Breakfast at 7.30 for an 8.30 start felt like a bit of a lie in but I didn’t sleep that well after about 3am – my body has obviously got used to early starts. We drove to Sonamarg and the bottom of the track up to the glacier and set off shortly after 9am, when it was still quite pleasantly cool. We had the usual bother with men trying to persuade us to take pony rides and nomad children begging for ‘baksheesh’ (see Thajiwas glacier) as walked across the moraines at the end of the valley.
The kettle pond was full of tadpoles this time and the ground around it alive with tiny froglets.
We stopped to do lichen quadrats just before the path left the trees at the base of the valley proper – this had the advantage of being shady but the disadvantage of being close to a lot of nomad tents, so we were besieged by rather persistent children. As we don’t have a good ID guide to lichens of the Himalayas, we used B&Q colour charts to give each type a different name according to its colour and will repeat this at different altitudes to see what changes in the lichen flora we observe – not very conventional, but it works!
I found an interesting looking plant, which turned out to be Arisaema, a member of the Arum family, like our more familiar cuckoo pint.
Arisaema plant (left) and fruits developing inside the spathe (right)
We saw some trees which had been burned by fires set at their base – its illegal to cut down living trees for firewood because of the problems caused by deforestation, so the obvious way around this is to kill the tree first.
The group of Himalayan white birch which we’ve photographed for the past two years don’t look so healthy either.
It was a lovely temperature for most of the day with some cloud and a pleasant breeze, which made for a lovely walk but didn’t stop us burning. There were very few other tourists about but we were accosted by a group of beautifully dressed women and children obviously on holiday from elsewhere in India who were very keen to be photographed with us and, in particular, in my hat!
Though people were walking at different speeds, we tried to stick mostly together until after we’d had our picnic lunch in roughly the same spot as last year. One person had had enough by this time, so John headed slowly down with her whilst the rest of us carried on upwards in smaller groups. Everyone headed up towards the snow pocket, then some carried on walking up it, whilst others stayed with me to look at plants.
The rather dirty looking snow pocket – lots of sediment has fallen on it from the surrounding mountains
There was much less in flower than when we were here 13 months ago, maybe partly because we were a little lower down. Nicky, however, was delighted to see Himalayan mayapple in its natural habitat (see A case study in evolution – Podophyllum hexandrum).
Podophyllum hexandrum in flower, showing the anthers curving over the stigma to self-fertilise it (left) and in fruit (right)
We also found a single, tiny group of Gentiana carinata, so everyone was happy.
Nikhi managed to charm some of the children pestering us into looking after bags whilst we hunted for plants in return for the not-insubstantial remains of our packed lunches. The girls are very beautiful.
We all met up before heading down the valley but walked at quite different speeds so those who were ahead had drinks in the café at the Snowland hotel where we stayed the last two years. The same, very friendly manager as before said he recognised us because ‘your smile is the light in my eyes’!
Getting back to the hotel turned out to be trickier than expected – because of the problems in Srinagar they stopped us at the army checkpoint and wanted us to wait until 11pm before they would allow us to drive in that direction. They were very polite and kept assuring us that it was for our own safety. Nikhi’s negotiating skills came to the fore once again and one car went off to show our hotel documents to a commanding officer to prove that we were only going a few km to the next village rather than back to Srinagar. At least we knew they’d have been glad to feed us dinner on the way home. In the event, we were back at the hotel in plenty of time for dinner.
It turned out that the cars coming from Leh to pick us up for tomorrow’s drive to Kargil were stuck at the same road block in Sonamarg but they should be here by tomorrow morning. We said goodbye to the drivers from Srinagar as they will leave for the drive home in the small hours to avoid possible trouble. Early nights were in order again as we also have an early start tomorrow.