He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry, Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!” To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!” But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”
Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark
As we climbed towards Khardung La, the pass at an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level, we passed from the cold desert of Ladakh to a glacier fed oasis. Leh was two kilometers below the pass, and there the ground was barren except in narrow bands on the banks of the Indus river. I suffered from a lack of oxygen there, but it wasn’t air pressure or oxygen which made this a desert. As always, this cold desert was created by a lack of moisture. You feel it on your skin too: a need for constant moisturization. But when you climb towards the 4.5 Km mark in summer, little mountain streams create a swathe of greenery, an altitudinal oasis. In that green, The Family was the first to spot these bushes full of flower.
Most of them grew on protected slopes, and I could see that they were between one and two meters in height. I was considering getting out to photograph one at close range when we came to one right next to the road. This was a giant, about 4 meters tall. And full of flowers. Not anemones. Roses, maybe.
Wild rose flowers look different from our familiar Damask roses, which are the results of intricate cross breeding. My first thought was the musk rose (Rosa moschata). But I understand that always bears white flowers, and its leaves are more pointed than these. In fact, the leaf shape rules out the other roses I’ve seen in books. The buds and serrated leaves do resemble those roses. But strangely, after nearly two months, I have no real ID. My best bet is to put this out there, and hope that one of you will be better at identifying it than I have been.
At an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level the air pressure, and the amount of oxygen in every lungful of air you take in, is a little less than half of what you have at sea level. The amount of water available also decreases as you go up. The thin air and lack of water make for high deserts, until you get to the edge of the snow line. Here, where melt water is abundant in summer, life thrives. As we approached the high pass of Khardung La in Ladakh we entered such an altitudinal oasis.
Vegetation was sparse right at the top. But just a little way down was the village of Khardung, sitting on a stream that flowed from the meltwater around the pass. But even before we reached the village, we could see meadows where cattle were at a leisurely breakfast. I looked carefully at the black shapes: all were cows or dzos, crosses between cows and yak. Not a single one had the muscular shoulders of the yak.
Sitting quite apart from the cattle were a few donkeys. This was the first pack animal I’d seen in Ladakh. In many parts of the Himalayas and trans-Himalayas, motorized vehicles have replaced the mules and donkeys which were common a lifetime ago. But perhaps in these remote villages, where life can be snowbound for half the year, donkeys are still useful.
Right at the top of the pass I’d seen flocks of yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus, also called Alpine chough) doing the aerial acrobatics they are so fond of. The air was full of their deep musical tones. I looked carefully but saw none of their red-billed cousins. Both are creatures of heights; you won’t see them in Leh. On the chorten where the chough sits in the featured photo, I could see sprigs of juniper. There were no trees that I could see. Do people bring juniper branches with them when they cross? Lower down, just above the 4.8 Kms mark, we stopped for a chai. Flocks of pigeons wheeled in the air. Most were common pigeons (Columba livia), but I saw a few Hill pigeons (Columba rupestris). The one in the photo above was a lifer; the white band on the tail, and the white under the wing are characteristic of this species. Later I saw many more in Leh.
While we had chai there was time to look at the vegetation in this altitudinal oasis. There were stunted bushes of something that could be a tulsi or mint. The nearest bushes lay up-slope, and I wasn’t up to a climb to examine them closely. So I had to pass up the chance at a better identification and satisfied myself with the possibility that this belonged to family Lamiaceae. Of course, this is a large family, with over seven thousand species, but there cannot be many that grow so high up.
I’d been seeing bright orange patches on stone as we came down from the pass. They were to bright to be the mineral colours that we’d seen in rocks in this low-oxygen environment. Now that I could take a closer look, I found that it was the common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina). This is a leafy lichen, a hybrid of fungi and algae. I find the symbiosis of different organisms making up lichens to be very interesting. For the first time on this trip I missed my dedicated camera for macros.
I’d thought that the green cover was entirely grass. I was not correct. There was grass, of course, but quite a bit of the green was due to a spreading succulent. I should have thought of that, deserts are usually full of succulents. It’s one way plants have of conserving water in a dry environment. Now that I know there’s such a variety of life at this altitude, I’ll have to stop and look carefully in future: perhaps I’ll even get to see the insects and small mammals which live up here.
There’s an old and widespread story of how Chukar partridges (Alectoric chukar) keep gazing at the moon, in a case of unrequited love. The sighting of a pair of Chukar gave me a lifer as we came down from the 5.5 Kms high pass of Khardung La towards Leh, two kilometers below. The male held this moon-gazer’s pose as long as we stopped to watch, while the female foraged. My guess is that he was on the lookout for other males. During the summer’s breeding season the birds, which are otherwise gregarious, have been seen to turn territorial. Once the incubation of eggs start, the male is said to leave (although there could be a conflicting report). You can see from the photos here that the male and female are very similar in size and shape. This lack of sexual dimorphism in birds usually happens when the parents take turns in the rearing of young. So I guess there is more dependable knowledge of the breeding behaviour of Chukar which I haven’t come across.
I was sure that there were pheasants and partridges to be seen around Khardung La, so I’d kept a keen eye on the passing slopes. As a result, I saw my first pair of Chukar at an altitude of slightly less than 4.5 kms. They are not birds of extremes. In fact their natural range seems to extend in a wide band stretching from the east of the Bosphorus to the the Pacific coast of China, with a finger reaching down to the Sinai peninsula in Africa. Breeding populations have been established in Europe (where they corrupted the gene pool of closely related species) and North America. It’s actually quite a feat of bad luck to have missed then around Dehra Dun, Haridwar, and Naini Tal, where they are easily visible. But this sighting at least moderated my disappointment at not seeing snowcocks in Leh. It also puzzled me to see a pair this late in summer. Hatching an egg takes less than a month, but I would have expected fledging the chicks to take a couple of months at least. By then it would be mid-October, and cold enough to make foraging hard at these heights.
Because of their wide availability they have been widely hunted in the past. So I was surprised to see that there are continuing studies of the histology of these birds with new discoveries being reported even now. There have been studies of the population genetics of Chukar from China, and of climatic effects on their size from Israel. But the oddest study I came across was of their electrocardiograms (ECGs) from birds which were awake. What I could see from this was that their heartbeats would be considered unthinkably abnormal for humans. But in the absence of data from other birds, I wonder what one can conclude from such a study. Still, knowledge is knowledge I suppose. Who knows how it could be used in the future.
Scree covered slopes slid by outside the windows of the car as we came down from Khardung La. In the last few days I’d become better at spotting vegetation in this seemingly bare landscape. When I saw a tiny clump growing on a rock, I stopped the car and walked back to look at it more closely. The plant was new to me. In this thin air, at an altitude of about 5 Kms above sea level, I did not want to scramble up slope to smell the flowers and leaves. Instead I took photos.
A few days ago I would have been sceptical of tales of vegetation at these altitudes. But I’d been seeing too many birds at this height to dismiss the idea out of hand. There were corvids here, and they feed on small animals, lizards and rats, or large insects. Insects would need vegetation of some kind. Perhaps the smallest could live on lichens and moss, but anything which could feed a crow-sized bird would probably need plants. Still, it was strange to see a clump of vegetation on a single exposed rock.
A closer look revealed a shallow covering of soil in a little depression on the exposed face of the rock. The temperature was under 10 Celcius, perhaps around 7 Celcius, and the soil looked utterly dry and crumbly. I later found that the soil at this height, and in this season, holds less than 5% of its weight in moisture. This was a plant of a cold desert, adapted to extremely high ultraviolet light and extreme daily temperature fluctuations. I wondered whether its roots held on to cracks in the rock. With the wind here, it must be holding on to more than the thin soil. The roots apparently spread quickly to extend the area covered by the clump. But how did it get here? Did a seed drop here by chance, or did a bit of a twig with root blow into this island of soil? And was it wind that blew it here, or was it carried by a bird?
I’m not good with temperate or cold climate plants. It took me a while to figure that this could be a catmint. Perhaps if I’d smelled the leaves and flowers I might have come to mint (family Lamiaceae) earlier. From catmint it was a short search to find that this is Nepeta longibracteata, the long-bracted catmint found in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Himalayan and trans-Himalayan India and Pakistan, and Xinjiang in China. The flowers grow from purple bracts, and have the trumpet shape and spots which seem to be characteristic of catmints. The perennial plant is apparently common across this region, although I saw it only this once. I found later that it yields an aromatic oil which is used locally. I’m sure I’ll not forget this plant if I come across it later: the leaves, bracts, and flowers are all very recognizable.
Adventure sports begins to appeal more and more to me as I grow older. I don’t mean “fairground” adventure rides which all tourists take, like zip lines, bungee jumping, riding a quad bike over sand dunes, or plain river rafting. The motor bikers who rode in from Srinagar in streams, aiming to cross Ladakh, are fit. Riding a motorbike is not too much effort, but keeping it up for hours a day and several days in a stretch on these high-altitude roads takes stamina and basic fitness. They’ll spend most of their trip at an altitude of between 3500 and 4500 meters, with occasional climbs to much higher passes. That’s something that I might like to do, and that’s the kind of fitness level that I could reach with some effort.
On the way to Khardung La, I saw a line of ten bicycles on the road to the pass. They were already at an altitude of about 5000 meters when I first noticed them. Riding from 3500 meters up to this pass at 5500 meters, and then down to Leh (3500 meters) was a four hour drive for us. As we passed this line of cyclists, I realized that they would have to plan to finish it between sunrise and sunset. Summer days here still give about 9 to 10 hours of daylight, but it’s not a lot. They were army sappers. They would have a level of fitness that I never had, and can no longer possibly reach. But perhaps I could walk across the pass.
Later, in Leh, I met a man who had been canoeing across rapids here. He was happy to chat with me for a while. He said that he was definitely out of his league here, but he had been lucky in coming down the Zanskar river. He’d spilled only once! He was transitioning from youth to middle age, and he was frank about it, “In ten years I don’t think I’ll dare to do this.” What he did requires skill and fitness, and youth. And, always, in any sport, a little bit of luck.
July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.
The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.
The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.
The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.
But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.
Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.
Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.