A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.

Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Three butterflies

Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.

Pieris canidia indica, Indian cabbage white (subspecies Himalayan)

A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.

Aglais cashmiriensis, Indian tortoiseshell

Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).

I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.

A mountain garden

Gardens in the Himalayas always amaze me. Even in years when the rainfall has been scanty, there’s enough moisture in the soil to keep most garden plants happy. And, of course, the air is cool enough to keep flowers fresh for longer. But that’s not the main surprise. It is which sense the garden engages. In the mountains the brilliant colours, like in the gardens of the temperate regions, are meant to be seen. Perhaps a rose is the most fragrant of flowers in these gardens. In the plains of India, gardens are places which harbour fragrance, and many of the flowers are simply white. Even among Himalayan gardens, those of the western Himalayas are quite different from those in the east. In Sikkim, Bengal, and further east you see a lot of orchids in garden. Here in Kumaon, and in the rest of the west, orchids seldom appear. Instead, gardens have lilies, pansies, roses, and daffodils. These are flowers my mother struggled with. It is a wonder to see them growing in such profusion up here.

Roses are among flowers which I don’t like to photograph. I don’t really know what to do with them. Do they look good in colour? One moment the delicate rose shade is what you think you want to keep. The very next moment you think you would rather concentrate on the texture and the shape. I can’t make up my mind, so I give you both.

It is the same with any flower slightly past its prime. As a flower begins to dry up, the streaks of colour mature into something immensely complex and eye-catching. The texture is also so beautiful and complex that you can get a lot of pleasure looking at it even when the picture is drained of colour. Again, I leave you to play with these aspects of a photo.

On our long drive from Almora to Munsiyari we stopped for lunch at a deserted hotel outside a busy town. The tourism industry had collapsed the previous year, as it is bound to again. The restaurant next to the parking lot was open, but we were the only customers. The cook had not prepped anything because days go by before anyone pulls in. Since it would take a while for food to be ready, we climbed the stairs to the next level to marvel at the garden. We looked in through picture windows into the rooms: well furnished and large, everything in good shape in spite of a bad year. The garden was also very well kept, and kept us occupied until the food was ready. The cook did a marvelous job.

When it comes to pansies I have no doubt that I want to retain the colours. The wild combinations that nature and enthusiasts have collaborated to create are just too good to lose. The deep reds, the showy splashes of mauve and yellow, the exuberance of whites against a brilliant background, not something I can subtract from my photos very easily.

The day was getting warmer, and we still had almost four hours of drive left. So, let me get on with it. But before I go, I give you another rose, drain the picture of its delicate pink, leave the texture of the petals, and the shape of the spiral it is folded into.

Orchid trees

Our trip had been planned badly, so we spent really long hours on the road. There was little time for long walks, and in any case the pervasive smoke from forest fires made it impossible most of the time. As a result, the opportunity for bird watching was limited, and I decided to concentrate on something I’ve long put on the backburner: identifying trees. On the day-long drive from Almora to Munsiyari, I spotted a tree full of white flowers by the road, and stopped. A closer look told me that this was Bauhinia variegata.

The characteristic shape of the leaves of the genus Bauhinia has been called “camels’ hoofprints” by Pradip Krishen in his field guide Trees of Delhi. Less poetically, when you flatten out a leaf, it seems to have two lobes. The five-petalled flower has colours which can range from purple to white, hence the specific name variegata. You can find this tree across India up to an altitude of about 1500 m. As a result it has many names in different Indian languages. I think I’ll stick to the Kumaoni name, Kachnar for now, instead of the fancy English constructs like mountain ebony or orchid tree. After all, Corbett just calls it Bauhinia. In Kumaon I saw the flowers used in food, and read later that the flower as well as leaves are eaten in various parts of India. Apparently its uses in medicine have been documented for a long time. The full geographical range includes Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and southern China. It would be interesting to check whether it is used for cooking in Cantonese food, or, more accurately, in the kitchens of Guangdong.

In most of the flowers that I saw, three of the five petals stand close to each other, sometimes overlapping, and two are quite separate. As a result, from many angles a photo shows all five petals, and all five long stamens. One petal is always multicoloured, making it a very interesting subject for photography. As I read more about this genus, I saw that it contains species across the world’s tropics. Is this then a very ancient genus? Apparently not. Fossil and molecular evidence agree in placing its origins in Eastern Asia only around 60 million years ago, just about the time that India banged into Asia. So its dispersal across the world is not due to continental movement. Amazing that seeds and seedpods can travel such long distances!

Changes

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.

Is it possible to brew good tea on a mountain?

It wasn’t exactly rain that we had that afternoon in Munsiyari, more of a heavy fog which slowly settled. We went back to the spot where we had seen the Koklass pheasant the previous day, but a Koklass never crosses the same road twice. The cold and the fog made the prospect of a chai somewhere a wonderful idea. But do you get a good cuppa on a mountain? School physics textbooks which pretended to answer the question did not emphasize that all theories should be put to test. In spite of such a deficient education, we decided to experiment.

As we climbed down towards Munsiyari we passed this odd looking restaurant. Could we get a chai here? It looked closed, but one of the huts behind had an open door. We investigated, and indeed it was possible. At an altitude of 2400 meters the air pressure is about 75% of what it is at sea level, and water should boil at about 92 degrees. The little calculator I carry at all times told me this as soon as I thought of asking (you probably carry the same calculator with you constantly). There were three of us, so we could even use the wisdom of crowds to judge the result. The conditions for the experiment were perfect.

We sat in a room which would have been marvelous if the day was clear. All the walls were made of clear sheets of glass. On three sides the view of the Panchachuli massif and neighbouring peaks would have been stunning. But the smoke and fog were dense. On the fourth side we could see the shed where this important experiment was running. So what if we’d not seen the Koklass? Here was a large painting of the Himalayan Monal and rhododendrons. The Family had carried several packets of biscuits in her backpack. We opened one for the wait.

The chai arrived soon enough. We declared that it was hot enough to warm us. The ginger added to the brew tasted great, and I loved the big jolt of caffeine. We got seconds. I think there is a point this answer to the question posed on Quora which I have used for the title of this post: “No. Not if you believe that there is only one good tea, and it requires water at 100 C. And if you believe that maybe you shouldn’t be on a mountain.” As for our experiment, it was successful. It gave a definite answer, which we had a consensus on: yes. All that remains is for others to do the experiment for themselves and check.

Parakeet morning

The tuneful but loud whistles of a Himalayan whistling-thrush woke me on my last morning in Almora. It was sitting in the balcony. The sun had not yet risen. I lay in bed enjoying the beautiful song of the bird. It used to be called the truant schoolboy once for its joyful whistling. The Family was in deep sleep, but I found that I was fully awake. I slipped on a jacket, and stepped into the balcony with my camera. The thrush was still whistling on a tree nearby. A great barbet called from far away, and in front of me plum-headed parakeets (Psittacula cyanocephala) wheeled in the sky, with their cheerful pinging calls.

I don’t see these birds very often. The male has a dark red-purple and the female a blue-grey head. The darker collar of the male and its red shoulder patch, the yellow neck of the female, the bright yellow upper beak, and the long blue tail with a yellow tip are other things to look for. The light was still fairly bad, but I took some photos anyway. They might not be there later. Taking photos disciplines my attention. I might not have caught the courtship feeding otherwise.

Since males and females are so easy to tell apart, even a casual observer like me can see a certain organization in the pack. First, the packs are mixed, but the sexes generally segregate when they come to rest. I wondered whether this is generally true, or even true of other species of parakeets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find many studies of the social organization of parakeet flocks. The only paper I found was almost a century old and had studied pecking order in a different species of parakeets. The observations showed a lack of strict pecking hierarchy. It would be strange if no one is studying parakeet societies. When I look out of the window, they seem to be as intelligent and social as crows.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

A walk in an oak forest

The breeze blew cool and clear. There was no one close by on the path up to Zero Point inside Binsar National Park, so I pulled my mask down to smell the trees around me. Oak forests don’t have the pleasant resinous smell of pines, but they are so much more alive. At this height, about 2400 meters, the Himalayan white oak (banj, or Quercus leucotrichophora) should be close to its upper limit, but they looked like they were thriving away from the hard competition with chir pines (Pinus Roxburghii) on lower slopes.

Oak forests are alive. Langurs prefer banj oaks as roosts. A yellow throated marten streaked across our path, it is another inhabitant of banj forests. I could hear a woodpecker looking for lunch, and, from a distance, the call of the Great Barbet. This forest was full of birds: seed eaters, acorn gatherers, and insectivores. The oaks themselves harbour life: fungi, lichens, ferns, orchids, and mistletoe. Butterflies flitted about on the sun dappled path. On gentler slopes the canopies merge together to provide complete shade under them, making it hard for younger trees to grow. But up here, the slope was steep enough that there was always a gap in the canopy, and rhododendron and other trees could spring up. Still, the forests of the western Himalayas do not seem to have the exuberance of the east. The monsoon winds create this difference.

The smaller number of large trees here gives me a chance to slowly begin to recognize most of them. A few years ago I made myself a small and incomplete field guide to trees of the middle heights. I’ve added to that by now, and I realize I can recognize most of the trees around me as I walk. But the herbs are another matter. I stop and look at the small plants poking out of the muddy cliff on one side of the path. I haven’t the faintest clue about them.

I could stick to the trees for now. The path is surrounded by oaks. I’ve aways been a little surprised by that. Oaks, mistletoe, holly all sounded exotic to me when I grew up surrounded by mango, guava, jamun, and silk cotton trees. But to my surprise the genus Quercus, oaks, seems to have its origins in a part of an ancient continent which is today East Asia, in the middle of the Eocene Epoch, perhaps about 45 million years ago. That was just after the earth had gone through one of its temperature maxima (there were no ice sheets anywhere on the planet) and the Indian plate had just banged into Asia. Over the geological ages after that, the oaks adapted to the cooling climate, and crossed the Himalayas into Europe. The five Himalayan species found themselves settled at various heights, Q. leucotrichophora at the lowest altitude. During the multiple ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch the white oaks seem to have covered a very large part of the lower slopes.

Most observers agree that the oaks are slowly being crowded out by pines on the lower slopes. I asked why, and got different replies. The literature is also a little confused, but I tried to make sense out of what I read and heard and got an interesting story. The two main threads in the plot are how fast the trees grow and how they respond to fire. Once the acorns germinate, the oak seedlings can halt growth until conditions are just right. This requires a moderate disturbance of the forest to let in some light. In the days of Jim Corbett, this was provided, at least partially, by human intervention, as villagers chopped off a few branches of older trees for kindling, and removed some of the leaves for fodder. But now this activity is forbidden, for reasons that were well-intentioned. As a result seedlings lie in arrested growth for long times in unattended forests. The trouble is that in recent decades a “fire season” has become part of the annual cycle in the ecology, probably due to direct human intervention. I have read no account of it in the older literature on Kumaon. Fire affects the slow-growing oak seedlings disproportionately.

Pines, on the other hand, are adapted to grow in degraded land, and can reach a height of 20 meters or so in a decade. Fire also causes pine cones to open up and release spores. As a result, chir pines out-compete and out-grow oaks. They are also more immediately useful for commerce, so the forest department manuals on planting and harvesting of pines are widely used. Oaks provide more ecosystem services, but they are not seen as commercially viable products. As a direct result, I could not find any manual on oak silviculture. When I reached the end of the walk I could look down at the surrounding slopes. The nearer ones, inside the park, still held many stretches of oak forests. Further off, there seemed to be more pines.