AN ACCOUNT OF MY FIRST TREK – VALLEY OF FLOWERS & HEMKUND SAHIB

I could see the shops some 10 steps away. By this time however those 10 steps were going to take me at least 25 steps to complete. The entire brain was focused on one thing and one thing alone – lifting the left foot and somehow managing to put it in front and then lifting the right foot and putting that in front – repeating this till the goal was achieved…the goal of reaching the shops, signifying the completion of the trek. My guide, Sandeep, who had summited peaks such as Nanda Devi and Kamet assured me that once I reached the shop, he would concede that I had summited this “easy” level trek – the trek to Valley of Flowers.

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Now all the tourist guidebooks and blogs will tell you how beautiful the valley is, how the blooms take your breath away and the weather makes you never want to leave. What they don’t tell you is that it is a steep climb and the “valley” is actually high up. Any prior climbing experience will definitely be a boon and physical fitness and mental determination will go a long way. Nonetheless before the trek is over, each muscle in your body will definitely ache by the end.

For a supremely unfit person like myself, the trek presented an opportunity to finally try and get into shape. I started preparing for the trek by religiously sweating for an hour on the treadmill. I even walked on Incline mode. The itinerary said about 7 kilometers of walk per day. I reckoned if I was managing 5 kms on treadmill without really falling apart I had made substantial progress from the 0 kms I had all these years. About 3 weeks of this regime made me start dreaming about Everest; “at least the Base Camp can be do-able now”. Poor, innocent me!

Our pick up point was 200kms away from Delhi, at Haridwar. One rainy morning amidst rumors of floods in Haridwar, I made my way over there on a state transport bus. Since I had a day here, I decided to continue the “practice” and did a brief climb (of 1.5 kms not more) up to the temple of Mansa Devi. Post descending, I had cramps in both my legs and was in immediate need of a massage from one of the many massage therapists abundant in the holy city. While my aching limbs were attended to, I wondered perhaps for the first time, what I was doing on this trek in the first place? I was not at all prepared for it so what had I got myself into!?

With this lingering doubt, I boarded the Mahindra jeep that was going to transport us 250 kms uphill to the town of Joshimath. Here I met the others in my group – half sleepy bunch who barely managed a smile through droopy eyes. Meeting them abated my fears about the trek. We were a mixed bunch – a couple of friends who were corporate lawyers, a lawyer turned builder who was a cross country biker, a young army aspirant, an eye specialist, a couple from medical profession, a restaurateur – all with little in common except:

  • All except one were on their first trek
  • There were people who were as old as or older than me
  • I wasn’t the fattest in the group
  • Nor was I the least fit; almost all had no exercise regime that they followed regularly

The one thing we all had in common was lot of excitement and some amount of self- doubt. The intensity and magnitude of the trek, which would elevate both these emotions, would dawn on us on the morning of 12th July, the day of reckoning.

The exhaustion of the serpentine drive from Haridwar to Joshimath wore off after a night of peaceful slumber. It was a delight to breath in the fresh air as we sped on our way to Govindghat located some 22 kms jeep ride away. Today we enjoyed the 4 wheels given that we wouldn’t see another motor vehicle for the next 4 days. Govindghat is a transit town supplying essentials for the higher villages.

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It is the last point of the civilization with tar roads and mobile network. One gurudwara around which shops had come up is the main attraction of this place. This is also where a torrential Alakananda river gushes forth to meet an equally frenzied Lakshman Ganga who has just finished rushing down some steep slopes. The way the Lakshman Ganga came down was the way up for us – 14 kms of graveled path, winding our way through mountains, to our base camp at the village of Ghangaria.

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It appeared daunting but hell yeah! I could do it! By then end of the trek I would have walked some 45 kms, all of hilly terrain. This was some serious walking. But hey this was an “easy” trek right. In an hour I would be panting and wondering why would they call it easy? I guess they have some parameters for this classification such as

Easy Not so easy
Accommodation Constructed rooms Tents
Food Cooked indoors Cooked outdoors
Path Paved/defined Make your own road
Walking distance Less than 20 kms/day More than 20 kms/day
Ablutions and other morning activity Largely indoors If available, then largely outdoors or tented

 

Pure conjecture! Everest I am sure falls in the “are you kidding me!” category!

As it is with every trek, each of us walked at our own pace; catching up and overtaking each other all the time. Sometimes, a few of us would all gather up and rest at a spot, pose for pictures and then start to walk again once rested. Later on there were times when one just couldn’t take another step; that’s when the group and the guide played a critical role, cheering on to get going. We were all carrying small backpacks – daypacks with at least 1 one-liter water, munchies like dry fruits and energy bars and a jacket, which we wore or carried as the weather demanded. Additionally, we had camera and other valuable stuff (gadgets! Its amazing how many gadgets were on this trek), which weren’t sent ahead with the mules and the porters. The weather started out pleasant and sunny but soon turned deceptive. The sun became too warm and the jackets were peeled off and just then the shade would come and we would start to shiver through our sweat soaked clothes. It also started to drizzle a few times, when we would all halt and take out our raincoats, wear them over our bags and then as the plastic cut all fresh air and sweat beads would start to reappear, the drizzle would stop. The backpack weighing at least 3 kilos started to really feel a lot heavier soon and the stops became frequent. Painfully, I asked Sandeep the guide how much further to which the devil that he is, merely smiled and said we had just started! As the day progressed and this question became more frequent, we learnt to distrust our guides with their distance vs. time concept.

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The trek was steeply uphill and the incline at places was as sharp as 60 degrees at some points. We were going up from an elevation of 1828 meters to 3049 meters for base camp. Hemkund was at 4632 meters and Valley of Flowers starts at 3300 meters. A number of pilgrims from the Hemkund sahib gurudwara crossed us as they made their way down. They smiled when we asked them how much further up we had to go. They had been walking since early morning and were closer to the end than the beginning. This implied that we work closer to our beginning than the end.

It was straight out of a paradise-like setting. Pristine clear mountain air, fast-flowing rivers, tall, tall pines and birch and chirruping’s of birds – this was not something one experienced everyday. It was precious. So precious that even though Nature’s fury had destroyed their villages, people kept coming back to re-build their homes and reclaim them.

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Most of the way was dotted with stalls selling chai, Maggi and such like snacks. Even though we carried our lunch packs with us (rather suspicious looking items the guides insisted on calling puri & sabji) a chance for some rest and hot tea was too tempting to resist. What is interesting is that as you climb uphill not only does the walk become more difficult but even the prices of products go up. A bottle of water costing Rs.20 becomes 50 by the end of it. At our Guest House we had to shell out Rs.40 as a discounted bottled water price; however the cost for a bucket of hot water was fixed at Rs 40 – no bargaining.

By 4 in the evening, we had been walking for almost 8 hours and it was unprecedented for any of us. We had lost track of most of our group and only 4-5 of us were somewhat alongside each other, we had no clue if the others were way ahead or behind. As the temperatures dipped, we gathered our jackets around us; bid farewell to the last chai wala, and carried on with his assurance the destination wasn’t too far away now. The torrential river was never far away from us, sometimes it was alongside and other times we crossed across it. There were stretches when you could claim to be the only one there, with others out of sight around the mountain bends. That’s when I first saw it. It was like a covering of sheet between the crevices. It was almost white except where it was speckled brown. It looked mysteriously ominous. The ice water gushed under it and disappeared. Some policemen ambled along and I asked them. Madam it is a glacier they said. But it is everywhere, on all the mountain gaps! Yes madam, they are here all year round, right now in fact they are melting. Wow! Mesmerizingly wow!

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Guest House was a rather grandiose way of addressing a series of dark and dank rooms with musty almost damp bedding. The overall impression of the room was suffocating with its peeling paint and cobwebbed corners. You wanted to touch nothing and every breath was strained. Yet, every night after hours of walking this room felt like the perfect place for a night of rest. We were in the village of Ghangaria, which had its own gurudwara, sweet shops, tourist guides shops and load and loads of mule and laborers walking up and down the narrow alleyways effortlessly carrying luggage and other supplies. Considering that most of the year these guest houses are locked up and are in operation only from June till September, there is nothing much to complain about really. Over dinner of some more suspicious looking aloo sabji, Sandeep informed us that if the morrow was sun lit then it was the valley else the gurudwara. Eager to see the Valley, we went with a prayer for a sunny morrow. We skipped the dinner and headed to the gurudwara. Our prayers were answered in more ways than one. We found the perfect little sweet shop selling samosa and chole with the most delicious gulab jamun and this was to be our dinner for the next 2 days as well.

The next day was bright and sunny with no traces of clouds. Our man Friday at the guesthouse was a 20 something boy called Amit Negi. Amit Negi (he was always referred to by his complete name) was from the hills but was working down at the Radisson hotel in Delhi. When the Delhi summer got too much for him and he feigned illness and took leave. And here he was, hail and hearty, our man Friday. He had been instructed by each of us what time we wanted how many buckets of water and he went on time religiously knocking and waking each of us turn by turn. When did he actually wake up and get the water going I have no idea. I am only thankful for the 1bucket of steaming hot water I got to get ready in. All of us had underestimated the cold and the stuffiness of the room. So while we had to take the dampish rajais for the cold, we couldn’t breathe very well through them. As a result most of us spent the night tossing and turning even though every muscle ached and screamed. The solution of muscle relaxants tabs and sprays helped enough to see us through till the climb began. Then the dull ache returned. By then however, with our backpacks on, we were well on our way with no turning around.

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We encountered a problem soon after we cleared the check post from where we got our permits. We had duly noted down our names and from where we hailed and were given the rules about not littering, plucking and leaving the place as we found it or cleaner. While Sandeep waited for other to join, he asked some of us to carry on ahead. The park is open daily till 2 pm after which everyone needs to clear out. It was 8 right now and there was no time to lose. The distance was only 4 kms … ha! Only 4 kms I now say. The days when I could do 5 kms in 1 hour were well behind me. In this terrain, we would all take little over 4 hours to do 4 kms! Anyhow, coming back to the problem. The path that we were following suddenly disappeared into a stream of boulders and rocks. There was water flowing below and beyond and we could see the path on the other side but there was no visible footpath on our side to get there. Some of us with more energy to spare went this way and that and climbed up to get a better view but to no avail. So there under a pristine blue sky, surrounded by snow peaks we sat in the sun marveling at the beauty of it all. Sandeep came and shook us out of our reverie and showed us the way. Well if one could call it that. We had to cross a bridge made of handrails. Just a square metal frame with a cross inside and gushing ice cold water below along with rocks. If you fell, you were going to be so badly hurt and washed down some distance for sure. It was also narrow so only 1 person could cross it at a time and anyone with any vertigo was in trouble. There was nothing to hold onto and the 5 – 7 steps that you needed to take to get across had to be done very carefully. To make matters worse the spray from the gushing water had made the frame wet so chances of slipping were extremely real. Each of us perilously and silently made our way across, fortunately without any mishap. The path hereon was all upward climb. The valley of flowers wasn’t in any valley after all much to my chagrin.

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The valley of flowers is situated on the banks of the river Pushpavati. As we crossed the river, we witnessed the massive destruction that this river had wrought when it had flooded 3 years ago. Even after all these years, it was not difficult to imagine the force of the river as it burst it banks. The boulders looked out of place, uncomfortably resting atop others fallen from the adjoining mountainside or simply rolled down with the force of the water.

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Sandeep informed us that the old trek route lay alongside the river and it had been all gentle way up. However since that route was completely destroyed, an alternate route had been made just recently, which went up and then led to the valley from the top end of it. And when he said up, he meant up. The incline was sharp and steady. After every few meters there was a bend that took us steeply up. Amidst all the rocks and stream, the valley gradually came into view far off to our right. Under the blue skies lay this charming meadow surrounded by glacial snow, with clouds playing a fair game of hide and seek. We couldn’t wait to get there but it was a long way away. While the bulk of us were puffing and panting, a group of Japanese trekkers cheerfully passed us by, happily clicking pictures and waving at us as they strode past. They were all 65 years or older! There level of fitness and enthusiasm put us to immediate shame and got us to increase our speed only to extinguish quickly like a candle on its last leg.

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Although the valley was still some distance away, we had started spotting tiny insects in bright colors and bunches of flowers in a riot of colors were strewn all around us. It was heralding what lay ahead. Sandeep was giving out trivia on each plant we stopped to look at and it is my sincere regret that I remember none of it. But back then there was really no spare energy to take down notes. We had another treacherous roaring stream to cross which similar to the previous one had no railings and was longer than before. A large boulder here had Valley of flowers etched into it indicating that this is from where the valley started.

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Everyone “oohs and aahs” about the valley and rightfully so. The shades of green against the shades of blue interspersed with white of the snow and brown rocky mountains creates such an interesting canvas that one can just sit and gaze up on this endlessly. The valley comes into full bloom only by August and we were still in mid July. Sandeep pointed out to us each species of flower found here has a different blooming cycle. Last year’s heavy snowfall meant delayed blooms this year as melting had started late. In spite of all this we saw bunches and bunches of flowers in a riot of colors. Yellow, pink, purple, white, blue, orange, all were just thrown in together in the prettiest of rangolis. We saw the famous blue poppy flower and the elusive cobra leaf. The sound of the gushing water was never completely gone and many finches and thrushes tried their best to melodiously drown the sound away with their own The valley stretches on for 10 km and one could’ve easily spent 2-3 days here just looking at all the flowers. But with a departure time fixed ahead we turned around after a pleasant lunch in the meadow. The way back was asked exciting or perhaps more so as the way up. While going up was exciting as we had the valley to look forward to on the way down we had a keen eye for different plants and flowers so we stopped often to take pictures or just look at them.

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A small miracle occurred this evening. Exhausted, we were out side our rooms still hypnotized with the valley and nursing our aching and tired legs we heard a cry – maalish wala! Just the guy we needed so desperately. For Rs.50 per person, we got 10 minutes of warm mustard oil massage, enough to lift us out of our exhaustion. There was little else we could ask for that evening. With a hot cup of tea in our hands, nice massaged feet dipped in a bucket of hot water (which did cost us 20 rs), the moon was in its heaven and all was well with the world. The thought of another trek tomorrow was daunting. Everyone we had met up till now had said that compared to the climb to the Hemkund gurudwara, the valley was child’s play. Mind you, this was a religious temple so lot families with children and elderly came to this gurudwara. For us, it was a trek and we had a choice, they did it with a firm belief. Given my soreness, at this point I decided that I was out of the trek for tomorrow. I was just completely exhausted and did not think that I would be able to take another step. Everyone gave me ‘for and against’ opinion and I kept debating with myself till I finally dozed off. I had plans to wake up early nevertheless. Once up and refreshed, I decided that I would go albeit on the mule.

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Now there’s much to be said about this whole mule experience. We were 4 of us who set off on 4 mules. The mule owner, who prompted and steered the mules as he himself climbed up the entire distance, was managing a pair of mules. He was mighty amused at my enquiry of what my mule’s name was. Apparently in their scheme of things naming a mule did not feature at all. We got to know however that like everyone else in this area, they were here too for the season and come September, they would descend to lower heights as the peaks snowed and got cut from civilization. Sitting on the mule was not as backbreaking as it was made out to be, although the mule made sure he (or was it a she) did their best to trot along as jerkily as possible. Now while I have said earlier that the trek was termed easy since there was an access path laid out. This path was largely a clearing. Sure it was cemented at some of the more vulnerable parts but otherwise it was stones and gravel stuck together with mule dung. This was the path on which the mule trotted and stumbled along. The mules chose the safest way to go up, I am sure, since it was their life at stake as well but the number of times my mule came to the very edge of the cliff was almost death defying! It seemed that the extremity is here the stones were the most even and therefore they went along that side least concerned with the fact that every time they did that and I peeked below I got a fright. Soon I learnt to strictly look up and in the 3 hours that it took for us to move along, it was easy breezy!

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Hemkund sahib is the first gurudwara I visited (barring a brief stop at the gurudwara at Govindghat). The structure of the gurudwara was not domed like most are, instead the top was diamond shaped. The whole premises itself are located in a small valley created with snow covered towering mountains on all sides. In fact the ride up had been opened for mules only that day since there was glacier that was covering the path so far which had been cut through yesterday rendering the path open. Else pilgrims on foot were actually climbing over the glacier and walking over the half-kilometer wide ice. The pond is situated towards the back of the gurudwara and there were plenty of people taking the holy dip. Post a rather calming and peaceful visit inside the gurudwara, we headed to the kund. The sun had by now gone behind the clouds and it was getting quite cold. Even with thermals and jackets, we continued to shiver. There is a Lakshman temple right next door that was sadly closed and therefore the significance of having a temple there was lost on us. We however did decide to dip our feet into the kund to experience the water. None of my group was enthusiastic enough to take a full dip. In fact quite a few people had stayed behind at the guesthouse and not even ventured up; something that I am glad I did not finally do.

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The water was freezing. Well there was ice just floating about so this was expected. I didn’t realize the extent of the cold though till I dipped my feet in the water. I could barely keep my feet in for a few seconds before starting to feel the blood freeze. Just around this time we observed a rather elderly looking Sikh gentleman with a camera crew looking for interviewees. Some of my team members volunteered and were briefed about the interview. There is live telecast daily of the gurbani and other sermons from the gurudwara to local TV stations at Punjab and possibly Uttarakhand. The interview was for that channel where they wanted to show to the general public that it was safe for travellers to visit the gurudwara. There were enough facilities on the way up and there were no incessant rains as many of the mainstream news channels were reporting. This was in fact true. Repeatedly during the entire journey I had encountered people talking about rains and floods when in fact there was no such thing. My train from Delhi to Haridwar had been canceled on the pretext of rains and floods whereas when I reached Haridwar the same day it was dry as a twig. Yes there were intermittent rains but flood situation was a far away thought as of now. Again the dark days of 2012 loomed till the present day impacting business (as 1 shopkeeper woefully pointed out) and tourism to this place. We were more than happy to go in front of the camera and truthfully clarify this. After the freezing dip and the brush with stardom, the langar beckoned with hot glass of tea and hot khichdi made from ghee. It smelled appetizing and tasted even better. A perfect break before heading back down over the next 4 hours. The mule had still taken 3 hours to come up (with 1 break) and it was now almost 1pm. So we would reach back to base only by 4 if we didn’t go very slowly.

I decided to let go of my mule and head down on foot. Here there was a short cut available to climb up or down. We could go down the path by walking or climb down steps that reduced the distance by a km. I chose the steps and enthusiastically started counting the number of steps. Thought it would be an interesting documentation. After about 700 I lost the count; the steps weren’t your regular stairwell. They were stony wobbly and needed focus and attention. At some place they were wide at others quite narrow. The width also differed so at times you could place your foot completely and then again at times only half. Also it was steep without any handrail so the thought of just free falling was never far away. Climbing down hill is not easier than walking downhill. The only charm was that the distance was being cut down. But it was equally if not more exhausting. There were far too many stops that I was taking even on this way. When we landed at the glacier at the end of the steps it was magical though making us temporarily forget about the exhaustion. This was a massive glacier. While I was standing in it, it was rising up on both sides…an ice wall about 8-10 feet high. One could see the water dripping and hear the gushing stream under it. Always aware that if it wanted it could collapse and take us with it. Thankfully it decided not to do any of that. It was extremely cold in the confines of the glacier and slippery so one had to hurry and yet gingerly step forward.

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Since I was now walking downhill instead of being on a mule, this gave me a better opportunity to look at the sights and hear the sounds. Rose finches abound this region and I am yet to re-look at the pictures I took and identify the different kinds of rose finches I saw. At one point, there was an unusual bird sound that I heard. Sandeep (the guide!) assured me it was a Monal. Now it is my dream to spot this bird, and rather hopefully I peered and peered at the mountain willing it to appear. But it did not. Of course not. While I was looking for the monal the Japanese group crossed us again almost running past us on their way down. They all had taken the mule up so that was secretly a small consolation. Being a small setup at base it is very easy to soon start seeing familiar faces and by this time we were smiling often and exchanging hellos with people climbing up or down. The guide from the Japanese group decided to ditch his group for some distance and walked along with us yapping all the time and helping us identify many plants and flowers. He was really passionate about this and had also published his own book on the area. He had a shop in Ghangaria that we went to visit in the evening.

As we came to the end of our trek for the day there was a final adventure yet to happen. The Japanese group guide, perhaps wanting to impress some nubile young ladies, decided to be a hero when there was absolutely no need for it. There was a glacier on the left of our path, which visibly disappeared into a gushing stream. At a point a little higher up when this actually happened the glacier was somewhat hollow and one could see the stream like some sub-terranean river. He decided that he would go in from this hollow go along the stream and emerge from where the glacier ended! Yes he would get wet but why not it would amuse the ladies. Now while we weren’t the subjects of his enthusiasm we watched him enthralled nevertheless. He sidled down the mountain and went into the glacier. We cheered him on and moved down to wait his emerging on the other side. Minutes passed and he didn’t appear it had taken us 10 minutes at a slower than snail’s pace to cross the distance so it should have taken him about 2 – 3 minutes at his pace But that didn’t happen. We waited. We got bored. We started to wonder. And then he came back from where he had so cockily gone in. Drenched! It seemed that the glacier wasn’t hollow all the way through and even though he had stepped into water, the speed of the current did not really allow him to pass through and he came back the way he went – eating the humble pie. This joyful (for us) escapade helped us over the last few steps to the guesthouse and the waiting hands of the magical maalish waala.

The final days trek started with me donating my packed lunch to the cows and dogs of Ghangaria. The dogs steadfastly refused the food while the cow chumped on it – paper and all – not really a connoisseur of good food. With our newfound knowledge of flora of this place, we were now delighted to find that we could identify some of the flowers we saw back the valley. Cobra leaf and blue pine were amongst these. I have come back in love with blue pine I think; the dark blue almost greyish tone of the pinecones was mesmerizing. Sandeep tried a lot to get me one which may have fallen to the ground but it was clearly not the season for the pines to fall and I came back empty handed – a reason for me to go back there again.

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Trudging downhill, I felt sense of accomplishment. I had done the trek. 4 days of walking up and around nestled deep within the mountains. Talking to other previous night over some crackling bonfire, we had discussed why we were there. Someone confessed that her friends thought she wanted to prove that she was still young since she just turned 35. She was glad to find so many of us who were beyond that age. For quite a few it was a way to connect with new people. For me it was a desire to do something I always wanted to do but never thought I could do. Now having done this one, it is like an addiction. I can’t wait to go on my next “easy” level trek. The fitness may take long to achieve but the will and determination is there. Now I know it can be done with those. So bring on the next one I say!

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