Life in the Himalayas

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Without the Himalayas driving the monsoon, southern Asia would be a desert. But, when the clouds pile up and deliver most of the annual snow and rain, a majority of the trails and footpaths that connect rural communities are washed away by soil and mud pour from the mountains. The scene gets even worse during earthquakes.
And when a disaster of a larger magnitude strikes, air transport is the only feasible mode of transportation for first responders and relief supplies. Thanks to the modern day technologies, the airports are remarkably sustainable and are usually made operational within hours during emergencies. And, to add, modern-day relief aircrafts have proven to sustain cracks and holes in the runway and operate safely.
There are about 23 airports in the Himalayan range of Nepal, Bhutan and India, and most of them operate with treacherous runways surrounded by sharp peaks. Flights here operate mostly during daytime and pilots make the decision by eye rather than relying on instruments, surely one of the most dangerous jobs in the world!
This photograph was shot in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. With this photograph, we will now fly into the world’s ‘Last Shangri La – Bhutan’ a heaven, hidden behind the clouds.
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Despite the winds that average hurricane force and temperatures up to fifty below zero, the Indian army soldiers are on duty protecting the nation 365 days and 24X7. While external aggression is a major concern, the soldiers also shoulder the responsibility of protecting the people from frequent natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones and landslides. According to National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), more than 50 million people are affected by natural disasters annually.
Hundreds of military soldiers die and much more are injured in the Himalayan Mountains due to military and non-military incidents, according to various media reports. Since 1984 as many as 900 soldiers have died in non-military incidents, mostly weather-related, in the Himalayan region of Kashmir alone. Early this year an avalanche hit a military post and a patrol and buried 21 Indian soldiers in Kashmir. As many as 14 soldiers died while seven were rescued.
Yet, in these harsh world of rocks, ice, and courage our great Indian army soldiers continue to protect the nation. Salute to the Indian Army.
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In the high altitudes of Himalayan Mountains in the Tibetan plateau live a community of nomads who move across the Tibetan-Indian border in search of green pastures for their livestock and transport ‘The Himalayan mountain horse’. The nomads don’t have any money or technology and largely live in simple existence and ancient way of life. For centuries they have survived solely through the trade and exchange of goods, mainly produce from the goats.
They live in small bright and colourful tents like these that are easy to spot even during heavy snowfall. These temporary camps are packed and carried on horseback. The Himalayan mountain horse breed is known for its stamina and sure-footedness, which is essential for the rough and high altitude terrains.
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At this altitude nothing is easy. Yet, here on the high, cold and dry Himalayan Plateau, the mountain dwellers have mastered the art of traditional farming.
While people here spend more than eight months inside due to the brutal cold with little variety of food, the four-month growing season brings back the spirit and inspiration of the people who respect the land and its ecological limits. Here nothing is wasted, even the animal dung is used as the source of fuel, while the human waste goes to the fields. These small agricultural fields are said to provide yields more than the West.
While the whole world is racing towards manufacturing state of the art agriculture equipment and mega-machines for increased crop yields, there is so much more here (in the Himalayas) to learn than we ever imagined. From growing their own grains, cereals and vegetables and preparing their own manure in extreme climatic conditions, the Himalayan mountain dwellers have proved sustainable living is possible, despite many odds.
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The Himalayan Mountains reach about five miles high reaching out of the air toward space. In these high altitudes live relics of an ancient ancestor, the Snow Leopard. They are seldom seen and their lives have long been a mystery. They are very rare and listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red list of threatened species. They are found in the high altitudes (9,800 to 14,800 ft) of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and some parts of Russia and Mongolia. The snow leopard population in the wild is estimated to be less 6000 and around 600 in captivity across the world. The population is declining in the wild as there is simply not enough prey to sustain more.
Their remarkably wide feet act as snowshoes to distribute their weight evenly and keep the cat from sinking too deep. They live a solitary life but communicate among one another by rubbing on particular rocks with their cheeks and spray them with their urine. Each one has its own signature.
They are ambush hunters and like to sneak up and attack from above thereby sending their prey on a wild chase down the mountainside. They are capable of leaping anywhere from 20-50 feet and their long tail helps them maintain balance on uneven terrain.
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Desert in the Himalayas? Beyond Nepal and Bhutan instead of lush plains one can find a high altitude cold desert hidden behind the ice-capped mountains in the Tibetan plateau. The sand dunes of Nubra valley, located at an altitude of 10, 000 ft.
The dunes are home to Bactrian camels, the largest living camel species with two humps on its back, and native to Nubra valley. These camels have a shaggy winter coat and which helps them tolerate extreme weather conditions in high altitude (-40 degrees Celsius in winter to 40 degrees Celsius). These camels have remarkable ability to go without water for months, and at the same time can drink up to 57 litres at once. They are fast and can run up to 65 kilometres speed on dunes. Majority of the Bactrian camels are domesticated and can live up to 50 years. They are also be found in Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
To the north of this valley is Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield (20, 000 feet high with the availability of less than 10% oxygen) where the brave Indian army soldiers risk their lives to protect the country.
To the Western end of Nubra valley is the Line of Control, popularly known as the Indo-Pak border.
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The highest mountain range in the world extends over 2000 miles long from East to West across the Asian continent-spanning several countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The mountains are the source for many Asian river systems including Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers, which provide water for more than one and a half billion people. They generate enough hydroelectric power and also support important ecological amenities and services. Exactly how much water is generated from the glaciers of the Himalayas is unknown, but one estimate shows that they form only 4 percent of the annual 220,000 billion cubic meters of flow to the Ganges.
Today the increased use of water and climate change has resulted in an imbalance of water supply and demand. The report ‘Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security’ by the National Research Council of the National Academies Press shows that Pakistan and India are now classed as water stressed as majority of the regions are below the threshold facing chronic scarcity and absolute scarcity i.e. chronic scarcity <1,000 m3 per person per year and absolute scarcity <500 m3 per person per year. Countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal are still water sufficient as these countries still provide 1,700 m3 per person per year.
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More than 50 million people live in the remote parts of the Himalayas and their very existence is dependent on the mountains and its resources.
But exactly how these mountain dwellers survive in the high-altitude and the ease with which they deal with the physical challenges of scaling world’s biggest peaks has remained unknown.
But there are some clues. According to a new research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, these mountain dwellers have a major genetic component that allows populations at high altitude to live better. The scientists are still unclear exactly how those genes work to help people survive in low-oxygen condition. But they also believe that there are probably other mutations that also help and different populations for example people in the highlands of Ethiopia.
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The Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir has a long history of natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, avalanches and landslides. The rough terrain, extreme weather conditions and poor transportation make life tough for mountain dwellers. During monsoon season the state witnesses the highest number of rainfall-induced landslides. According to the J&K disaster management policy report by the government of J&K, the state is affected by one or more major landslides affecting the lives of people in many ways. Loss of life, damage to the house, roads, means of communication and agricultural land are some of the major consequences of landslides in the region. The occurrence of earthquake-induced landslides makes the lives of the people more miserable. In 2005 earthquake of magnitude 7.6 resulted in more than 80, 000 deaths in northern Pakistan and adjoining parts of Jammu and Kashmir. In the past too the state has witnessed many deaths due to natural disasters. During 1840-1925 natural calamities accounted for about 1,61,784 human lives.
Despite all the odds, the people continue to live in such inhospitable environment as they believe these mountains shape their world. This is the beauty and fragility of life in the Himalayas.
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This photograph was taken in a mysterious place in the lower Himalayas in India known as the Magnetic Hill, located about 30 kilometres from Leh towards Kargil. Arguably, the magnetic force on this hill is considered to be so strong that it can pull a car uphill. Strange, but true!
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The most beautiful and the largest lakes in the Himalayas ‘Pangong Tso lake’ (situated at a height of 13,940 ft and stretching 134 kilometres from India to China) is also the evidence of Earth-warming at an unprecedented rate. The elevated land (in the photograph) connecting the lake is the remains of a glacier. Scientists believe that such Geomorphological evidence shows how global warming is squeezing the water resources in the Himalayan region.
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The mighty mountain ranges of the Himalayas are more than just an adobe of snow. They shape the cultures of South Asia and they are super sacred as well. This place (with hundreds of colourful tents) is called Baltal, a valley and a camping ground for millions of pilgrims on a journey to the sacred cave of Amarnath, located at an altitude of 12, 756 ft in Jammu and Kashmir. Baltal is only a day’s journey away from Amarnath.
In the winter Amarnath is covered under the thick veil of snow and the temperatures go down to a minimum of -5 degrees Celsius. During the month of Shravana (July till August) the temple sheds its winter isolation and hundreds of pilgrims return to see the image of Lord Shiva, in the form of a Lingam, formed naturally of ice.
In order to help pilgrims from the difficult weather condition and the steep climb to Amarnath, hundreds of porters, ponies and Dholis are seen offering service from Baltal. This gateway to the sacred cave is controlled by the Indian army in order to avoid people from getting stranded on the deadly trail.
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Despite the cold and the thin air, yet there is life in the Himalayas. Animals here, miraculous and extraordinary, nurtured by the mountains teach us about the beauty and fragility of life and the power of the most inhospitable mountains on Earth.
Now I am going to introduce to one of the adorable creatures in the world and most endangered species ‘Red Panda’. Red Pandas are found in the temperate forests of the Himalayas and some high mountains areas of China. More than 50 percent of the red panda’s habitat is in the Eastern Himalayas. Active in the early morning and late afternoon pandas spend most of the day resting in trees. They are normally solitary but form pairs in breeding seasons. Eating mainly bamboo shoots and grass the red pandas spend a great deal of time dining in the forests. They consume up to 45 percent of its own body weight and they eat approximately 200, 000 bamboo leaves daily.
But now this animal, which roamed vast regions of the Himalayas, is now on the brink of extinction. Red Pandas are listed as endangered on the red list of threatened species and some estimates show that there are fewer than 2,500 adult red pandas in the wild and about 700 red pandas in captivity.
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A Yellow-Billed Blue Magpie also known as the gold-billed magpie, a pigeon-sized, beautiful Himalayan bird with a long graduated tail of 66cm. These birds belong to the crow family and are found on the Indian side of Himalayas, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. They have an excellent vocabulary and are frequently seen mimicking other species. They can also solve problems and use tools.
These birds are mainly tree-dwelling but does come down to shrubs and ground. This photograph was taken at an elevation of 10, 240 ft in Bhutan.
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The combination of the best view in the world and in no state to enjoy it. This is the death zone of the Himalayas and also one of the world’s highest motorable roads. Even though a limited number of vehicles are permitted on daily basis and bikers and drivers take extreme care, each year hundreds of road accidents are reported. This road in most hazardous when the snow/ice begins to melt and the slush or wet surface starts acting as a lubricant and there by causing hydroplaning. This often results in loss of control and fatal at a height of 17, 582 ft.
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As snow gets deep in the lower Himalayas and turns into black ice, an unmonitored herd of Changthangi goats move away from the steep terrain that brought down a fuel tanker. Even though these goats are native to the Himalayas and are acclimated to the high altitudes and cold climate they still face threat from the mountains of the Himalayas. In 2013 as many as 24,000 goats died due to unprecedented heavy snowfall.
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A heard of Pashmina sheep and goats in the lower Himalayas. Pashmina is the indigenous name for cashmere used by the mountain people throughout the Himalayan region. These breeds of sheep and goats are raised primarily at higher elevations. Kashmir Pashmina wool is know to be the world’s finest measuring 12-15 microns in fabric thickness. Because of Kashmir conflict and the die-off of goat beards in Ladakh due to blizzards, the neighbouring country China has been able to dominate Pashmina productions in the past few decades. Join me @shravanregretiyer on Instagram and Facebook and explore ‘Life in the Himalayas’

 

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Despite the cold and the thin air, a family of five members walk on the deadly snow turned into black ice on the Kashmir valley in the inner Himalayas. As the glaciers melt in the higher Himalayas, waters pour in the crevices and carved tunnels inside the ice.
Life for these mountain people has always been a challenge. More so with the earthquake-induced landslides caused by the Indian plate continuously moving north under the Eurasian plate at a rate of 45mm a year.
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“They shine like diamonds beneath evening moonbeams and glow like amber under a setting sun.” If there were one place on Earth where we can see the power of raw nature and the fragility of life it must be here!
The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has now exposed the land underneath thereby allowing newer forms of life to migrate. According to a report in the Journal of Microbial Ecology, the glaciers in the region that receded rapidly since the 1990s due to a spike in temperatures have now led to the discovery of the world’s highest altitude vascular plants. As many as six plants growing in a small patch of undeveloped soil at an unprecedented altitude of 6,150 meters above sea level were recorded by the researchers. “As a sparsely populated, cold desert with limited rainfall, the northwestern Himalayas present arid and highly stressful conditions to plants. Still, the six plants seemed to be in stable condition,” according to the researcher’s report.
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The first rays of the rising sun make a dramatic experience for the campers and villagers at Spangmik Village on the banks of Pangong lake in the Himalayas.
For people, the Himalayas shape their world. The highest mountain range in the world that forms about 2,000 miles across Asia separating India from the Tibetan plateau. But now the pristine beauty is in threat of raising the temperature.
U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel report on Climate Change says the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, “and perhaps sooner,” While WWF report observes that in Nepal, India, and China, “glacial melt will affect freshwater flows with dramatic adverse effects on biodiversity, and people and livelihoods, with a possible long-term implication on regional food security.” Scientists contend that, unless current emission rates are radically curbed, it is possible that future average temperatures could rise by as much as 4.3 degrees C.
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The unique way in which the Himalayas has taken its shape continues to baffle onlookers. The clues to the answer lie at your feet. The story of the building of the Himalayas goes back to about 65 million years ago when the sea transformed into a land as a result of the collision between the Indian plate and Eurasian Plate. India is still moving north at a rate of about 5 centimetres a year, and each year the rocky summits of the Himalayas are a millimetre higher.
This photograph was taken near Khardung La, one of the highest motorable road on Earth (18380 feet). The photograph shows both the beauty and the horrors of the mountain. The winter here is brutal. The snow can bring down even a fully loaded military truck!
Follow me @shravanregretiyer. In the next three weeks we will explore the beauty and the fragility of life and the power of most inhospitable mountains on Earth, ‘The Himalayas’.