When Rohan asked me if to I would like to travel to Nepal, I said, "Yes, of course!"
I'm always up for an adventure. Also, I was excited to go to a country known as a home to the red panda.
The word "panda" originated from the Nepali word, "ponya," which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Nepal is home to roughly 2% of the world's entire red panda population. Many of the red pandas found in Nepal (approximately 25% of the total population) can be found in Lang Tang National Park.
We arrived to Kathmandu, Nepal's largest city where we made some last minute purchases of snacks and gear and then we piled into a van. After driving all day up windy mountain passes and through small villages, we finally arrived at Lang Tang National Park.
The trail head was at Shybru Bensi. Our goal from there was to hike for three days to reach Kyangin Gompa, a valley between several mountains that are part of the Himalayan Mountains.
Red pandas are typically found at 8,000-10,000 feet (2500-4800 meters) elevation. The trail head was at 4,800 feet elevation and our destination was at 14,000 feet. As we set off, I was excited to learn we would be hiking right through prime red panda territory in a few days time.
As we hiked the rocky trails gaining elevation with each step, I felt like a natural scientist must feel as they search for animals in the wild. If I wasn't a writer, I always thought it would be neat to be a conservationist who travels the world and helps protect wildlife.
On the third day of our trip, despite having walked 8-10 miles each day for the last few days, I woke up invigorated. We were finally in red panda country. I set off early in the morning to increase my chances of seeing red pandas which are active mainly during dawn and dusk.
Red pandas are "arboreal," which means they live in the trees (like squirrels and monkeys). As I walked along, I had to remind myself to look up in the trees now and then. It's difficult and dangerous to walk on rocky trails without looking at the ground in front of you. After tripping over rocks a few times, I learned to take a few steps then stop and look around. This was safer and allowed me to enjoy the peaceful surroundings without the distraction of walking.
As the morning turned to afternoon, the rocky, narrow trails opened up and we entered a forested area alongside a river with the first sign of bamboo groves.
A red pandas diet consists mainly of bamboo shoots, insects, leaves, and the occasional egg. So, I spent a lot of time peering through the bamboo to see if I could spot a red panda enjoying a snack. No luck on day one...
To my delight, we did see many signs about red pandas at the tea houses where we stopped to rest along the trail.
While we didn't see any red pandas the first day we were in their region, we did see grey langur monkeys. We also encountered a lot of mules that are used for carrying goods in and out of the valley. Toward the end of the day, we came across several amazing domesticated animals called dzo (male), dzomo (female). They are half cow and half yak.
That night we stayed at a cozy traveler's lodge called the Llama Hotel. I enjoyed the view outside my bedroom window, keeping an eye out for flashes of red fur in the trees, until the sun went down and I grew tired.
The next day, we passed through even more bamboo groves. I asked the locals I encountered if they had ever seen red pandas. Many of them said they had, so I was feeling hopeful. I learned that one of the words for red panda in Nepali is "ratu baloo," which means red bear. They are also sometimes called "pandre."
We stopped for lunch at another teahouse. Here, we met a dog who was trained to pick up garbage and throw it in a waste bin! I love dogs and this environmentally minded dog was awesome.
As the day progressed, I kept my eyes peeled for pandas.
I looked for pandas taking naps in the afternoon sun.
I looked for pandas in holes in the ground underneath the trees.
I looked for pandas in caves.
My mind played tricks on me a few times. At one point, I even thought some foliage hanging off a tree was a red panda tail.
Another day passed and no red pandas. We finally ascended above the tree line and were no longer in red panda country. I stopped looking for pandas and started to enjoy the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. We stayed for four days in a beautiful valley surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains and a number of stunning glaciers.
The morning we woke up to hike back to Shybru Bensi, a light dusting of snow had fallen. The dzo didn't seem to mind. On the other hand, I was grateful to descend to a slightly warmer elevation.
We made our way back the same way we had arrived. As we traveled back through red panda territory. I was excited for another chance to spot them.
I looked in trees. I looked in holes in the ground. I looked in the bamboo groves.
We finally reached the end of our journey, and I never did see a red panda. My friends asked me if I was disappointed and I realized that funny enough, I wasn't!
Having spent several days walking through red panda territory, I had learned so much about the environment from which they came. I saw the bamboo groves they go to eat, I heard the same sounds that they hear, I smelled the same smells that they smell.
For a short time, I shared a place on Earth with the red panda. Furthermore, I had learned that red pandas are truly elusive creatures which is all the more reason to want to try to protect them. It's very difficult for conservationists to know the exact number of red pandas that remain in the wild because they too have a hard time finding them!
Now that I've returned to San Francisco and had a chance to think back on my trip, I realize that my quest to find a red panda had created really vivid memories in my mind. My senses were on high alert as I walked through the forest and valleys. I don't think I would have taken the time to stop and enjoy the scenery as much if it hadn't been for my desire to get a glimpse of a red panda.
Thanks for reading this post! I hope that you are inspired to go out there into the world and look for whatever it is you would like to see. Just remember, whether you find exactly what you're looking for or not isn't the point, the experience of living life to the fullest and in the moment is the real key to happiness.
If you want to help conserve red pandas, please visit the Red Panda Network's website. They are a non-profit dedicated to conserving the red panda and its territory. They also organize a few trips to Nepal each year if you too would like to try to see red pandas in the wild.