Most Himalayan villages lie in the valleys, where there are small streams, some arable land, and protection from the biting winds that blow through the mountain passes in winter. The houses are usually made of large stones, and have sloping slate roofs so that the heavy monsoon rain runs off easily. During the sunny autumn months, the roofs are often covered with pumpkins, left there to ripen in the sun.
One fall night, when I was sleeping in a friend's house in a village in these hills, I was woken by a rumbling and thumping on the roof. I woke my friend and asked him what was happening.
"It's only a bear," he said.
"Is it trying to get in?"
"No - it's after the pumpkins."
And a little later, when we looked out of the small window, we saw a black bear making off through a field, leaving behind a trail of half-eaten pumpkins.
In winter, when snow covers the higher ranges, the brown and black Himalayan bears descend to lower altitudes in search of food. Sometimes they forage in fields. And because they are shortsighted and suspicious of anything that moves, they can be dangerous. But like most wild animals they will avoid humans as much as possible and are aggressive only when accompanied by their cubs.
Village folk always advise me to run downhill if chased by a bear. They say that bears find it easier to run uphill than downhill. I have yet to be chased by a bear, and will happily forgo the experience. But I have seen a few bears, and they are always fascinating to watch.
Himalayan bears like pumpkins, corn, plums, and apricots. Once, while I was sitting in the branches of an oak tree, hoping to see a pair of pine martens that lived nearby, I heard the whining grumble of a bear. Presently, a small bear ambled into the clearing beneath the tree.
He was little more than a cub, and I was not alarmed. I sat very still, waiting to see what he would do.
At first, he put his nose to the ground and sniffed his way along until he came to a large anthill. Here he began huffing and puffing, blowing rapidly in and out of his nostrils, so that the dust from the anthill flew in all directions. But he was a disappointed bear, because the anthill had been deserted long since. Grumbling, he made his way to a nearby plum tree, and, shinnying rapidly up the smooth trunk, was soon perched on the topmost branches. It was only then that he saw me.
The bear at once scrambled several feet higher up the tree and lay flat on a branch. As it wasn't a very thick branch, it left a considerable expanse of bear showing on either side. He tucked his head behind another branch. So long as he could not see me, he seemed well satisfied that he was completely hidden, although he couldn't help grumbling with anxiety.
But, like all bears, he was full of curiosity. And slowly, inch by inch, his black snout appeared over the edge of the branch. As soon as he saw me, he drew his head back with a jerk and hid his face.
He did this several times. I waited until he wasn't looking, then moved some way down my tree. When the bear looked up again and saw that I was missing, he was so pleased that he stretched right across to another branch and helped himself to a plum. At that, I couldn't help bursting into laughter.
The startled young bear tumbled out of the tree, dropped through the branches for some 15 feet, and landed with a thump in a heap of dry leaves. He was quite unhurt, but fled from the clearing, grunting and squealing.
The inquisitiveness of bears was revealed on another occasion. My friend told me that a female bear had been active in his cornfield, so we sat up to wait for it at night. Our lookout post was in an old cattle shed, which gave us a clear view of the moonlit field.
A little after midnight, the bear came down to the edge of the field. It sniffed suspiciously, probably sensing that we had been about recently. She was hungry, however. So, after standing up as high as possible on her hind legs and peering about to try to see whether or not the field was empty, she walked cautiously out of the forest and made her way toward the cornfield.
When she got about halfway, her attention was suddenly attracted by some Tibetan prayer flags that had been strung up between two small trees. On spotting the flags, the bear gave a little grunt of disapproval and began to back into the forest. But the fluttering of the little flags was a puzzle that she felt she had to unravel, so after a few backward steps she again stopped and watched them.
Still dissatisfied, she stood on her hind legs looking at the flags, first on one side and then on the other. She apparently was none the wiser, so she advanced until she was within a few feet of the flags, examining them from various viewpoints. Then, seeing that they did not attack her or appear in any way dangerous, she went confidently up to the flags and pulled them all down. Grunting with satisfaction, she then moved into the corn.
But my friend decided that he wasn't going to lose any more of his corn crop, so he started shouting. His children woke up and came out of the house banging on empty kerosene tins.
Deprived of her dinner, the bear made off in a bad temper. She ran downhill, and at a good speed, too, and I was glad I was not in her way just then. Uphill or downhill, an angry bear is best given a very wide berth.