I never thought I’d get to return to Kashmir and Ladakh with a work hat on, but our flights are now booked and John, Helen and I head off to Delhi on September 13th. This is a recce for a trip next summer, with Indus Experiences, when we will lead a small group of people interested in exploring the geology and ecology of this fascinating region.
From Delhi we fly to Srinagar, where we will stay on a houseboat on the beautiful Dal lake and meet up with local contacts at the university who will help us decide on the best places to visit. We then travel overland via Kargil and the dramatic, 4093 m high Fotu La pass to Leh, with a diversion down the Indus Valley to the remote Drokhpa area and a stop at Khaltse. Right on the Indus-Tsangpo suture line, the continental plates will be colliding just beneath our feet!
Leh is an amazing place, for its Buddhist monasteries as well as its other-worldly environment. I look forward to dealing rather better with the effects of altitude this time around – I was an amazingly ill-informed 19 year old on my previous visit. The flight back from Leh to Dehi should also be spectacular – flights out of Leh are apparently harder to book than inbound flights because the planes have to take off only lightly loaded at such altitudes!
My input to the trip will be on the ecology side, mostly flora rather than fauna, I suspect. My preparation so far has largely consisted of re-reading F.S. Smythe’s 1938 classic, ‘The Valley of Flowers’, though this is really more about mountaineering than botany. One thing that struck me is how many of our garden plants, especially Primulas, Peonies, Potentillas and Poppies (what is it about plants beginning with P?), have their origins in the Himalayas. Another, inescapable, observation at this time of year in Durham is how Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), described by Smythe as beautiful flowers, ‘covering acres of the valley floor in a sheet of bloom’, has changed the riparine landscape since it’s introduction in 1839, along with Giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed.
Smythe also pointed out that both Himalayan balsam and Himalayan knotweed (Polygonum polystachyum) ‘permanently ruined’ pasture land where they had been allowed to spread, so I doubt if he condoned their introduction here!
The other, less charismatic but arguably more important, group of organisms I am considering is lichens. These symbiotic organisms, with their fungal and algal partners, form an obvious bridge between the geology and ecology of the area. A contact at India’s National Botanical Research Institute has offered to help us with identification of materials we collect, for him, in Ladakh. It might work well to have our group involved in some sort of larger project. Plenty to think about…