Aeons ago when I was a gawky little skinny kid and ‘Desh Patrika’ (দেশ পত্রিকা) was still a revered magazine in gentle Bengali households, my Daddy had told me about a magical place hidden away high in the Himalayas. It was a place where few ventured in and when they did, they saw a carpet of colourful flowers in all direction. For a child who was not allowed to cross the front gate without parental supervision, this place was the epitome of the fairy-tale land far far away. The picture drawn from the story I had heard that day, imprinted itself firmly on my mind. Along with the unsurmountable urge to see it all for myself, which in all probability was a highly unlikely thing. The place is the legendary Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. The valley was declared a National Park in 1982 and perhaps it was around that time that it was featured in the Desh and the subsequent story-telling session had happened.
Cut to present day, I started reading articles and posts about people trekking to the Valley of Flowers. With my hopes soaring high, I was on the lookout for an opportunity to embark on this journey myself. And so I did, on a tour that was organised by the group called ‘Women On Wanderlust’ or WOW. I had to meet the rest of the touring group at Delhi. Around 5 days ahead of my flight to Delhi, the heavens opened up in North India with massive flooding and reports of landslides pouring in. Given the levels of exaggeration on television news channels, Day 0 was spent making frantic calls trying to figure out the ground reality. Finally, it was an assured ‘Just Go’ from someone that put all doubts to rest.
Sankarshan dropped me off at the airport and I was on my way to Delhi even before I was fully awake. I arrived at the swanky New Delhi airport around 9:00 hours and waited to meet the rest of the group. By 11:30hrs, all the 13 members of the tour party had assembled and after a quick round of introductions we boarded the bus and started our journey towards Haridwar. It was an eclectic mix of people. Some young, some older. We passed through Delhi, and the ourskirts of Ghaziabad, Noida, Muzzafarnagar and Meerut. Most of us had fallen asleep, but were very rudely awakened when we crossed into Uttar Pradesh and the bus started wobbling on the cauldron-sized holes in the road. We stopped for high-tea at a place called Khatauli, where for some reason the restaurant guys decided to unleash an avalanche of sandwiches at our table. Very soon we were back on the road and into the quaint little town of Roorkee. We reached Haridwar at around 7 in the evening and went straight to one the ghats. The Ganga was not very wide here, but the force of the water was visible. Towering above on the bank, was a massive statue of Lord Shiva. From what we figured, the evening aarti had concluded a while back but the priests on the riverside were pushing forth small packets of assorted flowers for people who wanted to perform a hurried puja and aarti. Most of the ladies went down the steps and did the puja, while Soumya and I decided to keep ourselves busy by clicking pictures. Amidst this confusion, there were these two guys (one with a comical tee saying ‘life is short, get a divorce’) who decided to follow us around for a while. To be honest, my first impression of Haridwar did not go down too well. We were staying at the Lahore House right next to the river. It was an old school Haveli which had its own ghat down a long set of stairs. (The gates to the ghat had been closed for a while now, given the rust on the lock.) The main building was used for the dining hall, office etc, while the lodgings were in luxury tents all over the compound. I was sharing a tent with a lovely lady from Hyderabad. About 15 feet away from the tent door was a wall and beyond it was the Ganga. After a wonderful dinner it was time to turn in for the night.
Haridwar being much closer to Allahabad (and generally eastwards), sunrise was at an earlier than usual (for me) time. At around 5:30 hours, a couple of us ventured out around the courtyard near the river bank. A low mist was hanging over the river and unlike the chaos of the earlier evening, the morning was peaceful. Our travel guide Abhimanyu had joined us the earlier night from Dehradun. After breakfast we were back on the bus for our next destination Joshimath. While leaving Haridwar we passed a lot of temples and crossed the forest reserve corridor of Chilla-Motichur where the signboards announced that Elephants had the right of way. After about 45 minutes we were at Rishikesh, where we had to stop to get a permit. Right after that we were on the gorgeous mountain road that skirted the river. We spotted the famous ‘Laxman Jhula’ down below. The weather was beautiful and sunny. Not one bit of the much hyped rain had made an appearance. The road meandered and Abhimanyu warned us not to read as that could induce road-sickness. We stopped at Devprayag where the Bhagirathi and Alankananda meet. By this time we started getting information about land-slides further up ahead on the road and people stuck in traffic snarls. Lunch was at Srinagar (Uttarakhand), where we had the most mouth-watering palak-paneer and dal… EVER! Most of us also changed into sandals, because there was high probability that we may have to cross some parts of the slushy land slides further ahead on foot and board another bus on the other side. We had stop about 10kms before Rudraprayag, where traffic had piled up. We kept on inching forward from time to time and after about 1.5 hours we crossed the two massive landslides that had reduced the road by half. In another 30 minutes we were at Rudraprayag, where we spent another eventful 30-40 minutes (including an episode with a cop and another involving a vested guy in another bus) giving way to traffic. With all the delay on the road, we could not reach Joshimath and had to stop at a place called Gauchar. Emergency lodging arrangements had been made earlier and most of us collapsed in a heap right after dinner. Special mention needs to be made of the ketchup diluted salty tomato soup and the amazing gulab jamuns.
This was D-day-1. And it started with an explosion. Literally! The storage geyser in our bathroom exploded when I was taking a shower and water started flowing all over the place. On hindsight, probably that was the omen for things to come later in the day. Around 7:00 hours we started onwards for Govindghat. We stopped for some breakfast of aloo-paranthas at a small shanty near the Garud Ganga temple. Later we crossed Joshimath and had to stop again for a permit. The road was beautiful with gorges on one side. We had turned off the water-dripping (thats another story) Aircon in the bus and enjoyed the fresh mountain breeze. It was misty at times, but mostly sunny. Finally, we reached Govindghat. The journey from here was on foot or by riding on mules. We could see the zig-zag trekking route at a distance. A few mules had been gathered who were to carry our luggage to the tents. After a brief visit to the market to gather a fews sticks, caps etc. we crossed a bridge and at 11:00 hours started the climb. It was a narrow path, but paved. Up and down hill traffic consisting of mules, people and the palenquin folks were jostling for space. Most of us started together but then maintained our own pace. There wasn’t any hurry and neither was the road going anywhere else but Ghangariya. Soon I was walking on my own, feasting on the beautiful scenery all around, clicking pictures and sucking on candy from time to time. This same route is taken by the pilgrims heading for the sacred Gurudwara at Shri Hemkund Saheb. All along, Sikh pilgrims of ages anywhere between 5 to 75 years were chanting the name of the Guru and climbing along. We were crossing each other regularly and at one point I was chatting with this little girl who told me that 30 people from her family had come on the pilgrimage to thank the Lord for blessing their family with a male heir (sic).
A few ladies in our group had decided to ride the mules for the initial few kilometers. The rest of us were walking and often stopping at the roadside stalls for tea/lemonade etc. By 13:30 hours we had crossed the first village of Phulna where we met our guide Shanti’s family for a few moments. The track had been a mixed bag of paved trails and rocky (thankfully on firm rocks) climbs. The annoying element was the smell of mule dung that seemed to over-shadow every other odour around. It had started to drizzle by then (similar to what we call as Pune-spray rain). A few of us had stopped for lunch at a shanty and were gobbling paranthas and maggi when the heavens literally opened up. Most of us were carrying phones, cameras, music players etc, all of which went straight into the plastic packets inside the bagpacks. Soumya and I decided to buy the shabby (but life-saving) plastic ponchos for Rs.15 that would cover our bagpacks as well. Wisened by past experience, I wore a cap underneath my jacket hood that kept my eyeglasses dry. We resumed our climb in pouring rain. Thankfully the track was not slippery. The cool temperature was a blessing and except for the general strain of continuous climb, it was not uncomfortable. I was soaked to the skin but thankfully counting the kilometers proved to be ample distraction to keep my mind off it. Some of the longer stretches were painful at times, but then I had not signed up for a walk in the park. The pony people had placed themselves at strategic locations to entice the trekkers to give up. Thankfully, words like “well done puttar, chaltey raho” from the elderly Sikh pilgrims helped maintain the spirit. After a particularly muddy patch with lots of wobbly stones, Soumya and I teamed together. We reached the next village of Bhyundar. The river flowing next to the path had gathered stream and was flowing furiously. At one place water was flowing across the path with great force. We held each other’s hand and slowly stepped through the cold water and crossed it. We asked a couple of folks how far we were from Ghangariya and the answer was ‘you have nearly reached’. For some reason, neither of us believed them and we kept on asking 4-5 more folks we met on the way. They kept repeating the same thing until one guy let it slip that we were nearly 5 kilometers away from our destination.
Groaning (and I with a leg cramp) we continued. Whatever we crossed so far was cakewalk compared to what awaited us. The last 3 kilometers were completely rocky and strenuously uphill. It did not help matters that exhaustion had set in. I caught up with Shalini and we continued our slow march ahead, pausing every 10 yards. Our tour buddy Malini had been climbing with us all this while and it was quite an inspiration for us. She however decided to call it a day in the last stretch. After about 45 more minutes, Shalini and I came onto a stretch of level path. Rows of colourful tents and a vast expanse of green with a helipad was visible. That was base camp. After 8 hours of climb. Grinning all over we both made our way, looking for our tents and room-mates who had reached earlier. Wet clothes were gotten rid off, hot water procured for a quick wash and off we went to bed after a hot dinner.
The tents at Ghangariya were set up amidst mountains and a huge green meadow. The Laxman Ganga river flowed on one side down below through a gorge. We only got to hear its gushing flow. Further away, partially covered in mist was a peak with what looked like streaks of snow. The first time I’ve every seen any.
It was D-day and a very wet one as well. Jackets and shoes were still wet and there was no hope of them drying throughout the day. Breakfast was at the dining tent. The cold and all the exercise had induced a demonic appetite and I gobbled down puri after puri. By 8:30-9:00 hours we started off for the Valley. From the base camp, we had to first go into Ghangariya village which was another 0.5 kilometers uphill. It was dotted with a number of hotels and dharamshalas for the pilgrims. There was even a pony-stand! The village had a couple or two satellite phone booths, which was the only means of telephonic communication. We were joined by Chandrakant who was an expert about the valley.
At the entrance gate, the officials took down our names. There was a huge board with the do’s and don’ts that one has to strictly follow. Right from the start of the trail, little flowers dotted the path. The first biggie we spotted was a cobra lily. There were bushes of wild roses and other colourful flowers. We crossed a scary looking little tin bridge and got busy trekking onwards. The estimated distance was 3 kilometers. Thankfully, the mules were not allowed in the valley. However, it was still cloudy. Some of the members were walking with the tour guide and the rest of us were on our own. The trail was nice and quiet and I was walking alone by myself for quite a while. I spotted a coniferous tree with ridiculously (in a nice way) blue cones. The trail went down to the Pushpawati river and after crossing yet another bridge the path got steeper. I was joined by Jyothi and after that we started walking together. The path kept on getting steeper and more rocky. Some early birds who had ventured into the valley much earlier than us were already on their way back. The gruelling climb and a massive downpour that had started were a test in patience. The much awaited valley eluded us. The pushpawati river was flowing next to the trail and already a carpet of fine grass with pink and white flowers was spread across its banks. Finally we spotted the massive rock that is considered the entrance to the valley.
The valley stretches a further 8 kilometers. Besides the raging mass of flowers, there are meadows and even a glacier further down. I had gathered from travel books that the valley changes colour nearly every fortnight. There was a paved pathway through all the bushes. A jamboree of yellow, pink and white were the spread all around. The climb had been exhausting and with the mist spread out we could not see further down. Due to the heavy rains the flowers looked wilted. Cameras had been tucked away, but it would have been a shame not to capture the scenes around. I had gotten my umbrella along with me (no idea why), and we brought out the cameras guarding them under the brolly. Pretty little flowers of usual shapes and hues were dangling from the bushes. We started walking further down when a guy coming from the other side told us that it would be futile to go ahead because the flowers don’t change for another 5 kilometers and in the rain it was dangerous and not worth the trouble. He also suggested that we better turn back sometime around 12:30 hours.
The rest of the group had gathered beneath the huge rock and we tucked into aloo paranthas that had been brought from the camp. Soon after we started on the way back. We had crossed another bridge to reach the valley and while returning we saw a fresh pile of rocks had gathered around it. The trail had become slippery with mud at some places, but it wasn’t too bad. Water was flowing all over the wobbly little bridge near the start of the train. In 45 minutes we were back at Ghangariya. Amidst mule dung. We also spotted a cinema hall which was playing some kind of a Nepali blockbuster.
Back at basecamp, we changed into warm clothes but somehow the cold had crept into our bodies. Shivering all over, I went to Jyothi’s tent and we tucked ourselves under the quilt with hot-water bags. Some of the girls were planning on an impromtu visit to Hemkund and Soumya joined us to discuss the plans for the next day. We were chatting and slurping soup when suddenly there was a loud crackling noise. It kept on increasing and we all fell silent. The guessing game began – helicopter? bomb blast? Dude – LANDSLIDE!!! We ran out of the tent and saw boulders coming down in leaps and bounds from the top of the mountain across the river. Cameras were grabbed and videos taken. It was scary! Later we also heard the story about how Mini – writhing in pain until then – had jumped out of the bed ready to run for dear life at that sound. 🙂
Except for the chilling weather and intermittent sounds of a couple of more landslides, the night was mostly uneventful. Next morning, Mona told me how around midnight, when they had come out of the tent after the last landslide they had seen an amazing sight of stars in the sky, that had surprisingly cleared up by then.