Monday, 2 July 2012

Er La Pass & the Holy Grail

We were on the road by 5am. It was horrible weather! However, the further east we drove, the weather slowly cleared, to reveal a bright crisp, but freezing morning. We stopped at the pass, to have a coffee & look at the high slopes above us. White-winged Snowfinches distracted us for a few minutes, before we once agian, looked up at those slopes and that ridge! Errm!

White-winged Snowfinch
The team from left to right:
 Mike; Barry; Alan; Pete;
Chico the clown & Andy.

My mummy always told me to wrap up well
and wear sunscreen before I go out to play!

Pete, is under there- somewhere!
So far, we had been gaining height each day: we started the trip around 2,000m, generally birding up to 2,800m, then 3,200m on the plateau & up to 3,600m around the Chaka area. This was a good move & all of us were feeling good at altitude. But the ridge and plateau where we were going today, were at a dizzingly 4,800m! This is quite a jump. I set off up the ridge slowly walking through scree and a few snow patches. Full winter gear was the order of the day. Despite the intense sun, it was freezing!

The scale of the scenery is really immense.

 I soon learned not to look ahead, or up. Instead, I counted my steps in a series of 50 paces, before stopping. This was a regular rythm, but slowly, as I gained height, the number of paces dropped to 40, then 30 before my increasingly frequent stops. The scenery was truely magnificent and I kept reminding myself, this was why I was here. It was strange to survey the scene & hear nothing but a distant seabird calling this far inland! The sound of Puffins were eveywhere!
Searching for the Holy Grail!

I plodded on, eventually cresting the ridge - it was a mangificent sight! Towering, snow-clad peaks were all around, including one in the distance, which as over 6,000 m. Whow! Time for a bite of chocolate and a few photos. I started to scan and now I was on a more level area (relatively speaking) I could start to search for what we were here for. There are certain birds which are rarely seen by birders,(usually for very good reasons)! They are often talked about in hushed, almost reverentional tones, in crowded bars across the globe, where birders gather. These are enigmatic, charasmatic species, in remote places, often where few have ventured before. I was standing in one such place now - this was the site for Tibetan Sandgrouse, everyone's most wanted bird of this trip. It lives  on these high, barren windswept plateaus, perfectly camouflaged amid the mosiac of snow and bare rocks. I look around in awe, the place is immense and superb, this is why I am on this trip! The scale of the scenery is beyond belief, as I look around in absolute wonderment. There is however, one slight catch! I can't see or hear a bird of any kind, never mind a distant sandgrouse calling. I slowly realise the reason why so few birders have actually seen this bird. High altitude, inhospitable, harsh terrain, remote location all add up - a needle in a haystack! But, today we have one thing on our side - the weather is perfect! Bright sunshine, crisp, dry conditions, we have a good chance. I look at a passing dark cloud, it passes over my heart, as I realise that our good fortune may not last. So far on this trip, I had learnt one thing, the weather can change in an instant and usually for the worst! The old addage if you don't like the weather today, just wait a minute is very true here! I renew my scanning with slightly more purpose and a little bit of haste!
Still searching!

I move on across the plateau, birds are few and far between. Did I see some movement? 
The rocks are moving!
Tibetan Sandgrouse, at last!
But, there are tiny movements ahead, amid the patches of snow. I pick up my binocualars and see 2 perfect Tibetan Sandgrouse shuffling across a small snow patch! I am sure my heart stopped beating and then pounded loud in my ears. I need a scope! I need a scope! Luckily a scope was at hand and I enjoyed prolonged views of this Holy Grail of the birding world! It is smiles all round! I smile so widely that my lips crack in the rarified air and blood starts to drop all over my binocular lenses! We all watch these birds for a long time and eventually another pair are revealed. Brilliant! We eventualy get a little too close and they fly away across the vastness of the valley. We won't be seing those birds again today!

Chico is smiling! He has ticked it!
The three Doncaster boys: Pete, Andy & me.

We now have to think about getting back down the mountain. All possible routes look kind of severe! We take it easy and slowly start to descend. It is hard going, no-one wants to slip!

The sandgrouse were where the snow is!

 But the sun is shining and everything is perfect in the world! Birds are thin on the ground, but include Guldenstadt's Redstart (a high altitude specialist).
Guldenstadt's Redstart
A Himalayan Griffon Vulture casts a giant shadow over us as we descend, no doubt anticipating a fatal fall or slip!
Himalayan Griffon
Blue Sheep are on the distant skyline and we flush a lone Tibetan Gazelle from its resting place.

The strange Tibetan Gazelle

We eventually arrive back at the pass & meet up with our drivers. We then motor a short distance through fantastic scenery until we arrive at the dismal village/town/shithole called Wenquien. How is it that humans can thoroughly trash such a lovely place?
The village - looking quite nice from a distance!
The hotel entrance!
Our lovely hotel rooms.

The surroundings are stunning but the buildings in the town are truely dismal! We enter our lodgings for the next two nights. Oh my God! The rooms are very basic and that is being kind! Water is from a well in the yard. You have to fish for it and then pull it up! A pleasant surprise is that the water is hot! We have a hot water well! Amazing! I look across the extensive yard, the toilets are in the far corner. Now, when I say toilets this is a general descriptive term! It is not quite what I expected! Communal shitting & pissing areas, with holes at irregular intervals in the floor. Did I mention the majority of the village can look in on you as well? The stench is bad, even in the cold mountain air. I quietly resolve to try and organise my bodily functions so that I am in the wilds when I have to go!
The beautiful valley behind the village.
We start on a leisurely afternoon walk down a lovely mountain river valley. The light is superb and the sun is warm. My mood lightens with ever step I take away from the village! I see movement ahead and a superb Tibetan Fox hoves into view! It has a rectangular head! Absolutely brilliant! What a beast!

Tibetan Fox

Plateau Pikka

The Black-lipped (Plateau) Pikkas which are it natural prey, bolt down their burrows, uttering a high pitched squeak of warning to all. The fox eyes us wearily and slowly moves off, increasing the distance between us. But what a great encounter!

He slowly moved off, up the valley

I sit on top of a ridge looking down at the pure crystal waters of the river far below. It is a great spot (providing you don't look behind you at the distant village)! I spy an Upland Buzzard perched on the cliff across the valley. It sees me & leaves the ledge, spiralling upwards amid blue skies with fluffy white clouds. What a great bird!

Upland Buzzard

We return along the valley, back to the welcoming village! We dive into a hovel. It turns out to be a restaurant! I look around at my non too clean environment! Ermm! The food arrives and it is hot and tasty! I think all of us are surprised at its quality. Not bad at all. I make my way back across the yard, dodging aggressive dogs and the stuff they leave behind with the aid of my torch. As I am unlocking the door to my room, I hear a sharp cry of pain from Jesper. He has in the dark, walked straight into the top of the door! The doors were built for midgets and African pygmies, not for tall Danes and Englishmen!
I sit on my bed. It is rock hard. There is no mattress on it. Just a cover over the bare boards! I open my beer & survey my more than modest surroundings. It is pretty glum in here, not much to cheer me up! I sip my beer and reflect on the day. What a fantastic day it has been! One of the best days ever! I have seen the Holy Grail! I turn off the torch, sip my beer and smile into the darkness.

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