Diatoms from the roof of the world

Martyn has now had time to have at least a cursory look at the diatoms we collected at Pangong Tso three weeks ago and the exciting news is that some may be ‘new to science’! Confirmation of this will need to wait until the diatoms’ silica frustules (shells) have been cleaned up by having the cell contents removed –¬†these obscure the delicate patterns which are one of the features relied on for identification by taxonomists.

Here is the link to his post on the subject: http://microscopesandmonsters.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/diatoms-from-the-roof-of-the-world/

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Home sweet home (nearly)

We have an early start for our flight home but at least have time for a quick hotel breakfast before being collected at 7 am. The road to the airport is not so busy at this time in the morning and the biggest excitement is a troupe of monkeys cavorting on one of the big New Delhi roundabouts. We are at the airport in plenty of time and checked in by shortly after 8 am for our 11 o’clock flight so there is time for coffee and mooching in the shops. I finally find a T-shirt I think Harry might like and some saffron to take home.

The flight to Dubai passes quickly by the time they have fed us lunch and the wait there is not too long this time. The second leg of the journey drags, partly because my screen doesn’t work, and I read and doze but don’t really sleep. We travel with the sun and it is only just getting dark when we finally arrive at Glasgow; 8 pm local time but half past midnight Delhi time. We are pleased to see the taxi waiting to take us back to John and Helen’s. It seems a very calm car journey compared with recent ones – no shoving our way onto roundabouts already full of traffic! Home for me is a train ride away tomorrow but it’s nice to be on more familiar territory.

What an amazing trip though, and one of the most amazing things is thinking about how soon we’ll be back; next July with a small group of Indus Experiences holiday makers, if all goes to plan. Take a look at the Earth Sciences experiences page of their website if you’re interested.

Back to Delhi

It hasn’t been raining all night but is raining again when we wake, though not for too long, fortunately. For once, we find breakfast a bit bland – something remarkably like pot noodles and rice cooked like kedgeree, but without the eggs and fish!

We are ready and waiting when Tahir and Tashi arrive at 9.30 am to take us to the airport. Driving along Dal Lake again we see women in graceful shikaras bringing their cargoes of waterlily leaves to the shore – fodder for their animals, Tahir says. We also get our first close up view of the type of houseboats we were supposed to be staying in – many look fine on the outside but there is no way of knowing what damage they sustained inside. We can see from the mud on tree trunks and leaves just how scarily high the water rose. As we drive through the old part of Srinagar en route to the airport the damage is much more visible, with piles of rubbish everywhere and some streets still flooded. It looks perfect territory for disease to spread.

Otherwise the trip to the airport is straightforward and we arrive in plenty of time – just as well, given the number of security checks we have to go through. The first is at the gate to the airport site – Tahir is not allowed to accompany us beyond this point and we have to get out and put all the bags through an X ray machine before being patted down ourselves. The same thing happens when Tashi drops us at the entrance to the airport building. We fill out forms for foreigners leaving the state, then drop off our hold luggage and go through yet another security check with our cabin baggage. Once this is done, we still have to go out onto the tarmac outside the building and identify our own hold bags. It’s all very good humoured though. The flight leaves on time and we are served a hot sandwich lunch on board, so the journey soon passes. It’s nowhere near as exciting as the flight to Leh, though John does think he can see the Permian-Triassic boundary at Khunamah, from the air.

We are met by the Indus rep and a driver after we’ve collected our bags and are soon on our way back to the Royal Plaza hotel. As we approach the hotel, the streets get very busy – Rahul Ghandi has been speaking at a Congress Party rally, ahead of elections in Haryana, apparently. This time we are on the same floor of the hotel, at least – the eleventh. We decide the view from John and Helen’s room is best and have a cup of tea there before heading out to explore. It’s after 4 pm by now and we think it might be a little cooler but it’s not – the temperature is still in the mid 30s and it’s humid too.

We decide to get a tuk-tuk to the Red Fort and haggle for a price. Mysteriously, the tuk-tuks around the hotel don’t seem to have functioning meters. The driver says we need to get an entrance ticket from the government tourist office and takes us there first but it looks very much like a private travel agency and the man there says the Red Fort shuts at 5 pm and tries to sell us a ticket for the evening’s son et lumiere instead. We are surprised, as we thought it was open till dusk, but explain we haven’t got time for this and decide to at least go and look at the fort from the outside. The drive is longer than we expect and hairy at times in the rush hour traffic but definitely feels like something we should do in Delhi. The Red Fort looks beautiful in the late afternoon sunshine and we fend off all offers from the cycle rickshaw wallhas and set off on foot to walk around it.

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Surprise, surprise – when we get to the main gate at 5.30 there is a ticket booth there and plenty of people still going in – apparently it closes at 6 pm! We decide it probably won’t close promptly and that it’s worth the 250 rupees each in any case and are glad we have, once we get inside. All Delhi seems to be out enjoying the late sunshine and it’s completely hassle free. It’s a shame that we wasted so much time getting messed around by the tuk-tuk driver as we only have time for a cursory look around before the guards start shooing people out. We do get to admire the modern looking roof carvings in the red sandstone Drum Hall and also some of the beautiful inlay in the marble audience chambers, at least.

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Inside the Red Fort

We have to haggle a bit harder to get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for the same price but the journey seems shorter this time, maybe because the traffic has eased off a bit. We are all very hot and sticky by the time we get back to the hotel and enjoy showers before we head out again for dinner. We go to the same restaurant as before, which thankfully has no queues on a Thursday evening, and all enjoy different dosais. This time we risk lassi and lime juice to drink, although what we really want is beer. We head further up the road afterwards to satisfy our craving at the nearby Beer Cafe. This serves a huge variety of imported beers, at a price, but we are happy with the usual Kingfisher. After that it’s time to head back for an earlyish night as we need to be up for breakfast at 6.30 am and ready to leave the hotel at 7 to get our flight home. I’ve tried to log onto the internet so I can Skype home but it won’t allow me to, this time. It’s good to have exchanged texts though – it feels very odd to have been completely incommunicado for more than a week.

Srinagar

I am woken this morning firstly by the morning call to prayer in surround sound then, when I doze, by the evocative sound of birds crashing around on the tin roof. Something else that takes me straight back to Jos, though I’m not sure these are noisy enough to be vultures. Sadly, no mountain view this morning, though the hotel gardens are pretty enough.

After breakfast Tahir and Tashi appear to take us to Dachigam National Park. They have Fouzia with them too, Indus’ representative in Srinagar, so now we are six. The National Park is technically closed because several bridges were washed away in the floods, but Tahir is able to wangle us in because he works for SOS Wildlife, who have a sanctuary for Himalayan black bears just inside the entrance to the park. We visit the bears first and enjoy watching their antics – they are in a big, natural-looking enclosure but are quite interested in us.

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Himalayan black bears

After a cup of chai with the bears’ keepers, we go for a walk in the park itself. This is quite beautiful and what strikes us is the number of trees and plants which are familiar from home – hawthorn, horse chestnut, buddleia and, of course, Himalayan balsam.

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Valerian pyrolifolia

The temperature on the shaded paths is lovely too, even in the middle of the day. The noise of cicadas rather gives away our location though, as do the tracks and spoor of bears and leopards we are shown.

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Bear paw print

This will be a great place to start our look at the ecology of the Himalayas – familiar and yet exotic. One of the species we are not familiar with, to Tahir and Fouzia’s surprise, is mulberry, Morus serrata. As they both learned ‘Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush’ as a nursery rhyme when first learning English at school they, naturally, assumed it to be an British plant. Maybe it would be more familiar to John and me if we hailed from further south in the UK but the plant definitely has Asian origins, which begs the question of how it came to feature in such a popular English nursery rhyme. Something to do with the Silk Route, perhaps. I need to hunt out the Opie’s Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes to see whether I can find out.

From the National Park we head into town to try and get to a bank as John, Helen and I need to change money. It’s the first time we have been to the areas worst affected by the flooding and it’s sad to see the damaged houseboats and places where the river bank has caved in. In fact, there is still a lot of flooding around the bank and nothing is working there, so we end up using an ATM on the university campus later.

In theory, the hotel have sent us out with packed lunches but these turn out to be a round of jam sandwiches each. Fouzia is much less than impressed and phones the hotel to tell them we will be coming back for lunch! Lunch is slow to arrive which means we are running late by the time we get to the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir to meet Dr Chandra.

After our meeting, we drive back to the hotel along Dal Lake and stop to take photos as the sun is setting.

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Dal Lake

It’s very beautiful in the soft evening light but, looking at the clouds, John confidently predicts the first rain of our trip. Back at the hotel we have tea with Tashi, Tahir and Fouzia and spend a pleasant hour or so talking about next year. Whilst we are sitting in the garden, we see the first flashes of lightening in the distance and soon it starts to thunder too. The others head for home just as the rain starts. John, Helen and I watch the dramatic thunderstorm roll around the valley from the shelter of our balcony, trying to catch the lightening in photos.

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The rain is hard and persistent and we feel for the people in temporary shelters – the last thing they must want to see is more rain. I wear the new top I bought in Sonamarg for ¬£5 for dinner – I’m very pleased with it but am sure it’s not really cashmere! I’d hoped to have a chance to buy a proper shalwar kameez and also some spices to take home but the chances of that are looking a bit slim now. Maybe next year…

After dinner John and I spend some time consolidating the notes from this afternoon before a last game of Scrabble. The journey home starts tomorrow, though we hope to have a chance to see something of Delhi in the afternoon.

Sonamarg to Srinagar

We breakfast at 8.15 am but can’t leave for Srinagar straight away because of the need to sort out payment via a Delhi bank, so John, Helen and I walk along to the market. John keeps us on task – we each buy a top, I buy a shawl and Helen a lovely bag and we are back and ready to leave by 11 am, as planned. We feel sorry for the traders here who have no custom at all at the moment.

The road to Srinagar follows the Sindh river much of the way and is much prettier and less dramatic than those we’ve been on. There are many more terraced fields, climbing high up the south-facing side of the valley, particularly. To start with, the fields contain mostly stubble from harvested maize crops. The straw is draped up in the trees to dry, presumably to avoid livestock getting hold of it prematurely. The sound of cicadas gradually becomes more pervasive, reminding us we really are in a tropical country. The air thickens too – the crisp, clear air of Ladakh is replaced by a gentle haze, which obscures the hills. If it wasn’t for the temperature, we could be in Scotland!

After a while, rice becomes the major crop and we see it being harvested, stacked to dry and threshed by hand as we move further down the valley.

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As we drive into Srinagar itself, Tahir points out some of the areas which flooded earlier in the month. One side of the road is blocked off and the poor people whose houses nearby were flooded have erected temporary shelters along it. There are black kites everywhere and we watch them swooping to catch frogs in a fuller-than-normal waterway from their perches on the telegraph wires above.

We arrive at the Golden Bees hotel in Harvan, high enough to have escaped the floods, only to discover we have been relocated to the Jamal Resorts Complex because their local substation is down and they have no power. This is fine – the rooms are comfortable rooms and the garden lovely.

We have lunch in the restaurant with Tashi and Tahir and afterwards Mr Manzarul Haq, our lichenologist contact at Kashmir University, comes to meet us. His speciality turns out to be lichens growing on trees rather than on rocks but he has a quick look at our photos and suggests someone who may be able to help with their identification. He confirms our theory that the predominance of orange and red lichens at high altitudes is to do with protection from UV light but says it is not anthocyanins that are responsible, so that is something to follow up.

Afterwards, Tahir suggests a trip to Bahazara where there are some standing stones and where very ancient cave dwellings have been excavated. John has a headache so Helen and I go with him and Tashi. The standing stones are not so spectacular but the location is lovely and well worth a visit. Unnervingly English in appearance, it is a grassy green plateau on the edge of town with sheep and cattle grazing and children playing cricket and flying kites.

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Actually, it reminds me a bit of the location of Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick and, as is so often the case with standing stones in the UK, the stones used are not local to the area so this raises lots of interesting questions about how and why they were placed there. Some children call out something and Tahir laughs that they say I am naked. I’m wearing a longer than knee length skirt and T-shirt which covers my shoulders, so will clearly need to think again about clothing for tomorrow! I just felt far too hot in my long top and leggings earlier.

We bump into a friend of Tahir’s who, after a spell playing county cricket in England, has returned to Srinagar with his English wife and daughter. The wife has been here for just a year and is clearly finding life quite a challenge. She was very keen to talk to Helen and I and tell us about what it was like for her, her daughter in school here and how her sister-in-law was being looked after after the birth of her baby. Quite a culture shock for her, I think.

We are dropped back at the hotel about 6.30 pm and will be picked up again tomorrow morning. We crash for a bit then go down to the restaurant for dinner, which turns out to be another Marie Celeste experience. As at Sonamarg, what is on the menu turns out to bear no resemblance to what’s actually available but the food, when it arrives, is tasty. We don’t linger long in the deserted restaurant but head to John and Helen’s room for the now-habitual game of Scrabble. We all feel a bit uneasy being here when so many people are struggling with the after effects of the floods but at least we are putting a little money into the local economy now and next year’s trip should also play a small part in the recovery of the tourism industry here.