We spent 10 days in the pristine Tirthan Valley and camped for five days inside the Great Himalayan National Park. The whole experience was like a dream; an enchanted forest where Himalayan Monals and Koklass Pheasants were flying all around, mammals were roaming freely and the early morning calls of the Western Tragopan kept casting a spell on us.
Travel Dates: 05 May 2016 – 16 May 2016
Tirthan Valley:- Gushaini, Rolla, Shilt, Chhordwari, Shojha, Jalori Pass, Chaini Kothi, Nadar
Interstate Travel: http://hptdc.gov.in/bus.htm
Delhi – Aut (Manali): By Road, HPTDC Bus
Aut (Manali) – Delhi: By Road, HPTDC Bus
Trishla Lodge: Right next to the Tirthan River, this lodge offers decent rooms with attached bath and running hot water. The only downside is that it is not a home stay, so the homely touch is missing.
Phone: +91 94 187 038 20, +91 94 181 49 155
Khem Bharti’s Guest House: A welcoming family and excellent food!!! Do ask for desi ghee and the homemade fruit Jam. The rooms are simple, clean and the attached bath is equipped with a 24hrs hot running water supply.
Sunshine Adventures: We planned our trip with support from the team at Sunshine Adventures. Apart from the online research we carried out, Ankit pitched in with excellent local know how and added some key locations to the itinerary.
Once we reached Gushaini, Panki stepped in and flawlessly coordinated our day to day activities. For the trek, he handpicked an excellent support team for us:
1. Dhaniram: A local villager and an instinctive tracker of the Western Tragopan. Having countless years of experience leading teams from around the globe, he is indispensable in the search for the Western Tragopan.
2. Pratap: A young villager; will surely emerge as a great bird guide one day.
3. Dilip: A wonderful chef. We can never forget the sumptuous dishes that he prepared for us.
4. Puran and Inder: These two young boys were the backbone of the entire team. They did everything from setting up the campsite, helping Dilip with cooking and other miscellaneous camp work. Moreover, they kept us entertained with some hilarious jokes and their innocent interpretation of the city life.
Phone: +91 94 181 02 083, +91 94 18 204 666
05 May 2016: Day 1 (Noida – Delhi – Gushaini)
Driving to Gushaini was not an option for us as we did not want to tire ourselves out even before commencing the trek. Hence we decided to take an overnight bus. From reliability, safety and security perceptive, we opted for the government run HPTDC Bus service.
We reached Himachal Bhawan just in time to board the evening bus to Aut. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we mostly slept during the night.
06 May 2016: Day 2 (Gushaini)
Panki gave us a call at 0400 Hrs, explained us where to get down and shared the phone number of the taxi driver who would pick us up from Aut. The pick-up was smooth and we reached Gushaini at around 0700 Hrs. Panki welcomed us at the Trishla Lodge and showed us around.
The plan for the day was just to relax and do a bit of birding around the village. During breakfast, we discussed the itinerary and the trek route in detail with Panki.
The next few hours were spent relaxing on the lodge’s veranda observing the territorial war between the Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Redstart and the Grey Wagtail. A Crested Kingfisher was also very active in the area.
In the afternoon, we hiked to a nearby waterfall and spotted several birds like the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Treepie, Large-billed Crow, Black Bulbul, Streaked Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Oriental White-eye, Blue Whistling Thrush, Little Forktail, Grey Bushchat, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Black-throated Tit, Grey-hooded Warbler, Verditer Flycatcher, Russet Sparrow and Rock Bunting.
Panki picked us up at around 0900 Hrs and we proceeded to his warehouse where we loaded all the trekking equipment and supplies. Dilip also joined us and we drove to the start point of the trek where we met the rest of the team members: Dhaniram, Pratap, Puran and Inder.
We commenced our trek at around 1000 Hrs and spotted several birds on the way to Rolla. As it was nesting time, almost all birds were spotted in pairs, around the nesting sites and it was fascinating to observe the way the birds distributed duties between them. Territorial behavior was at its height. Birds like the Green-backed Tit, Whiskered Yuhina, Great Barbet, Ultramarine Flycatcher etc were very common. A pair of Grey-winged Blackbird was observed furiously protecting their nest site. A lone Rufous-bellied Niltava and a Fire-breasted Flowerpecker was also spotted from close quarters.
Before calling it a day, we all spent some quality time around the camp fire sharing experiences.
We woke up at 0400 Hrs and were ready by 0500 Hrs. After a leisurely breakfast and packing up the camp site, we commenced our march for Shilt at 0800 Hrs. The climb was steep, and we managed to reach Shilt in 4 hrs only to find Dilip, Dhaniram, Puran and Inder already setting up the campsite and preparing lunch. These guys had beaten us on the climb by a good 1 hour carrying 30 kg rucksacks. We tried to console ourselves by explaining to the team that we were birding on the way and the crew accepted our excuse with a big laugh. Anyways, birding en-route was good and some of the birds spotted were the Himalayan Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Bar-tailed Treecreeper and a mixed flock of Swifts.
We could not believe our luck and quickly got ourselves into the crawl position and hoping to get closer, crawled for almost 10 meters, but then suddenly, everything fell silent and the bird just vanished into thin air. We did not even notice the movement of the bamboo, but the bird was gone; and we quickly realized how difficult it was going to be to spot this secretive bird.
In hindsight, this was the best opportunity we had of spotting this bird. It was 1500 hrs, the bird did not know that intruders were in its territory and had put down its guard. Still, the bird dodged us. Dhaniram explained that the Western Tragopan sensing danger freezes; gets low on the ground and kind of merges with the surrounding. It does not run/fly and that is why it is very difficult to pinpoint its location.
Anyways, we moved on and closer to Chhordwari, a Himalayan Black Bear was spotted. Other notable birds sighted were the Spotted Nutcracker and a Bar-throated Siva. Koklass Pheasant and Himalayan Monals were plenty and were flying around the whole place.
09 May 2016: Day 5 (Trek: Shilt and around)
The day started at 0400 Hrs and the moment we got out of our tent, we could not believe our eyes. There was this huge cloud of stars extending across the sky that we quickly realized was the Milky Way. We had carefully planned our trip so that we could get to see the best of the Milky Way. It was a moonless night, clear sky and the Milky Way was at its full glory. We wanted to capture the moment, but Dhaniram and Pratap were getting anxious on getting late. We knew that we could capture Milky Way at a later stage also; hence we quickly hiked to the location where the Tragopan could be spotted.
These early morning hikes were surely risky as we could not even switch on our torches lest we disturb the Tragopan. We hiked in pitch darkness without even the moon to guide us, on narrow forest paths with a deep valley on one side. Dhaniram and Pratap were great as guides and we fully trusted them with whatever they told us to do.
The basic idea was to reach to the probable roosting site of the Tragopan before sunrise and hope that the Tragopan does not sense us. We waited and waited for hours without even moving a muscle hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird, but it was not to happen.
On the way back to the campsite, we encountered a lazy Himalayan Pit Viper and birds like the Himalayan Monal and Koklass Pheasant.
During the course of the day we did a bit of birding around the campsite and spotted birds like the Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Vulture, Grey-crested Tit, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Rufous Sibia, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit and a Collared Grosbeak.
It started to rain in the afternoon and we were confined to our tents, but Dilip served us some amazing pakoras and chai that kept our spirits high whereas Puran and Inder were always looking for ways to keep us comfortable.
Dilip explained that Gucchi cannot be cultivated and grows randomly in the forest. Villagers spend days in the forest to find Gucchi as it can sell for as high as Rs. 1,500/100 grams. Then Pratap pitched in and informed us that we were having rakhal chai all these days that was prepared from the bark of the rakhal tree.
10 May 2016: Day 6 (Trek: Shilt and around)
Dhaniram wanted us to be in the Tragopan area by 0430 Hrs, back calculating, we woke up at 0300 Hrs and planned to capture the Milky Way. But it was not to happen; we woke up, came out of the tent and realized that the entire sky was overcast. Anyways, we started our usual hike in the dark and waited patiently for two hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the Western Tragopan. Anjana finally lost her patience, stood up and started looking for other birds. Soon enough, she sighted a flock of Fire-capped Tits followed by a Kashmir Flycatcher.
Other birds sighted during the morning were the Yellow-browed Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Mountain Chiffchaff, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Whistler’s Warbler, White-browed Fulvetta, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher among others.
We dreaded going back to the polluted city where there was no clean air for us to breathe, no clean water for us to drink and where in the name of development, the entire population is hell-bent destroying this very delicate balance of nature.
11 May 2016: Day 7 (Trek: Shilt – Gushaini)
We woke up at 0300 Hrs and realized that it was drizzling, but we still decided to give a last try at spotting the Tragopan. Dhaniram for the first time was not impressed and advised us not to venture in the forest during rains, but we persisted and Dhaniram finally gave in.
Dhaniram had found the roosting site the previous evening, but for that we had to climb a steep 30-45 degree hill. In pitch darkness and rain beating down on us, the climb was scary and we held on to whatever was in front of us (bamboo shrubs, tree branches, grass etc). After climbing around 30% of the hill, it started to rain heavily and we all were forced to take shelter under a tree. When finally dawn broke, we realized that we were not even under a tree, but in a small cave. This is how dark it was.
Anyways, once the rain subsided, we resumed our climb but the hill was so slippery that we were virtually on our fours. After an excruciating climb, we finally reached the top. By then, we had made so much of noise that it was impossible to locate the Tragopan.
After another failed attempt and all beaten down, we returned to our campsite, happy to be back in one piece. Had a heavy breakfast of aloo puri with rakhal chai before commencing our trek down to Gushaini. It was raining intermittently and the path was extremely slippery. Somehow, we managed to reach Gushaini by around 3 in the evening.
We went straight to Khem Bharti’s Guest House and the first thing we did was to take a bath, followed by an early dinner.
12 May 2016: Day 8 (Shojha and Jalori Pass)
We were still not done, woke up early, had a quick breakfast and drove to Shojha and Jalori Pass for more birding. The forests around Shojha have potential, but we could not venture deep as the villagers told us to be careful because of a leopard that was lurking around.
Jalori Pass was a complete disappointment, commercialized, polluted, dirty eateries and a degraded forest. There is an extremely easy hike to a sacred pond, we did it, but it’s best avoided.
Some of the birds spotted were the Western Crowned Warbler, Himalayan Bluetail, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak, vultures among others. We also saw a cute little Indian Pika on the way to the pond from Jalori Pass.
13 May 2016: Day 9 (Chaini Kothi)
Panki suggested that we visit Chaini Kothi which is a free-standing 45 m tall temple/outpost built in the 17 century. Birding was great around the agricultural fields and we spotted birds like the Black Francolin, Striated Prinia, Tickell’s Trush, Common Stonechat, and Dark-breasted Rosefinch among others.
Today we decided to visit Nadar village in hope of spotting Cheer pheasants. We woke up early and drove to Pekhri village reaching by 0400 Hrs. Today the sky was clear and we could see the Milky Way and took a few pictures from Pekhri. While the Milky Way was not as mighty as what we saw at Shilt, it was still better than having nothing.
We hiked for another one hour to reach the Nadar area. Again, we could hear the Cheer Pheasants, but could not see them. Other birds spotted were the Common Kestral, Black-eared Kite, and Variegated Laughingthrush among others. A Yellow-throated Martin was also spotted at Nadar.
Today was a rest day for us and we did not do anything except relaxing around. Pratap paid us a visit in the evening with two bottles of wildflower honey that we had requested earlier. We also got our hands on some Plum Jam that Mrs. Bharti happily gave us.
16 May 2016: Day 12 (Gushaini – Noida)
We had a lazy day today, woke up late, had a filling breakfast, slept some more and then packed up our stuff.
Mr. Bharti dropped us in the evening at Aut from where we took the bus to get back to Delhi.
For a list of birds and mammals spotted during this trip, please check out our birdlist and mammal list.
Please feel free to ask us any question that you may have on the locations mentioned on this blog.