An interrupted walk

Before the vacation I tried to find out what walks we could take. My lungs are not good for steep climbs, and I didn’t know how well The Young Niece would hold up to climbs. So I looked for flat walks or gentle ups and downs. I found a nice flat walk at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. This was the walk from Jalori pass to Serolsar lake, a distance of six Kilometers each way.

At Jalori pass we took in the sight of the snowy peaks of the distant high Himalayas part of the way to Manali. It was windy and I was happy to be bundled up in several layers. As soon as we walked away from the blacktop road at the pass, the wind dropped. This is typical of a pass. The road passed below a ridge which The Family would climb later to get a better view of the distant mountains. Then the path passed into an oak forest. At this height these were all Himalayan brown oaks (Quercus semiscarpifolia).

An oak forest is alive. There were mosses growing on the bark, and I was sure that there would be insects under that. I wondered whether there are any woodpeckers in this area. I could only hear the deep cry of ravens flying above the canopy. A couple of groups of older people passed us, smiling encouragements at The Young Niece. I was slowing everyone down by trying to take photos of a butterfly which I hadn’t seen before. I was to find later that this was the common satyr. We stopped at a fallen tree trunk which had interesting mushrooms growing on the shady underside of the log.

I was warm, and beginning to shed my layers. Unfortunately, I did not think of asking The Young Niece whether she would like to shed a layer or two. After about three Kilometers of walking she overheated and started feeling giddy. We were bringing up the rear. The Family and The Lotus had walked ahead and were out of sight behind a turn in the road. The Young Niece sat down on the edge of the path, and started taking off her layers. That’s when I found that she’d overdone the warms and had on twice as much as I would have suggested. I called out to our scouts to turn back. As we sat there and waited, a raven came to rest on a branch in front of us and examined us carefully. It croaked a couple of questions which I could not answer. When The Family came back, it decided to fly away.

The family brought news of a copse of rhododendron in flower ahead. By this time The Young Niece was looking almost her normal colour. “Shall we go on?” she asked. The Family and I looked at each other. We didn’t know whether it was the heat or the altitude which had given her trouble. 3 Kilometers is not that high, but the youngster has not been up in the mountains before. We decided to play it safe and go back. I noticed a lot of Himalayan wild strawberries (Fragaria nubicola) flowering here, runners threading through fallen oak leaves. Lower down they were already in fruit. I’d persuaded The Young Niece to eat the small but flavourful berries. The flowers are not too different from those of the Himalyan musk rose; the easiest way to tell the difference is by the size of the plant it grows on.

The Young Niece was probably feeling guilty about cutting the walk short, because she was taking part in the exploration of wildflowers with more enthusiasm than usual. There were some things growing on the oaks (photo above) which completely stumped me. They were thick and fleshy like cacti; nothing that I’ve seen before. We saw a couple of varieties of tortoiseshell butterflies. On a bunch of dry flowers I saw spiderwebs: evidence that there were more insects here than we had notices. Soon we were back out of the forest and near the ridge. We hadn’t walked very long, but we’d seen several different things. As The Lotus and The Family went to look at the peaks in the distance, I walked with The Young Niece past the bunch of shops at Jalori pass into the oak forest below. She would be better lower down and without too many warm clothes.

The Clear Air of High Places

Chele La is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. We drove up here, 3810 meters above sea level, on a clear day. There was a clear view of the conical peak of Chomolari (Jomolhari), 3506 meters above us. Below us we could see the sun-dappled valleys of Paro and Haa. We had driven up through a road that wound through rhododendron forests, and had seen the spectacular colours of Khaleej pheasants for the first time.

A raven comes to rest on a flag in Chele La, Bhutan

I love the sense of calm at such heights. The sun was warm on my face, but the wind carried a biting chill. The wind blew through the massed prayer flags. The crack of blowing flags was a constant sound around us. There was a deep call of a raven, and I saw one come down to rest with its claws on the dagger of knowledge, completely oblivious to religion and revelation.

Chorten at Chele La, Bhutan

I walked down the road. A little way down was a chorten and next to it a heap of stones. At this height, your rational self can recede behind oxygen depletion. The magical longing to leave a little mark on the earth takes over, and you place another stone on the growing pile left by previous travellers.

View of Chomolari from Paro, Bhutan

I look at Chomolari and remember the two expeditions: one of 1937 and another of 1970, both over the southeast spur of the peak. The 1937 climb is described in a book. Dorjee Lhatoo and Prem Chand never wrote about their 1970 climb. I will never make a climb like this, not even over the newer routes pioneered more recently. But I sit on a cold grassy mound and dream about it.

Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan

I’m walking closer to the sky than I usually do: thoughts like this arise with hypoxic magic. On another rise is yet another group of flags. I walk between them. The wind is made visible, audible. Magic surrounds you. The fraying flags are supposed to release good wishes, calm and peace into the wind. These wash over you in gusts of the wind. Bhutan is supposed to top the world in Gross National Happiness. Can you doubt it when you stand so close to the sky?