In early June 2016, four of us had volunteered for some high altitude camera trap setup work in the Shamshy range of mountains in Kyrgyzstan. It was a unique, interesting and highly memorable experience.
We spent around 6 days in a remote hut inside the shooting range. There was a forest ranger with us, and a bird watcher from Switzerland who had been there for a few days. Apparently the hut was built for the last Czar of Russia when he visited the place. The hut was made of wood and without electricity but well insulated from the cold.
Out of our Comfort Zone
One of the things I loved about the trip was that it was totally different from my normal life.
The temperatures were 11 deg. celsius or lower.
The language was Russian and Kyrgyz (no English).
The concept of Vegetarian food was alien to that place.
The terrain was mountains, rocks, scree and snow.
The mode of transport was horses and foot!
The work was to set up camera traps.
The animal was Snow Leopard!
It was awesome! I had taken along printouts of English to Russian and Russian to English notes for common interactions. Within an hour of settling in the hut, Amiel, our Kyrgyz ranger/caretaker and I were cracking jokes by pointing at and reading the the text. Amiel kind of adopted me for the rest of the trip and tried to teach me as much Russian and Kyrgyz as he could! I kind of learnt to read Cyrillic over the trip.
Kyrgyz do not understand the concept of Vegetarian food. The closest I could get was “Myasa Nyet” (no meat). And when they looked at me as to why someone would ever want that, I learnt to smile, gesticulate and say “Harom” (like “Haraam” in hindi, loosely not acceptable in my religion) to which they kind of would nod and get me the salad or vegetable soup (meat not added). This was not a problem in the hut, this was when we were traveling around after the stint. Btw, while I found it interesting that Vegetarianism is not well known there, it is similar to how Indians don’t mostly understand Veganism.
We were staying at a height of around 11,000 ft, and we had to move around on the different mountains near by, climb towards the top ridges and place the camera traps at places where either there was evidence of Snow leopards or it looked like a likely place for them to walk by. Apparently, they like to walk along ridges and like to rest or mark their scent in concave cave like rock formations or under overhanging rocks. We found leopard scat, hair etc. in a few places. Once we saw leopard tracks across the opposite mountain face over freshly fallen snow. We also saw Ibex on the mountain tops and some mole like animals on the meadows.
To reach the mountain tops we would go on horseback for 2-3 hours and then climb on foot. Horse riding was new to me and the horses really love to run when on a nice meadow stretch. It was exhilarating when the horse ran full gallop. I was surprised by how smooth the ride becomes once the trot becomes a gallop! We even helped change horse shoes, and observed how one of the rangers “broke in” a horse by riding it for the first time. The horse kept bucking and trying to throw him down, but he held on and then rode it for the entire trip that day.
Baniya Dariya – Sauna and Ice Cold River
On the last day at the hut, we did the Baniya Dariya routine. There was a nice wooden sauna near the stream. The stream water was at near freezing temperatures. The sauna was made uncomfortably hot and it took a while to adjust to it. We would get nicely sweating and hot (with one of the rangers hitting you with Juniper leaf clumps on your back). Suddenly someone would splash cold water and we would howl with surprise and laughter and feel the adrenaline rush. And then once nicely hot, we had to run out and dip ourselves in the freezing cold water. After a few minutes in the water, it was back to the sauna. A few rounds of this and the adrenaline rush was awesome and the body no longer cared about hot or cold! Hadn’t felt so clean in a while!
We returned to India.
The Result – Snow Leopard on Camera!
Within a month of setting up the camera traps we got the first documented images of snow leopard in the Shamshy region!
Thanks to Koustubh, Kuban, Amiel and the other rangers who made this all happen!