Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.
It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.
Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.
The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.
Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).
The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.
Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.
We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.
It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.
We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.
Chaudapheri camp is a way station on the Rache La trek. This is part of the old trade route that joined Bhutan, Sikkim, and the lowlands of Bengal. The camp’s odd name was explained as a travelers’ direction. This is the point you get to after fourteen turns on the road after leaving Lava. So I suppose this is a fairly old camping spot, much older than the forest rangers’ cabin that you see here.
The mule was dozing in the middle of the mud churned up by jeeps. After it noticed us it walked closer and, in its mulish way, wouldn’t go away until someone fed it banana skins. I was reminded of a description of mules I’d read, partly in preparation for this trip, “However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes. It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff.” (Frank Kingdon Ward, in In the Land of the Blue Poppies) In these days of 30 lb. limits on baggage, I suppose I’ll only ever get to use one fourth of a mule.
When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.
Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.
The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.
The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.
Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.
We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.
One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.
A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.
After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.
This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.
Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!
You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.
I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.
We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.
We stopped outside a small village on our way down from the heights. We could hear an Asian barred owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides). We spotted it on a bare tree and saw it being mobbed by a few racket-tailed drongos, a mix of Dicrurus paradiseus and D. remifer. The show was over soon and we decided to walk on through the village.
All of these villages straggle down a fairly steep slope, so the road switches back several times to pass through them. We passed a house which seemed to be very busy, with lots of men coming and going. A few waved to us. We waved back and walked on. We passed the back of the house down-slope, and looked up to find a bunch of people at a window, looking at us. They broke into smiles for the camera. People were friendly, not like those racket-tailed drongos.
The orchid Pleione humilis was very common in and around the upper reaches of the Neora Valley national park. All along the eastern Himalayas at altitudes between about 2 and 3 Kms above sea level, it is in flower in late winter and early spring. I’ve been to the right height also in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Assam, which are all parts of the normal range of this orchid, but missed the flowering because I usually go later in spring. The orchid grows on wood or moss, and likes to spend about a quarter of the day in sunlight, so the drooping white flowers are easily visible along roads. Each flower grows out of a different bulb, and each bulb has only a single leaf.
I’d noticed earlier that orchid fanciers are like orchard managers. Interested in tiny differences between varieties, and paying great attention to their differentiation. The greatest achievement that enthusiasts can think of is to have a variety named after them. This exasperates botanists, which is very evident when you read a paper from 1971 in the Kew Bulletin called The Cytology and Taxonomy of the Genus Pleione. Hunt and Vosa, the authors, write “About forty specific epithets have been published in the genus Pleione and considerable confusion exists among the names given to plants in cultivation. Understandable and acceptable differences of taxonomic opinion were confounded with outright mis-identification.” You don’t get more sarcastic in a scholarly publication! They conclude that there is no evidence for more than nine species in the genus Pleione.
Following the thread on cytology, I looked at a very interesting observation in a thirty years-old paper. There seem to be two different growth “habits” among Pleione species. Some are epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees or moss. The Pleione humilis in the featured photo is one of these. The others, which I haven’t seen, are terrestrial, meaning they grow on the ground. The habit depends on the shape of the chromosomes. Paired chromosomes are linked by a structure called a centromere. When this is at the middle of a pair, they are called metacentric chromosomes. Human chromosomes are metacentric, as a result of which the chromosome appears to be in the shape of an X when you see it in a microscope. When the centromere is at the end of a pair, then their visual appearance in a microscope is like an I. These are called telocentric chromosomes, and are rather uncommon in plants. The paper found that epiphytic Pleione have metacentric chromosomes, whereas the chromosomes of the terrestrial species in the genus are telocentric. I haven’t found papers which followed this up in the modern age of genomic analysis. Perhaps there are new taxa hiding in this genus.
Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.
When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!
On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.
Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.
The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.
The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).
The Neora Valley national park covers an incredible range of altitudes: from 180 meters to 3.2 kilometers. It can take several months to skim the entire ecosystem. Even our limited objective of staying between 2 and 2.5 kilometers of altitude was perhaps too much for the three days we had. It took me about a day to get out of the mental state that a year of confinement in and around home had put me in. Walking through a forest and breathing cold moist air unfiltered through a mask, being able to smell the leaves, mud, rot, and flowers was a wonderful return to normalcy. This was a rain-forest that we were trudging through, one which drips with moisture even in the coldest winter. But the vegetation was a strange mixture of oak and bamboo, pine and fern.
As we walked out of our homestay, I was reminded of both spring and the temperate climate I should expect. One of the temperate fruit trees was in bloom outside the house: cherry, apple, or peach. I would have to time to decide later. But for now, quick, refocus on the russet sparrow (Passer cinnamomeus) sitting on a branch behind the flowers. This was a male, calling out a sweeter springtime song than the house sparrow of the plains. The home range of the russet sparrow is the Yunnan basin, but it has radiated a long finger along the middle heights of the Himalayas, and can we seen anywhere from Kashmir to Assam at this height all year round. I remembered my first sighting in Bhutan, in the company of a friend who died this year. He was one of the several middle aged friends and colleagues, completely healthy until they died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest in 2020. A hypothesis of two unrelated epidemics in the same year cannot survive Occam’s Razor. But enough of that; back to the forest.
The pipeline trail has been famous in the birding community for over a decade. Named after the numerous water pipes that run along the trail, it is supposed to be the richest bird trail in the Himalayas. It was first described by the well-known birdwatcher Bikram Grewal. I take heart when he writes that he had to make several trips to see a Satyr Tragopan in these forests. I didn’t see one, and that is a wonderful excuse to go back to this incredible forest. I was quite enchanted by the extremely dense forest rising along the two sides of the trail, the mist slowly burning off as the sun rose higher. I’ ve been here now once in December and once in March. Maybe I should also visit in other seasons.
The forest is an enchanting mix of tropical and temperate. Oaks, ivy, and mistletoe hang over the trail. Just outside the path we had left behind a slope full of Deodar trees (Cedrus deodara). Here the undergrowth was dense ferns, with rhododendron trees peeking out from the taller ferns. At this height the weather was still too cold for them to flower. In the distance I could see the giant white flowers of magnolias blooming on bare trees on the slopes. Like a typical rain-forest, there was mad growth: one plant growing over another. Here is a branch of an oak tree with moss, ivy, fern, and orchid.
I had an ear out for the birds, but I was concentrating on looking at the early spring flowers, already about to wither and turn to berries. It is only when you walk through a forest like this that you realize that the natural world is not there for your eating. Most berries are far from nutritious for humans, and some may be harmful. Vegetarianism is predicated on a long history of choosing which plants are safe to eat. I did not have the time to sit and wait for insects to return to the trail disturbed by my passing; I must do that on another, and more leisurely, trip. Still, life was so abundant here, that I could see a few insects and spiders on the flowers around me.
The Family had trained all her senses on birds. When she called out to me, I turned to look at a tree full of stripe-throated Yuhinas (Yuhina gularis) feeding. This was a lifer for me. When there are so many birds moving about a single spot I find it very hard to concentrate on one. I got a few shots, but none that I am really happy with. This is a bird of the middle heights, and given their density, I wonder why I had not seen any in my last visit to this trail seven years ago. They probably migrate down in winter. I’ll have to check this later. For now, watching these birds feeding reminded me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.
Kolakham village had the charming look of the villages up in this corner of the Himalayas, in the part of Bengal which nudges up on Sikkim and Bhutan. It is not just the Nepali language that distinguishes people of this region from the rest of Bengal. I walked into the kitchen in the morning to hear a song on the radio playing softly. It wasn’t in Nepali. The Tibetan song was a religious tune which the cook, a Buddhist, was listening to. None of these are the essential distinction between people in these villages, 2 kilometers above sea level, and those down at the foothills. Our driver put it neatly, “The people down there speak the same Nepali as us, but they don’t smile and help.”
Every house is built on two levels. This log cabin has an upper level which faces directly on to the road, and serves as a combination shop and roadside restaurant. The lower level, partly log covered over with metal sheets (perhaps as protection against wind) is where the family lives. This opens out into a garden with a gate which leads up from the road below. You can always build multiple views when you make a house on a slope.
Not all houses are made of logs. More common are these timber-frame houses. Woven cane mats are nailed to the frame, and daubed over with a thin layer of plaster. It is a mixed technique: wattle-and-daub meets timber-frame. In these forests of oak, pine, and bamboo, these are easily available material. Also, when there is an earthquake, as there is once or twice in a person’s lifetime, you will not be buried under heavy building material.
The simplicity of construction means that most people try their hand at building their own houses. This beautifully constructed door was clearly built by an amateur. It is slightly out of true, the frame not quite a rectangle. The elements of the door have been joined together by an amateur carpenter. I loved this. When you travel through the country you see a lot of naive folk art. It is wonderful to see the same naive aesthetics in architecture.
I am over-simplifying, of course. There were at least three concrete houses in the village. These are built by specialists. But these are mountain villages, after all. Even the workers and their employers have a pleasant relationship. In a different village, at a house under construction, I saw three workers take a break as the lady of the house brought them cups of tea and some snacks. Life is hard up here, but, by and large, people pitch in together. The most visible part of life up here are the flowers that you find in the garden and porches of each brightly coloured house. You could not miss the fact that it was early in spring.
The village has a little movie theater. Not as old-fashioned as the hand-cranked movie projectors that you could see in villages in the last century; this movie theater probably shows videos. 4G connectivity was easy, but I guess there is a market for things you cannot stream. I also liked the physical distancing marks on the road, in a village which hasn’t had a single recorded case of COVID-19.