While in Leh, in September 2011, during a chance meeting with an officer from the Forest Department, I asked him whether it was possible to see wild Argali (Marco Polo sheep, Ovis Ammon) in Ladakh. It won’t be easy, he said, but it is possible. He told me that there was a small population of Marco Polo sheep in the Tso Kar Wildlife Sanctuary. Numbering about 150, this flock lived in the northern regions of the sanctuary. But, he added, the Argali were very shy and difficult to locate. He said it might be a good idea to look around for the Marco Polo sheep in the Tso Kar wildlife sanctuary on the way back to Manali.
The road to Tso-Kar branches off from the main Manali Leh highway a few kilometres south of the Tanglang La pass. It is a tar road and it heads east for about 12 kms before reaching Thukje, a small settlement which is a “nomadic headquarter” of the Changpa people on the edge of Tso-Kar.
A few words about Tso-Kar before we continue further:
- Tso Kar, literally “white lake”, is a salt lake in the southeastern part of Ladakh. Located in a shallow landlocked basin and surrounded by rolling hills, Tso Kar takes its name from its whitish colour due to the dried white borax-salt deposits that form its rim. About a kilometer to the south of Tso Kar lies the Startsabuk Tso, a small freshwater lake that drains into Tso Kar. During the summer months these two lakes provide important breeding grounds for many species of birds. Among others, Black Necked Cranes, Bar Headed Geese, Ruddy Shelducks, Great Crested Grebes and various terns and gulls breed at Tso-Kar. This region is also inhabited by a variety of mammals including the Wolf, Pallas’s Cat, Red Fox, Weasel, Kiang, Blue Sheep, Argali, Marmots, Woolly Hare and Pika among others.
- The area around Tso Kar is home to the Changpa people. Nomadic pastoralists, the Changpa can still be seen in their traditional attire, riding ponies and herding their flock of sheep and pashmina goats. Although the Changpa are largely nomadic, they have a few “nomadic headquarter” camps where they have built permanent structures and grow some summer crops. They have periodic gatherings and celebrations at these locations. Thukje, on the Northeastern shore of Tso Kar, is one such headquarter. Some of these locations, including Thukje, even have small monasteries attached to them where important religious ceremonies are held.
We reached Thukje in the afternoon. The “nomadic headquarters” looked deserted. Only one parachute-tent tea house was open. While having tea with the owners, we found out that the Changpa had moved off from this region about a fortnight ago. The owners themselves were planning to shut down the teashop in a few days as this was the end of the summer tourist season and there was very little traffic. When asked about the Argali (Marco Polo sheep), they told us that the Argali were commonly sighted near the settlement in the winters but they normally moved off towards the north in this season. As it was very cold and windy they advised us against spending the night in a tent. Instead they offered us a room in which we could spend the night. Although a bit dingy, the room was definitely more comfortable than our tent. We shifted into the room.
A few hours of daylight were still left. I decided to take my car and drive to the northern part of the sanctuary to look for the Argali. While driving to Thukje I had noticed a track that branched off from the main road towards the north a few kilometres before the settlement. I drove onto this track. The track moves almost due north and then slowly veers off towards the east. After driving a few kilometers one reaches an area of small rolling hills which form the eastern boundary of the Tso-Kar basin. The track climbs steeply (a 4×4 vehicle with a low gear may be needed) and reaches the top of one of these hills. The air is clear, the horizon far away and one can see for kilometers. There is no sign of human beings, the 21st century seems lightyears away.
I stopped near the top to enjoy the panoramic view of the whole basin from this vantage point.
There were some Kiang, (Tibetan Wild Ass, Equus kiang) around. They didn’t let me get close, but after some patient tracking I managed to get a few good images.
The track continues further and comes down into the northern region of the Tso-Kar basin before disappearing. At this point and I got off the vehicle and started walking. After walking northwards for about half an hour, I noticed some animals moving very fast about a kilometer away. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that they were Argali. The three young males had noticed me and were already galloping away towards the West. I took a few photographs and followed them up on my binoculars. They didn’t lessen their pace and finally disappeared into the hills towards the Tanglang la pass. It was getting dark, I headed back to the car and drove back to our room in Thukje.
By the time I reached Thukje it was beginning to get dark. It had also become quite windy and light snow was falling. After a quick bite we retired for the night.
We could hear the wind howl throughout the night, sleeping in our tents on a night like this would have been uncomfortable to say the least. I woke up early and found a coating of snow over our vehicles. I had heard stories about cars freezing up at night at Tso-Kar and not starting. Fortunately my Bolero’s engine clanked to life on the second attempt.
After the Bolero had warmed up, I took my camera and walked up to the monastery which is on a small hill a short way to the north. It is a steep uphill walk to the monastery. We were fairly well acclimatized to the altitude by now but walking uphill at high altitudes is an acquired taste. Twenty minutes of deep breathing and steady walking brought me to the monastery.
The view from the monastery was well worth the effort. The whole basin was covered in a light film of snow. I took a few landscapes and then sat down to enjoy the scenery. After spending about an hour at the monastery I walked down.
As my friends had not woken up yet, I decided to drive to the place where I had seen the Argali. The drive was even more beautiful after the snowfall. The animals were shy and even the Kiang gave me a wide berth. I took a few photographs of the Kiangs at distance and some nice snow-covered landscapes, but there was no sign of the Argali. After driving and walking around for a couple of hours, I drove back to Thukje.
By the time I reached our room, my friends had woken up and packed their vehicle. We had our breakfast and then drove off towards Manali.