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.

Altitudes

On our first trip to Bhutan, we parked at the top of the pass called Chele La (altitude 3988 m) after a week of traveling through the country. Climbing the slopes at the sides of the pass presented no problems at all. On our second visit, we flew in to Paro and within an hour were at Chele La, huffing and puffing our way up-slope for a spot of bird watching. From this we learnt that taking time to acclimatize to heights helps us to enjoy these beautiful places better. That’s why the chart that you see on top: just a way of telling me when to take a bit of time to ease off.

Leh, the capital of Ladakh (altitude 3500 m) is among the highest towns in the world (Lhasa in Tibet is about the same height). The rest of Ladakh is a little higher. Even if you can stand heights easily, it pays to take a day or two of rest after flying in to such heights. If you drive in from Himachal Pradesh or Kashmir, then the driving time already helps you to adjust. Having just recovered from a flu, we have taken the precaution of testing our blood pressure, lungs, and hemoglobin levels. A night of rest after the flight, and we should be fit to go. Some prefer Diamox, others Coca leaves or Supari, but time and rest could be good enough to keep us going up to the highest passes in Ladakh, namely Khardung La and Chang La.

You might know that La is the word for pass in the languages of the Himalayas. So Khardung La is the same as Khardung Pass. In the same way, Tso is the word for lake, so Pangong Tso is the same as Pangong lake. I end this post with the word that means hello, goodbye and thanks in Bhoti, the language of Ladakh: ju le.

And in the end …

Holidays are times when you make your memories. They are meant to produce those special moments that you string together into the story of your life. If I were to answer a casual question about what I enjoyed in our trip to the mountains, I would mention the fog, the cold wind blowing up mountainsides, the dense Himalayan rainforest resounding with bird calls. But after a month, my memories of those wonderfully rejuvenating feelings will become memories of memories. What will remain is the sight of The Family doing what she most loves to do.

In his last years, an uncle who suffered from Alzheimers had forgotten almost everything that was once dear to him. Everything we loved about him was stripped away slowly, and only a core of his being remained: the memories of his siblings. No one knew what images occurred in his mind when he heard their names, but there would always be a flicker of interest when another person was introduced as the son, daughter, or grand daughter of one of his brothers or sisters. We are social animals. In the end, the stories of our lives are the wonderful memories of the people we love.

In the air, in the mountains

After a year of anticipation we were off to a holiday in the Himalayas. For a while we could forget the pandemic. We had tested negative the day before the flight, and we were due for our first shot of vaccine the day after we were to come back. Just enough precaution during travel, and we would be on the home stretch. It felt good to be in the air. Our familiar aluminum tube was half empty, full of masked strangers. But that old sense of exhilaration, endless horizons was back.

A full day of travel! The airline had changed schedule. Our two hour flight became five with a half hour layover. The check in process has expanded, from one hour to three. After the flight there was an exhausting drive from sea level to 2000 meters. The roads have not exactly improved in the last year. But by the time the sun set, we had reached our destination. A tiny village in a horseshoe of mountains around a deep valley in the north of the Bengal Himalayas. Off on one side we could see Sikkim. On another side, three ridges across was the border with Bhutan. Around us lights twinkled from villages sprinkled among the cliffs. The night was crisp and cold. The wooden cabin was unheated. I stepped out to take a photo, then went back inside. It was time to curl up under a thick quilted cotton comforter. By morning the cabin would be warm.

Counting the days

Finally, the tickets are booked. I’m looking forward to a trip through the Himalayas again. Wonderful views would be great, but no views, just fog, is also welcome.

There are very few things I want in life (only about a hundred and forty seven), and the pandemic has taught me to seek a balance between them.

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.

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.

Flying near the Everest with a crappy camera

The great thing about Air India is that the Mumbai-Shanghai Dreamliner skirts the southern edge of the Himalayas at an altitude of 12 kilometers in the mid-morning. In October, when the skies over north India are crystal clear, you could have a great view of the high Himalayas from the flight. The names rolled off my tongue on the taxi to the airport: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Sagarmatha (Everest), Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga. They might appear in that order as I fly. The taxi driver looked in his mirror quizzically. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks. He seemed to understand; he said he is from near the foothills of the Himalyas.

The bad thing about Air India is that you can never predict what they are going to do. I’d booked myself an aisle seat on the port side, forward of the wing, on my flight out to China. My boarding pass specified a completely different row, one which turned out to be smack over the wing. This was a pity, but not as much as the fact that the gentleman two seats behind me plonked a huge suitcase on top of my backpack before I could take out my camera.

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So when we glided past the bulky silhouette of the Everest on the horizon all I had with me was a phone which specializes in taking fish-eye landscapes. I can’t make out whether I also got Cho Oyu in the photo. The sight of the mountains brought out the romantic in many of my fellow travellers. The aisles were suddenly crowded with people looking at the bulky shape of Everest. My neighbour was ecstatic. I must go to Nepal, said the young man to me in Hindi. We compared photos, and stared out of the small port at the mountains we drifted past. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks, the ones I know I will never reach, but which I dream of scaling. We talked about the continental collision which form these heights, and the movement which causes frequent earthquakes in the region.

The rest of the flight was, well, downhill. We flew into Burma, then over the rice fields of south eastern China to Shanghai. China is a thin spot in the global map of the internet. This time I was not surprised, merely inconvenienced. No blogging for a week, no maps, restricted mail. From the top of the highest mountains, back to reality. It hit hard a few days later, when the government of Nepal put new restrictions on who can climb the Everest. Most of the time I think the restrictions are good, but there are the Walter Mitty moments when I plant my feet on top of one of these peaks, and raise my rime-encrusted face to look at the dark blue sky.