Blogs, Expedition, History, India

General Zorawar Singh – a picturesque ode to Wanderlust

With the advent of WhatsApp started the great integration. Or cellphone reunion we may say. Old classmates, friends from the old neighbourhood, colleagues — everybody started to form small groups and talk about good old days as if we all hate the present. Although most people talk in those forums, mostly male members, are jokes, some random photo or video, and rarely about anything actually to do with the common interest of the group. One such group is formed by the alumni of the college I attended, to do my engineering. A senior alumnus has a passion for photography and posted links to a few photography competitions he entered. His photographs are exceptional, and naturally, some alumni suggested why doesn’t he start a blog. These days everybody is trying to write something – including me. Anyway, one of the alumni, while asking about the blog, cited a site, suggesting a blog about that theme. The blog was by a certain Amardeep Singh, and that’s where I first heard of Zorawar Singh.

It was a captivating tale. When a story starts with finding human skeletons by a lake in the Himalayas at a high altitude, you cannot stop reading. If it was a book, I’ve have used the adjective ‘unputdownable’. A general in Maharana Ranjit Singh’s army, Zorawar Singh was ranked a General at an early age, he carried out successful expeditions in Baltistan and Tibet, winning strategic locations from Afghan and Tibetan armies, which still is of geopolitical significance for India’s borders with Pakistan and China. The most important one was, of course, Ladakh valley, which the author’s claims would otherwise have been a part of China at present. The blog was perfectly paced, rich with details about General Zorawar Singh’s exploits at such high altitude and inclement weather situations. The period covered is from 1835 to December 1841, when Zorawar Singh had fallen in the hands of the Tibetan army.

It was a captivating piece of history. Yet, what inspired me the most was the ending phrase – Not all those who wander are lost. I’ve heard it before but put into the context of the expeditions of General Zorawar Singh in the vast emptiness of the Tibet valleys made the phrase thousand times more profound. Considering the blog is mainly a photoblog, presenting snippets of history with many pictures taken by the author, the phrase delved into the realms of imagination, the other side of the Himalayas, Silk Route, the gateway to Central Asia. Parts of the world I’m immensely interested about. Amardeep’s blog rekindled the passion for exploring the world off the beaten track. And somewhere I felt a pang of jealousy for him, for successfully pursuing his conquest of following the footsteps of General Zorawar Singh, trying to solve a mystery learned from a school teacher thirty years back. And finally learning that those skeletons date back to 9th century meant that he found something he Wasnt looking for, reminiscent of the ending of The Alchemist. His wanderings have certainly not been lost, and I’m just playing my part to spread the tales of his amazing expedition.

Thinking about the conquests of General Zorawar Singh made me think of the history from another perspective. Looking at the landscapes snapped by Amardeep, paired with the description of Zorawar Singh’s expeditions in the treacherous terrains evoked the expeditions of Hannibal through The Alps, and Leonidas as Thermopylae, or in more recent times Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose reaching Aizawl through Burma. The expeditions led by extraordinary men are characterised by going against the tide, almost like a lone ranger. Yet, the annals of these significant deeds remained silent in Indian history books. Maharana Ranjit Singh and his regime have been barely touched when I completed my history curriculum, but nearly 25 years later, education curriculum is certainly more biased than ever before. At least the regional schools provide some exposure to the regional history and let’s hope that the significance of General Zorawar Singh is not forgotten in his land, although the Tibetans remembered his valour by making a cenotaph in his memory after he was fallen in 1841. So let’s raise a toast to General Zorawar Singh, and to all those souls driven by the wanderlust, those who wander but are never lost…

Amardeep Singh’s blog on Zorawar Singh’s expedition

Expedition, Nature, Siberia

A treatise on a journey Verkhoyansk, the coldest town on earth

Verkhoyansk: an anthology of snow laden dreams

(as seen on a documentary on National Geographic in 2002)

ISiberia, the coldest plain in the world – a world of dreams, fantasies and coldness that gives a tourist an essence of the glorious days of yesteryears and the very Darwinian concept of existential struggle. Starting from the base of ALTAI MOUNTAINS, KAZAKHSTAN, it spans over the ARCTIC CIRCLE, and its width almost same as Asian Russia; from the URAL MOUNTAINS, it spreads over to the KAMCHATKA ISLANDS on the northern Pacific. This land is so enormous that it can alone accommodate entire Europe, the USA with some spaces still left. An area over a colossal five million square miles, it has always been an integral part of Russia – in its history, culture, socio-economic behaviour and other facets as well. Siberia is still bearing the heritages, from middle age tribal cultures to the Czar monarchy in the twentieth century. For time and again, SIBERIA has been a land of prosperity, the western region giving birth to the most advanced stream of humankind, the Aryans. Though having extremely adverse weather, not at all conducive for the survival of human beings, this plain may seem like a solid patch of an endless ennui, but underneath it flows the warm, stimulating spirit of its people and places, reminiscent of the past glories. Geographically most of its area is formed by the central plateau region outlined by Yenizei River in the west to Lena in the east. In this region across the banks of Lena, far over the Arctic Circle, on the northern side of the central mountains, is situated the town VERKHOYANSK, the coldest known city in this world, an overall temperature recording well below –50oC and a lowest recorded temperature ever in a city of –71.8oC. An American traveller, who had grown an attraction towards Russian language and their culture set to visit Verkhoyansk alone.

The journey begins at Moscow, the beacon of Russian architecture and its conservative Czarist reigns, from where he will set for the Trans-Baikal region, the town of IRKUTSK. Standing at the shore of LAKE BAIKAL this town bears the memories of the communist reigns of the twentieth century. It is an architectured city, and quite a large one, with most of its residents, descended from Mongol predecessors. LAKE BAIKAL, world’s largest sweet water lake, is about an hour away from the centre of the Irkutsk. In the winter times, when the venture is made, it is covered with about one foot of ice. This Baikal Lake makes a huge contribution to the people living near the lake; they flourish with the aid of this lake, as it is the source of their income, food and every means of life. This lake has so much impact on every aspect of Russia that in the Russian universities a subject called BAIKALOLOGHY is introduced concerning Baikal history, science, its lives etc. The temperature around Baikal is –20 to -30oC in winter. The chilly weather permeates even the warm winter gears, but the residents are accustomed to the wintry bites of cold. The people residing near Baikal often go to the lake for fishing by spears. They just break the ice layer and when a fish passes by, it is pierced by the javelin-like spear. However, the size is not much to boast about. The journey of IRKUTSK is over and now the destination is several hundred miles farther, on the verge of ARCTIC CIRCLE, to the town of YAKUTSK, the path will be traversed over railroads, the historical TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY.

The TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY is a self-evident part of RUSSIA, an epoch-making phenomenon that happened to the country years ago, world’s longest railway and one of the few things that would strike everyone’s mind whenever thinking of RUSSIA. This Railway, starting from the cities of Manchurian Provinces extends of the order of thousands of kilometres before terminating in the shores of Pacific Ocean. Every day this train transports thousands of people to one part of the plain to the other parts. The journey passes through types of landscapes of the mountainous southern area, then the central plateau region passing through which the train enters the icy terrains, where no sign of plantation or else will be seen, from cacophonous cityscapes to the most desolated ice-filled terrain, the contrast is exceptionally striking, panoramic views are inexplicable. One day later the train reaches the much-awaited end, YAKUTSK. At the average temperature around the –20oC mark, life is not very comfortable here. Its residents, predominantly descendants from their Mongol, Yakutia and Tartar ancestors although learnt over the years to cope with this cold bites of winter. The population amounting little over than 10,000, they mostly earn bread by factories situated there and some at the outskirts of the city. The areas around Yakutsk bear a long past, of Russian religion and culture. During 1991 when the communist government fell on Moscow, the Lenin statue was beheaded; the head of the Lenin was borrowed by the Yakutsk city officials from the government and kept in front of the town hall there. Up to there, the voyage was a cosy one, the chill was still infiltrated inside the skin, although minuscule. Moreover, the travellers will not encounter any kind of obstacles up to this point, except for the cold. Now the time of those luxurious rides are gone and they have to start anew to confront many impedances.

From Yakutsk they will travel by heavy-duty trucks, first to the town of ULAN UDE; this ride that should take about a nights journey, takes 2-3 days sometimes due to the bad roads there. Eventually, there are no such roads there and the traveller was well aware of that, so he took resort to a local professor at the University of Yakutsk. This professor came from herdsmen of ULAN UDE when the Russian collective farming policy had been employed throughout Russia; the low profile people were shown the light of education, appointed to the fast-growing schools, given proper education and then were made to hold some office according to their qualifications. Likewise, this professor was a teacher of sociology; he agreed to the proposal of this American because this will provide an opportunity to meet his people in ULAN UDE. The journey to ULAN UDE was a very worrying one. It took double the actual time required to reach there; their truck’s tyre got stuck into the mud of a river, it was the truck where they kept all their gears, foods etc.; so they had to wait for a second truck to arrive from Yakutsk, to pull the first truck from the mud. ULAN UDE is a very small town and as it lies very close to the Arctic Circle; the weather gets much cooler than the earlier places. This town, as all other Russian counterparts thrived during the reign of communists, factories opened, several school and colleges were made, people’s lives were lifted from the misery of the Czarist periods to a new altitude, new freedom. During the advent of that epoch, a lot of new townships were built and people came there from the countryside for education, job and were enlightened by a dream of the classless world, moved the heaven and earth to materialise the dream. But with the fall of USSR came the disaster so sudden that nobody was able to catch-up; funds dried up, with a shattered dream people return to their native places, made these townships some barren places where very few people stayed, who cut all their roots while moving to these areas at earlier times and therefore have nowhere to go now.

At the outskirts of the town, about few miles further lies a REINDEER FARM. The number of factories in ULAN UDE is almost nil, and thus most of the few educated people are teachers in the city schools or do some petty jobs. Most of the residents of this town moved to the areas surrounding it, to their native places, where most of them raise families by the occupation of their ancestors, REINDEER FARMING. On the eve of the day the traveller reached ULAN UDE, they went to a reindeer farm that falls on the way of the VERKHOYANSK. From a few hundred yards away from their house lies the wide snow-covered area, where they keep their beasts. A few trained dogs are placed near the boundary to deter any of the reindeer to escape from the farm. Trees become very rare in these regions, but the farm is located in the vicinity of a place full of trees. A family keeps normally over 50-60 reindeer, which provides them food, garments from their skin, and money by selling their skins as well. In this polar region filled with a snowy surrounding, people have to come way down the road, to Ulan Ude to procure food for the reindeer and themselves as well. From this point onwards the team have to cross the Verkhoyansk Mountains, an eerie piece of land where the whole area is clouded with mist and sunlight cannot be seen even at midday throughout the year, a place filled with big trees. At the base of the mountains, from where the band of trees start, the Arctic Circle is supposed to be crossed and after scaling these mountainous slopes, starts the final part of the journey, the ultimate test for endurance. The town Verkhoyansk is not very far off, but the path is full of obstacles; now they have to make their rest part of the voyage by dog-pulled sledges. The temperature dropping exponentially, and even with full gears on, it is very hard to stop the shiver within. About a hundred miles from the mountain, the travel has come to its final halt, the town of VERKHOYANSK, the world’s coldest city.

Reasonably, the population of this town is not very much, just a few thousands. When the winter unfurls its vicious tooth and claw, mercury swooping down to about –50oC, the supply of food and clothes are cut short; it is barely a conducive condition for human beings. Their main sources of income are farming and in the main town some small office jobs, teaching etc. People around here are always clad in heavy furry clothes made of animal skins. In this city was recorded the lowest temperature of –67.5oC in the year of 1975. That awesome figure brought the town a repute of being the coldest ever city having a handsome, however small, amount of human dwelling. However, people living less than a miles away from the centre of the VERKHOYANSK, claims that a place in their proximity recorded the lowest temperature of –71.8oC. That made a few controversies concerning whether to declare the latter place the coldest one, but presumably, the assertion was a fake one, as there was no physical evidence to substantiate the fact. However, the local people were firm in their statement and made a statue at the place where they claim to have recorded that lowest temperature; the statue is known by ‘pole of cold’ to the local people.

Over the Arctic Circle near Polar Regions, where the sunlight, even in summer, seems like a distant gloomy lamp lurking just over the horizon, the spine-chilling cold is evident; but the spirit of people around there, their warmth, livelihood that keeps them going on and survive this extreme hostility of nature; that is the true essence of Siberia.

antarctica, Expedition

A narrative on Mount Erebus based on a NatGeo documentary (2002)

The southernmost active volcano on planet earth

In the icy seclusion of Antarctica, the hibernating continent, lies a portentous volcano, MOUNT EREBUS, most unpredictable by nature, bursting into ceaseless eruptions now and then, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. From the very first day, it was discovered by a group of New Zealand explorers, this volcano is the cynosure of many archaeological expeditions, but with all its vile, it made them a failure partial or total. Nevertheless, time will come when the science will prevail over this fierce monster, to unfurl an unknown world of Antarctica’s treasures and its history from the day of its formation. Probably this could lead us to know how this world was formed.

The location of Mount Erebus is to the southeast of Antarctica, almost near the International Date Line and about the latitude of 84oS. It is situated on the shore of the ROSS SEA, on ROSS ISLAND of the ROSS DEPENDENCY. Whereat the other side of the Ross Sea starts the Victoria Land, there stands the summit of Mount Erebus, known to be the southernmost active volcano in the world. It has drawn explorers from all over the world due to its uniqueness that of being active in the most sedate atmosphere. Along with this bizarre fact, it also assumed to hold the key to the history of this earth from the moment of genesis, or at least from the first ice age, when this vast continent was presumed to be formed. To uncover the theories of earth’s formation which, amongst a few, is a question that science couldn’t find an answer yet, a group of British scientists, archaeologists and volcanologists flocked to the Ross Island in the winter of 1992. Their primary objective was to watch Mount Erebus and collect the important data about the atmosphere inside the crater and other readings. At the beginning of winter every season, seawater starts to cool down; pure water crystallises as the temperature goes several degrees below zero and the water crystals gather together to solidify the surface of the sea. The temperature drops further below, crystals start to grow downwards from the outward layer over the seawater, same way as stalactites are formed in caves, and in the end of June, when temperature reaches –90oC, there lies a seven feet thick snow over the sea, increasing the area of the continent about 2/3 of its actual size. However, as the summer progresses, the sea-ice heats up and melts. During this cycle of crystallisation and melting, the only non-microscopic organism that survives the absolute inimical atmosphere is the WEDDEL SEAL – an animal that leads most of its life both above the ground and underwater as well. During winter times, when the surface is covered with a very heavy layer of ice, it bores a hole or rather does not allow to solidify the water around a small diameter by scraping the gathering ice by its long sabre-like canine teeth.

However, the journey of the explorers begins from the bottom of the seawaters, where the base of the Mount Erebus lies. At about 250m from the base (at the snow level), a hole of 1.5m diameter is dug to be able to reach the base of the volcano. As it was obvious that no living human being can go down as far as 400ft below sea level even if he puts his full gears on, an underwater automatic vessel made of light plastic is drowned in water. The vessel contained a high power underwater searchlight, a camera and sound recorders. Its motion is controlled from above, which is done through a 1” thick optical fibre cable. As the machine approaches 200ft mark the number of living organisms became lesser, but a Weddel seal accompanies the vessel through its path. In such a gloomy surrounding, where sunlight is prohibited to enter by dark forces of nature, storage of energy becomes a necessity, and this theory is exemplified by almost all the living organisms found below 300/400ft level. A sea spider of bright orange colour was caught by the camera, such a flamboyant thing, but what we are accustomed to seeing that a spider run very scurried, it barely moved its arms, when they are touched by the limbs of the vessel. Further down, the base is found, which is full of complicated silicate crystals. Plants are normally rare and most of them are of fern type plants. In a corner of stone was found an ice fish, an ash-coloured and striped fish, which made the scientists astonished before for its wondering features. This is the only vertebrate, whose colour of blood is not red. It has not been found yet, how it synthesises oxygen without the presence of some oxygen carrier like iron in its blood. The living organisms below this depth do not feed on the organisms that have high mobility; most of them live by consuming planktons, the microbial organism that feeds most of the sea animals elsewhere too. Most of the plants are of fern type, in contrary to the plants found in the normal seafloor, those colourful sorts. However, there is one plant of CRETINYDE type, which moves in water like hyacinths, but very fast and in a swirling motion. In this region, water and seabed are very rich in silica. As a result, the plants living there have a very high content of glass in their leaves and as a result, the moment light is focussed on the leaves they start to shine uncannily. Those leaves shimmering in the guttural darkness gives a creepy feeling. As the vessel approaches nearer to the base of the volcano, a world of amazing things unveils under the searchlight of the vehicle. At the bottom of the seafloor, it found much shining and very intricate designs of silicates made of nature’s caprices. If these designs were not fragile, they could fetch a very high price, almost as high as any other precious metal craftwork. These are formed primarily due to excess of silica in the soil at the seabed. Now since the base is found the vessel starts its ascent toward the layer of sea-ice. As the depth becomes smaller, living organisms start to appear just as they dwindled during the descent. Many ice fish were found because of the little warmth of this place than in the seawater. The landscapes there seemed as in any other sea level when it encounters a sharp ascent. Caves were formed and under the pressure of the waves, the approach towards the upper ridge looked like an undulating area. These landscapes are known as pressure waves. Within the hollow of the caves down the sea-ice stalactites were formed, principally made of ice crystals. These caves are more or less horizontally orientated, moving deep inside the base of the volcano. Within the niches of the pressure waves and the sea-ice, another astonishing wonder was discovered, the ANCHOR ICE. They are small flakes of normal ice, but to one’s amazement, instead of floating above the water it lays submerged in seawater. Experiments are being done to achieve this phenomenon artificially. When disturbed by a simple stir, they are not precipitated at the bottom but rather go up and join the crystals of sea-ice to form a larger icicle. After the exploration across the base of the Mount Erebus is completed, the vessel is drawn up and what it found will arguably enhance the oceanologists’ desire to come to Antarctica and unearth the hidden treasures.

Now it’s volcanologists’ turn has come to move up to the summit and carry on the main expedition. Mount Erebus stands a staggering 2000m high over the sea-ice and is continually erupting to a violent outburst of fumes. But the point of their interest lies about 200m down from the crater, the LAVA LAKE. Therefore, after climbing to the peak of the volcano, the team has to get down a further 200m down along a very steep slope, almost 70 degrees inclined. The first hurdle that the climber will face is the shortage of oxygen up there, and they need to be acclimatised before the actual move. Moreover, they have to climb the peak with full of their winter gears on. Therefore, that makes it tougher for them. The feasibility of good days compared to bad ones are about one after five or six bad days. So they did not bother to wait for the weather to better and made their journey start. On the day of the expedition, the team searched the rocky inclines towards the peak for a sign of life. It was obvious that no plants will be found there, except algae and fern, but even they are not found either. Instead, LICHENS are found, some of them as old as 10000 years. It’s being perceived that these LICHENS are the soul herald to the biographical changes that took place here in those times. The ascent of the first few hundred metres was easy as the path was covered by a motored sledge. Then it became harder and harder, as they had to climb their way to the top. On reaching the summit, some crews of the team put on the fire protection gears and prepared to climb down to the lava lake. The time of the expedition was chosen to be the winter because it was assumed that the eruptions would be a bit less sporadic. But as soon as they begin to descent, it burst to a cloud of volcanic ash and smoke as if to give them a hint what kind of a menace they are messing with. The inside of the crater is different on two sides. On one side the path is lesser steep to a 150m down and then take a steeper slope to the lava lake; another is a very steep wall of 200m down to the lake. The scientists decided to go through the first path but all on a sudden after getting down to about 100m from the crater, the volcano again burst into fumes. The SO2 gas suffocating, the rope turning mellow because of heat and foremost the intolerable heat made the mission fail for that day. When they climbed their way to the top some had their clothes burnt and torn, and were thought to have a narrow escape. A similar expedition was made in 1989 by a group of New Zealand government-endorsed scientists that have encountered the same bit of luck and came back empty-handed. However, humankind is endowed with a providence that makes them learn from their earlier failures and rectify it. Therefore, this time the team came with much more sophisticated machinery; they came with a machine that can traverse steeply terrains as well. The next day as the sun casts its gloomy light on the blank icy desert, the team made a new beginning with that machine, it went down as near as 50m from the lake but them the same fate reiterated and Mount Erebus erupted. As a result, due to the heat of the volcanic fumes, the electronic devices inside the machine failed, and the camera stopped to send the pictures. However, before its failure, it sent some photos taken from nearer distances than reached by the team members. They were later processed to give a view of the molten lava, almost immobile. But the geologists have something to cheer about and the whole world to gape in amazement when they had taken the atmospheric sample inside the crater. They have found in the fumes ejecting from the volcano some trace of gold, the element most sought after in the civilised world, and the composition was not very little. That might make fortune hunters jump on their feet, but the extraction would be so expensive that there is zero possibility of success. The surrounding air is full of SO2 and consequently, the rocky inclines are full of sulphates, sulphides, sulphites and other complex sulphur salts. The scientists, especially volcanologists, were disheartened, for their failure to have an insight of the volcano but it became clear that no other expedition teams could not succeed the hostile and vitriolic whims of Mount Erebus. A high speed i.e. fast-forwarding motion camera connected at the top of the crater for next few days was just going the substantiate that. After staying calm for only 7-8 hours it bursts into ashes and fumes. This event took place incessantly for the next few days.

Therefore, keeping the nights apart, the contingency of carrying out an expedition near the lava lake is very less. Only when science invents some fast-moving machines that can traverse the downslope in 2-3 hours and heat resistant up to the range of 1500oC and most important, when a whole gamut of intricate electronic gadgets or instruments will be made that operate without much aberration, then only will Mount Erebus untie its mysteries. Those hidden treasures that a clan of knowledge-thirsty people had been eyeing from time immemorial to capture. The group may not achieve the prospective target they had set, but they have opened the new vistas of knowledge that lay closed for years and inevitably show a new horizon to the world.