Monday 6th July – on to Leh

We had a leisurely morning today as its only a couple of hours from here to Leh. Breakfast was lovely and not just for the view over the Indus. There were pancakes and porridge on offer, with honey still with bits of honeycomb in and tasty apricot jam, all of which made a very pleasant change to the usual fare. Given that we didn’t arrive till about six last night, it was lovely to chill out and enjoy the peace and lovely views at the Apricot Tree afterwards. Some of us strolled round the garden or wandered through the back lanes of the adjacent hamlet whilst others preferred just to chill out on their verandas or in the courtyard. In theory there was wifi on the ground floor but it didn’t seem to let more than a couple of people use it at any given time, so I gave up in the end.

We left at 11 am and Muktar suggested we make an unscheduled stop at Alchi monastery, which has some of the oldest wall paintings in Ladakh (around 1000 years). This was much more commercialised than anywhere else we’ve been, with lots of stalls selling Tibetan goods.  Chris and Amanda bought a lovely Tibetan singing bowl with a beautiful clear tone. When you put water in it and make it sing it produces tiny waves all over the surface with a wavelength to match the pitch.

For me, the highlight of Alchi was seeing the completed mandala on display, after what we’d seen yesterday at Lamayuru. At first sight it looked like an intricately-coloured embroidery with clever embossed patterns but when we looked closely we could see that it was, in fact, made from tiny deposits of coloured power. The whole thing is a circle about a meter in diameter and took four monks a whole year to complete! The wall paintings were incredible too – small repeated Buddhas covering whole walls as if they were wallpaper.

From Alchi we drove on just a few km to Saspol where the drivers found us a shady picnic spot by a little tributary of the Indus. There weren’t enough plants around to do serious botanising but we did get to see a pretty blue-flowered wild lettuce (Lactuca dolichophylla) up close as well as more of the honey-scented yellow vetch which seems so abundant. They were allowing it to grow in the fallow vegetable beds at the Apricot Tree, presumably to act as a green manure.

Driving through this part of the Indus valley there is a sense of growing prosperity from all the new buildings going up which is good to see. It’s also really good to see that even the smart new houses are generally being built in the traditional style and using the traditional, sustainable, building materials of mud bricks and wood. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint over the Indus at Basgo and then pressed on to Leh, arriving about 3 pm. Yet again, there has been confusion about lunch and the hotel were apparently expecting us, despite the fact that the drivers and Fouzia knew we had packed lunches from the Apricot Tree. We managed to change this into tea and coffee sitting outside in the shade, whilst we were checked in, which seemed to be a rather laborious process.

The Grand Himalaya hotel is fine and, again, has lovely views and big spacious rooms with verandas. It’s higher up the hill in Leh than the Grand Dragon, which means there is more obstructing the views across to Stok Kangri and the Zanskar range, but also means it has panoramic views towards Leh Palace, Shankar Stupa and the Ladakh Batholith at the back.

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Zanskar mountains from my balcony

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Leh Palace

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View from the back of the Grand Himalaya hotel

We also have tea and coffee-making facilities in our rooms for the first time, so all is good. We all felt pretty grimy after the journey and I also needed to handwash some clothes, but decided a quick explore of town would be better before rather than after showering. We were very glad we had – the ‘beautification’ of Leh, which meant the high street was completely dug up in September, has proceeded apace. Some paved areas are now paved but there is also an incredible amount of dust. Some old buildings have been cleared and there are piles of sand everywhere. It will be interesting to see how it has changed by next year.

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Walking down into Leh

The other obvious difference is in the number of western tourists around – I’ve heard German, French, Italian and a Slavic language spoken today and there are also plenty of Japanese tourists around. Our first objective was to find an ATM and withdraw cash but this proved easier said than done – it seems a bit random which banks accept which cards. We gave up and came back to the hotel to shower and wash clothes in the end. We are all a bit breathless going up the steps to the third floor but, apart from that, so much better at 3 500 m than we were when we flew directly into Leh – good to know that the theory of gradual acclimatisation works and hopefully means we won’t have problems getting to Pangong.

Dinner was very good – some tasty Chinese-style dishes were a welcome addition to the usual curries. We discussed what to do about timings and lunch for tomorrow as some people came across Leh museum today and would like to go there tomorrow afternoon. After dinner, John showed people some cross section maps he has on his iPad of the rocks we have traveled through today.

Sunday 5th July – Kargil to Nurla

We are now very happily ensconced in the Apricot Tree hotel at Nurla, after another long drive. The hotel is lovely and we all have rooms with verandas overlooking the Indus. The walk along the shore we’d thought of for tomorrow isn’t going to happen though – the river is considerably higher than it was in September and the path is completely under water!

We spent an hour or so this morning in the Museum of Central Asia in Kargil which had interesting artefacts linked to Kargil’s place at a the hub of a number of different trading routes, but little in the way of labelling or interpretation, unfortunately. From there we drove the short distance to Shergol to look at the monastery, at the drivers’ suggestion. This is an amazing feat of engineering, built right into the side of the conglomerate which makes up the hill.

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Shergol monastery

It also gave us a chance to see some of the lovely pink roses up close and enjoy their fragrance, as well as an assortment of drought adapted thistles and legumes.

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There seemed some confusion over whether the monastery is 200 or 2000 years old, but the people there were very friendly and let us wander around and up to the roof. Here a couple of lads were leaning over the edge in an alarming manner and whitewashing the front. One sported a T-shirt from the Ladakh marathon, which impressed me, for one.

By the time we got down the steps from the monastery the drivers had sorted out a very welcome juice and biscuits break. From Shergol we travelled onto to Mulbek to look at the enormous, 2000 year old Buddha carved into a limestone ‘exotic’. The limestone pillars along this stretch of the road look very much like meerkats to me! The drivers found us a place a little further along the road to stop for lunch in the shade of some trees. It was interesting to look close up at the barley crop growing in the adjacent field, which looked like it was basically growing through stones.

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Barley growing at Wakka Mulbek

There were lots of pretty geraniums and a yellow vetch of some sort growing on the margins too. The roadsides for this stretch of the journey were covered in a yellow Corydalis, but one much too common to interest Brian, I’m sure.

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Corydalis

As well as the fresh green fields of barley, we spotted bright yellow fields in the valley bottoms which looked very familiar. Mukhter confirmed that they were, indeed, oilseed and said, I think, that people process the seeds in their own homes to extract the oil.

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After lunch we climbed up Namika La and then Fotu La passes, the latter the highest on the road between Srinagar and Leh at 4108 m. Helen and I both felt a little light headed here, but nothing more serious – it might partly have been the fact that it was quite windy at the top. The views were every bit as breathtaking as we remembered, but quite different approaching from the other direction.

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Group photo at Namika La

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Fatu La Pass

We noticed for the first time that you can see down to the pale coloured sediments of Lamayuru from the top of Fotu La, which gave us a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the disappearing lake. This formed around 40 000 years ago as a result of tectonic activity damming the valley, and then disappearing just as rapidly around 1000 years ago, also as a result of tectonic activity.

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Lamayuru with pale paleolake sediments behind

The drivers suggested another tea break at a shady viewpoint overlooking Lamayuru before we dropped down to visit the monastery. We spent quite a lot of time there as there were a number of friendly monks busy about the place, happy to be photographed and answer questiions. Some of them, including some young boys, were busy grinding up calcite on a stone to add to the pigments which they will use to colour a mandala in the next few days.

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Ceremonial trumpets and young monks grinding calcite for a mandala at Lamayuru

We had a very brief stop at ‘Moonland’ below the monastery to look at the fantastically-formed sediments up close before heading down towards Kaltse. The checkpoint where we entered Leh area turned out to be something of a trial. First of all it transpired that we needed to pay a 300 rupee environmental tax each. Then it turned out that the official’s ledger, into which all our details had to be transcribed, had a space for visa number and this wasn’t on all the forms we’d copied yesterday. I ended up having to go through everyone’s passports again to record this in the ledger, which took some time… Once we’d done that, though, it didn’t take long to reach Nurla and the hotel was well worth the wait. They made us tea and coffee in the central courtyard, shaded by the apricot trees. I made the mistake of washing my face on the lovely white flannel which no longer looks quite so pristine!

We ate together at 8pm to give everyone time to shower. Some of us very much enjoyed our first beer for some days and the food was delicious too – a real salad with a tasty sesame dressing was a big improvement on what we’ve had elsewhere and everyone seemed happy.

More thirsty plants

So how do plants which live in the drier areas of Ladakh cope?

Some desert plants make the most of water when it is available (mostly July and August in Ladakh) by having an annual life cycle and a particularly short growing season. They germinate at the first hint of warmth and moisture in the soil and grow quickly to the point of flowering and setting seed. Seeds dry out naturally as they ripen and, once dehydrated, can live in the soil for many years in a sort of suspended animation until conditions are suitable for a new plant to grow. Some seeds carry an added layer of protection in the form of dormancy. In a climate such as that of Ladakh, where winters are bitterly cold, seeds may require a period at a low temperature (known as vernalisation) to break this dormancy. This provides a safety net to ensure than the seeds do not germinate in a particularly warm or damp autumn, only to be killed by the winter weather.

Amongst the most dramatic of these annual plants are many poppies, including perhaps the best known, Papaver somniferum. When the opium poppy seed capsule reaches maturity, it contains thousands of the tiny black seeds we know as poppy seeds, though anyone looking for an opiate hit from these will be disappointed. Opium is produced from the latex harvested by making incisions in the green seed capsules. When the capsule dries out, the disc at the top pulls away from the base leaving a series of holes, out of which the seeds are shaken, like pepper from a pot. At least a few of these are likely to survive long enough to grow into new plants.

Opium poppy Bowburn Opium poppy

Papaver somniferum

Other plants adopt different strategies to allow them to survive in this hostile environment. One common strategy is to modify the leaf structure in some way. When growing where there is plenty of water the outer layer, or epidermis, of plant leaves is punctuated by many of the tiny stomatal pores we looked at in my previous post (Plants get stressed too!). These serve the dual purpose of allowing gas exchange and helping to cool the leaves by evaporation when temperatures are high. However when water is in short supply, the density of these is much reduced. This is easy to show by preparing a stomatal peel using clear nail varnish painted onto the leaf surface.

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Leaf peel from lower epidermis of Ficus sp.

Many plants growing in dry areas reduce the size of their leaves, to minimise the area over which water can be lost; this can either be a short term acclimation or longer term adaptation. Leaf growth is, of course, a function of both cell growth and cell division. The rate at which cells divide is reduced in plants under water stress when one of the signalling cascades I mentioned previously slows down replication of the genetic material, DNA, which is necessary for the cell cycle to continue. Cell expansion is also reduced because cells will be less turgid under mild water stress so the cell contents cannot exert the outward pressure on the cell wall which is one of the driving forces for cell growth.

Whilst a reduction in stomatal density will reduce a plant’s ability to cool itself by evaporation, small leaves have a reduced boundary layer effect (air cannot flow so freely over them) so can lose heat to the air more rapidly to compensate for this. Dividing a leaf into lobes has a similar effect and you can sometimes see this example of phenotypic plasticity in different locations on same plant, dependent on the microhabitat experienced by each leaf.

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Leaves of an Indian Chinar tree (Platanus orientalis) in Dachigam National Park, Srinagar, where annual rainfall is around 250 mm

Some plants take this to extremes – all that remains of leaves in the Ephedra gerardiana we found growing near Leh are tiny brown scales at the joints of slender green branches. Here the branches have to take over the leaves’ photosynthetic role.

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Ephedra gerardiana, growning near Leh (average rainfall 100 mm)

Unappetising as it may look to us, Ephedra is an important winter food for goats and yak in Ladakh and is also the source of the alkaloid ephedrine.

Another strategy employed by plants is to have hair like projections known as trichomes on the leaf surface, giving it a silvery grey colour. Trichomes help to trap moist air near the surface of the leaf and, at the same time, reflect sunlight to keep the leaves cooler. Some species produce leaves without trichomes in spring, to maximise the amount of photosynthesis which can take place at cooler times of the year.

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Nepeta floccosa (Catmint) growing on scree at Shang Sumdo

Of course many plants in the most hostile environments combine several of these adaptations, alongside metabolic adaptations such as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, which we’ll come to next.