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.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.

Beyond blue mountains

As you travel through the Sivaliks you see forests of pine slowly give way to oak as you climb higher into the Himalayas. At the Jalori pass, which is at an elevation of more than 3 Kilometers above sea level, you see mainly brown oaks towering above you. Then, once you are over the pass, a whole vista of the Himalayas open up: across the broken ranges of the forested middle ranges right up to the high Himalayas. The snow covered peaks that you see in the photo above were probably closer to us than Parvati Parvat (whose peak at an altitude of 6.6 Kilometers makes it the highest in the district of Kullu).

A closer zoom towards the peaks shows little more. The nearby forested ridges hide the higher mountains from view. The photo which you see above was taken from the Jalori Pass in Himachal Pradesh. At this height the forest around us was dominated by brown oak. As you climb higher, these are the last trees to die out. So the trees along the top of the ridge in the photo are probably brown oak. The distant snowy peaks are likely to be about 5 Kilometers above sea level.

Views of these peaks raise the travel-nerd in me. I see the next ridge, and I feel like exploring that. Then, of course, there will be the next ridge, and the next higher one, as you slowly climb. I have done that in the past, but this trip was a simple one, taking The Young Niece with us up to a height where she would still be comfortable. We looked at the meadows on the far ridges. The Family climbed up to a meadow on a near ridge while I walked with The Young Niece under the green trees of this middle earth, between the plains and the mountains.

The weather changes fast on the mountains. Storms raced across the hills during this week, bringing dust-storms to the plains. The next day, we walked to the edge of high cliffs and looked out again on the high Himalayas. The ice in the high valleys two Kilometers higher shone bright even in the diffused sunlight which filtered through the clouds. 50 million years ago, the Indian plate crashed into Asia, slithering into the magma below it, and pushing the Tibetan plateau into the sky. The Himalayas mark that catastrophic but slow collision. The Sivaliks, otherwise called the lower Himalayas, were made by crunching together the detritus left over from this collision, and were raised about 15 million years ago.

The Family never finished reading The Lord of the Rings, but it contains a verse, written in the Sindarin language which the old Don made up, which is appropriate for her. In English it goes “We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees, the starlight …”. She cannot tear her eyes away from those distant peaks. We stood together, looking out at that harsh landscape of rock and ice. I was lost in matters of zoom and foreshortening, mulling the turbidity in the air, as she imagined herself walking up those rocks.

Our first view of the Himalayas on this trip was after an unproductive morning of bird watching. We were coming down from a drive up to Rohla. The Lotus had decided to walk down while the rest of us took our time piling into the car. We drove down to a turn in the road where we could look across the Great Himalayan National Park to the peaks where the Tirth river originates. The air was foul again, and the glacier could not be seen. The Lotus came down the mountain and all of us looked into the distance, knowing that it was a seven day walk to the mountains that we could see.

The last lap

The road from Chandigarh to Kullu passes through the Aut tunnel. We didn’t need to do that. At Aut, we turned left instead, and passed over the barrage on the Beas, just downstream of the junction with the river Sainj, with the famous Larji barrage. We’s climbed steadily since we passed Mandi, and we were already at an altitude of 1 Kilometer above sea level. At these places the roads are not always open. You can come to a halt while an earth-mover pushes a fallen boulder away from the road. I took the featured photo at just such a stop.

A few tens of kilometers before we had passed a section of the road which was being widened and relaid. The look of an industrial wasteland created by a combination of earth-movers, road rollers and sundry other equipment can be impressive, but does not stop the traffic. I’d taken a photo as we whizzed past. To travel to a time table is to miss opportunities to take photos. This was one such place. I could have easily spent fifteen minutes at this point taking photos.

I got an opportunity as we moved into the Tirthan valley. The Tirthan river falls into the Sainj just beyond the Larji barrage. As soon as we entered this stretch of the road, we passed an earth-mover at rest. I got the photo which you see above as we passed by. At the forced stop a few kilometers on, where I got the featured photo, one of these machines was at work clearing the road. I suppose that these things are parked at various points along the road, so that they can quickly reach where they are needed.

The photo which you see above illustrates one of the confusing points about the topography of these rivers. This is the junction of the Sainj and Beas. I would normally have expected that the straight channel is the Beas, and its tributary, the Sainj, comes more or less at a right angle to fall into it. Here, it seems that the Beas takes almost a right angle turn. I suppose this is due to a convention by which the bigger of the two streams which join at a confluence gives its name to the river downstream of the join.

Once we had passed an altitude of a Kilometer, the lifestyle of people clearly changed. I began to see structures similar to those in the photo above. The shed on the roof of the house stores hay and cut grass for cattle in winter. I’d earlier seen these sorts of structures in the eastern Himalayas. I took it to mean that there can be some snowfall in this region, so that storing cattle feed becomes important in winter.

You can see another specialty of houses in this region in the photo above: the roofs tiled with thin sheets of slate. I looked around and began seeing slate in the rocks surrounding us. The other main rocks here seemed to be quartzite and gneiss. I guess that the presence of so much metamorphic rock should have told me something about the geology of the Sivaliks range of mountains that we were in. But I’m a dud at that; I just enjoy the view.

As we climbed up the Tirthan river valley, the vegetation changed. We stopped to admire a Jacaranda tree in bloom. The Family and I were reminded of our trips through Bhutan a decade ago. The Young Niece had not seen Jacaranda before, and was quite thrilled with the bright purple flowers. The Lotus said that he hadn’t expected the area to be as beautiful as it looked. I could agree with that. Once off the Kullu highway, there were few other people on the road. We seemed to have left the haphazard growth of villages behind. There was a sense of peace that descended on us, in spite of the fact that all our phones were running out of charge. But there were few junctions on the road, and the GPS was not really needed.

The road rose and fell. At one point, when the road had come down almost to the level of the river, I saw this beautiful house near the road. In the golden light of the setting sun, it looked perfectly peaceful. We could have stopped and looked for a place to stay the night. But Dilsher from our hotel sent us a message saying that they were waiting for us. So we went on.

We stopped briefly for tea. It was our first halt since lunch, more than four hours before. The temperature had changed completely. We were now at an altitude of 1.5 Kilometers above sea level. The heat of the plains had vanished from my memory. I put on a sweater as I got off the car. We sat on a terrace at the level of the road and had our nice warm tea with some biscuits. As you can see from the photo above, this was just the upper floor of a house. You could climb down from stairs from the road, and the main part of the house was downslope, with a nice vegetable garden opening out in front of it, above the river. Dilsher called, and I said that the GPS showed we were less than half an hour from the hotel.

We climbed higher. Eventually I found that the road would climb to an altitude of almost 2 Kilometers, and our hotel would be in a valley whose bottom was 1.8 Kilometers above sea level. The terrain had changed again. We went past Gushaini, a village which straddled the confluence of the Falachan and Tirthan rivers, crossed the Tirthan river, and branched off along the Falachan valley. The surroundings looked quite different again. We were still in the Shivaliks, of course, but in its upper reaches. The vegetation was a mixture of middle altitude trees.

As we climbed, the vegetation changed. I took a photo of the hillside covered with a single variety of trees, with electrical lines threading through them. The only trees which I have seen before outgrowing its competition at similar altitude are Chir pine. So I thought that’s what I was looking at. But now, looking at the photo above, it is clear that these are not chir pine. Pines, firs, spruce and oak are among the main trees which grow at this altitude. I’m almost as bad at identifying trees as I’m at geology, so I have absolutely no idea what these trees are.

We were almost there. Just before the batteries of my phone drained out, I took a photo of the sun setting into the Falachan valley. Fortunately, we reached our destination before sunset. We marveled at the 100 meter slope we had to climb down. Dilsher in person was quite as welcoming as he had been on the phone. I congratulated The Family for finding a wonderful place. It took us a day to realize that the distance from Chandigarh to the hotel, which we had taken about 11 hours to cover, could be done in around 7 hours. Soni had driven very carefully, and we were happy with that. But as we sat next to the river and drank a tea, I couldn’t help feeling that if he had kept to the average time on these roads, I might have had time to stop for better photos.

Driving to the doors of the Himalayas

The drive from Chandigarh to the tunnel at Aut swings back and forth from near the Sutlej to the Beas: two of the five rivers which give rise to the name Punjab. This is an area of massive geo-engineering projects from two generations back. The city of Chandigarh can be considered to be one of these projects, since it was planned and built in roughly a decade. Our road up to Aut passed very close to the Bhakra-Nangal dams, one of the projects which was called a “temple of modern India” By Nehru, and which completely transformed Punjab’s agricultural economy. It turned out that the topography of the hills was such that we would not have a view of the dams. In fact, we seemed never to come very close to the Sutlej river; the featured photo is one of the closest views we had of the river.

Soni, who was driving our car, stopped just outside Chandigarh at a petrol station. This was the heart of rural Punjab, and I saw a tractor pull up to the pump to refuel. That’s not something I get to see often. This part of the highway was full of tractors and motorbikes. These thinned out as we began to climb up the slopes of the Sivaliks. These are the foothills of the Himalayas, never rising beyond 3 Kilometers above sea level, but carved up into twisted ranges by meandering rivers. There was an abrupt climb immediately after we fueled, and we left behind the unseen lakes formed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

We stopped for an early lunch. Across the road I could see a temple of contemporary India being built (photo above). We saw lots of them along the way. The older temples are off the main road, and require a bit of climbing to get to. The new temples are all built to be easily accessible by car. A little market was growing up in this narrow shelf around the road. I poked my camera into a little saloon and caught the photo you see below.

The road continued to stay close to the Sutlej. We would cross some of its larger tributaries every now and then, as the road jumped from one ridge to another slightly further north. Soni was one of the most uncommunicative persons I’d come across, but he realized that we were interested in rivers. So he stopped at a point where we had a grand view of a trickle of a river through a wide valley. A long bridge spanned the valley, but this was not the Sutlej. The far away glint of water which you can see in the photo below is the Sutlej.

The slopes were gentler now, but we were climbing continuously. The houses began to change character. The simple whites and greys of the lower slopes were giving way to different colours. I noticed that cheerful pink roofs were more common as we climbed. Sloping roofs with this colour of tiles was clearly a specialty of Himachal Pradesh. We would see more of these roofs as we went higher

The external paint on walls also began to take on the colours of advertisements for paints that you see on TV. Do advertisements follow life, or the other way around? In these days of viral culture seeping through cables, the difference between life and ads is probably inconsequential. We forged on.

I began to look for doors: not the metaphorical ones which we were headed for, but the honest-to-goodness doors which are the Norm. There was a profusion of windows, but precious little of doors. This roadside eatery, with its lovely rank of dekchis lined up on a counter is an example. There must be doors here, but they are lost in the gloom below the terrace. All I could see as we passed by were windows.

Then, as we passed over yet another stream, The Family shouted something that could be “Eureka” or “Rubicon”. She had the map app on her phone active all this while, and it told us that we were crossing the Sutlej. From here we were headed towards the Beas. Soon enough, we reached the little district town of Mandi.

Mandi looked like a typical hill town: precarious structures leaning on each other, cut through by narrow streets, hemmed in by slopes. They spread laterally along slopes, rather than in circles around a town center. I liked the cheerful pink colour of the town. We’d originally planned to stop here for lunch, but we’d eaten already. So we sped by the town.

We were almost a kilometer above sea level now, and the typical Himalayas houses began to show up along the road. Like in the photo above, you see a single story from the road. But if you walk up to the house, you would find another story or two below the road, snuggling into the slope. Often the level at the road is used as a shop or a garage. This one had its shutters down (doors at last!) but it was clearly neither.

In no time at all we reached the last of the major geo-engineering projects along this road: the barrage at Pandoh. This connects the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, and utilizes the difference in altitude between them to generate electricity. The gentle Pandoh lake stretches behind the dam, curving through the valley which the Beas had carved out ages ago. The road went along the river all the way to the 2.8 kilometer long tunnel to Aut. This is truly the doorway to the high Himalayas, one which we would not push through.