Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

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The Himalayan Bakery and Cafe

The main bazaar of Kausani had the usual unprepossessing look of a typical small Kumaoni town. There were hardware and general stores, one shop of local handmade woolens, a few small eateries. We looked at the queue outside an ATM; we needed cash, everything runs on cash here, but decided to come back later. A few paces down, The Victory, stopped at a shop and gestured to me. Yes, this was worth it. We walked in. Coffee? The Family asked for a cappuccino. Sorry, we can only do an ordinary coffee, the man behind the counter said. Four coffees then, The Family requested.

The shop was tiny, four pinewood tables, little stools. We fulled two stools up to a table with a long bench. A high glass counter was full of their sweet pastries. The price! The Victor said, unthinkable in Mumbai. What were those biscuits? The big rounds were sweet. I can give you two to taste, the man said. They were wonderful, crisp and flaky, mildly sweet. We’ll take a packet of those, and one of the flaky salty ones too.

Ramesh, the man at the counter, had started the bakery during the pandemic. He was a local boy, he said, born and educated in Kausani. Then he had gone to Dehra Dun to study in the catering college. From then on to jobs in Delhi and abroad. He mentioned a few well-known names. He had been caught in his home town on vacation when the world shut down. He was waiting for flights to resume, embassies to reopen. His old job was waiting, and he had to go when the hotel reopened. In the meanwhile he started this little cafe, and was sure that it would run after he had left.

The master baker was a genuine master. He took great pleasure in showing me the little gas powered oven in the kitchen. Small, he said. We use it continuously. Ramesh stood by and said he plans to install a bigger oven when he can order it from the plains. The second wave has paused things here for the moment, as the hill state begins to check everyone at the borders. The master said he’d just put in a bunch of pastry puffs. The Victor asked why don’t we come back for lunch? No dissent there.

The signage was in Hindi. About a third of our clients are like you, tourists, Ramesh told us. Have you listed yourself on Tripadvisor? No, I wanted to grow first, he said. The Victor said, please list your business, it requires nothing. The Family told him you’ll get four great reviews immediately. Other customers? People stop by to pick up biscuits, we have a contract to supply bread to the Ashram up the road, and a lot of people like to have birthday and anniversary cakes. The puffs were perfect, the pastry flaky and crisp, the potato filling absolutely melting in the mouth. We ordered pizzas and sandwiches. We could have farm fresh tomatoes, capsicum, onions on the topping. All, we asked. The sandwiches has crisp lettuce and olives with the veggies. The bread was nicely crusty. The cream roll was crisp and light. The filling of fresh cream, mildly sweetened, a perfect end to the meal. When I pass through Kausani again I’m going to drop in again. Ramesh may have left, but his master baker will still be holding the fort.

A stunning sight

Malkohas are skulkers. These non-parasitic cuckoos will sit concealed in canopies of trees. I’ve only seen them as they flutter from one treetop to another, or caught glimpses of one hidden inside foliage. Until the day when, on the road next to the Himalayan Darjeeling railroad near Rongtong, I saw two Green-billed Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus tristis) basking in the sun.

Well, I suppose everyone enjoys a lovely day in spring.

Chaudapheri camp

Chaudapheri camp is a way station on the Rache La trek. This is part of the old trade route that joined Bhutan, Sikkim, and the lowlands of Bengal. The camp’s odd name was explained as a travelers’ direction. This is the point you get to after fourteen turns on the road after leaving Lava. So I suppose this is a fairly old camping spot, much older than the forest rangers’ cabin that you see here.

The mule was dozing in the middle of the mud churned up by jeeps. After it noticed us it walked closer and, in its mulish way, wouldn’t go away until someone fed it banana skins. I was reminded of a description of mules I’d read, partly in preparation for this trip, “However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes. It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff.” (Frank Kingdon Ward, in In the Land of the Blue Poppies) In these days of 30 lb. limits on baggage, I suppose I’ll only ever get to use one fourth of a mule.

Living together

On the road again, we entered the lower Himalayas through Rishikesh. At an altitude of 340 meters above sea level, this is a town which is as well known as the doorway to the Garhwal Himalayas, as for its ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. We checked in to our hotel overlooking the river, and I had to scramble immediately to unpack my camera. Two sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) had come down from the slopes of the Rajaji national park on the opposite bank to water.

It is not unusual to find birds cleaning up large herbivores, but this was the first time I saw crows tending to sambar. The birds included large number of house crows (Corvus splendens), which can be told by the lighter colour of the feathers on the neck and breast, compared to the deep glossy black of the rest of the plumage. But scattered among them you can also see a darker bird with a stout and curved bill. This is the Indian jungle crow (Corvus culminatus). There has been a little rearrangement of this complex, with three species split off from what used to be one, but more of that later. I need not have hurried to unpack my camera; the sambar took their time being groomed by this murder of crows. Eventually, as the light faded, they waded off through the shallow water, up the little slope behind them, and were quickly lost in the gloom of the forest behind. A good start to our trip, I thought.

Rara avis

When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.

Once upon a time

Apollo 8. The Mexico City olympics. Martin Luther King Jr. Prague spring. The My Lai massacre. Dakar and Minerva sink. Mauritius becomes independent. The Baader Meinhof gang. Daniel Cohn Bendit. The Beatles learn meditation with the Maharishi. Yes, that’s the most famous yoga center of 1968, fifty three years later. This is inside the ruins of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram. I don’t know how old these murals are. There are murals from the 1970s sharing space with at least one from a couple of years ago.

Picking at tigers’ claws

A Himalayan black bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) posed for a while on a tree next to the road. Perhaps unsatisfied with the ways the photos were turning out, it flew to a Tiger Claw (Indian coral tree , Erythrina variegata) in bloom. Just hold it there, Bulbul. Turn a bit, bit more. Right. Now chin up. Perfect. I’ll let you know when the photo’s published.

Damn. He didn’t give me his phone number. If you see him, just let him know. I met him at 1800 meters.

Eating on the road

Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.

In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.

Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.