Watching continents flow

Going northwards from Almora to Munsiyari, we crossed at some point from the Siwaliks to the lower Himalayas. We halted at the Birthi waterfall for a cup of tea. Thick smoke enveloped the area, and I was glad to have my N95 mask on. The sunlight that filtered through was a strange yellow. I clambered up a small slope next to the road to look at the 80 meters high waterfall. The Ramganga river fell from the upper plateau down before me, pooled briefly, and then flowed on to my left. Goats grazed on the cliff opposite me, their tinkling bells the loudest sound around me.

The Himalayas are still growing upwards as the Indian and Asian continental plates push towards each other at a speed of about 50 to 60 mm every year. The lower Himalayas are created by the buckling and twisting of the Indian plate, and the upper Himalyas by the Asian plate being pushed up as the Indian plate plunges north. East and west of the Kumaon region there have been many huge earthquakes in the last century and a half, but the Kumaon region seems to be miraculously stable. Still, that high wall of rock just across the stream from me seemed like the result of an ancient earthquake. Was it? A little search led to me to a paper which related it to the flow of the rocks in this region. What I’d seen here was continental movement, the driver of earthquakes and landforms. I’m amazed in retrospect.

High wilds

What we know is a tiny fraction of what is there. To me this is cause for joy, because it means I’ll never be bored. There’ll always be new things to find out. And it is cause for a little humbleness. I am reminded of it every time I walk out of the house, and look at things which are not entirely made by humans. Even on walks around the garden outdoor, there are grasses which I can’t identify. I know nothing about how they fit into the garden’s ecology. And when I go travelling, I seem to walk into the wilderness of things well beyond my ken.

Twenty paces from each other I found these four wildflowers when I was out hunting the Koklass pheasant. They are different, as you can see from the way they are clustered, and from the shapes of individual flowers. They are also different sizes and colours, but then shade is a lesser determinant of identity than shape. And the grasses around them, including the flower head in the featured photo, were also equally varied. I have not been able to identify them in the last month and a half, so any help you give is welcome. I saw them at a height of about 2400 meters outside the town of Munsiyari.

Note added: With the help of the partial ID provided by Susan Rushton, I found that the first and last photos in the slideshow are the frilly Bergenia (Bergenia ciliata). The white flowers are possibly, but not quite definitely, those of the Chinese Bergenia (Bergenia pacumbis). The remaining photo could be of the Purple Bergenia (Bergenia purpurascens). I made the elementary mistake of not taking photos of the rest of the plants.

A morning’s walk

Cold and clear, the morning was perfect for a walk. We pushed aside a dry thorn bush which served as a gate in the wall next to the road and stepped on to the steep path which led up to Messar Kund. The gate was very close to our hotel in Munsiyari. We had figured that it would take us an hour for this walk, and we could be back in time for breakfast.

There was a gentle climb to start with, as the stony path rose through a mixed forest of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) and Rhododendron arboreum. At this height the rhododendron was still putting out new leaves. It always amazes me that the colours of spring are those of autumn in reverse. The new leaves start off bright red, and, as they get the sun, they slowly begin to produce chloroplasts, and change to green. In between, the red and green mix to give wonderful yellows. In autumn as the chloroplasts die, the reverse change occurs.

The path kept getting steeper. We stopped above the trees to get this lovely view of Munsiyari. On a clearer day we would have seen the Panchachauli massif from here. I admired the forest: a mix of oak and rhodo, on this slope, with the long needled chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) on the neighbouring slope. It wasn’t only the rhodo putting out new leaves, the oaks were doing that too. There was still some smoke down in the valley, but here the air was clear. We took off our jackets and put them in my backpack. A few sips of water, a handful of nuts and raisins, and we were ready to climb again.

The next part was steep, and looking at it, I stowed the camera in my backpack. There were white and yellow wildflowers growing between the stones, but I didn’t stop to photograph them. Suddenly, after a short steep walk, we were at a meadow with a beautiful clear lake beyond it. The ground up here was damp. The previous night’s rain had been heavy, but it had successfully doused fires and cleared the smoke from the air. The air was crisp, cool, as the sun peeked over the treeline above us. We sat on a stone above the fall and looked out at the valley below. The view was interrupted by branches.

I walked around the huge boulder at the edge. Two different kinds of lichens grew on it. The dark green one was flecked with colour. I suppose this is the variety of lichen which can leach minerals from stone and bind it to organic molecules. They are an essential part of the cycle of life out here. The amazing shape of the white lichen probably tells us that it has been growing on this rock for a long time. I looked at the rock carefully; it had round eye-like inclusions which made me think that I was looking at an example of Augen Gneiss. That would make it among the oldest rocks in this region, formed almost two billion years ago. The lichen is a mayfly in comparison.

It was much faster going down. We stopped to watch a white throated laughing thrush search for food. It was manic, we kept losing sight of it in the flurry of leaves it scattered as it looked below them for food. It is a species in search of genus; it was once the Garrulax albogularis, then became Pterorhinus albogularis, and recently has been renamed Ianthoconcia albogularis. The shifts in name reflect the ferment in classification of birds due to the ever expanding data on genetics. It seems to like the middle heights in this season; we’ve seen the bird quite frequently in the last two months at heights of 1500 meters and above. We were down very quickly, less than the hour we had estimated. Time for us to scatter leaves; time for our breakfast.

A cold murky morning

Had I heard heavy rain at night while I slept? I looked out of the picture window of the hotel and realized that I had. The previous day the view had been a screen of murky white beyond the town of Munsiyari below us. Today I could see mountains beyond the town. I shrugged a jacket on over my night’s clothes, picked up the camera and walked into the balcony. Cold! To my left I could see Chaudhara peak (altitude 6510 m, featured photo). Straight ahead should be the Panchachauli massif, with its five peaks, the highest being 6904 m. This was clearly further away, because the haze got worse in that direction. If I looked hard I could see a line of mountains there (see the last photo).

I’m not sure whether this rock is Augen Gneiss, but it does have two interesting varieties of lichen

Munsiyari has very special geology. It has some of the oldest rocks in the Himalayas, dating back to about 1.9 billion years ago, during the Paleoproterozoic Era. I didn’t look very hard for the characteristic eye-like bubbles in rocks (the famous Augen Gneiss), but I do wonder whether I saw it on the single walk that we squeezed in. But the place is better known as being on the boundary between the lesser and greater Himalayas. In fact, a structure called the Munsiyari thrust (part of something called the Main Central Thrust) is the remnant of an old geological event in which the Indian plate thrust under the Asian plate, and raised the greater Himalayas. The peaks that everyone comes here to see are the lower end of the greater Himalayas.

The Family had joined me on the balcony. We were disappointed at our luck with the view, but something could still be salvaged out of the morning. The air had cleared enough that the smell of smoke was gone. We could go for an hour’s walk before breakfast. I began to stow water and a packet of nuts and raisins into a small backpack as The Family made two cups of tea.

Surprises

The morning’s light was not much to speak of, but the afternoon was much darker. A heavy downpour which cleared off the smoke would have been very welcome, but it didn’t rain. There was a lack of light, and a heavy dampness in the air reduced the visibility further. Walking was unhealthy in this smoke-filled air. I had planned to go back to the spot on the road where I’d seen a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) the previous day, so we drove.

The road out of Munsiyari climbs for a while. At about the highest point nearby, a pair of these wrongly-named grouses had been foraging on the roadside the previous evening. The female ran across the road in front of the car and disappeared into the bushes at the edge of the drop. I’d got off the car to peek at the verge. The crested head of the male which had been skulking below the bushes, was all I had managed to see just before the two went noisily down the slope. The shutter of my camera took a split second more, and not even a blur could be seen in the photo. The Family had not seen them at all. So we went back again, in the slim hope of sighting them if they came to forage. The birds eat pine nuts, bamboo shoots, pollen, and, in this season, insects. The pickings would be meager on the narrow verge of the road. We reasoned that their range would be downslope. We saw no sign of them at all.

I’d noticed a meadow a little further down where differently coloured rhododendrons were in bloom. We went there to take photos of the variety of colours these flowers come in at the upper end of their range. As I took photos from the edge of drop, I noticed a bird feeding on them (featured photo). Backing up to the road, I found The Family in front of that tree, signaling to me frantically. The bird had had enough to eat, and was taking a friendly look at her. I managed to click a photo. We’d seen it the previous month in the eastern Himalayas at the same height; it was a Green-backed Tit (Parus monticolus). I’d never seen it feeding before. Every sighting of a bird on this trip was a surprise.

Angora shawls

When you ask someone what you can do in Munsiyari apart from walking through the hillsides, people will often recommend a visit to Darkot village. Women of this village raise Angora rabbits, and weave their wool into the wonderfully soft stoles, shawls, and caps which you can see in high-end stores in cities. The heavy smoke in the air meant we couldn’t possibly do any long walks. So off we went to Darkot.

I was beginning to get used to these gateways into apparent emptiness next to highways. They tell you where to find a steep path leading down to a village. This was the gateway to Darkot. As we walked down from here, a lady asked us whether we wanted to see Angora shawls. We did, and were glad to be invited into her house.

The lady who invited us in to see her products asked whether we would like to watch the weaving. I was hoping she would ask, and I jumped at the opportunity. An older lady was in an inside room, at a hand loom next to a window. The light was wonderful, and I took out my camera. She was absorbed in her work, but willing to talk as she worked. There would be a rush of words as she worked, and then, when she had to concentrate, the explanations would dry out, until she began to talk again. She was happy to talk me through the process that you can see in the video above. This is the last stage, she explained. The wool is sheared from the animal, the yarn is mixed with wool at home, and then woven.

She lived here with her son, daughter in law, and grandchildren. The whole family was involved in the business. Shawls were not the only thing they made, stoles and caps were also available. I inspected the caps, warm, with the halo which Angora wool has. The only colours they had were white and gray. Price? They would give it to us at the same price which they got from the cooperative. What does the cooperative do? They sell it to on to Delhi, but also have a showroom in Munsiyari.

I went out to look at wildflowers around the village. When I came back later, the older lady had taken a break from weaving, and was busy rocking the youngest grandchild to sleep. I waved, and she smiled at me.

Two yellow flowers

Darkot village (altitude 2000 m?) near Munsiyari is known for the angora caps and shawls which the local women weave. But any place in the Himalayas is good for a look at its flora and fauna. I stood on the steep path which leads down to the village from the highway and looked at the sides covered with a large variety of plants. A raven and a monkey had just finished their mid-morning snack, and peace had descended on the village. I went back to examining wild plants.

These yellow flowers are a little confusing, but after some thought I figured they must be yellow flax (Reinwardtia indica). They are found at an altitude of 500 to 2300 meters. It has a large overlap with the range of the Himalayan flax (Reinwardtia cicanoba) which is supposed to inhabit a range up to 2000 meters, but can straggle up a little further, depending on local conditions. The yellow flax is smaller, and the flower tube formed by the five petals fusing at the base is shorter. The fine reddish lines near the throat of the tube, the honey guides, are characteristic of the yellow flax. But the telling detail was the month I saw the flowers; April is usually too late for flowers of the Himalayan flax.

I’m still a novice at identifying Himalayan wildflowers. Of the five or so species that I can see in this patch, I could figure out only the yellow flax, after looking at its flowers for a while. The striped fruit next to it should be easy to identify for an expert, but right now I’m flummoxed by it: is the fruit of the flax, or something else altogether? Similarly for the featured plant. The trifoliate leaves make me think it is clover, and the yellow flower could belong to a clover too, but which? I have no idea. This looks like a project that can keep me busy on holidays the rest of my life.

Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Three butterflies

Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.

Pieris canidia indica, Indian cabbage white (subspecies Himalayan)

A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.

Aglais cashmiriensis, Indian tortoiseshell

Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).

I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.

Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.

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