At first, there was news of the heavy downpour and flood. It was only later that I realised that it was not a mere seasonal deluge but a genuine calamity. Villages, towns, temples and roads, everything got swept away. As Garhwal wept in 2013, we could do nothing but silently mourn the dead, thousands of them, including locals, travellers and pilgrims. This led to the cancellation of some immediate trekking plans on my part but more importantly, it evoked a profound sense of nostalgia.
Into the Himalayas
The pristine beauty of the Himalayas comes at a price. It has an extremely sensitive ecology and is not at all unfamiliar with largescale disasters. Nevertheless, I remember Uttarakhand not as a land of disasters but as the location of my first-ever trek, my first-ever rendezvous with the Himalayas. It was the summer of 2010. After many years of yearning, I had finally managed to put everything behind and walk the talk. I wanted to reach the Valley of Flowers National Park but I decided to make a slow and gradual ascent with several night halts in order to completely soak in the essence of the mountains.
As I had never been to such altitudes before, I had to learn as I went along, step by step. The first thing I learnt is that I was never going to go fast enough. Those turns are treacherous and I felt happy whenever the vehicles managed to cover 20 km in an hour. Initially I travelled in shared SUVs that always carry more people than seems possible. Eventually, I realised that the best way to travel is by public buses, but only when I arrived early in the morning and secured a good window seat. Smaller vehicles are faster but can also be very uncomfortable.
I spent one night at Rudraprayag while another night had to be wasted at Chamoli due to a landslide. But none of this really bothered me as I just witnessed the Himalayas unfurling before me. Finally on my third day in the hills, I crossed Joshimath, the last major town in this route and reached Govindghat. The NH-58 continues beyond Govindghat till Badrinath but the trek to the Valley of Flowers as well as Hemkund Saheb starts here. It was also the place where I finally began to feel real isolation. The towns I passed before were beautiful but still pretty crowded. But Govindghat was just a small settlement and the air was also thinner at that altitude. There was a strange silence in the air and I could see the moving shadow of the clouds over the mountains. I found a cheap hotel for the night but could barely sleep in excitement.
The Trek Begins
I started the trek next morning. This was a 12-13 km trek to Ghangaria, the final base camp for the valley. I was surprised to find quite a few people on this trek although most of them turned out to be Sikh pilgrims heading towards Hemkund Sahib. Now, at this point I finally faced my ultimate fears. I’d never trekked before and I was utterly exhausted after a few hundred yards. In hindsight, I just had to relax, take breaks on regular intervals and carry on. But with every passing yard, I grew increasingly doubtful about myself. Finally after a point I found a local man with a mule. My mind was filled with self-loathing but my body refused to cooperate anymore. I hired the mule and reached Ghangaria in one piece but throughout that stretch I kept wondering if the mule had any suicidal tendencies.
Ghangaria is a seasonal settlement built purely for tourists and so it comes alive only during these monsoon months. There is a Gurudwara here along with several seasonal hotels, dormitories and restaurants. I found it to be extremely crowded with too many people as well as many horses and mules carrying them. However, as I walked away from the market, I finally witnessed the true majesty of the Himalayas. The route bifurcates at Ghangaria. One goes to the Valley of Flowers while the other goes to the Sikh shrine of Hemkund Sahib. It is also the point where the rivers, Pushpavati and Lakshman Ganga, meet. So, a little waterfall forms here, feeding the lush green meadow dotted with colourful seasonal blossoms.
The Final Ascent
The next morning it was raining heavily. I tried to make an early start but chickened out seeing the dense fog. However the hotel manager assured me that it will not last long. So, I had another round of Maggi and tea and kept waiting. Finally the weather cleared at around 9 am and I started my trek by paying a small entry fee at the gate. No mules or horses were allowed for this stretch but I was finally getting accustomed to the mountains.
This 4 km trek was not very hectic and pretty well marked. Initially, I passed through dense conifer forests. There was hardly anyone else which was surprising considering the crowd at Ghangaria, most of them turned out to be pilgrims. Anyways, this made me happier. I had not travelled this far from Mumbai to see more people. I moved on crossing small streams, colourful meadows and some precariously narrow stretches with the mountain on one side and the deep gorge on the other. As a national park, I also expected to notice some wildlife but all I could find were a couple of large rodents and some very small birds that eluded my not-so powerful lens.
However, the lack of fauna was compensated by an incredible variety of flora. As I moved up, the larger trees disappeared and I began to gradually get a sense that the valley is not very far. While the trail always moves along the river Pushpavati, it mostly remains at a height from the river bed. But finally I reached a turn where the river was flowing at the same level. I drank the cool glacial water from the river and washed off the tiredness of the entire trip and probably that of my entire life.
At The Valley
The official signboard indicating the start of the valley was not very far from that point but the view was blocked by a few large rocks. As I walked past them, the valley finally conjured out of thin air like a mythical kingdom. A cool breeze was blowing, threatening to bring more rain but at that moment the sun was shining brightly. I walked along the valley following the cobbled stone path, careful not to step on any of the plants. Different parts of the valley seemed to be covered by flowers of different colours. However, from what I heard, the dominant colour in the valley changes every week during the blossoming season. On that particular day the predominant colour seemed to be the purple of Himalayan Bell Flowers.
All I could see in the horizon were other mountains of the Nanda Devi range. Some of them probably have never been conquered. The other side of the valley was dominated by much taller shrubs and wild ferns. I had also heard stories that musk deer come to the valley in search of food. However I was not that lucky to spot one. I met a couple of other trekkers, who apparently were so fond of this place that they visited it every year.
This valley is a part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, the UNESCO World Heritage Site spread around the Nanda Devi peak. According to the myths, Nanda Devi is a very angry and vengeful goddess. Scores of mountaineers have lost their lives here. Although this valley at around 3,600 metres is not located at such a threatening altitude, an example of Nanda Devi’s rage can be seen here too in the form of Margaret Legge’s memorial. She was a British botanist who suddenly fell off the cliff while collecting samples at the valley way back in 1939. This is a view that makes one a bit sober even amidst the riot of colours.
I spent a couple of hours roaming around the valley before the weather started deteriorating again. It was also getting darker and since night stay is not allowed inside the park, I returned back to Ghangaria hastily. My return journey after that was mostly smooth but the road was blocked again at Chamoli, thus forcing another unwanted night halt. Thankfully I had taken a long enough leave to cover such events.
The route to the Valley of Flowers was destroyed during the flood of 2013. Even the bridge over the river was washed away and so it remained closed that year. In fact, I heard reports that the valley might have been lost forever. However, the reconstruction was completed towards the end of the season last year and the valley seems to be doing fine. We are now looking forward to the first full season after the disaster to get a complete view. Will it turn out to be more resilient than man-made structures? I hope to find out soon.