Thursday, October 19, 2006

Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib
12th -18th Aug 2006

After marriage this was my first major trek and I keenly looked forward to it. The high and lofty Himalayas and the gushing rivers keep beckoning and once you have been in the abode of the Gods you are never the same person again…..One keeps coming back…as if attracted by the untouched and wild beauty of the region.

‘Valley of flowers’ had been on my mind for sometime …I had intended to go with BNHS hoping to get good information from its experts on the flora found there. A trip with BNHS with Dr. Almeida as one on the leaders would have been ideal, but that was not to be. Abhiram had intended to make the trip a few years back as well but it was cancelled due to a landslide in the region. These unfulfilled wishes had to come true this time around! The next best was Gharwal Mandal Vikas Nigam which holds annual treks to many places in Uttaranchal. Certainly better than YHA I thought!

Well so “nek kaam mein deri kyun?” so we got the bookings done managing to get the 15th august week to save on valuable “leave”. Rajdhani and August kranti bookings were through to ensure a comfortable and scheduled arrival in Delhi and return to Mumbai.
What with Abhiram in Baroda and me in Mumbai all the weekends of the month before were occupied with planning and packing for the trip. The sack I had bought recently did not seem to suffice to carry the long list of things we intended to lug along with us…so Prasanna (Abhiram’s friend) was kind enough to lend us his sack which was identical to Abhiram’s and which had not seen any trekking ever since it was bought! We decided to restrict our luggage to two large sacks (huge will be the more apt word, for once on your back it towers over your head, makes you bend in half and if incorrectly packed weighs down on your shoulders that after a few steps start to complain) and two small ones that would be useful for our daily to and fro trips to the valley and Hemkund.

Rain rain go away….
Things seemed to go off smoothly… but we started our trip under a cloud …literally! Due to the heavy downpour in Maharashtra, Gujarat and rest of the country long distance trains were cancelled and many were running late- the prospects of scheduled arrival seemed to be in troubled waters.
As luck would have it, on the scheduled day of departure, a Rajdhani train was in the yard at Mumbai central station and could leave on time. This was indeed “godsend”, for the day earlier it had left about 10 hours late. The train did leave as scheduled and I bade good bye to aai (mulye) and aai, baba (Bhave) who had come to see me off…

All the passengers in my section of the bogie were to alight at Kota and one of them obliged to exchange seats when Abhiram got in at Baroda. With parts of Surat still under water the train moving at a snail’s pace trudged in at Baroda two hours late. This was unlike Rajdhani’s reputation but under the circumstance I was glad we were on our way. Even if it were late to reach, we had four hours in hand before the next train to Haridwar, an hour or so away from our reporting place Muni-ki-reti in Rishikesh.
The time in Rajdhani was- (as it always is) - spent in gorging on the food provided at regular intervals and dozing away in the comfortable chill of the A/C compartment. The train attendants – especially one grandfatherly fellow took it upon himself to see that all the travelers were properly fed and put to sleep J. With Ghasitaram’s kachori, sohanhalwa, sandwich, and frooti firmly packed in my stomach, and later soup to warm me up; I was not ready for dinner at 7.00. I requested the oldie to bring it back at 9.00, to which he replied “Baad mein kaun yaad rakhega beta?” However I managed to convince the other attendant (a younger one with presumably better memory) to bring my dinner at 9.00

Delhi to Muni-ki-reti (Rishikesh)
Giving us a good ‘darshan’ of the shanties (what we would call zhopadpatti in Mumbai) of the Delhi suburbs of Nizamuddin and Tilak bridge the train wearily trudged in at New Delhi two hours late. In sharp contrast to the humid and wet weather of Mumbai the dry heat of Delhi was unwelcome. Wondering what to do to while away time we reached the exist of platform one, were instantly “gheroued” by taxi drivers, hotel managers, rickshaw drivers, each wanting us to climb in his vehicle and put up at his hotel!! We managed to successfully shake them off with the information that restaurants do not open till 12.00. Very well, now to find a place to settle down in this blessed place called Delhi station! The place is characterized by a dearth of seats, be it on the platform or in the waiting and retiring rooms. As luck would have it we chanced upon the ‘International Tourist Bureau’, decided to call our selves ‘international’ and spend our time there. This place was air conditioned and had good seating capacity. We made our way through a hall full of foreigners from all over the world who sat puzzling over railway forms and eyeing train schedule charts with blank expressions. Glad to rest our butts and lay down our load, the next one hour was good entertainment watching the foreign tourists communicating with railway bureaucrats to make sense of the formalities required of them.

Later we had a good meal of Alu Paraths at Nirula’s (Connaught Circus)washed down with ice-cream and were again off to take the further train ‘Dehradun Janashatabdi Express’ to Haridwar. The train started out on time but was delayed. This journey was the most boring of the lot. The seating was uncomfortable to say the least. It had bucket seats, the kind one has in a bus – three on either side and as the train stopped at Delhi, there was a singular rush to reserve as much space as possible for one self and one’s luggage. With ninety percent of the crowd heading to Haridwar and further ahead the luggage was more than the racks could carry. We settled down dripping with sweat with some sacks precariously peeping from over the racks above our heads. A large part of the time was spent dozing (partly ‘coz the heat made one drowsy, and partly ‘coz it is the best way to kill time J ) and waking up several times to find the train stationary at an unknown station. A saffron clad person next to Abhiram mumbled that this is a one way track and has many signals. The only worry with this delay was that we would find it difficult to get transport to Rishikesh as it started getting dark. It certainly had become dark by the time we reached Haridwar but managed to get a tum-tum (a large rickshaw- eight seater) for the two of us and our luggage to drop us at Muni-ki-reti.

At the GMVN hotel at Muni-ki-reti we checked in at 10.00pm and proceeded to dinner. The kitchen was attended by a single person who was attending a lot of 12 people. So we resigned to self- service much of the time. Our guide Deepak Negi met us with a pleasant smile, typical of these hill people. This shortish fellow with curly hair reminded me of one of my friends- Prashant. The group consisted of 18 people. A gang of 12 from Mumbai (three families), three Jains from Delhi and a Punjabi middle aged man who had come alone.

Journey to Joshimath
The next day we proceeded to Joshimath. The bus journey was comfortable, thankfully so as we had to travel some 200 km – the whole day negotiating the sharp turns and bends of the road that takes us along the Alakhnanada river, past the lush green hills and the holy confluences (prayags) to Joshimath.
The journey is invigorating with changing vistas awaiting us at every bend and turn. As one travels from Rishikesh (1360 meters) to Joshimath (1890 meters) it is easy to notice the deep valley and the far away stream come closer as one rises up in the hills. As one climbs up the mountains, the river sheds the sluggishness of the plains to acquire a force to reckon with. The gushing river flowing with unimaginable force through a narrow gorge, spraying the mountain flanks wet is in sharp contrast with the slow sluggish nature acquired with a broader basin down on the plains. It is tempting to compare this with the youthful zest of a slim and trim teenager and the slow sluggish gait and a broad girth that many of them acquire with age. With the roaring rapids of Alakhnanda to accompany you along the way, bordered by multitude hues of lush green mountains spotted here and there with terrace farms, I was more than once tempted to get off the bus and walk the way up… become one with the nature, at a tempo that lets you absorb its bounty and liveliness.

There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country.
A fine landscape is like a piece of music;
It must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast.
- Paul S Mowrer

Reminding myself of the fact that there was walking and more walking to be done in the coming days, I sat content watching the valley unfold before me. While beauty lay on one side, on the other side the mountain rose above us showing its wild unpredictable nature. Boulders loomed large, balanced precariously on mountain edges, threatening to let go and come crashing down headed straight for the valley. Remnants of such mishaps were seen along the way. The Himalayas- stunning and ruthless no doubt!!

Landslides take place routinely but thanks to the efficiency of Border Roads Organization (BRO), bulldozers quickly appear on the spot to clear the road of the skree and rock. It is worth mentioning the creditable work this organization puts in building and maintaining roads in this tough terrain. The BRO has made the road the more interesting by putting up sign boards to encourage safe driving. And these are creative, not the dull, mundane kind. While one says “Be gentle on the curves” the other one advises “It’s better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr….”
As I said, on the mountainside the bus was negotiating jutting out rocks and huge rock faces standing straight up high above us. Layers of rock in varied shades of grey, pressed against each other were a testimony to the real nature of the ‘Fold Mountains’ that the Himalayas are! These were formed as the Indian subcontinent moved up and thrust against the northern plains of Mongolia and Russia. What seems dull and uninteresting in geography books, when comes alive in front of you holds far more meaning.

The beauty of the mountains instinctively brought to mind the song-

“The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears”
We kept humming the song over and over again through out the trek and finally it inspired Abhiram enough to compose it on his mouth organ :-)

Prayags – Holy confluences
So we traveled till we came to Dev prayag (confluence, Sangam) where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi meet to form the Ganga the most revered river of the north – for that matter of the entire country. The white waters of Alakhnanda and the darker waters of Bhagirathi maintain their distinct identities for about ½ a km even as they unite to form the larger flow. The Alaknanda originates from the Alaknanda mountain range near Badrinath and is indeed a mighty vibrant river as we would know. It kept dominating all along the route till we entered the valley of flowers. It maintains its presence even as other rivers lose their identity in the sheer scale and force of its current. The rapidity and momentum of the flow takes with it all and sundry. The huge boulders in its path at the very least manage to create whirlpools where a part of the stream water flows against the current.

A small temple is built on the confluence with steps leading down to the waters. With both the rivers coming from either side of the rock on which the temple stands it makes for a picturesque location. A couple of photos at this point, and we proceeded further along this scenic road. Every sight and every scene seemed worth a snap. A waterfall here, a landslide there, a lazy cloud descending on a green mountain top, meadows punctuating thick coniferous forests and crops in full flower in terrace farms swaying to the wind ….. one just can’t have enough!
The next in line is the Rudraprayag where the Alakhnanda meets the Mandakini originating from Kedarnath. Temples of Rudranath and Chamunda Devi mark the confluence. We did not stop at this place as the narrow road did not allow enough place for parking the vehicle. Promising a better and more leisurely view on the return journey Deepak Negi asked the driver to keep the wheels moving.

Our driver was a singular character worth a description…. An oldie with greying hair and a curling moustache, who had perhaps spent a better part of his life driving down these roads, he would bully poor Negi when it came to halting at given sites, eager to reach the destination without any time ‘wasted’. On the other hand we would bully Negi to allow enough time for photography, and absorbing the sites and sounds of the place…. With further such experience of tussle in store for us he (Negi) was is a bad position by the end of the trip! Another irksome quirk he (driver) had was the tendency to honk frequently. With sharp turns on the winding road it is understandable that safe driving requires the driver to blow the horn at a turn. But this fellow behaved as if the horn was a place to rest one’s hands when tired at clutching the wheel! He would just not let go of his hand once it rested on the horn. He had as if taken upon himself to announce our arrival a km in advance; as if people in the nearby villages would be all set to salute and give us a grand welcome. And it did create much the similar effect. As we passed by on the narrow roads of Rudraprayag, Joshimath and similar places, the honking would almost make people drop what ever they were doing and whether they liked it or not, take notice of our vehicle. The horn (as is so often in these places) was so shrill that after a while I thought I would get a splitting headache.

At Karna Prayag the Pindar River which flows out from the Nanda Devi glacier meets Alakhnanda. There are two temples here, one dedicated to Uma (the goddess Durga) and the other to Karna, the tragic hero of the Mahabharata. The bus halted for a while to let a dumper pass by but as this was not a scheduled halt we were not allowed to get off the bus to visit the place.

Further up Nandakini from Nand mountain joins the Alaknanda at Nand prayag. A temple dedicated to Gopalji (a form of Lord Krishna) marks the confluence. On the way to Vishnu prayag the force of Alakhanada is the most impressive of the lot. One stands in awe of the elements as the Alakhnanada rushes down cutting through gorges, valleys negotiating huge boulders on her way, the churning waters giving it a milky white appearance. These silver waters reflect the early morning sun and keep you company all along the route while in the vehicle from Rishikesh to Joshimath and later from Govind ghat to Ghangria while on foot.

At Vishnuprayag cutting a deep gorge into the mountains the Dhauli Ganga originating from Himani Mountain meets the Alaknanda. In this region a large power generation project by Jaypee constructions is underway. It will generate 400 mega watt of power. The civil work that was required has left ugly gashes on the mountain slopes that were slashed and sliced to produce enough space required for the project. A large part of the mountains lie gaunt and naked stripped off their green mantle. Thankfully, nature is forgiving and resilient and hopefully the green cover will recover. Having had our day’s fill of nature’s splendor we reached Joshimath for the night’s halt.


Govindghat to Ghangria
At Govindghat after breakfast of half cooked muli and alu parathas, each one proceeded to look for and negotiate horses or porters to carry the load to Ghangria. Some porters insisted that we would be required to hire two porters as our huge sacks would not fit in one basket that they used to carry the load. It seems we were late to reach the spot, so most of the horses were already on their way up hill. But we were lucky to get a Sardar who offered to carry both our sacks. The rates for a mule/horse, porter, pittu and dohli are regulated by the office which manages the thoroughfare up and down the mountain. So one doesn’t have to bargain. This porter again a ‘Negi’ with one blind eye had amazing stamina to lug about 30 odd Kgs on his back uphill. We were concerned about him but he was easy going, kept encouraging us when we got tired and advised us to keep a look out for the mules which shared the track with us.

As we proceeded we got to see more porters whose load far outweighed that of our ‘Negi’. It is a demanding and strenuous job that these poor people are forced to do to earn their bread. All kinds of people- rich, poor, old and young, those walking on foot and others being ferried uphill are seen all along the 14 km stretch. About 90% of this ‘junata’ is heading towards Hemkund Sahib- the religious shrine of the Sikhs. You can choose the way you want to be carried up hill. – in a ‘pittu’ a cane basket which the porter carries on his back, on horse/mule back or in a ‘Doli’ a wooden seat rested on wooden poles – each of the four ends carried by a porter on his shoulders. The ‘Doli’ carriers show an impressive ability to maintain rhythm while moving on the stony rock-strewn path. They are most often out of breath, sweating and red in face. But you will also see them use the 10 mins of ‘rest’ to enjoy a smoke. Their lungs must be made of some amazing stuff to tolerate all this.

The way from Govindghat to Ghangria on foot allows you to cherish the scenic beauty of the region from close quarters as one walks this 14 km trek. The Alakhnanda never leaves your side and your journey starts with a hearty welcome from a lone waterfall - a steady stream of water falling from a height of about 100 feet. Lush green conifers stand tall on hills that rise ridge after ridge to the eternal snows. Every moment here is a Kodak moment! (For us a Canon moment)

The road to Ghangria is not a mud or clay path as one would imagine a trek route to be. It is a well defined path made of stones packed tightly together. These stones have become smooth and shining from constant use. On this path we trudged that morning along side a train of mules, some carrying luggage, others people. These horses/mules have a mind of their own. They will not heed to the shouts and pushes of their owners if they can help it. Once they have decided to head in a given direction, they will do just that. If you happen to stand in the way and donot have the good sense to get out of the way quickly, you will get a nasty push as the mule keeps moving steadfastly. Once you have experienced this push you will soon learn to keep out of the way when you hear the jingle of bells coming behind you. Thus with thousands of people and at least half the number of four footed ones moving in both directions there is enough traffic all along the way. Whether you move fast or slow you will not feel lonely. To make the journey comfortable, at regular intervals temporary shacks for toilets have been erected along rivulets and brooks. Moreover all along one can see food stalls offering “garma garam parothe, chai, Maggie and nasta”. Another very earnest suggestion to make life on this path easier is to put up milestones all along the way till the very end. It is very difficult to judge how much more one has to go and how much one has already receded. Every fellow traveler throws up his/her speculation about the distance which creates more confusion than clarity.
At about half the way (or so we thought it was) we recharged ourselves with limbu sherbet and further at a fruit stall had some juicy apples and peaches (khubani). Besides we kept nibbling on our steady supply of dry fruits and sipping on Glucon- D. The initial part of the day, the scenic beauty and panorama kept us engaged. At every twenty steps there was something worth a snap. But the later part of the trek became weary and we were waiting to reach as soon as possible. This is the time when one feels the dearth of milestones. Three km before our final destination, we had lunch. This shack was by the riverside. Though the food was mediocre and we were more tired than hungry, it was nice to gaze at the white waters as one ate. Now the food in our stomachs, our legs started protesting and it felt more chilly as well. Finally we reached a glade where the gradient came down to zero. Here there was a military helipad on our left. We united with most of our group who were sipping hot tea. It was tempting to feel the warm liquid go down your throat. We thought we had arrived but there was a km. still to go. This forested road was at a slight gradient and literally tested our patience. At the end of the tree cover we were glad to catch sight of the village of Ghangria. This was at 7.00 pm and darkness had started to set in.

The accommodation at GMVN was modest but comfortable- bunk beds. Six of us were occupying the space allotted to 10. So there was enough place to lay our sacks and dry our sweaty clothes on the empty beds. The bedding was comfortable and since it had not rained, the cold had not set in. We did not have any dinner that evening. A hot cup of tea and rest was the need of the hour.

Lo Behold! Valley of flowers

It started drizzling the morning we were to start for valley of flowers. Our group which anyways required cajoling to get going in time got an extra excuse to lie in bed and delay departure. No one seemed to want to leave in the rains. Rains are a regular feature in this region at this time of the year. These are not like the Mumbai rains that keep pouring relentlessly. In my opinion we should have proceeded as everyone was equipped with rain gear. We unnecessarily wasted one hour waiting for the rain to stop.
Another very tragic and shocking incident of the morning was that my camera started getting hiccups. It so happened that a peak across the GMVN, which was not noticed the earlier evening suddenly came into limelight because of the snow cap it donned today morning! My camera though would not cooperate! Once a picture was clicked it would say “corrupted data” on the review pane. After removing the card and batteries and reinstalling them, it did give a false assurance of having recovered but that hope was soon shattered. After asking about similar incidences with others, a Mr. Shishir Jain suggested that the memory card may have bad sectors and that it would be better that we format it. We may lose the existing data he said but any further pics we take can be used. As some photos could be reviewed satisfactorily and others could not be, I resorted to taking multiple snaps of the same object with the hope that some pictures will be stored by the card!! The result of all this was that we got going finally at about 8.00 and were at the ticket office at 8.30.

At the gate a crude map of the valley has been put up with different points marked and labeled by the species of flora found in the region. Again the information on distance from one point to the other was missing!!

There is one single path running through the valley at least up till the first three km. For the first half a km. it is lined with thick growth of plants and shrubs. This gives you a feeling that you are walking along a garden path -a private garden at that because the traffic here is much less almost ¼ of that which comes to Ghangria or which goes further to Hemkund. Moreover a relief is that ‘khachars’ or mules are not allowed in the valley. This largely reduces the traffic of those who cannot make it on their own two feet. Being a protected area it was devoid of the litter created by the eateries on the other pathways and one could enjoy the splendor of the natural beauty in peace. The geography of the area, and its remoteness, were the reasons the Valley remained a secret for so long and these same factors limit access today so that it is still an enigmatic place visited by relatively few nature enthusiasts. To preserve the sanctity of the valley and protect it from destruction, visitors are not allowed to stay back overnight. Access is limited to about 5 km inside the valley.

The flowers are close by at hand in small bunches at regular distance from each other – tiny colorful faces beaming at you, greeting you “good morning”! The wild flowers found here are quite tiny, some even miniscule; so they create an impression or succeed in attracting attention only when they grow in numbers bunched together to create flower beds. In the initial km and half they grow apart, singular or in small bunches tucked away in the verdant green forest growth. Unless you know that the valley reveals its wonders only when you near the 3 km mark and further ahead, you will be disappointed. Many take a peep into the valley on their destination to Hemkund and come away disillusioned because they are unaware of this.
In 1931 the English mountaineer Frank Smythe stumbled across the Bhyundar Valley, an 8 km long Glacier corridor in Chamoli Garhwal. This area, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and carpeted with over 500 species of flowers, soon became a protected site. It was declared a "National park" in 1982. The Valley of Flowers stretches over an expanse of 87.50 km. This part of Uttaranchal, 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.
The bloom starts immediately after the melting of snow but the peak blooming period is from mid July to mid of August. Almost 300 species of wild flowers bloom here in a natural manner. Some that we saw were Anemone, Geranium, Potentilla, Asters, Morina Longifolia, Impatiens, Bistorta, Anaphalis, Lady’s lace and others which I failed to identify. Most of the flowers have medicinal values too while others are poisonous. The valley remains is bloom for three months while the floral composition keeps on changing every few days. The life span of the flowers is very short. To allow the regeneration of the nature’s garden it has to be kept away from the destructive hand of man. Signboards everywhere prohibit picking and collecting flowers. By September the hue starts changing and autumn bids farewell to the flowers. The entire vegetation remains dormant for about next five months when the valley is snow bound.
The path went uphill and entered thick birch forest. The bark of silver birch (bhojpatra) trees peels off and our ancestors made good use of this natural paper. Many of our scriptures are allegedly written on this bhojpatra. The timber was used to erect many of the ‘Dhaba’ shacks that we came across on our way to Hemkund. A lot of birch trees were fruiting and their bluish violet cones could be seen in bunches at the end of branches.

We came across the first bridge which crosses the Pushpawati River. This is a proper cement bridge looking over the rapids of the river. The road further climbed up and down several times going through thick jungle. I was busy shooting flowers as the others in the group continued further. Even this beautiful valley was not without landslides. The jungle opened up to the sky and we came upon a clearing. Here the mountainside showed signs of a recent landslide. Along side was the river and on the other bank a glacier deposit could be seen. It was covered with mud and clay making it difficult to recognize it as such. As we walked further truly the flowers increased in abundance. They also grew in height and width till we came to a point where the path was bordered on both sides with 5-foot tall flowerbeds of Impatiens and Lady’s lace. These wild flowers almost rose as tall as medium sized plants spreading wide, covering the valley with a carpet of rosy pink and snowy white.

We took a minute to admire the beauty of this nature’s bounty. Further ahead we came to a bridge made of wooden and tin sheets. It had started to drizzle and had become a bit windy. Across on the other bank there was a huge rock over hang looking like a frog head. From this point, over the rock one could get the view of the entire landscape of the valley as one typically sees in the picture postcards. The snow capped peaks of Ratban Parvat could be seen with lush green hills in the fore ground sloping down to the Pushpawati River running through the valley enveloped on either side with myriad of flowers. As we stood on the rock it was possible to take an 180o view of the mountains and the valley of flowers - fields of tiny flowers bobbing and swaying in the breeze all around us, with a white pathway crisscrossing through them.

It was 1.00 pm by the time we finished admiring the landscape and turned to practicalities. We had carried packed lunch of potato sabji and roti. The tandoor roti had become all rubbery and the sabji was tasteless. Nevertheless we finished off what we could. Most of our group that had reached this point started to return. It seemed like noone was interested to continue further. And it also looked like rain. Further ahead it would have been possible to view number of flowers and also of a different variety. We could also have been able to visit Miss Margaret Legge memorial- the researcher who lost her life here in a landslide. But I wasn’t sure of the distance further ahead. Some said it would be 5 kms while later we found that going ahead even 2 kms would have been enough. The guide was nowhere to be seen to help.
So we started on our return journey which was completed in about two hours. It was 3.00- 4.00 by the time we reached the first river crossing near the entrance to the park. There was still lots of time to be spent in the outdoors and we did not want to return to camp so early. A stream bifurcating from the Pushpawati flows down this path. The flow is not so forceful as to create a deadening roar. We did good amount of “pade raho giri” by the riverside. Here we could locate a blue whistling thrush darting from one rock to another. In my earlier trips to this region I have heard this bird fill the valley with its liquid notes. This time around we were not so fortunate to hear it sing though we could get a good look from the binoculars. Near this rivulet we found a good secluded place to lie back and absorb the music of the river current and the chirping of the birds. It was heavenly to spend some quite time in the lap of the Himalayas. Being close to nature can rejuvenate you instantly.

We returned to camp by 6.30. All these days we had had enough of alu parathas, more so they were not cooked well at every place. So we were on the look out for south Indian food. We found many restaurants advertising south Indian food but only one, which served it. As expected, in the north it is difficult to get good south Indian stuff. The dosa that I got was of mediocre quality just enough to serve the purpose of “udaram bharanam”. But it served to break the monotony of alu parathas which were forced on us.
We met two Delhiites who had driven from Delhi to Govindghat and pitched their tent at Ghangria. They had completed their trip to Hemkund, that evening and shared with us beautiful snaps of Brahma kamal and blue poppy and gave us best wishes. These flowers were conspicuous by their absence in the valley and I was eager to catch sight of them on the way to Hemkund.

Hemkund Sahib
During the night I could sense much activity outside our room. I was not aware of the time and did not bother to get up from my cozy bed. In the morning by 7.00, still when most of the group seemed to be in bed, I wondered what Negi was doing. It was his job to get people going in time. Apart from this the guide has precious little to do as trek routes are well laid out and chances of getting lost are very slight. At this time it became known that one among the group of twelve had got seizures, in the middle of the night, that left him paralyzed for some minutes. A doctor had been called from the Gurudwara and he advised him to return to lower altitude. Due to tension and stress generated by this incident the whole group of 12 had received little rest last night. They decided that only the kids of the group will go up to Hemkund sahib, the mothers will stay back at GMVN to take care of them and the men of the group will escort the sick member back to Govindghat. Negi had to go with them.


So we proceeded, the group of six of us - Sumant, Anuj, Gargi and Mihir and the both of us. Once they found out that we were not as young as we seemed to be, Anuj enjoyed teasing us by calling us ‘kaka’ and ‘kaku’ The way was pretty manageable although there was a constant gradient and we gained altitude quite fast. A marked difference was found in that there was vast amount of traffic of trekkers, horses and pittus which happened to slow us down apart from the steep gradient. We had Maggie at the first dhaba we came across as we had started out with empty stomachs. From this vantage point we could get a bird’s eye view of the route to the valley of flowers. We spent some time admiring the view. The initial part of the trek seemed easy to negotiate and I wondered why people talked of this as a difficult venture. But this was until we knew otherwise. On our way we came across a couple of larks, tits and red munias. Also noticeable was the greater saturation of colour in the same species of flowers at this altitude. We got our first sight of the Himalayan blue poppy! Such a dear little lovely flower!

We were happily trudging ahead checking a flower here, pointing to a bird there, and taking our own sweet time. Given the lack of milestones we were mistaken that we had covered a lot of ground when actually there was still a long to go! The road snaked upwards at an ever increasing gradient. Every time we neared a set of dhabbas we thought we had arrived! To add to the frustration was the fact that people coming down from the Gurudwara kept telling us that there was just one more lap to go and we would be there! We saw many Sikhs in traditional dresses adorning their kara (steel bangles) and kirpans (daggers) looking like some historical figures of the past. Even the women had their hair tied in a turban. The old and the young all climbed up the mountain in earnest, the chants of “Satnam Vahe guru” giving them the mental energy to make it to the top. We stopped to admire a huge glacier from whence sprung the surging waters of the Laxmanganga river that flows in this part of the valley. The glacier is just beside the path and could be seen at quite a close range.

After a point Anuj started having a headache… the rarified air at this altitude does result in such symptoms but they are quite manageable. But he being the youngest member of the group, his brother Sumant was concerned. Moreover in the absence of the parents he felt responsible for the younger ones. Anuj had some hot tea at a Dhaba. They decided to return. It was about two pm at this point in time. Some people who were returning from their visit to the gurudwara said it was about 15 mins from that point and that we should hurry up as they would soon stop serving the ‘Langhar’ (food served as Prasad at the Gurudwara). We were relying on this for our ‘lunch’ and it was already past lunch time. Meanwhile it started to rain. We stood by the dhabba in our raincoats wondering what to do. Sumant and the others decided to wait for a ‘Pittu’ for Anuj and in any case start on the way downhill. After the incomplete stint at the valley yesterday, I did not want to return half way today. The very purpose of coming all this way is foiled if one does not make it till the end. Moreover looking at all the traffic of people of all ages coming and going on the way, gave me confidence that we could very easily make it.

Before wasting more time me and Abhiram continued ahead. Some people advised us to take the stairs to the top rather than the round about -more gentle- way used by the horses. The stairs were steep but promised to take us quicker to our destination. Now, after every two three steps I would get breathless and my head felt hollow. Before the reeling sensation set in I decided to have an Analgesic as soon as I reached the top. We could see the flag, indicating the gurudwara fluttering in the cool breeze but it took us longer to reach there than we imagined. After an hour‘s long haul from the dhabba to the top we finally had the good fortune to get the darshan of Hemkund sahib at 3.00 pm. As we neared the top my final wish was fulfilled - Brahma kamals blooming on either side on the path !! The flowers were sparsely spread out over the slope away from the path. This did not allow a close view or the inside view of this large cream coloured flower with translucent cabbage like petals. We did not have enough ‘kida’ in us to steer away from the path on to the rocky area for a ‘zoom in’ and ‘full view’. We were eager to reach the gurudwara.

The gurudwara is a huge a stone structure dedicated to Guru Gobin singh. One of the most revered of all Sikh Shrines, The Hemkund Sahib, the Worlds Highest Gurudwara, is situated at an altitude of 4,329 mts. Going by the saying “aadhi petpuja mag devpuja” we proceeded straight to where food was being served. The glucose biscuits and gram ‘garam chai’ were life giving; we gobbled up a bowl full and went for more. We did not feel much like lunch. Standing by the lake we enjoyed a peaceful moment.

The high altitude Hemkund lake, on the banks of which this gurudwara is located has pristine crystal clear waters. It was very misty when we reached there. Although the lake was visible we could not see the reflections of the surrounding snow clad peaks on its clear serene waters. There is also a Lakshman temple built on the bank of the lake - the only one in the country (I suppose) specifically dedicated to Lakshman who was otherwise compelled all this life to be under the shadow of Bhaiya Ram J and Bhabhi Sita J. It is believed that Lakshman, meditated by the lake and regained his health after being severely wounded by Meghnath, the son of Ravana. Inside the gurudwara it was warm and the soft carpet felt good to our tired worn feet J. Images of Guru govind singh and his accessories (turban, sword, kirpans and clothing) were preserved in a room.
By now, most of the pilgrims had started to return and a long queue of horses could be seen to take them back. Dipping our hands in the lake’s frigid waters we filled up our stock of drinking water.

On our return we climbed down at a pace we had never known before. Careful not to twist one’s ankle on the cobbled path, we raced down without stopping to while away time or being tempted to rest at the Dhabbas on the way. The chants of “Satnam Vahe guru” of our fellow travelers ringing in our ears we made it to the base in three hours flat!! Record time!! We congratulated each other glad to have completed it without any mishap. Tired of looking at the smooth, rounded, cobbled, stony pathway, it nevertheless kept us company right through the village of Ghangria to our guest house. Tired but fulfilled we trudged in at 7.30 pm. Those who had not ventured out or completed the trek congratulated us on our return.

The next day we started out on our return to Govindghat…. Our porter Mr. Negi was ready and present at the GMVN guest house to carry our sacks. This time around since the route was downhill he had decided to make more money and carried two more bags of another traveler!! A salute to the stamina of these people and human capacity! The trek route was now well known and we could spend more time looking around observing butterflies and listening to chirping birds. At points the traffic of mules was overwhelming. Along side the river where we had tea we observed the familiar plumbeous redstarts and white capped water redstarts darting on rocks in the rushing waters and a lone blue magpie displaying its long lovely tail. Among butterflies many ‘blues’ were ubiquitous. In one of the many butterfly watching stints Abhiram happened to join a group of people peering over a beautiful specimen with large blue eyes on its wings and realized that the person standing next to him was Sonali Kulkarni, the marathi theater and film personality J She had come with YHAI and we knew we would soon expect her articles on this trip in the Marathi daily! We had the opportunity to see her at Badrinath as well- a nice down to earth personality without much air about herself.

We made it to Govindghat by 3.00 pm.; had lunch with gulab jammuns for desert and proceeded on our way further to Badrinath.

Badrinath
Apart from the Vishnu temple at Badrinath which is the reason people visit the place; the main attraction for me was to get a good sight of the Neelkanth peak, as it reflected the golden rays of the rising sun. We were done with ‘darshan’ on the evening we arrived. The stone temple is an impressive sight, all lighted up standing on the banks of the roaring Alakhnanda. The hot water springs near the freezing cold waters of Alakhnanada are a testimony to the wonders of nature.
Neelkanth from BadrinathThe next morning I got up at five to catch sight of the Neelkant peak at sunrise. But it was still very cloudy. From the orange tinge that the sky had acquired I could make out that it was past sunrise and I would not be able get the “golden neelkant” now. Frankly speaking I wasn’t sure where to look. The GMVN person had said that right from the front door one can get a spectacular view. But it did not seem that there would be anything spectacular behind the sheet of dark clouds. That there would be a peak itself did not seem to be a possibility. I went back to my prized sleep. But nature shows its wonders at the most unexpected moments! While we were about to go for breakfast, the curtain of clouds rose to reveal the massive snow clad peak that stood before us. The sight was just stunning!! Before we could call others who were still in their rooms the clouds soon gathered to envelop the spectacular scene. Early bird gets the worm, no doubt!!

Mana- ‘Bharat ki aakhri chai ki dukan’
Another attraction about Badrinath was ‘Mana’ a village 2 kms from Badrinath -near the Indo Tibetan border. Among the many attractions are the Vyas Gufa and Ganesh Gufa where Lord Ganesh wrote the Mahabharat as dictated by Maharshi Vyas. Here a creative fellow has put up a board announcing his shop to be ‘Bharat ki aakhri chai ki dukan’ consequently hiking up his sale of goods.


Further down is the Bhimpul where the mysterious Saraswati River makes a spectacular appearance from under a rock face. One is awestruck by the gigantic amount of water that comes surging cascading from underneath the mountain. Standing there facing this torrential mass of water has a kind of magical effect on you. The roar of the waters is so deadening, it is impossible to listen to the person standing next to you. Legend has it that the Pandavas passed this way on their way to heaven. When Draupadi could not manage to cross these cascading waters, Bhima obliged by lifting a huge boulder to create a bridge. The guide quickly points out the impressions of Bhima’s fingers on this boulder. Further the path continues ahead for 5 km to the famed Vasundhara falls. The mysterious Saraswati gives up her identity a mere 3 kms past her origin to merge in the flow of the omnipresent Alaknanda.

Auli

Auli was scheduled on the trip but by the time we reached Joshimath and finished a late lunch, it was well after 4.00 pm. The driver, and now hand in glove Negi were eager that we reach Pipalkoti before any landslide creates hindrance; both were very reluctant to stop the bus for a cable car ride to the Auli slopes. They told us that the last cable ride was at 4.00 which we had missed and a minimum of 15 people are required for a car ride. The Punjabi guy and the three Jains were hell bent on taking the ride. They started arguing with Negi waving the schedule in his face saying that he had to give the allotted time for the ride….the rest of the group of 12 were not interested, they put forth the excuse that it will be troublesome to spend the night in the bus if we were to get stranded in a landslide…

When Negi suggested that the four can take the ride and the bus will leave and meet them at Pipalkoti, Mr. Shishir Jain blew his top, insisting that the bus had to wait till they came back in an hour. Both of us did not know what to do, we were nicely sitting on the fence . Rather than hear both parties complain we decided to take some fresh air and got off the bus for a stroll… meanwhile the four Jains and the bearded Punjabi (dadhiyal) went upstairs to the cable car office to talk to the manager. Sumant, the more enthu from amongst the 12 and both of us decided to check out the cable car office. There we got to know that the rides were till 6.00, so it was possible to go. Instead of waiting in the bus for an hour we also decided to give the cable car a try, knowing fully well that the possibility of seeing snow clad peaks was slim in given the cloudy weather.

And were we glad we took the ride! The view from atop was awesome! The cable car operator showed us the Auli slopes and gave information about the winter skiing sports that take place. In good winter when ski courses are held here, the slopes are covered with 10 feet deep snow. Now, on the slopes orchards owned by the villagers were dotted with green, yellow naspati and red apples ready to be picked. Further up we could see the famed silver and golden oak, pine and birch trees with their cones peeping out from bundles of needle like leaves. Underneath us on the motorable road to Auli, village lads enjoyed pointing the cable car to each other; hardworking villagers in their farms eagerly looked up and waved at us, a quaint smile lighting up their weather beaten faces, healthy cattle grazed lazily on the meadows ….. picture perfect!!

A delight to ones eyes the slopes were speckled with tiny pretty white flowers of Anaphalis, and long stalks of pink Morina Longifolia. Once on the hill top it was nice to feel surrounded by lush green meadows and flowers stretching in front of you as long as the eye could see. As against the valley where one is restricted to the boulder strewn path -unless one ventures away from it to seek more flowers-, here one can take the liberty of lowering oneself down on soft grass and letting go, take the pleasure to lie down in the bed of flowers and let ones eyes feast on the towering snow laden peaks and thick oak forests that border the meadow. The place was so charming; it was almost ‘filmy’ – like any typical pretty Bollywood scene. I was half tempted to go rolling down the slopes in a typical Shammi Kapoor fashion! In about 25 mins it was time to go. The cable car operator enumerated the names of the peaks which eluded us - Hathi, Ghoda, Palkhi, Lotus, Nandadevi and many more.
We returned to the bus admiring the saturation of hues in huge yellow sunflowers zinnias and delias in red, yellow, orange, and pink.

These magical moments came to an end as we neared Shrinagar and the unwelcome heat of the plains!! A painful walk in the blazing sun to the archeological museum here was the anticlimax to the trip L . Singing songs, listening to the mouth organ and entertaining ourselves with puzzles and dumb charade games we reached Rishikesh. Each of us dispersed with fond memories of the hills and valleys.

The lack of easy access serves only to add to the appeal of places like Hemkund sahib and the Valley of flowers. With infrastructure being increasing built even in difficult terrain as this, there remain just a handful of such places in our country which require us to take the effort to walk on our own two feet to reach them. These places should be left so without the aid of modern transport. Even if this keeps them away from the reach of the old, the infirm, and the couch potatoes, and perhaps keeps the local people from so called “development”; in the bargain of protecting this wilderness I will still vouch for it.

This is an environment that must be protected if it has to yield water for the teeming hordes of humankind on the plains. Those who have walked off into the wilderness and drunk pure, clean water from a gurgling brook will identify with this feeling immediately. Others must do so immediately, lest they wait long enough for these places to vanish under the increasing pressures of development.

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7 Comments:

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Salil said...

U r doing a good job dear...had time 2day ..so was surfing thru ur blog..mast banaya hai..keep the good work gng!!

 
At 4:45 PM, Blogger AshLin said...

Hi Rama,

Nice writing as usual, Your kind words about Borders Roads made me proud as it is manned by my regiment in Indian Army - the Corps of Engineers. Nice to know someone has noticed the good work done, for which many people have lost their lives.

Regards

 
At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Dipankar said...

Dear Rama,

I did have 'surplus time' (down with a flu) and so I enjoyed your
article in toto. Are you a writer? Pardon my ignorance, I don't
know much about you but I felt your writing conveys a degree
of coherence and texture that is not common.

 
At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Abhijit Mulye said...

Khup chan mahiti dili ahes tu blogs madhe.
Yache chan lekh hotil. Marathit ka nahi lihit tu? Try kar kadhitari savad milel teva. Tyat kahi adchan ali tar mala vichar. Pan tu marathitahi lihavas ase mala vatate. Tula jamel te chan. Marathimadhe lehinaryanchya anubhavala maryada astat. Tujhya lekhanat tya maryada disat nahit. Mhanun tu marathit lihaves ase vatate.
Prayatna tar kar!
- abhijit

 
At 1:55 PM, Blogger Rama Bhave said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Dipankar said...

Dear Rama,

Great blog! Of course you are a writer ... I did see that article of
yours in BNHS magazine (the one in your blog as well). Sorry, I
am pretty bad with my memory ...

You are quite an adventurer. I like your style. You must keep it
up of course (and not meander and slow down from a mountain
rapid to a sluggish estuary -- alluding to the metaphor in your
earlier article) :)

Dipankar

 

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