The Nubra Valley was scenic, but not scientifically useful to me. To study hypoliths, you need a place where rocks stay still long enough for cyanobacteria to grow underneath them. In the Nubra Valley everything is either vertical or in a flood plain. It’s much too active geologically. No rock stays put for long.
Lucky for me, we went south to Sumdo Lake, Tso Moriri, the salty Tso Kar, and 17,000-foot Tanglang La. “Tso” mean “lake” just like “la” means “mountain pass”, so you can tell there are a lot of lakes here. On a stony ridge overlooking Sumdo Lake (which is also called Khatsang Kara or Kiagar Tso on maps – confusing), I found green cyanobacteria growing under white stones and a great place to leave some marble tiles.
Because this place is so remote and difficult to get to, I held back two dozen tiles and put them on the shoreline of Tso Kar in a place where the soil is moist from groundwater being drawn up to the surface and evaporating. It is salty, moist, and a little easier to get to than Sumdo Lake. So I have artificial hypoliths in two locations in Ladakh. In a few years time somebody I am traveling with will check on their progress.
I also collected a dozen natural hypoliths and used my Li-Cor quantum radiometer to measure how much light is getting through to their undersides. It appears that (as in California and Namibia), cyanobacteria here can thrive on a little less than 1/10th of one percent of direct sunlight.
So, I saw a lot of sights and visited a lot of schools (four total) but I also got some original science done.
The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has been in town or near it during our whole expedition. Thursday morning he gave a public speech, a sermon really, in Leh so some of us went to hear what he had to say. By the way, in the USA a lot of us have been pronouncing his title wrong. He’s not the “dolly” lama, he is the “da-LIE” lama.
Needless to say there was a big traffic jam on the way. We should have started much earlier. But the traffic never quite stopped moving, our driver was skillful, and in the end we were only half an hour late. In India, that’s nothing.
The Dalai Lama’s speech lasted for hours. This was partly because he spoke in his native Tibetan, with simultaneous translation into English for the benefit of us foreigners, who had our own seating area close to the stage. But after each major section of his talk, it would be read a second time in the local Ladakhi language, which is related to Tibetan but different enough to merit a re-reading. So we snoozed through these parts. We were sitting on a canvas tarp in the hot sun. The binoculars I brought allowed us to watch him as though he was right there. He smiles a lot, and cracked some jokes. The crowd was the most orderly gathering of people I have ever seen.
What did he say? I took some notes but they are necessarily fragmentary. Here they are; the errors and omissions are mine, not the Dalai Lama’s:
The Buddha overcame his own suffering. Get rid of negative emotions. Buddha-hood is a state where your mind is free. Become a Buddha to benefit all sentient beings. It doesn’t come to you merely through prayer. He talks about happiness. He tells the story of Siddhartha Gautama; an Indian prince who discovered birth, aging, sickness and death once he left his privileged home. Siddhartha Gautama lead an ascetic life for years, then became enlightened in the forest. He found a nectar-like principle: compassion and love. Four noble truths. Suffering must be known (but there’s nothing to be known.) The origin of suffering must be rooted out. Impermanence, emptiness, selflessness, mindfulness. He says “I am speaking from scripture, but also from my own experience.” He talks about the Buddha’s disciples. He talks about some “sutras” (holy books). He talks about the spread of the Buddha’s teachings into China, Japan, Vietnam, etc. He talks about the transmission of texts to these cultures. It’s partly a history lesson.
Then he takes questions from the crowd. The first one was “how do we know we all have the Buddha nature?” The Dalai Lama’s answer to this is long and involved and invokes some scripture. We leave before all the questions have been answered, because we have a meeting to prepare for with some school children from the Rangdum Valley Middle School. They have driven for two days to see the Dalai Lama (and to meet us.)
To get to the Nubra Valley we had to drive over the pass at Khardang La (“la” means “mountain pass”). They say it is the highest road on the planet. It has switchbacks, blind corners, one lane, no guard rails or shoulder of course. Our driver honks his horn going around each turn but he doesn’t slow down much. I am in the lead car. Then the pavement ends and we slow down. It gets bouncy.
At 18,380 feet, this place is four thousand feet higher than I’ve ever been before. We see Yaks!
There is a heavy military presence. In fact, the Indian Army built this road. We are very close to the borders with China and Pakistan. We pass through several checkpoints, each time showing our passports and permits.
Then it gets a little scary. We are swerving downhill in a light rain and convoys of trucks are coming up the slope. We are passing on the outside edge, Bollywood music blasting. Each time we go face to face with a truck no one blinks. We zoom past without slowing down. In that moment a miraculous contraction in space-time allows two large vehicles to pass each other on a one lane road, tires just inches from the edge. At least that’s how we experience it. Actually, there are practically no wrecked cars or trucks at the bottoms of the cliffs, so these drivers must really know their stuff.
We drive down to the Shyok River (“River of Sadness”) and the Nubra Valley.
They call it a high school but some of the students are younger than teenagers. There are about 30 students in total, all local Ladakhis.
Australian science teacher Ken Silburn had the students build model rockets and fire them. I got out my Li-Cor quantum radiometer and let students and teachers use it to measure how much light is transmitted through various kinds of stones. They found that quartz transmits the most light.
They served us tea and biscuits. We gave each student a bag of NASA swag. There were speeches and dances. It was fun.
Time for some fieldwork! We visited the Panamik Hot Spring in the Nubra Valley. It’s full of exotic microbes – bacteria, archaebacteria and algae that are specially adapted to life in hot water. You can tell from the colorful films and mats coating the rocks. Metagenomics (DNA testing) will probably reveal microbial lineages that are billions of years old. We can correlate specific DNA sequences with environmental parameters like temperature, pH and dissolved minerals.
The Himalayas are brand new (still being formed) and this particular spring may be only a few thousand years old. So, how do hot-water-loving microbes that are billions of years old get here? Most of the scientists I am traveling with subscribe to the “Everything Is Everywhere” hypothesis. That means that spores and cells of every possible microbe are constantly blowing around the world in the wind. The environment selects. So, as soon as an earthquake creates a hot spring the spores and cells that were already there grow and reproduce. It’s a staggering thought, because it means that probably every time you wash your car you are washing off a little bit of all of the microbial diversity on the planet.
But if everything is everywhere, why travel halfway around the world to visit this particular hot spring? It has some unusual characteristics. Water normally boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) but here we are up so high that the air is so thin that water boils at only 85 degrees Celsius. So it’s a “cool” hot spring.
It’s certainly extraordinary. We visited this alternative school which is in the countryside near the tiny village of Phey, perched on a bluff overlooking a river bank with high hills all around it. It’s really remote. SECMOL stands for Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh.
There are about fifty students, all teenagers, who live on campus. You have to have failed in regular government schools to get into SECMOL. It is student-maintained (cooking, cleaning, etc.) and, to a large degree student-run. The curriculum emphasizes learning by doing, life skills and sustainability. The school works towards attaining energy and food independence, so there are photovoltaic panels, solar hot water heaters, solar cookers, composting toilets and vegetable gardens. The architecture emphasizes passive solar heating. Volunteers from other parts of India and from foreign countries come to SECMOL to teach and help out, paying for their own food and lodging. There’s a permanent teaching staff as well. So this is not your typical school. It’s a place with a big heart and a stunning location.
Australian teacher Ken Silburn brought a compressed-air rocket launcher and supplies for each students to construct a rocket. We had fun shooting the rockets, and did a few other activities with the students as well.
If you want to learn about SECMOL or get involved, here is some more information: www.secmol.org.
Today I am leaving the relatively civilized town of Leh and driving over an 18,000′ mountain pass (!) to a more remote area. My access to the internet (which is already dodgy) will be near zero for a while – but I will post again when I can.
We flew from Delih to Leh today, and we are very happy to be here. Leh is the biggest town in Ladakh; the elevation is 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) so we are taking it easy today to acclimate because the air is thin. It is surrounded by really big mountains; the plane had to fly close to them on the way down to the runway.
But there are two Stupas (Buddhist shrines) quite close to our hotel; the Gomang Stupa and the Shanti Stupa. The Gomang Stupa dates from the ninth century; in contrast the Shanti Stupa is only 25 years old! But it is far more impressive than the older one. It was built in collaboration with the Japanese and the Dali Lama laid the first foundation stone. So Tibetan Buddhism is a living religion here and the Stupas are by no means just for tourists.
Buddhism began when an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama realized that suffering is caused by desires and attachments, and that the way to conquer suffering is to practice meditation and mindfulness until you are free from attachments and attain enlightenment. Compassion for others is a big part of Buddhism; in some traditions you refrain from the final step until all beings can take that step with you.
There was a small temple next to the Shanti Stupa and I went in and was mindful for a while. I’m going to go back.
Today we drove to the Qutab Minar in Delhi, a 12th-century monument from India’s Muslim past. The tower part of it (the Minar) is about 240 feet high and is made of quartzite and marble. The grounds are full of beautiful ruins – arches, walls and gates with delicately carved stone ornamentation.
Also there is a mysterious Iron Pillar that dates from a much earlier time than the Minar. It may be from the 12th century BC, which would make it over 3000 years old. It has not rusted in all that time because it is so pure; it’s 99.7% iron. Iron as pure as that doesn’t rust easily, not even in India’s warm and humid climate. It’s not obvious how ancient people forged such pure iron and as a result all kinds of sensational and improbable theories have been proposed about it.
We got to this place by driving – no metro today. So, it took a while.
Tomorrow we leave Delhi and go to the Himalayas to do some science.
Annalea Beattie (an Australian teacher) and I had some time to kill so we took the airport express metro into downtown New Delhi and walked to the India Gate before returning.
It’s actually kind of a challenge to walk around in New Delhi, although there are rewards too. The challenges include: It’s hot and sunny, sidewalks are often broken up, obstructed or nonexistent, and there’s a lot of fast traffic coming at you from the “wrong” direction, if you’re American. But the biggest challenge is that lots of people will come up to you and involve themselves in what you’re doing. They will be very persistent, and not take “no” for an answer. They will want to know where you’re going, where you’re from, how long you have been in town, how long you intend to stay. They may walk with you for some distance to show you the way. They may argue that your plan isn’t a good one, that the place you want to go to is closed, or in the wrong direction, or that it’s too far. Some want to drive you in their taxis, jitneys or rickshaws. Some want to bring you to a shop. Some are just nice middle class Indians who honestly want to help and have no desire to take money from you, but it’s not always easy to tell at first. But nobody, absolutely nobody, approves of two westerners walking somewhere in New Delhi. You’re supposed to get driven.
But, outside the tourist areas with shops the pressure on you eases a bit. We went to the India Gate, which is India’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the the Monumento de la Revolucion in Mexico. It’s very impressive, and people were setting up for the Independence Day festivities next week. Families were there, and couples were meeting in the park.
The real refuge from heat and people is, surprisingly, the metro. It’s air conditioned, efficient, inexpensive, and easy to learn how to use. The airport express line that we mostly took is totally clean and modern and fast and very lightly used, and even the regular line was at least as nice as the New York City or Boston subways, or BART, at least on this Sunday.