The sky meets the flowers
It took us less than half an hour after commencing our trek to realise that we were misfits in this journey. Clearly me and my friend who had embarked on a trek to the Valley of Flowers many monsoons ago were not in the same league as those seasoned, self-sufficient and mostly solo trekkers with rucksacks on their backs. One km down, with 12 more to go, we had already revised our decision to not hire a porter for our luggage. We were not botanists, ornithologists or serious photographers for whom the valley was a professional treasure hunt. Yet, we were also not like the Sikh pilgrims who could chant their way through the most difficult stretches of the trek.
Indeed, pilgrims had been the largest contingent of fellow travellers since Govindghat falls on the Rishikesh-Joshimath-Badrinath route. The Sikh pilgrims, though, were headed to Hemkund Sahib, the base camp for which is Ghangaria, 13 km from Govindghat, where the trek begins. Travelling in large groups and with a religious destination as their goal, the pilgrims could never come to terms with two young women trekking in the first place, and further not trekking to the gurudwara or the Laxman temple located near the gurudwara. Few had heard of the Valley of Flowers. We attracted curious stares and direct enquiries throughout and yearned for the silence one associates with mountains. In this case, silence was meant to be the reward greeting us as soon as the path to the valley forked out from the route to Hemkund and led to the forest department checkpoint which issues the daily permits to the valley.
Eventually what dulled the constant waheguru chants were gushing, cascading, soothingly noisy rivers in full spate which are constant company through the route. Govindghat is located on the banks of the Alaknanda and the trek begins by crossing the river. Immediately after that the Laxmanganga joins the Alaknanda and took over as our companion up until Ghangaria. A pilgrim trail does have its advantages, though. There are plenty of little eateries all along the trek route and both Govindghat and Ghangaria offer decent affordable accommodation.
The last 3 kms before Ghangaria were particularly difficult. To keep up my confidence levels for the next two days, I told myself the difficulty had to do with an eight-month old ligament tear that had not fully healed yet.
That gave me the excuse to avail the services of the foot masseurs who throng hotel corridors offering to undo the knots and ease the pain of an eight to nine hour trek. The massage and a good night’s sleep at Ghangaria rejuvenated the body and after a quick breakfast we packed up lunch and started out for the valley. Though flowers can be seen right after the official entry point, the valley is still a 3 kms steep climb away. Once there, I realised why paradise has often been imagined as a garden or snow clad mountains or why happiness conjures up pictures of water bodies or why introspection is associated with the image of dense forests.
In the Valley of Flowers all these postcards come alive. Clouds hover and move, opening out newer angles and making each sight a unique one. There is no last look possible; every sight is a first.
The Valley of Flowers is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve located in the Garhwal Himalayas. A glacial zone, it is home to a large number of plant, animal and bird species. The valley is snow bound from November to April. It takes a couple of months for the glaciers to melt and the white to give way to green. After that a little miracle happens. When the skies open up for the first monsoons, the green is interrupted by a riot of colours: flowers emerge to dance in the rain. It is said to be home to 300 species of rare wild flowers. While entry is permitted from June through October, the valley is in full bloom between mid-July and mid to late august. By September, the plants start to pod making the valley an exclusively monsoonal destination.
This also means that it rains through the three walking days of the trek. The cheap plastic scarecrow like raincoat did its best to keep the body dry but between the rain and the many streams that have to be negotiated, there is no way shoes can remain dry. After a while we just have to make peace with wet socks and squishy shoes and plod on.
Yet it is the rains to which we owe the magic of 360 degree views. Take a full turn and try counting the waterfalls, streams and glaciers in various stages of melt contained in the nooks of the mountains. Go from the highest reaches to the lowest, from the farthest to the closest. Try to trace the paths all these take to drain into the aptly named Pushpavati river which runs through the valley, still glacial in parts, and then eventually joins the Laxman Ganga. Get distracted by the blues, pinks, reds, purples, violets, yellows, whites, oranges and other colours which defy naming. Lose count, and start all over again. Try to draw the human made boundary lines between nations on the mountain ranges. Feel a bit silly and focus on taking photographs of each flower species in the hope of identifying them by name later.
We walked through as much of the valley as we could, made it to the gravestone of an English botanist who tripped and died in the valley and as the clock neared 4 pm reluctantly turned back. The park is open only till 6 pm.
According to local legend the valley is home to the sanjeevani herb which revived Laxman from death in the Ramayana. Other locations in the country have also laid claim to this story. Legend or not, it sure is an elixir of life.
The return trek from Ghangaria to Govindghat was not as tiring. The stuffy bus ride with the pilgrims from Govindghat to Rishikesh was not as trying on my nerves. It took three days for my feet to feel dry and get back its city dirt. But the feeling of being scrubbed clean within stayed. A place where all that evaporates and condenses - clouds, mist, rain, dewdrops, rivers, streams, waterfalls, glaciers- meets all that buds and blooms does that to you. It’s an experience I tap into this monsoon to overcome the disappointment caused by moisture laden clouds which stubbornly refuse to give way to rain.