WE ARE REMINDED of the Himalayan Club's objective on the first page of every HJ, 'To encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalayan and adjoining mountain ranges through science, art, literature, and sport.' Then turn the pages of each HJ, and nine-tenths of it is devoted only to the 'sport' of the pursuit of summits. The rest — the heart of mountain life in nature — is almost forgotten. And we also presume there is no more 'knowledge' to add about the Himalaya and its adjoining ranges. There has been earlier, the commendable pursuit of unclimbed summits, the higher and harder, greater the thrill. Followed by repeated summiting after the first ascent. No one can deny the human, the almost spiritual significance of summits. But to achieve them singularly much else may be lost. Suman Dubey recently told me he was tired of reading the stereotype progression from camp to camp; progress in one dimension in altitude, with its necessities of tents, equipment, food, and on the highest mountains, oxygen. The one dimensional 'Vertical World of Jerry Kukuezka.
Everybody knows the highest mountain in the world by the name of an early Surveyor General of the Survey of India, Everest, after whom the highest mountain was named. And just because it is the highest, it has now become a tourist attraction for those with tens of thousands of dollars, and something to boast about on return home. All now forget its true, more significant name to its own people of the region, 'Chomolangma', Goddess Mother of the Earth. Even modern scientists have returned to the ancient Greek Goddess of the Earth, Gaia. In discovering that, over long periods of time, the planet had its own self regulatory system, they happily called that phenomenon Gaia, the ancient goddess mother. Gaia symbolises past ages when man knew harmony and spirituality in Nature, when his cosmic view could be summed up in the inter-related trinity of 'Heaven, Earth, Man'; in the ancient Chinese culture of I-Ching and Feng-shui, ways of living in a harmonious world, in India's 'Vastu-shastra'; in Japan's supreme principle, 'Wa', which also meant harmony.
That ancient culture of cosmic harmony was destroyed by the Christian Genesis ideas that 'man was made in the image of God', and that he was made to have 'dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, over cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth the earth.' That was on anthropogenic, man-centered view of the universe which earlier led to military-style mountaineering; and which since the Industrial Revolution has now led to threats of the destruction of the planet itself in cataclysmic disaster. Apart from the terrible pollution of land, sea, rivers and climatic atmosphere, threatened by that little master given dominion of the earth in Genesis, now the unthinkable nuclear threat. Never before in 65 million years since the meteor landed in Siberia wiping out the dinosaur age, has there been such massive extinction of nature's species, micro-organisms, plants, animals, birds; 10,000 times faster than Evolution's replacement rate. Man's mounting demographic threat from under one billion in 1800 to a planet-crawling six billion now, — reflected on those masses assaulting the Himalaya too with the same damaging force — is the biggest terrestrial event since the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. It is similarly threatening to become the biggest terrestrial event in the Himalayan region too, in millions of years.
Is the summiting, camp on camp plodding species, another manifestation of Genesis man seeking 'dominion' over the earth? If so, is there not cause to reflect? Was the mountaineering language of 'conquests', 'siege-tactics', flag-sticking, public-glorification on return, and at public expense, a reflection of that 'dominion' — seeking attitude? Should not the Himalayan Club — all Alpine clubs, — and their members reflect that dangerous prospect, that human, now scientific concern, for Mother Earth, our 'oikos' (the Greek word for 'home' and the origin of ecology) is the only little speck of dust is all the galaxies and universes with what we call Life, and all its beautiful manifestations?
As a corrective, — let us never abandon the symbolic, spiritual and physical pursuit of summits, — may I take you back to that ideal of the Himalayan Club's objective in F. Kingdon Ward through his enchanting book, The Land of the Blue Poppy. We need to remind ourselves that it was the athletic generation and the wide scientific, aesthetic minds of pioneers like Kingdon Ward, who gave the HC its objectives and purposes now largely and sadly ignored. In the Land of the Blue Poppy, Kingdon Ward takes us to the then little known 'adjoining ranges' in the upper reaches of Asia's great rivers, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtze (See map). Over many decades, Kingdon Ward covered a wider area of upland plant paradises of the early 20th century, in what is now NEFA, Myanmar, and the eastern Tibet region of China. He was a complete explorer. Besides being a botanical authority on high altitude plants, his main pursuit; he possessed a passing knowledge of ecology, entomology and ornithology; a mind beyond the range of most summitters. Not that he did not enjoy summits on ranges up to 18000 ft, but for him summits were primarily observation points for knowledge of geography, geology, plant life, and climate. Not to stick flags on! Below those more modest summits, his accounts embraced 'Heaven, Earth, Man' in all aspects of each. They were most readable accounts by a great story-teller and writer. Unfortunately, the time of colour photography was not then.
Now to the heart and mind of this great explorer in his own words. Although he found the Mekong Gorge 'a big ugly rent between mountains', 'nevertheless there was a strange fascination about its olive green water in winter, its boiling red floods in summer and the everlasting thunder of its rapids.' Its peaceful villages 'hidden away in the dips between hills, or straggling over long sloping alluvial fans, or perched up on some ancient river terrace where weathered blocks of stone suggest the decay of a ruined civilization — all these oases delighting the eye with the beauty of its verdure and the richness of its crops.'
And then a touch of his pleasant philosophy as a Western man observes these simple remote 'Happy people!' What do they know of the strife and turmoil of the western world? We wear ourselves out saving time in one direction that we may waste in another, hurrying through time as if we were disgusted with life, but these simple people think of time not in miles an hour, but according to the rate at which their crops grow in the spring, and their fruits ripen in the autumn.
Every now and again this great plant collector shares his vision of rare plants in the most unlikely places. On the road to Batang, the last town in China, he found patches of alpine meadow between streams 12000 ft and 14000 ft, 'now gay with flowers, conspicuous among which were Primula, pseudo Sikkimensis and numerous species of Pedicularis with immensely elongated corolla tubes... The Himalayan region is also rich in Pedicularis... and indeed the continuity of the two floras, to which Hooker long ago drew attention. Immediately above A-tun-tsi came a scrub belt. but on the moist shady slopes exhibiting a rich assortment of Cotoneaster, Salix, Rhododendron, Populus, Hippophae, Philadelphus, Deutzia with many beautiful roses such as R. Sericea. The undergrowth included a yellow violet (Viola Delaveyi and Podophyllus whose big pear-shaped fruits were beginning to ripen and turn red and a very sweet-scented Pyrola.' He found grassland rich with saxifrages, gentians and other flowers upto 18000 ft... 'Springing from blocks of grey stone, I found the glorious Cambridge blue poppy (Meconopsis speciosa), one of the most beautiful flowers in existence, several Primulas, . inhabiting the icy puddles of water which trickled from the melting snow.'
In the Salween area, amidst conifers with occasional clumps of Cunninghamia, 'down by the stream were birches, alders, and maples marked as spots of gold, orange, red, which in the light of the rising sun, seemed to fill the dark forest with a rich mellow glow pervading everything, and very beautiful.' No gush, the straight painting of colourful plant and scenic pictures. But you can feel the joy in Kingdon Ward's heart.
He is also an imaginative geographer and an observant one. He observes that whilst in all Asia the rivers have an West-East axis, in this unusual thrust of geologic formations between the upper Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers, there is a narrow north-south axis. The beds of each of these rivers is at different elevations, 1500 to 2000 ft. apart at the same latitude. The elevation of the ranges, attracting the Monsoons, determines the dryness or wetness of particulars regions, and their flora and fauna. He refers to these ranges as 'rain conductors'. He saw himself standing at the parting of Asia's waters; the Mekong flowing into the South China sea, the Salween into the Indian ocean, and the Yangtze into the Pacific.
And here is an interesting insight into an inter-disciplinary mind. 'The whole idea of attacking the geological problem from a botanical (land climate) point of view, however, opens up such a field for investigation that it is useless to pursue it as an aimless speculation without marshalling an enormous array of facts in support of this or that contention.' Perhaps an original idea even now. He concludes his 'brief survey of scientific problems.' 'Convinced as I am that with its wonderful wealth of alpine flowers, its numerous wild animals, its strange tribes, and its complex structure, it is one of the most fascinating regions of Asia, I believe I should be content to wander over it for years. To climb its rugged peaks, and tramp its deep snows, to fight its storms of wind or rain, to roam in the warmth of its deep gorges within sight and sound of its roaring rivers, and above all to mingle with its hardy tribesmen, is to feel the blood coursing through the veins, every nerve steady, every muscle taut.'
The Land of fhe Bille Poppy. (Kingdon Ward.)
Here was an explorer reflecting all the objectives of the HC, offering 'A Moving Feast' of rare mountain regions, fascinating plant and human species, unique geological and geographical scenes; and far from Suman Dubey's tiresome tale of stereotype, repetitive movement from camp to camp.
P.S. : After writing this article, by a strange coincidence, I chanced upon National Geographic's China Hengran Mountain (April 2002). The map covers the same area of Kingdon Ward's expedition, the same high altitude region of the North-South mountain and the upper reaches of the Salween, and Mekong and Yangtze rivers. It is described as the 'Earth's Richest and Most Threatened Reservoir of Plant and Animal Life, with 3500 plants, 75 mammals, 36 birds, 16 reptiles and 51 amphibians'. It happens to be the central area 'of the world's rhododendron diversity'. Being high and far south, plant and species retreated here in the last ice age, and it became the refuge till Kingdon Ward revealed them to the world almost a century ago. As elsewhere, it has been threatened by rising human population, logging, firewood, over-grazing and erosion.
The Tibetan Buddhist faith of Ward's days have preserved the upper reaches; 'Everything above that line belongs to the spirit of the highest mountain'. Only 10% of the original forest remains. The Chinese Government have now converted the region into a National Glacier and Forest Park, for eco-tourism as an alternative economic model for the local people.
A mysterious aspect of life is its serendipity, the chance coming together of thoughts, ideas and people. To it was when I read Tamotsu Nakamura's article 'To the Alps of Tibet' in HJ 58 (2002), and was thrilled to see wonderful pictures in his presentation during the 75th anniversary of HC in Mumbai. It was a revelation to know of the unexplored, unclimbed 700 km Nyaiquentanglha range north of Lhasa and a converging interest in this article in those unique mountains (The Land of the Blue Poppy) in the adjoining Myanmar/China ranges, the upper reaches of Arias sagar rivers. A pity there was no time then for scientific questions. For example, having lived with the old idea of the Himalaya being a virtual barrier to the southern monsoon, how come so much snow at just over 4000 meters in that Nyaiquentanglha range, 200 km north of the Himalaya. What was the source of so much moisture-bearing winds so far north of the high Himalaya ? We need to know more of the climatic regime there. Then, in 'Earth's richest and most threatened reservoir of plant and animal life' and the 'central area of the world's rhododendron diversity'. What of Kingdon-Ward's fascinating hypothesis that this 'Land of the Blue Poppy' in the adjoining high ranges of Myanmar and China, were the lowest latitude refuge of high attitude plant seeds after the last ice age 10,000 years ago. So back to those fascinating wider objectives of the HC!
Reminded me of my earlier urging friends in IMF to attempt Namche Barwa as a new adventure, instead of following the 'Picecdilly route' on Everest via the Khumbu glacier and the South Col. Deaf ears then! I now urge our outstanding mountain explorer, Harish Kapadia to explore, the Nyaiquentanglha range and/or the 'Land of the Blue Poppy' in an Indian or Indo-Japanese attempts with Tamotsu Nakamura. Too late for a crock like me!
A look at the Himalayan 'Land of the Blue Poppy' and travel of F. Kingdon Ward.