India 2008: Mountain goats and frozen flowers
Suddenly the air seemed to explode of activity: Three Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) tore down the slope and landed on the trail, where they only hesitated for a second before throwing themselves over the edge. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
With my Indian friend, forester Ajai Saxena, I embark on an early spring trip to the Uttarkashi District, in the state of Uttarakhand. We intend to hike along the Asi River to its origin in the sacred lake of Dodi Tal, situated at an altitude of c. 3300 metres, and from there continue to the Darwa Pass (4050 m).
Wildlife along the road
From Delhi, we drive towards the pilgrim city Haridwar, and thence along the Ganges River to Rishikesh. During a break along the road, we have company of a couple of Terai langurs (Semnopithecus hector), which take their seat on the roof of our car. It seems that many car drivers are feeding these monkeys, but as we oppose the habit of feeding wild animals, we don’t give them anything, and shortly after they disappear, jumping into the trees. (Read more about langurs, as well as many other monkeys, elsewhere on this website, see Animals: Monkeys and apes).
Along the road various plants are in bloom, e.g. a very common species of St. John’s wort, Hypericum oblongifolium, Asian butterfly-bush (Buddleja asiatica), and Phlogacanthus pubinervius, a magnificent shrub of the acanthus family (Acanthaceae), which has large, reddish-brown inflorescences. A yellow species of primrose, Primula floribunda, grows on a wet rock, and in the marshy ditch beneath the rock we observe a species of helleborine, Epipactis veratrifolia, with beautiful, yellow-green petals, streaked with reddish-brown.
Near the city of Uttarkashi, we notice a cactus-like plant, Royle’s spurge (Euphorbia royleana), growing on a dry slope. This species is utilized in local folk medicine, and in some areas it is regarded as a magical plant, which can protect houses against lightning. (Read more about it on this website, see Traditional medicine: Euphorbia royleana).
We spend the following night in a forest rest house just outside Uttarkashi. In the morning, we notice a rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta), sprawled along a branch. The troop, to which it belongs, has spent the night in the pine trees around the rest house. In the grass, we find a remarkably well camouflaged praying mantis, which resembles a twig.
During a break along the road near Rishikesh, we had company of a couple of Terai langurs (Semnopithecus hector), which took their seat on the roof of our car, shortly after jumping into the trees. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This species of St. John’s wort, Hypericum oblongifolium, was common along the road to Uttarkashi. In the background Crofton weed (Ageratina adenophora), of the composite family, a native of Mexico, which has become an invasive in the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This yellow primrose, Primula floribunda, grew on a wet rock along the road. This species is distributed in montane areas between Afghanistan and western Nepal. It differs from most other primroses by having several umbels up the stem. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In a humid ditch along the road, we found this species of helleborine, Epipactis veratrifolia, with beautiful yellow-green petals, streaked with reddish-brown. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Phlogacanthus pubinervius is a magnificent shrub of the acanthus family (Acanthaceae), with large, reddish-brown inflorescences. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A very small post-office-cum-radio-shop, Uttarkashi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) spent the night outside our forest rest house, sprawled along a branch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the grass, we found a remarkably well camouflaged praying mantis, which resembled a twig. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hike along the Asi Ganga
From Uttarkashi, we are accompanied by a local forester, Mr. B.P. Bahuguna, and one of his assistants, who will carry some of our luggage. Our goal is Sangam Chatti, a village c. 15 kilometres outside Uttarkashi, where our hike will start. In the village we pay a visit to a local project, in which women create art from dead branches, which have been washed up along the river banks. The branches are trimmed, polished, and varnished, before being sold to tourists. Faces have been applied to some, while others resemble birds or dinosaurs.
Our walk along the Asi River is fairly level, giving us ample opportunity to botanize on the way. Among many species of blooming herbs, we encounter e.g. Himalayan peony (Paeonia emodi), which has large, white flowers, a pale-blue species of sage, Salvia lanata, a small-flowered member of the mint family, Micromeria biflora, a species of cranesbill, Geranium nepalense, and yellow-flowered strawberry (Duchesnea indica, or Potentilla indica), which, incidentally, is not a strawberry, but a cinquefoil. Its fruits are strawberry-like, but completely dry and without taste. Various shrubs grow along the trail, among these the fragrant Deutzia staminea, palmate fig (Ficus palmata), and winged prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum alatum), whose seeds are used medicinally for e.g. toothache, coughing, and rheumatism.
In Sangam Chatti, we paid a visit to a local project, in which village women created art from dead branches, which had been washed up along the river banks. Faces had been applied to some, while others resembled birds or dinosaurs. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan peony (Paeonia emodi), which has large, white flowers, is the only peony species in the Himalaya, found from Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal and extreme south-western Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The seeds of winged prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum alatum) are much utilized in folk medicine, especially for toothache. The bark of this small tree is thick, corky, and spiny, giving rise to the name prickly-ash. Branches and leaf-stalks also have spines. The ‘ash’-part of the name refers to the shape of the leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The palmate fig (Ficus palmata) was first described in Yemen by Swedish naturalist Pehr Forsskål (1732-1763), who participated in the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia (1761-1767). In Yemen, he also described another species of fig, Ficus morifolia, which, however, is today regarded as a part of the F. palmata complex, the leaf shape of which is very variable. – Read more about Forsskål on this website, see People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The fragrant Deutzia staminea, of the family Hydrangeaceae, is widely distributed in the Himalaya, from Pakistan eastwards to south-western China. It grows at forest edges and in other open areas, between 1,100 and 3,200 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Beautiful village houses
In the village of Agora, situated at an altitude of c. 2,300 metres, we make a brief stop to interview the villagers about their usage of wild plants. Several of its houses are adorned with beautifully carved beams, made from Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis) – a very common tree in the Himalaya, which readily grows in landslides and other eroded areas.
We spend the night in a forest rest house at the outskirts of the village. Many shrubs of Himalayan box (Buxus wallichiana) are flowering in this area, as well as numerous Himalayan hornbeams (Carpinus viminea), which has long, pendent, reddish-brown catkins. Many of the trees around the village show clear signs that their foliage and thinner branches are often lopped for fodder, causing the leaves to grow densely on thicker branches, lending the entire tree a stunted and fuzzy look.
Birdlife is rich, and among others we notice the black-and-white kalij pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos), crested goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus), the gorgeous maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii), and red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha), the latter in courtship display outside the rest house. The female is sitting on a branch, shaking her wings, while the male jumps back and forth in front of her, or over her back, while turning his head and tail from one side to another, tail feathers spread out, which makes the white spots on the outer tail feathers visible.
Several of the houses in Agora were adorned with beautifully carved beams, made from Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young woman in Agora is pounding crops in a mortar, using a long wooden pestle. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Many of the trees around Agora showed clear signs that their foliage and thinner branches were often lopped for fodder, lending the entire tree a fuzzy look. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhododendrons and squirrel-handled leaves
The following morning, a short distance beyond the village, we meet a group of women on their way home, heavily burdened with huge loads of hay, to be used as fodder. A couple of children have been collecting wild ferns in the forest, which will constitute a part of the family’s lunch.
Along the trail, hairy bergenia (Bergenia ciliata) is quite common on rock faces, and we notice a lovely fragrance, emitted by the Himalayan butterfly-bush (Buddleja crispa). The forest now contains trees like Nepalese pear (Pyrus pashia), displaying a profusion of white flowers, a species of maple, Acer sterculiaceum, and Rhododendron arboreum, with clusters of bright red inflorescences. The intensity of the red colour decreases with higher altitude, and near the upper limit of the occurrence of this species, about 3,800 metres, you sometimes encounter trees with white flowers. This tree, which is among the tallest of rhododendrons, growing to a height of 15 metres, is very common in the entire Himalayan range, as well as in montane areas of South India, Sri Lanka, northern Thailand, and northern Vietnam. (Read more about this species, and other rhododendrons, on this website, see Plants: Rhododendrons.)
On the ground, we notice many leaves of spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia) with a large hole in the centre. Mr. Bahuguna explains that these holes are made by the red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista). When eating a leaf, this squirrel will fold it along the mid-rib and then eat the central part, thus avoiding the edge of the leaf, which is more toxic than the centre.
Among birds, we observe species like Himalayan monal pheasant (Lophophorus impejanus), in Nepal called ’the bird of nine colours’, in allusion to the brilliant plumage of the cock; two huge vultures, Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis) and lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus); the bright red long-tailed minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus); the blue-and-white ultramarine flycatcher (Ficedula superciliaris); and white-collared blackbird (Turdus albocinctus), whose male resembles Eurasian blackbird, but has a white collar, which merges into a white throat.
A short distance beyond the village we met this woman, heavily burdened with a huge load of hay, to be used as fodder. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This girl has been collecting edible ferns in the forest for the family lunch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hairy bergenia (Bergenia ciliata) was quite common on rock faces. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A lovely fragrance was emitted by the Himalayan butterfly-bush (Buddleja crispa). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In March-April, the Nepalese pear (Pyrus pashia) displays a profusion of flowers in the Himalaya. This small tree, whose fruits are edible, is widely distributed, from Afghanistan eastwards to China and Southeast Asia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Indian forester B.P. Bahuguna, displaying a leaf of spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia) with a large hole in the centre, which was made by a red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista). When eating a leaf, this squirrel will fold it along the mid-rib and then eat the central part, thus avoiding the edge of the leaf, which is more toxic than the centre. We found many such leaves on the trail. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A sacred lake
As we approach Dodi Tal, snow is covering the ground here and there. Only a few plants are in bloom here, by far the commonest one being Himalayan marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris var. himalensis), while a species of primrose, Primula sessilis, is noticed several places. The flowers of this species are a beautiful violet, each petal round, with a tiny, sharp point. At the lakeside, a small Hindu shrine has been built, indicating the status of the lake as a pilgrimage site. However, it is too early in the year for pilgrimages, and we are the only guests in the lodge at the opposite side of the lake.
I walk up a tiny side valley on the lookout for a troop of pale-armed langurs (Semnopithecus schistaceus), several of which live in this area. This langur is a large species of leaf-monkey, found at medium altitudes in the Himalaya, but occasionally straying to 4,000 metres. Soon I find a troop, whose members are busy eating flowers of large-flowered viburnum (Viburnum grandiflorum) – one of the few Himalayan trees, which bloom in winter and early spring at higher altitudes. The animals are rather confiding, letting me approach quite close.
Birdlife is sparse here, and I observe very few species, among these rufous-naped tit (Periparus rufonuchalis) and Eurasian tree creeper (Certhia familiaris). On my way back towards the lodge, I encounter a Royle’s pika (Ochotona roylei), the commonest pika, or mouse-hare, in the Himalaya. These small animals, comprising about 12 species in Central and East Asia, resemble rodents, but are close relatives of rabbits and hares. During the summer months, they collect large amounts of grass and other plants to store as winter food, as they do not hibernate.
At Dodi Tal, a small Hindu shrine had been built, indicating the status of the lake as a pilgrimage site. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Coniferous forest near Dodi Tal, partly covered in clouds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pale-armed langurs (Semnopithecus schistaceus), eating flowers of large-flowered viburnum (Viburnum grandiflorum). They were rather confiding, letting me approach quite close. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Royle’s pika (Ochotona roylei) is the commonest species of pika, or mouse-hare, in the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Frozen flowers and virile mountain goats
Until now, the weather has been pleasantly warm and sunny. The following morning, however, the ground is covered in a thick layer of snow. It is very cold, which means that the snow higher up will not melt for some time, thus making it very difficult for us to continue our hike towards the Darwa Pass. Instead, we decide to commence our return hike to Sangam Chatti, taking our time on the way.
As we are walking along a trail, which to one side has a fairly steep rock face, and to the other an abyss, I am lagging a bit behind. Suddenly the air seems to explode of activity: Three mountain goats, Himalayan tahrs (Hemitragus jemlahicus), are tearing down the slope, landing on the trail between my companions and me. Here they only hesitate a second, before throwing themselves over the edge, and seconds later we observe them running at the foot of the rock wall, 50 metres or more below. From the edge of the abyss, we scan the rock wall for ledges, which the animals could possibly have used, but we fail to see any that we think would be wide enough for them to have foothold. What strength and virility!
The flowers of this large-flowered viburnum (Viburnum grandiflorum) are covered in ice, which fell as snow the previous night, then froze. This species is among the few Himalayan trees, which bloom in winter and early spring at higher altitudes. It is quite common in temperate forests in the western parts of the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This flower of a primrose species, Primula sessilis, is likewise partly covered by frozen snow. – Read more about primrose species on this website, see Plants: Primroses. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
My companions, crossing an ice-covered bridge near Dodi Tal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the snow, we found tracks of a Himalayan monal pheasant (Lophophorus impejanus), a bird, which in Nepal is called ’the bird of nine colours’, in allusion to the brilliant plumage of the cock. A picture of this species is found on this website, see Plants – Plant hunting in the Himalaya: Around sacred lakes of Shiva. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded June 2018)