A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

A lovely spot

We stayed the night in a homestay in Lachung village. The village is named after the river it is on. In the morning we followed the river to Yumthang valley. We were on a trip to Sikkim, eleven years and eleven days ago. The road took us through a rhododendron sanctuary. I remember colours of rhododendron that I have not seen elsewhere. Purples, light reds, greenish yellow, and funereal white. It is an amazing sight, and one that I was planning to take my niece to see at the beginning of this month. Unfortunate that the country was locked down, and she was infected (she recovered very quickly). It will be another year before we can try to take that trip again.

The road continues to the open valley bordered by high mountains. It was cloudy, and extremely windy. Through the clouds we could see glaciers coming down the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Some people had camped there. I dipped a hand into the river. Cold. I was happy with a night in Lachung. There were trout in a holding pond. You are allowed to fish in the river. Was the trout supposed to be released back into the water?

It was a great place for photos. I wandered around taking in the primula, the irises, the glaciers. There were even butterflies; I got a photo of the Indian Tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis). It was a lovely place, but by late morning I had a feeling that a spot of tea would come in handy. That’s one thing this place did not have. I wished I had thought of carrying a thermos full of tea up here.

They let the Zebra and the Giraffe get up; and Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

Rudyard Kipling, in “How the Leopard got His Spots”, Just So Stories

Dotted and striped patterns arise repeatedly in nature: butterflies, flowers, fish, big cats. Kipling’s story seems to be verified by biologists. But what is the genesis of such patterns? In 1952 Alan M. Turing made an observation that people have built on since then. He wrote: “It is suggested that a system of chemical substances, called morphogens, reacting together and diffusing through a tissue, is adequate to account for the main phenomena of morphogenesis. Such a system, although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances.” The featured photo of the river in Yumthang explains what Turing meant. Imagine a tub of perfectly still water. Sunlight falling on it would illuminate the bottom of the uniformly. Now take the random winds that disturb water in a river, and the random placing of obstructions below. The net effect is a series of interlocking ripples which refract the water and give that dotted pattern of shadows on river bottom. Turing realized that patterns in nature could arise in the same way, due to the flow of pigments being disturbed during the early development of the organism. Subsequent authors have studied and begun to understand how these patterns are formed by the actions of genes, and how they are inherited.


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.

Drinking rhododendron

The western Himalayas have the wonderful drink called Buransh. In Kumaon this would translate to Rhododendron. Interestingly, the plant has different names in other regions of the western Himalayas (for example, in Himachal the local name for the plant is Bras), whereas the name of the drink is the same. This probably means that the origin of the drink is Kumaoni, and it has recently spread across the mountains. The Family usually buys bottled Buransh from village cooperatives when we travel in the mountains.

The recipe is terribly simple. Take a kilo of the petals. Carefully separate them from the rest of the flower; the nectar is poisonous, and causes your blood pressure to fall, sending you into shock. The locals throw away the stigma and anthers too, and wash the petals thoroughly. So I assume that the pollen is also dangerous. Perhaps it is best not to make it at home until you learn from a Kumaoni family what to do. When I was trying to figure out this recipe, I was reminded of certain mushrooms you see in markets in Finland and Sweden. The vendors refuse to sell it to people who speak English. This is not xenophobia, but a safety measure. The mushrooms are poisonous unless you know exactly how to cook them. Using Rhododendron in the kitchen is similar to cooking these mushrooms: if you know what to do it is safe, otherwise it can be very dangerous.

So, back to the recipe. Take a kilo of the petals. Clean them thoroughly. Put them in about two liters of water. Bring this to a boil, and leave it simmering for about thirty minutes. Strain through a fine mesh, crushing the pulp to extract the flavour. Mix sugar to taste in the warm water. About three quarters of a kilo of sugar is usually needed for every kilo of petals. The juice is ready. If you preserve this in a fridge it might last two to three days. The shelf life can be extended by adding citric acid. If you add this, choose the amount judiciously, otherwise you can overwhelm the delicate flavour of the flower.

Rhododendron heights

This is meant to be extremely literal: red rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum) in its native Himalayas grows at altitudes between 1500 and 2500 meters. This means that almost all of Kumaon is at the right altitude for this lovely blood red flower. Micro-climates can cause upward or downward fluctuations in this band. Human effort also brings it down to gardens at somewhat lower altitudes in India, but not to the plains. Climate change can also cause upward migration of the tree, but as as tourist you would not be able to disentangle the effect of micro-climate and global warming.

After several years, we’d come back to a hotel outside Almora which has a large area of jungle around it. We woke late, did a little birdwatching right from the balcony of our room. When we walked down for breakfast I was surprised to find no flowers on the rhododendron. Just a month before we’d been to a similar height and the rhodos had not started flowering. Early April is smack in the middle of the season. “Monkeys,” explained the person we asked. “They come and eat the flowers.” I found one flower which they had missed. That’s the one you see in the featured photo.

Himalayan wildflowers

Our senses are poor servants. Even colour sense, which is the most acute as it is the most important for our purpose, is weak. We have, it is true, definite names for many colours, but how many of us recognize them when we see them? But our colour names are few in comparison with the number of shades we wish to distinguish, and that is the measure of our vagueness. … Thus, we do not match flower colour, we merely indicate its quality; only haberdashers match colours.

Smells are even more indefinite. Some are indistinguishable from tastes, or the two are so involved that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But there are only five primary tastes- sweet, bitter, saline, acid and pungent- not one of which can be confused with any smell; it is only when we come to deal with flavours that, again resorting to analogy, we get into difficulties. … In fact, we can do little with smells except classify them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘aromatic’ and ‘foetid’.

It is this capital difficulty which prevents people from attempting to say much about scent in flowers and leaves.

I quote from Frank Kingdon Ward’s book, The Riddle of Tsangspo Gorges

The Road to Kedarnath

As the stay-at-home spouse, I was quietly envious of The Family when she sent me photos of her journey to the Kedarnath range of the Garhwal Himalayas. I especially loved the featured photo. The last line there seems like wishful thinking; highways are arteries through which plastics circulate in nature.

But to start at the very beginning, The Family sent a string of photos of these metal sausages by the road. Why were they there? No one around her knew, but they were nicely painted. There were deer and birds. These spotted owlets were really nice.

The weather was strange, and the light through the clouds was an odd yellow which made this tree stand out. I think at this time they were still fairly close to Dehra Dun, on their way up to the Alaknanda.

Around midday she must have passed Devprayag. The blue waters of the Bhagirathi and the brown of Alaknanda rivers join at this point to become the Ganga. A quick explanation is that the dam at Tehri upstream on the Bhagirathi allows the silt to settle down, so that by the stream that arrives at the Devprayag is blue. But this otherwise convincing reply is wrong. As an observant blogger pointed out, the colours of the streams change with season.

The photos from further up are gorgeous. The Family complained about the cold; it was past mid-April and the temperature on some days went down to nearly freezing. Sitting at home in warm Mumbai I enjoyed the photo of fog rolling down the Himalayas much more than she did. Disappointingly, she never had the views she expected of the Nanda Devi (7.8 Kms high), Trishul and Chaukhamba (both 7.1 Kms high) because of the clouds. This winter has been severe in the Himalayas, due to the same disruption of the polar vortex that gave the USA a record winter. If it weren’t for that, the second half of April would be a wonderful time for these views.

And now, in the middle of April the Rhododendrons were in full bloom, finally. In the last few years we’ve gone too early in the season to see this flowering. I was happy to get a lot of photos of these upper meadows around Chopta, at an altitude of 2.6 Kms above sea level. The Family was very happy with the flowers.

A short walk in the afternoon

When we reached our hotel with the wonderful view of the mountains from the balcony, it was a little past noon. We sat on the lawns and had a crisp thin-crust pizza and beer so well chilled that even at this height moisture was dewing the bottle as it sat on the table. The air was crisp and cool, as it should be at an altitude of over 2.5 kilometers above sea level. After lunch we could sit in the balcony, look out at the mountains and aestivate. Or we could go for a walk. We chose to walk.

The afternoon’s light was mellow. One side of the road sloped down to fields and a village spread very sparsely over the hillside. It was nearly spring time. The snow had almost completely melted, and only shaded fields and slopes gleamed white in the afternoon. The sloping metal roofs of huts were weighed down by stones. Ruskin Bond in one of his books mentions a corrugated iron roof which was blown away in a storm and decapitated an “early-morning fitness freak”. At the sight of the stones I was reminded of that. But we were safe; this was not early morning.

The road was deserted, but suddenly there was an apparition in front of us. Was it a ghost? No. From the way it swayed and sang it could only be the village drunk. We passed an agricultural research lab where rows of apple trees had grafts on them and were beginning to bloom. A large oak on the side of the road was full of sparrows. When we stopped to watch, we saw a pair of Streaked Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron lineatum) in the undergrowth. They are shy birds, preferring to hop about under cover, and are difficult to photograph. I was not satisfied with the photos which I got.

Moss grew on walls here, poking out through the mortar between the stones. I keep thinking that I’ll try to get a field guide to the mosses of India, expect that there is no such book. As a result, I have no idea which moss I’m photographing. One of these was beginning to flower. Although the solstice was a few days away, spring had come to Garhwal’s Sivaliks already.

The shops at the turn of the road were all closed for the afternoon’s siesta. I loved their collection of preserves and juices. juice of rhododendron, mint, apple and the new citrus hybrid called the Malta were advertised, along with jams, chutneys and pickles. The British were convinced that rhododendron is poisonous, although locals have been drinking its juice for ages. We reminded ourselves that we would have to come back here later; we’ve always enjoyed drinking this juice when we are in the mountains.

We walked on for a while more, but then clouds started to drift in. The weather prediction was of light rains in the afternoon. We turned back; it would be a twenty minute walk back to the hotel. It would be time for tea when we got back.

Trees of the Himalayas

Deodrar tree in Paro

There was little time to prepare for our trip to the Himalayas. I worried about whether I should pack Pradip Krishen’s field guide to the trees of Delhi, but then decided against it; after all most of this book dealt with trees of the plains. There are excellent guides to the birds of India, one for butterflies, ancient ones for other animal orders, and certainly nothing for the trees of the Himalayas. One of the few useful resources I came across was an excellent blog post on the trees of Shimla.

The quick field guide which I made for myself can be useful on future trips. There is such an incredible variety of trees across the Himalayas that anyone could spend a lifetime studying them. The little part which is captured in this small list served me as landmarks to orient myself by.

(Cedrus deodara)
Himalayan cedar
1700-2750 meters
across Himalayas
conifer, 40-50 meters tall, 10 meters girth, generally grows on northern slopes
(Picea smithiana)
2250-2750 meters
Western Himalayas
conifer, 40-55 meters tall, 3 meters girth, higher branches are upward pointing, really long needles, generally grows on northern slopes
(Abies pindrow)
silver fir
2500-3700 meters
Western Himalayas
40-60 meters tall, 7 meters girth, gray-brown furrowed bark, overall conical shape with level branches, needles have a white streak on the underside, dark purple erect cones, generally grows on northern slopes
(Pinus roxburghii)
Himalayan pine
500-2000 meters
across Himalayas
heavy cone, 40-50 meters tall, 6 meters girth, rough bark, needles are arranged in bundles of three, prefers southern slopes
(Pinus wallachiana)
blue pine
1800-4300 meters
across Himalayas
long cone, 30-50 meters tall, needles are arranged in bundles of five, bluish in colour, generally grows on northern slopes
(Quercus leucotrichophora)
Himalayan white oak
1500-2400 meters
Western and central Himalayas
15-25 meters tall, twisted gnarled trunk, rounded canopy, underside of leaves is white and hairy, acorns edible
(Quercus floribunda)
(also Quercus dilatata)
Himalayan green oak
1700-2700 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 6-9 meters girth, straight trunk with dark reddish brown bark, leaves 4-6 cms long and green on both sides
(Quercus semiscarpifolia)
Himalayan brown oak
2800-3250 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 4.5 meters girth, straight trunk with domed crown, dark grey bark broken into small plates, 2.5-10 cm long leaves, with brown underside
(Quercus glauca)
ring-cupped oak
also Japanese oak
widespread15-20 meters tall, straight trunk with domed crown, dark brown furrowed bark, leaves purple red when new, powdery blue-green underside when older
diverse genus
1500-3000 meters
across Himalayas
shrubs and small trees, glossy leaves, sometimes with a scaly underside, bright flowers

Climbing into the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, near Paro, is situated at an elevation of 3120 meters. The first view of it is spectacular (see the featured photo). But when I reached the base of the climb and saw the monastery hanging on a cliff a kilometre above me, my heart sank. I had really old and bad shoes, and I was physically out of condition. I told The Family I would not be able to climb.

The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. I was not convinced, since The Sullen Celt is a trekker and is unable to compensate for other people’s lack of fitness. Someone else said that the group of buildings that we could see part of the way up included a cafeteria with a great view of the monastery. I allowed myself to be persuaded by The Family that I could sit and have a coffee there while the rest of the gang climbed. The first twenty paces were a little bit of steep rock, but then the path became a dirt track, as you can see in this photo. This would become of great consequence on our way down.

Passing time on the route up to the Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

The initial climb was less hard than I’d expected. Previous travellers had dawdled during the climb through the rhododendron forest. We saw several small stacks of carefully balanced stone. It is reassuring when you see that someone sat down at a point where the climb was beginning to get steep and caught her breath doing something slow. I recently read a diatribe against them, and found myself agreeing. However, Bhutan teaches you the art of balance: the whole landscape of the country is a lesson in how to live in nature without overwhelming it.

View of Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

We left behind the forest bright with red rhododendron flowers and climbed higher. This was the realm of blue pines (Pinus wallichiana). As the road steepened, I had a lovely view of the monastery through the pines. It did not seem to be any closer.

Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Takstang monastery was built by the fourth king of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, in a site that was already holy. The legend of this place, called Taktsang Phelug (Tiger’s nest), is that the Guru Padmasambhava converted a Tibetan princess to Buddhism. She took the form of a tigress and flew with the Guru to this place. There he meditated, and emerged in eight different forms to subdue demons. The tsechu here has been used many times to consolidate national feelings. The first king, Ngawang Namgyal (also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche), performed the tsechu here in 1644 at the beginning of the war against Tibet, and invoked the story of the Guru as a metaphor for the war. His wish to build a temple here was finally fulfilled when Tenzin Rabgye declared the start of the works in the tsechu of 1692.

Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Clouds were massing over the mountain, and flowing slowly down its sides as we climbed. The light was now worse, but it made the pine forest into a magical kingdom. Many of the trees were covered thick with orchids. We came to the point where the road to the cafeteria branched off. By now our group of climbers had stretched into a long thin line. If I went off to have coffee I would leave The Family to do the climb alone. Better prepared walkers would have no problem with this, but both of us were terribly out of shape that day, almost exactly a decade ago. So we decided to stick together. At this time I thought that the hard work was done, and it would not be much longer before we reached the monastery. So we went on.

Hand painted shed on the route to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

There was a little temple, a Lhakhang, nearby. I paused to take photos of the four sacred animals painted by a local artist. From left to right you can see a tiger, a snow lion, a Yamantaka, and a dragon. This may have been the first time I saw these guardians all together, but I was to come across this combination many times over the next decade. The most beautiful representation I came to see was in the Dubdi Gompa in Sikkim. At this time I didn’t know that the Yamantaka was a representation of the Manjushri Buddha, and the snake he eats is death.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

I was completely wrong about the major part of the climb being over. The steepest part came after this. I have no record of this long climb because I had to put my camera into my backpack for a bit when I had to use my hands to steady myself. After that I was too tired to take it out again. I did not notice the soft sounds of wind through the pines and water dropping on rocks, things that The Family still remembers at times. I was completely out of breath when I reached the highest part of the route, all I noticed as I sat down on a rock parapet was that we were surrounded by prayer flags. The Family went over to the other side and realized that we were at a special place, where we could actually look down at the monastery. This was a pleasant view indeed.

Dog near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan
Moth near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

We stopped here for a long while. The road dips down steeply beyond this, and a waterfall cascades between this mountain and the next one. We would cross between the two over a bridge and then walk up the next one into the monastery. It is not a long walk, but I had to prepare myself. This stage has two packs of territorial mountain dogs. They stand on the two mountains and bark at each other. I haven’t seen dogs with such a curly tail before. I paused to look at the flags when I noticed a moth sitting on one. As I took the photo you see here, The Family pointed out that the flags were full of moths of many different kinds. I was just beginning to learn to identify butterflies, but moths remained out of reach: then, as well as now. There are just too many kinds.

We went on down. The sound of the waterfall soon drowned out the barking of the dogs. There were Redstarts flying about near the water, flitting from stone to stone. We saw these birds for the first time in Bhutan, but were to see them many times later. The climb after this took all my breath away. I reached the monastery panting from the climb and sat down on the steps. Climbing those last few steps seemed too hard.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

The last photo I have is the one above, taken just a little before the end of the last climb. I walked into the monastery, and must have seen some of it, but nothing remains in my memory. There was a major fire which destroyed Takstang monastery in 1998, ten years before our climb. The fire killed a monk and destroyed many old paintings and statues. What we saw was largely rebuilt with material brought up on the backs of men. What tremendous labour that is! Just a climb with a camera and water had tired me out so much.

It started to rain as we were up in the monastery. Someone suggested that we wait it out, but The Sullen Celt said it was not going to let up soon, and we should start off right now. She was right about the rain, but not about the walk. We made our way slowly back down to the waterfall and up again over rocks made slippery by the rain. Then, as we headed down through the forest the skies opened up and a really heavy rain started. The dirt track through the forest became a river of mud as we made our way down. We slid down parts of it and by the time we reached the bottom the rain had stopped and the sun was out. The warm sun baked hard the mud that we were now crusted in. It was a long time before we could get it off. We would do the climb again if we went there now.