Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Geographical distribution of flora and fauna in Himalayas

Geographical distribution of flora and fauna in Himalayas
The transition zones from sub-tropical warmth to artic colds are telescoped into a mere 250kilometers (156 miles) between the Punjab plains and the Tibetan plateau, Himachal Pradesh is an ideal habitat for a rich species of flora and fauna.
The heritage toy train meandring up through the lesser Himalayas into Shimla hills.

Towards the plains, the Shivalks are fringed with broad-leaved Sal and silk cotton, which give way to sheesham, kail and the long leaved cheer pine on the slopes of the foothills. A temperate zone of the mixed forests follows on the lower reaches of the Dhauladhars and Pir Panjal ranges, which are covered with mossy oak, dropping branches of Spruce, and the smooth silvery bark of the West Himalayan fir. Near streams or on the colder northern slopes one finds the maple, but most significant is the tree of the gods and the pride of the Western Himalaya –the stately deodar. This magnificent conifer soars up to a height of 45 meters (150 feet).

Into the Himalayas among the tree of Gods, Himalayan Cedar
The neat park-like coniferous forests begin to thin around 2,700meters (9,000 feet). Windblown birches and clumps of stunted junipers mark the tree line, beyond which extend the idyllic alpine meadows. Here in summer, a profusion of wild flowers, including the rare Himalayan blue poppy, push out their way out of the thawing soil.
These varying life zones support an exciting range of fauna. One of the lasting pleasures of a walks in these woods are the alluring calls from unsighted birds. Easily traced are the whistling thrushes, magpies, tits and woodpeckers. Flycatchers pirouette in mid air to claim their catch, while nuthatches and tree creepers comb the fissures in the bark of conifers. The sudden flight of the Koklas and Khalij pheasants from the undergrowth never fails to startle, and if one has the patience of the Himalayan pied Kingfisher, one can be rewarded by the breathtaking sight of a bird in nine iridescent colors –the Monal. At higher altitudes, the bird life begins to thin along with the trees. Rarer the numbers, but clearly visible when present, are the snow cock, the Himalayan choughs, rose finches and accentors. Overhead, gliding in the thermals, one is likely to spot the griffon vulture, perhaps the lammergeyer with its beard and nine-foot wingspan, and if one is lucky, the golden eagle. The sight of a skein of wild geese on their migratory flight, flights the wind at 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), is an unforgettable experience.

Himalayan Pied Woodpecker
Mammals are not easily sighted. Encroachment on the forest cover by the human population has forced them to retreat into the protected zones, where their natural habitat is still preserved. In Himachal Pradesh, 28 such areas have been demarked as sanctuaries. In most cases, these are the sparsely populated higher reaches of the valley and of the valleys and the passes that have served as an avenue for the movement of wildlife across the ranges. They present a unique enclave, in which Eurasian and tropical species comes into contact. Perhaps the most beautiful animal, and certainly the most exclusive, is the fabled snow leopard. It has an attractive spotted pelt of smoky gray, paling to pure white on the underside, which is prized by poachers who have, thus sadly, enhanced its rarity. Its prey is more easily sighted by trekkers: Bharal and Goral graze on open slopes, while the Ibex easily identified by its large scimitar horns and characteristic beard, may present a striking silhouette at the edge of a steep stiff. Another attractive goat partial to steep terrain is the Himalayan Thar, with its unmistakable shaggy straw-colored shoulder ruffs. Solitary in their movement are the more reticent musk deer, which shares the insecurity of the snow leopard, since they too are sought by poachers who have thus, sadly, enhanced its rarity. Its prey are more easily sighted by trekkers: Bharal and Goral graze on open slopes, while the Ibex, easily identified by its large scimitar horns and characteristic beard, may present a striking silhouette at the edge of the steep stiff. Another attractive goat partial to the steep terrain is the Himalayan Thar, with its unmistakable shaggy straw-colored shoulder ruffs. Solitary in their movements are the more recent musk deer, which share the insecurity of the snow leopard, since they too are sought by poachers for their precious musk glands. More widely distributed are the barking deer, the Himalayan Brown and Black Bear, the forest leopard, the fox and of course the macaques and langurs. The most satisfying way to observe this wildlife is by trekking in these magnificent areas.

The snow leopard

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The valleys of delicious apples in Himacahal Pradesh

A full day drive to Thanedar

Hidden away in the Shimla hills, Kotgarh is famous for its apple orchards but very few knows about the inspiring feature that makes an excellent spring-summer destination.
Close to Narkanda, the hill range known as Kotgarh is just 16 kilometers from National highway that heads into the valley through Kumarsain, Rampur and Kinnaur and towards the Indo-Tibetan border. A branching spur breaking out from the Hatu peak Range that is splited by the fault line carved by the Satluj river, deep in the valley, makes up for what is known as the Kotgarh region.
Hatu peak can be accessed by a narrow motorable road from Narkanda that is functional during the summer months. Alternatively, the 8 kilometer of trek through dense pine, spruce and oak forests are a better option for reaching the mountain top that also mark the tree line of the Himalayan terrain. The view from Hatu Peak is breathtaking. Besides the perennially snow capped chain of the greater Himalayan ranges, very few peaks in the vicinity match the grandeur on display from here. The rarified air and the clouds gliding by, give Hatu peak a surrealistic setting. In early May, hundred of people from near and far villages trek it to the mountain top to savor of a spring fair held at Hatu.
Pre-dating the advent of British settlers in the early part of the 19th century, Kotgarh was overrun by Gorkha warriors. These hardy warriors are said to have established a fort on Hatu peak to maintain suzerainty over the surrounding territory which they held by force. Today, no traces of the fort can be seen as nature has reclaimed the remnants.
An 8 kilometer drive from Narkanda on the road to Thanedhar takes you to a ridge-top lake, popularly known as Tani jubbar, ‘a meadow within a Lake.’ This is a tranquil point, offering solace. A temple in a pahari architectural style sanctifies the lake as a holy one. The enclosing deodar forest keeps the spot shaded and hidden away. Trans-continental migratory birds sometimes do spot the water body and there have been some occasions when some of them have rested by a week or more during the winters.
On the last day of May, a spring festival held at Tani jubbar and this is a good occasion to witness local celebration and gaiety. The local deity, carried in a palanquin, with believers dancing to drum beats is integral to this local fair held amidst scenic settings.
Further on the road beyond Tani jubbar is Thanedhar which used to be the market centre of Kotgarh till it burnt down in the mid 1970’s. Long before this, during British rule, it was a major transition station for those heading into or out of Tibet.
‘Barubag’ is the ridge top at Thanedhar. This was where the American Quaker missionary, Samuel Evans Stokes chose to settle down. He bought the property from an English lady, married a local girl, converted to Hinduism and built Harmony Hall, the name he gave to the house that still stands on the spot. At a little distance from his house, Stokes built a temple, which perhaps is one of its own kinds in the whole of north India. The Gita Temple that Stokes built does not have ant idol protected in its sancto-sanctorum. In place of this, there is a sacred fire place (Havan Kund), where amidst the chanting of mantras, a sacred fire was lit where Stokes attended the ceremony religiously every morning.
The temple and Harmony Hall still mark the presence of the man who introduced commercial growing of apples to the hills. In less than a hundred years, apple as a cash crop has become so successful that it gives a livelihood to over a million people and churn up an economy of Rs 1,500 crore, each year. A summer fair held in mid-June ia a good time to be around Thanedhar.
Other than the Hatu peak, Tani jubbar and Barubag there is the locality of Kotgarh village, lower down in the hills, from where the whole area derives its name.
About two hundred years ago, the first British soldiers who came to fight the Gurkha occupation in the hills, converted Kotgarh village into cantonment. Locally the place till date is known as Chavani (cantonment). Church ta Kotgarh
Like every civilization, the invading soldiers carried their religion and gods along. So A church was established and this 1841 structure is still exist. Near Kotgarh village is the village of Melan, where temple dedicated to Chattar Mukh, the presiding deity of Kotgarh is housed.
Apples have substantially changed life patterns and made life in the hills sustainable. Prior to introduction of this cash crop, it was the fertile irrigated fields on the bank of the river satluj, deep in the valley, that provided the bread and butter for the most of residents. The higher altitudes provide only malginal crops and were used as grazing lands for sheep and cattle in the summer months. A trek or a drive into the valley provides glimpses of variant crop patterns thriving in temperate to tropical climatic zones. Famous for not having introduced commercial growing of fruits into the hills, the unique dress that the Kotgarh women wears ‘raista’, a full length skirt like garment with a attached blouse which has become trademark of Himachali women.

Friday, December 26, 2008

History of water supply for Shimla
The history of the water supply in Simla is extremely interesting, firstly, because it relates to great engineering feats, and secondly, because water vitally concern the health and existence of the population of the town. Roughly speaking the water supply has cost to the date about 54 lakh rupees. Prior to 1880 Simla depended partly on local ‘baolies’ (springs), and partly on the reservoir fed by the water issuing from two tunnels bored a short distance into Jakhoo on either side of the Combermere bridge ravine.
In 1880 the first serious attempt was made to tackle the water problem, when some 15,000 acres of land was accuired on the south of Mahasu ridge from the Rana of Koti. This was the beginning of the now extensive Catchment area, and a 6" pipeline eleven miles in length was laid to deliver water in the new reservoirs at the church and Sanjoli and this pipe gave and still give, a discharge of 60,000 gallons per day during the hot weather.
In 1893 the catchment area was extended to the old toll-bar on the Mashobra road, and two stem engines were installed at Cherot Nullah, 1,300 feet below the Hindustan Tibet road and the supply increased about 150,000 gallons daily.
This again proved insufficient, so in 1899 a second gravitation pipe line, four miles in length, was constructed to tap at the lower level the same stream as the pipe laid in 1880.
This added 150,000 gallons daily to the supply available for the pumping at Cherot where a third stem pumping engine was installed, and a large storage reservoir holding 2 and a half million gallons was built at Seog in the Catchment area forest.
Then came the railway and increasing requirements in connection with the new sewage works and the demand again rose above the supply, and 1913 saw the installation under the able direction of Captain B.C. Battye R.E.L., of the Chaba electricity generation station on the Sutlej and the Chair pumping station on the ravine below Fagu and Shali peak.
The capacity of Chair station is 300,000 gallons lifted by ram pumps driven by the electric motors to a height of 3,000 feet, to the tank above Hindustan-Tibet road about 9 miles from Shimla. From this tank the water run by gravitation in 6" and 7" mains via Kufri and Charabra. Into the Catchment area to Dhali, and there the whole of the water from the Chair, Cherot and the Catchment area is filtered in slow sand filters and then goes on in 3 pipes of various sizes to Sanjouli.
In 1941 advantage was taken of the electricity to install at Cherot a turbine pump driven by an electric motor, and from this date it was possible to dispense with the services of number of wood cutters and coolies who had hitherto provided fuel for the boilers working the steam pumps. The presence of this large body of workmen in the Catchment area had always been objected to by the sanitary authorities.
It was then hoped that the Chair extension would suffice for the needs of the station for some years, but the new generation arose which demanded considerably more comfort and convenience.
Visitors at hotels clamored for English baths and sanitation, Government offices were no longer satisfied with primitive sanitary methods, and the owners and the tenants of the houses who had previously been content with the one tap in the compound, wanted water laid on to the bathrooms, kitchens and pantry. In additions to these demands the Municipal Committee encouraged the builders of the new houses to install sanitary fittings, and commenced replacing obsolete Municipal latrines with those of the modern type.
However, in 1919 a definite scheme was placed before the local government for pumping from the Guma on the Nauti River 4,000 feet below Mashobra.
In 1920 Mr. A.F. Henderson was placed on special duty to prepare the Guma Pumping Project in detail, and was sanctioned in 1922, and completed at the end of 1924. at Guma there are two electricity driven ram pumps, each capable of lifting 35,000 gallon per hour, to the reservoir on the ‘Craignanao’ estate, now the property of the United Service Club, at the height of 4,000 feet above Guma. This lift is reputed to be the highest for water works purposes in the world, and the pressure on the pumps there is over quarter of a ton per square inch. The rising mains are of steel, varying in thickness from an half an inch at Guma to quarter inch at Craignano. At Guma the water passes through settling tanks and then after treatment with alum to coagulating tanks and finally to Paterson filters, but as a second safeguard the water is treated at ‘Craignano’ an 18-inch main leads to the reservoir at Mashobra and thence a 12-inch main takes the water to Sanjouli reservoir.
From this brief description it will be gathered that the Guma scheme is unique in the history of waterworks undertakings, and after he has designed it the execution was also entrusted to Mr. Henderson who was assisted by Mr. Main.
The distribution system in Shimla is intricate, for not only the pressure in the mains be reduced at intervals, but arrangements also exists through which pressure may be augmented in case of fire, and the whole system is controlled by an elaborate system of recording meters and valves in order that leakage may be readily detected. All houses connections are metered, and probably Shimla is the only town in India, where this wise policy has been consistently pursued by the Municipal Committee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something hidden behind those mountains go and find it.

Chandra-Bhaga range from Rothangpass Kullu.
Borrowed from the immense natural beauty of deep valleys and mighty Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh obtains its name from the combination of two Hindi words, Him and Achal, whereas the former means snow and the later one stands for immovable.

The northern tribal districts of Himachal are Kinnaur, Lahual and Spiti respectively. Being very close to the border of Tibet these regions have a strong Buddhist influence and for the same reason sometimes also known as little Tibet. Being a mountain guide I have been associated with these areas for some years. This gave me opportunities to explore these Himalayan country sides clubbed with small settlements and ancient monasteries.

Located, in the great Himalayan range of the Himalayan mountain system, Spiti is also known as lunar landscape. With snow-clad mountains towering more than 6000 meters and almost no rains for the whole year, Spiti is also described as a cold desert because of the extension of Tibetan plateau towards this side.

Sharing international border with Tibet, Himachal have been an important trade route in the past. The famous Hidustan-Tibet road completed in 1856, from Shimla to the border of Tibet in Kinnaur valley attracted rest of the world. Explored and exploited for long, these Himalayan country sides however preserved their rich culture and traditions from centuries.

Open to the rest of world, for just 6-7 months district of Kinnaur and Spiti presents a contrast between lush green valleys and cold desert respectively. Chilgoza pines, silver fir, Junipers and birch trees grow well in Kinnaur valley which also the end of tree line. District Spiti, with a vast and cold desert and a diverse species of wild flowers and medicinal herbs demarks the clod desert of Himalayas. Majority of this flora has been used and narrated in Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu medicinal doctrine.

For an avid adventure and nature lover there is lot to explore and experience. The safari or trekking options recommended by professionals, should start with acclimatization for about 3-4 days before we start off on some serious walks, multi-days trekking options and even a safari where you attain an altitude of 3000 meters and plus. Here Shimla becomes a perfect base and host for this great Himalayan journey.

A tour or a trek to Kinnaur and Spiti valleys takes about two weeks before entering the lush green Kullu valley over Rothang Pass. A drive from Shimla, through small villages of Sarahan, Sangla, Chitkul, Kalpa and Nako, with centuries old monasteries at Tabo, Dhankar and Ki would complete this circuit. Out of two national parks in the state, Pin valley national park is in the district of Spiti and before driving over the famous Kunzum pass the journey is incomplete without a drive or a night stay at Kibber village, known for its village at the altitude at the elevation of 4,200 meters.

Pin valley, in Spiti is a Himalayan national park, about 80736.00 hectares, adoring virgin peaks towering more than 6,000 meters. Whereas rivers down in the deep valleys pouring the glacial deposits into the Arabian Sea. Housing a wide variety of rare Himalayan flora and fauna Pin valley national park hosts woolly hare, red fox, Himalayan ibex, marmot, Tibetan gazelle, Himalayan porcupine, blue sheep, Tibetan wolf and snow leopard. Only few trees like Betula utilis (Bhoj patra) and Juniperus macropoda (Bhutal) can adapt to the hostile winters of Himalayas. It also demarks the end of the tree line giving way to the Himalayan alpine meadows. Also plants and flowers like Agropyron spp., Anemone obteusiloba, Artemisia spp., Canibs Sativa, Crataegus oxycantha thrive well for just 4-5 months in summers.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Flower hunting in Himalayas

Just about every place in Himalayas has its own unique flora and there is no place which is altogether devoid of flowering plants. Each season bring out different aspect of the local flora and there is no one season in which one can see all of a region’s plants in flower. The spring season which coincides with the period of snowmelt brings forth a large variety of blooms and these continue into the early summer although in a somewhat subdued manner. There is a second wave of flowering during the monsoon season in late summer and the protagonists here are quiet different from those of the spring. These two occasions would rate as the best time to go flower-hunting to the higher reaches of the Himalayas. However the lower parts around the hill-stations and the villages are not greatly affected by the winter snow and although the flowering of local flora reaches at peak during the spring and monsoons there are several varieties that only flower in the early or late winter.

There are few parts of the high Himalayas that can be traveled through by vehicle and these are mostly in Himachal Pradesh. For seeing the alpine flora of the higher non-motorable regions it is necessary to take the trekking routes that leads up to the meadows and the high valleys either on foot or to a limited extent on pony back.

The lower valleys however are richly connected by roads especially around hill stations are important hill towns. The best way to see the flora of these areas would also be to hike but it is possible to launch fairly ambitious flower-hunting expeditions in the luxury of car. But wherever you go in the course of a day’s trek anywhere in the Himalayas it is possible to encounter a wide range of habitat each with a widely differing floral wealth. Herein lies the charm of trekking and flower hunting in Himalayas.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Flying high in the Himalayas!

Some interesting facts about birds

A bird has been described as a “Feathered Biped”. The description is apt and precise, and can apply to no other animal.

Birds are vertebrate warm-blooded animals, i.e. whose temperature remains more or less constant and independent of the surrounding temperature. This is in contradistinction to reptiles. Amphibians and fishes which are cold blooded, i.e. of temperature that change with the hotness or coldness of their surroundings.

To assist in maintaining an even temperature, the body of a bird is covered with non-conducting feathers – its chief characteristic – which in details of structure and arrangement reflects the mode of life of the group to which the bird belongs. Compare for example the thick, soft, well-greased covering on the underside of an aquatic bird like a Duck with the peculiar, narrow, hair like, ‘double’ feathers of the Cassowary to be seen in any zoo.

The feather covering of the body of the word fall into 3 classes: (1) the ordinary outside feathers known as Contour feathers or pennae, whether covering the body as a whole or specialized as pinions or flight feathers (remiges) or as tail feathers (rectrices) which serve as rudder and brake: (2) the fluffy down feathers or plumulae hidden by the contour feathers and comparable to flannel underclothing, weather confined to nestlings or persisting throughout life; (3) the hair like Filo-plumes which are hardly seen until the other feathers have been plucked off. They are particularly noticeable, for instance, in a plucked pigeon.

The body temperature of bird, about 38 - 44 degree Celsius, is higher than that of most mammals. Assisted by their non-conducting covering of feathers birds are able to withstand great extreme of climate. As long as they can procure a sufficiency of food supply, or ‘fuel’ for the system, it makes little material difference to them whether the surrounding temperature is over 60 degree Celsius on the burning desert sand or 40 degree Celsius below zero in the icy frozen north. Their rate of metabolism is higher than that of mammals. They lack sweat glands. The extra heat generated by their extreme activity which would, under torrid climatic conditions result in overheating, fever, and death, is eliminated through the lungs and the air sacs as fast as it is produced. For one of the function of the ‘air sacs’ – a feature peculiar to birds and found in various parts within the body –is to promote internal perspiration. Water vapor diffuses through the blood in these cavities and passes out by way of the lungs, with which they are indirectly connected.

The forelimbs of birds, which correspond to the human arms or to the forelegs of quadrupeds, have been evolved to serve as perfect organs of propulsion through the air. Many of their larger bones are hollow and often have air sacs. This makes for lightness without sacrificing strength, and is a special adaptation to facilitate aerial locomotion. As a whole the perfectly streamlined spindle-shaped body of the bird is designed to offer the minimum resistance to the wind.

Birds are believed to have sprung from reptilian ancestors in bygone eras. Modern researches on the skeletal and other characteristics of our present-day birds tend in a great measure to support this belief. The method of articulation of the skull with backbone, for instance, and the nucleated red blood cell corpuscles of the bird is are distinctly reptilian in character. To this may be added the fact that birds lay eggs which in many cases resemble those of reptiles in appearance and composition, and that the development of the embryo up to a point is identical. In the majority of the birds scales are present on the tarsus and on the toes which are identical with the scales of reptiles.

Among the questions which the ornithologist in India is constantly being asked are the following. I have had to face them so frequently, from such a variety of people and in such a far-flung corners of the country that it might be perhaps be as well to devote a little space to them here.

Q what is the largest India bird, and what is the smallest?

A. It is not easy to say which particular one is the largest, but among the upper ten is certainly the Sarus Crane and Himalayan Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier. The former stands the height of man; the latter has a wing spread over 8 feet. Amongst our smallest birds are the flowerpeckers, e.g. Tickell’s Flowerpecker scarcely bigger than a normal thumb.

Sarus crane is a towering grey bird with a red head that stands as tall as a man. Its distinctive, trumpeting call carries over great distances. Sarus cranes can be sighted year-round in the lower parts of district Kangra of Himachal Pradesh. These birds here are more admired for its closeness to God.

The lammergeier is an impressive and unusual looking bird with a large tail and very wide, pointed wings that can spam up to three meters and which makes look like a gigantic falcon. On a clear day at least once you can see a pair flying over the valleys from the terrace of Wildflower Hall, and quietly soaring along the contours of the mountain slopes, their wings making a peculiar “purrrrr” sound heard when they fly overhead at close range.
Lammergeier feed on carcasses like other vultures but prefer bones to the meat. They pick up the bones, soar high in the air and then drop them onto rock. They can do this up to 50 times in necessary, until the bones splinters and the nutritious marrow inside is eaten. Digestive acids are said to be strong that shattered bones are completely digested.

Q What is our most beautiful bird?

A It is difficult to pick out any single species for the highest honour, and depends rather on individual tastes. A large number of birds of many different families, particularly those residents in the areas of humid evergreen forest, possess extraordinarily brilliant plumage.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Safari through 'the great silk route & 'old Hindustan Tibet road'.

A pictorial presentation of a safari into little Tibet.

Beas, flowing down with its glacial waters
weawing Shawl is the major industry in Kullu valley

Poplar and Cedar pine forest on the left bank of Beas river in Manali
Rahala waterfalls on the way to Rothang pass
A glacier on the right bank of Chandra river, on the way to Kunzum pass from Manali

'Chandertal' - the moon lake.

Upto Kunzum pass.

Kunzum pass. Elevation - 4551mts. from mean sea level.

Losar village - the first permanent settelment after Manali.

Dunes formed by glacial erosion

Approaching Kaza, the divisional headquarter of Spiti

A gorge at Kibber village

Kibber village

Traditional mud houses at kibber village

Fresh snow fall at Pin valley

A diverse alpine flora can be seen in Pin valley

A ropeway is the common way of getting to the other side of Pin river

Kungri monastery in Pin valley

Its me on the right and my friend Jacob at Kungri monastery

A lamp being lit up by using yak butter

Leaving Pin valley

Top floor of Dhankar monastery

A gorge on the way to Nako village

Sumdo, police check post

Maling gorge

Nako village, with fresh snow covered Himalayas in the background

A life in safe hands..........

A traditional house at Nako village

A drive down to Khab

Khab, the confluence of Satluej and Spiti river

A valley bridge being built at Spello

Goddess Bhima Kali temple at Sarahan

Palace of Maharaja of Bushair Province

Sarasawati, the goddess of knowledge

Enterance of the Bhima Kali temple and end of our tour