A stunning sight

Malkohas are skulkers. These non-parasitic cuckoos will sit concealed in canopies of trees. I’ve only seen them as they flutter from one treetop to another, or caught glimpses of one hidden inside foliage. Until the day when, on the road next to the Himalayan Darjeeling railroad near Rongtong, I saw two Green-billed Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus tristis) basking in the sun.

Well, I suppose everyone enjoys a lovely day in spring.

Chaudapheri camp

Chaudapheri camp is a way station on the Rache La trek. This is part of the old trade route that joined Bhutan, Sikkim, and the lowlands of Bengal. The camp’s odd name was explained as a travelers’ direction. This is the point you get to after fourteen turns on the road after leaving Lava. So I suppose this is a fairly old camping spot, much older than the forest rangers’ cabin that you see here.

The mule was dozing in the middle of the mud churned up by jeeps. After it noticed us it walked closer and, in its mulish way, wouldn’t go away until someone fed it banana skins. I was reminded of a description of mules I’d read, partly in preparation for this trip, “However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes. It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff.” (Frank Kingdon Ward, in In the Land of the Blue Poppies) In these days of 30 lb. limits on baggage, I suppose I’ll only ever get to use one fourth of a mule.

Rara avis

When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.

Picking at tigers’ claws

A Himalayan black bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) posed for a while on a tree next to the road. Perhaps unsatisfied with the ways the photos were turning out, it flew to a Tiger Claw (Indian coral tree , Erythrina variegata) in bloom. Just hold it there, Bulbul. Turn a bit, bit more. Right. Now chin up. Perfect. I’ll let you know when the photo’s published.

Damn. He didn’t give me his phone number. If you see him, just let him know. I met him at 1800 meters.

Walking an ancient route

Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.

The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.

The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.

Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.

We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.

One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.

A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.

After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.

This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.

Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!

You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.

I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.

We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.

The locals are friendly

We stopped outside a small village on our way down from the heights. We could hear an Asian barred owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides). We spotted it on a bare tree and saw it being mobbed by a few racket-tailed drongos, a mix of Dicrurus paradiseus and D. remifer. The show was over soon and we decided to walk on through the village.

All of these villages straggle down a fairly steep slope, so the road switches back several times to pass through them. We passed a house which seemed to be very busy, with lots of men coming and going. A few waved to us. We waved back and walked on. We passed the back of the house down-slope, and looked up to find a bunch of people at a window, looking at us. They broke into smiles for the camera. People were friendly, not like those racket-tailed drongos.

A wild orchid

The orchid Pleione humilis was very common in and around the upper reaches of the Neora Valley national park. All along the eastern Himalayas at altitudes between about 2 and 3 Kms above sea level, it is in flower in late winter and early spring. I’ve been to the right height also in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Assam, which are all parts of the normal range of this orchid, but missed the flowering because I usually go later in spring. The orchid grows on wood or moss, and likes to spend about a quarter of the day in sunlight, so the drooping white flowers are easily visible along roads. Each flower grows out of a different bulb, and each bulb has only a single leaf.

I’d noticed earlier that orchid fanciers are like orchard managers. Interested in tiny differences between varieties, and paying great attention to their differentiation. The greatest achievement that enthusiasts can think of is to have a variety named after them. This exasperates botanists, which is very evident when you read a paper from 1971 in the Kew Bulletin called The Cytology and Taxonomy of the Genus Pleione. Hunt and Vosa, the authors, write “About forty specific epithets have been published in the genus Pleione and considerable confusion exists among the names given to plants in cultivation. Understandable and acceptable differences of taxonomic opinion were confounded with outright mis-identification.” You don’t get more sarcastic in a scholarly publication! They conclude that there is no evidence for more than nine species in the genus Pleione.

Following the thread on cytology, I looked at a very interesting observation in a thirty years-old paper. There seem to be two different growth “habits” among Pleione species. Some are epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees or moss. The Pleione humilis in the featured photo is one of these. The others, which I haven’t seen, are terrestrial, meaning they grow on the ground. The habit depends on the shape of the chromosomes. Paired chromosomes are linked by a structure called a centromere. When this is at the middle of a pair, they are called metacentric chromosomes. Human chromosomes are metacentric, as a result of which the chromosome appears to be in the shape of an X when you see it in a microscope. When the centromere is at the end of a pair, then their visual appearance in a microscope is like an I. These are called telocentric chromosomes, and are rather uncommon in plants. The paper found that epiphytic Pleione have metacentric chromosomes, whereas the chromosomes of the terrestrial species in the genus are telocentric. I haven’t found papers which followed this up in the modern age of genomic analysis. Perhaps there are new taxa hiding in this genus.

Lava bazar

My memory of Lava Bazar was quite different from what I saw this time. When I was there last, during Christmas almost a decade ago, we had walked through the town on Christmas eve after a bad day of bird watching. The little hamlet was full of lights and cheer, with wandering bands of carol singers roaming through its few roads. That sight could not fail to lift our spirit. Now it looked bigger, and more decidedly a town.

Up here it is easy to decide what is a village and what is not. Houses in a village each have their vegetable patch, and a few of them cluster together between fields terraced for agriculture, cleared from a forest which not only grows beyond the fields but straggles through the village. Houses in a town stand cheek-by-jowl, doors closed, no space for vegetable patches, no groves of trees. On these steep hillsides space seems to be at a premium even in such small towns.

The expansion was clear from this one space: a combination taxi stand and stop for regional buses. Three roads led out from this junction full of shops, restaurants, and a wall which contained an outpouring of local art (above and the featured photo). My camera batteries had run out in the morning, so I had to sit in a restaurant which allowed me to recharge it. The Family was unencumbered, and spent the wait walking around town taking photos. All photos in this post are hers.

I had the time to contemplate on how the great game in Asia had caused this change. After the disaster of the Himalayan war in the early 1960s, India fell into a policy of letting roads in the mountains deteriorate to slow future advance by China. Twenty years ago I noticed that the policy was changing, and the BRO was busy constructing roads again. The changes were imperceptible at first: more leisure activities up here, trekking, bird watching, weekenders. Local prosperity followed; the Eastern Himalayas have a variety of homestays, which we liked more than the regular hotels and resorts of the Western Himalayas. The result of this different model of development was a direct infusion of money into the local economy.

One result has been the rise of democratic politics. Now, just when a state election had been announced, certain well-used walls seemed to have received new attention. If we had come to Lava Bazar a month later, at the beginning of April, say, then many more walls would probably have had a new coat of paint. The multiple ethnicities in the hills will only be tamed with prosperity and self-determination, provided some generosity and good will is thrown into the mix.

The generational romance of the 19th and 20th century politics still shows on the walls here (Bob Dylan’s songs are anthems that local boys learn when they first start strumming a guitar). But a churn is quite clearly in the making. The locals who had the time to chat with us were quite aware of their place in the larger events of the era. Most of them were aware of the importance of conservation in the ever-expanding tourism industry. I had an illuminating discussion of the performance of electric cars on hill roads. How had he come by this information? Someone he knew, part of an extended family, had driven electric cars in Uttarakhand.

That day we were being driven by an older man. He seemed to know everyone on the road. He stopped briefly to ask a middle-aged couple whether their new house was to their liking, asked a young couple where they were off to, said hello to a couple of kids when he slowed at a turn, received replies from all, acknowledged waves from others. After a while I asked him to stop when he met someone he didn’t know so that I could take a photo of that person. He stopped at this wall, where two people were waiting for a bus. But no, he chatted with them. So I took a photo of the wall.

Meeting a master chef

One bite of the omelette that he had produced convinced me that the young man working away in the small kitchen was a master chef. The omelette was light and airy, creamy and fluffy. I had a strong desire to close my eyes as I savoured it. The ingredients were the usual Indian (I should say Nepali, because the cook was a Nepali speaking Indian) mix, chopped green chili and onion incorporated into the egg, but the fluffiness was one that I haven’t seen in any of the best breakfasts in India. Here in a little-regarded corner of the Himalayas, in a small restaurant in Lava Bazar, was the best omelette chef of the country!

The rest of the lunch was equally marvelous. Millennia of cultural exchange has made sure that the food of Nepal and India are not very different. So an inexperienced person like me cannot tell whether the simple but delicious food that was served to me was Bengali or Nepali. It was certainly served in the way that I know is Bengali or Odiya. A mound of rice on the plate, with a little green leafy vegetable as a starter. Then some dal (wonderfully light) and a mixed vegetable (again, light on the masala, and the freshness of the ingredients very evident). A plate of roasted papad was put on the table. Rice was topped up whenever you wanted. And finally the chicken arrived. Heavenly. You could just eat the potato which had been cooked into it, or even lick the gravy off your fingers, and be transported by the taste.

We went back the next day, of course, and the owner of the establishment had added a new experience for us. A plate of what looked like the puri of pani-puri. But when you bit into the crisp globe, you found that the thin shell was made of rice flour. A Nepali papad, I was told. It went down easy with a fiery paste of chili. Papad comes in so many different styles across the subcontinent that I’m still discovering new ones. Before leaving, I leaned across the counter to congratulate the cook. He smiled and asked me to come back. I will, and I hope the restaurant flourishes. I noticed the momos that he had made ready for the evening snack time. He saw me looking and pointed out one that he was proud of. “Rose,” he said and grinned. He was young, perhaps in his early or mid-twenties. I hope he is able to grow into his chosen profession. Because it is such a small establishment in a relatively unknown place, I’ll break a rule I set myself in this blog, and name the restaurant: it is called Sinchula. I may have the satisfaction of hearing from you about your experience there if you go, but nothing more.

Human landscapes

Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.

When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!

On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.

Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.

The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.

The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).