Younghusband’s Kashmir

Pandering to my current insatiable appetite for all things Himalayan, I’ve just finished reading Kashmir, by Francis Younghusband, one of the books Yasin recommended for our perusal.  Published in 1909, five years after Younghusband led the infamous British expedition to Tibet, this turned out to be an interesting read, if clearly a book ‘of its time’.  Younghusband’s casually-racist attitude to the Kashmiri people, amongst whom he lived for some years as ‘British resident’, is shocking to modern sensibilities.  So too is the chapter on sport which, it turns out, is simply a synonym for shooting things – ibex, deer and bears for trophies, as well as ducks and geese in nauseating numbers.

However this blood-lust has had some benefits in the longer term.   Dachigam National Park, which we visited in September, turns out to have retained its biodiversity due to its origin as the Maharajah’s private game reserve in the early part of the 20th Century.

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The signboard at Dachigam National Park, Srinagar

The trout hatchery we saw here was developed around the same time to stock the Dachigam river, with fish initially reared from the imported eggs of English brown trout – that must have been quite a logistical challenge in the days when everyone and everything travelled from England to India by sea; a journey of two or three weeks.

I was also intrigued to find that K2, the second highest mountain in the world, apparently owes its rather bland moniker to the fact that, until surveyed by Colonel Montgomerie in 1858, it had no local name.  K2 is not visible from any existing settlement, hidden away as it is in a remote region of the Karakorum mountains, on the boundary between Kashmir and Turkestan amidst almost equally high peaks.  Something else I hadn’t thought about is the precision with the height of such mountains can be measured.  In 1858, K2 was described as being 28250 ft (8610.6 m) high – within 40 cm of the currently-accepted height, which is nothing short of miraculous given the limitations of the technology at the time.   The depth of snow and ice on such peaks makes it difficult to determine their true height even now and the bulk of the Himalayas is sufficient to have a gravitational effect on the liquid in a theodolite, according to Younghusband.  On top of all that, the extent to which light travelling from the peak to an observer’s eye is refracted by the atmosphere depends on both time of day and thinness of the atmosphere.

By the early 20th Century geologists had a pretty good idea that the higher Himalayan peaks were largely made of igneous and metamorphic rocks – granites and gneiss.  But, in this era long before plate tectonics, it was less clear how these rocks had arrived here.  The granite was believed to have somehow welled up from beneath Earth’s crust, intruding into and lifting up pre-existing rocks and being compressed upwards and metamorphosed in the process.   Structural weaknesses at some points in the crust explained why pre-existing rocks were lifted up more in some places than in others.

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Metamorphic rocks beyond Tangtse

Even in Younghusband’s day, though, questions were being asked about whether the Himalayas were still rising upwards, the consensus being that this probably was the case.  Survey geologists of the time, including Sir Henry Hayden, were well aware of the opposing actions of uplift and erosion on Earth’s surface rocks and of the significance of the fossil-rich limestones and sandstones found in and around Kashmir.  The evidence that the area was once joined to the distant land masses of Africa and even South America was clearly understood, even if the details were speculative.  Plate tectonics, when they did arrive, must have helped explain a lot!

Perhaps the strongest impression Younghusband’s book made on me was in his eloquent description of spring and then summer coming to Srinagar – anemones, crocuses, violets, pansies and blossoming fruit trees giving way to roses, clematis, honeysuckle and irises, with the birds and butterflies to match.  This, in tandem with Edward Molyneux’s beautiful illustrations, made me wish badly that we were returning  to Srinagar in March rather than July, but maybe that will have to wait for another year.  John wouldn’t be interested anyway, with all the rocks hidden under lush vegetation!

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Spring mountain pansies in Teesdale (bit of a cheat, I know!)

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