A Buddhist deity (Photo Danielle Joannès)
A few notes about the country
Those who are not interested in touristic information but are keen on birds, please click here.
Jetlag: India is three hours and a half ahead of the time in France.
Ladakh in the north of India
Part of our group
Ladakh. A group of friends and I had
booked a trip due to take place in Ladakh, in the north of India from
the 9th to the 27th of June. This area is in the state
of Jammu - Kashmeer, bordering Pakistan, Tibet and China.
Leh, the capital citys lies in the Indus valley, right in the
middle of the Himalayas at an alttitude of about 3500 m. The
weather is very cold in winter but temperatures are pleasant in summer
and it is usually a dry country. Yet, two months after we left,
this area was flooded by exceptionally strong monsoon rains which
drowned hundreds of people.
The Indus valley near Leh (Photo Danielle Joannès)
is a place where meeting local people is really easy even if English is not
as widespread as Hindi or other local languages. People are poor
there and you will find beggars but not as many as in the captial city,
New-Dehli. There is no proper waste management in Ladakh but the streeets are
not so filthy as in other places we visited in India.
You will find all sorts of roads, some of which are very good, but also
dust roads full of potholes. In town, you might find road signs
but nobody takes heed of them and everybody blows their horns all the
time, to warn pedestrians or to force their way through when they
overtake. The lorries are usually beautifully decorated and often show
a "Blow horn" sign painted at the back. Indians do not always
drive very quickly but they are very reckless and I've never seen so
many recently crashed vehicles as during this trip. You will find all
kinds of vehicles on the roads, overloaded cars, heavy
lorries, tractors, bicycles, tricycles, motor rickshaws,
coaches, motorbikes, you name them. You also have to pay
attention to the cows lying in the middle of the road, to monkeys, dogs,
sheep and goats, and even elephants although this is not so common.
Motor-rickshaws in Dehli (Photo Danielle Joannès)
Food and drinks. We've had
the opportunity to taste what was being served in trains and
restaurants but except for some fruit we bought in local markets,
we didn't dare to eat elsewhere than in establishments chosen by
travel agency. The food was good but always more or less the
We ate a lot of lentils served with rice, chicken and chapati
(excellent unleavened flatbread). Of course we only drank bottled water
and thanks to these basic precautions nobody was ill.
The trip. 08 June.
we had to take an early plane on the following day, we had decided to
go to Roissy Airport one day in advance in order to sleep, as usual, in
the Ibis hotel
at Roissypôle. This hotel is located right next to the VAL
(for Light Automatic Vehicle) which enables you to reach any terminal
for free in a jiffy. The hotel is still far too expensive if you take
into account the smallness of the room. If you don't have a good
reason to go there, choose something else.
had a solid breakfast at the hotel with our friends Martine,
Marie-Claire, Huguette and François and met the rest of the group
at the airport. There were 16 of us altogether with our French
guide Lili-Anne. The flight lasted 7 hours and 45
minutes and we landed at the international Indira Gandhi airport
in New-Dehli. It was night but still very hot and we took a bus to
our hotel. This was my first visit to India and it came as a
shock as soon as we left the airport. I was expecting poverty and
lack of hygiene but certainly not to that extent. Whole families
were sleeping on the sides of the road, the lucky ones on carts, close
to the lorries and cars which were constantly hooting by. I'm
still wondering how those poor people managed to find some sleep.
The streets were littered all over and everything was devastated.
Even the beautiful Jaypee Siddarth
hotel looked as if it had been built in what looked like heaps of rubble.
man holding a rifle was standing at the door, we were searched and our
luggage X-rayed in the lobby. I remembered that Muslim
fundamentalists had attacked a hotel some time ago. I have to admit I
didn't sleep very well knowing that a few hundred yards from there
people were trying to do the same on the pavements.
Three hours and a half after going to bed we had to get up to go to the
railway station. When we left the hotel, I saw my first Common Mynas
, House Crows
, Red-vented Bulbuls
and Black Kites
. While our bus found its way among the numerous motor rickshaws, I spotted about ten Indian Squirrels
There were cows walking about in the streets, feeding on the rubbish
they could find easily everywhere. At the station, I saw
an Indian Grey-Hornbill
and a Rose-ringed Parakeet
waiting on the crowded and very noisy platforms, we were approached by
beggars various times, some of them seriously handicapped but there
were so many of them that we couldn't pay attention, which made us very
uncomfortable. In the end, the Shatabdi Express
arrived and we left for Amritsar. This train trip was very
pleasant because we travelled with the local population. We
watched the dull landscape through the window and saw rubbish all along
the tracks for over 200 km. There is indeed a waste management
problem in this country. People were defecating side by side in
the fields in the middle of pig herds and nobody was shocked. I
was however happy to find birds here and there, of course without being
able to stop and watch them for some time. There were numerous Cattle Egrets
, Indian Pond-Herons
, a River
and a Red-wattled Lapwing
, a Black-headed Ibis
and several Black Drongos
. We reached the Ritz
hotel in Amritsar early in the afternoon under the scorching sun.
Once I had left my luggage in the hotel I went out into the park
hoping to find more birds. This is where I saw my first Purple Sunbird
and a Laughing Dove
in the afternoon we went to the border with Pakistan to attend a very
queer ceremony which takes place every day. The Indians and the
Pakistanis challenged one another singing, dancing (well, not the
Pakistanis) and shouting nationalist slogans. Soldiers who tried
to look aggressive were parading and marching here and there. In
each country, they raised their flags, opened
the border gates to shut them close a few minutes later. The
atmosphere was very much like that of a football match. At the
end of the show, because this is what it looked like, two 'enemy soldiers" nevertheless shook hands and everybody
returned home in
a very loud pandemonium. To get a better idea of this, click here
The first visit of the day was that of the Durgiana
Temple where we had to take off our shoes, something we would have to do many more times. We then went to Jallian Walla Bagh
in a park in Amritsar. This is a sad place where the British
occupant opened fire at the population in 1919. 379 people died
among the 1200 victims. While visiting this memorial, we had
the opportunity to see how charming and friendly the Indians are.
They will let you take a picture of them with pleasure or will
ask you if they can take a picture of you, who have come from so far
away to visit their country. This was Penjab and the male Sikhs
wearing their turbans and the women their trousers and tunics were very
pleasant to look at. In this park, I twitched a Black-rumped Flameback
which landed on a tree nearby.
left this space of peace and quiet and came back to the noisy streets
where people were walking briskly, often in the direction of the famous
that we were
going to visit. This major religious place for the Sikhs is a
jewel and we soon understood the importance of spirituality in this
country. People were queueing up under the scorching sun to visit
this holy temple. They started singing religious hymns which
echoed from one huge white, gold-covered building to the other.
All in all, it was very moving.
The Golden Temple (Photo Danielle Joannès)
had asked us not to bring our bags with us so as not to lose time when
we would be searched so we had no water. The marble was burning
under our bare feet and we soon became very thirsty because the
temperature was above 40°C.
In the end, one member of the group collapsed but soon recovered.
Some people bathed to purify themselves in the basins in the
middle of the huge yard while others were queueing up for a meal.
Hundreds of voluntary workers were participating one way or another in the
preparation of these meals that anybody could get for free.
A Little Cormorant
was posted at the top of a small marble building, seemingly indifferent to the pandemonium below.
this visit, we returned to our hotel to get some food and rest.
I went out into the hotel park, staying in the shade as much as
possible and this is how I saw a Coppersmith Barbet
land on the top of a tree and several Rose-ringed Parakeets
In the evening, we returned to the Golden Temple
to attend a colourful religious ceremony which moved us very much and
which revealed to us the religious zeal of the Sikhs. People were
pushing one another to get near those who were privileged enough to carry
some kind of a palanquin holding a Holy Book. This was the sacred
place where the Indians bloodily suppressed Sikhs who were fighting for
an independent Penjab a few years before. There, just like anywhere else, politics and
religion are not always compatible.
The Golden Temple (Photo Danielle Joannès)
left for Dharamsala, the town where the Dalaï Lama fled to
escape the Chinese repression.
Road traffic was terrible and the Indians drove like mad.
From what I saw, I deduced that in India you have to blow your
horn to let the
lorry in front of you know that you want to overtake and also to chase
pedestrians away. As there were many lorries to overtake and as
you could find everything on the roads beside pedestrians, every blew
their horns all the time. With a
little bit of luck and also because drivers are used to this, we
managed not get through unscathed, which was not the case for everybody
judge by the number of wrecked cars we saw here and there. In spite of
that, I spotted an Indian Grey-Hornbill
on the way and 7 or 8 Jungle Babblers
a pause near Pathankot. Although the temperature had climbed
to 42°C I went out of the restaurant to have a better view of a
couple of Purple Sunbirds
feeding on the blossom of some tree.
was sitting in the seat of a 4X4 vehicle when it just collapsed and
although we were now packed like sardines we put on a brave face.
We finally reached Kanga where we saw a few Rhesus Monkeys
walk about in the fort. The view to the mountains overlooking the
valley was very nice and while we visited the place a thunderstorm
was threatening. I spotted a Green-backed Tit
, very similar to our Great Tit, though paler. Two Egyptian Vultures
were wheeling in the sky and I twitched my first White-eared Bulbul
road went up and up till we reached Dharamsala.
The atmosphere was quite different by then. There were a
lot of people in the streets, mainly Tibetan bonzes and it was
much cooler. From the Surya McLeod
hotel, we had a splendid view to the valley which we shared with a Monkey
perched on the top of a conifer. These animals are really
amazing. In the evening, while we were having dinner, we learnt
that the snow had blocked the mountain road that we were supposed to
take to go to Ladakh. The future looked bad.
Dharamsala (Photo Danielle Joannès)
We were in a mountainous area and I saw the first Common Ravens.
There were all sorts of corvids there and it was not always easy
to distinguish all those black birds. It was much easier to identify
the Oriental Magpie-Robin, a black and white bird, very tame and very visible. I also saw a White-browed Fulvetta and a Large-billed Crow before I went into town to vist the Tibetan museum and Tsuglagkhang,
the place of residence of the Dalaï Lama. Our guide gave us
a lot of information about the exiled Tibetan Government and we learned
quite a few things about the culture of this oppressed people.
While visiting the temple of the Norbulingka Institute, beautifully surrounded by large trees I saw a Spotted Laughingthrush and a Pale Blue-Flycatcher.
news coming from Ladakh was bad: there were heavy rains in Leh and snow
blocked the passes. The airport was closed so we had to change
After lunch, we visited a tea factory and the church of St-John-in-the-Wilderness where Lord Elgin was buried. In the nearby forest I saw my first Blue Whistling-Thrush.
Once back at the hotel, I took a walk in the town and left the
crowd to go into a small wood where I found a couple of Russet Sparrows and also a Spotted Dove.
Just before going to the Tibetan museum and the Tibetan medicine school in Dharamsala, I twitched the Grey-hooded Warbler
from the window of my hotel room. Not far from those places, I also watched a Himalayan Bulbul
for some time. We then drove on and duriing a short pause I found a Great Barbet
and two Alexandrine Parakeets
. This species looks a lot like the Rose-ringed Parakeet
especially when you can't estimate its size. Fortunately, its cry
is different. We stopped at the Baijnath temple to have a look at
the beautiful sculptures and we learned yet more things about the
various religions of this huge country.
Baijnath (Photo Danielle Joannès)
Near Mandi, I had a good view of a Pied Bushchat
on an electric wire. The Indians drove like mad, as usual, even in a
poorly lit tunnel and although the road was full of potholes. We
were glad to reach the Regis Mayflower
hotel without crashing into another vehicle especially as it was already well past 10 p.m. .
had had a resting night, the hotel was pleasant so we were in a good
mood to visit the Hadimba Devi Temple, entirely made of wood.
We learned that we would not be able to take the pass to go to
Ladakh as planned because the weather conditions had yet deteriorated.
In spite of that, we decided to have a better view of the Himalayas and
drove up the Solang Pass till we reached a barrier. By the side of the roads we saw whole Indian families working to
repair them. Men were breaking up large stones with a hammer,
women then carried them on their backs while very young children played
in the dust.
It was raining hard when we
arrived in Naggar
where we visited the Folk Art museum and the former fort which is
now a very nice hotel. We had a very pleasant view to the
countryside around from there. We then came across women and children
working in the paddy fields and we were surprised to see cannabis
plants growing everywhere at the side of the roads.
Planting rice (Photo Danielle Joannès)
were back in Manali in the evening but we had to move to another hotel
because of the change of plan in our trip. We went to the Holiday Home International
Hotel which was fine considering the local conditions.
We moved on and when we stopped for a short pause, I spotted a Variable Wheatear
and a Black Redstart
I had some trouble admitting this latter species was the same as
the one we have in France because it looked so different. It
looked more like a Common Redstart but my guidebook confirmed
The road was winding through very high mountains and on the top of one of them I saw a Himalayan Griffon
which I recognized thanks to its almost white wing coverts. We stopped for a while
at a local market where we bought buy very beautiful fruit. On a
tree close by I saw 6 parakeets among which several Plum-headed Parakeets
Plum-headed Parakeets: a female on the left and two males on the right
went through the tunnel we had used two days before and drove as far
as Rewalsar to visit a few temples and walk around a small lake.
This little town was very pleasant, all the more so as the rain
had stopped, and the stroll we took between all those colourful temples
was very exotic to our eyes. The hairdresser was working almost
on the pavement and Rhesus Monkeys
were jumping from one roof to another, watching out for stray dogs that would chase them whenever they could.
Rhesus Monkeys (Photo Danielle Joannès)
were friendly as usual and I could easily talk with a Sikh whom I
recognized as such at his blue turban and white garments. He
tried to convince me Sikhism was far superior to Hindhuism.
Although it took us some time to tie a scarf on our heads and
take our shoes off, the visit of this temple was very quick.
returned to Mandi, from the terrace of the Munish Resort
hotel overlooking the valley, I saw three Alexandrine Parakeets
, about ten Rose-ringed Parakeets
, an Oriental Magpie-Robin
, a Purple Sunbird
, a Pied Bushchat
and several Pale Martins
then had to return to Chandighar as the pass leading
to Ladakh was still blocked by the snow. While waiting for
the drivers to load our luggage onto the roofs of the cars, I saw the
same birds I had seen the day before but I was also very lucky to see a
bird adorned with a splendid long russet tail. The Fire-tailed
is indeed named appropriately. There was also a Laughing
nearby and a Booted Eagle
was wheeling high in the sky.
were crossing a mountainous area and we lost a lot of time because of
road repairs. Hundreds of lorries emitting heavy black
smoke were crawling along at 5 km/h and were put to a severe test.
Many of them had broken down and a few drivers were lying under
the engine in the middle of the road, trying to repair them.
We finally made it to the Chandighar railway station where we
once more took the Shatabdi Express
to Dehli. Our luggage was carefully checked by security services.
This time we got on a more modern train and the service on board
was very good. Of course, you have to like spicy meals. As
opposed to many other Indian places we had travelled
across, Chandighar is a nice city, with long clean avenues.
It was very hot again and we would have liked to take a
refreshing shower. It was almost midnight when we arrived at
hotel in Dehli. Although the surroundings looked shabby, the
hotel was very clean. We were sorry we had to leave it at 4.30 a.m.
after a very short night and a quick breakfast.
We went to the airport very early in the morning and I was lucky enough
to see a Yellow-wattled Lapwing
. The temperature was already 34°C
at 6.30 a.m. but we knew it would be cooler in Ladakh. I had a
very good seat near a window and as the sky had cleared up I had a
splendid view to the Himalayas below. The Kuchok Bakula Rimpoche
airport lies at an altitude of 3800 m so we were careful not to
make any violent efforts, something which we would have regretted at
once. We were welcomed in a traditional manner at the Noble House
hotel in Leh, the capital city, and we had a nice cup of tea in
the garden. I heard a Mountain Chiffchaff
, the first of a long
series, and admired the mountains surrounding us. We lay in bed
for a large part of the morning in order to get accustomed to the
altitude. In the afternoon, we went out of town to visit the Shanti Stupa
and the monastery of Samkar which both tower upon the city.
Our local guide was of Tibetan origin and very friendly and
Leh (Photo Danielle Joannès)
had got used to the altitude without any problem and after breakfast we
visited the Palace of Stock and the monastery of Matho. We were
also lucky enough to be able to attend a local festival, which had not
been planned, and were pleased to see the participants wearing their
traditional costumes. The women's headdresses were just
magnificent and we walked about among the local people and made
contacts with them very easily. A real pleasure.
Local costumes (Photo Danielle Joannès)
returned to Leh for lunch then visited the Ancient Palace which is
visible miles around. The architects of this huge building
followed the methods of construction used in Tibet at that time, just
like for the famous Potala Palace in Lhassa, which was built about
fifty years later.
first visited the monastery of Spithuk where we had the opportunity to
see how the bonzes composed a mandala. This extraordinary piece
of art is the result of many hours of meticulous work using
powders of different colours. Once it has been blessed by the
bonzes it will be destroyed which might be a way of proving that
nothing lasts in this world. We then went to the Palace of Shey,
built right on top of a hill. As there was a small lake there, I
skipped the visit and did some birdwatching. I was lucky because
I saw a couple of Eurasian Hobbies
hunting insects at a short distance. There was also a couple of Citrine Wagtails
close by. On the lake, there were a few common birds and a Lesser Whistling-Duck
Small kids at the roadside
moved on to the Palace of Thicksey which also looks like the
Potala in Tibet. The countryside was breath-taking: the
plain was greyish beige, the bottom of the valleys vivid green, the
mountains striped green and brown, the mountain tops white with snow
and the deep blue sky was dotted with little white clouds.
The palace of Thicksey (Photo Danielle Joannès)
to our local guide we had the rare privilege of visiting one of the
residences of the Dalai Lama. Of course, this had not been planned
but we took advantage of this opportunity to walk about freely in this
spent most of that day at the Hemis Festival which is a kind of very
colourful public ceremony aimed at chasing away evil spirits. It
took place in a monastery and had attracted a large crowd. The
inhabitants wore their regional costumes which were already surprising
for us but they looked very plain compared with the
extraordinary garments and masks worn by the participants in this
Hemis Festival (Photo Danielle Joannès)
were a series of very slow dances in an inner yard, to the sound of
horns and little tic-tac
drums and people were sitting all around,
right to the roof of the monastery.
Dancer at the Hemis Festival (Photo Danielle Joannès)
the show was over we tried to leave the place without being trampled by
the crowd who pushed and pressed us unceremoniously. We avoided
falling several times and in the end managed to find the cars which had
been parked below the monastery.
We left Leh for two days and would then sleep under a tent at a high
altitude. After visiting the monastery of Phyang in the middle of
very beautiful mountains we drove on in our 4X4 vehicles.
The Phyang area (Photo Danielle Joannès)
were travelling high in the mountains and the birds I could see then
were very different from the ones I had seen in the plain. There
were numerous Alpine
and Red-billed Choughs
and Northern Wheatears
were standing erect on the rocks. We moved on and visited the
monastery of Likir and the temple in Alchi. After seeing so
many temples we were beginning to have a better understanding of the
various religions of this huge country.
arrived at the camp in Uletokpo located above one of
the banks of the Indus, the river which two months later was going
to flood this
area and Pakistan. Our tents looked
like yurts and had been set up on concrete basements. It was not
as comfortable as in a hotel but we never felt cold under our blankets.
the evening, I went down to the river bank and saw a few Oriental Turtle-Doves
, Blue Whistling-Thrushes
and 6 Fire-fronted Serins
. The local guide showed us Blue Sheep
feeding high up in the mountains and I missed my telescope.
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar (Photo Danielle Joannès)
got up very early hoping to find a few birds in this new location and
it proved a good idea. I was able to see in very good conditions a Chukar
singing on a ridge and very soon Blue Whistling-Thrushes
, Alpine Choughs
and an Oriental Turtle-Dove
. While scanning the mountains I found 5 Blue Sheep
feeding in the scree. Later that day, we went to the monastery of
Lamayuru located in a grandiose setting. Not far from there we
saw a few Yaks
, that is to say hybrids of cows and yaks.
compensate for our not being able to go to the passes as planned, we
were proposed to drive up to the Fotula Pass which culminates at 4108
m, and we accepted with much pleasure.
The road leading to the Fotula Pass (Photo Danielle Joannès)
road was very bad, winding all the way above impressive precipices but
the scenery was just fantastic. We sometimes had to give way
to military convoys heading for the border with Pakistan but we
had plenty of time. We returned by the same road and visited the
monastery of Rizong and a female bonze school both located on a
mountain side at the end of a valley. Their living conditions are hard
but at least their families will no longer have to provide for
them. They get up early and go to bed late. It was
really something to hear them chanting their psalms at the top of their
voices, sitting on the ground.
In the evening at the camp, the Blue Sheep
were still at the same place.
more I got up very early and saw the same birds as the previous day.
We returned to Leh and on the way, not far from Saspol, I spotted
3 Hill Pigeons
and a Eurasian Hoopoe
. At the fort of Basco, overlooking a nice valley, a Golden Eagle
flew over us and in the Nimmu region, I saw a Booted Eagle
and many Red-billed Choughs
When we were back in the Leh area we stopped to have a closer
glance at the Indus. A military lorry which came far too fast
almost ran us over and skidded on the road, to stop only a few inches
from the ravine.
Back at the hotel I was at last happy to have a good view of a Mountain Chiffchaff
. This enabled me to check that if both birds have a very similar song, they do look different.
took the plane back to Dehli and security checks at the airport were
very strict. All the bags had had to be emptied, camera cases
opened and we were searched three times from head to toe. We had
been informed that extra batteries would be confiscated so we had left them
in our luggage. The government was obviously afraid terrorists
might carry out a bomb attack as they did in a hotel in Dehli a few
years ago. The weather was much worse than on the way to Leh and
we did not see a single summit on the flight back.
heat was suffocating again in the capital and as we went to the same
hotel again, I saw the same birds. We made a quick visit of the
town and I spotted a White-bellied Woodpecker
from the bus but nothing new apart this. We were dripping with
sweat in the national museum and tried to find a place under the fans
to get some fresh air but to no avail. We were glad to go back to
our air-conditioned hotel.
was our last day in India and it was devoted to seeing other religious
buildings. I was beginning to get tired of them but the buildings
were magnificient. We visited the Jamma Masjid Mosque, which
had not been planned, and I wished I had remained in the bus because
that was the only place where we felt we were not welcome. A few
young people were very rude and even threatening. Fortunately, an
elderly and obviously influent man stopped them but the atmosphere was
no longer the same.
Again we saw a lot of
miserable people on the pavements and there was still as much litter
everywhere. The only positive aspect was that this drew hundreds
of Black Kites
above this area. The National Handicrafts and
Handloom Museum was a highlight and everything we saw was a work of
art. The air was hot and humid and obviously the monsoon was on
its way. Just like the day before, we remained stuck under the
fans, which was a bad idea as I fell ill a few days later.
then moved on and visited the Hindu temple of Birla which is absolutely
magnificent as regards colour and architecture.
Hindu temple of Birla
the Sikh temple, is also a must. Sitting on the floor, we had the
opportunity to attend a religious ceremony where we heard very moving
The Sikh temple of Gurudwara Sisganj
then went to the airport where we thought we could spend our last
rupees but this proved impossible as shopkeepers would accept only US
We left just after midnight and arrived in Paris 8 h 40 later. Never had I found France so clean and wealthy.
LIST OF BIRDS
This lists follows the order of "Birds
of Northern India
by Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp, published by Help Field
(2003). It's a good guide, very handy on the field. There is
another bigger one which I had been offered (thanks again to
Marie-Paule and Marie-Chantal), which I had studied before leaving.
This book, "Birds & Mammals of Ladakh" by Otto
Pfister is published by Oxford (2004).
It's a very good book with photos instead of drawings.
OTHER ANIMAL SPECIES:
- Yak (Bos grunniens). Some high up in the mountains but we saw above all Dzohs, i.e. hybrids of yaks and cows.
- Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). A domesticated species.
- Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). One rather dark individual seen from the train between Dehli and Amritsar.
- Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur). Several individuals seen in the scree on a mountain side near the camp of Uletokpo, Ladakh.
- Indian Squirrel (Funambulus pennanti). Common in town in the plain.
- Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus). One domesticated individual with its mahout in the streets of Amritsar.
- Rhesus Monkey (Macaca mulatta).
Common enough in town. They are not dangerous but don't try
to touch them because the might use their impressive teeth to bite
- A big lizard which might have been a Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus). Seen twice in the rocks.
- Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio). Very common in the lake at Rewalsar. People feed them.
A mask representing Kali (Photo Danielle Joannès)