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.
Nasir Khan was the best driver-guide we found in Ladakh. Our spirit guide through Ladakh, Mr. Wangchuk, told us that he had the longest career of all drivers in Leh, and we were lucky to get him. An ethnic Ladakhi, he was a fount of knowledge. We’d passed a large number of mud-brick structures before we passed the Basgo Gompa (featured photo). As I wondered aloud about the strength of unfired clay bricks, Nasir Khan asked me whether we wanted a closer look at some buildings. We were happy to.
He stopped in front of a lovely two-storeyed house made entirely of mud bricks. “More than a hundred years old”, he told us. I got out to take a photo. Wonderful location, I thought. The milestone in front of the house lets others find it if they want. The temperature around here varies between -10 Celcius in the worst of winter to 30 Celcius in high summer. Unfired mud brick is a wonderful insulator. Since the annual precipitation, counting both snow and rain, is less than 10 cms, unfired clay becomes a structurally sound building material.
Nasir Khan rolled slowly through the village which straggled along the Srinagar-Leh highway. A little further on I saw an unpainted house. It was built on a stone platform. Beaten earth on top of the stone retaining wall made a terrace. The house was built atop this. Was that a base of stone on which the mud bricks had been placed? The mild rain actually seals any cracks and holes which may develop in the walls. I could see long vertical cracks in the walls below the window slits. Filling them with mud cannot be very hard. I suppose repairs are common.
I’d been noticing the beautiful carved doors and windows in these houses. It is said that this is a Kashmiri influence. Certainly, elaborate wood carving is a traditional Kashmiri art. Ladakh is singularly devoid of trees, so it is possible that this artistry is an import. It must be fairly recent, perhaps starting after the Dogra invasion of the 19th century. The woodwork in the older Leh Palace was simpler.
Nasir Khan stopped to show us houses under construction. Unfired mud bricks continue to be the main structural material, along with a clay mortar. However, as you see in the photo on the left, a column between the windows is made of dressed stone. Both are locally available materials, and a perfect response to the weather. You can see the ironwork on top of the wall under construction. I think this is a concrete slab ready to be poured. This extra load is what the stone pillar is built to take. The flat roof on the completed building behind is also a good response to the very dry weather. When I commented on the smooth external wall on the building behind the one under construction, Nasir Khan showed me a building further on under construction. A thin cement plaster has been applied over the mud wall. I’m not sure this extra weather-proofing is needed, but it certainly seems to be the fashion in these newer houses. I’m quite intrigued by how the traditional and new are integrated in these houses in Ladakhi villages.
On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.
In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.
Cham is a ritual dance in the tantric Buddhist tradition of the Himalayas. We were lucky that it was on at the Hemis monastery at the time we visited. I was well enough on the last day of the festival to struggle uphill to watch it. I have only shown you stills from the festival before, but a dance is movement, and stills do not capture it.
So here is a video that I stitched together from the snippets I took. I have called it the Dance of the Skeletons before, but I’m not sure that this was it. Maybe I should call it the Dance of the Eleven Masks. In the video I have been agnostic about the name. Being the first dance of the sequence, it is possibly about ritually cleaning the space for the next dances. You can see tourists busy taking photos and videos, but the locals sit still and watch it. Our driver for the day, Tsering, was happy to join the crowd. He later told us that it may be a dance for us, but it was prayer for him.
We stayed in an interesting neighbourhood in Leh. It was a fifteen minutes’ walk to the main market, so not terribly crowded. But some shops straggled down to the road we were on. The road had several hotels, and a couple of cafes. But the rest of the houses belonged to residents. Interestingly, several of the houses were about to be demolished. When I asked about them, the owner of our hotel said that several people here want to rebuild and create a hotel on their property. Tourism is booming in Leh, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.
In spite of all this, the neighbourhood still retains quite a bit of its charm. The lanes around us had old houses, and several of them had traditional mud stupas on their grounds. I’d read somewhere that the punishment for crimes once was that the guilty had to build a stupa by their own hands (building something holy was enough to rehabilitate them). This didn’t feel like a criminal neighbourhood though. It seems that stupas were also built in the memory of family members who died. That made more sense!
I took some photos. The old houses were mostly built of sun-dried mud blocks. In this place the annual rainfall is so small that unfired clay is a good building material. It is cool in summer, warm in winter, cheap, and light. Start with a sturdy wooden framework, fill it with these blocks, add wooden doors and windows, and you are done. The woodwork was pretty. I liked this house with three memorial stupas facing the road from an upper floor.
The new houses are not all concrete monstrosities. The hotel we were in replaced the mud blocks by dressed stone, so that it could be built higher. The beautifully carved wooden frames for doors and windows were retained. The blocky shape of the old style buildings would have seemed very oppressive in a tall structure. Instead there were terraces at various levels. The net effect was quite pleasant, and it still retained a feel of the old neighbourhood. I thought that was clever. Perhaps the renewal will not be all bad. But in a decade I suppose the town center will be much more crowded than it is now.
First shock: Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) survive entirely as domestic animals, or in populations which have gone feral. Wild Bactrian camels are a separate species, found in extremely small numbers across northern Asia. Second shock: Asian camelids diverged from the new world camelids only about 25 million years ago! Did founder populations walk across land bridges during the ice ages? Third shock: the two-humped Bactrian camels and our familiar one-humped Dromedary diverged less than 800,000 years ago. As a result they can still interbreed and produce fertile offspring. In a thought-provoking book called Otherlands, Thomas Halliday discusses exactly this process of speciation. He draws an analogy to a river which bifurcates into two streams, and asks at which point one can begin to say that a parcel of water belongs to one stream or the other. Near the beginning of the bifurcation it is not clear at all; a little parcel may flow towards one stream before an eddy sends if off in another direction. Similarly, as two species begin to diverge, two individuals of opposite sex from the two species will still produce an offspring. Only later, when the species have diverged fully, will they not be able to produce fertile offspring. Dromedaries and Bactrian camels seem to be at this stage.
But all this was background. I was trying to figure out why there are Bactrian camels in Ladakh. As with many Ladakhi puzzles, the answer is the Silk Route. It passed Leh, crossed Khardung La, traveled across the Valley of Death, now called the Shyok river valley, funneled north into Tajikistan, before bifurcating into two: the southern route went to Kabul and Peshawar, the northern to Samarkand and on. Tajikistan is at the eastern border of the ancient Persian province of Bactria, and it supplied camels to cross the high deserts of Ladakh and Tibet. When modern borders snapped into place in the 1950s, a small population of Bactrian camels were left in the Nubra valley. In this century they are being bred again to provide safaris for tourists. The Family walked among them in Hunder, where the largest herds are, and came back with these photos.
Ladakh is surprisingly full of wildflowers. Most tourists come back from this high desert talking of “lunar landscapes” because they don’t look hard enough. We had a different experience because we were looking for birds. And when you think of birds you think of berries and bugs which they feed on, and, inevitably, of plants and flowers. We found plenty in the desert, enough to make me regret not planning to take macros. But our biggest surprise was in a hotel we stayed in. It prided itself as a low-impact structure and organization, and one manifestation of this philosophy was its garden. They grew only local wildflowers in their garden, and I failed to identify most. The gardener was always elsewhere, so I will have to sit with a book and teach myself how to identify them.
From the flower, I first thought that the featured photo shows a thistle, but the leaves tell you that it isn’t one. I could place only two of the flowers in a sub-family. One was the rose buds. Could they be the Himalayan big-hip rose? Probably not, going by the colour of the leaves. The other was the aster. That’s the yellow flower with the spiky petals. I’ve probably seen one of the others before, but I have no clear idea what they are. In all of these, I get to a conclusion by looking at the flower, and then the leaf does not fit.
But every garden draws the true wilderness. We call them weed, but we should really be paying them more attention. When I looked down at the lawn, it was full of life. There’s no lack of sunlight at these heights, and the garden provides the water that these hardy interlopers need. The gardeners had cleverly decided not to remove these wild flowers. They were more familiar to me. After all, the hardiest plants are what you see most often. I could see milkwort budding, and daisies and asters in bloom. This was a wonderful place to relax in.
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.
Likir was a slog. Even after the previous day’s walk to Hemis gompa, my body had not fully adjusted to the low oxygen levels in Ladakh. I saw the long flight of stair leading to the Likir Gompa and told The Family that I would not go inside with her. Instead I tried to find my way down to the little mountain stream below. Gompas are named after villages, but streams and rivers have different names. A close look at the map later never gave me a name for the stream. So I’ll call it Likir, after the village. Nasir Khan saw me negotiating slopes slowly so he decided to drive me to the river, promising to pick me up on his way down again.
The river was a wonderful sight in the parched land. I shakily crossed a few boulders to touch its cold water and feel the spray it threw up as it gushed over rocks. The pleasant sound of the river seemed alien in this high desert where I’d only heard the wind carrying tiny human voices earlier. I usually like to photograph streams like this at different exposures to either freeze the motion (as I’ve done in the featured photo) or to use a long exposure to convert it into a smoky fluid gliding over rocks. Unfortunately I could not try out a long exposure that day. I hadn’t brought a tripod or monopod with me, and my hands were too shaky from the lack of oxygen in the thin air.
A movement on the opposite bank caught my eye. A lizard had moved up a rock, into a sunnier spot. Was it really the Montane toad-headed Agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi)? It’s eyes certainly did bulge. Was it’s head big enough? I was at an altitude of 3.7 Kms, which should be high enough for this species. But I’m not good at identifying lizards, so I’m open to correction. The thin air at these heights let in much larger amounts of UV than my eyes (and camera) is used to, causing a lot of glare. I’m not really sure that the colour has come out properly. Is it really that sooty? Or did it have a bit of brown in it? Look at the close up and decide whether it could be one of the more common Himalayan Agama (Paralaudakia himalayana), but without its colourful throat patch.
Although it was only mid-morning, I felt much better with my glares on. In this light it was easy to imagine that I saw the Kluukhyil, water spirits, swimming along the river. But it was only a Cabbage white (Pieris canida). It is a strong enough flyer, but it floated lazily right now, perking up only when it lit on a flower. I’m sure this was a thistle, but I can’t figure out which. Butterflies are very active at mid-morning, and my hands were still a little shaky in this thin air, so I was glad that the light was bright enough to get in a couple of sharp photos.
What I didn’t get a single shot of were the birds. There were two flitting about. One was a mountain chiffchaff, but I’d already seen that the previous evening. The other seemed to be a crow. There are no house crows or jungle crows here. The only crow you can see in this sliver of Ladakh is a carrion crow (Corvus corone), which would have been a lifer, if I’d seen it properly. At this time, unfortunately, its quick movements and its tendency to keep in the shade made it impossible for me to put it on my list of birds seen. Soon, Nasir Khan was back, and The Family was seemed to have liked what she saw in the gompa. We were ready to push on to Alchi.
Steaming is not exactly a common technique when it comes to raising a yeasty bread. So when we decided to sample a Tibetan kitchen in Leh, I was happy to go with tingmo (or Tenga momo). I discovered later that recipes were easy to find on the net (here, there, and everywhere), and it was the lead item in a Tibetan cookbook that was gathering dusty bytes in my e-reader. What do you have with it? There were many choices, but we went with the mutton shapta. Shapta (or Sha btra) has a thick sauce that goes well with the fluffy tingmo. Our server later told us that it can be had for breakfast with butter and honey. I can imagine that! Some Tibetan food is easily available in the plains, but traveling to the mountains helps you to find the breadth of this culinary culture.