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OUR Himalayan Travel BLOG

Welcome to our blog and Social Media Page


As well as features about our Nepal & Bhutan tours, we'll also include articles of interest about Nepal& Bhutan too.

By Snow Cat Travel, Jul 7 2019 12:00PM

n early April 2019, renowned Travel Writer Simon Parker and Professional Travel Photographer Ben Read visited Nepal for the very first time.

Their brief was to produce an article about Nepal away from the main tourist trails for the prestigious ATLAS IN-FLIGHT MAGAZINE for ETIHAD AIRWAYS, one of the world’s leading, luxury airlines. The Atlas Magazine is estimated to be read by up to 20 million people!

SNOW CAT TRAVEL were chosen by Etihad Airways to design a tour of Nepal for Simon and Ben, as well as take care of all the arrangements in Nepal for them too.

This article has now been published in the June 2019 Atlas by Etihad magazine rom which we have reproduced below…….enjoy!


The so-called Roof of the World is more than just a high-altitude haven for backpackers on a budget. Atlas shuns the Himalayan tourist trail for the unsung Middle Hills to experience Nepal with the Nepalese

Simon Parker, photos by Ben Read | June 2019

“People come to Nepal and get what we call ‘altitude fever’,”yelled my rafting guide, Durga, as we sloshed over the warm, soupy and very loud rapids of the Trishuli River, around 75km west of Kathmandu. “Even if they aren’t going to climb Everest, they just want to go up six or seven thousand feet so they can show off to their friends back home,” he bellowed, as the boat barged between boulders the size of hatchbacks, beneath long, sun-washed prayer flags flying high above the river. “Why would you spend two weeks in the mountains with thousands of other Westerners when we have all of this right here? Nepal is more than the Himalayas.”

Why indeed? Except for the occasional fisherman netting sprats from the bank and farmers panning for gold in the calmer shallows, we had the whole river pretty much to ourselves. Hurtling downstream, we twisted and turned. Tiny sand martins snapped at gnats flitting above our helmets as our ridiculous, banana-yellow rubber raft bounced and lolloped past mothers lathering clothes in foamy soapsuds, their toddlers erupting into fits of giggles as we passed. Shrouded beneath a haze of wispy cloud and milky smog, the Himalayas were less than 100km to the north. Most of the tourists who passed through Tribhuvan Airport that week were either already in Lukla, the gateway to Everest Base Camp, or on the way. It seemed I was the only one who wasn’t.

Instead, I was in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’s so-called Middle Hills, the little-visited region of mostly humpbacked, mogul-like foothills between the lowlands of northern India and the world’s highest mountain range. It was here, I was told, that I would find the most tangible signs of Nepal’s tilt away from tourism aimed at backpackers to something a little bit more upmarket.

Travelling here has always been arduous and uncomfortable – and, after a bumpy, unpredictable three-hour drive from Kathmandu, I can attest that’s still more or less the case. Still, change is fast afoot: in the run-up to Visit Nepal 2020, a push to attract two million visitors next year, ambitious engineering projects are underway throughout the Kathmandu Valley, including an additional 170km highway linking the capital and Tibet. Tourism fell off by a third after the devastating earthquake of 2015, but has since grown to overmatch pre-quake levels. Just as well: it’s the country’s largest earner. Now a new wave of midrange hotels is opening its doors while many older properties are being revamped. Could this small, landlocked country shake off the old hippie-trail image of backpacker guesthouses and $1 dorm rooms and move towards slightly higher-end holidaying?

Early signs were promising. After a day of rafting on the Trishuli, I dried out at The Famous Farm, one of the Nuwakot region’s best guesthouses, which, anticipating more visitors, was eagerly adding a further six rooms to its current 14. Exhausted, but in awe of its balmy, hillside microclimate, I supped an ice-cold lager as the warm scent of bougainvillea and busy Lizzies wafted between cobbled courtyards of grape vines and pink roses. As a rust-coloured sun sank into the Nuwakot Valley, I refuelled with a bowl of spicy lentil dahl, mango pickle, egg curry and spring onions sautéed with runner beans and cauliflower – all grown in the hotel’s organic garden. Crisp, white sheets and a warm shower made the place even more inviting; not a single sleeping bag in sight. Adventure at the cost of comfort? Not here; I had my best sleep in months.

Even so, in its current state, this region of Nepal is far from the finished article. The following day, I went to Nuwakot’s 18th-century palace, an ornate, red-brick citadel perched on a hilltop speckled with banyan trees. Like much of Nepal, it’s currently undergoing a meticulous, post-quake rebuild but, despite deep and jagged lesions, it remains a robust and imposing structure formed of wide slate eaves and wooden struts.

“After the earthquake hit, it was tough for us, but now it’s an exciting time for everyone,” said my guide, Dambar. “These days, tourists can move between guesthouses and do things along the way. Everything is moving in the right direction. But it will take time.”

He’s right: as far as tourism is concerned, Nuwakot is very much a work in progress. As I found again that day, road journeys are often white-knuckle, bumpy affairs, and domestic flights linking small towns and cities are regularly cancelled due to bad weather. But despite its challenges, visitors with a sense of adventure and a lust for the road less travelled will be met with staggeringly vibrant and verdant landscapes. It felt as though I was exploring a corner of the Indian subcontinent that had slipped, wonderfully, under the radar. Puddled rice paddies jutted out from steeply pitched emerald hillsides and thickets of bushy wild cannabis plants, with broad leaves the size of dinner plates, beside small organic plantations of cabbages the breadth of beach balls. I’d share smiles with Gurkhas clad in pristine camouflage fatigues as they manned sleepy military checkpoints on my way to Pokhara, Nepal’s second city.

Adventure tourism, like in much of the country, is the big pull in the Middle Hills. That afternoon, I strapped myself to a pilot wearing a nylon paraglider and threw caution (and myself) to the wind. As we soared to 1,500m on warm thermals beside vast, slender-billed vultures, I caught a glimpse of Annapurna, hogging the snow-lined northern horizon with its blunt, 8,091m peak, grand and imposing, yet satisfyingly just out of reach. Paragliding is a boom industry here: tourists get to feel the breezy peace of flight; Nepali pilots earn a living in US dollars. At ground level, Annapurna is undeniably chintzy, with a lakeside strip of neon-signed bars and stores peddling counterfeit climbing gear. But from the bird’s-eye vantage of a paraglider, the glassy water reflected a kaleidoscope of a hundred or more pastel-coloured parafoils, bordered by lush slopes cloaked in jungle.

“There’s three, and there’s a fourth,” said my pilot, pointing out a handful of three- or four-star hotels under construction. “Everything is quickly changing,” he told me, as we plunged towards the lake.

One of the most surprising things about exploring this region came in the simple joy of just ambling around the small towns and cities of the Kathmandu Valley. Hilltop settlement Bandipur’s quaint pedestrianised centre has a South Asian-meets-European vibe that reminded me of the former French colonial settlement of Puducherry, India. Outdoor dining, picnics and sundowners seemed very much the cultural norm.

Bhaktapur, just half an hour from Kathmandu’s airport, was also a revelation to explore on foot. I would implore every tourist heading to the Himalayas to spend at least a night here in extended transit. Its tightly packed alleyways lead to artists’ studios and cafes before opening up into grand bricked squares. I lost several hours there, just mooching between sunny courtyards and Hindu shrines draped in garlands of tangerine marigolds.

It’s amazing these wonderful parts of Nepal remain so little visited, but perhaps the biggest loss is that so few tourists bother to give Kathmandu much time before flying northwards to the mountains. Granted, the capital appears sprawling, grey and messy from above, and a criss-cross mesh of bamboo scaffolding still surrounds most of the city’s earthquake-hit major landmarks. But despite the obvious infrastructural turmoil, the pockets of cultural detail I experienced here were as arresting as anything I’ve ever seen in South Asia. It was here, again, that I experienced a sensation I’d had throughout my trip: I felt as though I was sharing Nepal with the Nepalese, not an endless procession of fellow tourists. “In Nepalese culture, visitors are sacred,” said Dambar. “We want to share our country with people from around the world.”

With dignity and pride, he might have added, whatever the challenges; a point made tenderly clear on my last day in Nepal. At the capital’s Hindu cremation temple, Pashupatinath – similar to Varanasi in India, but smaller-scale – I stood beside wonky bell towers and out-of-kilter Sanskrit-engraved facades. In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, this was the epicentre of Nepal’s nationwide grief. But on the drizzly morning I visited just one amber pyre was ablaze as a family of 50 devotees mourned the death of a loved one, their wails echoing among locals and foreigners alike. I have never witnessed a moment so intensely intimate yet so openly public.

“Death is a part of all of our lives,” muttered a souvenir coin seller beside me, as the sound of camera shutters fell eerily, but respectfully, silent, and the words of Durga, days before, calmly returned to mind. More than the Himalayas, indeed.

Simon Parker’s trip was organised by Snow Cat Travel, an exclusive tour operator that arranges private, bespoke tours and treks of Nepal and Bhutan. For enquiries email

This artcile was originally published on the Snow Cat Travel Word{ress Blog and Atlas Magazine

All images taken by and copright of Ben Read Photography

By Snow Cat Travel, Jul 4 2019 09:32AM

For the forthcoming Autumn 2019 season flights to Lukla will NOT be from Kathmandu. This will adversely affect the Everest Base Camp Trek and other Everest Treks including Luxury Everest treks.

We have been advised by the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority that all flights to Lukla will instead be from Manthali Airport.

This is BAD NEWS for anyone intending to trek to Everest Base Camp, or elsewhere in the Everest region, as Manthali Airport is pretty awful 5 hour journey by road from Kathmandu.

As flights to Lukla are entirely weather dependent, they tend to be scheduled for early morning to take advtange of more likely clear weather at that time of day.

This means that if you're on an early morning flght to Lukla you are faced with the very unpleasant prospect of having to leave Kathmandu around midnight and the even more unpleasant prospect of travelling in darkness, which we think is potentially dangerous.

You've probably never heard of Manthali Airport as it's generally not one that tourists use.

So, it's no surprise that there's only very basic accommodation there and in limited supply too if you're thinking of spending a night at Manthali before your (fingers crossed) flight to Lukla the next morning.

Of course to do this you will either need to consider adding an extra day into your plans to soend the previous night in Manthali and thus avoid the perils of travelling by road in the darkness (and leaving Kathmandu at an ungodly hour), or sacrifice your planned night in Kathmandu.

For many on a tight schedule there is the very realistic prospect of arriving at Kathmandu Airport after a very long international flight and having to "hit the ground running" and head straight for Manthali.

Not an ideal start for a trek to Everest Base Camp.

As you probably know, flights to Lukla are notorious (infamous) for being severly delayed, or even cancelled for days on end.

We shudder to think what the knock on effects of such an event will create given the limited and basic accommodation at Manthali for tourists.

There is real, clear and present potential (in our opinion) for some very, very unpleasant situations. Any disruptions (and these are always highly possible) will make what is already a bad situation even worse.

For a Nepal Trekking Agency and most importantly tourists it's one massive, unwelcome headache.

Thnakfully Snow Cat Travel are an exclusively private custom trek and tour operator. We do not and never will operate fixed itinerary, join a group treks.

For the many whom have booked a fixed itinerary join a group trek, which will have been planned moths or even a year or so ago and on the basis that flights to Lukla (as they usually are) would be from and back to Kathmandu do not now have the flexibility, as fixed itineraries are precisely that.

We're actually very thankful that we chose not to be a mass tourism operator and don't have the headache, as we can design any custom trek to Everest around this "no choice" change and invariably advise clients as a matter of course to consider building in CONTINGENCY for the unexpected into any tailor made trek itinerary.

As such we will be recommending that all clients whom are intending to hike to Everest Base Camp, or any other Everest hike still spend their first night upon arrival in Kathmandu. It helps get over the long flight and the time difference (a good nights sleep works wonders on the body) and not least being able to sort out "bits and bobs" unhurriedly before heading off on trek....not least being able to get travel cash sorted.

Neither will we be advocating "drive at night" or "slumming it at Manthali. Rather we will be suggesting a part way drive to a rather serenely lcoated small hotel on the banks of the Sun Kosi River, yet just an hour's drive to Manthali Airport, which is about the same time wise as it takes to get to Kathmandu Airport from central Thamel.

Of course it is ultimately the client's choice, but we don't think that starting an Everest trek already exhausted and inevitably stressed is a sensible idea.

By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 30 2018 04:06PM

How do you see a wild snow leopard? Nepal has maybe 500 snow leopards. Snow Cat Travel snow leopard treks are strictly limited and with rules and conditions.

Read on...

The Snow Leopard has a special role as Messenger between the realms of the Gods and the realms of Man….

These words and the text we added to this snow leopard photo above were sent to us recently by a Snow Cat Travel client inspired by her custom tour of Nepal and Bhutan.

Once classified as Uncia Uncia…the snow leopard is now Panthera Uncia

But, the one name that truly most befits this beautiful animal is “Ghost of the Mountains“….and that’s because they are rarely seen! And they are pretty hard to see too. More on this later…

In 25 years of trekking in the Himalayas, I’ve only ever seen a snow leopard twice!

I’m pretty certain (or at least I’d like to believe) that quite a few snow leopards have watched me and indeed many others who trek into the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

Hidden high up and from a safe, distant vantage point….just like this wonderful painting by Tenzin Norbu depicts….

n fact the best snow leopard sighting I had was just a complete fluke. I was resting after a hard days trek in the Kangchenjunga region of Nepal….to tell the truth, I was lying on a boulder in the sun away from camp (to get a bit of peace and quiet from my trekking companions) and heard a bit of a “kerfuffle” above.

I hadn’t actually noticed that there were some Himalayan Blue Sheep (aka Bharal also quite a rarity) edging their way across the steep, scree laden mountain side…but, a snow leopard clearly had and the “kerfuffle” I heard was it giving chase, or rather the sheep making a fast getaway.

For me, the sighting was all over in a matter of a few seconds….such was the speed of the attack, prey and hunter in hot pursuit were around the hillside and gone from sight…a lot of dust kicked up and the last thing I saw was the snow leopard’s tail “swishing about”. Too far away, too sudden and all too fast to even think about “where’s my camera?”

Ghost of the Mountains

If any animal deserves this title….it’s the snow leopard. Actually “just below the snow leopard” is arguably more accurate. Of course these big cats do venture above the snow line. They have very large territories and in the Himalayas, as any high altitude trekker will tell you, you’re always likely to encounter snow in gullies, traversing slopes etc.

Yes, there really is a snow leopard in this photo
Yes, there really is a snow leopard in this photo

But, as you can see from the image above, the snow leopard’s coat affords it incredible camouflage against rocky mountain sides. Neither can a carnivore live off snow, or the leopards prey for that matter….wild sheep, goats, hares are typical of a snow leopards diet and they indeed need vegetation.

So, it’s just below the snow line, which of course varies with the seasons that the snow leopards prey graze and thus where the snow leopard usually hunts.

As you can see from the photo below, a snow leopard isn’t so well camouflaged against the snow.

Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

It is of course perfectly equipped to deal with snow….large, fur coated paws, with claws for grip where necessary…..something many mountaineers wish they had!

Sorry…I digressed. Back to the “Ghost of the Mountains”. To the few and hardy people who live permanently high up in the Himalayas, they might never see a snow leopard in their entire lives. To them it was some sort of ghost….a creature of magic.

Sure, they would encounter some tell take signs…..pug marks (paw prints) in the snow….but no real knowledge of who or what made them. Snow leopard prints in the snow have long being cited as claims for the existence of the Yeti!

Related Article: How to see a Yeti

Yeti encounter....yeah right!
Yeti encounter....yeah right!

Those that graze livestock in high alpine pastures certainly knew that something would come down from the mountains and kill some of their flock.

Nowadays, the locals now know there is such a thing as a snow leopard, but before then it was a “ghost”.

I’ve heard similar, but I was once told the tale of a village in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, where the locals claimed that a man in their village would transform at full moon into a wildcat and then kill livestock belonging to the villagers.

It’s a great story and who doesn’t like to believe in the supernatural?

Of course the culprit was most likely a snow leopard using the additional light of the full moon and feeling bold and hungry enough for some easier pickings.

Remote, high mountain wilderness-the realm of the snow leopard
Remote, high mountain wilderness-the realm of the snow leopard

Indeed such conflict between herders and the snow leopard still exists and is a serious threat to the snow leopards survival as a species.

It’s only one…..but one of only a few, but just recently a very badly injured snow leopard was found in Mustang and brought to Jomsom in Nepal. Its injuries were consistent with those of a weapon….sadly it could not be saved and died.

If there is any positive over such a tragic loss…it was the outrage from many in Nepal that this had happened.

Great efforts are underway in Nepal in respect to snow leopard conservancy.

Indeed right this very minute…WWF Nepal are conducting a further study in the remote region of Dolpo.

Snow Leopard research in the Himalayas ain’t easy
Snow Leopard research in the Himalayas ain’t easy

I’ve known “Tashi” for many years now. Tashi was born and bred in a remote village close to a “snow leopard hotspot”. As a young boy, he grew up with snow leopards helping his father as a shepherd, then he became a mountain guide (which is how I first knew him) and now has his own established trekking business.

He tells me that the best way to protect the snow leopard is to get the local people on board.

Education and compensation.

He firmly advocates that through education the local people grow to value the fact that they have snow leopards “on their doorstep” and that as such it’s a privilege not something to fear. Harmony in co-existence.

A snow leopard “hot spot”. Remote Dolpo region, Nepal
A snow leopard “hot spot”. Remote Dolpo region, Nepal

But, you can’t expect a livestock herder already living off maybe less than $1 a day to be happy that he is losing his livestock and therefore his livelihood. If something is threatening your livelihood, surely you’d do something about it?

Here compensation plays a part and thus to reduce the number of snow leopards being killed due to human conflict and retribution killings efforts are being made to compensate herders for any losses due to snow leopards. A sort of insurance fund.

But, more importantly herders are being educated as to how to better protect their livestock from a snow leopard attack, in the form of fortified corals.

One of these “Thar” would be a good meal for a hungry snow leopard
One of these “Thar” would be a good meal for a hungry snow leopard

Not only that, but it’s common sense that if there is a healthy abundance of wild prey for the snow leopard to hunt, it’s less likely to prey on livestock. This is an apex predator after all.

Poaching, as with many wild animals is a problem and the snow leopard is no exception.

Then there is snow leopard tourism.

Just how can you see a wild snow leopard?

Well, snow leopard watching has already started to enter the arena of tourism. I’m well aware that some of the big adventure tour operators offer as such in places like Ladakh and Mongolia. The terrain in both lend themselves better to 4WD access, as well as the snow leopards often being found at lower altitudes than in Nepal, as the permanent snow line in Nepal is often around 17,000 feet.

Snow Leopard tracks at over 16,000 feet up in the Kangchenjunga range
Snow Leopard tracks at over 16,000 feet up in the Kangchenjunga range

Tourism if managed responsibly can be of great benefit.

However, in the Nepal Himalayas there is no easy way as to how you can see a wild snow leopard. Basically you have to purposefully go and look for it!

That’s easy to say. Much, much harder to do in practice. It means venturing into the high and remote ramparts of the mountains. This is the realm of the snow leopard. You’re looking at some very challenging, high-altitude trekking and seriously wild camping and all with that bitter, bitter cold.

Safe to say, it’s not for everyone. That’s probably not a bad thing. You also need deep pockets too, such an expedition is going to be very costly and there is NO GUARANTEE that you will see a wild snow leopard.

Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, taken by a Snow Cat Travel client
Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, taken by a Snow Cat Travel client

Consequently an element of “it depends” is an important factor. A lot of hard work and also a lot of luck and good fortune too. Most serious wildlife watching enthusiasts know this all too well.

You’ve probably seen the “how we filmed it” sort of thing that accompanies most TV wildlife documentaries, and in the case of snow leopards the poor camera man left to freeze for endless days/weeks in a wildlife hide and no sign of a snow leopard….probably no signs of any other life!

Flexibility and time are key. Otherwise you might as well do an “a to b to c to d” trek, but like I said….25 years trekking in the Himalayas on “a to b to c to d” treks and just two brief snow leopard sightings for me.

So, a pre-planned “a to b to c to d” trek is neither use nor ornament.

With temperatures far below zero, camping wild she Himalayas is tough
With temperatures far below zero, camping wild she Himalayas is tough

Time is needed. Time to first get into the Himalayas (not easy), time to then trek into “snow leopard country”, time to acclimatise as those pesky snow leopards are used to the high altitudes….your body isn’t……and time to look for signs and as any wildlife watcher knows a lot of time waiting and searching and more often than not nothing happens.

The “Ghost of the Mountains” doesn’t appear by magic and it may well be the most miserable, harsh conditions you’ve endured in your life as you’re not designed to live in the realm of the snow leopard….but, the snow leopard most certainly is!

Now it just so happens that as Snow Cat Travel we do “sorta kinda” operate snow leopard treks. But, don’t misconstrue this as “an advert for snow leopard treks”….we’re not talking big business here…...very few people have that combination of financial resource, time and the desire to endure physical hardship…..and quite possibly with no results..…that’s searching for snow leopards for you. Actually we are very selective …only two very small private parties a year….oh and with rules and conditions too.

Chances are we’ll say “no”.

I’m not saying where in Nepal… second guessing…’s not Dolpo and it’s not Kangchenjunga.

Snow Leopard Trivia

Another name, although rarely used, for the snow leopard is “The Ounce”

Snow leopards don’t “roar”

Nepal has an estimated population of 300-500 snow leopards, which is actually more than the number of tigers in Nepal (current estimate 235)

Although usually found between 3,000m-4,500m altitudes, snow leopards can range up to 6,000m!

There’s no record of a snow leopard ever killing a human

A snow leopards range can be up to 1,000km2….no wonder they are so hard to find!

A snow leopard can jump 10m in one (big) leap!

Snow leopard’s are mostly solitary.….unless its mating time

Climate change is possibly the greatest long term threat to the snow leopard

Snow leopards have light green or grey eyes, most big cats have yellow/orange eyes

Snow leopards are most active at dawn and dusk

There’s a “snow leopard vodka”.…15% of all profits being donated to the Snow Leopard Trust

Originally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress blog

By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 26 2018 03:00AM

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

Stuart Butler – Author of the Rough Guide to Nepal and Lonely Planet Trekking in Nepal recently went hiking into Upper Mustang, Nepal with Snow Cat Travel

His account of this Mustang trek has now been published in The National Magazine, UAE, and this article is reproduced below…

On one side, the palm-sized rock was smooth, flat and uninspiring, but turning it over revealed a hypnotic swirl of circular patterns criss-crossed in ribs. It was the fossil of an ammonite, and scattered haphazardly across the ground around me were others. An ammonite is a type of a long-extinct marine mollusc that disappeared from planet Earth about 65 million years ago. So, what was it doing in this unlikely spot 4,000 metres above sea level?

Upper Mustang Trek
Upper Mustang Trek

That I was able to hold in my hands signs of life from the age of the dinosaurs was remarkable enough, but what made it even more astounding, was the realisation that the spot at which I now stood had once been the bottom of a tropical ocean. I took in a deep, laboured breath, and looked around me at towering sandstone cliffs rising hundreds of metres. They were pocked with caves like some kind of fairy fortress. Some of these caves had frayed old rope ladders leading up to them, and inside were galleries of ancient Buddhist art. Above and beyond these castles of sand were the black frozen walls of the Himalayas.

The story of the formation of the Himalayas, and the reason I was holding a marine fossil in my hand, is all to do with plate tectonics. About 50 million years ago, the northward-­moving Indian plate crashed into the Asian plate, and in the process, formed a belt buckle of mountains that now stretch (as the Himalayas and neighbouring ranges) halfway across Asia. The desolate, wind-blasted valley in which I stood had once been at the bottom of the sea that had separated India from the rest of Asia.

Trekking in Upper Mustang
Trekking in Upper Mustang

We were in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region and halfway through a three-week trek. A restricted area requiring special trekking permits, Upper Mustang is a little thumbnail of Tibet in Nepal. Unlike Tibet itself, where the Chinese have done much to suppress traditional Tibetan culture, in Upper Mustang, the culture has been allowed to thrive. After several days walking through desert canyons where the rock is tinged with natural primary colours, we’d reached the near mythical walled “capital” of Lo Manthang. With its narrow alleyways, high whitewashed walls and numerous monasteries painted in blood red, this is a town of dreams. A town where red-robed monks read from 100-year-old parchment texts, where wild-faced nomads gallop up to the city walls on white stallions, and where a royal family still lays claim to the central palace.

Lo Manthang
Lo Manthang

From Lo Manthang we’d walked southward again through a landscape of wrinkled cliffs with fluted chimneys and past oases of poplars coming into leaf. We hadn’t just walked with single-minded focus, though. We’d allowed time to be tempted off the main trail by minor side paths that led to high-altitude yak pastures. We’d visited cavelike Buddhist monasteries where the air smelt of burning juniper. We’d ridden stumpy and hardy mountain ponies over grasslands where marmots stood on sentry and blue sheep scarpered up distant scree slopes. We’d sipped salty yak butter tea in the black felt tents of Tibetan nomads and followed scientists as they’d scoured remote valleys looking for signs of one of the most mythical of Himalayan creatures: the snow leopard.

Eventually, we’d crossed a half-dry riverbed full of ammonites and then clambered right up into the mountains themselves, where we’d crossed dauntingly high passes and joined up with groups of other trekkers on the popular Annapurna Circuit. Then we’d veered westward to the remote, half-frozen Tilicho Lake before crossing down to the regional centre of Jomsom, via a difficult, rarely trekked pass that had required ropes, crampons and basic mountaineering skills. Although we traversed many different landscapes and climate zones and met a broad cross section of people, the stories they told us were always laced with a sense of the impossible.

The arid landscape of Mustang
The arid landscape of Mustang

Even that ammonite I’d held in my hand had been rich in Himalayan folklore. A couple of days after picking up the fossil, we found ourselves in the Muktinath temple complex. Like so many places in the Himalayas, Muktinath is holy to both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. The reason for this reverence is the presence of an eternal flame, 108 sacred water springs and the numerous shaligrams, or ammonites, found in the area, which are considered a representation of the Hindu god Vishnu. One of the most important pilgrimage spots in the Himalayas, Muktinath attracts scores of people every day. Lakshmi, a bearded Indian sadhu (holy man), whom I met at the temple, was one of the more devout. “About 35 years ago, when I was around 12 or 13,” he explained to me, “I left home and started travelling from one holy place to another. I haven’t seen my family since I left, but I don’t believe in blood relations, so I’m not bothered.”

I asked him about some of the places he’d travelled to. “I’ve been all across India, Nepal and the Himalayas. I spent many years living in a cave and meditating at the holy Mount Kailash on the far side of the Himalayas [in modern-day western Tibet]. In the end, though, I left. There are too many people there now. Too many soldiers, too many police. It was time to move.”

High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek
High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek

The faith that drove Lakshmi to turn away from his family, along with his story of adventure, might seem extraordinary to most of us, but some Himalayan tales require an even bigger leap of faith. Two of our baggage porters were brothers, and one evening, after a long eight hours walking, we set up camp inside a small stone-herder’s hut. After dark, as the temperature plummeted, we all huddled together and shared stories.

The conversation soon moved on to ghosts and magic, and one of the brothers told us about a man in their village who had the ability to transform himself into a type of wildcat. In this feline form, the man would slip like a spirit though the moonlit hills, attacking and eating livestock. In the mornings, he would be found back in his house in a deep sleep with blood-stained hands. Everyone in the village knew about his power, but nobody really knew what could be done about it. Eventually, the man died, but, so the brothers insisted, one of his sons has inherited the same powers and the slaughter of livestock continues.

Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"
Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"

I’d been ready to dismiss the brothers’ story as just another tall tale, but then, on the last day of our trek, I saw with my own eyes an object so unlikely, it defied reason. We’d arrived at our camping spot in an alpine meadow after dark and thought that we were the only people there. But, when we woke up on that final morning, we discovered a number of temporary- looking wooden structures and some ancient, weathered tents nearby. The occupants were just waking up as well. A ragtag-looking lot, they weren’t trekkers, shepherds or holy men. They were treasure hunters. The treasure they were after, though, wasn’t of the gold and rubies sort. No, the thing these men and women were after was even more valuable.

Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!
Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!

One of the men in the camp called me into his hut and, opening a small cloth bag, he revealed something remarkable: a handful of dry, shrivelled wormlike creatures. It was yarsagumba; half-animal, half-plant, a bizarre fusion of a caterpillar and a parasitic fungus. Highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac, yarsagumba is worth more than its weight in gold, and every year around June and July, hundreds of Nepalese leave their villages to head up into half-frozen alpine meadows in search of it. And if a caterpillar can be a treasure, and the Himalayas the floor of an ocean, then who is to say that up here, in these oxygen-depleted heights, people cannot turn themselves into cats?

Want to know more?

Read about Stuart's latest adventure with Snow Cat Travel as he tackles the Manaslu Circuit Trek and delves deeper into the Yarsagumba trade.

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