Finding Shangri-La in Singalila – Part Two

Read part one here.

Day 2: Tumling

The first thing I did when the alarm went off was to part the curtain to take a peek outside. And a large “nothing to see here” sign met me. I couldn’t tell whether it was foggy or just dark, for the human eyes, so effective at discrimination in light, are miserably defanged in its paucity. 

We’ll know soon enough, I thought, and getting ready, stepped out with my camera. 

The mist and cloud lay thick and low, but I could see better than last evening. Over to the south I could spot some buildings that the previous day we didn’t know existed. Beyond them, electric power poles dotted the rolling horizon, in the forbidding weather looking like grave-markers. Yet, it was clear that we wouldn’t see Kanchenjunga today. So I made up my mind to focus on the birding instead.

Continuing past the dining hall to the back of the lodge, where just by the fence, I had observed the previous day, the presence of flowering trees and discarded food attracted avian attendance, and on the way there, found a flock of plain mountain-finch enfoliating electric lines. One of them, when isolated, made for an evocative visual:

The plain mountain-finch, begging to be read between the lines

Directly upon my arrival at the scene, I espied a blue-fronted redstart on a bush some distance away. My first thought was that Archana, who’s also an avid photographer, had said she’d join me soon but wasn’t here yet. I hoped she’d know where to come. 

Soon the redstart drew closer and graced a tree not 20 feet from where I stood. The light was appalling and I was already at 5000 ISO, but thanks to the extreme lightness of the lens I was using (the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 E PF VR), I was able to make a portrait at a yawning 1/13 s hand-held! 

The next shot would turn out to be an abstract, though, as standing on mounds of soil on a slope in biting cold, my enthusiasm couldn’t fully supplant my instability:

In quick succession, there appeared a couple of yellow-billed blue magpies to scavenge on the food refuse from the kitchen, struck a couple of attractive poses, posed a couple of compositional difficulties and decanted.

One of the yellow-billed blue magpies that appeared.

By now I was joined by Archana, and we had two pairs of eyes to look out, which soon met with the pleasing sight of a species you will find at number 16 on the wishlist: a rufous-breasted accentor, and how! As though in abeyance to our taste for habitat images, it perched right amid the wiry tangles of a tree full of buds. Holi had come late!

The rufous-breasted accentor that accented the scene with colour by perching propitiously.

Then from the mist emerged a quantum of energy wearing a xanthic coat. It was as though a lemon had assumed life and taken wings to bestow a blessing of freshness on a murky morning. 

Meanwhile on a distant tree, a thrush, which I was to later identify as the red-throated, sang away, as though trying to move the clouds away with its breath.

Just then we were joined by Batsa, and the three of us went up the concrete road towards Garibans. On the way out of the lodge, a white-collared blackbird sat on the rise just over the rocky road, embalming the previous day’s miss that still smarted. Then we found a verditer flycatcher in a state of floral animation – so untouched it seemed by the weight of living, as though it was born a few hours before, blowing kisses to the sky in full bloom.

Emerging on the concrete road, we found that the weather had cleared by degrees to reveal a precious little of the ridge road: rugged and serpentine, like a road not in reality but on a map, going to a place somewhere far away, only in the realm of imagination. 

We walked as long as perhaps half distance to the Tumling checkpost, and found a couple of spotted laughingthrushes who, being shy, refrained from unfettered exposure and remained skulking on the ground amid a smattering of loose bushes, so I couldn’t manage an image worth your time.

Struck by the thought that the two ladies would’ve by now bestirred from their repose and might expect to be attended by a spot of tea and breakfast, we made for the lodge, retracing our steps with studied silence so as to stumble upon more birds. And the only reason we spotted the big flock of plain mountain-finches was because they alighted upon a tree en masse, having been displaced from their earlier perch near the Tumling Monastery by some cause or the other. In the fog, all we could burn them to was our photographic memory, but hanging around as we did with Buddhist patience, at long last we managed this portrait of one unflinching finch.

The unflinching finch

Having sated our morning craving for ‘morphine’, we repaired directly for the lodge, which was now only a few metres away, where we excitedly related the morning’s findings to Sourabha and Pooja.

Life in the bird-rich mountains is not easy or leisurely, as you may be called upon to preside over a sighting even in the middle of an indisposition, which can of course be very inconvenient in an inclement chill. 

This is precisely what now happened, as I was changing for breakfast, a song pressed me to inquire into its source regardless of my sartorial readiness, turning out to be a white-capped water redstart hugging the apex of a nearby roof, belting out the high notes from its pointy perch. 

The apex-hugging white-capped redstart

After finally dressing myself fully and availing ourselves of some breakfast and several rounds of tea to light up the fire within, we were quite set to comb a larger area for avian delights. 

Walking into the patch of secondary forest behind the lodge, we (this time all four of us) were first met by an Oriental turtle-dove flanking the steps down from the lodge, its brilliantly marked post-tympanum standing out like a tribal totem. 

The hermetic Oriental turtle-dove wearing a ‘tribal totem’

When fully descended into the wall of the valley, we found another verditer in such verve, that it seemed to answer only to the moon’s laws of gravity. To bear us back to earth, a Himalayan griffon soon came soaring on a thermal, its plumage outstretched as though to encompass all the ground in its sight, unaffected by a big lacuna in its right wing betraying the loss of a key feather. Then it turned around gliding straight on sans beating once, as though the wind was under the rule of its outstretched arms, the extremities of which it held like a wizard holding his oversized fingernails, or else like the spatial signature of the baton subject to a conductor’s overtures.

Turning our attention to the main road that carries on towards Garibans, we first found a couple of white-capped redstarts going on full steam at a show of song and dance to establish superiority. Soon after, on the ridge road, we were able to hear a stripe-throated yuhina and follow it up with the sight of a pair. 

The stripe-throated yuhina

A little more of the valley was now visible, as thinly composed tufts of cloud rose from the canopy like a cold steam off a culinary preparation, or else the morning breath of a giant dragon deep in the forest bosom. 

As we walked contrary to our morning’s jaunt, towards Tonglu, on the first slope up from Tumling we came upon an olive-backed pipit sitting on the retaining wall. Patient stalking brought us to within satisfactory distance for an absorbing study of this richly streaked passerine, before it dove into the valley, calling time on our unscheduled meeting.

The fence-sitting olive-backed pipit

Standing up, I looked back and down towards Tumling, and saw the ridge road cutting like a fragile tape placed precariously atop a cake. All the lodges could be seen straddling the western side of the road. There was no sign of Nepal or India, or any other manufactured identity: just Nature, mixing and melting into herself, unknowing where she starts and ends, and from where to where is her eternal journey, a circle ever being drawn, always full but never complete.

It is normally the function of borders to divide; but this was one that stood to unite.

Looking back at the road running over the Singalila Ridge that forms the border between India and Nepal. All the lodges visible to the left are in Nepal.

Continuing higher, we negotiated the crest of the hillock above Tumling, to be greeted by – hold your breath now – sunshine! And such sunshine as to prompt a disarming of the thick jackets. 

Just there to our left was a magnificent Rhododendron arboreum in full bloom, its mop of trusses aflame with pink, marked by the sky’s play of light like a celestial underline. We bowed in adoration and made this image of it with Tumling in the background. The scene glistened with high exoticism.

A magnificent Rhododendron arboreum in full beaming bloom

This festival of colour was to linger yet, as at the next bend, we pried out a bar-winged siva (now called chestnut-tailed minla) frolicking among a bouquet of pink bedecking a network of lichen-draped branches.

The chestnut-tailed minla adamant on being epic

A little higher, on the Nepalese side too, the rolling grasslands looked utterly charming, like the undulations of a magic carpet ride:

Soon a rufous-vented tit emerged out of the woodwork, unambiguously showing its eponymous vent. Moving on, at the next bend, where the road curved left and a patch of forest created an awning to eclipse the road in shade, we found a male Himalayan bluetail gracing a culvert, its shoulder and eyebrow daubs of brilliant blue, like an artist’s signature, conspicuous even in the mellow light. Tiptoeing carefully we approached closer, to find the female as well, completing the couple. 

Every so often they’d leap off the culvert or the branch on which they sat, forage for grub on the road, and fly back to the perch. Just when we thought we were having enough fun watching them, a rufous-gorgeted flycatcher appeared on a beautiful brown lichen-covered branch. There was something utterly amusing in how, with a prominent white stripe across its forehead, a faint saffron line on its gorget, and a pious, serious look, it appeared to have just returned from its weekly visit to the temple! 

The ‘temple-going’ rufous-gorgeted flycatcher

It is truly hard to describe the pleasure of walking a protected Himalayan mountain road, sparse in traffic and rich in bird life, scouring tree after tree, never knowing what species you’ll encounter at the next bend. And it is just this pleasure we now enjoyed as we slowly made our way to Tonglu.

At the Tonglu Trekker’s Hut junction, the lake, which on the right day reflects the great snow-capped peaks in its still water, was festooned with noisy tourists and picnickers. However, on the rise the Trekker’s Hut stood in quiet majesty.  

I didn’t need to imagine how good the view from this hut is when the weather is clear, for I had seen enough pictures of it. All we could do was sigh wistfully and continue to Tonglu Proper, where we found another vintage Land Rover on the ready to climb up the treacherous slopes to Sandakphu. 

Wearing a spartan livery on a naked body of sheet metal that you could see having been beaten into shape by hand, and a curious combination of Brazilian, English and French flags, a padlock on the grille, lovely forest-green accents and loud yellow steel wheels were its other prominent attributes. 

The lovable jalopy

Walking past this lovable jalopy, we entered the campus of a roofless stone building – whether en route to construction or destruction, I couldn’t tell, but in any case it was fenced for good measure. Then we settled upon a comforting homestay, painted red-and-maroon, and asked for a round of tea and some biscuits. 

When in the Himalaya, keep calm and drink tea.

The weather grew foggier in direct proportion to the time we spent imbibing the garam chai so our bodies reached thermostasis at a lower-than-desired temperature, and the walk back to Tumling was fairly uneventful. The very rhodo tree we had photographed just a couple of hours before had lost its background, replaced instead with a posse of gypsy mist and clouds swirling in the blustering wind.

In the afternoon we walked up to the Tumling check post, a kilometre or so from Shikhar Lodge, in appalling conditions. Visibility was down to about 20 metres. Looking for birds was pretty-much pointless, so we didn’t even try, instead getting close to a couple of rhodo trees in spectacular full bloom.

When we’re too busy to proverbially smell the flowers, Nature devises funny ways to impose it.

When we retired that night, I put together strands of fraying hope to make a rope yet thick enough to carry my dreams.The foggiest and rainiest of evenings, I thought to myself, are followed by the brightest of mornings, so we might yet awake to a resplendent day. 

Little did I know that just as the absence of misery doesn’t necessarily translate to happiness, the mere lack of mist and rain means not a clear day.

Read part three here.

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