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Dogs in the Himalaya

This winter I spend some great time with my two dogs, Tama and Bhalu in the Himalaya. I wake up to the frost covering the fallen undergrowth, making fragile white roses on brown oak leaves. The sky lights up before the first rays of the sun hit us, the mountain to the east blocking the light till much later. We can see the mountain opposite glistening gold, the soft, warm rays reflecting off the dry grass with a comforting sheen.

The temperature drops below freezing these nights. Tama and Bhalu seem to enjoy this temperature, barking at the owls and ghosts all through the night. The spot-bellied eagle owl with its blood-curlingly eerie screeches lays in the middle; part-ghost, part-owl. The dogs are unperturbed by the cold due to their thick winter coat, which will shed as soon as spring arrives. The silky tassels caught in shrubs and between rocks will be picked up by the little tits and thrushes to be used to line their nest. As the sun rises, they laze groggily in the yellow rays, sun-drunk.

We revel in the nights spent on the mountain.

I pack my rucksack with a sleeping bag, matches, a hammock, a tarpaulin, some food and water. We have no destination in mind, only wish to spend some time on the mountain. Tama, Bhalu, and I make our way down a limestone landscape, through a long patch of scree, a trail of stinging nettle, and over a small rivulet. When we reach a long stretch downhill through the undergrowth and tall oak and pine trees, we play a version of a game that I had last played in the Mishmi Hills with a human, Ita. He had christened it '1,2,3 -- go!' to which we would race down the mountain as fast as we could, dodging obstacles like creepers, trees, and boulders. Tama and Bhalu played it well, almost always beating me to the end. I would win only when there were sharp turns - seems like they cannot predict the turns as well as I can! This time, I slipped, misjudging the depth of the black, silky-soft humus characteristic of this part of the Himalaya, and went tumbling down, until a tree arrested my fall, getting lodged in my rucksack. No damage done, we always play 1,2,3 -- go after taking calculated risks. Tama and Bhalu at once gave up the game, turned tail and within seconds were back at me, Tama putting her wet nuzzle and breathing dog-breath condensation into my nose while Bhalu licked my palm - almost reassuring me that I was okay. We collected my rucksack but lost a carabiner that was attached to the bag. This meant no harm, only that I would have to tie a good knot on the hammock.

Tama walks ahead as we climb up a thin ridge. She climbs up to the pinnacle, looking down and Bhalu and me. She looks incredibly regal, her black coat glinting in the crisp winter sun, shining the subtle blue that all dark animal coats do at this elevation of the Himalaya. Her snout puffs out jets of condensation contrasting with the sharp blue of the sky and the outline of oak and pine trees in the background. We sit together at the top and look at the mosaic of mountains and valleys, fading into the distance. A little ahead, we hear rustling in the dry leaves. Tama and Bhalu pause for two seconds and then move on, it may be hill partridges or kalij pheasants. As we pass it, the guttural squeaks of kalij pheasants and their hurried flapping tell us that they have moved down the mountain.

Bhalu constantly sniffs around, picking up all the smells that he can. He seems unhurried but excited with what he finds. He and Tama then go up the mountain, seemingly out of earshot. Curious, I follow to find them at the bones of a cow, quite possibly one of the many that the resident leopard has feasted on.

As the sun starts to dip, we set up camp.

Half the weight on my back is water. Water is very scarce in this part of the Himalaya, a long, steep walk down the mountain to a spring being the only source around. I lay a vessel on the tarp for Tama and Bhalu and fill it with water. They wolf it down hurriedly but wastefully, their wide flat tongues spilling it all across. They do not know the value of water in these areas. I refill the vessel and pour the spilled water on the tarp back in. They shall be thirsty again.

I lay down my rucksack and begin collecting firewood. The tarp and hammock can be tied in the dark but gathering firewood then is a challenge. Tama and Bhalu sniff and bound up and down the mountain. After assuring themselves of the place, Tama sits resting her head on her front paws while Bhalu lays on his side. I return with a large deodar, probably washed down in the last monsoon. It is dry and still has its branches intact. The branches and twigs around are used as kindling to get the fire going.

We pause. The trance of a fire in the cold of the Himalaya is magical. We seem to share the same thoughts in the ringing unity of our existences with and on the mountain. In the silence, we hear the muted snipping of wet twigs from a tree a few metres away. Grosbeaks munching on some shoots.

I tie the hammock a few inches off the ground and keep a gap between the tarp and the ground. This is my vain attempt to encourage Tama and Bhalu to stay closer to me if they please. However, I know too well that they are not going to rest a wink nor seek the warmth of the fire until daybreak. They, as always, will revel in barking at all that moves in the dark.


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I'm a wildlife conservation scientist working on the link between economics, ecology, and sociology. 

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