India 2008: Mountain goats and frozen flowers

 

 

Everest 2010
Everest 2010
Suddenly the air seemed to explode of activity: Three Himalayan tahr 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 an 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. 3,300 m, and from there continue to the Darwa Pass (4050 m).

 

Wildlife along the road
Leaving Delhi, we drive towards the pilgrim city of Haridwar, and thence along the Ganges River to Rishikesh, another sacred Hindu site. 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 they soon disappear, jumping into the trees. – You may read about the various Indian langurs, as well as many other monkeys, on the page Animals: Monkeys and apes.

Along the road, various plants are in bloom, including 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.

On a wet rock, we observe a yellow species of primrose, Primula floribunda, which is distributed in montane areas between Afghanistan and western Nepal. It differs from most other primroses by having several umbels up the stem. In a marshy ditch beneath the rock, we find a species of helleborine, Epipactis veratrifolia, with beautiful yellow-green petals, streaked with reddish-brown.

Near the city of Uttarkashi, many Royle’s spurges (Euphorbia royleana) grow on a dry slope. This species, which resembles a cactus, is utilized in local folk medicine, and some people regard it as a magical plant, which can protect houses against lightning. – More information about this plant may be found on the page Traditional medicine.

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.

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
During a break along the road, we had company of a couple of Terai langurs, which took their seat on the roof of our car, from where they soon jumped into the trees. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
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)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
This yellow primrose, Primula floribunda, grew on a wet rock along the road. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
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)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Phlogacanthus pubinervius is a magnificent shrub of the acanthus family, with large, reddish-brown inflorescences. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
A very small post-office-cum-radio-shop, Uttarkashi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
This rhesus monkey spent the night outside our forest rest house, sprawled along a branch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
In the grass, we found a remarkably well camouflaged praying mantis, which resembled a twig. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Plant life 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 km from Uttarkashi, where our hike is going to start. In the village, we pay a visit to a local women’s group, whose members create art from dead branches that have been washed up along the river banks. Faces have been applied to some, while others resemble birds or dinosaurs. Before being sold to tourists, the branches are polished and varnished.

Initially, the walk along the Asi River is on a fairly level trail, giving us ample opportunity to botanize on the way. We encounter many species of blooming herbs, including Himalayan peony (Paeonia emodi), with large white flowers. This species is the only peony in the Himalaya, distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal and extreme south-western Tibet. We also observe 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 (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, including the fragrant Deutzia staminea, of the family Hydrangeaceae, which 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 m altitude.

Smaller trees include winged prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum alatum), whose seeds are used medicinally for various ailments, including toothache, coughing, and rheumatism, and palmate fig (Ficus palmata), which 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, whose leaf shape is very variable. – The fascinating, albeit short, life of Pehr Forsskål is related in detail on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
In Sangam Chatti, we paid a visit to a local women’s group, whose members created art from dead branches, some resembling birds or dinosaurs. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
The large flowers of Himalayan peony are white. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
The bark of winged prickly-ash is thick, corky, and spiny, giving rise to its name. 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)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
The leaf shape of the palmate fig is very variable. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Fragrant flowers of Deutzia staminea. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Beautiful village houses
In the village of Agora, situated at an altitude of c. 2,300 m, we make a brief stop to interview the villagers about their usage of wild plants. Several of the 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. On many trees around the village, foliage and thinner branches are often lopped for fodder, which cause the leaves to grow densely on thicker branches, lending the entire tree a stunted and fuzzy look.

Birdlife is rich in this area, and we notice species like 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. His tail feathers are spread out, making the white spots on the outer tail feathers visible.

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
Several of the houses in Agora were adorned with beautifully carved beams, made from Nepalese alder. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
This young woman in Agora is pounding crops in a mortar, using a long wooden pestle. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
On many trees around Agora, foliage and thinner branches were often lopped for fodder, which would cause the leaves to grow densely on thicker branches, lending the entire tree a stunted and 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 Nepalese pear (Pyrus pashia), is a small tree, which displays a profusion of white flowers, and its fruits are edible. This species is widely distributed, from Afghanistan eastwards to China and Southeast Asia.

The forest now contains trees like 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, around 3,800 m, you sometimes encounter trees with white flowers. This species is among the tallest of rhododendrons, growing to a height of 15 m. It is very common in the entire Himalayan range, as well as in montane areas of South India, Sri Lanka, northern Thailand, and northern Vietnam. – This species, and many other rhododendrons, are dealt with in detail on the page 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.

Birds in this forest include Himalayan monal pheasant (Lophophorus impejanus), which, in Nepal, is called ’the bird of nine colours’, in allusion to the brilliant plumage of the cock. – A picture of this species may be seen on the page Plants – Plant hunting in the Himalaya: Around sacred lakes of Shiva.

We also observe 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 the Eurasian blackbird (T. merula), but has a white collar, which merges into a white throat.

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
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)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
This girl has been collecting edible ferns in the forest for the family lunch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Hairy bergenia was quite common on rock faces. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
A lovely fragrance was emitted by the Himalayan butterfly-bush. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
In March-April, the Nepalese pear displays a profusion of flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
Mr. Bahuguna shows a leaf of spiny-leaved oak with a large hole in the centre, which was made by a red giant flying squirrel. 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, of which by far the commonest one is Himalayan marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris var. himalensis), whereas a species of primrose, Primula sessilis, is noticed in several places. Its flowers are a beautiful violet, with rounded petals, which have a tiny, sharp point. – You may read more about this species and other primroses on the page Plants: Primroses.

A small Hindu shrine is situated at the lakeside, 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 m. Soon, I manage to find a troop, whose members are busy eating flowers of large-flowered viburnum (Viburnum grandiflorum). They are rather confiding, letting me approach quite close. Large-flowered viburnum is one of 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.

Birdlife is sparse here, and I observe very few species, including 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.

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
A small Hindu shrine has been built at Dodi Tal, indicating the status of the lake as a pilgrimage site. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Coniferous forest near Dodi Tal, partly covered in clouds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
Pale-armed langurs, eating flowers of large-flowered viburnum. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
Royle’s pika 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. Branches and flowers are covered in a thin layer of ice, which fell as snow the previous night, then froze. 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 m 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!

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
The flowers of this large-flowered viburnum are covered in ice. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
This flower of a primrose, Primula sessilis, is likewise partly covered by frozen snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
My companions, crossing an ice-covered bridge near Dodi Tal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Uttarakhand 2008
In the snow, we found tracks of a Himalayan monal pheasant. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded June 2018)

 

(Latest update October 2019)