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.

As high as I’ve gone

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There are few places on the planet as desolate as a high desert. When you climb high enough, there’s too little oxygen in the air for plants to survive. The straggling remnants of grass die out at a height of about 5350 meters (17600 feet) above sea level. The lack of oxygen affects people too. I was in a vehicle with eight other people, including the driver, and all chatter died down as we climbed. I could feel a little headache coming on. The landscape around me was odd: bare rock and dust.

We’d reached the high desert in a part of Sikkim which is geographically a continuation of the Tibetan plateau. This involved a climb of nearly 1400 meters (4500 feet) in about 5 hours. It’s guaranteed to give you a bad headache unless you are really well acclimatized to the height. But we had no choice. The only hotels we could find after much searching were in the Lachen, well below Gurudongmar Lake, which was our destination. We could not do a slow drive either, because high winds often start up there in the afternoon, and tourists are stopped a little below the lake.

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We reached the lake before noon: we were 5425 meters (17800 feet) above sea level. A couple of my travelling companions were fit enough to start walking around the lake. The lack of oxygen was slowing me down; I was content enough to stand in one place and look at the wind-rippled surface of the water. The northern end of the lake looked strangely bright. My oxygen starved brain lumbered into gear and eventually told me that that end of the lake was still frozen. It was the last day of April. Clouds were massing up to the north, but there were still patches of clear sky above the lake. The only colours I could see were the brown of the rocks, the white of snow and ice, and the blue of the sky.

The lake is sacred to Buddhists because it is associated with Padmasambhava, the Buddhist monk who took the religion to Tibet. There is a local legend that a part of the lake never freezes because he stopped it from freezing by putting his hands into the water. The water looked clear and beautiful. If I’d been better prepared for the height then I would have liked to walk down to the edge of the water and tried to drink some.

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We’d taken the road up from the south where the plateau sloped up very gently. This lake is within 5 kilometers of the Chinese border. When I looked west I could see the high Himalayan peaks, probably part of the Kanchenjunga range. Closer by, to the north, I seemed to see a glacier descending from a high peak (photo above). My headache was getting worse, and I was able to make simple inferences and look for landmarks only with much concentration. Eventually I stopped thinking and began clicking away with my camera. These are missing moments in my life; I have no memory of this time. I would later sort through the pictures, match them to maps and try to reconstruct what I must have seen. Very soon even taking photos was too much of an effort. I retreated to the vehicle and lay down for a nap.

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Our driver was from Gangtok. He was in the car and trying to sleep. Later I found that he also had a bad headache at that height. When we drove back, a descent of about 30 meters (100 feet) was enough for my headache to recede. I could even run out of the car and take a photo of the vehicle stopped in the desolate landscape (not quite, because the road parallels a narrow stream). Everyone seemed to have a oxygen threshold. Some of us never hit it. Others recovered quite suddenly at various points as we descended.