In search of the Himalyan Brown Bear
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
“ So, do you live here or are you visiting ? “
“ I have come for a visit.”
“ Where are you going ? “
A short silence followed as he digested the information.
“ Not too many people come to this part of the world during the winters. People usually leave this place in these months.”
“ Yes, I know…I have come for photography.”
“ Oh yes… the snow leopard is quite an attraction.”
“ I have come for the brown bears.”
A longer silence was the response. Soon, however, a firm handshake followed and a sharing of the phone number should I need any help at any time.
This was the conversation that I had with a fellow traveler while waiting at the Leh airport conveyor belt. He happened to be with the Army and had arrived to take up a new posting.
I thought it was pretty nice of him to share his contacts in case I need help. Though, that also made me wonder about what might have prompted him to do so ☺
Kargil. The place that almost everyone in the country associates with the last big, direct war we have had.
Definitely not the usual place to go to, even considering the off beat places that wildlife photography takes us. To be precise, we were going to Drass, a little beyond Kargil and considered to be the coldest place in India. On top of everything, we were going there in the winter months when the temperatures will be sub zero. Plus the wind chill.
I couldn’t wait.
We spent a day in Leh, acclimatizing ourselves to the altitude ( though Drass was at a lower altitude than Leh, it was still high ) The plan was to start early the next morning for Drass , around 7 am so that we reach by late afternoon, accounting for stops that we might take during the journey, should anything catch our attention.
There are road trips and then there are road trips. And then, there is the road trip from Leh to Drass.
It is, quite simply, a visual delight.
For a while, the blue waters of the river kept us company. Sometimes clearly visible, sometimes, as our road curved upwards, vanishing out of sight far below us. Sometimes, flowing in a supremely serene manner, unconcerned with the mundane world around it and sometimes, suddenly bursting into a flirtatious, unrestrained, bubbly version.
Around the river, as the road snaked its convoluted ways, lay the mountains.
Craggy, formidable, inscrutable. Shaped by centuries of wind and the elements, they stayed there, immovable and silent observers. The sun threw some truly dramatic shadows on them. Sharp, defining lines of dark and light giving the mountains a grave, brooding personality that seemed rather apt.
The soil had a different colour of brown than the richer ones you see in the plains. A tad more muted, a bit greyish, even. In line with the overall ambience of the place, or possibly, the main contributor to it since, after all, you see only barren land around you.
It had snowed a week back and enough to leave splashes of pristine white on the mountains. In some places, the mountainsides looked as if someone had taken a giant paintbrush and did what painters do – slap a few random brushes of white as if to check if the shade is right.
As you get closer to Kargil, the landscape changes. From the sharp, well defined sides, the mountain slopes become gentler, multiple hills smoothly rolling around you, looking like a gently rumpled satin bedsheet. The mountain sides also are a lot more snow covered than earlier and stand superbly contrasted against the brilliant blue sky.
There are points when you step out of your jeep and you see the roads winding away below you and not for the first time, I doff my imaginary hat to the magnificent work that the BRO ( Border Roads Organization ) has done. Building these roads would have been a task in itself but building such high quality roads is an altogether different achievement !
Its not a case of a point to point, straightforward drive from Leh to Drass. There is a lot that would be happening if you keep out an eye out and interesting things do catch our eye.
First we saw the Bharal, too far away to get any shot but the first sight of wildlife on any trip always causes a flutter of excitement ! A little later we spent a long time with a small herd of urials. Its amazing to see the utter comfort that they show while walking on those steep, rocky slopes. And a little more when they chill out on those same slopes, lounging on those uber comfortable pile of stones !!
Or you might see a flock of Chukkars nonchalantly crossing the road and then lazing around on a snow covered plot. ( Bliss for a photographer !!! )
And, then, there are the monasteries.
Standing tall , aloof and spartan, their white colour standing out against the dull brown around them, they look as timeless as the mountains. I wish we had the time to make the necessary detours to visit all the monasteries around this route, but unfortunately, time is usually a constraint and we had to make do with a solitary visit.
The Lamayuru monastery , one of the oldest and largest monasteries in Ladakh, comes bang on the way and doesn’t require even a tiny detour.
It is said that the Lamayuru’s valley was earlier a lake. In the 11th century, Naropa, a Buddhist scholar, emptied the lake by splitting the surrounding hills. He found a dead lion that was covered by the lake waters and chose that spot to lay the foundation for the Lamayuru monastery with a temple named the Singhe Ghang—meaning, Lion Mound. ( source : www.go2ladakh.in )
We seemed to be the only visitors when we reached there and as we walked around in the silence that enveloped it, I wondered, as I often do, on the extent of change that these buildings would have witnessed around them. Lost in my musings, I turned a corner and I noticed exactly that – it was solemnly looking over another development.
It was late afternoon by the time we rolled into Drass, a much smaller town than what I had imagined it to be.
Drass is in some way, that I could not really put a finger on, different from most of the small towns that I have been to.
There is a main road that seems to be its heart and soul. There was a Government college, a school, a nursery. I noticed a hospital too and, of course, numerous little shops.
And then there are the smaller villages. Curiously, these villages are not very far from the main street, but everyone considered it to be separate, with a different identity. The ones that we went to were just around a 15 min drive. Also, different villages ( at least the ones we passed ) are almost next to each other. They would have been a few hundred feet separating some of these villages, all on the same road but they were considered to be different villages and not as one large village.
The villages seemed straight out of a picture book.
There had been a spell of snow fall the previous week and almost everything around us, save the roads, was still covered in snow. Snow hung lazily from the branches and the leaves of trees, reluctant to fall off. The roofs of the houses had snow falling off the edges like an oversized ice cream scoop perched precariously on a tiny cone.
Picture book looks is however, only one side of the story. These are villages very close to the border. Mushko valley had the last village before the border and was also under occupation during the Kargil war. The exposure to any form of tension is immense and unimaginable for us.
In a village, much further away from the border, a small, forlorn sign near a water pump told a sad tale. “ Installed in the memory of young Yasmeen, 9 years old, who died during the shelling on ….”. I don’t remember the year mentioned but it was much after the Kargil war. A case of some random shelling, we were informed.
9 years old.
Imagine living with that constant fear over your heads.
Some of the villages seemed to be decently well to do. Of course, I am only going by the number of cars that were parked on either side of the road and the fact that most of the houses seemed fairly large.
One of us commented on the size of many of the houses, and one of our guides remarked, “ Yes, everyone builds a large home and then most of the family members go away from Drass to the big cities to earn a living and the people who stay are left with a large empty house”.
I also got an interesting lesson on perspective – many of those who lived in the village called Drass as ‘ the city’. And, here I was looking at it as mainly one long street !!
However, that stretch… really fascinating. At any time of the day, there would be a constant stream of people walking up and down the street.
Small groups of pretty, rosy cheeked college going girls whispered to each other stifling their laughter in much the same way girls their age do all over and handsome boys walked around trying to look serious and older than they were.
The elderly men shuffled down, nodding at you warmly if you happen to catch their eye, wishing a ‘Assalum Maleikum” to their friends, stopping to exchange a word or two with a big smile or a warm hug.
Shopkeepers stepped out of their stores when they didn’t have customers, took out chairs and bask in the warm winter sun, eagerly soaking up as much sunshine as possible.
Its fascinating to observe faces.There were the tall, strapping men with their prominent, aquiline noses and smartly trimmed beards. The elders with their flowing white beards looking like Gandalf with a far more aristocratic nose, and when they smile, the entire face smiles. The stockier, shorter ones with a resolute look and a purposeful stride.
As is to be expected in a small town, everyone knew each other. We would often be stopped at checkpoints and the driver would tell us, “ No problem…that guy is my uncle/cousin/nephew”.
I guess we stood out like beacons while we were there. Not many tourists stay in Drass. Most usually just pass through. That also explained the relative shortage of places to stay in.
Our lodge was at the other end of the main road. It was rather inappropriately named Danish Resorts and I spent a few amusing minutes thinking of how the discussion would have been when it was decided to call it ‘Resorts’. The scenario had interesting possibilities ☺.
Danish Resorts had a rather unprepossessing façade. On the ground floor was a small vacant area which led to the dining area with three or four tables in it and the kitchen was further behind. I guess during the summer, when there would be a lot more tourists, dining tables would be placed in the vacant space as well. Right now, we seemed to be the only tourists staying here.
Outside, next to the entrance into the dining area, there was a narrow staircase that led to the rooms. Three carpeted rooms with large beds in them, with uber thick, deep maroon blankets. Two cushioned sofa chairs in a corner, with a small table in front, completed the room. There were wall to wall cupboards on the opposite side and thick curtains and closed windows cut off both light and the bitter cold.
The bathrooms were separate and didn’t have running hot water. Whenever we required, buckets with steaming hot water will be brought in.
As we lugged our luggage up the narrow stairs into the rooms, our driver paused at the landing and pointed to his left.
“ That peak there…that’s Tiger Hill”
And who has not heard of Tiger Hill.
The successful winning back of that peak, the emotional play of words of the popular jingle by the brave captain after the victory and the shattering news of his demise later on in the war was something all of us, of a certain age, will know.
A few days later, we stood at the entrance of the Kargil War Memorial.
The Memorial has been built in the backdrop of Tiger Hill, Tololing Heights and other peaks. Its on the same Srinagar-Leh highway which was targeted by the enemy and standing there it was clear why the peaks were critical. From those peaks anyone could get an unhindered view of the main supply route for the Army.
A straight path, named the Vijaypath, from the entrance takes you to the Amar Jawan Jyoti. On either side of the path there were black stone busts of some of the heroes who lost their lives in the battle. Plaques tried to summarize their courage and their deeds in ordinary, insufficient words.
On the right, at the end of the short path, stood the Bofors gun, a strange mix of infamy and effectiveness.
If you walk a few dozen steps to the left of the Amar Jawan Jyoti, you will come across the Veer Bhumi. Rows and rows of tombs of soldiers with the names of soldiers of the 8th Mountain Division who have lost their lives since Independence.
I kept mostly to myself while walking around this place.
It was impossible not to get emotional here. One wonders at the raw courage that these young men had. At how they went ahead and did what they had to do, even when the odds seemed impossible. At how their families, parents, siblings, wives and children, who have been left behind would have struggled to continue with their lives, armed mostly with only memories, while the rest of the country moves on.
From where I stood, the Indian flag fluttered in the wind, with Tiger Hill in the background. War is brutal and I guess, most of us would never really understand how brutal.
Almost everything in Drass seems to revolve around the army. There were numerous camps all around and apparently most homes have someone in the army, as contract workers or drivers or as regulars. Many of the houses reared horses which were used by the Army for haulage.
“ We look after the horses for 7-8 months of the year. The horses pay back in the remaining period.”
The hillsides around us – at least the ones which were not snow covered – had several dots. Horses. Left there to graze. They graze there and when it starts snowing heavily, they either come back to their homes on their own, or their owners go and get them back. Put in stables, kept warm and fed. And as the winter recedes, the Army needs them and they pay back their owners for the care. Neat.
Sometimes though, as was the case when we were there, some of the horses will be brought back home a little earlier. For a special occasion.
The polo competition.
Polo’s a big thing in these parts and many of the people we met, represent the local Army units in these competitions. Javed, one of our drivers apparently used to be quite a player and he talked nostalgically about how the owner of The Lalit hotels used to sponsor their teams and of a famous win they had over another team from Manipur. Fond memories. Sports leaves us with memories that are tough to forget.
Our guide would also be participating in the tournament and so would his brother. Clearly, the excitement was increasing. A star player was pointed out to us as he and his friends walked on after a chat with us, as we were waiting. People would often stop to talk about the upcoming competition with our drivers and our guide.
That is one of the endearing aspects of small towns. People have time, people are curious and friendly and welcoming.
Often, as we waited on the road that connects the villages, next to the mountains, people would stop and chat with us. Curious to know why we were there and then to offer their considered expert advice on where we can find the brown bears.
One old man stopped and chatted with us for a long time and then pointed out very confidently to a few hills behind us and proclaimed that the bears will be there. That there was no chance that the bears will come on the hills we were looking at.
Of course, we were looking at these hills because we had seen a mother and two cubs playing in the snow but why puncture his confidence ? ☺
A little before he gave us his advice, he was quite animated about what he called the obsession over wildlife. He pointed out how if a single bear dies, the entire Forest Department will come over and launch an enquiry into the death. How even a human being’s death isn’t as concerning.
He talked about how bears when they come out of their hibernation are ravenous and often raid the villages. How they kill their sheep and poultry and even raid their homes. However, they cannot do anything to the bears and at the same time there is no support for the losses they have had. How are they expected to safeguard their livelihood ? Who is there to look after them ?
That old man-animal conflict story again. No one can explain to someone who has lost a precious source of food and income that bears will be bears.
However, just as sudden was the flare up, equally sudden was the cooling down and he was again his friendly self before moving on.
“ Sirji, do come inside to have a cup of tea,” the ex-army man said with a broad smile. We had just returned after a futile, but lovely hike down a little used path to check if we could spy on some urials or even a brown bear and we bumped into him as he was returning home.
He had retired from the Army a few years back and was looking for a job. His Colonel had asked him to come over to Delhi assuring him of some help, but, as he said, “ I have lived far from home for far too long, I would like to be home now”. He was hopeful that the Government will help him with a job. After all, he had been in the Army, and that should mean something.
“ During winters, the snow piles up, almost upto 3-4 feet. We have to buy all our supplies for this period and then wait the snow out.”
“ Most of the houses would have had poultry and sheep, but in the war we had to evacuate our villages and when we returned, all of them were dead – died in the shelling or killed. No one gave us any compensation and we didn’t restart.”
It’s a tough life. A tough world amidst the most breathtaking beauty. Part of the toughness comes from the environment. A large part of it is man made. And everyone tries to cope.
And, what about the brown bears we came to shoot ?
Well, as is often the case in wildlife, luck wasn’t on our side. On the very first morning, we had a heart stopping moment when we saw a mother and her two cubs on the ridge of the mountains in front of us. Followed by a lovely moment when a cub slid down the snow ( possibly whooping in delight ☺ ) but alas all this was too far to photograph.
We waited the entire day but the entire family either decided to snooze behind some of the rocks or managed to vanish back to the top when we were not looking.
On another occasion, we spied another mother bear and her cub waiting to cross a road. They were just across the road but this time if the distance was just right, the light just wasn’t.
On a third occasion, we saw the same mother and solitary cub – middling distance and middling light again meant that we could not get any image that could be considered to be a keeper.
Such is wildlife photography. There are days ( or trips ) where you wait for hours and hours before you get lucky or sometimes you even return empty handed.
There is a different bliss in being in the middle of nature. Soak in it. I often went on short walks, in the freezing cold, sometimes upto the point where one can see the Mushko village tucked away, insignificant in between the mountains, getting ready for yet another winter.
The few days spent here gave me just a little peep into a life that is vastly different from what we live and what we usually see. I met people who have embraced these challenges with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.
Then I wonder – do they even consider these as challenges ?
A word of gratitude :
Our trip was organized by Wild Wonders Expedition (( ( https://wildwondersexpeditions.com ).
We were in touch with Debashish for the planning of the trip and met up with the rest of the group led by Bahow Ud Din once we reached Leh/Drass.
This is not an easy trip to plan for. As I mentioned, most of the people shut shop and leave Leh during the winters. Not too many tourists stay over at Drass and especially so in winters and the facilities aren’t yet geared up for that.
Despite all these challenges, the team worked tirelessly to ensure that we are comfortable and we don’t have any inconveniences. Sometimes, it was absolutely embarrassing to see the extent they would go to ensure that.
It’s a terrain that doesn’t have too many other options to shoot in case the sightings are not great. We just have to wait. However, you simply could not fault the team for not trying hard, be it either to check out other places to see if we get lucky there or to go checking out places for landscape shots. Some of the places we went to were breathtakingly beautiful.
But more than anything, it was their total commitment to ensure that we have a good experience that was superb. Some of the lunches were unforgettable !!
All in all, a trip to such a beautiful place was made even better by the lovely care and companionship that the entire team provided.
#Outdoors #Nature #Drass #wildlifephotography #Photography #Wildlife #Ladakh #Leh #Kargil #Wanderlust #Travel