Brown oaks

I walked with The Young Niece beside the main Shimla-Kullu highway at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. At this place the road was lined with enormous trees. I asked her whether she could put her arms around the straight trunk, and she said “The two of us together can’t do it.” She is almost as tall as me, so the circumference was a little bit more than 3.5 meters.

Most of the trees which we could see along the road were tall, maybe about 25 meters high. We stood below one and admired it. The Young Niece was very interested in the texture of the bark and the mosses which clung to it. I took a photo gazing up along the trunk (the featured photo) which she certified as a good capture of the bark. The trunk grew straight up for quite a distance before it branched out. They reminded me of the pillars in the tomb of the Ming emperor Yongle, each the trunk of a single deodar tree (called nanmu in China, and Cedrus deodara by botanists) imported from Nepal. She asked whether this was deodar.

We searched for the answer by looking at the leaves below the tree. The deodar would have had needle-like leaves. The Young Niece picked up several leaves from the ground. The more recently fallen leaves were still green on one side but brown on the other. Since the tree was not a conifer, I’d already begun to ask myself whether it was an oak. The leaf colour told us that it was a Himalayan brown oak (Quercus semecarpifolia). She sorted through a few leaves and found one which had turned a fascinating golden brown. I laid it on one of the concrete slabs which borders the highway and took the photo that you see above.

The Oak Society writes that these trees can grow up to a height of 30 meters, and have a girth of about 3.5 meters. That is about right for the trees that we saw. The bark was grey and had shallow cracks, as you can see. The leaves were about twice as long as they were broad, and the breadth was about 4 centimeters. They grew well-separated from each other, as you can see in the photo above, giving each tree enough space to spread its canopy. The brown oak is the major component of forests at this height, between 2 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, but disturbed forests are seen not to grow back. Again, much remains to be understood about these giants, but ecological models indicate that if the mean annual temperatures rise in this region by about 2 Celcius, then three quarters of the trees could be lost. I’m happy that I walked here and admired these trees with my niece; her children may not have this privilege.

The tombs of the Ming emperors


The third Ming emperor, Yongle, brought the capital back to Beijing and began to rebuild the Wall. Thirteen of the sixteen Ming emperors, including Yongle, were entombed nearby. The site of these tombs is beautiful: mountains behind, water in front, “according to the principles of Fengshui” as our guide explained. We visited Chang Ling, the tomb of Yongle. Even on a weekend the place is fairly calm.

The emperor, his wife, and sixteen concubines are buried beneath the mound at the back of the complex. This is covered with trees, and has not been excavated. A visit takes in the buildings which lead from the gate up to the mound: the gate, the Hall of Eminent Favours, and the Soul Tower. The central road running through this belongs to the spirits, and is not supposed to be used by living humans.

We passed through the enormous gate (photo above) into the spectacular Hall of Eminent Favours. This is an all-wood construction, apparently containing no metal at all. The most impressive element of its architecture are the enormous wooden pillars: apparently built from the trunks of Himalayan deodar trees (cedar, nanmu in Mandarin) imported from Nepal. At the center of this hall a statue of Yongle has recently been installed, and the floor before it is strewn with money from favour seekers. The hall also contains an exhibit of imperial jade, including intricately carved pieces of soft jade.

soultowerYou can exit from the back into the second courtyard, and continue on to the Soul Tower (photo alongside). From this massive tower, which is the most peaceful part of the complex, you can see the tombs of other emperors. When leaving you are supposed to pass through the central gate in front of the Soul Tower in order to leave the world of the dead behind you. Most people do this, but a significant fraction break the convention of not looking back. It is hard to resist the impulse to turn back to take another photo of the complex before leaving.

We usually do not take guides, relying on audio guides, books and reading. Unfortunately, guide books to China, and even blogs, tend to concentrate on the practical, and leave out a detailed description of sights (I understand that the Blue Guide is an exception, but we did not get it before coming here). So, for this weekend he had with us a guide who did a good job of explaining the significance of various details we would have missed otherwise.

He explained to us that traditionally the Chinese associate tombs with bad luck, which is why the crowds are thin. Also, that one does not take photos of each other within the tomb complex. When we saw Chinese families doing this, he explained that they need guides.