John Vincent Bellezza
Flight of the Khyung
Another month has gone by and I am back at my desk with a full array of research materials around me. During my recent trip to the Library of Congress I collected all the references needed to complete my new book, Antiquities of Zhang-Zhung. Over the next couple of months I will carry out another round of editing. I plan to submit the finished manuscript to the Austrian Academy of Sciences by April 15. Once the book is accepted for publication, the process of formatting and proofreading will ensue. This could take several more months.I am in no hurry. I want to get everything right so as to insure that Antiquities of Zhang-Zhung makes a big impact. It is a good feeling to have gotten this far.
It is now dawn. I sit here in my study heavily clad in woolens to keep the cold at bay. I could close the windows and put the electric heater on but I rather not. The cold keeps me alert even after hours of writing. Ironically, I need less clothing outside than when I am indoors and less physically active. If snow does begin to fall at my house I will put the heater into service. That is, if there is still electricity. The power tends to go out when the weather gets tough. As a last bit of ammunition, I have my heavy Tibetan cloak and other expeditionary gear. At least I don’t need refrigeration for my produce and cheese!
The winter began with much snow in the higher reaches but for nearly two months there has been no precipitation. Over the last several days, however, powerful storms have descended upon the Himalaya and we are in the grip of a cold spell. The snowline has crept down to 2100 m elevation and promises to reach the main village belt if the inclement weather remains. This snow and rain is absolutely crucial if we are to avoid draught conditions during the coming dry season. Nevertheless, the moisture arrives too late to provide for a good snow-base this year.
Over the last quarter of a century, I have watched the ice world above me disappear and snowfall diminish. With the rapid shrinking of the glaciers and permanent ice-fields, the summers have become drier and hotter. I can state that on the average there was more snow two decades ago. Elders have repeatedly told me that there was even more snow 60 or 70 years ago. I have seen photographs taken in the 1940s when there was nearly 2 m of snow on the ground at 1700 m elevation. I have never seen that.
Not long ago, the BBC World Service aired a discussion about development in India and the prospect of achieving prosperity for all her citizenry. There was a vigorous debate about economic policy and the role of government, even about the place of caste in society, but not once was the word environment mentioned. The natural world was totally excluded from the discourse. It was as if human beings live on abstractions rather than water, food, fuel, etc. I suppose most of those doing the talking were affluent urban dwellers; not one of the BBC’s guests was an Indian farmer, herder or artisan. Here, in my Himalayan pocket, summer river flows are contracting decade by decade. This is liable to impact the amount of irrigation water ultimately reaching the Punjab, one of India’s major breadbaskets. If that was not enough, a report recently issued by the World Watch Institute predicts that global warming could cut the wheat yield on the Indo-Gangetic plains in half by the end of the century. Simply put, warmer temperatures retard the germination of wheat berries. I wonder, then, why those in industry and government seem to be in a state of denial. It is as if they think the problem of environmental degradation can be ignored or wished away.
Now that I am on the subject of the environment, I will make a prediction (something I cannot readily do in my scholarly work). In the 21st century environmental processes, even more than economic, technological and political activities, will prove to be the decisive factor in determining the well-being of human society.
From My Old Journal Archive
Cutting the Crest of the Himalaya, September 7, 1989:
One month into the current trek.
Upward Limits of Permanent Human Settlement in Himachal Pradesh:
South side of the Dhauladhar Range (Outer Himalaya) – 7100 feet (Upper Dharamkot)
South side of the Pangi Range (Mid-Himalaya) – 8500 feet (Upper Kugti)
South side of the Great Himalaya – 11,000 feet (Darcha)
Transhimalaya Range – 14000 feet (Kibar)
Note: As you move deeper into the Himalaya the mountain mass effect, continentality, and to some degree aridity, allow for high human habitation at increasing heights.
The rivers are falling and clearing. Soon they will become aquamarine and lucid due to the lessening of the runoff. Runoff is restricted as temperatures drop and the monsoon retreats. Willow leaves in Darsha have begun to turn yellow. Sedges above Patseo are now flaming red in color. I planned to get a ride to Baralacha La instead I have hiked the distance there from Patseo. I got underway first thing this morning. I hiked until midmorning when I arrived at the crest of the Himalaya at Baralacha La. Cutting all the switchbacks [by using an old trail] saved me a lot of time. I commenced to make breakfast on the pass. I should record that Surya Tal has shrunk and is no longer crescent-shaped. The snow bank in the narrow neck on the downstream side of Sun Lake has melted to less than half the size it was when I came this way nearly two months ago. I met a Canadian lawyer between jobs named Scott on Baralacha La. He is beginning the Chandra Tal (Moon Lake) circuit. We shared a cup of tea and conversation for perhaps a half hour.
Again, I am astounded by the beauty of the Chandra valley. Resplendent peaks are set off on the side of the valley like diamond settings in a pendant necklace. For about an hour after breakfast I stared in awe at the magnificent Chandra. Her beauty is like that of a fair maiden most tastefully made up. There is much less snow on the pass than a couple months ago. It has already melted and flowed out of the pass basin. I missed the old road which must have been built 15 or 20 years ago. It is more direct. What is even better is that you miss traffic. At least 50 of the roaring dinosaurs we call trucks went by me. They kick up a lot of dust and that with exhaust fumes is a very unpleasant mixture to inhale. The road around Baralacha La is nearly completed. The fumes from the tarring operation are something you would imagine hell’s fire and brimstone to smell like. I needed to don sunglasses, not so much for the glare but to protect my eyes from the wake of the trucks. Further down from the pass I managed to get on a kacha road (trail) and bypass traffic.
There are a couple of small metal buildings and tent cities down from the pass. Then about 15 kms from the pass there is the large outpost of Jullundri. It consists of a metal building and lots of tents. Of course the roadwork is done almost exclusively by Nepalis. I had dal bhat (rice and lentils) in Jullundri which is like a village with its large Nepali families.
The surfaced road, heavy traffic and other signs of ‘development’ have devastated the ecology of this Transhimalayan valley. This along with heavy grazing imperils the pristine ecosystem. Gone are the days of the big yak caravans and open trade with Tibet. India’s frontier mentality is almost as misguided as Brazil’s or America’s. Exploit today. Don’t worry about tomorrow or the future of the children. This sums up the attitude for the most part.
I will be following the Yunam river valley and then the Chharap valley after the confluence of the two rivers. These two rivers are the headwaters of the Zanskar River. The route I will be following will take me along the eastern edge of Zanskar’s canyon country. East of me is the Ladakh range and then the Changthang. Like other Transhimalayan regions, the colors of the rock formations are staggering. Reds, blues and purples soundly capture one’s attention. I have made camp near a tarn in a grassy meadow. I passed another tarn, also this side of Jullundri. I am cooking radishes.
Another full day on the road. I decided to stuff away my sleeping bag and to start walking early this morning. I figured I would catch breakfast when the sun warmed the air. It was well below freezing this morning as the ice attested. The valley opened wide and I found myself traversing a large plain. I was having my breakfast when a couple groups of Ladakhi shepherds passed me by. The sheep each carried a woolen pannier filled with barleycorn. I estimate that each animal carried an average of eight kilograms. There were approximately 200 sheep consequently the Ladakhis were moving, say, 1600 kilograms of barley. They told me that the barley came from Zanskar. Doubtless, it is part of their winter store. I quickly finished eating, repacked, and tagged along with the shepherds…