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Ladakh: Furballs on ice


Ladakh is lyrical. More than the rarified atmosphere, it is the awesome mountains that take your breath away. But in the crevasses of giant rocky outcrops lie the most beautiful surprises. A furry one peeked out accidentally into the camera frame as it panned the sun-bathed slopes at 16, 000 feet.

The barren mountainsides hold little life, few of them mammalian. The snow leopard is almost impossible to sight and the eagles and lammergeiers, large-winged vultures, if seen would be mere specks in the azure sky. But tourists can get lucky with the Himalayan marmots, the size of a groundhog with a coat like a squirrel's.

Very little is known about these marmots, which have been seen mostly above 14, 000 feet. Also known as the Tibetan snow pig, these creatures burrow their way under the rocks and live mostly on berries and small vegetation. Above 17, 000 feet, plants almost disappear, making it virtually impossible for any mammalian life to survive.

Ladakhis say marmots are the easy prey for the snow leopards as the rodent-like animals can't waddle away fast enough into their lairs once the leopard spots them. A distant cousin of the plain squirrel, these marmots (Marmot Himalayana) are spread across rocky barrens of Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal and even as Mongolia.

The Ladhakis leave them alone but, as folklore goes, curiosity often kills them in Mongolia, where villagers eat the flesh and use the fur for winter garments. Once they sight a family of marmots, Mongol hunters are known to hide and wave pom-poms that attracts the attention of these cuddly creatures, drawing them out of their burrows. And slowly they are drawn into the line of fire and shot at with. 22 rifles that kill them without damaging the fur.

In Ladakh, however, marmots aren't on the menu and tend to be shy and scurry away at the sight of humans. Only a long wait would convince them that there is no danger, bringing them out into the focus of lenses. Driving out of Leh, marmots can be seen only close to the Khardung-La pass, that is at 17, 582 feet or near the Chang-La pass on the route to Pangong Lake. That too only in the summer months when the snow has melted. In the early part of the summer, these creatures are nearly half the weight they were when they began hibernating in October. But within a few weeks of grazing on herbs and berries, their limbs become stocky and the fur fluffy.


Tso-Moriri, the 15-by-5 mile lake, is a good place to spot marmots. Travellers also tell tales of spotting marmots about 15 miles from Pangong Tso, on the way back to Leh. Locals say this is the spot to catch some friendly marmot action - only because they know passing travellers will feed them goodies.

(Photo by Ranjan Roy)

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