Do you really want to know?

What’s over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.

Outside the small town of Ghoti on the Mumbai-Nashik road

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.

Naneghat, the view across the pass

At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?

Crossing Malshej ghat in Maharashtra

Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.

Monsoon waterfall at the top of Malshej ghat

But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Probable, possible

We’d been driving through the desert highway which ran parallel to, and high above, the course of the Indus. The undulating landscape around the highway was carved out of a soft but rocky soil. I found later that the river has been moving soil around the plateau for 10-20 million years, and this aspic made of soil and rock is called the Indus molasse basin. The phrase “lunar landscape” was invented by an unknown hack as an utterly wrong description for this riverine landscape. Millions of tourists now repeat it unthinkingly, because the land does not look green and fertile. But the word for a desert is desert.

Like in any desert there are plants which grow here. There are insect communities which they sustain. There are lizards and spiders which prey on the insects. And there are, very visibly, birds which prey on the predators. During the drive my eye adapted quickly to spotting clumps of grass or plants huddled low to avoid the wind. The altitude means that the air is thin, and the UV levels are high. The resulting glare plays games with your sight, and distinguishing green from the khaki landscape may be hard, unless you have grown up in the hot dusty plains of northern India.

As a result I managed to spot these flowers as we sped by. Nassir Khan, our guide and driver for the day, stepped on the brakes immediately, and I had only a short walk up a slope to where the plant was growing out of a clod of earth. This was a globe thistle for sure. We were at a height of above 3000 m, and considering that we were in Ladakh, this was almost certainly the Himalayan blue globe thistle (Echinops cornigerus). The appearance of the bracts, the flowers, the stems, and the leaves are all consistent with this identification.

But the literature is rife with confusion between E. cornigerus and the snow-white globe thistle (Echinops niveus), perhaps half of it due to amateurs like me. Typically the confusion occurs at lower altitudes, where E. niveus (or even the low-altitude, Indian globe thistle, Echinops echinatus) is mistaken for its high altitude cousin. It is often said that E. niveus is found to a height of 1700 meters in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Nepal. But that altitudinal ceiling was only reported in the early 1980s from sites in western Nepal. With warming weathers, and ever increasing traffic, it is not impossible that it has spread its range along this road, the Srinagar-Leh highway. Instead of adding to the confusion, let me keep the issue open until clinching evidence emerges, with the proviso that this is more likely to be Echinops cornigerus.

The valley of death

Weather can change very quickly in the mountains. We had driven down the valley of the river Shyok in a happy sunlit mood. As we started back after lunch in Turtuk, clouds had blown in from the west and the light had turned sombre. The name of the river means death in languages that derive from old Tibetan, and in this dim light it was not hard to make that connection.

The road was smooth most of the way, and The Family nodded off after the heavy meal. Yasin, our guide and driver, was intent on the drive. We’d rolled the windows down and he’d switched off the music so that we could listen to the water and the weather. I was in my groove right now, having put away my favourite camera to utilize the wider angle shots of the landscape that my phone gives. I realize that I could tell the story of the drive back in many ways: as a road trip, as a journey using the metaphor of the Bardo Thodrol (the Antarbhava Nivarna, known in the west as the Book of the Dead), or even as a photo gallery interspersed with technical comments by the photographer.

But the telling that appeals to me are the questions that rose in my mind as I looked out, and the answers that I found later. This land raised profound questions about our place on earth, and figured in a controversy that preceded the writing of the IPCC’s fifth report in 2014. But before I tell you about it, let me give you an impression of the landform that piqued my curiosity. Even though the muddy river was at its widest in summer, when we drove along it, the valley it flowed through was very much broader. The two-lane road seemed to be on a plain, and there was enough flat land around it that the road could have had four lanes through much of the valley. I’d never seen this in a mountain stream before.

Another remarkable feature was the profusion of loose rock and pebbles, some jagged, as if a scree had spilled down slope, others completely rounded as if by the action of water and glacier over millennia. A further enigma was visible in the sand dunes and mud flows that were could be seen at places along the river. This is a special mystery because the land has very little rain: no more than a 100 mm in a year. The patterns of erosion are not due to rain.

What a curious tourist like me sees is a very small part of the questions that arise in the mind of a geologist who walks through this landscape. So all my questions, and more, are answered in the extensive geological literature that is easily available these days. The answer lies in a dynamic and fluctuating history of glaciers and ice dams in the last 150 thousand years in this region. An early study counted over 2000 glaciers active in the upper Shyok valley, which were highly dynamic, receding and expanding rapidly, but whose extent had not changed significantly between 1973 and 2011.

When this paper was published as the 5th IPCC report was being drafted, it gave rise to an immediate controversy about global warming. If glaciers had not melted in the Himalayas, as they had in the Alps, then how could the latter be due to anthropogenic warming? An old friend was involved in the group that found the answer: Himalayan glaciers are mostly rock covered, unlike the open glaciers of the Alps, and it is the thinning of the ice layer under the scree that reveals the extent of melting. Their ground surveys revealed that glaciers here were melting as quickly as Alpine ice flows. Further studies confirmed this, and the IPCC’s AR5 report had a chapter on this topic which reported this as the consensus of scientific opinion.

We passed one of the largest tributaries of the Shyok in this stretch. I had looked down the other valley on our way west in the morning and had a glimpse of the high peaks of the Karakoram range. Even in this light I could see an ice-covered peak as we sped by. In the upper reaches of the Shyok river, after it descends from the Rimo glacier and flows south, the river marks the geological suture between Ladakh and the Karakoram. In the stretch that we drove through, the river had turned north and west, and again come close to the Karakoram range. I can’t figure out from maps which river descended from the Karakoram to join the Shyok so far in the west.

We’d switched between the left and right banks a few times over bridges, most in good repair. The exception allowed a single vehicle to cross at a time. Waiting for our turn in the small queue, I’d told The Family how these crossing were once considered treacherous. The many caravans which were washed away in this stretch of the silk route gave the the river its name, Shyok, the river of death. But these summer floods were seldom caused by rain. They were more often due to the melting of ice dams which had formed over winters. Some ice dams can last quite long, and collect sedimentary deposits, some of which I’d seen exposed during the day. The failure of these ice dams cause enormous floods and quick erosion. This is also perhaps the reason for the wide river valley we saw.

As we approached the Hunder-Diskit area, the clouds opened up, and dappled sunlight streaked the mountain sides. In this place farming and irrigation is transforming the land. The forest department is busy planting cypress in a bid to green this land, forgetting, as it has since colonial times, that introducing an exotic species leads to catastrophe a few decades on. But you cannot fault the locals for turning to agriculture this wide fluvial-lacustrine valley fill, created by the ancient ice dams. Human sympathy is due when impoverished people try to better their own lot through historically tested means such as agriculture. However, it seems that corporations and bureaucracy which follow any such expansion of human activity create changes inimical to the human world. Is this Gaia at work?

Across the Himalayas

Home of clouds, the Himalayas have a very appropriate name. The mountains jut up into the sky above the weather, stopping even that huge global circulation which we ground-huggers see as the Indian Ocean monsoon. And what are the Himalayas but the immense, long drawn out collision of two continental plates. As the Indian plate sped northeast across the world, wheeling westwards, a ten million year collision raised these mountains and prised the Tibetan highland into the air from the mass of the Asian plate. About then, elsewhere, a plume of magma rose from the earth’s core and created the enormous African rift valley, setting into motion the changes that started a branch of apes to begin walking across the world. Now, a tube of aluminium filled with those same apes followed a high arc across the home of clouds.

Sitting in that crowded tube, I Iooked out over the shoulder of The Family at the monsoon cloudscape that passed below us. Abruptly I realized that some of the white was not the fluffiness of clouds. A closer look told me that we had left the lowlands behind and reached the high Himalayas. Below us was a rugged, folded landscape, where streams and earthquakes had carved valleys and raised peaks. This late in July the snow line lies above 5.5 Kms. So the peaks we saw were at least 6 Kms high. This is where weather stops.

In the next ten minutes we passed over heights that I would certainly never have reached on foot: a land of eternal snow. Few animals come this high. Among all the world’s migratory birds, only bar headed geese (Anser indicus) fly over these mountains. Coincidentally, we were flying parallel to one of their migration routes, the one they follow as they move between their wintering grounds north of Mumbai, and their summer breeding grounds in Ladakh’s Tso Moriri, west of Leh.

The landscape below us was amazing. Multiple glaciers flowed away from a huge snowfield. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those promontories below us and look down on the icefalls that I could see. The air inside the plane suddenly felt hot and stale as I imagined the bitter cold wind below, blowing loose snow over the ice fields. Sadly I was seeing these views as the last of the snow melts from these mountains. Even ten years ago, I would not have seen so much exposed brown below me.

And then we had crossed from one tectonic plate to another. Below us was another climatic zone, one where the monsoon did not reach. Wisps of cumulus floated over the bare brown land. From this height I could see many lakes dotted over the land, large and small. With the extremely low precipitation that this high desert gets, the lakes must be all fed by snow melt. As the earth heats up and the last snow melts, I wonder what will be the fate of the ecologies that depend on these lakes: the bar headed geese, the black necked cranes, snow pigeons, snow leopards, snow foxes, blue sheep, the cold-adapted vegetation of these lakes, and the many insects which live only here. Distance from the ground lets you think these thoughts.

Before I expected it, we begin our descent. Voices come over the PA giving the usual safety instructions. As we approach the ground I see the play of light and shadow over the bare desert which will be our home for the next one and a half weeks. I’m excited. I look at The Family, and she says, “Finally. I’ve been waiting to come here for years.” Below us we see a green valley, probably a sign of humans: the water from a stream used to grow the crops and trees that we like to have around us. We carry with us memories of ancestral landscapes and we try to reproduce them wherever we settle.

Before I have to put away my phone, I see us approach the town of Leh. Like every overgrown human settlement, this spills out from the valley where it was born, into its surroundings. Humans metastasize. That magma plume below the Afar depression which shattered the African continental plate 40 million years ago set into motion large changes on the surface of the planet.

Lunar landscapes

Along the Srinagar-Leh highway one drives through the so-called “lunar landscape” of Ladakh. This is an area which seems to have no vegetation at all. The landscape seems totally dry. Indeed, this is the most accessible high desert that I’ve seen. In various places along the northern border of India you come to where the Indian tectonic plate has pushed up on the Tibetan plateau. If you stare at exposed strata, you can identify these zones by the nappe, a sideways thrust: the strata are far from horizontal. This tremendous pressure has created metamorphic rocks from which water and carbon dioxide has long been squeezed out. You recognize it by the strange colours of these trans-Himalayan deserts. This part of Ladakh is a mere 3 Kms above sea level. Similar views in the eastern Himalayas are visible at an altitude of about 5 Kms.

The wide road winds along the valley of the Indus, high above it. You can see a tremendous variety of rocks along the way. Along a part of the route the surroundings looked like muddy rubble. I suppose thst if you give gravity and wind enough time then rock can be ground into sand and dust, but does that create this clayey mud? I think water is needed to transform the right mineralized dust into clay. Perhaps this clay was formed geologically early as the Indus river cut its way down the valley. I’m happy that my photo caught a clump of vegetation in this barren-looking land. This was not uncommon. There is life here.

It is hard to capture a sense of the immense landscapes that meet your eye. This small temple stood close to the road; perhaps a fifteen minute’s walk away if we’d stopped the car at the edge of the road and walked. The mountains behind it are much further off, a guess would be several hours away if we crossed the intervening dusty plain on foot. Ladakh is dusty. I had my N95 mask on most of the time to prevent a dust allergy. The second image in the slide show is equally deceptive: the further range of mountains lies across the wide valley of the Indus.

When the opposing continental plates squeezed volatiles out of the rocks, it left mineralized rocks in many colours. The iron-bearing rocks are the easiest to recognize: they are the colour of rust and old blood. At one place I saw a large field of orange-red lichen on stone and confused myself about whether I was seeing lichen on iron-bearing minerals. The colours are actually different: the lichens are brighter. The photo above shows iron-bearing minerals. The yellow colour of the rocks in front could be due to alkalis.

Then there are fields of fine dust, like the one in the photo above. Tourists indulge in the “adventure sport” of driving a quad bike behind a leader who takes them along a designated route on the sand. I was more interested in the wind-blown dunes on the slopes behind the bikers. The scarce rain had left some runnels on the slopes between the dunes.

Then there was a hillside of this amazing glossy black material. The rocks are generally iron-rich here, so this is very likely to be hematite. However, there is a tall tale of a magnetic mountain here. Perhaps it is based on a kernel of truth; perhaps this is magnetite. That’s also a glossy black mineral. According to the tale, if you come to a slope near the mountain and leave your car on neutral, then it glides uphill. To achieve that, the magnetic field of the mountain must overcome gravity. If it does that, certainly it should overcome the weak magnetic field of the earth, and render all compasses ineffective. Somehow that simpler experiment has never been reported. In reality, deposits of magnetite do not show an overall magnetisation.

This not-so-lunar landscape ends (or begins, depending on which way you travel) at the Nimmu village, where the muddy Zanskar falls into the equally muddy Indus. From Nimmu down, the land is greener, with more villages and fields. That’s a different story. But even above, I wonder how much longer the rocks will remain as they are. As the amount of carbon dioxide in the air increases and the temperatures rise, there will be slow changes in the chemistry of the rock, as it absorbs the volatiles that were once squeezed out of it. I would love to come back in a million years or two, to see how the land here has changed.

First view of the Indus

Sindhu! The name is magic. When Alexander of Macedonia crossed the river, it was the first time that a historian from outside the Aryavarta had recorded this land. His geographers called the river the Indus. And from that, by the usual mutations of language, the land itself became known to others as Indies, or India. So, as soon as I could walk again after my oxygen crisis, we got into a little city van and drove to the nearby village of Spituk to cross the storied river.

It was a twenty minutes’ drive to the village. We drove through it to the small bridge that crosses it and got off. I took a photo looking down-river, and then turned to take the view up-river. From its sources further west, in this part of Ladakh the river flows north. After crossing the Line of Control, it turn sharply south and once, before the dams diverted the water to the wheat fields of Pakistani Punjab, irrigated the land of Sindh, before emptying into the Arabian Sea. In Ladakh, this thin air has little oxygen and even less moisture. As a result, you see greenery only in a narrow band around the river. I looked ahead at the road and took the featured photo. I looked back and took a photo of the small bridge that we’d just crossed.

There was a twittering of birds all around me but I could see only sparrows. At a better time of the day you would be sure to see a lot of songbirds. Chiffchaff, rose finches, buntings, redstarts, and whitethroats have been spotted here, but I was not so lucky. Later, walking through the village, I saw a hoopoe (Upupa epops) fly across the road in front of me, and a white wagtail (Motacilla alba) exploring the side of the path.

I’d been in bed for two days and felt like walking a little. The Family was concerned about whether I was up to it, but I thought that if I walked slowly I could make my way through the village. She took the car ahead to park near the highway, leaving me to my walk. The first house that I came to was made of bricks of unfired clay. I rubbed a finger on the wall, and a thin powder came away on my fingers. Later I realized that the whole village is made of Multani Mitti (Fuller’s earth). No wonder the villagers have glowing skin! An open door in the house led into a little shop. The lady there agreed to be photographed. In response to her gracious gesture, I bought a handful of candy. It would turn out to be useful.

A few steps on was a cross road, the only one in the village. Houses ran along both roads. The crossing is clearly important, beause a large prayer wheel, a row of small prayer wheels, and several stupas stood there. I know enough to turn prayer wheels clockwise. I tried to move the large one. It was finely balanced and turned immediately.

There were some large houses here, with big gardens. I liked some of the large decorative gates. But my favourite gate was made with an old advertisement. It was a very old testament scene: they beat their advertisements into something useful like a gate. You could see the monastery (Spituk monastery, of course) standing on a hill behind the village. As I came to our car I saw a hotel under construction behind a group of memorial stupas. I could examine the unfired clay bricks more closely here; definitely Multani Mitti. But sadly, all this in aid of more commercialization.

The only thing left was a visit to the monastery. There was a road up to the start of the buildings, but the monastery was built along the slope above the parking. I wasn’t up to climbing all the way up. I walked up two flights of stairs, took an ambush photo, and gave up. On the way back down I came face to face with a snow lion rampant. Definitely worth a photo. That was a morning well spent, I told The Family. She said, “Don’t collapse again.” I was determined to follow her advise.

Summer snow

July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.

The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.

The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.

The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.

But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.

Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.

Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.

Flying barefoot past Everest

A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.

The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.

I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.