The bus from Dehra Dun to Joshimath was on time. As it made its way through the capital of Uttarakhand, I caught a glimpse of a city fast losing its original character. I remembered reading an article that mourned the death of ‘old’ Dun, a city of retired army officials, educationists and authors.
The climb started soon after and with every bend, Dun became a speck in the mountains. The day was perfect for our 12-hour journey: blue skies, lush green mountains and oxygen-rich air. As we gained altitude, the river played hide-and-seek. After some two hours, the bus stooped at a small eatery, which among other things sold some very milky pahari chai. We had some chicken sandwiches with us. We ordered two cups of tea and had an impromptu picnic, sitting on two huge boulders lodged precariously at the roadside.
We reached Joshimath around 7 pm, full 12 hours from the time we started. Reasons: rains and a broken clutch. Joshimath is a sleepy town, the last ‘big’ one before Govindghat. We were very tired and booked ourselves into the first hotel we saw. The room was airy and the bathroom clean. After some oily grub, we retired early.
Next day, we left the hotel at 6.30 am and hired a jeep to take us to Govindghat, the starting point of the 14-kilometer trek to the Valley of Flowers (VoF) and Hemkund Sahib, which is another nine kilometers from the Valley. It took us 1.30 hours to reach Govindghat.
There is nothing much to write about Govindghat (5,000 ft) except that it is a huge parking area for vehicles and there are some shops and hotels. It is here you strike a deal with porters, kandi wallhas and horse owners for their services.
[TIP: If you are not a regular trekker, do hire a porter to carry your luggage.]
Since it was a Sunday and that too in the middle of an extended holiday week, the route was crowed with Sikhs going to Hemkund Sahib. The climb (in one day, you need to climb from 5,000 ft to 11,000) starts once you cross Alakananda. The beauty of the route/trek is the river which runs along the route almost till Ghangaria, the base camp for the Valley and Hemkund Sahib. Just before the final few kilometers, it takes a loop and hides itself behind high mountains.
The first kilometer was tough but soon we managed to acclimatise. The road was good in patches but overall there were boulders strewn all over the place. There were plenty of eating joints along the way, the prices increased as we climbed up. Most had similar menus: paranthas, magi, tea/coffee or biscuits.
[TIP: Never stop at an eating joint that also doubles up as a pit stop for horses]
There were plenty of ‘moments to remember’ in the way: a 70-year-old lady who walked very, very slowly with the help of a sotti and softly chanting ‘wahe guru’. Then there were pilgrims coming down and whenever we asked them about the distance left, they would smile broadly and say “thoda sa aur”. In fact, looking at my state, one of them even offered me his sotti!
The beauty of the route was the high mountains and the gushing, growling river. We stooped at many places to ‘listen’ to the river, coming down recklessly at a great speed. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can hear it. There’s this point where the river flows right next to the road; anyone can get down and touch the water. But no one tried his or her luck because of the ferocity of Alakananda.
Unfortunately, the weather started playing truant. As we reached crossed the fifth kilometer, it started pouring. We took out our plastic raincoats. The route was rocky with some cemented patches and the last four kilometers were tough, real tough. We were struggling. But suddenly almost from nowhere, we heard this cheery ‘Hi’. We looked around and met saw a group of fellow trekkers from Mumbai. They were also in a similar state. But within minutes, we all started chatting like old friends and suddenly the last few kilometers looked achievable. We chatted along the way and around 6.30 pm, we reached Ghangharia.
[TIP: Carry a raincoat or buy from Govindghat for Rs 15 each. These are basically plastic sheets with a hood].
By the time we reached Ghangharia, I was completely wet, tired and hungry. All I wanted was a bed with fresh sheets and some warm water to take a bath. Ghangharia is a small kasba, which caters to trekkers and everything there is associated either with VoF and Hemkund Sahib. There were around 20-25 hotels, very basic stuff. But during tourist season, it is very difficult to get accommodation. The whole economy of the place revolves around the Valley and Hemkund Sahib and is controlled by the Chauhan clan. Now, how did Chauhans, originally from Rajasthan come to this mountain region located at 12,000 ft? Well, one Mr Chauhan told me the story: After the Mughals defeated Prithviraj Chauhan, members of the clan ran away to different places and one strand came and settled in these regions.
There is a government-run hotel at Ghangharia and we had booked a fiber-glass cottage there. So while the Mumbai group went searching for a hotel, I triumphantly declared that we already had one. Tired, wet and hungry, I went to the reception and flashed my reservation slip. The manager looked at it and said: ‘Jal gaya’.
Here’s how the conversation went thereafter: –
Me: “Jal gaya?”
Manager (very calmly): “Yes, last month on the 14th thanks to some guests. Investigation chal raha hain”.
Me: “I booked the rooms on the 12th and the reservation office had my number. Why wasn’t I told?’
By now I was livid at the turn of events and ready to strangle him.
Manager: I had intimated our head office at Dehra Dun and they were supposed to tell the Delhi office. They forgot to tell you”.
The next few minutes were a shouting match, me at my very best. The spouse tried to intervene and calm me down but I was livid. There were no more rooms in the hotel and, therefore, the manager could not accommodate us. After some more heated exchange, we went out to look for another hotel.
We managed to find a place and then got to know that there was no electricity (stupid of me to think otherwise) and therefore no running hot water. All hotels and other establishments at Ghangharia run on generators and they are switched on for five hours daily, two hours in the day and three hours at night. Hot water, telephone connectivity and electricity are luxuries here. By the time we settled in our room, I crashed out.
And, thankfully, there was bed tea. Got up at 5.30 am as soon as the generator started purring. By 8 am were out and ready for the trek to the Valley. The Mumbai group — they were staying at the next hotel— was ready too and the walk to the Valley gate took 15 minutes.
We got our tickets, clicked few photos and entered the Valley. From the gate itself, wild flowers were in full bloom. The walk inside was tough; it tested our mental as well as our physical strength. After walking two kilometers, we came to the main Valley covered with a carpet of white flowers.
At one side there was glacier, which looked like a white cream cake with chocolate flakes on it. There is no road as such but a walkway through the flowers.
The Valley portion of the park is a wide Alpine meadow and it runs along the Pushpawati river, which originates from the Tipra glacier. The river flows through the middle of the park and joins Lakshman Ganga, which originates at Hemkund lake (14,000 ft), and joins it at Ghangaria. There are two small streams inside the park dividing the park into small segments.
It is flat valley, five kilometer long and two km wide and the altitudinal range varies from 3200 ft to 6675 m. Gauri Parbat and Rataban surround the park in the east, Kuntkhal in the west and Saptsring in the south and Nilgiri Parbat in the north. The park stretches over an expanse of 87.50 km².
The Valley of Flowers was declared a national park in 1982. This part of Uttarakhand, in the upper reaches of Garhwal, is inaccessible through much of the year. The area lies on the Zanskar range of the Himalayas with the highest point in the national park being Gauri Parbat at 6,719 m above sea level.
While green is the predominant shade in July, white is for August. In September and October, the Valley is resplendent with multihued colours before a blanket of snow covers it in October. We went completely crazy clicking photographs and soaking in the atmosphere. After walking for about an hour, we stopped for breakfast and that one was one of the finest picnics I have ever had. We managed to find a rock hanging over the river and opened our packed breakfast: hot tea and chicken sandwiches.
The showers played spoilsport again. Though we had planned to roam around a bit more, we were forced to go back to the hotel. Later in the evening we went for a film show on the park.
HEMKUND SAHIB: The nine-km climb to HS is TOUGH, tougher than the one from Govindghat to Ghanghria. We decided to take horses. It is an important pilgrimage spot for both Hindus and Sikhs, as well as for people from other faiths. There is a Sikh Gurudwara and a Lakshman temple on the bank of the lake.
It is said that Guru Govind Singh, the 10th Guru of the Sikh faith, had meditated on the bank of this lake. It is also believed that that Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, meditated by the lake and regained his health after being severely wounded by Meghnad during the battle.
There was no road as such to HS, only rubble. But the view was breathtaking and since we started before sunrise, we could see the beginning of the day, the sun rising through the mountain peaks. Every turn in the road offered a new view for us. But what made me very happy and in a way I am glad that I made the trip were Brahmakamals, considered to be the king of flowers. I was very keen to see them, but did not see any in the Valley. But now there was one Valley full of Brahmakamals. In fact, out of curiosity, I climbed a small hillock and took photographs. It only blooms in the night. The flowers are used as offering in the hill temples, like the shrines of Badrinath.
The lake at HS, light green in colour, was beautiful, clean and we could see the bed of the lake. We roamed around a bit and then went towards the langar for some hot kichdi and chai. I started chatting with Parminder Singh, a sanghi at the gurdwara. He told me a very interesting story: every year the Indian Army first clears snow in May and reaches the gurdwara first. They are followed by granthis. The soldiers are the first to take a bath in the lake and then a pooja is held and the gurdwara is opened. It shuts down again in October. This year the Bengal Sappers cleared the road.
The day was beautiful: bright sunshine and cool wind, a perfect day. We stayed there for an hour, totally mesmerized by the beauty of the area. The ride down was difficult with the horse going towards the valley side and I screaming. I got down mid-way mumbling some excuses.
The trek down to Govindghat was very difficult. We had to focus so much on the route, lest we slipped. By the time, we reached Govindghat, it was 530 pm and we had missed the last bus to Badrinath, our nest destination. What followed was another round of nerve-wracking adventure. But that’s another story for later.