An interrupted walk

Before the vacation I tried to find out what walks we could take. My lungs are not good for steep climbs, and I didn’t know how well The Young Niece would hold up to climbs. So I looked for flat walks or gentle ups and downs. I found a nice flat walk at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. This was the walk from Jalori pass to Serolsar lake, a distance of six Kilometers each way.

At Jalori pass we took in the sight of the snowy peaks of the distant high Himalayas part of the way to Manali. It was windy and I was happy to be bundled up in several layers. As soon as we walked away from the blacktop road at the pass, the wind dropped. This is typical of a pass. The road passed below a ridge which The Family would climb later to get a better view of the distant mountains. Then the path passed into an oak forest. At this height these were all Himalayan brown oaks (Quercus semiscarpifolia).

An oak forest is alive. There were mosses growing on the bark, and I was sure that there would be insects under that. I wondered whether there are any woodpeckers in this area. I could only hear the deep cry of ravens flying above the canopy. A couple of groups of older people passed us, smiling encouragements at The Young Niece. I was slowing everyone down by trying to take photos of a butterfly which I hadn’t seen before. I was to find later that this was the common satyr. We stopped at a fallen tree trunk which had interesting mushrooms growing on the shady underside of the log.

I was warm, and beginning to shed my layers. Unfortunately, I did not think of asking The Young Niece whether she would like to shed a layer or two. After about three Kilometers of walking she overheated and started feeling giddy. We were bringing up the rear. The Family and The Lotus had walked ahead and were out of sight behind a turn in the road. The Young Niece sat down on the edge of the path, and started taking off her layers. That’s when I found that she’d overdone the warms and had on twice as much as I would have suggested. I called out to our scouts to turn back. As we sat there and waited, a raven came to rest on a branch in front of us and examined us carefully. It croaked a couple of questions which I could not answer. When The Family came back, it decided to fly away.

The family brought news of a copse of rhododendron in flower ahead. By this time The Young Niece was looking almost her normal colour. “Shall we go on?” she asked. The Family and I looked at each other. We didn’t know whether it was the heat or the altitude which had given her trouble. 3 Kilometers is not that high, but the youngster has not been up in the mountains before. We decided to play it safe and go back. I noticed a lot of Himalayan wild strawberries (Fragaria nubicola) flowering here, runners threading through fallen oak leaves. Lower down they were already in fruit. I’d persuaded The Young Niece to eat the small but flavourful berries. The flowers are not too different from those of the Himalyan musk rose; the easiest way to tell the difference is by the size of the plant it grows on.

The Young Niece was probably feeling guilty about cutting the walk short, because she was taking part in the exploration of wildflowers with more enthusiasm than usual. There were some things growing on the oaks (photo above) which completely stumped me. They were thick and fleshy like cacti; nothing that I’ve seen before. We saw a couple of varieties of tortoiseshell butterflies. On a bunch of dry flowers I saw spiderwebs: evidence that there were more insects here than we had notices. Soon we were back out of the forest and near the ridge. We hadn’t walked very long, but we’d seen several different things. As The Lotus and The Family went to look at the peaks in the distance, I walked with The Young Niece past the bunch of shops at Jalori pass into the oak forest below. She would be better lower down and without too many warm clothes.

Lunch at Jalori Pass

While we discussed the practicalities of traveling to Jalori Pass from the hotel, Dilsher told us, “For lunch there is a dhaba which serves rajma and rice.” Nothing else needed to be said on this matter. Since Dilsher had a wonderful cook, I took him on trust.

There were a few dhabas on top of Jalori pass, but when we said the magic words “rajma chawal”, it was clear where we would eat. From outside it looked like the hut was actually a general store in a village. The (slightly broken) windows were packed with the usual quick eats which cause elevated levels of blood pressure and sugar for those who would like to pay for the privilege. Only a few stickers distinguished it from any number of such little shop windows: the Tripadvisor sticker was a standout, another said something about Himalayan Motorbikers.

Inside, on the counter, in plastic jars were the reminders of my youth. In the days before junk food came out of factories, it was made by hand, and stored in glass jars in just such gloomy shops. The glass jars have turned into plastic jars, but suddenly I had the feeling that I had come home after a long time. How did we avoid the lifestyle diseases which plague our children? It cannot just be that factory-made junk food has chemicals which we never got (the words trans-fats and high-fructose cornstarch roll so easily off our tongues now), for some jars had toffees. These are the goodies that I and my friends would hoard in ones and twos when, as schoolchildren, we had money to buy them. No, it is not just the new foods, it is also the increased prosperity that has brought these disorders with them.

The Young Niece knew better than to look longingly at the bottles of poison displayed so colourfully in another window. During the trip her indulgences were largely restricted to the hours between sundown and dinner, at the same time as ours. The minivan which you see outside the door disgorged a very large family who sat here and had little bits to eat. The children, mostly younger than The Young Niece, had plates of maggi noodles, while the adults ate rajma-chawal. That was a pattern we were happy to replicate. When we ordered rajma-chawal, The Young Niece ordered a maggi instead. After polishing off the rajma, we could mop up the remaining rice with a pakoda kadhi.

The food was wonderful, as I’d suspected it would be. I had to take a portrait of the cook in the little corner of the hut which served as his kitchen. You can see the pots of rajma and kadhi simmering away on the chulha. The man lives in a village a little way down the road and comes up here every morning to open up his shop. He made us a chai as we chatted about high seasons and the closing of the pass in winters. He says the traffic has been increasing over the years, and if it were not for the new dhabas which opened up here, he would not find the time to serve food to everyone who stops here.

The Family had noticed him making something else in the morning when we had a chai before leaving for our walk. After taking his photo, I noticed a big thali full of something that looked like a halwa. When we asked he said it was besan. I’ve only had it as a laddoo before, but the rhomboids he cut and gave us were rather nice. I guess shape does not matter when it comes to things like this. As we were praising the food, Soni, in his usual charming manner, said that the Punjabi version was much better. We all agreed that since the Punjabi version was not available right now, what we were having was the best. This was one of the tastier versions of the sweet I’d had, and I packed up some to take back to work.

I was moving about the shop as we talked, and took a photo out of the window behind us. It looked out on to a wonderful view that we’d seen in the morning. You could open up the door which you can see in the photo with the pots and the kettle, and walk out on a narrow platform overlooking a sloping meadow and the road snaking its way down to the plains. I didn’t want to forget about this little dhaba, with its genial cook who gave us some of the best food in the world 3 Kilometers above Mumbai.

I walked out on that narrow platform and looked again at the view. It was still windy; passes always are. But it had warmed up since we sat out here and had our breakfast. Everyone had taken off some of the layers we had worn then. A last look, and it was time to turn and head back north.

Some Himachali butterflies

Himachal Pradesh rises from the plains into the high Himalayas. On this trip the highest point we reached was Jalori pass, which is a little over 3.1 Kilometers above sea level. At this height I expected to see the butterfly called the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). This is the commonest of temperate butterflies, apparently found on all continents where flowers grow. We could have seen it, but I have no record of it. I keep confusing it with the other tortoiseshell butterflies. They are slippery chaps, seldom settling down long enough in one place for one to take a photo. The mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae, in the featured photo) eventually settled on a flower by the path to Serolsar lake. The Young Niece was pretty excited by the sight of this plant with a butterfly “flower”. True to its descriptions, it flitted from flower to damp ground and back again. This was my first sighting of this species.

It is very slightly different from the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis, which you can see in the photo above), and in the field it is very hard to tell them apart. As you can see from the photos, the forewings are almost exactly the same, and only little details in the hindwings distinguish the two. In fact, the otherwise excellent booklet published by the Zoological survey of India on The Butterflies of Himachal Pradesh misses out on A. urticae.

By far the commonest butterfly on this walk was one I’d never seen before: the common satyr (Aulocera swaha). As we walked through the stony path to Serolsar lake, inside the forest of oaks, we saw these butterflies sitting on stones (photo above), or settling on dry leaves on the path. The Young Niece asked me what it was called, and I told her that I did not know, but would have to look it up later. I think these three are all that I noticed near the pass.

Most of our time was spent in the narrow grassy valley around the rocky course of the Falachan river at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. This place was full of some of the common butterflies which you also see in the plains. The Indian cabbage white, various grass yellows, and, possibly, some pioneers were common. I must have missed an enormous variety of butterflies here. One I did manage to take a photo of was the plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus, photo above).

The rocky edges of the Falachan river was also good terrain for spotting butterflies. I don’t think I’d seen the common wall (Lasiommata schakra, photo above) ever before. They are found in a range between 1 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, and probably easy to photograph because they settle for longish periods in sunny spots. I think that white streak around the eye-spot in the forewing indicates that the individual in the photo is a female; the male lacks this feature.

The generally mottled brown and yellow-orange colour of this butterfly in flight first fooled me into thinking that it was a painted lady. But when it settled on a stone, and I took the photo which you see above, it became clear that it was not. It took me some time to figure out that this was the common Punch (Dodona durga). The ZSI pamphlet on the butterflies of Himachal Pradesh says that this has been reported in May from Chamba and Shimla districts, so I’m happy to put on record this sighting in Kullu district.

Lower down, at an altitude of about 1.6 Kilometers above sea level, we started a walk to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park, near the village of Ropa. Near the beginning of the walk, we came across the flowering tree which you can see in the photo above. There was a cloud of butterflies around it. I mistook them first for the red Helen, which belongs to peninsular India. The correct identification for the butterfly you see in the photo above is the great windmill (Atrophaneura dasarada). Later we saw that they had been joined at this tree by a large number of orange tips.

We had raced through the lower slopes, with a single stop somewhere in the district of Solan where I immediately saw the butterfly whose photo you see above. This is the common Leopard (Phalanta phalantha). I’m sure if one spent even an hour at this lower elevation, below a kilometers, one would be able to spot an enormous variety of butterflies.

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.