bikes.  We rode about 8 miles to the lunch stop.  Riding wasn't too bad,   there was little to no traffic and it wasn't raining.  Only 7 million people live in Laos, less than the population of Hanoi.  It was nice to see forested hillsides and few people.  We reached our lunch stop in a small town where the locals were watching TV.  The news was on and showed John Kerry arriving in Laos.  Supposedly he was here to offer the people of Laos compensation for bombing the heck out of them during the Vietnam war.  Marc also saw that the Patriots lost to the Broncos so they're out of the Super Bowl.  We continued to ride after lunch but as we were leaving town it started to rain.  We climbed gradually which kept me sort of warm but it started to rain harder.  We reached the top where the van was waiting.  We wimped out and climbed into the van and drove the rest of the way to Muang Khoua.

Sag Van to the Rescue

We checked into our hotel which had no heat, hot water or a hairdryer (to dry wet clothes).  We hung our clothes from every available surface in the hope that they would dry overnight.  Clearly this town is not accustomed to such cold temperatures.

Drying our Clothes the Hard Way

The next day we took a scheduled break from cycling to do a boat ride down the Nam Ou River which was a good thing since it was raining cats and dogs.  Our boat was outfitted with what looked like car seats.  At least we'd have a comfortable ride.  Once we got settled, I asked about life jackets and our driver had to run and get them.  We couldn't see much as we had to put the side tarps down but most of the views were obscured by clouds anyway.  It was cold once the boat got moving.  Here we were in Laos and I had to put on 7 layers including a fleece vest, Gore Windstopper jacket, down jacket and a 3-ply Goretex jacket just to keep warm!  

Peggy Bundled Up!

We passed Vietnamese gold dredgers in the river.  We wondered if they used chemicals to leach the gold from the river gravel.   Choy said "no" which was a good thing since many people depend on this river for their livelihood.

Gold Dredger

We saw little else.  It was too cold for the fishermen, water buffalo and birds. We continued downriver passing a bridge.  The Chinese are going to build another dam here, the fifth one that they have built on this river.  Choy told us they have a 30-year lease on these dams during which most of the revenue and power goes to China.  We stopped at the village of Sop Jam.  The women in this village are weavers.  They had many colorful scarves for sale.  I wanted to buy some but not in the pouring rain. 

Woman and Scarves in Sop Jam

We passed one house where the men were drinking some sort of whiskey through a long straw.  
One Way to Keep Warm!

The women sat on the other side of the house around a fire presumably doing the same thing.   This was one way to keep the chill away!  Another hour downriver brought us to the town of Muang Ngoy.  We climbed steep steps to this riverside town and checked into our bungalow.  

Our Tropical Resort, Where's the Sun??

There was no heat so instead I climbed into bed to get warm.  We had dinner at a nearby restaurant where an evil-looking cluster bomb, dropped here by the US, was on display.

Cluster Bomb

Everyone knows about the Vietnam War and Cambodia but few have heard about the "secret war" against Laos.  American pilots knew the area as the head of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and a transit point for troops and supplies heading from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam.  In a vain effort to stem that flow in the late 1960's and early 70's, United States forces subjected Laos to the heaviest aerial bombardment in history.  More American bombs were dropped on this stretch of territory than in Europe during World War II or in Vietnam!  After dinner we returned to our cold room and buried ourselves under blankets to warm up.  I can't believe how cold it is in Laos.  The locals repeatedly told us they didn't remember it being this cold in their lifetimes! 

When we woke the next morning the rain had stopped.  Yippee!  We took an 1-hour boat ride to the town of Nong Kiau.  Along the way we could see a bit more of the river and forested limestone mountains beyond.  Some of the forest had been cleared to grow oranges, bananas, corn and other crops.  There were even a few fishermen out today.  

A Limestone Mountain Emerges

We explored the area around Nong Kiau by bicycle and stopped at Pha Thok Cave.  To get to the entrance we had to cross a small river on a log bridge.  It was a little tricky with our bike shoes.  Marc was almost across when the log broke.  Luckily he didn't fall in.  

Crossing a Log Bridge

To get to the cave we had to climb steep, narrow stone steps. 

Stairway to Pha Thok Cave

The stairway led to a large limestone cave where the governors of the area hid during the "secret war" when the US carpet-bombed the area.   

Pha Thok Cave

On the return Choy had to help us across the broken log bridge.  A few local girls became impatient with these clumsy tourists crawling along and instead waded across the creek. 

What's Taking so Long??

After another cold night we set off for our last and longest day of cycling.  It was still pretty cold but at least it wasn't raining.  We set off around 8:00, crossed the bridge over the Nam Ou River and rode through town.  

Crossing the Nam Ou River

We were beginning to see patches of blue sky.  There wasn't much traffic but what there was was moving at a fast rate of speed.   Finally about 44 miles in we arrived at our lunch break.  We shared a chicken sandwich before heading off.  In about 16 miles we reached the village where Choy grew up.  His parents, two of his sisters and a young nephew still live here. 

Choy and his Parents

Choy showed us the inside of his parents' house.  There was a store room with sacks of rice which the family grows in fields across the river.  There was also a large living room and kitchen which Choy's mother was working in.  

Choy's Mother in the Kitchen

We were served a couple of kinds of sticky rice before heading off to do 6 more miles of riding.  We told Choy that we would stop after biking 66 of the planned 90 miles.  The weather had cleared nicely and we stripped off our tights and long sleeved jerseys.  We biked past some jagged limestone peaks where the van had stopped to pick us up.   It was a nice way to end our bike trip of over 575 miles through Vietnam and Laos.

The Weather Finally Clears!

We arrived at our final destination of Luang Prabang as the sun was setting over the Mekong River.

Sunset Over the Mekong River
Many legends are associated with the creation of this city, including one that Buddha smiled when he rested here during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city.  From the 14th to the 16th century the town became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), whose wealth and influence were related to its strategic location on the Silk Route.

We had an extra day in Luang Prabang so we decided to visit the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center about 19 miles south of town. Here 23 Asiatic Black Bears are housed.  Most of the bears arrive at the rescue center as very young cubs having been confiscated by the Lao Government from illegal poaching and trading. It is likely that they would otherwise have been destined for a life of torture in a "bile farm" outside of Laos.  The enclosure was smaller than expected but the bears seemed healthy.  The center has put in a lot of structures and toys to keep the bears occupied.  To learn more about the center and how you can help, go to Free the Bears

Play Time

Wrestling Time

Feeding Time

We continued to the Kuang Si waterfall, a many-tiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations into a series of turquoise pools.  At the end of the walk was a 160-foot cascade.  

Kuang Si Waterfall

Our last stop was to the nearby Kuang Si Butterfly Park.  The park was recently created by a couple, Olaf and Ineke, from Holland.  The sun had just come out so the butterflies, all native species, were more active.  Ineke showed us the chrysalis house and the netted butterfly garden.  It was such a lovely spot with waterfalls, orchids and gardens.

Kuang Si Butterfly Park

On our final morning in Laos we were up early to see the procession of Buddhist monks.  Every morning the monks walk past locals and tourists to get food donations for the day.  A woman sold us rice and candy bars to give to the monks.  You have to place the food in the monks' bowls, they won't take it themselves.  

Peggy Giving Food to a Monk

Monk Procession

In 1995 Luang Prabang was designated an UNESCO World Heritage site for its fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era.  The many pagodas or "Wat" in Luang Prabang, are among the most sophisticated Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia.  We walked to the oldest temple in town, Wat Xiering Thong, an ornate complex decorated with sculptures, mosaics, engravings, paintings and gilding.  

Wat Xiering Thong

Wat Xieng Thong was built 1559-1560 by the Lao King Setthathirath near where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers join. Until 1975 the wat was a royal temple under the patronage of the royal family and the Lao kings were crowned in the Wat.  We walked up to Main Street which is lined with French Colonial buildings.  

Main Street in Luang Prabang

All too soon it was time to return to our hotel to get ready for our evening flight to Kolkata, India.  Despite the unprecedented cold, we were warmed by the humble hearts of the Laotian people.  Our sincere thanks to Choy for sharing his country and childhood home with us.  May the sun continue to shine on "The Kingdom of a Million Elephants"!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc 

Our route: