Working to conserve snow leopards is a fascinating job. You get to work out of places most can only imagine. But you can also go through years, sometimes decades, of work, before seeing the elusive animal you are trying to protect. And then, suddenly some day, you get more than what you bargained for. That was my lucky day. Nestled in the highest habited parts of the Himalaya, we spend a lot of time in Spiti valley. Kibber, a village at 4,200 m, was once famous as the highest inhabited village in Asia. It continues to be popular, especially amongst the sprinkling of tourists visiting Spiti each year. Kibber is also where we mostly work out of and the setting for the day’s action. One such day, Abhishek (my colleague) and I stood outside our base camp that overlooked a beautiful valley. On the other side of this was the little village of Chichim. Both villages are actually divided only by a gorge that makes them look very distant. A ride across this gorge actually just takes a few seconds, albeit travelling in a pulley meant originally to transport cement. Walking, it could take several hours.
We stood there admiring the scenery, when a large vehicle pulled up besides us. It was a group of tourists. After a routine round of selfies and group photographs, the group took to looking around. Suddenly the head of the family noticed something. Eager, he flipped through the pages of the travel guide in his hand, searching for something. Then, with an expression of achievement on his face he announced, “There, that’s Tibet!” He was pointing to Chichim, across the valley. Another round of selfies and group photographs followed. This time with ‘Tibet’ in the background.
Abhishek could not help but try to correct our friends. He made small talk with the gentleman. Eventually, he got to the point of correcting him. “That’s actually Chichim, a part of India, not Tibet.” The man dug back into his book, sifted through a few pages, and then held it up. “See, it says here—Kibber is the last village in India. That surely is Tibet.” Abhishek surrendered. Who were we to spoil it for them? This family had, no doubt, travelled half way across the country to get here. What harm would it do if they went back thinking they had seen Tibet too! Not much, we thought. Around then, I noticed the driver of the vehicle sneaking up to me. From the looks of it, I guessed, it was his first trip to Spiti. We got talking. I was right, he was from Chandigarh and this was indeed his first visit here. I told him that we observed wildlife in this part of the world. He requested me to take his picture with ‘Tibet’ in the background. I obliged.
We spoke more. “This must be a very cold place?” he asked. I nodded. “And that snow there, does it melt or stay throughout the year?” he was pointing to some of the snow-clad mountain peaks. “Well, that remains for most part of the year,” I replied. “Oh! So do you find Kelvinators there?” It took us more than a few seconds to register what he just asked. Our friend was alluding to penguins, which also happened to be on the logo of this once ubiquitous refrigerator brand. We were barely able to contain our amusement. Again, in an attempt to help our friend Abhishek explained, “You mean penguins? Well, they are found in Antarctica.” “Is that so? Where in India is Antarctica?” We abandoned all further attempts of correcting any factual inaccuracies and merely played along with our entertaining guests. Eventually, we bid each other farewell and got back to scanning the slopes through our binoculars. Did we see any penguins in Tibet that day? Well, almost!