Tso Kar-Taglang La-Leh-Dras-Srinagar

J&K complete logs here

After the lucky sighting of the Little Owl at the Thupche village and after a quick visit to the monastery there, we were back to the resort for some hot food and much needed rest. The rooms were insulated from the cold winds as they were concrete structures and not tents. I missed pointing out the sightings of Kiang or the Tibetan Wild Ass we had while on our way to Tso Kar from Polokung La. These Ass are found only in pockets in India and this is one place where they are found in huge numbers. In short, you need to come here to see the Kiang, the largest of the Wild Ass species. They are the country cousins of the Indian Wild Ass or Khur that is found in LRK/GRK in the state of Gujarat.

What you get to see here is plain dry fields extending as far as the eyes can see and then the hills and the mountains at the far end rising like the phoenix with ice caps here and there. In the winter months, it’s bitterly cold and snowfall is common around these regions and the lakes freeze. Closer to the resort is Startsapuk Tso, a fresh water lake that houses a variety of birds and that is where we were headed in search of some commonly seen species that included the Tibetan Sandgrouse, Black-necked Cranes, Snowfinches and other water birds.

We had elaborate plans of long birding at Tso Kar, but that somehow didn’t materialize as birding was tough and lady luck not favoring us, still we spent two nights looking out for birds. We missed the very common Tibetan Sandgrouse and the Upland Buzzard was a very distant, far off sighting. We spent the whole day roaming around Tso Kar looking around for birds and we did encounter quite a few of them in good numbers as also the Kiang’s (they run just like that, without any provocation, and keep running). There are no defined tracks to follow (except for those that are carved out due to vehicles regularly moving on the stretch) and our car got stuck in slippery sand at a place and we had our task cut out in getting it out to a safe zone that drained a lot of our energy. It’s not easy spending the extra energy in a high altitude place where every step you take consumes your energy more than that in a normal place.

Black-necked Crane’s, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Twite, Great-crested Grebe, Bar-headed Geese were some of the highlight sightings that we had during the course of the day. Next day, we decided to do some early morning birding and by afternoon start our return journey towards Leh with a definite stopover. Luck, even distant seemed favoring us as we sighted the majestic Golden Eagle yet again (we were seeing it so commonly now all around) and then the rare Saker Falcon (that breeds in these high altitude ranges) and then the Upland Buzzard all in a matter of two hours and that’s how it is. The Golden Eagle had perched on a cliff and was camouflaged pretty well at a distance, the Saker Falcon was perched much higher and far on another cliff and the Upland Buzzard had perched on top of a cliff very far away almost invisible until it flew and we noted the characteristics through the bincoulars.

After having a heavy breakfast and a small photo session, we left as we had to cross over another high altitude pass, Taglang La, where possibilities of sighting the Tibetan Snowcock was presumably high but as luck had it, we didn’t and that made us change our further plans and halt at Rumtse village hoping to sight the rare Snowcock the next morning. It was snowing, chilly and rough weather atop Taglang La and very few people or vehicles around and the roads were missing in many stretches. We stayed at the J&K tourism guesthouse at Rumtse, small but decent accommodation with manageable food cooked for the night. We roamed around Rumtse village (a very small one indeed), looking out for birds and to call up our respective families as mobile network was nonexistent and I and Amith drove up to see some gompa’s closer nearby while PK and Kannan took a long stroll for some more birding.

Early next morning, we spent good time driving around Taglang La but as luck would have it, we didn’t see any signs of Snowcocks and the weather too was not very favorable towards us. We saw the Bharal’s again on the snow clad hills and quite a lot of Wooly hares all around. We started our return journey stopping whenever any of us would sight a bird at a close proximity or at a distance. Kannan and I alternatively stole winks sheepishly under the pretext of looking out for birds as we had nothing to do on the long journey but sit and wait for something to show up. In one such instance, we hit a bounty at a place where we abruptly stopped and were rewarded with sightings of Mongolian Finch (that’s a rarity!), Great Rosefinch, Twite, Chukar Partridge and Fire-fronted Serin’s all closer to a village called Lato, a splendid natural treat for Kannan on his birthday. From there, we headed to Leh with couple of small stops in between and by the time we figured out the location of the army camp and settled, it was late.

Some shopping, dinner and we were back to the camp for much needed rest; our final day at Leh as early next morning we would be heading back towards Srinagar with a halt at Drass. We checked out early in the morning with a quick stopover at the small lake near the airport to have a re-look for any good sightings and then proceeded towards Drass. En-route, we saw a short deviation towards Alchi monastery and decided to pay a quick visit to the place where we were rewarded with sightings of Pied Wheatear and Oriental Turtle Dove and were treated to some finger licking hot Maggi that was much needed. We reached Drass by late afternoon enjoying the vistas all along the way and catching up on some sleep while Amith was doing the hard work of driving.

We were back at the army camp and a break is a good while traveling between Leh-Srinagar as it’s a long journey and those mountain roads to negotiate. Later in the evening while chatting around dinner time, we were advised to start early, very early next day to cross over the dreaded Zojila at the earliest and we followed it and were happy as it turned out to be a messy stretch, much worse than what we encountered while coming. We left Drass around 4 in the morning only to be stopped at the check post before Zojila as the weather conditions were unfavorable that we soon realized. A little while later, we were allowed to pass along with few other cars (only smaller vehicles were allowed) and soon unfolded the gravity of the situation as the roads were only slushy and were becoming hard to negotiate.

Just passing through the Zojilla, Amith’s keen ears picked up a few dogs barking incessantly a little away on a slope to our far right. The voices of bear, bear started resonating in the car as we jolted to a sudden halt and all eyes wandering around the barking dogs. Soon, a bear (the debate of it being a brown or a black Himalayan bear is still on) emerged on the slope while the dogs continued their barking surrounding the bear as the nomadic settlement from where the dogs arrived was close by. We guessed some action to happen but the bear was eager to get away while the dogs content in chasing it away. After 10 good minutes and the bear appearing to move away, we resumed our journey as we still had to steer clear of the slushy Zojila at the earliest. By now we were the only vehicle left as the other vehicles had passed us and with a constant drizzle and unwilling sun to shine, it was a tricky good hour we spent to cross the entire Zojila stretch, all eyes wide open and pepping Amith with F1 style navigation.

We halted at Sonamarg for lunch and a quick walk around the park near the river that was full owing to copious rains over the last couple of days. Soon, we got to know that entry to Srinagar was banned as a curfew was on owing to PM’s visit to the place. Having heard that, we now had the task of finding a place to halt for the night and after some intense searching, we ended up at Manasbahl, about 20kms before Leh. Luckily it worked out well for us as we got to sight the Little Bittern, Jackdaw, Black-eared Kites in the small lake at the same place. Later, we mingled with the locals and for discussions on various topics till we chose to end the day.

People in Kashmir, like any of us are peace loving and would love to remain the same and something more evident was their reluctance to travel anywhere as lot of questions about militancy, war crop up wherever they go that makes them feel uncomfortable. A cozy little homestay where we stayed near the lake; good but expensive food; hospitable host who was very friendly; elderly locals who were more than keen to indulge in discussions on various topics made our short stay a memorable one.