Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.

Shoja

The distance between Jalori pass and Gushaini is not large, but the roads are narrow and hug the mountains above the winding courses of the Tirthan and Banjar rivers. We drove quickly through the town of Banjar. We had a glimpse of shops fronting narrow roads. A few turns, and the road had left the town behind. We wanted to stop for chai, and Soni decided that Shoja is the best place for a morning’s cuppa.

Shoja turned out to have all the charm that Gushaini and Banjar don’t. The Young Niece oohed and aahed about the view, so I walked with her a hundred meters along the road to the end of the town and took the featured photo. We’d been seeing these terraced fields near every village, but this was the nicest view of that we’d had. The clumps of chir pine (Pinus roxburghi) and banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) salted through the fields, clouds descending from the mountain tops, and the beautiful light were something to enjoy in silence.

When we walked back our chai was ready. I gulped down my glassful and wandered up the road to take a few photos of the town. The tailor was already at work at his pedal operated sewing machine. The booth behind him must be the trial room. I was surprised that the village is large enough to support a tailor full time. I guess its main earnings are from farms and orchards. Tourism may bring in a little money, since there are possibly some home-stays and a hotel in this village. It looked very clean and more prosperous than Gushaini, but that may just be because it hasn’t grown haphazardly.

By now everyone had finished their tea, and we all walked back down the road to take another look at the farms around the village. I got another shot of the slopes and the farmhouses nestled in the fields. There are several interesting small walks around this village, but I had one planned at a higher altitude. We piled back into the car and drove on to Jalori pass.

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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Bras
diverse genus
rhododendron
1500-3000 meters
across Himalayas
shrubs and small trees, glossy leaves, sometimes with a scaly underside, bright flowers
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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.

Doors of Jalori Pass

Jalori pass could be just another Himalayan pass, and not a very spectacular one, at an elevation of 3120 meters above sea level, were it not for the fact that it is the closest of the Himalayan passes to Delhi. That, and the fact that it is usually the first to open after winter means that it gets a lot of traffic. As a result, there is a thriving little bazaar that has sprouted at the top of the pass. It is usually closed between mid-December and mid-March, but in the middle of a day in mid–May so many doors seemed to be closed.

Among all these closed doors we found three dhabas which were open. The most popular one had rajma-chawal for lunch. The Young Niece sniffed at our plates and declared that she was ready for a bowl of Maggi noodles. This is standard fare in the mountains. I’d taken a quick look at the dhaba next door, since it advertised parathas. It turned out that they were not making them that day, but I could have a rajma-chawal if I wanted.

In the photo above you can see the only other establishment that was open. The Mahakali temple was perfectly placed for north-bound traffic. As we ate, I noticed that a car or bus would occasionally halt at the steps of the temple. People would tumble out of the vehicle, and into the temple. A brief ritual halt, and they would be on their way again. The Family climbed the ridge behind the temple and declared that she had a marvelous view of the distant high Himalayas.

I think of the Jalori pass as a gateway. On one side there are the high Himalayas which The Family loves. On the other side, you have the view that you see in the photo above. The road falls away towards Shimla and the plains. The lovely sunny meadow stretches down towards a thicket of brown oak. Beyond that, lower down, the oak forests give way to the Chir Pine forests which you can see in the distance.