Hemis National Park is also known by the name Hemis High Altitude National Park. It lies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, specifically in the north-eastern Ladakh region. The park is flanked by the banks of the Indus River on its northern side, which includes some parts of the Zanskar Range and catchments of Sumdah, Markha and Rumbak. It is the largest high altitude, conserved national park in the country, and it was acknowledged as one in the year 1981. Today, it is maintained by the Wildlife Protection Department of the Jammu and Kashmir government.
The park is named after Hemis Gompa, which is considered to be the wealthiest and largest of its kind in Ladakh. It lies towards the northern side of Shang catchment. This revered monastery was once an important point on the Silk Route to Tibet. Also known by the name, Chang-Chub-Sam-Ling, this monastery houses the largest Tibetan religious cloth painting or thangka of the region. This painting is about 12 m long and is only displayed once in 12 years.
The Hemis National Park is home to many other holy chortens and Tibetan gompas. It is also home to more than 1600 people, who live in the nine villages that are located in the valleys of Markha and Rumbak. These villages are located at a height of more than 4000 m above sea level. Most people in the villages are Buddhists.
The biggest celebration of this region is held around June/July, which is apparently the fifth month of the Tibetan Calendar. It is the Hemis Festival, which is held to honour Guru Padmasambhava. This festival goes for about three days and attracts a number of people from across the valley.
Travellers planning to visit this spectacular national park can choose to stay at the accommodations provided by the Hemis Gompa or at the villages as guests. Back-country camping is another option for accommodation and so is staying at the resorts or hotels in Leh. Choice of food is limited in this region, and it is advisable to carry along some packaged food.
The Hemis National Park is among the largest of its kind in South Asia. It was established to protect the Markha and Rumbak catchments (about 600 sq km in area). This area was increased to about 3350 sq km by 1988, with the incorporation of neighbouring lands. Two years later, it again increased to 4400 sq km.
Hemis Gompa, after which the national park has been named, is said to have been founded by Lama Tagstang Raspa in 1630. The gompa was commissioned by King Sengge Namgyal and built by Palden Sara. This sacred complex lies at an elevation of approximately 3657 m above sea level in the Western Himalayas.
Located within the Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau steppe eco-region, this park consists of alpine tundra, pine forests, and alpine meadows and shrublands. Its terrain is characterised by rugged valleys, dotted with huge boulders and rocks. These valleys also feature sparse grasslands, patches of trees and several shrubs that cover about 10 per cent of the total area. The altitude of the park extends from 3500 m to 6390 m above sea level. Some of its peaks rise to a height of about 5000 to 6000 m above sea level. Towards its southern tip is located the Shang catchment, through which flows a small tributary of the Indus River called Marchelung Takpo.
Since the park does not receive high rainfall; hence, its lower altitudes consist of dry forests of subalpine dry birch, juniper and salix. The upper mountains slopes are characterised by alpine vegetation, where other parts feature steppe vegetation, dominated by Ephedra, Caragana, Stachys and Artemisia, which are found more along the lower river courses. A study conducted in the area suggests that there are about 15 endangered and rare medicinal plants in this national park, and these include Ferula jaeschkeana, Artimisia maritma, Arnebia euchroma and Ephedra gerardiana.
The park is also home to high population of snow leopards, which are mostly found in the Rumbak catchment. These leopards prey on different sheep varieties, including Bharal, Argali and Shapu. Some of other wild animals inhabiting in this area are Eurasian brown bear, Tibetan wolf and red fox. The park is known to offer wonderful opportunity for birdwatching, and this includes spotting Himalayan griffon vulture, golden eagle, Tibetan snowfinch, brown accentor, Himalayan snowcock and redbilled chough. According to records maintained by the park officials, there are about 73 bird and 16 mammal species in the area.
The climate in this area is extreme with regular fluctuations both on seasonal and daily basis owing to its high altitude location. The annual average precipitation in this place is 160.5 mm. During winters, temperatures remain close to the freezing point, dropping as low as -20 degree Celsius. In peak summers, the temperatures go up to maximum of 30 degree Celsius. This is the ideal time to come to this national park. While September to June is suitable for spotting animals in the park, April to June and September to December are the best times for birdwatching here.
How to reach
By Air – The nearest airport to this park is Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. This airport is only about 49 km away. Flights to Leh are available from Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu, Chandigarh and other places till Leh, from June to September. In winters, it is better and safer to opt for road journey till Leh and beyond that.
By Road – This national park can be reached either by Manali-Sarchu-Dharchu route from the Manali-Leh Highway or by Srinagar-Kargil route from Leh. However, before committing to any of these routes, it is advisable to ascertain the viability factor before, since these routes remain close owing to landslides. Also, since the Srinagar-Kargil route lies close to the Pakistan border, it is at times shut down by the Indian Army. Regular taxi and bus services are available to the park from Leh.
By Rail – The closest railhead to this park is Jammu Tawi Railway Station, which lies about 252 km away.
On Foot – Adventure enthusiasts can opt for trekking expedition to Hemis National Park. This trail starts from Spituk Gompa and passes through Jingchen Valley, before entering the Markha Valley via Ganda La pass. The trek then goes through Kongmaru La pass to reach Hemis.
The ideal way to explore this famous national park is by opting for Jeep safaris. However, for higher altitudes, this is not feasible at all. Hence, trekking through the park becomes the best way to enjoy the local flora and fauna.