Unstirring the Himalayan Pot of Mashed Mountains
Majestic Mt Jomolhari
This article by Terri Schneider is the last in a series of articles from Expedition Bhutan, a six-week adventure and cultural journey through Bhutan, which is reputed to be the happiest country on Earth. At 24,034 feet, Mt Jomolhari is the second highest peak in Bhutan and straddles the border of Tibet. It is believed to harbor the five protector goddesses of both countries. Though climbing mountains in Bhutan has been prohibited since 1994 due to local spiritual beliefs, there are still intermittent attempts on Jomolhari from the Tibetan side.
Royal Body Guards Join the Team
At our first meeting in Paro we were stunned when the President of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, His Royal Highness, Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, offered us members of his staff and army, including two Royal Body Guards, for the duration of our journey. Tinley and Kinzang "Pury" were gracious, humble, playful and in charge—all the while packing pistols under their trekking shirts. Here they are wearing their traditional ghos at the Tashigang Dzong Tsechu (Buddhist Festival).
Life in the Wild
Our trekking days in Bhutan included five to eight hours on the move, followed by tea and a hearty meal of rice, vegetables and various types of meat. Each evening we'd join our hard working and cheerful army staff to gather wood for the nightly bonfire. We'd share songs and perhaps some ara (local rice wine) offered as a gift from a nearby village. Camp could be a stunning spot, similar to the Hetch-Hetchy look-a-like in the photo, or infrequently, a small bug-infested clearing.
A dzong is a fortress in a strategic and majestic location, overlooking a town or village or at the confluence of two rivers. They contain regional monastic communities and local administrative offices. Dzongs generally include a tower, courtyard and buildings all surrounded by sloping walls, and are considered to be the architectural masterpieces of Asia. The Trongsa Dzong (pictured) in central Bhutan is the largest in the country.
Traveling the Rodang La
The Rodang La route runs from central Bhutan in the Tang Valley area to Tashi Yangtse on the eastern border. It is famed for its rocky and steep ups and downs, its infinite vistas and for the nomad huts along the route. Each two story hut has a ladder, an upper living space, an outer "deck" and a lower area for storing crops or to shelter animals from the cold.
The Land of Chilies
Chilies are a mainstay of every Bhutanese meal and are prepared in various forms—hot, cold and dried. I suspect that Bhutanese mouths and intestinal tracts have evolved to take on the chilies as they range from very hot to scorching hot. Chilies are grown and harvested and are then dried on the roofs of people's homes or out in an open space on bamboo mats.
Bhutan's Many Layers
The landscape of Bhutan is layered. Not just in how the earth is stacked from river bed to mountain top, but in how the air moisture plays on these stacks, the range of colors and the widely varying temperatures. Vertical or horizontally strung prayer flags are omnipresent and usually mark that you either have arrived at "a top" of some sort or a monument to the deceased, or are in a windy area.
The Tashigang Festival
Our day off in Tashigang in eastern Bhutan for their Buddhist Festival was far worth the 70,000 feet of elevation gain, cycling and trekking to arrive. These social bonding events involve ceremony, lore, twirling colors, rich sounds of drums and instruments and voices. The elaborate costumes made this our most memorable reprieve.
Bhutan's Rare Wildlife
Northern Bhutan is rife with 23,000 foot snow-capped peaks and glaciers but has very few animals. Topping out at almost 17,000 feet on one of the six passes in our initial trek, a Himalayan griffon decided to touch down for just a couple seconds as we were celebrating our arrival. These birds are in the vulture family, weigh up to 26 pounds, can have a wing span of up to 10 feet, and are known to be quite fierce if you mess with them during a meal.
The Children of Bhutan
Whether in the western Himalaya region or in the far eastern settlement of Sakteng, the children represent the true essence of the Bhutanese. They are enthusiastic, cheerful, helpful, curious and adorable. And just like their parents they are polite, tough, strong and adaptable to their environment. If a country is measured socially by its children, Bhutan is the sweet, kind, open and quite interesting person at the party.
The Home Puja Ceremony
There are more monks in Bhutan than there are military personnel. If a Bhutanese family has enough money, they will have a puja ceremony in their home to bless their family and close friends. We were lucky to be invited to one of these ceremonies for a family who had moved to the capital in Thimphu. They brought monks from their home village to organize and perform the two day rituals. These ceremonies involve elaborate decorated altars, lots of food, incense, chanting, and singing.
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Scientists have found a way to deconstruct the Himalayan Mountains and reconstruct the crust of India before it collided with Asia some 50 million years ago.
Using neodymium isotopes for whole rocks and uranium-lead in zircon crystals in the rocks, the researchers have essentially un-stirred part of the pot of rocks that crashed together into the uneven, and extremely complicated, geological monstrosity that is now the highest mountain range on the planet.
Geologist Catherine Mottram and her colleagues looked specifically at the rocks in the Sikkim Himalaya around what's called the Main Central Thrust (MCT). This is a major fault along which the crust of India was shortened and thickened as it piled up against Asia.
“As the rocks of the Indian plate were stuffed into the mountain belt, much of the movement of rock was along near-flat faults, known as thrusts,” explained geologist Simon Wellings in his Metageologist blog.
So the collision was less like a train wreck and more like shoving together a line of flat, crumbly dominoes. Some of the dominoes appear to have been lined with ancient faults that were part of an old rift zone. These faults may have been re-used in the continental collision to help shuffle materials of different ages when they were pushed against Asia -- making reconstruction of the pre-collision situation very complicated.
But that's only what happened near the surface.
“Thrusts near the surface may be a single fault plane, but at greater depths, rocks flow rather than snap and a thick thrust zone of deformed rocks is formed," Wellings said. "This makes drawing a line on a map and calling it the Main Central Thrust (MCT) rather difficult.”
So although it might seem like geologists should be able to sort things out and reconstruct the pre-collision layout by just looking at rocks on either side of the MCT, that line is too blurry. To untangle the mess, Mottram and her colleagues used the isotopes to separate the ages of the rocks and very durable zircon grains, and in this way sorted out the rocks.
That's possible because the Indian rocks have long and varied histories from the time before they were piled into the Himalayas. What the isotopes confirmed is that the MCT is really more of a zone where rocks were shuffled together.
Naturally, the findings also make it possible to theoretically unshuffle the deck and build a picture of what India looked like hundreds of millions of years before the collision. This picture includes a northern Indian shoreline backed by granite mountains and high plains further south. All of that was ultimately crammed into a pile against Asia.
“The Sikkim Himalaya exposes a window into a well-preserved mid-crustal thrust zone formed during the Himalayan (mountain building),” explained Mattram, who is affiliated with The Open University in the U.K. Their paper on the work appears in a recent issue of the Journal of the Geological Society of London.