Lookout point

The Rath of the Clan stopped at a place that the driver called a “viewpoint”. It was once a bend in the road overlooking a long valley. The view (featured photo) was very nice. The stop was now a jumble of shops and restaurants and a concrete structure enclosing the rock that you had to climb in order to get the best view. There was a ticket office and a minimal entry charge to see the view. The clan immediately dispersed, and a few of us went straight for the view. These rolling hills covered with forests are what Meghalaya was famous for once. The big brown scab that you see in the middle of the photo looked like yet another tourist resort being built. Note how much larger it is than the open fields of the village behind it.

When I looked away from the valley, I could see something interesting. The hills did not jut out of the line of the horizon. Quite to the contrary, the horizon looked flat. The impression of folds, hills and valleys, is formed by a process quite different from that which formed the Himalayas. The Shillong plateau is a flat slab of stone pushed up by the collision of continental plates. The hills and valleys are carved by water flowing over this land for several million years. The volume of water is intense, since this is among the wettest places on the planet. But the land is still rising, so over the last ten million years or so, erosion has not managed to keep pace with the uplifting of the plateau. In fact, in the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the plateau is said to have risen by 11 meters.

Behind us this plateau was being systematically cut down. Someone had put out their washing to dry on a line just above the quarry, probably the workers. All along the route we had seen limestone hills being quarried. The British annexation of this land was driven by greed for this limestone, necessary to the then new building industry. Since then the construction boom has increased the demand for limestone, and the locals here are stuck in a vicious economic cycle which makes them cut away the ground beneath their feet. The picturesque south eastern part of the plateau is largely made of sedimentary limestone, and we would see more evidence of quarrying during our trip.

I gravitated to a restaurant which was serving tea and found part of the clan already inside. Between long queues at the toilet, finding the best place for selfies, and sitting down for a chat, the clan seemed to move at a geologically slow pace. Several cousins and nieces joined me for tea while I waited. I had time for many cups of strong and sweet tea, and also enough time to line up the cups so that I could take photos. By late morning we were done and on the move again.

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The Emperor’s Lane

Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.

The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.

We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.

If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.

Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.

The discreet charm of Shamian Island

We walked down Qingping Road and came to the wide and very busy inner ring road. Past the sea of cars, straight ahead would be Shamian Island. An elevated pedestrian walkway seemed to lead straight into an equally busy flyover. Putting all our trust in the hands of town planners, we crossed the road, and found that the walkway dipped under the traffic flyover, and led straight on to the charming bridge over the narrow canal which you see in the featured photo. That is Shamian Island for you: walk blindly into the teeming brashness of modern China, and suddenly through a sideways opening in the world, you can step into an unhurried and charming little world.

Charming public art is scattered around this island. I haven’t seen Cantonese boys and girls with this kind of hair. So I guess this piece harks back to the strange history of the island. The maritime silk route led to Guangzhou two thousand years back, but this island entered history only in 1685 CE, after about a hundred acrimonious and bloody years of trade with the west, when the Qing emperor allowed British merchants to settle in this mud flat on the Zhujiang. The subsequent opium trade that the British started out of this base led to the first of the Opium Wars in 1839. This was the beginning of an upheaval in Chinese politics which lasted for a hundred and fifty years, led to the Cantonese diaspora, the destruction of imperial China, and the rise of a modern nation. Now, as these statues show, the view of those early years of contact with the west has taken on a somewhat rosy hue.

Shamian Island was once the exclusive preserve of the British and French. This is apparent the moment you walk across that lovely bridge. The buildings have been renovated with care, and now house government offices, museums, art businesses, and many restaurants and cafes. Much of the renovation of this district, and its conversion into a leisure area, dates from about a decade back. I don’t think the ornate door which you see in the photo above has much of history, but the building does.

The shaded leafy roads of the island, and the massive buildings, are typical of British and French areas throughout Asia. I can recognize them as coming from the same school which churned out the buildings of Bombay, Calcutta, and Rangoon. As a result, this part of historical Canton attracts many visitors from the rest of Guangzhou. A small bridge at the western end of the island permits quick access from a nearby metro station. I suppose the evening we spent in the island is more or less typical. It was full of families and young people enjoying a stroll.

We’d got up before four in the morning to take an early flight into Guangzhou. Airports in China are well outside cities, even in smaller ones, so travel between the city and the airport can take significantly longer than the flight itself. Now in the evening, we were too tired to do anything but stroll down the broad leafy avenue that you see in the photo above. We found a cafe and sat there for a while, we watched people, eventually we walked down to the waterfront for a beer and watched the light fade from the sky, as the city lights came up.

When we walked back across the island it had changed character. Parks and streets were lit up, and buildings were in shadows. A different set of people were here for dinner. The families and children were gone, young people were out for an evening of fun: couples and groups of friends. This gave us a good opportunity to check which were the most popular restaurants. After all, when you are in a foreign country, this is one of the easiest ways to find the best local food.

Preserving ancient grains

I visited The Traveler, an old friend who I’d lost touch with, and met his wife, The Glittering, for the first time. She is very deeply into preserving old grains. That’s something The Family and I are also interested in, although not in a practical and hands on fashion. So we spent a long and pleasant evening listening to her experiences. There was an interesting story behind the millets which you can see in the featured photo. The Traveler said that he’d been trying to help his wife grow millets for a while, but they would always be eaten up by birds before they could be harvested.

The Glittering continued the story and told us how she met a farmer who had a few stalks of heavily bearded millet. Birds found it difficult to peck at the grains through the beard. He gave her half a stalk to plant. The year that she planted it she was very careful, keeping watch on the patch constantly. Everything that she’d planted grew, and she harvested more than a kilo of the foxtail millets. She put all of it back into the ground the next year, and now she has a continuing stock.

What is the Hindi word for this grain? The Family thought it must be ragi or nachni, but The Traveler pointed out that these are probably words for finger millet. Pearl millet is called bajra. A little search threw up two unfamiliar Hindi words for foxtail millet: kangni or kakum. So these are known, but as the grains have fallen out of use, their names are also slowly being forgotten.

This is her method. Find seeds of grain, plant some, and keep planting it. Preservation is use, according to her, not just a seed vault buried in a frozen but warming continent. She showed us this rice. “No smell,” she said. I sniffed at it, and thought I could get a mild sweet smell from it. The Family got no aroma. The Glittering said that she found this from a farmer who had just a little of it to spare. “How much land to you set aside for each?” I asked. She said, “Very little. I own a very small piece of land.” We decided to go and look at it another time when we come by.

Seeing our interest, she brought out a different variety of rice. “I grew up eating this,” she told us, “but it cannot be found in shops any more.” She spent seasons looking for it, and only found it deep in the interior of a tribal area in Chhattisgarh. The soil and weather are very different there, she told us. It took a while for her to figure out how to grow this rice, but now she has a continuing crop, and grows enough to keep a year’s supply at home.

We had no idea how much grain she would consider sufficient until The Family asked whether we could get some of it. The Glittering said “I don’t have enough to give you any this year.” She promised to send us ten kilos the next. This was not what The Family meant, and they had a laugh when she said she wanted only a kilo. We are light eaters, and a kilo of this variety to rice added to all the others we have collected could well be eaten over three months. Viable farming, on the other hand, means several tens of kilos of yield just to continue the grain.

The Glittering said that she’d started with sorghum, jawar in Hindi. The Family has been eating jawar rotis for years, and I’ve grown to prefer those to wheat because of the interestingly different taste. The rotis turn out thicker, so one has to resist the temptation to eat more. We saw the grain that The Glittering grows: a nice dark shade. She had enough of it to share. We are now looking forward to visiting her farm. There’s such a variety of grains which have fallen out of use, and are only grown in forgotten little pockets. They add many different tastes to meals, and deserve to be brought back.

Trees of the Himalayas

I had little time to prepare for our trip to the Himalayas. I worried about whether I should pack Pradip Krishen’s field guide to the trees of Delhi, but then decided against it; after all most of this book dealt with trees of the plains. There are excellent guides to the birds of India, one for butterflies, ancient ones for other animal orders, and certainly nothing for the trees of the Himalayas. One of the few useful resources I came across was an excellent blog post on the trees of Shimla.

The quick field guide which I made for myself can be useful on future trips. There is such an incredible variety of trees across the Himalayas that anyone could spend a lifetime studying them. The little part which is captured in this small list served me as landmarks to orient myself by.

Name altitude characteristics
Deodar
(Cedrus deodara)
Himalayan cedar
1700-2750 meters
across Himalayas
conifer, 40-50 meters tall, 10 meters girth, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Rai
(Picea smithiana)
spruce
2250-2750 meters
Western Himalayas
conifer, 40-55 meters tall, 3 meters girth, higher branches are upward pointing, really long needles, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Rau
(Abies pindrow)
silver fir
2500-3700 meters
Western Himalayas
40-60 meters tall, 7 meters girth, gray-brown furrowed bark, overall conical shape with level branches, needles have a white streak on the underside, dark purple erect cones, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Chir
(Pinus roxburghii)
Himalayan pine
500-2000 meters
across Himalayas
heavy cone, 40-50 meters tall, 6 meters girth, rough bark, needles are arranged in bundles of three, prefers southern slopes
search
Kail
(Pinus wallachiana)
blue pine
1800-4300 meters
across Himalayas
long cone, 30-50 meters tall, needles are arranged in bundles of five, bluish in colour, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Banj
(Quercus leucotrichophora)
Himalayan white oak
1500-2400 meters
Western and central Himalayas
15-25 meters tall, twisted gnarled trunk, rounded canopy, underside of leaves is white and hairy, acorns edible
search
Moru
(Quercus floribunda)
(also Quercus dilatata)
Himalayan green oak
1700-2700 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 6-9 meters girth, straight trunk with dark reddish brown bark, leaves 4-6 cms long and green on both sides
search
Kharsu
(Quercus semiscarpifolia)
Himalayan brown oak
2800-3250 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 4.5 meters girth, straight trunk with domed crown, dark grey bark broken into small plates, 2.5-10 cm long leaves, with brown underside
search
Phaliyant
(Quercus glauca)
ring-cupped oak
also Japanese oak
widespread 15-20 meters tall, straight trunk with domed crown, dark brown furrowed bark, leaves purple red when new, powdery blue-green underside when older
search
Bras
diverse genus
rhododendron
1500-3000 meters
across Himalayas
shrubs and small trees, glossy leaves, sometimes with a scaly underside, bright flowers
search

Peace, quiet, and hard labour

The Falachan river descends from the Zangsu glacier, falling rapidly from about 5 Kilometers above sea level to about 1.5 Kilometers, where it merges into the Tirthan river. We spent a quiet afternoon walking in the Falachan valley at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers. The Family is always magicked by heights. This was the first time The Young Niece had been in the Himalayas, and she was listening to The Lotus talk about the mountains. At one especially beautiful point in the road I took three photos: the featured photo and the two below.

A traditional wooden house with slate roof stood on the road, and below us the Falachan moved rapidly. We crossed a high bridge to a hill on the other side of the river. The untarred path from here moved down in a steep slope to nearly the level of the river. It was late afternoon. We’d eaten a large lunch, and one of Ram’s lovely desserts: chocolate balls dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece protested about the coconut but ate twice as many as any of us. Now we were walking off the lethargy that usually follows such a lunch.

The glacier-melt of the Falachan was absolutely clear. In the golden sun I could see the bottom clearly. Since we were on a holiday I could take my time to gaze at the hypnotic sight of eddies over the stones at the bottom of the river. There is trout here, but I could not see them. The others walked on, leaving me to catch up. I was trying out long exposures on my camera, but I’d forgotten to bring a tripod on the trip. I would be able to capture a sense of the eddies, but not the silkiness of the water.

I followed the others, crossing a rickety little bridge over a rushing waterfall. It swayed as you walked, and some of the planks were better avoided. In one place a plank was missing and you had to skip over the gap. The stream was not far below. A fall could be nasty, but not fatal. We’d seen bridges like this before, but it was a novelty for The Young Niece. She was very excited and waiting for me on the other side. I stopped on the bridge to take a photo of the rushing water. Two outcrops channeled the water into a narrow stream, creating a very shallow rapid. A tripod would have come in handy here. With a really long exposure I could have got a sense of the silky smoothness of the film of water rushing over stone.

The photo that you see above is the longest exposure I could get standing on that swaying bridge. All this water eventually derives from glaciers. Nowadays I cannot help thinking of what climate change would do. The glaciers are melting faster than before, the shallow waters are still not too warm for trout. Not too far in the future, the last of the ice will melt, and the land will become dry. The evergreen forests will already have changed in composition, but as the hills die, the vegetation would no longer hold the soil, and it will start eroding faster. Life in the hills will certainly change. But the afternoon was too pretty to waste on morbid thoughts of a world only The Young Niece would see.

We decided to follow the path up. Was there a destination? We weren’t sure. There were some villages along the path, but we had no idea how far off. This whole area was full of flowing streams and mountain springs, so a high village would not have a major problem with water. Of course, villages tend to grow, and eventually to use up all the water available to them. We had decided to avoid coming through Shimla because it was completely without water. From the road we’d seen a forest of chir pines (Pinus roxburghii). They are the most abundant trees at these lower slopes of the Himalayas, and very little can grow below their canopy. However, chir pine needs sunlight. On this north-facing slope banj oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora, Himalayan white oak) arched over the path.

The Lotus is worse than me at slopes. He decided to rest under the oaks. The Family wanted to walk up a little further. I followed, and The Young Niece, who was still energized by the dessert, came along. There was a steep bit right at the beginning, but then the path levelled off after a turn around the hill. This southern slope was full of chir pines. In the massive trunk of one I saw that rusty iron trishuls had been planted, and they were festooned with the gauzy red scarves reserved for holy sites. Trishuls hold an ambiguous place; they are weapons, but they are also religious objects. I pointed out the rough bark of the chir pine to The Young Niece. The ground was strewn with the pine cones and needles. When the layer of needles is thick enough it deters other trees from growing through.

There was no sign of a village. I hadn’t really expected one closer than five Kilometers away. We could look down into a narrow gorge cut by the stream which later becomes the waterfall crossed by the rickety old bridge. There was a single house by the stream, at the bottom of a cascade of rhododendron trees. Unfortunately the flowering season was over. Looking up-slope we could see another single house at the top of a scarp. This single family had terraced the slope in front of their house and converted it to agricultural use. I thought of all that this must have involved. I don’t think that I will be able to do that kind of physical labour. We turned back from this point.

Angler’s test

I’m not a trekker. When I’m in the hills I want to go on easy walks. However, the Himalayas and Sivaliks are full of hardened trekkers, who, when they hear me say “easy walk”, suggest trips which make my heart sink into my boots. I found that a foolproof way to do easy walks with company is start angling. The Falachan and Tirthan river valleys are full of anglers, so getting into this sport was not difficult.

My instructor, Dev, taught me the basics in half an hour. With a little box full of artificial lures, he taught me how to thread them into the line and attach them to the hook. The art of casting was not too hard. It was a little harder to free the hook from underwater object where it had snagged. After that it was a matter of understanding the “psychology of the fish”, as Dev told me. Fooling a fish involved lesser skills like holding the rod steady and reeling in the line at a constant rate.

The exotic brown trout (Salmo trutta) was introduced into Himalayan water in the mid-19th century and have taken hold here since then. They thrive in glacier-fed rivers like the Falachan, whose waters are seldom hotter than 20 Celcius. These rivers are also fast-flowing and turbulent, strewn with boulders and rocks (see the featured photo) and with patches of sand and silt where the water eddies into relatively calmer pools. Dev claimed that the trout lurk under these stones at the edges of these clear pools, and dart in to catch insects which land in the water near them.

I practiced the throw and the reeling in until I was good enough for Dev to pronounce that I was doing fine. This was not enough to catch fish, as it turned out. I caught no fish that day, but Dev caught three (which were duly photographed before being released into the stream again) and hooked another which escaped before it could be reeled in. I recalled having read that the brown trout has displaced the snow trout which previously inhabited these waters, but apparently it is not clear that this story of ecological destruction is true. The brown trout mainly eat mayflies, caddisflies and mosquitoes, whereas the snow trout live on algae. There is no competition between them. It is amazing how little we know about our environment, how shallow the reach of our country’s science is. I wish there was some way to recruit anglers into a network of citizen scientists to monitor the health of these rivers, and the diversity of their fauna.

As for me, I had my first taste of fishy science while examining the photos of the fish that Dev caught. I admired the lovely spotted dorsal fin on its back, the adipose fin just behind it, the paired pectoral fins roughly where the forelegs of a mammal would be, the paired ventral fins on the belly, the anal fin behind the pair, and the caudal fin or tail. The ray-finned brown trout seems to be as good as a textbook diagram of fish physiology!

At the end of the day I had finished my walk, leaping from one boulder to another along the course of the river. I also realized that I don’t have the patience of an angler. I’ll keep with angling as a disguise for easy walks along mountain streams, but that’s all my skills are good for.

Two turtles

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. –Richard Feynman

Watching turtles is a little frustrating. Although there’s a large variety in India, there are few guidebooks or websites which tell you how to identify what you saw. We stopped to see a few of these large turtles on our first sortie into Kaziranga. I didn’t know what they were when I took the featured photo. I have a tentative identification of it being the Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) through its size and colour. The hind edge of the shell is deeply serrated, as you can see. I’m sure that this should be an aid in identification, but it does not seem to be mentioned in any guide. If it is indeed the Indian black turtle, then it is near-threatened. This means that it could still be fairly common inside a sanctuary, so there is a good chance that this is what I saw. But you can always fool yourself.

The common Indian roofed turtles (Pangshura tecta) are relatively small turtles which love to climb out of the water and bask in the sun. It took me some time to decide whether the photos above are of P. tecta or the endangered Assam roofed turtles (Pangshura sylhetensis). Both are found in forest streams. The reptile database is pretty useless as an identification tool because its photos are not curated by experts. Eventually it was Wikipedia which convinced me that I’d seen the rarer variety. The article on P. sylhetensis says that its shell is serrated at the hind edge, as these are. The upper shell of this species is also darker. It is so nice to be able to see an endangered species that you want to believe that you have. So I’ll have to wait a little longer for some experts to tell me whether or not I have. Given the rarity of P. sylhetensis, (the IUCN page claims that only a few specimens have ever been seen) the chances are that I’m fooling myself.

Entering the whirlpool

My introduction to nature came first through the stories by Jim Corbett. These would often feature him sitting in a hide with a goat tied nearby as a lure for tigers. Seeing a goat at an entrance to Kaziranga, I was reminded of this.

The gate was an elaborate affair. We counted off what we’d seen already: rhinos, elephants and wild water buffalo were three of the “big five” here. The gate also showed the elusive swamp deer, barasingha. We had only a little glimpse of one on this trip. Pelicans, shown in flight around the gate posts and holding the sign, are not usually counted among the main attractions. But where was the real big one: the tiger?

It made a brief and almost unnoticed entrance at the bottom of a signboard full of the rules which bind you and protect the forest. If you don’t stand there and read the whole thing you may miss the fact that Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve. In fact it has the highest density of tigers in the world, but they are seldom spotted because of the tall grass that they can hide in. The goat was only a decoy, after all.

The central zone had a less impressive gate: just a boom which could be raised or lowered. But I liked the owls which showed the opening and closing times for visitors. We never did get to see the tiger, but we saw so much here that I didn’t regret the trip at all.