Plants of Singalila

Since we walked through fog for many hours, I couldn’t admire the scenery. I went back to my favourite eye-exercise, looking at plants and flowers. So this is not an exhaustive survey of the flora of Singalila ridge, not a treatise on the key plants in the ecology, but just the things that caught my eye. If I wanted to put a gloss on it, I might call it listing plants along a transect. Our path descended from Tonglu, a little above 3000 meters, to Chitre, a little below 2500 meters. The flora changed considerably over this descent.

At the upper end of our walk, just below Tonglu, we saw many thistles. It was past their autumn period of seed dispersal, but a few stray silk chutes still clung on to the spiny seed pods. I like to take photos of thistles in summer, during their flowering, and autumn, during seed dispersal. This was the first time I’d seen so many in winter, and I realized this is another good season for photographing thistles. I’m not expert enough to recognize the species from its seed pod in winter. Somewhat lower down I thought I noticed the leaves of an Indian globe thistle.

Less common, but still abundant were the rhododendrons. Kunzum told us that the slopes are red in spring with their flowers, so these must be Rhododendrum arboreum. At the highest part of our walk they grew in single stunted bushes. Lower down they were little forests of short trees. They had begun budding already. I’ve seen seed pods of Rhodos before, so I was very puzzled by these completely different structures on the tree. Rhodos do not let their seeds fly away in the breeze, so what were these plants? I think they are another plant growing in the wind shadow provided by the Rhodo, but I don’t know what they are.

After Meghma we began to see oaks, the Quercus leucotrichophora or Himalayan white oak. They are called banj in the western Himalayas. Kunzum didn’t have a name for it. Growing on them was something that looked like a species of Tillandsia, perhaps even Spanish moss. I was a little hesitant to give it that ID, but then I remembered that this ecosystem was disturbed heavily in colonial times. Pineapple, the most well-known member of the family Bromelaceae, is now grown extensively across Asia, and perhaps no one remembers that it is an exotic. So it is possible that Tillandsia, another member of the family also travelled far.

As we descended the number of species of larger plants definitely increased, and I began to see more and more things that I did not recognize. This plant is certainly in the large family Asteraceae, which bear complex flowers. To recall what is a complex flower, think of a sunflower. Each “petal” is actually a flower all by itself, and its center consists of individual small flowers. They’ve all fused together into what we usually think of as a single flower. This family is so large that I have trouble identifying them all. Any help is always welcome.

Then there were these interesting plants. The first had leaves like a holly. Kunzum told us of a person who’d identified it via Google Lens as Indiana Holly. I don’t think that is a valid identification. All these machine learning algorithms are coverconfident and jump to conclusions. They have trouble telling people that they are not sure what something is. The false holly was entwined with a bush that Kunzum knew of. He scraped the bark with his thumbnail and showed the bright yellow colour of the stem inside. He told us that it was the plant that is used locally to make the yellow colour for religious paintings. The flowers belong to the same plant.

Then, just before we made the final descent to Chitre, we saw two lovely plants. The flowers were growing on a banj tree, but they are clearly not oak flowers. They were a wild orchid. I don’t know the species, but it should be easy to identify since there aren’t many that flower in winter. Next to it is the final puzzle plant that I saw. I hadn’t seen a pine with such long needles in the Himalayas before, but Kunzum was quite certain that many grew around Darjeeling. Later I saw a type specimen in the Lloyd Botanical Garden. It is an exotic, Pinus patula, commonly called the Patula pine or the Mexican weeping pine. With so many exotics, this ecosystem will never go back to what it was before the 19th century botanists came here.

There goes the sun

Tonglu village was our destination on the sunny morning when we took a walk on the Singalila ridge. I thought the weather was perfect. Winter was setting in. The air was pleasantly cold as the climb warmed us up. In deep shadows we could see that the night’s frost had not yet melted, but the sun was warm on my back. As we approached Tonglu small signs of human habitation began to appear. An enigmatic fence in the distance marked out a circle where the forest department had planted seeds of local wild species. Human intervention is needed now to restore this protected ecosystem to its former self-sufficiency. We could hear water flowing nearby, a little mountain spring. A couple of cows grazed on the dry grass. A single horse was nibbling at the grass some distance from them.

I could see six or seven houses at the top of slope ahead of me. That would be Tonglu. When we reached them we found that was all. In 1868 CE, Tonglu was described in a letter by George Ernest Bulger, a Major in the British Indian Army, to Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was then “collecting” in India. Hooker was a close friend of Darwin, and would go on to receive a knighthood after he became the director of Kew Gardens. Hooker paraphrased a part of the letter, “The Lepchas and Sikkim Bhoteas, although still the most willing and cheerful people he has ever been out with, have learnt to drive a bargain as successfully as Hindus; he fears they are not so honest as the used to be.” The description is typical of its time, two people whose highest service to the empire was to rob, and eventually nearly destroy, the local ecosystem, regard seeking a fair wage as dishonesty.

Tonglu did not have a settlement in 1868, and was known only by the fact that it was the highest point on the Singalila ridge. But it was known well enough that Marianne North pitched her tent nearby in order to paint the local wildflowers. Even now the travellers’ home (photo above) is the largest structure on the hill. I suspect that the tiny hamlet has come up mainly to service this niche bit of tourism. In the time it took us to shuck our backpacks, and finish photographing the dining area of the travellers’ home, the sun had disappeared. A thick fog was blowing towards up from across the ridge.

We could still see a bit of the blue sky when we stepped out of the yard into the small clearing around which the other houses stood. I had time to get a photo of this cheerful green house with its prayer flags. But by the time we turned the corner of the travellers’ home and reached the small pond just outside, the sky had turned gray. The water of the pond looked black in the light. That’s what you see in the featured photo. That peak wasn’t much of a climb, and I was sure that from there we would get a good view of the village. But with the light being so bad, all our photos would look dull. You can tell that I’m more interested in photos than walking by the fact that this argument convinced me not to make the climb.

Instead we spent out time waiting for lunch to be cooked by walking around the lake. The peak which we did not climb was covered with prayer flags: lung-ta, wind horses. A small area at the base held another cluster of these flags. I don’t know enough about the local traditions and beliefs to understand why certain places are singled out for the lung-ta. Reflections in the dark water of the lake gave some photos which I thought could be interesting. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” The Family said. It would be a pity if our afternoon’s walk was to be a washout.

Eating on a hike

High points are high points. At least on our hike the biggest experiences were all clustered together. The actual highest altitude, the fantastic view of four of the world’s highest peaks, and the lunch. I’ve already written about the kitchen where we broke for lunch. It looked a little like colonial-era photos come to life. In order to clean the scene of the unsavoury history that encrust those monochrome images, here I show the photos in colour. You can see that the old photos missed out on the cheerful colours that hill people surround themselves with.

While approaching the village I’d heard the tinkling sound of a mountain spring filling a large tank which had been placed under the runoff. The water is used to grow vegetables. I could see the freshness of the produce just from the colours of the vegetables in the pantry (you can compare the photo above to an earlier monochrome version).

Soon enough a simple but tasty meal appeared on the table in front of us. There was a mound of rice in each plate to go with this. For lunch I would have normally eaten only a quarter of it, so I put three quarters aside into a spare plate. The Family also put aside a large part of the rice. Good as the dal and rice tasted, it was just a background to the vegetables here. On the plains you would see diced vegetables in curries. The batonnets that these were cut into foregrounded the freshness of the vegetables. But then I reached for the rice I’d put away. I couldn’t have enough of the veggies, and the curry base needed the rice. Our guide, Kunzum, was delighted. “You’ll need the energy,” he said.

At breakfast in the border town of Manebhanjan, we’d had the option of having these preserved chilis with our fresh-made parathas. I’d passed it up. These cherry chilis, dalle, grow in the Darjeeling hills, and are widely used in kitchens here. During lunch a jar of home-made pickle of radish and dalle was an option. Here, in the coolness at 3 Kms above sea level, my tongue seemed to react differently to chilis. The Family looked at me goggle-eyed as I liberally dosed my rice and dal with the the pickle. She’d never seen me enjoy chilis.

One thing I miss on such walks is frequent doses of tea. We’d had tea a little after eight in the morning and our next hot cup would come only at the end of the trek, at five in the evening, when we reached a cozy tea house in Chitre. It called itself Eagle’s Nest, and seemed to be a place where people came from nearby hamlets to socialize. We sat in a corner table and watched the place fill up with lots of people who knew each other. The trek ended as we walked to our pickup car parked by the road. The road is the border between India and Nepal. All day we’d weaved between the two countries. Now, as I looked at the time on my phone, I realized that it was fifteen minutes out of sync with Kunzum’s watch. “What a bother,” I told The Family, “That means we’ve been on international roaming through the day. I have a long dispute with the phone company coming up.”

The morning I saw Chomolungma

When The Family decided that we have to start walking in the Himalayas, she had in mind the famous week-long treks like the Annapurna base camp, Har ki Dun, Phulara ridge, or Sandakphu-Phalut. But since I the job of arranging it came to me I immediately started thinking of day-long walks. After all, we’d hardly walked at a height before. The only trek that I knew which fitted the bill was one that a very experienced trekker friend had told me about a year before his death in the early days of the pandemic. He’d told me that it was a fairly level day’s walk, although you were 3 Kms above sea level, and that the real payoff was the view of four of the world’s five highest peaks from one point. In the photo above you can see the path winding up to Sandak Phu; it would have taken us four days more to walk up there for a better view. When we saw Chomolungma flanked by Lhotse and Makalu, the view was a coda to our friendship. I’m glad I finally did it. I’m glad I could show it to you.

The trek we were on was the Tumling-Tonglu trek, which is part of the Phalut-Sandakphu trek. I’d contacted a reputable company in Darjeeling to arrange the trek. We started from our hotel at 6 in the morning, and watched the sun rise over Kanchenjunga, as we drove to the busy border town of Manebhanjan. Treks along the protected bioreserve of the Singalila ridge start from here. The town was clearly involved with the football world cup. After a breakfast of paratha and alu dum, washed down with chai, we got into a Landrover and got off at Tumling. This Nepali village is at a height of 2970 m. We would then walk about two and a half kilometers, climbing a 100 meters to Tonglu village, where we would have lunch. Then in the afternoon we would walk another six kilometers to Chitre village (2500 m) just above Manebhanjan. Google told me that this was a two hour walk. Our guide assured us that it would be at least double that. I’ve noticed this problem with Google’s algorithms when you are walking in the mountains.

It doesn’t snow at this altitude in December, but there’s a brisk wind over the ridge. The temperature was around 7 Celsius, but the breeze made us zip our jackets tight. There are a few trees on the leeward slope, but they are stunted. There is grass, and many low bushes. Most of it was dry and unrecognizable now. When we come back here one April I’m sure there’ll be flowers. The temperature must have fallen below freezing at night, because we saw frost still remaining in the shadows. Sangay, our guide, looked at it and said “Winter may come early this year.”

There are few people here. The villages are tiny, and the number of trekkers is not large. There were some who’d stayed overnight in Tumling. We waved to a pair who were having tea outside the general store and restaurant made of corrugated metal, which you see in the photo above. We passed a little chorten, a stupa, surrounded by lungta, windhorses, things that we know better as prayer flags. The ridge line here is the open border between Nepal and India. The paved road is Indian territory. We were on the windward side of it, because of the gentler slope and that put us in Nepal.

The land never slopes entirely in one direction of course, so in the middle of a gentle climb you often climb down and then climb up again more steeply than you’d expected. I was enjoying this walk. After the experience in Leh in July, I’d not crossed the 3 Km mark till now. The walk was entirely pleasant. The breeze was moderate as log as we kept ten meters or so below the ridge. Soon I’d taken off my cap and unzipped my jacket. I stopped now and then to follow a raven’s flight, and once to marvel at a lone snow pigeon which banked in flight above us, its wings looking reddish brown in the sun. We’d seen a family of Kalij pheasants on our way up. I couldn’t see or hear any choughs.

The landscape was dappled with the shadows of clouds. The browns and blues of winter were a wonderful change from the dusty gray of the plains. I kept stopping to look at the rocks. Most of it seemed to be metamorphic schist or gneiss, with lichen growing on the surface. The Family had walked ahead, and she spotted the huts of Tonglu. Even without that it was clear that a village was nearby. A couple of mules munched on the dry grass. The spring water near us was draining into a large plastic tank. By 11:30 we had reached our lunchtime destination. With all the halts for views and photos, we had taken two hours to walk roughly as many kilometers!

Tibetan mastiff

Mountain dogs are quite different from those of the plains. I’ve become familiar with their shape, large size and curly tails, and behaviour, a tendency to sleep in the sun or bark loudly at others on distant hills. But this one sleeping outside the trekker’s lodge in Tonglu village, 3000 meters above sea level, looked different; the tan colour with spots of bright red-gold, for example, or even the volume of its shaggy coat. Sangay, who was with us on our walk, told us that it was a Tibetan mastiff, largely used in the hills as a guard dog. It must have smelt and heard us, but, as is characteristic of the breed at daytime, it kept sleeping. I understand that it is a wonderful guard dog breed, and if it was night its barks would have woken up the whole village.

Not having seen the breed before, I did a little reading, and found that it is a rather well-known breed, and is shown often in India. It developed as a guard breed in Tibet, and was then adapted to herding. It seems to do well at both, being gentle with animals under its guard. It seems to have a double coat, with the colour that we saw being fairly common. Blacks, tans, and reds dominate. I understand that it sheds briefly but massively twice a year, and needs a large yard. I suppose this last is the reason I haven’t seen it in cities. The other must be its habit of barking very loudly at night in reaction to movements, smells, and noises.