In the charming alpine meadow of Bedni Bugyal life goes on as if on another planet, though Jennifer Nandi notes that our inexorable worldliness has preceded our arrival here
|Life’s symmetry, reflected in Bedni Kund
Trishul peeks fleetingly behind scudding cloud and the earth is white. I can hear melt- trickles from beneath the snow. Here, at its source, the Bedni Ganga trickles from under an overhang of ice. The upper reaches of this river are clear, rich in oxygen but poor in nutrients. Yet its narrow bed and fast-flowing waters possess considerable erosive abilities – both by chemical weathering of the rocks over which they pass and by the abrasive action of rock particles.
|Nanda Ghunti peeks through a veil of mist
Last night’s hail and snow has buried all irrelevant detail. The bright yellow flowers of a cluster of Marsh Marigold – of the Buttercup family – spring silently by the brook, nestling against a boulder. Such flimsy things they seem, just a step up from the leaves, with no heft. Yet last night’s blast of cold wind has neither withered nor shrivelled it. Frost failed to kill its basal, toothed, shining blades. It sits an easy prey to hail, storm and blizzard, a miracle of growth. What strength in fragility! Some mountain species resist becoming frozen solid because of the sluggish liquid moving in their cells acting like antifreeze. The fragrant, lavender-coloured flowers of Primula atrodentata lift their compact globular head from their icy bed. The whole flower vibrates with the attention it’s getting. The true miracle in the mountains is the manner in which every vestige of decay is seized upon by the roots of plants.
|Marsh marigolds are a burst of vibrant colour against the bleakness of the landscape
The Bedni springs from hidden aquifers under the earth. It will serve us during our brief stay here. I gargle and spit and wash and pollute this spring at its source. I hurry down to the ‘kitchen,’ with visions of hot porridge. Devidutt is warming himself in a blazing fire. There is an unusual amount of light streaming through. I look up – more rafters are missing… I take our entire ration of dalia, cook it with some vermicelli, milk and sugar – the result, a whole load of very appetizing nourishingly sweet porridge. The men arrive and devour the breakfast with great relish. They let us know, much later of course, that they had already swallowed the morning’s quota of energy bars! Sunita and I sit outside, hands cupped around our comfort food, and decide that as wonderful as this is, we are too old to trek with the cooking left to us. Devidutt is a guide with no training, content to lie back like some Old World nawab, one knee cocked, a cigarette (Sunita’s preferably) dangling from his thin lips. His small and subtle artifices to absent himself from volunteering a service exasperated Bijoy. The pony-owners are always ahead of us in one-third or one-fourth the time we take to arrive camp. With a fee I’m sure they could’ve been entrusted to make tea, cook us some breakfast and a meal at the end of the day.
We turn to look upon the mountain peaks of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti. Thick, irregular and scattered clouds float past the peaks, between us and the sun. The thinner edges of the clouds, more efficient at scattering light forward toward our eyes, shine brightly giving them a silver lining. For this moment of pure magnificence, all is worth it – our hunger, pain, suffering, fatigue, our insecurities and anxieties – all fall away. It is true that the wilderness can revitalize. We fill ourselves with wonder and awaken the genius in us that can infer the vanished past from a hint of rock.
‘Let’s go birding’, we say, with energy anew.
Bedni Bugyal falls away steeply following the quick descent of its nascent stream. There is no track on this steep, rocky and grass-covered slope, so we must pick a precarious path that has the illusion of being quick and easy. Scree lichens, the first step in colonization of the rocky regions form bright blister-like skins on rocks. The fungus produces acids which etch the surface of the rock giving the colony some chance at finding purchase on the smooth surface. The alga synthesises the rock minerals, which the fungus has dissolved, with water and carbon dioxide from the air into food substances on which both it and the fungus feed.
Our intention is to sit on a knoll and face the coniferous forest that hems the lower bugyals at the tree-line. Bushes of dwarf rhododendron nestle against the mountainside housing birds with fledglings, just emerging from their nests, and making their first forays into the world on their own. This way we shall have an unobstructed view of the birds that might forage at the very edge of the forest.
Our decision is perfect, there is much bird activity and before long, the bird that tops our wish-list flies into full view displaying a large white rump patch – the elusive Monal. It is a bird of heart-stopping beauty. It also clarifies for me the word ‘volplaning’ when I see it in action. Truly a visual treat. We enjoy an exhilaration of emotion as we watch it fly to a perch. The metallic green head gleams as the wire-like crest swings about. Its iridescence is blinding – brilliant bronze on the hind neck, metallic blue and green and purple on the wings with a cinnamon-brown tail. In the two hours that we sit together, Sunita and I hardly exchange a word. Yet so much has been said.
|A Himalayan Monal cock surveys his fief
Earlier in the day we had struck a deal with the tourist camp manager, occupying the bent space of valley meadow, to supply us with lunch. It is late afternoon when we wend our way towards them. Our fellow trekkers are already there, lazing in the camp’s large tent. We ask for a mat to be spread outside, on the grass, where we eat a very tasty, hot lunch. The camp manager is occupied with the preparations for the large group he will soon receive. We ask what they do with their garbage and they proudly point to a hole in the ground, already quite full, with a sign ‘DUMB PIT’. The helpers and camp assistants are drawn from all over north India so they owe this place no allegiance. They also proudly point to the western-style toilets that will be soon fitted. We guess that no plumbing will be constructed – the sewage will simply drain and very quickly collect on the grass forming a human sewage marshland. This is being done with the Forest Department’s approval. We try vainly to see the wisdom of such permanent urban-originated structures being imposed on this wilderness landscape.
We wander around and watch at eye-level, around the rugged contours of the mountain, two Lammergeiers sailing on motionless wings that span two and a half meters. A few Himalayan Griffon vultures can be seen in the distance surveying their mountainous realms – high mountain passes and well-used trade routes where the birds might find a stricken pack animal. Some also follow graziers to the alpine pastures in spring for any animal that might die. But of the little birds, hardly any activity. Strange. Suddenly, it gets very dark only to brighten considerably. We might misread the signs, but not the birds. It’s a phenomenon that occurs just before a heavy daytime downpour. This brightening is due to the scattering and reflections of sun and skylight by the droplets as they fall. The larger the droplets, the greater the brightening. And so we are drenched once again. And yet again is the ground pebbled white.
|After the storm, the bugyal is a carpet of silvery white, crunching underfoot
In our unending quest for birds, the rain is incidental. Bijoy and I walk through capricious mists to the Bedni Kund, a flat pane of water obnubilating its Stygian depth. This small lake absorbs the mountains’ white melt into its dark waters; a harbinger of Roop Kund’s more tenebrous character.
|White-capped Water Redstart
Bijoy and I sit in the cold watching the water silently lap at the temple’s steps and looking for birds valorous enough to flirt at its edge. Earlier in the day, he had seen a White-capped Water Redstart – an elegantly dressed bird with a bright red breast, black head and mantle, with a patch of gleaming white on the crown. At the water’s edge are two individuals of the dukhunensis race of White Wagtails, flushing insects with short, rapid runs, fattening up before reaching their breeding grounds in Ladakh. But there’s also what I figure, a first winter Yellow Wagtail of the beema race. It had a distinct white supercilium and white chin. I checked for yellow on the rump which would’ve identified it as a Grey Wagtail. But it lacked any suspicion of yellow anywhere on its rather plain plumage. I have seen breeding Yellow Wagtails at 13,000 ft, northward from Gamshalli, on the trekking route to Kagbhusandi and Bidan Parbhat. There, wide swathes of damp green pastures flank a glacial stream hedged in by tree-stripped, fiercely-eroded mountain mass. However, for those Yellow Wagtails it was congenial country, pursuing the few cattle that grazed at that altitude, snapping up insects in their wake.
|The gloaming reflected in Bedni Kund
A heavy puff of wind jangles the temple’s bell. Pilgrims trek this arduous trail to propitiate the gods, yet do they achieve their objective? If arriving at a place of pilgrimage holds for some value in life, surely the pilgrimage itself should be equally important? Plastic bags, biscuit wrappers, discarded batteries taint what should be pure. Simply arriving cannot be more important than the journey. Are we so world-weary that our indifference translates into crude apathy to our public commons? If the propitiation can be seen as a ritual to recreate in the individual the same order as that of the landscape, and as a reflection of the myriad enduring relationships of the same landscape, then we might see ourselves as the guardians of the Himalaya. And understand that it is placed in our trust for safeguard for our children’s options. The upkeep of inaccessible wilderness areas are dependent solely on those challenged enough to visit them – shepherds, pony-wallahs, trekkers, pilgrims. Of course we make an impact wherever we go, but we can always try to make the least impact possible. Our mantra to all we encountered on our journey was to return their trash to the nearest town.
Next: Bedni to Wan
Previously in this series:
The Green Ogre – Birds, Wildlife, Ecology and Nature notes from India.