December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

Village Kolakham

Kolakham village had the charming look of the villages up in this corner of the Himalayas, in the part of Bengal which nudges up on Sikkim and Bhutan. It is not just the Nepali language that distinguishes people of this region from the rest of Bengal. I walked into the kitchen in the morning to hear a song on the radio playing softly. It wasn’t in Nepali. The Tibetan song was a religious tune which the cook, a Buddhist, was listening to. None of these are the essential distinction between people in these villages, 2 kilometers above sea level, and those down at the foothills. Our driver put it neatly, “The people down there speak the same Nepali as us, but they don’t smile and help.”

Every house is built on two levels. This log cabin has an upper level which faces directly on to the road, and serves as a combination shop and roadside restaurant. The lower level, partly log covered over with metal sheets (perhaps as protection against wind) is where the family lives. This opens out into a garden with a gate which leads up from the road below. You can always build multiple views when you make a house on a slope.

Not all houses are made of logs. More common are these timber-frame houses. Woven cane mats are nailed to the frame, and daubed over with a thin layer of plaster. It is a mixed technique: wattle-and-daub meets timber-frame. In these forests of oak, pine, and bamboo, these are easily available material. Also, when there is an earthquake, as there is once or twice in a person’s lifetime, you will not be buried under heavy building material.

The simplicity of construction means that most people try their hand at building their own houses. This beautifully constructed door was clearly built by an amateur. It is slightly out of true, the frame not quite a rectangle. The elements of the door have been joined together by an amateur carpenter. I loved this. When you travel through the country you see a lot of naive folk art. It is wonderful to see the same naive aesthetics in architecture.

I am over-simplifying, of course. There were at least three concrete houses in the village. These are built by specialists. But these are mountain villages, after all. Even the workers and their employers have a pleasant relationship. In a different village, at a house under construction, I saw three workers take a break as the lady of the house brought them cups of tea and some snacks. Life is hard up here, but, by and large, people pitch in together. The most visible part of life up here are the flowers that you find in the garden and porches of each brightly coloured house. You could not miss the fact that it was early in spring.

The village has a little movie theater. Not as old-fashioned as the hand-cranked movie projectors that you could see in villages in the last century; this movie theater probably shows videos. 4G connectivity was easy, but I guess there is a market for things you cannot stream. I also liked the physical distancing marks on the road, in a village which hasn’t had a single recorded case of COVID-19.