Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Truth

So apart from the fact that I am a sucker for Mountains and Motorcycles, the real reason behind my visit to Spiti in March was to get to Kibber, A quaint village high up in the mountains. The plan was to carry adequate equipment for scanning the descends from the high peaks & ridges into the valleys to hunt for Blue Sheep and Ibex which in-turn are hunted by the elusive snow leopard. 

Bariushaa Munkhtsog or Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog or simply known as the snow leopard man, has been working with snow leopards since 1993 and was active in the reintroduction of "Przewalski's horse" at Hustain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia. Mongolia has the 2nd largest snow leopard population in the globe. He currently serves as senior wildlife biologist at Institute of Biology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Board director of Irbis (snow leopard in Mongolian) Mongolian Center, Board director of Gobi bear conservation NGO, and is co-founder of the Pallas' Cat Conservation Project in Mongolia. Dr. Munkhtsog also teaches biology and ecology at colleges and has supervised Bachelor's, Master's and PhD’s students on snow leopard, Pallas' cat, wild cat, and wild camel ecology and is a member of IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group and Snow Leopard Network.

You can read more about the Bariushaa's work here

This is a digital painting
So, simply based on some of the credentials listed, and after much time reading about conservation efforts and the community, I was quickly mislead to believe many things. Firstly, Someone told me about this group called “Spiti United” (more about them here) who are associated with “Red Fox Homestay”. These folks provide accommodation in kibber. which was great. However they are anything but great, and it lead to a disappointing conclusion after having series of conversations.

Dont be fooled by visiting the website which claims to be a lot. After much research I figured that who they mention as “TEAM” and have photos of local people with designations like “Expedition Warrior” really mean NOTHING. 

This is a Digital Painting too !

More disappointments - Continued:

Me:  Hi, I am a sealander (from the east coast of southern tip in the indian peninsula, chennai) and will be visiting Spiti and Sangla starting 18th March on motorcycles with fraternity (4 people). I hope to reach Kaza and would love to meet you folks and stay with you (the red fox? in kibber ?) How do I touchhbase with you ppl ? 

NO REPLY - I was thinking, they are probably stuck in desolate mountains with no internet connection etc & after all, it was peak winter in the beginning of Febuary. So, I wrote to them again, just in case I didn’t get their attention the first time.

Me: Hello there, I am visiting Kaza and Kibber in the third week of march and would like to stay with the red fox in kibber. Is there a number to call ?”

This time I got a reply,

SU: Please provide details of your plan and dates. We shall then work on a budget for you, also please mention about the purpose of your visit
thanks you,
spiti united”

Me: Thanks for the prompt reply. Iam visting Kaza with my partner, and we are travelling to Spiti from Delhi by motorcycle. I am an avid climber and ride motorcycles for fun and have visited the valley in summer. I always wanted to visit the valley in winter. We leave delhi on 19th march and intend to reach Kaza by 22/23rd latest. We will want to spend 3-4 days in kibber and go on some simple expeditions to bet on our luck to spot some wild life. No return tickets booked at the moment and everything is a little flexible. Keep me posted on the proceedings and the availability of lodging in kibber. cheers


Me: Hello there ! Hope you guys are doing well. Any update for me ? 

SU: Hey!!
Are you interested in snow leopards or only Want to use the hotel services?! There is no module for simple tracking.Your expedition module will cost you 1.5 Lakh for two people - 5 nights!!
Cheers! Chinmay

Me: Just curious to know what you charge at the red fox for accommodation. I will certainly pay you guys a visit and say a big Hi nevertheless , See you soon in kibber.

SU: We don't use our base for walk in customers in winter! We organise expeditions with months of preparations!! I am not sure if the team wi be together but you could ask around! Cheers!! SU

This was a shock to me. Damn. 150000/- was way out of my budget. The truth is, people like me stay broke most of the time, and not to mention that I quit my high paying "pie in the sky job" last year. I still had regards for Spiti United till I figured that these people were nothing more than masquerading travel agents claiming to be conservationists. This was my biggest disappointment. Later, after more research, I understood that the real face of Spiti United was actually a company called "Foliage Outdoors", which was a glorified travel agent company who organised “adventures” for the rich braggers. Not only do they have the audacity to charge you irrationally, their facebook posts (at least, this particular one) was disturbing & disgusting at the same time. 

This was from the actual post:

"SNOW LEOPARDs this name has been relevant for the aam admi (referred to “common man” in Hindi) only since last few years. Ladakh had a few amazing years of consistent sightings for not only the authorities and researchers but also for wildlife enthusiast and photographers. Many people are actually thinking of going on snow leopard expeditions, which are planned in advance with all security measures and catered with high standards of logistical support. For example a wildlife documentary shoot or heavily funded wildlife research expedition. Spiti united has just a year ago designed a unique product based on community tourism, in Spiti valley, Himalachal Pradesh. Nature lovers have started coming in good numbers to kibber village... Everything that we are capturing now is first of its kind footage in the world. Snow leopards are almost impossible to photograph unless and until you have a dedicated tracking team which is constantly monitoring their movements and behaviour. I don’t think that any snow leopard researcher or biologist should call themselves that unless and until they actually witness what they have seen on camera traps. Most of the research done in India has been about getting the cats on video/still camera traps. They only estimate the numbers to monitor the growth in numbers. It has never been about behavioral studies. Now the funny scientist have started putting big ass collar on cats to monitor them. We are extremely concerned about it. We can't comprehend this concept as being “for the greater good”, when we are risking so much for the snowy cats . The rise of wildlife photography since the last decade has helped in bringing revenue to the communities blessed with wonderful wildlife, It’s a circle you see – Tanzin Dorje till last year didn't have any stable income other than the daily wages he earned as a laborer. Spiti Youth is already flocking to grab this opportunity. We only hope that she decides to stay as real in the future as she has been till now and we keep getting some super cool behavioral data on snow leopards for the entire world to see”

Not only did they mispronounce "behavioural".. They were backed by a much larger corporate called "Infinite journeys". This was something bigger than I thought. You can read more about these scamsters here and here.

Here’s a tip, when you hear people yell stuff like "We organise expeditions with months of preparations and we are the ONLY ones who do it” or when they use a non collective term such as “I” am narcissist , for e.g "They only estimate the numbers to monitor the growth in numbers. It has never been about behavioral studies. Now the funny scientist have started putting big ass collar on cats to monitor them. We are extremely concerned about it. We can't comprehend this concept as being “for the greater good” .. 

Most likely ITS A SCAM !

To me, these people are like Harley Davidson’s of the motorcycle world. Targeting the ignorant and Rich. I did not see a single usage of the word “Endangered” or “Conservation” .. And ultimately, this is just another bunch of people who have their heads deeply up their asses with No Humility, or Respect to whatever they claim to be conserving.. 

In Mongolia, Its quite the opposite .. “Everybody in Mongolia knows that snow leopard is endangered. I know almost everybody who lives in snow leopard habitat, seems they know me, so it is quite easy to work together on conservation of beautiful, quiet, kind animal like snow leopard” - Bariushaa Munkhtsog ... See the difference ?

Ill let you judge, & Please help ! Save the snow leopards ! Because for every One million One hundred eighty-seven thousand five hundred of us, there is only 1 snow leopard. 

And they have a very unique tail in mouth disease.. 



Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Spiti'ness - II

After living on freebees for 2 days, I finally spent some precious paper buying petrol. The lady who sold me the gas was not the typical person you'll find at a fuel station. I had to walk thro' heaps of snow left unploughed to get to the shop. She told me that this village was called "Chango" and I was in the Chango valley. Then, She went on talking about the apples that grow here & other valleys near by where the "Golden" apple grows..The Ribba and Namgiya valleys..and so on.. She then handed me some dried apples. They were yellow in colour .. and she was not kidding about the golden apples.

The only golden apple I know is The golden apple that appears folk legends or fairy tales.

After fuel, I had a small bite and was on my way. The road ahead was deserted, gnarly and absolutely no one around. Not even the Army. Sumdo is the last place till you'll find Army activity. After Sumdo all the way to Tabo, there was no living person that I could spot. It was inhospitably cold and impossible to ride. I was lurking slowly at speeds below 25kmph. I took lots of breaks, played around with the GoPro I was carrying, and little later learnt some lessons about how batteries and cold weather dont get along well. The temperature gauge was varying between 5 Deg C and minus 5 Deg 5 through the day.It was not fun being open to the elements. I had to pile up on the layers of clothes to ensure I didn't die. When I reached Tabo for lunch, I was wearing 4 layers jackets, 3 layers of trousers and 2 layers of gloves.

Tabo was empty. The few monks who were in town looked at me with disbelief that I had come there...and for a holiday. They were very curious to know when the bus route from Peo will been open for larger vehicles. They were also hell bent on not letting me go further to Kaza as the road was yet to be cleared and as of now "Closed" .. I had a good laugh talking to a couple of them, and explained how my bike can actually "make it", even though the road was closed. Later that day, after some more conversations, I got going and to my own surprise, I realised that the so called road that was NOT open looks like this...

The road blocks were everywhere .. You just ride past time

She was the only person I saw, No kidding..

Believe it or not, I rode through this rock pile, 1 inch at a time.. 

Tipping point
I rode through treacherous rocks, shooting stones, slush, black ice and heaps of uncleared snow. I Dropped the bike a bunch of times. After about an hour and a half, I had travelled 7 kms. I was tired, wet, cold and annoyed, Mostly because anything and everything lead to the state of breathlessness, Even resting... This is not what I signed out for. The hardest thing was to entertain myself to keep going as the conditions around were neither motivating nor inspiring...Except, what I saw..What I saw and continued to see was a treasure we have in India. Deep down inside, I was happy that I had made it back to Spiti. The tipping point was when I reached this particular stretch, when a huge boulder the size of my helmet rolled down hit my front wheel. I stopped right there and looked back. Till that moment, the scariest thing that ever happened to me in life was watching the movie "Ring" late at night and taking a stroll back home. This easily beat that by a huge margin and I didn't make it to kaza that day.

Empty houses everywhere !

More terrible terrain on my way back

I took a prudent decision to go back to Tabo, enduring the same things I had just waded thro'. To add to the horror, there were more rocks on the roads on my way back. However, I ran into a bunch of locals a little ahead, who were clearing the rock piles for bigger vehicles to cross. They were waiting for the cavalry to arrive with appropriate equipment and said that I could try the road to Kaza again tomorrow . Delighted, I rode back to have a mini education session on how concrete houses are terrible in extreme cold, and unpacked and packed 2 times before finding a mud house to stay that night. Well, I was back to living on freebees .. I cant complain ...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

People are Awesome

There is more than 1 way to skin a cat. They use the power of religion, explosives, shards of glass, shards of glass in explosives and sometimes even teeth. We are constantly told so many things about strangers from far away places and we live under this assumed "cat" persona for some reason. Thats probably why people dont travel alone ? Maybe, but not all them.

What a morning ?
I made it to Puh from Kafnu. There was no one there and all the hotels were closed. However, luck prevailed, and Tenzing found me loitering in the cold late evening and offered me a place to stay. He cooked some hot dinner which was plentiful. Sleep was epic, first class.

Breakfast was served, and I even got some hot water to bathe. Which was a big deal, as the entire place was literally empty. When I was getting ready to packup and get going, Tenzing refused to take any money. I took my time to process things that morning. Sometimes it is better to just let go of control and the urge to know and decide the outcome of every situation. Nevertheless I was truly humbled by the Magnanimity of Tenzing. Now, back to this place called the 'road' ..

The little road surrounded by apple gardens 
Tarmac all the way till you start climbing malling
Lots more snow on the road once you get closer to malling
Nako, Frozen
Total asses everywhere
Malling naala was frozen too

And then, it got very cold and lots more snow everywhere
Traveling alone can be defined as "boring" as per some people, and no one wants to endure a daunting effort. Contrary to the perceptions of these people and grim news has built around us, If you ever travel to very far away places in the world, you will realise that it is full of genuinely nice people who are kind, warm and simply put, Awesome. You meet them at the most unexpected places, maybe at an Army camp high up in the mountains, so high that there is hardly any oxygen to breathe. Where you are tired, cold, dehydrated, depressed and regretting your choice of being alone, a kind stranger comes and offers you a chai and a heartening sweet smile of knowing, fills you water bottle with warm water as though its his job to be nice.

Compared to the cold, the slush fest days seemed not so bad
Later that day It got really really cold. Cold Like I've never experienced before. It was almost impossible to ride and the electrical's of the bike was behaving like there was a ghost in the machine. The battery froze. The Army camp at Sumdo offered me a place to stay in their guest ward for the night and hooked me up with goodies like electricity, food and water.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Enduro Heaven

March 21st is an eventful day, Every year. Not just because I was back on the road or its significantly factual like the equinox or something (which it is BTW).

Its Ayrton's birthday. Who's Ayrton ?

Senna and his lotus renault 97t in Donington Park, British GP
Ayrton Senna was a three-time Formula One champion and considered by many the greatest ever driver..Ever..In the history of Man. Not just a driver, but a wonderful compassionate human being. The Brazilian’s death in 1994 stunned sport and led to radical overhaul safety that has benefited all drivers, like carbon fiber cockpits. So in a way, Ayrton Senna's legacy is still saving lives 21 years after tragedy of Imola, Possibly the greatest loss to motorsport.

The Honda McLaren MP4/4

I celebrated his 55th birthday in my tiny room in Chail accompanied by some rum and goofy phone conversations with friends who come from the same school of thought. We were talking about the MP4/4 and its predecessors, the maniac twin turbo charged monsters that "real" men drove back then in F1. All the tiredness crept in and it was time to sleep to wake up to Enduro heaven, Himachal pradesh.

The next morning was what i'd like to call a perfect day to be outdoors. The bright blue glistening skies were extremely inviting to pack up and hit the road. I took the less travelled route from Chail to Kufri via the National Park. Saw lots of birds i've never seen before and a truck load of monkeys in all sizes. The road was more or less absent and it turned to single tracks after a few minutes of riding deep into the dense vegetation.

The road keeps climbing after kufri all the way to the tallest point of the valley, Narkanda. What seemed to be good weather an hour back turned bitter cold in-spite the bright sunlight everywhere. Like down to single digit temperatures early in the am.

The road from Narkanda to Rampur was all tarmac with a little bit of broken patches in jeori. After some much need food in Rampur, I was keen on making it to the Sangala Valley that day.

The Karcham - Wangtoo 
But destiny had other plans for me as I hit my first road block. A glacier melt had just eaten the entire patch of road which meant a mile long slushfest of trucks and local bus's. It would take a few hours for the BRO to clean up this mess, and it was already late in the afternoon.

Tough luck. I wasn't going to make it to the other side that day. The locals had an interesting name for glacier melt ahead. Apparently its an "every year" thing. They called it "The Pagal Naala". Translated from Hindi, Pagal = Mental, Naala = Glacier melt/Stream. Yes. "Mental Stream". The same local suggested that I make it to the previous township before it gets dark. However, I met a couple of local Himachal motorcyclists who suggested that we climb the other side of the sutjet to stay at Kafnu, a sleepy little village 30 kms away from where we were. So, Kafnu it is.

There were many tiny streams and water falls on the trail. The Sun had set, and the headlights had to come ON as everything in my vision turned "blue black". It all seemed unreal, as I've never seen light like this.

I managed to get myself a room at the HP-PWD guest house.  After a good nights sleep, I was confident that I'll make it to the other side that day. A small bite and some chai, I was quickly on my way.. back tracking the route to "Mental".

I was under the assumption that if I made it there early, I will be greeted with a nice gnarly single track thro the lesser water in the melt. But how wrong was I. Oh boy, Oh my..

There was knee deep of slush and lots of stranded vehicles that needed help. I had to wait for many gruelling hours for these vehicles to clear and the water started to gush even more ferociously as time flew. But hey, This is what I signed out for. I was the only motorcycle on that road, and I was the first person who made it to the other side that day, Which meant empty roads.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Himalayan Flowers

Dear Motorcycle Lover,

I am going to disappoint you with this post. I am going to digress from my story and post photos of flowers that were shot using a Samsung S4 in some far away places in the Himalayas. The Flora and Fauna in higher grounds have a mere 4-5 month period to grow after a brutally cold winter when no vegetation survives. Its nothing short of amazing ! It's hard to believe that the snow melts and it becomes this !