Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

Sunrise over Kanchenjunga

Before the sun rises on you, high peaks would already see the sun above the horizon. The most ethereal light on mountain peaks comes at such times: when the rest of the world seems to be dark and fog bound, but one of the eight-thousanders looms over you with its snows painted red.

Kanchenjunga is perhaps the only one of these mountains which can be easily seen from several towns. We could see it many roads in Darjeeling. Still, the morning after our return from the Singalila trek, The Family wanted to follow the ancient tourist tradition of going to Tiger Hill for the sunrise. She had memories of seeing the sunrise from there. I only had memories of my mother talking about it. As it turned out, we had wonderful views. Even through my warm layers and cap, I was chilled by the wind. But I was glad to be there.

Viewed from Tiger Hill, the town of Darjeeling lies about half a kilometer below you. So after sunrise I could see the light creeping across the valley until it hit the town. It is a beautiful sight: the red sunlight on the town, and the gold and red sunlight on the 8586 m high peak of Kanchenjunga, with the rest of the landscape still swathed in the blue mist.

The morning I saw Chomolungma

When The Family decided that we have to start walking in the Himalayas, she had in mind the famous week-long treks like the Annapurna base camp, Har ki Dun, Phulara ridge, or Sandakphu-Phalut. But since I the job of arranging it came to me I immediately started thinking of day-long walks. After all, we’d hardly walked at a height before. The only trek that I knew which fitted the bill was one that a very experienced trekker friend had told me about a year before his death in the early days of the pandemic. He’d told me that it was a fairly level day’s walk, although you were 3 Kms above sea level, and that the real payoff was the view of four of the world’s five highest peaks from one point. In the photo above you can see the path winding up to Sandak Phu; it would have taken us four days more to walk up there for a better view. When we saw Chomolungma flanked by Lhotse and Makalu, the view was a coda to our friendship. I’m glad I finally did it. I’m glad I could show it to you.

The trek we were on was the Tumling-Tonglu trek, which is part of the Phalut-Sandakphu trek. I’d contacted a reputable company in Darjeeling to arrange the trek. We started from our hotel at 6 in the morning, and watched the sun rise over Kanchenjunga, as we drove to the busy border town of Manebhanjan. Treks along the protected bioreserve of the Singalila ridge start from here. The town was clearly involved with the football world cup. After a breakfast of paratha and alu dum, washed down with chai, we got into a Landrover and got off at Tumling. This Nepali village is at a height of 2970 m. We would then walk about two and a half kilometers, climbing a 100 meters to Tonglu village, where we would have lunch. Then in the afternoon we would walk another six kilometers to Chitre village (2500 m) just above Manebhanjan. Google told me that this was a two hour walk. Our guide assured us that it would be at least double that. I’ve noticed this problem with Google’s algorithms when you are walking in the mountains.

It doesn’t snow at this altitude in December, but there’s a brisk wind over the ridge. The temperature was around 7 Celsius, but the breeze made us zip our jackets tight. There are a few trees on the leeward slope, but they are stunted. There is grass, and many low bushes. Most of it was dry and unrecognizable now. When we come back here one April I’m sure there’ll be flowers. The temperature must have fallen below freezing at night, because we saw frost still remaining in the shadows. Sangay, our guide, looked at it and said “Winter may come early this year.”

There are few people here. The villages are tiny, and the number of trekkers is not large. There were some who’d stayed overnight in Tumling. We waved to a pair who were having tea outside the general store and restaurant made of corrugated metal, which you see in the photo above. We passed a little chorten, a stupa, surrounded by lungta, windhorses, things that we know better as prayer flags. The ridge line here is the open border between Nepal and India. The paved road is Indian territory. We were on the windward side of it, because of the gentler slope and that put us in Nepal.

The land never slopes entirely in one direction of course, so in the middle of a gentle climb you often climb down and then climb up again more steeply than you’d expected. I was enjoying this walk. After the experience in Leh in July, I’d not crossed the 3 Km mark till now. The walk was entirely pleasant. The breeze was moderate as log as we kept ten meters or so below the ridge. Soon I’d taken off my cap and unzipped my jacket. I stopped now and then to follow a raven’s flight, and once to marvel at a lone snow pigeon which banked in flight above us, its wings looking reddish brown in the sun. We’d seen a family of Kalij pheasants on our way up. I couldn’t see or hear any choughs.

The landscape was dappled with the shadows of clouds. The browns and blues of winter were a wonderful change from the dusty gray of the plains. I kept stopping to look at the rocks. Most of it seemed to be metamorphic schist or gneiss, with lichen growing on the surface. The Family had walked ahead, and she spotted the huts of Tonglu. Even without that it was clear that a village was nearby. A couple of mules munched on the dry grass. The spring water near us was draining into a large plastic tank. By 11:30 we had reached our lunchtime destination. With all the halts for views and photos, we had taken two hours to walk roughly as many kilometers!

Darjeeling is a town

Perched on a steep ridge below the Kanchenjunga (8586 m), from a distance the town of Darjeeling looks like something out of a fairytale. About two centuries ago the grand panjandrums of the East India Company scouted the hills north of Bengal and decided that this 2000 m high ridge could be a pleasant place to spend summers. The region had been politically volatile for half a century before that, since the Gurkha kingdom of Nepal expanded west to the current borders of Bhutan. Then it was annexed by the Chogyal of Sikkim. The EIC entered this dispute in the sheepskin of an honest broker, awarded the holding to the weaker kingdom of Sikkim, from whom it rented the crescent of the ridge for a while before declaring that it should rightfully be part of their domain in Bengal. From there it passed on to the British Raj and later to India. By the time the Sikkimese parliament initiated its merger with India, the question of who it belonged to had already become academic.

On our drive up to the town we’d seen it spread out below Kanchenjunga. What was not apparent from those distant views is how steeply the town falls away from the ridge. You can get a sense of this from the way roads turn back on themselves as you approach the town. The view from our hotel window, above, gave a sense of the slope. Most of our walks would be confined to around the ridge. But the walk to the botanical garden would take us far down the ridge, and back up again. For the locals it is part of their lives. Still, seeing a young lady overtake us in stiletto heels, The Family let out a sigh.

Kanchenjunga looms over the town; that’s its special charm. From turns in roads and balconies you get sudden breathtaking views of the peak. It was long regarded as the highest peak in the world (it was only during the Great Trigonometric Survey that Radhanath Sikdar found that Chomolungma was higher). When the British empire ebbed, it left high water marks in the hills of India in the form of “hill stations” like this. The town of Darjeeling now has a majority population of Nepali speaking Gurkhas and Lepchas, a significant number of Sikkimese Lepchas and Bhutias, and many Tibetans, Bengalis, Biharis, and Marwaris. The crowded bazaars of the town are a wonderful mixture of the many people who first came here to work, and then made their home in the steep slopes of Darjeeling.

Walking an ancient route

Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.

The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.

The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.

Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.

We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.

One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.

A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.

After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.

This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.

Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!

You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.

I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.

We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.