Day 1: Delhi, India / Gurgaon
Arrive at the international airport in India’s capital, steeped in centuries of layered history, and transfer to our luxury hotel in the high-tech suburb of Gurgaon outside the city center. This elegant contemporary low-rise hotel is surrounded by seven acres of gardens, courtyards and reflecting pools, lending a resort-like ambience. This evening, join our Expedition Leader for a welcome dinner and preview of our journey into the Indian Himalaya and the realm of Panthera uncia, the snow leopard.
Day 2: Delhi / Leh, Ladakh
Early this morning, we fly north to the former Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. This is one of India’s least-populated regions, known for dramatic peaks, monasteries filled with golden Buddhas, and the elusive snow leopards that prowl the snowfields that blanket these dry, rocky mountainsides. Once we touch down at 11,500 feet in the capital city of Leh, our high-altitude acclimatization begins. For centuries, Leh was a crossroads for Indus Valley trade between Tibet, Kashmir, India and China—routes that carried salt, cashmere wool, indigo and silk. The local people are ethnic Tibetans who speak Ladakhi, and Buddhism and Islam have co-existed peacefully here since the 8th century. Our lodging in the heart of this ancient city sits in the shadow of an unoccupied 17th-century palace designed to evoke the Dalai Lama’s former residence in Lhasa—the famous Potala Palace. As we settle in and adjust to the elevation, we’ll visit the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Learn about looming threats to this top predator, and conservation strategies to protect this vulnerable species that also serves as an important indicator of the health of its lofty habitat.
Day 3: Leh—Indian Himalaya Photography
Today we travel into Leh's rural surroundings, exploring the rugged Indus River Valley. It's easy to see why this enclave at the northern tip of India is often called “Little Tibet,” as we cross passes marked with colorful prayer flags beneath soaring Himalayan peaks. Driving east toward 17,582-foot Taglang La—a pass traversed by one of the highest roads on Earth—we enter the realm of nomadic Changpa cattle and goat herders, with opportunities to photograph some of Ladakh’s oldest villages tucked into the foothills and floodplain of one of the world's longest rivers. Amid this evocative landscape, have your camera ready for photos of blue sheep, golden eagles, bearded vultures, red-billed choughs and Tibetan partridge. We stop to visit the village of Gya, which sits at 16,000 feet and is home to farmers and shepherds who graze yaks, sheep and goats. As we pass through other small towns like Lhhato and Meru, be ready to photograph the striking geological formations along our route, which erupt from colliding tectonic plates.
Day 4: Leh—Cultural & Landscape Photography
Our day begins very early as we join the monks at Thiksay Monastery for their morning rituals and prayers, accompanied by a local guide. Return to our hotel for breakfast and a leisurely morning to rest and acclimate to the altitude, then depart for Stok Palace for lunch. The palace, now a heritage hotel, is the current residence of the former kings of Ladakh from the Namgyal Dynasty. After lunch, we take a short walk through the lanes of Stok heritage village, then drive to Wari La Pass on the opposite side of the Indus River. This is the third-highest mountain pass in the region, and our ascent offers spectacular photo vantages on Chemday Monastery, Dak Dak Cave Monastery, and the valleys and peaks beyond. The slopes of Wari La are also rich in wildlife with wolf packs, woolly hares, Himalayan fox, raptors and even the rare Eurasian lynx at home here. We remain in the region of the pass until sundown, capturing images of the mountains at golden hour and in the alpenglow, before returning to our hotel for a late dinner.
Days 5–11: Snow Leopard Photography from Mangyu—Private Expedition Lodge
The heart of our adventure begins in the remote village of Mangyu, where our private family-run expedition lodge is located. From this base, we'll spend a full week tracking and photographing snow leopards. To reach the village, we follow the Indus River westward, stopping to visit Likir Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, one of Ladakh’s oldest gompas, with a 25-foot-tall golden Buddha. This region is the gateway to a high-altitude realm ruled by the “ghost of the mountains”—a name bequeathed upon the snow leopard for its solitary and elusive nature. As we head up the narrow Ulley Valley toward Mangyu and our expedition base, be on the lookout for ibex, noted for their magnificent horns, standing vigil over rocky outcrops and couloirs.
Each day, we head out in search of snow leopards, which a team of local spotters scouts in advance for us. These master trackers scour the landscape early each morning to help our Expedition Leader plan our route for the day, increasing our opportunities to photograph these well-camouflaged cats. Their silver coat spotted with black rosettes helps them blend in seamlessly with their habitat, but the expertise and keen eyes of our spotters enables us to search them out. We also retain radio contact with trackers throughout the day so we know when snow leopards wander into our area, and private vehicles maximize our flexibility to move to where the snow leopards are. When it's time to leave the vehicle and pursue them on foot, a team of local porters travels with us to help carry your heavy gear.
Snow leopards have evolved to thrive in some of Earth’s harshest alpine terrain, mostly above tree line and up to 18,000 feet in elevation, across the Himalayas. Typically, we spot them atop a high ridgeline, when a long lens is a necessity. On other occasions, we are graced with closer sightings, sometimes even around the lodge, which offers a cozy respite for warming up with hot chai between photography outings. The surrounding sheer cliffs and broad meadows provide habitat for three large ungulates—bharal, ibex and urial—along with fox, hare, pika and packs of Himalayan wolves. In the valley's narrowest reaches, steep walls and side streams sustain a healthy population of ibex that lures snow leopards, which are capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight.
Our nearest neighbors in the hamlet of Mangyu are a monastery and a few traditional Ladakhi homes. Nearby are intriguing cultural sites like the elaborately painted Gon-nila-phuk Buddhist meditation caves of Saspol, which we may have a chance to visit. At every turn, photo opportunities abound, whether wildlife, landscapes or cultural settings. In the evenings, our Expedition Leader hosts workshops and editing sessions to help you take your photography to the next level.
Day 12: Mangyu / Leh—Alchi Gompa
After breakfast, say farewell to our gracious Ladakhi hosts whose lodge enterprise is enhancing protection for snow leopards through ecotourism. The cats face threats from habitat loss due to climate change, reduced prey, poaching and human conflict, and we leave knowing we have made a difference for their future with our economic contribution and our advocacy. Following the winding road back to Leh, we stop at Alchi Gompa, a lowland monastic complex built between 958 and 1055 A.D. on the Indus River. One of northern India’s earliest Buddhist learning centers, it contains some of Ladakh’s oldest surviving paintings that reflect the reign of both Buddhist and Hindu kings from neighboring Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Visit the two main temples with huge Buddha statues and elaborate wood carvings, plus the dukhang where monks worship beyond a veranda lined with frescoes of a thousand Buddhas. In Leh this evening, we share our reflections over a farewell dinner.
Day 13: Leh / Delhi / Depart
Fly from Leh to Delhi this morning and continue to our hotel where a room is reserved for the afternoon. A lavish buffet lunch awaits, followed by time to relax among landscaped gardens and pools. A transfer to the international airport is included to meet departing flights this evening.