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.

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.

Rock art of Ladakh

Once people believed that technology was needed for survival in extreme environments, so stone age humans could not possibly have settled in Ladakh. Since the late 19th century travelers have documented petroglyphs found along the steep banks of the Sindhu (Indus river) in Ladakh. Over a century, a library of images was slowly built up, and art historical methods were used to analyze these rock paintings. But because of the prevailing belief in the impossibility of prehistoric humans surviving in this harsh environment, no archaeologist turned their attention to this region for a hundred years.

Due to this long lack of interest in the pre-history of this region, I was quite surprised to find a field near Alchi village full of rocks with petroglyphs. It is easy to find for tourists like me because a blue signboard proclaims “Alchi Petroglyphs” on the left of the road after you leave the highway to drive to Alchi. I was startled, and decided to stop here on the way back. I was glad I did, because that opened up a new window on human history for me.

In the last 35 years or so archaeologists have started to explore ancient human signs in this place, near the roof of the world. Humans began to explore this territory as the earth emerged out of the last ice age. Datings of ancient hearth fires found near Leh were carried out by the group at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan geology in Dehradun. They found that the remains come from 4700 BCE, almost 7000 years before our time. So humans were settled in Ladakh even before rice and wheat had been domesticated! Another group of archaeologists, from Deccan College in Pune, determined that the settlements in Ladakh were older than those in Kashmir. This could suggest a human migration down the Indus river from the east, although new evidence is constantly coming in now.

We walked through the boulder field of petroglyphs. Many were relatively modern, containing writing in the Tibetan script, and bearing images of stupas (see the photo below). But among them were older paintings. Ibex, identifiable by the curved horns on a goat-like body were the easiest to find. In some places these boulders also had later Tibetan symbols painted on them. In other places the images were more enigmatic. For example, I stopped to take the photo above because the line of dots along the lower edge of was clearly the work of humans like us. Only then did I notice the other lines which seem to indicate a human figure (or three?).

Even the oldest paintings are not done on undressed stone. In all cases, the natural surface of the stone has been chipped away and the underlying layer has been polished before any paint is applied. I found a few boulders which were prepared in this way but showed no signs of paintings. Were there paintings on them once which had been washed away by the weather? Ladakh has been a dry desert for at least 5000 years, so this is not very likely. Still, who can really say anything about one or two chance occurrences over several thousand years?

Now that I’ve found one field of petroglyphs, I’ve begun to find more literature on them. I can begin to mark these neolithic sites on a Google map, ready for my next trip to Ladakh.