Rainy season in Nepal
Water drops, clinging to Strobilanthes attenuata flowers, shine like tiny suns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rolwaling Valley, eastern Nepal, August. – Rain has been pouring for almost a week, occasionally with very short breaks, and for days we have only had glimpses of the sun. We have been negotiating several landslides and wading along flooded trails, tormented by mosquitos and leeches. To avoid being bitten by the leeches, I am only wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals under the poncho. This makes it much easier to spot the leeches and remove them, when they attach themselves to my legs. Some of them, however, manage to hide between my toes, and I only discover them, when my sandal gets even more slippery from the oozing blood. Raindrops find their way down inside my neckline, and my T-shirt is drenched. My camera is tucked away in my backpack. Through the rain, I hear a call, which is by now familiar: ”Here, Sir!” My guide, Ganga Thapa, has taken cover in one of the tiny tea shops along the trail.
When the seemingly endless rain finally ceased, we immediately made a halt on the trail, whereupon my guide, Ganga (right), and my two porters, Hari and Shyam, prepared our lunch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pleasures of the rainy season
In eastern Nepal, the monsoon lasts from mid-June to late September, and in this period, a mountain hike can be very troublesome, with muddy landslides and washed-away bridges. However, if you manage to withstand the various nuisances and reach alpine regions, your reward is ample, if you have an interest in botany. In the grazing grounds and meadows at this altitude, an overwhelmingly rich vegetation can be enjoyed, including poppies (Meconopsis), cinquefoils (Potentilla), Cotoneaster, primroses (Primula), knotweeds (Polygonum), bellflowers (Campanula), meadow-rues (Thalictrum), larkspurs (Delphinium), orchids, umbellifers, and composites. As most of the rain falls in the lower valleys, you are able to enjoy an occasional full day of clear weather and sunshine – even during the peak of the monsoon.
In the lower valleys, too, the rainy season has a special charm to it, supplying you with very beautiful experiences, which would not be possible at other times of the year. This morning, when the sun was out in the oak forest for a short period of time, countless water drops, which were clinging to Strobilanthes attenuata flowers, were shining like a thousand tiny suns, while a pair of green-tailed sunbirds (Aethopyga nipalensis) were hovering in front of them.
As Ganga and I are seated in the tea house, staring into the fog, a small opening appears in the cloud cover, revealing a perpendicular mountain wall on the other side of the valley, a few hundred metres away. The lower part of the mountain is covered in a dense and dark forest of Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis), further up giving way to an open forest of red-barked Himalayan birches (Betula utilis) and dense thickets of Rhododendron campanulatum. Above the forest, the grey rock is black in places, speckled by the rain, which, further up, is replaced by newly fallen snow. In the sunshine, this snow is a blinding white, which, as the sun sets, turns yellow and finally pink, before another greyish-black cloud surges up from the valley, enveloping the mountain.
During the Himalayan monsoon, torrential rain showers often cause landslides, which occasionally will wash away bridges, houses, and trails. In this picture, a fellow tourist is balancing across a provisional ‘bridge’, constructed by our porters. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
While we were seated in the tea house, staring into the fog, a small opening appeared in the cloud cover. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Subtropical Tamba Valley
In Kathmandu, my guide Ganga, two porters, Hari and Shyam, and I board a bus, which heads east, bound for the old fortified town of Charikot – a journey of 7 or 8 hours by bus. From Charikot, a gravel road leads to the village of Dholaka, known for its large Hindu temple, which is dedicated to Bhimsen – an important god for Newar tradesmen.
We negotiate an extremely steep trail down into the subtropical Tamba Valley, followed by a steaming hot and humid hike along the river. The flat valley floor is dominated by paddy fields, while the mountain slopes at this altitude are mostly covered in forests of chir pine, or long-leaved pine (Pinus roxburghii) – a ubiquitous tree in the Himalaya between 1,000 and 2,100 metres altitude. The needles of this species grow up to 38 centimetres long. Turpentine, which is utilized in folk medicine, is extracted from its timber, and the bark yields tannin, used in dyeing. Its seeds are edible.
Patches of more humid forest are found here and there, dominated by an oak, Cyclobalanopsis lamellosa, and various chestnuts of the genus Castanopsis, which have edible fruits. Other species include a tree fern, Cyathea spinulosa, and a screw palm, Pandanus nepalensis. In open areas, I observe shrubs like Osbeckia stellata, of the melastoma family, with gorgeous reddish-violet flowers, the prickly Mimosa rubicaulis ssp. himalayana, which is often scrambling over other bushes, and Callicarpa macrophylla, of the vervain family, growing to 3 metres high and displaying pretty, violet inflorescences.
Various herbs grow along the trail, such as Justicia adhatoda, of the acanthus family, Aeginetia indica, of the broomrape family, which is parasitic on various grass species, and the beautiful Martynia annua, of the sesame family, which is introduced from America, but has become naturalized in many lower Himalayan valleys.
Observed birds in the valley are typical inhabitants of the subtropical zone, such as magpie robin (Copsychus saularis), long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach), scarlet sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja), and red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha). Along the river, I notice plumbeous redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosus) and blue whistling-thrush (Myophonus caeruleus), the latter having a beautiful song with undulating whistling sounds.
An extremely steep trail lead down into the subtropical Tamba Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As these children in the Tamba Valley seldom saw foreigners, they were a bit wary of me. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This little boy is brushing his teeth at the village water tap. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chir pine, or long-leaved pine (Pinus roxburghii), is ubiquitous in the subtropical zone of the Himalaya. It is easily identified by its long needles, and by its pale-brown bark, peeling off in more or less rhombic flakes. – More about this species is found on this website, see Traditional medicine – Pinus roxburghii. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mimosa rubicaulis ssp. himalayana is a prickly shrub, often scrambling over other bushes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Callicarpa macrophylla has pretty, violet inflorescences. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Aeginetia indica, of the broomrape family, is a parasite, growing on the roots of various grass species. It has a wide distribution on the Indian Subcontinent. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The beautiful Martynia annua, of the sesame family, is introduced from America, but has become naturalized in many lower valleys of the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach) is widely distributed on the Indian Subcontinent, in Southeast Asia, and in China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Balsams, begonias, and violets
After three days of hiking, we spot a large village named Simigaon, situated on a ridge high above the valley, at the confluence of the Tamba and Rolwaling Rivers. From here, the Rolwaling Valley stretches eastwards, south of the great mountain Gauri Shankar (7145 m). In Hindi, Gauri-Shankar conveys the unification of the gods Shiva (also called Shankar) and his female aspect Devi (also called Gauri) – a symbol of fertility.
An extremely steep trail leads up to Simigaon, crossing several landslides. Above this village, the Rolwaling Valley is only sparsely inhabited, the major part of it covered in lush forests. Below c. 3,000 metres altitude, various oaks (Quercus) and maples (Acer) dominate, their trunks often hidden beneath a thick cloak of mosses, ferns, begonias, and other epiphytes.
On several sun-exposed rocks, I find clusters of Chlorophytum nepalense, which belongs to the agave family, whereas the more humid, moss-grown rock-walls are often covered in dense vegetation of various balsams (Impatiens). In the Himalaya, this genus comprises at least 41 species, many of which are very difficult to identify. Various other plants grow on these rocks, e.g. several begonia species, a yellow orchid, Spathoglottis ixioides, and a yellow violet, Viola wallichiana. About 20 species of violet are found in the Himalaya, most of them very similar. However, only a few species have yellow flowers. Here and there, a type of creeping wintergreen, Gaultheria trichophylla, forms dense mats, covering the rocks. When fruiting, this species is easily identified by its bright blue, almost luminous, edible berries.
Many other herbs grow along the trail, such as an aster, Aster albescens, with pale violet or whitish flowers, a red knotweed, Polygonum amplexicaule, and Roscoea purpurea, Cautleya spicata, and various Hedychium species, all belonging to the ginger family. A strawberry species, Fragaria daltoniana, is easily identified by its berries, which are up to 3 centimetres long. Unfortunately, they have a rather insipid taste.
Birdlife in these forests is rich, including numerous warblers, flycatchers, and timaliids, but in the rainy season they are remarkably silent, and you don’t notice them much. Their breeding season is over, and adult birds are busy building up fat deposits for the coming winter, while their fledged young learn from them.
Temperate oak forest in the Rolwaling Valley, at an altitude of c. 3,000 metres. The trunks are almost hidden beneath a thick cloak of mosses, ferns, begonias, and other epiphytes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Three Chlorophytum species, of the agave family, are found in the Himalaya. C. nepalense is very common between 1,400 and 2,500 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spathoglottis ixioides is an orchid, which often grows on moss-covered rocks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
About 20 species of violet are found in the Himalaya, most of them very similar. However, the yellow Viola wallichiana, which is fairly common in humid forests, is easily identified. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng) is much utilized as traditional medicine by the Naga people of north-eastern India, who also eat the leaves as a vegetable. – More about ginseng species is found on this website, see Traditional medicine – Panax. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the Himalaya, the wintergreen genus, Gaultheria, comprises seven species. Gaultheria trichophylla, shown here, is easily identified by its bright blue, almost luminous, edible berries. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This aster, Aster albescens, with very pale, almost white flowers, is quite common in the Himalaya, growing between 1,500 and 4,200 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Four strawberry species grow in the Himalaya. Fragaria daltoniana is easily identified by its fruits, which are up to 3 centimetres long. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lush grazing grounds
Above 3,000 metres, silver fir and Himalayan hemlock (Tsuga dumosa) are dominating species in the forest, mixed with various maples and rhododendrons, e.g. the yellow R. campylocarpum and the pink R. campanulatum. Here and there, the forest has been cleared to create summer pastures, kharkas. Vegetation in these clearings is often lush, including a very common, yellow-flowered poppy, Meconopsis paniculata, which can grow to 2 metres tall. Altogether, 17 species of these gorgeous poppies are found in the Himalaya, some of which, incidentally, are cultivated in Europe. Meconopsis species readily hybridize, sometimes making them difficult to identify. However, M. paniculata, M. regia, and the small, extremely hairy M. horridula, are easily recognized. Many of these poppies often thrive on grazing grounds, as grazing animals avoid them.
Numerous other plants grow in the kharkas, such as a 2-metre-high umbellifer, Pleurospermum benthamii, two louseworts with red flowers, Pedicularis megalantha and P. siphonata, a blue lily, Lilium nanum, two yellow composites, Senecio diversifolius and Ligularia fischeri, a bright blue pea flower, Parochetus communis, and a milk parsley, Selinum wallichianum.
Around 3,500 metres, the forest is far more open, mainly consisting of scattered junipers (Juniperus). On the north side of the river, they soon vanish, giving way to grazing grounds and fields, in which mustard, highland barley, and various vegetables are cultivated. The area south of the river, however, is uninhabited, and the slopes are covered in thousands of Himalayan birches, their branches often draped with flowing old man’s beard lichens (Usnea).
My guide, Ganga Thapa, standing in a clearing at an altitude of c. 3,000 metres, among lush vegetation of a yellow poppy, Meconopsis paniculata, which is almost 1.7 metres tall, a white or pinkish umbellifer, Pleurospermum benthamii, which can grow to more than 2 metres high, a red lousewort, Pedicularis megalantha, which is about 50 centimetres high, and numerous ferns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bright blue pea flower, Parochetus communis, is common in open areas between 1,000 and 4,300 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The branches of thousands of Himalayan birches (Betula utilis) were draped with flowing old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Alpine meadows in the Rolwaling Valley
Above the village of Na, the north side of the river is also uninhabited, but yaks and goats are grazing here. Naturally, this grazing affects the vegetation, but, nevertheless, the flora in this area is surprisingly rich. Shrubs include two junipers, Juniperus recurva and J. squamata, Tibetan sea-buckthorn (Hippophae tibetana), Himalayan shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa var. rigida), and a dwarf rhododendron, R. lepidotum, with small red or white flowers. Numerous herbs grow here, such as a dark-blue primrose, Primula wollastonii, a strange-looking lousewort, Pedicularis trichoglossa, Cyananthus incanus, of the bellflower family, and an aster, Aster diplostephioides, with flowers up to 8 centimetres across. Wet areas are often dominated by buttercup (Ranunculus) and cranesbill (Geranium), sometimes together with a beautiful yellow primrose, Primula sikkimensis, which grows to almost one metre tall.
Birdlife is sparse in this area, mostly comprising passerines, such as rufous-breasted accentor (Prunella strophiata), beautiful rosefinch (Carpodacus pulcherrimus), and blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis).
The Upper Rolwaling Valley, situated at an altitude of c. 4,500 metres, makes its beginning at the mouth of the enormous Trakarding Glacier. From here, a risky trail follows a ridge of deposited moraine, stretching alongside the glacier, then climbs over a 5,755-metre-high pass, the Tashi Labsta, which leads into Sagarmatha National Park. Behind an embankment of moraine in front of the glacier, melt water has created a large lake, named Tso Rolpa. To prevent a devastating tidal wave, in case the bank should one day burst, a weir has been constructed, draining the lake water at a steady flow.
Around Tso Rolpa, the landscape is stony and barren, and very few plants grow here. I notice a violet composite, Allardia glabra, a pale-yellow lousewort, Pedicularis scullyana, and a peculiar saxifrage, Saxifraga brunonis, with bright yellow flowers peeping out from an entangled mass of red runners, each up to one metre long.
Around the village of Na, a rich display of wild flowers is found along the fields. This picture shows a campion, Silene setisperma, the calyx of which is inflated, just like its European relative, the bladder campion (S. vulgaris). The blue flower in the background is Microula sikkimensis, a member of the forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Among c. 17 aster species in the Himalaya, Aster diplostephioides displays the largest flowers, growing to 8 centimetres across. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This dark-blue primrose, Primula wollastonii, is easily identified by its open, bell-shaped flowers. In the background another primrose, Primula atrodentata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis) is by far the commonest among eleven species of redstarts in the Himalaya. As with all species in this genus, the male, shown here, is more colourful than the female. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This pale-yellow lousewort, Pedicularis scullyana, grows here and there in alpine areas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
No less than c. 86 saxifrage species grow in the Himalaya. Saxifraga brunonis is easily identified by its numerous red runners. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Polunin, O. & A. Stainton, 1984: Flowers of the Himalaya. Oxford University Press
Stainton, A., 1988: Flowers of the Himalaya. A Supplement. Oxford University Press
(Uploaded April 2016)
(Revised June 2017)