A Laughingthrush

I just found what I’ve been doing wrong all these days: laughingthrush should be one word! I’ve seen several of them before, and thought of them as a variety of thrush, but apparently they are all classed as one separate genus, the Garrulax. We saw this Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus) on our aborted trip to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park. It was quartering a ledge below the path we were on, examining the ground very closely. This behaviour clearly meant that it was an insect-eater looking for its next meal. Traditional classifications place 45 species into this genus, but recent genetic studies indicate that these birds and the babblers have to be re-classified. This causes a confusion about whether to call the bird Garrulax lineatus or Trochalopteron lineatum.

No matter what biologists call it, the Streaked Laughingthrush is common across the Himalayas and can also be found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My first sighting of the bird was ten years ago, in Bhutan. But I should rethink that, since the Bhutanese subspecies is now said to be a separate species, the Bhutan Laughingthrush. Avibase records four subspecies. The region we were in showed a very high number of reports of this bird. Looking at the map of the reports, I wonder whether the density of sightings has to do with the number of birds or the number of watchers. It is quite possible that the bird is evenly distributed across the Himalayas. A survey in Uttarakhand found it at all altitudes they surveyed: from urbanized areas at an altitude of about 500 meters, to forests at heights of over 2 Kilometers. Studies like these lead to the IUCN’s classification of this bird as being of least concern for conservation action.

A midmorning snack

We didn’t manage to get much birding done on our aborted walk from Gushaini to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park at Ropa. It was a bit too late in the morning, and I, for one, was too busy panting during the steep uphill sections to do much looking. So we climbed back down, on a “shortcut” which locals take. This is essentially just short of rolling downhill, until we came to a bridge under construction across the Tirthan river. We clambered across this, and climbed up to a motorable road on the other side. Why? Sanjay, our guide for the day, said that we could possibly see some birds about a kilometer higher up. By the time we decided that it was too late for birdwatching, it was midmorning.

Sanjay said there was a tea shop nearby. I didn’t mind some tea, so we walked down there. The pleasant young person running the shop (featured photo) was happy to make us some. In one corner of his shop was a kadhai full of oil and another full of sugar syrup. Sanjay took a look at these and decided that he wanted jalebis. The mix was ready, but the shop owner did not know how to make them. “Another person comes here and makes them in the morning,” he said. Sanjay decided that he was an expert. We sipped our tea while the stove was lit, and the oil warmed up. Experimental jalebis were made. The Young Niece started laughing when she saw the plate (photo above). They looked nothing like jalebis, but I notice that she ate them all right. They were crisp and sweet and tasted like jalebis.

First stop in Tirthan Valley

Instead of going through the tunnel to Aut, we crossed the Beas at the Larji barrage, and turned into the valley of the river Tirthan. The traffic eased off instantly. We passed a point where the road was under repair, and decided to stop for tea. There was little roadside shop. As is usual in these parts, behind the shop front was a terrace where you could sit, and below that, tucked into the slope, was the owner’s house, looking towards the river. From the terrace I saw some butterflies hovering around fruits on a parapet at a lower level. When I climbed down the butterflies were gone, but the peaches remained. Two beetles and many ants were busy eating the peach. This looked like a holiday where I would meet many unknown insects; I was happy.

I could see more interesting things at this level. The peaches were placed near a little shrine made out of a shiny cloth draped over a curtain rod and weighed down by stone idols. I could not recognize the idol. I found later that stone craft in this region is still is alive, and people carve local deities for use in homes. This could have been such a piece. The silvery idol of Durga on her lion seemed to be a mass-market piece made in a distant workshop. The niche and the shrine had an aesthetic which I’d not seen in a temple in the plains. This looked closer to Himalayan Buddhist sensibilities. Perhaps they have a common origin.

I turned around and saw an idol of Ganesha tacked up on a tree. Ganesha comes in a variety of forms; in the last couple of decades I’ve seen a lot of experimentation with the form of this idol. This one seemed to be quite mainstream, except for the belly. What was more unexpected was the XXL sign stuck on the same tree above the idol. I looked around to see whether there was any explanation for this. If there was, it did not leap out at me.

I climbed a set of stairs back up to the road, and I noticed another object which was completely unfamiliar to me. A tree by the road, next to the shop, had been turned into some kind of a shrine. The red cloth and the garlands are typically seen at religious spots. But what were the other things doing there: hub caps, locks, a hammer and a jack do not usually go together with religious flags. There was something deeply different here. I found later that every village has a traditional diety, and its own special festival. Spiritual beliefs in these isolated villages are different from the mainstream. I never got to ask questions here and find any answers. I suppose The Family would tell me “Another reason to go back.”

Mountain mules

I leave cities now and then, but it seems the city never leaves me. I’d taken a mountain path from Gushaini towards Ropa village, which is the starting point of the Great Himalayan National Park. The path follows the valley of the river Tirthan for a while, so I kept looking over to the other hillside, which was full of wonderful slate-roofed traditional wooden houses. You can see one of these in the featured photo. I kept wondering about how they would bring the building materials to the construction site. I assumed that it would be easier to bring the wood and mud to the site than to bring bricks. I completely forgot two things.

The first was that no motorized vehicles come over these narrow mountain roads. The second is that slate tiles are the heaviest part of the material. These two forgotten points passed me on the path in the form of a train of mules carrying slate tiles. My aha moment was prolonged. By the time pulled out my camera, the mules had gone past. I still managed to catch the picture which you can see above. In the mountains everything has to be hauled up. Most of these narrow tracks are too narrow for trucks, so there are no alternatives to carrying them up yourself, with the help of porters and mules. Bricks and concrete are options only when there are roads.

After the mule train had passed I recalled having seen it earlier on the path. I’d failed to get a good shot of slaty-headed parakeets and taken out my frustration by clicking a photo of this mule grazing. A car had been parked nearby, and I’d missed a shot of the birds because it started up, startling the parakeets. So I guess a truck must have brought the stone up to that point, and then transferred the load to the mules. One of our companions on the walk volunteered the information that someone was building a large house near Ropa. That was probably where these mules were going. Every bit of construction on the hills is labour intensive, until a road is built.

Gushaini

A month ago I’d not heard of Gushaini. Then it became the point around which our travel plans revolved. Eventually it became a little town in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh through which we passed every day. As you can see in the featured photo, Gushaini sits where the Falachan river falls into the Tirthan. Behind the tallest building in the town you can see a path snaking up a mountain; this road eventually leads to the Great Himalayan National Park and the popular trek to the 5.2 Kilometers high Srikhand Mahadev peak. Beyond this is the Zangsu glacier, which, according to maps, seems to be the origin of the three main rivers in this area: the Falachan, Tirthan and Sainj.

The bridge across Tirthan that you see in the featured photo was one we crossed daily as we forked off along the Falachan river towards Bathad village. Every school in the region has a different uniform. We got to recognize the pink and white of the Gushaini school after many encounters with children running up and down mountain tracks while we sat gasping after a short climb. The Family said she wished she’d grown up here.

I wondered. Children who come to school from outside the main town run and skip through the hills, but the children who live in the town, in “modern” houses made of concrete and bricks, seems to have little space to play in. My overwhelming impression of Gushaini was of narrowness and constriction. Terraces of most houses were incomplete constructions, left over for expansion in future, not places where children could run around. I noticed two young girls playing with a ball in a little corridor formed accidentally between two buildings. Life in towns here is perhaps more constricted than in Mumbai or Delhi. Probably bringing up a child in a middle-sized city like Chandigarh is best.

One day, after a morning’s drive Soni stopped on the road to buy some food. I looked into the shop with its samosas, pakodas and jalebis and took this photo. I was keen to get to the wonderful lunch at our hotel, but The Family was torn. The issue was decided by Soni having to drive off because the car was blocking the narrow road. The heavy-duty backpack that you see hanging over the door at the back is common here. I wonder whether that’s just old trekking equipment being recycled into things of daily use.

It is easy to block this road. The only bus which plies the route along the Falachan river seems to do this very effectively every time it comes along. I was there once when it came to a stop on the road. It immediately gathered a crowd around it. One person tried to get on immediately, and was roundly told off by the conductor. The rule is the usual: people get off before others can get on. For all the chaos, the crowd is not unruly. The route is Bathad to Kullu and back. I don’t know how often the bus plies (and I couldn’t find information on the web) but it is at least thrice a day, and very likely more frequently.

While most of the people on the street gathered at the bus, I turned to take a photo of the rest of the village. Unplanned houses leaned over the road: different styles and colours jangling together. Traditionally houses seemed to be of stone and wood, with mud plaster. It is slowly giving way to brick and concrete. I guess this lasts longer, and could be no more expensive in the long run, but it may have a larger initial cost. The one constant change in going from village to town in these parts is that the ground floor is given over to shops rather than cattle. It is certainly true of Gushaini. A man staggered down the road smoking a cigarette, the town drunk, I guessed.

The only shop selling meat in the town was this dilapidated hut. I was amused that the huge shop selling liquor was in a concrete structure, and well lit. What does this say about the region, apart from the possibility there may be more profit in selling liquor than a major item of food? I saw this hut as picturesque, but I’m sure that most locals would disagree strongly. The planks which you can see stacked on one side are the doors. They are put in place across the entrance every evening, and taken away again every morning. They do not secure the place. They only signal whether or not the business is open.

The family wanted some fruits. We stopped at one of the vegetable and fruits shops and bought some. Local fruits are exotic to our eyes: plums, apricots, cherries in addition to the usual apple. Mangoes are in season, but they are brought up from the plains. We wanted cherries, but it was too early here for them. The shopkeeper was chatting with a friend, and got up to wrap our apples and mangoes in an old newspaper. There were plastic bags hanging in the shop which you have to pay for. I found later that Himachal was the first state in the country to ban some plastics by a law adopted in 2003. These laws are not universally obeyed, but they are not ineffective.

We took leave of Gushaini as haphazardly as we’d come across it. The Young Niece pointed at the signboard atop a closed restaurant and smiled. I looked at it. It promised you everything: sweets and Chinese food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, coffee were merely the beginning of a breathlessly long list which ended with “et cetera”. The local speciality, siddu, put in an appearance. We’d had it once; a steamed rice bun with a nice spicy vegetable filling. I took a photo of the signboard. It turned out to be the last photo I took of Gushaini.

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.

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