The KIANG and I
The Kiang is a magnificent beast. The wild ass, the largest of the species, roams the high altitude plains of the Tibetan Plateau. In Ladakh they are mainly to be found in the Changthang region, roaming its fertile grasslands along with the nomadic Chang Pa people.
Over the course of my travels in Ladakh I have had numerous encounters with the Kiang and have come to admire them a great deal.
The Kiang is a handsome beast. Muscular, with a shiny coat and a well toned body. Their beige and brown coat allows them to easily blend in with the dry brown desert landscape of Ladakh.
They are very healthy, impressive beasts. I must have seen hundreds of Kiangs but do not recall ever seeing a scrawny individual. Perhaps it is natural selection at play here with the weak animals succumbing to the harsh Ladakhi winter or being picked away by the wild dogs and wolves that prey on them.
More than their appearance, it is their character that intrigues me. Like any wild animal the Kiang is very skittish. They are very wary creatures and always keep a safe distance of about 50 to 100 meters between themselves and any strangers that try to approach them. This is to be expected though. But what surprises me most is their curious nature.
Usually when I spot the Kiangs I tend to gingerly tail them and take a few pictures with different backgrounds. But I have also had the situation reversed a few times, when the Kiangs start following me around. Maybe they just want to keep an eye on me, a potential predator, to make sure that i do not slip out of their vision and try to outflank them. Or maybe they are genuinely curious to see what the two legged creature is doing in their habitat. Nobody can say for sure.
But what i can say for sure is that I always enjoy coming across Kiangs in my travels. And here is a small collection of pictures and accounts of my different encounters with the Kiangs.
The Lone Kiang
Tired and beaten, I was struggling to reach the first campsite of the Korzok to Kibber trek. Unaware that a nasty storm was brewing behind me. Luckily the appearance of a lone Kiang gave me the strength to reach the campsite and pitch my tent just before the storm struck.
THE LONE KIANG AND THE SOLO TREKKER
It was the first day of my Korzok to Kibber trek. The 105km trek starts from the Korzok village on the shores of the Tsomoriri lake in Ladakh and ends at the Kibber village in Spiti (Himachal Pradesh). My destination for the first day was the Kiangdom campsite, some 24km away from the Korzok village.
Since I was trekking alone, I was carrying all the supplies necessary for the 8 + 2 day trek. The +2 is because I play it safe and carry food for an extra couple of days to mitigate for any bad weather, landslides etc. I always do this and as a result the first few days of the trek are always the hardest for me with all that extra baggage that I carry.
Talking to the locals, I found that there is no good water supply at the Kiangdom campsite. The only fresh water supply is from the Phrise Phu river which after flowing for over 60km drains into the Tsomoriri lake. The prospect of drinking from a river so far away from its source did not appeal to me, so i decided to carry a few litres of extra water with me from Korzok. What a mistake that turned out to be!
I collected some 3 litres of water in a can and tied it behind my backpack. 3 litres of water by itself is not a lot of weight. But the way the can was tied to my backpack meant that the extra weight was always pull down on me from behind and greatly offset the balance of my backpack.
So needless to say, I was struggling less than half way though the 24km trek. It was getting more and more difficult as the day wore on. At every small clearing, I would be tempted to pitch my tent right and call it day.
But i trudged on.. dragging my feet without the energy to even lift my feet a few inches of the ground. It was then I spotted him. A lone Kiang, a few hundred feet away from me.
I observed him with fascination for a while, forgetting my tiredness. I took a break watching him for a few minutes and then started walking with renewed energy. Strangely enough the Kiang started following me. Side by side, but always maintaing the same distance from me. Thus with a spring in my step I walked the last few kilometers to the Kiangdom campsite and he walked with me all the way.
It was only after reaching the Kiangdom campsite that i looked behind me towards the Korzok village and saw dark storm clouds moving towards me. I struggled to pitch my tent with the wind growing stronger by the minute. I managed to pitch my tent just in time before the full fury of the storm hit me. The wind was so strong that the tent walls started collapsing inwards and I spend the next hour or so, holding up the walls of my tent with my hand.
It was thanks to that lone Kiang that i managed to escape the terrible storm and spend the night inside the relative warmth and safety of my tent.
The Pangong stalker
I was camping at Lukung. At the very head of the Pangong lake. It was a frustrating few days for me. I had come there to shoot a few timelapse videos from different locations along the Pangong lake. But the problem was with the weather.. It was gorgeous, with not a single cloud in the sky.
“What’s wrong with gorgeous weather ?”. You ask.
They make for very boring timelapse videos. Without any movement in the landscape (moving clouds, changing lights and shadows etc) there is not much difference between a timelapse and an ordinary live action video.
The only time I could shoot any videos was at sunrise and sunset. During the day there was nothing for me to do, except to read a book or walk along the lake scouting for different locations. After a while it tends to get a bit boring.
Then one morning, I had a surprise visitor to my camp. A lone Kiang. Again!
He was grazing along the shores of the lake. The setting was picture perfect with the Kiang in the foreground, the deep blue waters of the Pangong lake behind him and the snow capped peaks of the Pangong range towering in the background.
The only long lens I have is the Canon 135mm, which doesn’t have much reach. I had to zoom using my feet. And I did just that.. Inching closer and closer to the Kiang trying not spook him. He would stay still till I enter his buffer zone, and then he’ll move a few feet away from me and stay still till I move closer and then he’ll move back again. Like this we danced around for a while.
After I was satisfied with the pictures, I started going back to my tent. And then it was his turn to stalk me. He started following me just the same way I followed him. It was fun though, I would stand still pretending not to notice him, till he got a lot closer to me and then i’ll turn around to snap a picture. Sometimes I would walk around, out flanking him and gently coaxing him to be in front of different backgrounds around me.
I especially enjoyed taking the picture where the Kiang is strutting along in front of my tent.
As enjoyable as this encounter was.. It was not my exotic wildlife sighting of the day. Later that evening I spotted a bushy tailed Tibetan Sand Fox. He was coming down the mountain slope towards the water’s edge. Unfortunately, I was carrying only my 50mm lens at that time. I tried getting closer to him to snap a picture. But the moment he saw me, he turned tail and disappeared up into the mountains.
Not so curious! The Sand Fox.
The Hanle Hordes
Although you can spot Kiangs at most places in the Changthang region. The best place to spot them is in the Hanle region. Here you will see Kiangs not in ones and twos but in the hundreds.
They are everywhere. As soon as you pass the Nyoma village, you’ll start spotting Kiangs left and right grazing by the banks of the Indus river. And at Loma the road branches towards Hanle and here you’ll see even more Kiangs grazing by the banks of the Hanle river.
This goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. Please be respectful when you encounter wildlife on your travels. Please keep your distance. Please don’t feed them. Please do not startle them or worse chase after them in your vehicles for a better photograph. Happy Travels!