Thursday, December 31, 2009

Being a Nomad in the Trans-Himalaya

The people I work with, people from Kibber, are not nomads. They are settled Agro-pastoralists, growing barley and green peas along with rearing livestock. With green pea fetching good price in the markets of Delhi the dependence of these people is shifting from livestock to farming (agriculture).

But last year I got an opportunity to experience the nomadic lives of the Changpa people of the Tibetan plateau. Some Changpa people had travelled to Kibber and I had briefly spoken to them about their lives. I really fantasised their ways of the horse back living. Very soon I got an opportunity to survey some very remote areas of Himachal Pradesh. These areas could only be accessed from Changthang (Ladakh) as it was already November and all the high passes were closed. But accessing this place from Changthang meant that the expedition will have to be a large one as the approach march was over 150 km through very remote area. With winter approaching there was a serious threat of getting stuck due to sudden heavy snowfall.

The strategy had to be a mixed one. I wanted to light and fast like an Alpinist but also wanted to reduce the risk of getting stuck in deep in the remote area so I needed a back up to get out should things go wrong. And the solution clear... do it the changapa way.. the way of the Tibetan nomads.

A team of six people and six horses and off we went


The team (from right) Kalzang Pulzor, Rinchen, Tenzin Thillay, Sheru, Chudim and Me


The plateau around Tso Khar


The Water of Tso Moriri

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Tso Moriri and Gya peak in the Distance. Gya is the tallest peak of Himachal Pradesh



After a break


45km Along the banks of Tso Moriri

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Thats me


Kalzang Pulzor


I raced ahead to photograph a Black-necked crane. Other coming to join me.

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After 45 km we could turn around and still see the spot where we started from earlier in the day. Its just a vast bowl.


Small snow melt feeding the Tso



Tea time


In the middle of nowhere we say a Horse! yes its a horse not a Kiang. It had probably escapes from one of the nomad camps and then just got lost in the vast landscape. Then began the chase of the cowboys to tame the wild mustang. We caught him and then after the expedition left him at Korzok for the owner to come and find him.


Our horses would graze throughout the night and we would round them up at day time. Early morning the horses are grazing my the Tso


The Camp


Once away from the Tso. the floor was very sandy

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It feels like a scene form a desert but its sub zero temperature.

The survey was a success. We (including the horses) also managed to come back safe and sound. The same way as we went. It was the most amazing horse riding of my life.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Glacier man

I never got an opportunity to meet Mr. Chewang Norphel but have heard a lot about him and his work. Mr. Norphel, inspired by the simple idea that water freezes faster if it is spread out and that direct sunlight melts ice faster, made something that transformed the lives of thousands of mountain agro-pastoralist. Using simple principles of freezing water and melting ice Mr. Norphel made an artificial glacier. Yes, a man-made glacier, mammoth in size and usefulness. The Science magazine covered an article about him and his work. I have pasted excerpts from the article. I will let the science mag explain the rest. While scientist are working to understand and conserve what we have, here we have an engineers who is trying to find ways to adapt to the change

STAKMO, INDIA—At more than 4000 meters above sea level in the trans-Himalayas, the air is so thin that it can be a struggle simply to breathe. Yet Chewang Norphel is almost jogging across the boulder-strewn landscape, with goatlike agility that belies his 74 years. Tonight, he will sleep in a tent 1000 meters higher up, at temperatures that dip 10°C below freezing, so as to continue his work in the morning. And what unusual work it is: Norphel makes glaciers. He takes a barren, high-altitude desert and turns it into a field of ice that supplies perfectly timed irrigation water to some of the world’s poorest farmers. So far, Norphel has built 10 artificial glaciers, which sustain crops that feed some 10,000 people. It’s become his obsession. “When it is very cold and very diff icult
work, I have to remain focused. All I can think about is making the most successful glacier,” he says. Legend has it that villagers in nearby Pakistan once grew glaciers to block Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors from advancing through mountain passes, but until Norphel came along there was little evidence that man could reliably duplicate this geological
trick. Thanks to his talent, Norphel is now known as “Glacier Man” among the locals in these mountains. Wearing a beige sweater, gray pants, and a pair of leather lace-up shoes, he looks more schoolteacher than superhero,
but Norphel has arguably pulled off something miraculous, doubling agriculture yields in one of the most climate-change ravaged regions in the world. Part engineer, hydrologist, and glaciologist, Norphel has had to create his own field of expertise. “What he has achieved in such circumstances, in remote parts of this mountainous desert, is remarkable,” says Pankaj Chandon, coordinator of the WWF-India’s High Altitude Wetlands Conservation Programme in the Himalayas, based in Leh, who has followed Norphel’s progress over the past decade. “It is testament to his sheer force of character. But also, he has come up with a unique, innovative idea that provides water when it is needed. It is a fantastic adaptation technology for the climate changes that we are experiencing in this region.”

Vanishing ice and a gush of inspiration
By the time Norphel retired in 1995, priorities among Ladakhis were shifting from roadbuilding to a far more serious problem: water scarcity. “Glaciers were vanishing and streams were disappearing,” Norphel says. “People would beg me to bring them water. Their irrigation systems were drying up and their harvests were failing. The government was starting to bring in grain rations.” In the so-called rain shadow of the Himalayas, Ladakh receives just 5 centimeters of rainwater a year—about the same as the Sahara desert. The population is entirely dependent on the melting of glaciers and snow. But global warming has hit this region particularly hard. The tree line has risen more than 150 meters during Norphel’s lifetime, and glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers. Above the small village of Stakmo, Norphel points up at the dark rock slopes rising from the valley. “There were two large glaciers here and here,” he says, “and many smaller ones that only persisted during wintertime.” The glaciers that remain are now far from the villages and at high altitudes where they don’t produce significant meltwater until May or June. That’s too late to help local farmers. Because they experience such a brief summer,
villagers must plant their one annual crop of barley, peas, or wheat by late March; otherwise it won’t mature before winter arrives in September, after which the temperature drops below –30°C. By the mid-’90s, Norphel was living in the small village of Skarra, a few kilometers outside of Leh, with his wife and a daughter they adopted from one of his brothers. Determined to address the irrigation problem, Norphel came upon inspiration within 100 meters of his house, one bitingly cold winter morning. “I saw water gushing from a pipe and was thinking what a shame it is that so much abundant water is wasted during wintertime—the taps are left open to stop the water freezing in the pipes and bursting them,” he says. “Then I noticed that on its route to the stream, the water crossed a small wooded field, where it was collecting in pools. Where the trees provided shade, it was freezing into ice patches. By early March, the ice patches melted.”
Norphel realized that if he could somehow copy this on a much larger scale, he would have a way of storing up this winter water in an artificial glacier that would melt at just the right time for crop sowing and irrigation.

Write to me if you want the full article

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Mystries of the Lingti Valley

Lingti is a little known valley in eastern Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. The valley is bound from all sides by high Himalayan peaks and ridges. To the north is the massive Gya peak (6794m); the highest in Himachal Pradesh. Gya Peak is at the tri-junction of Ladakh, Tibet and Spiti. From Lingti valley, towards North-east across the ridge connecting Gya with Shijibang (5990m) peaks is Tibet. To the North-west across the ridge connecting Gya and Parilungbi (6166m) peaks is Ladakh. To the west and south the valley is bounded by the ridge-line connecting Parilungbi-Lakhang (6250m)-Shilla (6132m) -Cho-cho Khang Nilda (6380m)-Tserip (5974m) and Kuwa (6008) peaks. Lingti itself is born out of the massive glacier at the feet of Parilungbi. The river initially flows south east for about 20km where it meets another branch called the Chaksachan Lungba (river) coming from north. The Chaksachen lungba is born from the glaciers of Gya. Lingti then bends sharp 90° and flows south-west. Before exiting the gorge it is joined by the Syarma nala from west. It then carves a narrow gorge cutting the Sisbang ridge and the Cho-cho Khang Nilda ridge and flows out to join the Spiti River at a point almost opposite to the junction of the Spiti and Pin rivers.

Map Of Lingti valley

'Lingti' is an instrument that cuts rock, as it literally means in Spitian. The rapidly flowing white water of the glacial melt has carved a deep gorge through an otherwise rolling steppe landscape, thus probably the name. The river cuts a narrow gorge with towering rock faces along both banks. These rocky steep banks rise up, almost near vertical, until it reaches the edge of the plateau. Here the valley suddenly opens up into a flat dish of rolling hills. The plateau stretches in all directions until it approaches the ridge-line fence created by the mountains all around the valley. Here the rolling hills immediately start rising and turn into massive rock and ice slopes leading to the top of the various mountains peaks and ridges.

The steep walls of the Lingti gorge provide good snow leopard habitat

Lingti valley is surely a mountaineers paradise. But due to the remoteness of this valley few mountaineers venture here. The first outsiders to visit this valley was an expedition led by Harish Kapadia in 1983. They managed to penetrate the valley halfway and then turned their attention towards Cho-cho Khang Nilda and surrounding peaks. The same expedition returned in 1987 and managed to reach the source of Lingti and even climb Parilungbi. Since then hardly any expeditions have come this way. Recently Gya was climbed from this side by another Indian expedition, but overall very few have made it this far.

In the distance are two member of the team surveying for snow leopards and blue sheep

At the same time Lingti is a geologist's goldmine too. It is a living museum that has preserved over 250 million years of geological history in the form of shales and fossils. The ammonite and belemnite fossils from here are known world over. Many theories are based on the geological studies carried out here. Fossils collected by Dr. Richard Hey in 1955 are still preserved at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. But, little was know about the wildlife of this remote valley until very recently. Till the last decade most of our knowledge about the wildlife of this valley came from the anecdotes reported by adventurers and mountaineers who visited this area. In mid 1980's this valley was notified as part of the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.

This region is so remote that there is not a single village in about 400 km2 of the upper habitable part of this valley. Historically there was a village called 'Uhlshikpo' within this valley, which moved out due to its remoteness around 80-100 years ago. Now only the ruins of 'Uhlshikpo remain inside the valley. Although this valley is along the border with Tibet there are no passes crossing from Lingti to Tibet and so this region has received relatively little attention from Army or the Border Police Force, except for some routine patrols.

The ruins of Uhlshikpo

Last year, I got the opportunity to survey this hidden valley and prepare a plan for the management of this valley for the conservation of its wildlife wealth. This exercise was a part of the collaborative effort between Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Nature Conservation Foundation on Management planning of the region. The task had to begin from documenting what wildlife existed inside Lingti, then assessing its status and recommending suitable interventions for its long-term survival. This survey was to be a tough challenge. Along with difficult terrain there was also the thunderous rock cutting river torrent. To get into Lingti one requires crossing the river many times. It meant that for any kind of survey we had to wait till the water was at its lowest. I decided to attempt this in late autumn and early winter. At the beginning of winter the water level in the river goes down and ice bridges are formed all across the river making the river crossing relatively easier. But, the early winter cold makes camping in the open a miserable experience.

Crossing the Lingti

I needed a tough team for this kind of a survey. The members not only had to be physically extremely fit but also knowledgeable about conducting wildlife surveys. They had to be able to identify animals based on their signs such as droppings and spoors (footprints in soft soil or snow) and be able to use technical equipment such as Global Positioning System (GPS). I found such knowledgeable and fit people in the Kibber Youth Council. The Kibber Youth Council had been helping us (Nature Conservation Foundation) with wildlife conservation programs in the main Spiti valley for over ten years. The team members were Sushil, Kalzang, Thillay, Kalzang Pulzor, Chudim, Rinchen, Sheru, Thukten and myself.

The team: (from left to right) Thukten II, Kalzang, Thukten, me, Kalzang Pulzor, Chudim, Rinchen, Thillay and Sheru

We began our survey from Lalung (3776m); a village located very close to the confluence of Lingti and Spiti. With a population of about 370 people and 55 houses Lalung is a largish village by Spitian Standard. I wasn't surprised to know that very few people from this village had ever been inside the Lingti Valley. As metal roads and electricity penetrated deep into the mountains and reached this village, their lifestyle changed dramatically. People became more market dependent; selling their crop of pea and buying the grocery from stores in Kaza (the administrative headquarter of Spiti) became the norm of life. No more is there a need for them to go deep inside Lingti valley to graze their livestock or find wood to make the plough or building. While we heard tales of snow leopards and blue sheep from the valley we got little credible information.

It was time for the actual survey. Thukten II the herder from Lalung was hired as our guide. The trek to Phiphuk, the center of the valley, was arduous; we kept walking over the frozen bed of the Lingti but occasionally the ice sheet under our feet became too thin for comfort and we had to hop from one boulder to another. At the same time, all of us were top heavy, carrying ration for 15 days of stay and thus progress was extremely slow. The first day we camped at Kibri. Before the last light of the day our spirits were rejuvenated as we spotted a herd of 20 blue sheep grazing on the steep banks nearby. The second day of trek was full of excitement as we kept encountering fresh snow leopard pugmarks all along the trail. We kept expecting a surprise at every bend in the trail. That evening we reached 'Phiphuk' (4005m). We decided to make this our base camp due to its central location in the valley. This was to be our home for the next two weeks. The prospects seemed very promising; we had seen many snow leopard signs around the base-camp itself and even sighted a few blue sheep nearby.

Over the next few days we split into three teams of three each and systematically surveyed every side valley and plateau. The first couple of days our team comprising of Sushil, Kalzang Pulzor and myself surveyed the areas around Lakshithang (4560m) and Saktichen (4530m). During these days we would cross the Kuli la (4880m) every day to reach the survey area but it was worth the effort as we encountered over 100 blue sheep in this region. We surveyed the area up to Chaksachen La (5230m) beyond this we knew that the habitat was not very conducive for any mammal. While our team toiled up to Kuli la-Saktichen and back every day other teams fought their way to high pastures of Sheru (4500m), 'Uhlshipo ruins' and Syarma la (4767m). During the day all three teams would head out with GPS and notebook in hand but come evening we would huddle together in the tiny camp and share the days experience. The tiny camp and the huddling helped us stay warm.

Surveying the plateau

The last area to be surveyed was the Syarma nala. We decided to survey it on our way back. The day we wrapped up from Phiphuk our team broke camp early and headed for Syarma nala. We had the huge task of covering the whole Syarma nala in one day. Effectively it meant walking over 35 km in a day. The distance felt even longer in the thin air and cold at that altitude. By evening we were proud of what we had done. We had surveyed the whole area and confirmed the presence of at least 108 blue sheep in that area. But the biggest prize of the day was to encounter pugmarks of a mother and cub snow leopard.

Late evening the three of us reached the place that the others had chosen for the days camp. It was a tiny cave along the frozen river and a little sand bank separating the river from the cave mouth. Tired with a hard days work Sushil, Kalzang and me were the first to get into our sleeping bags. But soon the tiny cave became suffocating and claustrophobic; partly because there were ten of us trying to squeeze inside the tiny cave. Finally Sushil and I gave up; we picked up our sleeping bags and came under the stars on the sand bank. The sky was clear and the night extremely cold. We spread our sleeping bags next to the frozen river and tried to sleep. It was the coldest night of my life. I dozed on and off but couldn't sleep. I watched the stars drift by softly. 'Cygnus' - The Swan, 'Pegasus', 'Andromeda', 'Taurus'-The Bull, 'Orion'-the Hunter all the star constellations passed by slowly. I kept wishing that a snow leopard would pass by but even if it did I wouldn't have seen it in the dark. And then there was a faint glow in the eastern sky. While it was still soft glow Kalzang brew some tea. We all sat around the cooking fire huddled together discussing the night. When suddenly we heard a movement. All of strained our eye to see what made the sound; secretly wishing it to be a snow leopard. It was a stone marten, a great sighting nevertheless. In fact all of us had seen the snow leopard more number of times than a stone marten. Although stone martens are common in other parts of the world they are relatively rare here. It was only my second time. A great farewell from Lingti. The next day we came back to Lalung.

'Orion'-The Hunter

During the survey, together we encountered hundreds of snow leopard pugmarks, scrapes and feces. Based on the signs, we cannot estimate the number of snow leopards but we could conclusively say that there was a healthy population of snow leopards in the valley. Also there seemed to be a healthy prey base for the snow leopard based on the good population of the blue sheep. We encountered over 350 blue sheep (counted without repetition). We also came across more than 10 carcasses of blue sheep killed by snow leopards. Throughout the survey we never encountered signs of Tibetan wolves. Although a few people from Lalung said that they had, in the past, seen wolves inside the Lingti Valley, I was skeptical of these reports as the habitat in much of Lingti is not suitable for an open country species such as wolf. Apart from a healthy prey-predator system (snow leopard-blue sheep) we also encountered other smaller mammals such as the red fox, woolly hare, pika and the very rare stone marten.

The survey information and our interaction with the villagers of Lalung formed the core of the management plan for this region. Lingti promises to be the long-term future for the survival of the snow leopard and other rare wildlife of the high Himalaya. The villagers of Lalung also take pride in being the guardians of Lingti. All throughout it was a satisfying experience to unfold the mysteries of the Lingti Valley.