Himalayan Journal vol.04
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (Professor GIOTTO DAINELLI)
    (N. E. ODELL)
    (Lieut-Colonel R. C. F. SCHOMBERG)
  14. Lhonak, 1930
    (G. B. GOURLAY)
  15. A Journey in Upper Kumaun and Garhwal
    (Lieutenant HUGH ROSE)
  16. Expeditions
  17. In memorium
  18. Notes
  19. Reviews
  20. Correspondence
  21. Club Proceedings



IN AUGUST 1911 I passed along the east side of the range dividing Lahul and Rupshu, and crossing the Lachalnng La forded the Tsarap river at the crossing of the Leh-Kulu road. I was unable then to obtain any information from the local nomads about the upper part of the Tsarap, and a short climb at the mouth showed nothing but a narrow and tortuous valley with an unfordable stream rushing down between barren slopes of scree.

Subsequent enquiries were unproductive, and it appears that the Tsarap had been unvisited by Europeans except Stoliczka, who made a geological traverse across the Pangpo La in 1865 and who seems to have returned by the same route. The valley is referred to by Hayden in his " Geology of Spiti" (Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India, 1904), but he does not seem to have personally visited the valley ; and by Lydekker In a previous memoir, which only refers to the ground round the Lingti-Tsarap junction close to the Leh-Kulu road.

The old Atlas Sheet No. 46 is dated 1873, but the survey was probably made some years previously. The new Survey map, 52 L which covers the same area is not as accurate and seems to have been compiled from the old sheet with no new material to account for the changes, which are for the worse. Here then was a large valley apparently quite unvisited by Europeans for sixty years or more, and probably of great zoological interest.

Accordingly, in August 1931, I made a trip to the valley, accompanied by Mr. P. H. J. Tuck, r.a., who collected the greater number of the plants and fossils which we brought back, and whose photographs were invaluable ; my own being ruined by an unsuspected leak in the bellows of my camera.

We had a wet journey up and reached the mouth of the Tsarap, via the Rohtang and Baralacha passes, on the 26th August, pitching camp I a quarter of a mile above the Leh-Kulu road bridge, at an altitude of 14,100 feet on the left bank. The right bank is quite impracticable. The tents were placed on the middle one of the three very distinct beaches which indicate old river-levels all the way up the Tsarap. For the first nine miles above the bridge the valley is narrow and great slopes of unpleasantly sharp scree stretch down from the cliffs to the middle beach above the river, a hundred feet above its present level. In places this beach has been obliterated by scree slopes, as has the lowest beach, where the scree extends to the water's edge. The highest beach (3) was rarely visible in this lower nine miles, but all three were conspicuous in the upper two- thirds of the valley.

Here and there the lower five hundred feet of the hillside have been weathered away forming a steep chute of hard sand and pebbles, and there are also similar chutes in the scree. The angle of these chutes and the indifferent foothold made them very difficult for our ponies, so that routes had to be reconnoitred a day in advance and a track scraped across the more difficult sections. Progress was therefore slow for the first ten miles.

The country being uninhabited, even by nomads, precludes the employment of porters, while the grazing is excellent. Fuel is plentiful, although there is no burtse, that useful standby of the Tibetan traveller ; its place is taken by dama(1) or Tibetan gorse. This dark- green low-growing bush flames up with a roar if a match be put to the green part, and the living root usually gives a nasty smoky fire, but in the Tsarap valley there is much dried dama root lying on the bank and in the river-bed, having been torn out higher up and cast up here by floods. There is very little vegetation except on the beaches and on their connecting slopes, the upper slopes throughout the valley being almost completely barren except in a few favoured spots. Besides the dama, there is another more loosely growing bush with a woolly seed, and a few stunted willows near Lama Guru, but no other trees or shrubs.

We left Camp 1 early on the 27th and it was at once apparent that the relative positions of the side nullahs do not correspond with those shown on the map. Nullah " A " is correctly placed if a second, non-existent bridge be eliminated from the map, but Nullah " B " is shown as being above the mouth of the Lungun, whereas it is actually 1200 yards lower down.

Between the two nullahs there are numerous springs which gush out from the hillside on to Beach 2, and which seem to indicate some large lateral fault; for the snow-cap behind is small and its water seems fully accounted for by the flow in the two nullahs. A small pond had formed by one of these springs and round its edge were umorous clumps of the curious golden Pedicularis tubifiora. The flowers grow in groups of up to a dozen or more blooms, the yellow tubes standing up four inches above the close-growing leaves. I had never seen it before.

1)Caragana pygmaea.

The mouth of Nullah "B " was of interest. The actual outlet to the Tsarap is now through a narrow gully worn deep in the rock. The old outlet was about a hundred and fifty yards further south where Beach 2 is broad with clumps of dama growing on it. Behind is a thirty-foot bank evidently thrown up by the stream across its own mouth, until the water eventually cut its way down behind a big rock outcrop to its present channel, leaving Beach 2 with the dam behind it. On Beach 2 we found a large solitary limestone rock with a smooth channel, ten inches deep, worn in it on a curve in the line of the old flow, the trough being evidently the work of water and pebbles. We called this " Trough Rock ".

Beyond Nullah " B " was a difficult bit of going, but our ponies mod out perfect marvels at negotiating bad traverses; they were en better than the average Himalayan pack-pony, which is saying a od deal. Camp 2 was made on Beach 2, with the other two beaches, re very wide, above and below.

A day's halt was spent by the pony-men reconnoitring, while Tuck explored Nullah " B " for game and I tried to catch some fish for the British Museum. We both failed completely, though half an hour with the telescope showed me four good bharal rams on the to plateau north of Tsarap Station. The pony-men having found a way, we pushed on again on the 29th. The first mile was a difficult scramble across a big slope, down to the river and up over a big rock, to descend to a pleasant little flat of sand and grass; then a mile and a half along the foot of the cliffs by the water's edge, over loose rocks which have some of the ponies nasty cuts. This last stretch would be impassable with a high river, and ponies would have to be taken over the big spur above. We camped by the mouth of Nullah " C " which had perennial water in it.

Beyond this nullah there was no way below the cliffs, so, the river being unfordable where the gorge narrowed a mile higher up, we explored the slopes above and found a possible but very difficult route which would need much improving before it could be used. On these slopes was a herd of nine ibex, with only one small buck, which had spent the morning close above camp the previous day.

Leaving the pony-men to improve the route, Tuck and I climbed 3500 feet next morning to the snow-line on the west ridge of Nullah " C ". Here we took bearings to Tsarap Station and Lanka peak, but while the first agreed approximately with its position on the map, Lanka peak was several degrees out. We were unable to reconcile Nullah "C " with any nullah on the map, and the main dividing ridge appears here to be actually further west than shown.

The first mile of the march on the 31st was a teaser. About five hundred feet ascent to a slope of particularly unpleasant scree, to cross a deep chute (leading down to a big drop to the river); then half a mile of level traverse, where were the remnants of an old, roughly-paved track almost obliterated by the scree; afterwards a nasty little gully where a pony fell down thirty feet, and was not only not killed but miraculously unhurt. Then came a descent across a very big sandstone slope where a track had to be dug the whole way and where the ponies had to be led singly to a stony gully at the bottom. Here the leading man ' yanked' the pony's head round a rock at the critical moment, while a second braked on his tail, in order to prevent the whole outfit sliding into the river.

It was three and a half hours before all the ponies were down at the river's edge, having earned my eternal admiration. Our transport troubles were practically over, although we did not know it; for on climbing to the top of the ridge of big rocks, which here pushes out to overhang the river, and which I named " Boulder Ridge ", we saw that the valley opened out until a mile further on there were wide flats covered with dama on our bank of the river, while still higher up the river-bed was over two hundred yards wide.

On "Boulder Ridge " there were also traces of artificial improvement of the track and we found our way down the far side by old guide-posts made of small rocks placed on top of each other on conspicuous boulders. Crossing a second smaller ridge of large scree* one of the very few accumulations of this type which we saw, we reached some flats and camped at the mouth of Nullah "D " in time for a late lunch. This place is the Lama Guru of the Survey maps, and evidently takes its name from a solitary Om Mani padme Hum! carved on a smooth rock. We made the elevation 15,000 feet.

At Camp 3 there had been a small wall built as a wind-break between two rocks and some cooking stones in threes ; here at Lama Guru we found a few more. All these were long disused, the carbon having been completely weathered off them. There were no traces of man below Camp 3.

In the evening Tuck went up Nullah " D " to look for game, and next day the shikari explored some miles further up it. The nullah proved barren and devoid of game, though Tuck picked up a fine pair of bharal horns near the mouth and also a Turritella in dark grey limestone. I went up the left bank of the main valley looking for a ford and found a mile-long flat covered with vegetation, including fine patches of grass, but I was astounded by the lack of animal life. We saw one solitary marmot on arrival at camp, but although there Wore many recent holes, the colony seemed to have vanished, while there were no traces of voles or pikas. Plenty of old tracks of bharal and ibex, and very fresh tracks of a wolf in the sand on the river bank, showed that a few weeks earlier there had been plenty of game. Now fell the mammals had disappeared. There were large numbers of Hoopoes about, also Black Redstarts and a few White Wagtails, one or two Rose Finches, a pair of Tibetan Ravens and some Yellow- billed Choughs; these were all the birds.

The presence of so many hoopoes should have indicated abundant insect-life, but this seemed to be nearly absent, except for a few bumble-bees and a cricket, though I took a few moths at the light that night-all Geometers and Noctuids. I may say that I had hoped to take plenty of interesting butterflies in the Tsarap and was much disappointed. It is true that we were unlucky with our weather und that it was late in the season, but the vegetation was abundant on the lower flats and on the slopes between the beaches, which, opposite Lama Guru and for a couple of miles up-river, were covered with greenery. I had had every hope of getting at least two species of the very hardy Parnassidse, but we saw none. The only butterfly of which we saw more than half a dozen specimens was Argynnis adippe pallida, which did not seem to be quite the same as those I took on the upper Shyok in 1929 and may turn out to be a new race. Besides seven of these, the total bag from the Tsarap was one Colias tdusa fieldi, five Maniola pulchella, three Polyommatus eros stoliczkana and a solitary Heodes phloeas taken near Camp 2 on the return journey; this last was a surprising catch on that side of the main range. All these butterflies were smaller and paler than usual, probably the result of the severe climate.

The way up the left bank was blocked a mile above camp by a projecting vein of hard grey limestone, which slanted down into the river from the higher cliffs, the water washing its foot and being unfordable. I named this "Barrier Rock as it forms an insuperable obstacle to ponies, its north edge being vertical or overhanging; and while the river is unfordable, unless there is some way over the unpleasant ridge between the Unmak and Nullah " D " further progress would be impossible except with porters(2). On the 31st with a falling river there were difficult but possible fords opposite and half a mile above camp, but the water fell another six inches that night and a further four inches the night after, so that we crossed on the 2nd September easily in the strong current with the water a little over knee-deep. Above this point there is a practicable way up the right' bank, while the river-bed is quite usable, though the several channels of the river had to be constantly forded.

We covered eight miles on the 2nd, making Camp 5 on the middle one of three well-marked beaches at the mouth of the Tinglung nullah. We started in fine weather, catching a few butterflies and putting up the first hare that we had seen, but after eleven o'clock we were treated to several bursts of hail and rain. One of the men killed a vole on the way and they caught three more among their gear that night. I got seven specimens of this vole, which I take to be Microtia cricetulus, but it is impossible to say definitely until the skulls have been cleaned and subjected to expert examination.

A little above camp, round the mouth of the Kurriaber (on map, Kurparuberu),(3) and on the opposite bank of the river, were some remarkable examples of weathering ; a flat stone usually forming the crown of each of several scores of pinnacles, from whose sides the earth had been gradually worn away. Eventually the whole affair collapses into the river-bed and the process begins again with the next stone which weathers out behind it. Such pinnacles had been prominent round Camp 3, but not as numerous as here.

The next day's march was most interesting. Two miles above the Kurriaber the valley is again constricted by a ridge pushing out from the west side to narrow the gap through which the river flows, from 200 yards to only 50 yards wide. On topping this ridge (Tsung- dum Kirri) there was a grand view up the valley. While the hills on the west slope almost directly down to the river, though with three very clearly marked beaches at their foot, those on the east are well back from the river-bed with level flats and small rounded hillocks between, all being covered with dark green dama and grass. These flats stretch right up to the Malung-Lunghyr junction, these two rivers forming the Tsarap and being backed by a ring of black snowcapped peaks of remarkably even height, most of them just about 20,000 feet. About five miles away, on the east, is the opening of the nullah leading to the Pangpo La, with a small round hill immediately south of its mouth; the way to the pass is over the col behind the hill and not directly up the nullah.

(2) The Unmak is spelt Umnak on the map. Unmak and Oumbak were both used by our Lahulis.

(3) Kurriaber is the spelling on the old Atlas map. I could discover no reason for the change.

Judging by the evidence of the beaches on either side, it would appear that the Tsarap has had three distinct levels, held up by this Tsungdum Kirri ridge and " Boulder Ridge ". Probably there was a shallow lake above each of these points, and this was borne out by our finding flat thin pieces of shell marl and petrified mud containing fossil molluscs, on the flat ground of the highest beach. The river-bed below the ridges shows signs of a great rush of water, by the presence of large water-worn boulders not found in the more open parts of the valley. There would appear to have been three distinct periods of Himalayan uplift in this valley, with subsequent breaking down of the ridges after each.

As a far from expert geologist I may be putting up skittles for the expert to knock down in making this suggestion ; but the same process seems to be going on now in the Yunan Tso on the north side of the Baralacha La, and at about the same level of 15,500 feet. There the depth of the lake has undoubtedly decreased greatly since I was there in 1911. Where there was then water, there is now showing a wide gravel-bottom; the decrease in depth would seem to be due to the stream cutting a deeper channel through the barrier ridge which holds up the lake four hundred feet above the level of the Kinlung Serai(4).

We camped about a mile and a half above the Tsungdum Kirri ridge, on the second (middle beach), picking up a number of fossils around my tent, the first ammonite among them. The weather was not good, but though we had several squalls of sleet and hail, it was decidedly worse at the head of the valley, where we could see storm after storm sweep across from east to west, to leave the hillsides temporarily white with snow.

Next morning I went up the right bank to prospect for our next camp. Crossing over the low hills on the east, I found our ponies glutting themselves on wonderful grazing, then crossed flats to the south, finding three more miles of flats without a single animal to be seen, on them. There were numerous tracks of bharal and ovis amnion and we found heads of both species; but all tracks had been made when the snow was melting from the slopes above and when water was running through the surface soil, producing fresh green grass. These flats must then be full of game, probably in June.

Crossing two ravines which had cut fifty-foot channels in the flat, we hit the Pangpo nullah too low down and had to walk half a mile up to where it emerged from the main slopes before we could descend and cross it. We then followed a small ravine to the upper levels, and crossed some marshy ground where a couple of Little Stints were feeding and round which game tracks were very numerous; some of those made by bharal being quite fresh and those by ovis ammon being about ten days old.

Over the neck at the head we found a pleasant little grassy valley with a stream running down it and flocks of Mountain Finches sheltering from the wind(5). From its head a stretch of dark rich soil extended up to the col behind the round hill, and on it grew much gorse and several large patches of grass. After twenty-four hours stormy weather we camped here on the 5th September at 16,100 feet, finding a lot of fossils, mainly belemnites and ammonites differing from any we had found before, right up to the crest of the col.

On the 6th, to the north of the col, we stalked and failed to get on terms with a herd of nine bharal rams, with two fine heads among them, but found an ammon head on the far side and a large colony of marmots all round the crest, at a little over 17,000 feet. This last was decidedly interesting, for, as at Lama Guru, there were many fresh marmot holes on the low hills opposite Camp 6 at 16,000 feet, but without a single living occupant. Here, a thousand feet higher, there seemed to be an unusually crowded colony, and it appears to be evidence of local summer migration, for 17,000 feet is decidedly above the normal elevation for this species (M. caudata). I have not met with this before in Ladakh or other parts of the Himalaya. We took a panorama of the head of the valley and searched in vain for traces of the original track up to the Pangpo La.

Round this Camp 7 we found many trios of cooking-stones, but all disused for many years, which is surprising when the fine grazing all round the head of the Tsarap and near Lama Guru is taken into consideration. It seems probable that there was once a regular trade route through the Tsarap from the Tibetan provinces of Chumurti and Tso Tso ; such a route would be shorter than the Lachalung one and easier than the Parang-Spiti road. If so, the river was probably flowing on the east of its present bed at Lama Guru, it being forded above the Unmak junction. The Unmak would then have been forded separately and the main river-bed followed down to Lama Guru. If the river later on shifted over to the west bank right up against Barrier Rock, as at present, then the valley would be closed below that point from June to the end of August, the busy season of the year. It seems certain that there was such a regular well-used track, judging by the artificial improvements on and near Boulder Ridge, while we had found similar traces a little above the Tinglung junction. Then the long-disused cooking-stones at Camps 3,4 and 7, taken with the inscription at Lama Guru, all point to a suddenly interrupted use of the valley.

Birds were plentiful round Camp 7, mainly Mountain Finches on migration; also a Common Teal, Himalayan Blue Rocks, Black Redstarts, Yellow-billed Choughs and several Tibetan Ravens. We also saw an Owl on the hill behind the col on the 6th, which looked like a reddish-brown Scops and was a remarkable occurrence, not only on account of the elevation, but also because no owl of this type seems to be known from this area. Hares were numerous and some leverets looked very small to be about to face a severe winter. I obtained three specimens, male and female adults and an immature male; I would have assigned them to Lepus oiostolus, but for the fact that Wroughton's key gives the difference between this species and L. hypsibiw as being that the ear of oiostolus is " longer than the hindfoot with the tarsus ", and not longer in hypsibius. In the Tsarap specimens the ear is exactly equal in length to the foot and tarsus, and in dried specimens would probably be shorter through shrinkage. Descriptions of all the Tibetan hares need revising with fresh material.

I was very pleased to have five fish brought to me at Camp 7, as the British Museum particularly wanted high altitude fish. They seemed to be a species of Barbel and came from the Pangpo stream at about 15,700 feet. Two of them were females full of ova, the largest some nine inches long. They had evidently run up to spawn, so the ova must remain in ice all the winter. I think that the adult fish must also, in some cases, be frozen in during the winter, for in 1929 I caught many fish at 14,800 feet in streams north of the Pangong lake with no outlet to lower levels.

Another curious capture here was that of two worms with square- faced heads, thinner than a knitting-needle and about fifteen inches long. They were red in colour and tied themselves into the most amazingly involved knots on being placed in the spirit bottle. Both they and the fish are under examination at the British Museum(6).

There was a surprising absence of voles and pikas. We obtained specimens of the latter on the return journey on either side of the Baralacha La, probably Ochotona wardi, but in spite of continual watch for them I never saw one of these pretty little "guinea-pigs " anywhere in the Tsarap valley. The only other mammal seen was particularly notable. On the way to Camp 6, when crossing a rocky spur, I suddenly saw, sitting up behind a stone about twenty-five yards away, what I took to be a very large White-nosed Weasel, but with the white on the face including the eyes, and almost the entire lower half of the body white. It seemed as large as a big ferret, three-quarters of it being in view above the stone. I had a shot at it with ' fives' and knocked it over ; but unfortunately there was a hole just behind it, and an hour's hard labour, guided by continuous traces of blood and a strong pole-cat smell, failed to extract it. I was very sorry to lose this specimen, as I have never seen anything of its type in that part of the Himalaya. It would seem to belong to a very large race of Mustela canigula.

I have mentioned before the difficulty of reconciling the lower part of the valley with the Survey sheets and this occurred again here. There is a conspicuous peak bearing 39° from Lingti-Sarchu, north-east of the Tsarap-Lingti junction, the top of which is shaped like Exeter cathedral, and which I had named " Cathedral Peak ". There is also a peak immediately south of the Tinglung-Tsarap junction which I named " Acute Peak". Bearings on " Acute Peak " from Lama Guru and Camp 7 plot out identically with the position on the map and it is evident that the general lie of the valley above Lama Guru is correctly shown on the Survey sheets; but a bearing on " Cathedral Peak " from Camp 7 was half a degree west of that of " Acute Peak ", while on the map this peak is shown bearing several degrees east of the latter from this point.

After exploring the Lunghyr and Malung nullahs with negative results, there being no signs of life in either except a small covey of Snow Cock in the Lunghyr, and no other fossil found but an Ostraea in the Malung, we began our return journey on the 8th. We had had clear but cold weather since reaching Camp 7, and the nights of the 8th and 9th were bitter, entailing chopping up ice for the morning water. We collected seeds and rootstocks for Kew as we went down, but all the latter died; the seeds survived and have been planted, half in early November, the rest in the spring. We also obtained a dozen more small fish, including a second species, but they were all caught by hand, my efforts with a rod being quite unsuccessful(7).

From a camp opposite Lama Guru we reached Lingti-Sarchu in two marches with comfort, now that we knew the way, making our last halt in the Tsarap a little above Camp 2.

Crossing the Lingti Plain we were accompanied by flocks of Desert Wheatears migrating southwards, but no Mountain Finches ; and it looks as though the lines of migration of these two species are here parallel, that of the Finches being over the Pangpo La and then up the Lunghyr, the Wheatears taking the Lachalung-Lingti- Baralacha route.

I have written enough to show what a tremendous lot of work remains to be done in the Tsarap, whether geographical, geological or zoological. Our collections hardly do more than indicate the nature of the gaps to be filled; and, above all, a competent geologist will find problems of the greatest interest awaiting solution.

(7) This second species of fish was Nemachilus gracilis.