Do you really want to know?

What’s over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.

Outside the small town of Ghoti on the Mumbai-Nashik road

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.

Naneghat, the view across the pass

At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?

Crossing Malshej ghat in Maharashtra

Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.

Monsoon waterfall at the top of Malshej ghat

But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.

Dialectic photography

Opposites? I decided I would try the dialectic instead. A thesis and its antithesis, brought together in a single photo: the synthesis. I started by focusing on the water which was dripping from the shade above the balcony. It was a couple of tries before I was completely satisfied with the focus. Inside the drops I saw a blur of light: the cloud-covered sky shining through the water! That was sharp focus and blur together in that droplet, just as it starts to break up.

A potted canna in the rain in one corner of the balcony gave me a synthesis between front and back, the two sides of leaves visible simultaneously. Also, sunlight through one leaf, the rain slicking the other. More than one pair of opposites in this photo. After days of limiting myself to using a cell phone, I was happy to sit on the balcony of the hotel with a proper camera, photographing nature in the rain. It is so hard to carry a normal camera outdoor in the monsoon.

A copperpod flower felled by rain on leaves below was a strange mixture of the barren and the fecund. The rain brings new growth, but it can destroy a flower before it fruits. Farmers in this region have had a little too much of this destruction in the last few years: crops destroyed by unseasonal rain, or by rain that refuses to come when it is expected. This year has been cruel. Half of the country flooded, the other half suffering from extreme dryness. Those in the know say they think the price of food could increase sharply during the coming months.

The reflections on these leaves was fascinating. I saw them moving as the trees above them shed large drops of water. The usual trick of photography stops time and motion. Here it has done just that, as it caught the parabolas of the splash arcing away from the point of impact, while the bulk of the water drop flows down the innermost part of the leaf. A modern mobile phone camera fails miserably in catching the fleeting, something that my actual camera does as a matter of course. But then isn’t this what you set out to do when you take up photography? Isn’t the act of taking up a camera a declaration that you will be contrary and try to freeze the flow of time?

The city around me

When you’ve lived in the same city for a large part of your life, you start noticing what visitors often don’t see. In cricket-crazy India who even knows that there’s a football stadium and a dedicated football subculture (only very few of whom buy jerseys from the ManU shop next to the Hard Rock Cafe). And not many visitors may come by to see the vistas of the city painted on the walls outside the football stadium.

You notice the constant small crowd outside this ice-cream shop which has been selling ice-cream sandwich for three generations. The crowds formed ever since the shop lost its battle in court to stay in the place where people like me found it as they wandered out of one of the city’s major local train stations. Every day there are people as old as me coming with youngsters to memorialize one of the city’s old landmarks before it passes. We have been among them, bringing a niece here with her boyfriend.

You pass an unremarkable restaurant where you’ve had a couple of nice lunches maybe fifteen years ago, and stoop to take a photo of street cats hanging at the entrance. You tell them, “Yes, the fish is quite good here,” as you walk away. That’s what you’d come here for, and remember years later.

Or you are caught in a traffic jam next to a blank wall whose texture you’ve admired for years. You’ve always hoped to get a photo here, but nothing really happens against that wonderful wall. Now, as your car idles, you see a (possibly) interesting intersection of shadows, and you take a photo. Does it work? Somewhat. Perhaps. But you’ll still be on the lookout for a better photo to take against this empty wall by a busy road.

Maybe along a cluttered lane which you have not taken for forty years, you see a clean white-washed house. An entrance door stands open as well-dressed women pass in and out. A widow’s home! Curious. You take a photo, meaning to find out later what kind of endowment runs a charity like that. And who they help. There are always single mothers in need of help in this city.

One weekend you walk out of a convenient coffee shop, on your way to buying a growler of your favourite craft beer, when you see the Yacht Club looking nice in the sunlight. You juggle the cup and your phone to take a photo, and realize that you’ve caught Mitter Bedi’s studio in the corner of the photo. It’s not a great shot, but it is a homage to the first industrial photographer in India, one whose photos are a foundation of the visual language you know.

Or you pass one of those dead end alleys which has better potential for discarded garbage than the tourist trade. The sunlight makes you pause. You take a photo of a green metal gate, rusting quietly and unremarked. Remarkably, the gate fronts a tiny shop where someone repairs swivel chairs! I wouldn’t have paid it any attention if the shop was open.

Sometimes you notice how a little temple has grown over the years. In the middle of the business district what once was a little stone idol on the pavement has grown into an idol-encrusted south Indian-style temple. And some time in the last two years it has fenced off the corner of the sidewalk. It seems clear to me that the temple will grow in coming years. It is one of the constant changes in a living and litigious city.

Dreams die

[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.

Harold Robbins, in The Betsy

My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.

It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.

Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers

The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.

An aircraft against the IBM building in Chicago

Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.

Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers

Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.

The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands

Harold Robbins, in Stilletto

Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.

Bebelplatz with bicycles

People are not like a business.

Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me

Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.

We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow

Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher

China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?

A wild garden

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.

Likir

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.

The valley of death

Weather can change very quickly in the mountains. We had driven down the valley of the river Shyok in a happy sunlit mood. As we started back after lunch in Turtuk, clouds had blown in from the west and the light had turned sombre. The name of the river means death in languages that derive from old Tibetan, and in this dim light it was not hard to make that connection.

The road was smooth most of the way, and The Family nodded off after the heavy meal. Yasin, our guide and driver, was intent on the drive. We’d rolled the windows down and he’d switched off the music so that we could listen to the water and the weather. I was in my groove right now, having put away my favourite camera to utilize the wider angle shots of the landscape that my phone gives. I realize that I could tell the story of the drive back in many ways: as a road trip, as a journey using the metaphor of the Bardo Thodrol (the Antarbhava Nivarna, known in the west as the Book of the Dead), or even as a photo gallery interspersed with technical comments by the photographer.

But the telling that appeals to me are the questions that rose in my mind as I looked out, and the answers that I found later. This land raised profound questions about our place on earth, and figured in a controversy that preceded the writing of the IPCC’s fifth report in 2014. But before I tell you about it, let me give you an impression of the landform that piqued my curiosity. Even though the muddy river was at its widest in summer, when we drove along it, the valley it flowed through was very much broader. The two-lane road seemed to be on a plain, and there was enough flat land around it that the road could have had four lanes through much of the valley. I’d never seen this in a mountain stream before.

Another remarkable feature was the profusion of loose rock and pebbles, some jagged, as if a scree had spilled down slope, others completely rounded as if by the action of water and glacier over millennia. A further enigma was visible in the sand dunes and mud flows that were could be seen at places along the river. This is a special mystery because the land has very little rain: no more than a 100 mm in a year. The patterns of erosion are not due to rain.

What a curious tourist like me sees is a very small part of the questions that arise in the mind of a geologist who walks through this landscape. So all my questions, and more, are answered in the extensive geological literature that is easily available these days. The answer lies in a dynamic and fluctuating history of glaciers and ice dams in the last 150 thousand years in this region. An early study counted over 2000 glaciers active in the upper Shyok valley, which were highly dynamic, receding and expanding rapidly, but whose extent had not changed significantly between 1973 and 2011.

When this paper was published as the 5th IPCC report was being drafted, it gave rise to an immediate controversy about global warming. If glaciers had not melted in the Himalayas, as they had in the Alps, then how could the latter be due to anthropogenic warming? An old friend was involved in the group that found the answer: Himalayan glaciers are mostly rock covered, unlike the open glaciers of the Alps, and it is the thinning of the ice layer under the scree that reveals the extent of melting. Their ground surveys revealed that glaciers here were melting as quickly as Alpine ice flows. Further studies confirmed this, and the IPCC’s AR5 report had a chapter on this topic which reported this as the consensus of scientific opinion.

We passed one of the largest tributaries of the Shyok in this stretch. I had looked down the other valley on our way west in the morning and had a glimpse of the high peaks of the Karakoram range. Even in this light I could see an ice-covered peak as we sped by. In the upper reaches of the Shyok river, after it descends from the Rimo glacier and flows south, the river marks the geological suture between Ladakh and the Karakoram. In the stretch that we drove through, the river had turned north and west, and again come close to the Karakoram range. I can’t figure out from maps which river descended from the Karakoram to join the Shyok so far in the west.

We’d switched between the left and right banks a few times over bridges, most in good repair. The exception allowed a single vehicle to cross at a time. Waiting for our turn in the small queue, I’d told The Family how these crossing were once considered treacherous. The many caravans which were washed away in this stretch of the silk route gave the the river its name, Shyok, the river of death. But these summer floods were seldom caused by rain. They were more often due to the melting of ice dams which had formed over winters. Some ice dams can last quite long, and collect sedimentary deposits, some of which I’d seen exposed during the day. The failure of these ice dams cause enormous floods and quick erosion. This is also perhaps the reason for the wide river valley we saw.

As we approached the Hunder-Diskit area, the clouds opened up, and dappled sunlight streaked the mountain sides. In this place farming and irrigation is transforming the land. The forest department is busy planting cypress in a bid to green this land, forgetting, as it has since colonial times, that introducing an exotic species leads to catastrophe a few decades on. But you cannot fault the locals for turning to agriculture this wide fluvial-lacustrine valley fill, created by the ancient ice dams. Human sympathy is due when impoverished people try to better their own lot through historically tested means such as agriculture. However, it seems that corporations and bureaucracy which follow any such expansion of human activity create changes inimical to the human world. Is this Gaia at work?

Summer snow

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.

Marche

Summer in a village in the Marche, that’s a memory that stays with me. Maybe because it was a complete internet detox, since the telephone line to the farmhouse had fallen down in winter. The result was that I walked a lot, across the lovely countryside. The Marche borders the more touristy province of Emilio-Romagna, shares many things with it, but has the advantage of being less fashionable.

Daily walks through the countryside gave me beautiful and unexpected views. It was early in summer, and the wildflowers were still in bloom. But it was late enough that the harvesters had already begun to rove over fields, taking the wheat and leaving a scatter of large bundles of hay to dry in the summer sunlight.

The countryside is dotted with little treasures: small villages, several of them medieval or older. After all, this region was at the center of the Roman empire, and was later fought over by the Byzantines and the various tribes.

Summer in the countryside also brings other treasures in plenty. I found that it was easy to indulge in my taste for photographing millifauna, the little creatures which are attracted to wildflowers. I’m happy I went back to these photos. They bring back great memories.

The gaze of the salesperson

When you look at a person from behind the viewfinder of your camera, you sometimes find an appraising gaze looking back at you. Such eyes belong to people who make a living by selling. I like long zooms for such photos, because you can see the initial appraisal still going on. The featured photo is of two auto drivers in Ujjain, a really ancient temple town. For about two thousand years the locals have made a living from the people who pass through. The best salesmen survive; others move away.

A colonial-era town in Myanmar may not have quite the same history of trade, but the calculation behind the cheerful call of the women trying to sell you a snack is clear. As you can see in this photos, their eyes appraise you, and the smile switches off the moment it is clear that you are not buying.

A walk through pre-Diwali street markets is always productive. In this photo, the young man, probably a recent arrival to Mumbai, is still trying to figure out whether a man with a camera is a likely target for a sales patter about fluffy toys. I wouldn’t have bought one, but I’m more excited by the neon pandas than the plush pikachu.

This photo of a man in Jodhpur’s market is one of my favourites. He’s pretty sure that I’m not part of this target demographic, but he’s still interested in figuring me out. I probably fall at some borderline between the various categories of tourists who visit the town.