Brown oaks

I walked with The Young Niece beside the main Shimla-Kullu highway at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. At this place the road was lined with enormous trees. I asked her whether she could put her arms around the straight trunk, and she said “The two of us together can’t do it.” She is almost as tall as me, so the circumference was a little bit more than 3.5 meters.

Most of the trees which we could see along the road were tall, maybe about 25 meters high. We stood below one and admired it. The Young Niece was very interested in the texture of the bark and the mosses which clung to it. I took a photo gazing up along the trunk (the featured photo) which she certified as a good capture of the bark. The trunk grew straight up for quite a distance before it branched out. They reminded me of the pillars in the tomb of the Ming emperor Yongle, each the trunk of a single deodar tree (called nanmu in China, and Cedrus deodara by botanists) imported from Nepal. She asked whether this was deodar.

We searched for the answer by looking at the leaves below the tree. The deodar would have had needle-like leaves. The Young Niece picked up several leaves from the ground. The more recently fallen leaves were still green on one side but brown on the other. Since the tree was not a conifer, I’d already begun to ask myself whether it was an oak. The leaf colour told us that it was a Himalayan brown oak (Quercus semecarpifolia). She sorted through a few leaves and found one which had turned a fascinating golden brown. I laid it on one of the concrete slabs which borders the highway and took the photo that you see above.

The Oak Society writes that these trees can grow up to a height of 30 meters, and have a girth of about 3.5 meters. That is about right for the trees that we saw. The bark was grey and had shallow cracks, as you can see. The leaves were about twice as long as they were broad, and the breadth was about 4 centimeters. They grew well-separated from each other, as you can see in the photo above, giving each tree enough space to spread its canopy. The brown oak is the major component of forests at this height, between 2 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, but disturbed forests are seen not to grow back. Again, much remains to be understood about these giants, but ecological models indicate that if the mean annual temperatures rise in this region by about 2 Celcius, then three quarters of the trees could be lost. I’m happy that I walked here and admired these trees with my niece; her children may not have this privilege.

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.

Beyond blue mountains

As you travel through the Sivaliks you see forests of pine slowly give way to oak as you climb higher into the Himalayas. At the Jalori pass, which is at an elevation of more than 3 Kilometers above sea level, you see mainly brown oaks towering above you. Then, once you are over the pass, a whole vista of the Himalayas open up: across the broken ranges of the forested middle ranges right up to the high Himalayas. The snow covered peaks that you see in the photo above were probably closer to us than Parvati Parvat (whose peak at an altitude of 6.6 Kilometers makes it the highest in the district of Kullu).

A closer zoom towards the peaks shows little more. The nearby forested ridges hide the higher mountains from view. The photo which you see above was taken from the Jalori Pass in Himachal Pradesh. At this height the forest around us was dominated by brown oak. As you climb higher, these are the last trees to die out. So the trees along the top of the ridge in the photo are probably brown oak. The distant snowy peaks are likely to be about 5 Kilometers above sea level.

Views of these peaks raise the travel-nerd in me. I see the next ridge, and I feel like exploring that. Then, of course, there will be the next ridge, and the next higher one, as you slowly climb. I have done that in the past, but this trip was a simple one, taking The Young Niece with us up to a height where she would still be comfortable. We looked at the meadows on the far ridges. The Family climbed up to a meadow on a near ridge while I walked with The Young Niece under the green trees of this middle earth, between the plains and the mountains.

The weather changes fast on the mountains. Storms raced across the hills during this week, bringing dust-storms to the plains. The next day, we walked to the edge of high cliffs and looked out again on the high Himalayas. The ice in the high valleys two Kilometers higher shone bright even in the diffused sunlight which filtered through the clouds. 50 million years ago, the Indian plate crashed into Asia, slithering into the magma below it, and pushing the Tibetan plateau into the sky. The Himalayas mark that catastrophic but slow collision. The Sivaliks, otherwise called the lower Himalayas, were made by crunching together the detritus left over from this collision, and were raised about 15 million years ago.

The Family never finished reading The Lord of the Rings, but it contains a verse, written in the Sindarin language which the old Don made up, which is appropriate for her. In English it goes “We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees, the starlight …”. She cannot tear her eyes away from those distant peaks. We stood together, looking out at that harsh landscape of rock and ice. I was lost in matters of zoom and foreshortening, mulling the turbidity in the air, as she imagined herself walking up those rocks.

Our first view of the Himalayas on this trip was after an unproductive morning of bird watching. We were coming down from a drive up to Rohla. The Lotus had decided to walk down while the rest of us took our time piling into the car. We drove down to a turn in the road where we could look across the Great Himalayan National Park to the peaks where the Tirth river originates. The air was foul again, and the glacier could not be seen. The Lotus came down the mountain and all of us looked into the distance, knowing that it was a seven day walk to the mountains that we could see.

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.

Wild Iris

At altitudes above 1.5 Kilometers, we kept seeing Iris growing wild on the slopes. Dilsher had used these local flowers as borders in his hotel. I sat down with my camera and took several shots of these elegant flowers. It is interesting to see the buds open up. The petals are rolled and twisted inside the buds, as you can see.

When I read up about this, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is called the Graceful Himalayan Iris. A lovely name for a lovely flower. The entry in Flowers of India says that it can be found at altitudes of between 1.8 and 4 kilometers. I’m sure these borders are a little elastic, because I definitely saw some at 1.6 Kilometers. In its wild state it grows in the open, so gardeners will probably have to make sure that it is not planted in shade.

Driving to the doors of the Himalayas

The drive from Chandigarh to the tunnel at Aut swings back and forth from near the Sutlej to the Beas: two of the five rivers which give rise to the name Punjab. This is an area of massive geo-engineering projects from two generations back. The city of Chandigarh can be considered to be one of these projects, since it was planned and built in roughly a decade. Our road up to Aut passed very close to the Bhakra-Nangal dams, one of the projects which was called a “temple of modern India” By Nehru, and which completely transformed Punjab’s agricultural economy. It turned out that the topography of the hills was such that we would not have a view of the dams. In fact, we seemed never to come very close to the Sutlej river; the featured photo is one of the closest views we had of the river.

Soni, who was driving our car, stopped just outside Chandigarh at a petrol station. This was the heart of rural Punjab, and I saw a tractor pull up to the pump to refuel. That’s not something I get to see often. This part of the highway was full of tractors and motorbikes. These thinned out as we began to climb up the slopes of the Sivaliks. These are the foothills of the Himalayas, never rising beyond 3 Kilometers above sea level, but carved up into twisted ranges by meandering rivers. There was an abrupt climb immediately after we fueled, and we left behind the unseen lakes formed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

We stopped for an early lunch. Across the road I could see a temple of contemporary India being built (photo above). We saw lots of them along the way. The older temples are off the main road, and require a bit of climbing to get to. The new temples are all built to be easily accessible by car. A little market was growing up in this narrow shelf around the road. I poked my camera into a little saloon and caught the photo you see below.

The road continued to stay close to the Sutlej. We would cross some of its larger tributaries every now and then, as the road jumped from one ridge to another slightly further north. Soni was one of the most uncommunicative persons I’d come across, but he realized that we were interested in rivers. So he stopped at a point where we had a grand view of a trickle of a river through a wide valley. A long bridge spanned the valley, but this was not the Sutlej. The far away glint of water which you can see in the photo below is the Sutlej.

The slopes were gentler now, but we were climbing continuously. The houses began to change character. The simple whites and greys of the lower slopes were giving way to different colours. I noticed that cheerful pink roofs were more common as we climbed. Sloping roofs with this colour of tiles was clearly a specialty of Himachal Pradesh. We would see more of these roofs as we went higher

The external paint on walls also began to take on the colours of advertisements for paints that you see on TV. Do advertisements follow life, or the other way around? In these days of viral culture seeping through cables, the difference between life and ads is probably inconsequential. We forged on.

I began to look for doors: not the metaphorical ones which we were headed for, but the honest-to-goodness doors which are the Norm. There was a profusion of windows, but precious little of doors. This roadside eatery, with its lovely rank of dekchis lined up on a counter is an example. There must be doors here, but they are lost in the gloom below the terrace. All I could see as we passed by were windows.

Then, as we passed over yet another stream, The Family shouted something that could be “Eureka” or “Rubicon”. She had the map app on her phone active all this while, and it told us that we were crossing the Sutlej. From here we were headed towards the Beas. Soon enough, we reached the little district town of Mandi.

Mandi looked like a typical hill town: precarious structures leaning on each other, cut through by narrow streets, hemmed in by slopes. They spread laterally along slopes, rather than in circles around a town center. I liked the cheerful pink colour of the town. We’d originally planned to stop here for lunch, but we’d eaten already. So we sped by the town.

We were almost a kilometer above sea level now, and the typical Himalayas houses began to show up along the road. Like in the photo above, you see a single story from the road. But if you walk up to the house, you would find another story or two below the road, snuggling into the slope. Often the level at the road is used as a shop or a garage. This one had its shutters down (doors at last!) but it was clearly neither.

In no time at all we reached the last of the major geo-engineering projects along this road: the barrage at Pandoh. This connects the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, and utilizes the difference in altitude between them to generate electricity. The gentle Pandoh lake stretches behind the dam, curving through the valley which the Beas had carved out ages ago. The road went along the river all the way to the 2.8 kilometer long tunnel to Aut. This is truly the doorway to the high Himalayas, one which we would not push through.

Views of a river valley

Up in the foothills of the Himalayas, rivers come down rapidly from the heights. It is said that it takes a week’s hiking to reach the snout of the Tirth glacier, from which the Falachan river flows, but the water takes only half an hour to reach the village which we stayed in. The valleys are deep, narrow and twisted. We climbed about a 100 meters every time we went up to the road from the resort, and then climbed that same steep route back down on our return. From the road I took this photo of the sunset over the valley. In a narrow platform along the road, villagers cultivate wheat in this season. The further hills are the cliffs on the other side of the valley. Our resort takes up all 200 meters of the valley floor.

The climb is too steep to do with baggage, so there is this ingenious rope-way to winch baggage up and down. The counterweight to a loaded basket is one with jerry cans of water. That’s really clever. Our first climb down was hair-raising. There was a narrow and steep path down the cliff, with eight switchbacks. This was the first time The Young Niece was outside a city, and I had to hold her hand all the way down. Children learn fast. By the time we left, she could do it by herself while carrying her own backpack.

It was a wrench to leave this secluded valley. Before we walked up that path for the last time, I stood near the middle of the valley and took two photos to remember the place by. The Family talked of going back next year. But the world is full of wonderful places, and I’m sure that next year we will find somewhere else to go to.

Going with the Flow

Visa delays made us cancel our trip to Milan and Venice. While I was busy canceling flights, hotel bookings, advance tickets for various shows and viewings, The Family was also busy. She planned an alternate trip in a couple of days: with all the hotels, cars, and flights booked in the twinkling of an eye. The trip involved a flight to Delhi, a really long road trip through Chandigarh, Mandi, Aut, then up the valley of the glacier-fed river of Tirthan, and finally branching into the valley of the river Falachan (also fed by the same glacier, Tirth). All I had to do was sit in the car and then, after arriving at our resort, take photos of the fast-flowing river.

Idle holidays are full of deeply trite thoughts. As I played with exposure to capture the flow of water over stone, I thought to myself that water is the unbeatable strategy in a game of paper-scissors-stone. Water dissolves paper, rusts scissors, and covers stone. When your thoughts run so shallow, you realize that you are shutting your mind down for a good restful holiday.