Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dachigam National Park, the heart of Kashmir!

It was a long train journey from Bangalore to Delhi. Shreenidhi and I walked through the littered and overcrowded streets towards the white i20 car that we recognized was Karun's. Barely a couple of minutes in the city, and I had started hating it already. Soon after arriving, we enjoyed the authentic flavours of punjabi food made by Karun's mother. After a day of experiencing Delhi and it's street food, we set off to Srinagar.

As the flight started descending, we began to see little peaks and rocks between the clouds. My first glimpse of the himalayas! I was overjoyed. As we disembarked, the cool winds and warm sunshine felt as good as an endearing welcome hug.

Srinagar was a very charming city. The sloping roofs, the 80s style buildings, the Dal Lake, the gardens, the beautiful people! This city was filled with character, oozing ethnicity.

Half the day had already passed by the time we settled into our inn on the outskirts of Srinagar. It had a view of a nearby hillock, where Hangul Deer are seen in peak winter. The lazy part of me constantly wished that the balcony would make way for a lifer mammal, and I'd not have to trek at all! As I looked at the little hill, I noticed a crow-like bird sitting on the overhanging branch of the tree in front of me. Eurasian Jackdraw! This was the first bird lifer for me on this trip. It seemed to me like a handsomer version of a jungle crow, just like how the people here are handsomer than the ones I've seen elsewhere!

We decided to take a small explorative walk around the area of our inn. A short walk uphill led us to a stream, and the sound of bubbling water was very refreshing. I noticed a little white butterfly perched on a bush nearby, and approached it with my camera. Undisturbed by me, the Himalayan Bath White posed for pictures as I moved closer and closer. Then, the stinging in my arms began. Little did I know that the bush I was against was a toxic plant called "Bichhu booti" or Stinging Nettle. The itching grew severe, and I had developed rashes. But my enthusiasm was not dulled by this, because I had just seen a new butterfly!

 We continued walking by the stream until sunset. Just before we headed back, we spotted this tiny fellow, who was also a lifer. Orange Bordered Brown Argus:

Then, we set out to meet Mr. Nazir Malik, the forest officer who was to lead us through our treks in the park. He's a short, fair kashmiri man in his forties. He was very enthusiastic and passionate with his introduction of Dachigam National Park. "So Dachigam is a very unique type of forest, and its called Himalayan Moist Temperate forest." He said. "Its your first time in the Himalayas? You will definitely have a wonderful time here. Admirals, Frittilaries, Tortoiseshells... we have them all!" Just hearing the names of these butterflies gave me goosebumps. I wondered how many of them I'd see.

We were dropped off by the vehicle at a place which was about three or four kilometres from the national park gate, and we were to trek and come back onto the same main road. As we disembarked, Mr. Malik said "Welcome to bear country." We hoped for the best and started walking as he led the way.

It started getting dark, and surprisingly we were still walking inwards and not back to the vehicle. We chose to say nothing and followed him silently. In a while, it seemed very scary that we couldnt see a few metres ahead of us. When we asked Mr. Malik about what we do if a bear shows up too close, he responded calmly "Just don't do anything. Trust the bear and it won't harm you. When you love, you're loved back. Faith!" I gulped in anxiety. "Just stay where you are and let me handle it." He said. All he had was a small stick in his hand. He didnt let us use our torches because he thought that would disturb the tranquility of the forest. We nervously made our way through the bushes and rocks, finally out onto the moonlit tarmac road. It was a relief.

We returned to our inns and set out on another trail the next morning at six. As we trekked, the beautiful himalayan meadows and valleys enchanted me. 

A beautiful rainbow arched along the slopes in front of us, and it was one of the most spectacular sights Ive seen.

We stopped at a bush with little purple fruits, and Mr. Malik pointed out to them as he said "These have been eaten by the bears. You can try them too. They're bittersweet." 

There was a hollow amidst the bushes, and upon looking at the tracks in the mud, we knew it was created by a bear. After devouring a handful of the delicious fruit, we walked forward. We spotted a pair of Large Silverstripe butterflies courting.

Then we spotted a few mpre butterflies. Indian Cabbage White:

Walnut Blue:

West Himalayan Brown Argus:

Western Striated Satyr:

After returning, we spent the rest of the day enjoying Kashmiri food.

The next day, we visited Shankaracharya Reserve Forest, a climb which lasted the whole day. Atop the mountain, we saw Black-Eared Kites at eye level, and also spotted a Eurasian Hobby. The view spread out the whole of Srinagar in front of us like a carpet of green and red. We also stumbled upon fresh bear pug marks!

Day three, we decided to visit Gulmarg, which was an hours drive from our inn.
Here, the many butterflies that we saw pumped me with some sort of super human energy and I ran up and down the meadows many times! We saw some really beautiful species of nymphalidae. 

Kumaon Common Wall:

Kashmir Yellow Wall:

Himalayan Dark Clouded Yellow:

Beautiful Meadowbrown:

Kashmir Tortoiseshell:

Indian Red Admiral:

Nepalese Large Cabbage White:

Kumaon Narrow Banded Satyr:

We stopped at a slope where we heard lot of bird calls. Karun, Shreenidhi and I saw Black Lored Tits, Nuthatches and a Woodpecker. While we kept watching through our binoculars, a small animal was watching us from the bush next to us. I noticed it, and whispered to Karun. "What is this here? Stop looking through the binoculars!" He looked down at the little mammal, withheld his excitement, and whispered with his breath held - "Weasel ka bachha!" It continued to stare at us for a few more seconds, and then ran away into the thickets. We were in absolute awe of this cute little animal. It was too small for a weasel, too big for a shrew. A reddish brown coat, a pointy snout, triangular ears that were sticking out, beady inquisitive black eyes and a white underbelly.

Later upon returning and checking the books, we found that it was a Himalayan Stoat, also known as the Short Tailed Weasel. An absolute thrill this was!

We visited Gulmarg again the next day hoping for another glimpse of this animal. Unfortunately the weather turned cloudy and we had no luck. We spent sometime watching a troop of Rhesus Macaques, who looked quite different from those in the plains. They had a much thicker coat which made them look bigger than the ones we see elsewhere in India.

The next morning we went for another walk into Dachigam. It was our last day, and we were hoping to see a bear.
Just a few minutes before our drop off point, while we were still in the vehicle, we saw a deer cross the road in front of us onto the left. We stopped and looked through the binoculars. It was a Hangul, staring nervously at us.

Though we didnt see the Asiatic Black Bear, we were very happy with the experience we had at Dachigam. Kashmir truly was synonymous with heaven!