July 12, 2005
The Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib Trek, July 2005 started. Three of us, myself, Devendra and Shantanu started for New Delhi by Sampark Kranti Express.
July 13-14, 2005
It was raining throughout Andhra Pradesh. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh were relatively dry. When we reached Hazrat Nizamuddin, after a long journey of about 31 hours, we found ourselves unable appreciate the fact that the train had actually reached New Delhi one hour before time. The Indian Railways provides an excellent facility called a Cloak Room. It was a great relief to secure our luggage in it, and be free of any load. We roamed around in Delhi: travelled by the New Delhi Metro. The Metro rail is royal : clean and efficient and what's more, really inexpensive. Our next train was to depart from the Old Delhi Railway station, which is quite near to Chandani Chawk and Lal Kila. We went for a walk in Chandani Chawk area, which was terribly crowded at that hour of evening. Lal Kila so very near to it, was surprisingly peaceful in contrast. We walked, chatted and tried to eat all the junk food available in that area : we had chaat, Dahi-bhalla, alu tiki, Mirinda, and topped it with Haldiram Kulfi.Obviously we had to skip the dinner - rather had to tone it down to some biscuits and cake. Massourie express would take us to Dehradun that night. I thought it was amazing that we had been traveling since three days now, and there was still a huge distance before we hit borders of our country...
July 15, 2005
The Sampark Kranti before-time experience was still fresh in our minds when Massourie Express decided that it had enough of on-or-before-time nonsense, and kept halting at unscheduled times and places. We woke up at a wonderful station the following morning. The town comprised of the Station Master's cabin, a store room, atea-stall and at the most two other houses. Our co-passenger decided to get himself a cup of tea, and got down. We thought it was not a scheduled halt, and sat inside the train. After a long time, even when the train showed no signs of any movement, we also got down. "The train won't move an inch before the milkmen have finished their loading milk", our co-passenger was telling us, pointing finger to some of the coaches in front. It was an entertaining scene : the milkmen were hanging their milk containers to the grills of the windows, there were so many of containers loaded on the train already!
Finally the train moved, and at around 10 O'clock, we reached Dehradun. That completed our ~2800 kms of onward journey.
Spellings and their pronounciationscan be deceptive. This just got confirmed when we reached Hotel Meedow : we thought that our guide had recommended hotel Meadow. We had to stay in Dehradun only for one night before we left for Joshimath the next morning. We therefore did not complain much and put up in the small room, minus hot water facilities. A bath after such a long interval was once a routine during my undergrad days,but today I needed one very badly. In the afternoon we met with our guide,Madhwalji. Not only spellings and their pronounciations but voice and appearances can also be mismatching. We had thought this Madhwal fellow to be a typical sarkari official, with a grey safari suit enjoying his paan thoroughout the day. Madhwalji was nowhere near that description: we found he was heavily built, wore a pair of jeans, and constantly chewed Paan parag. We found he was a jolley good fellow, as he showed quite a bit of interest in photography. Underlining the importance of being on time, he asked us to be ready by 6 O'Clock the next morning. After a wonderful (and surprisingly cheap) lunch at a dhaba, we started for some sight-seeing in Dehradun. Forest Research Institute, aka FRI was on the list for the day.
IISc was the greenest institute I had ever seen. If I compare IISc to FRI, IISc will lose by a huge margin. The FRI campus is really huge. The main building has a old British look. It houses six museums, specialising on everything related to forests, ranging from uses of wood to diseases of trees. Lush green lawns surround the main building, they seem to be extending to the blue mountains on the horizon. The blue mountains were covered by dazzling white coloured silky clouds. Visit to the museums made us realise the vast areas of research in forest science, and the tremendous quantities of work already carried out. We spent quite some time discussing this. With somewhat tired legs, we returned tothe hotel and spent the evening thinking about what the next day had in store for us.
Later in the evening Piyush and Manoj arrived, completing the quorum. We had a late night dinner and switched off for the day.
July 16, 2005
The day broke early. It was drizzling outside. The weather wore a wet look; somewhat dampening our spirits. There were news stories of traffic being held up due to landslides. Madhwalji, advocating the importance of being on time, arrived before time! We were expecting him, and were almost ready to leave. At around 6:30 we took our seats in Tata Spacio - eight of us. In no time we wereon NH-58, rushing towards Rishikesh. Our driver, Rawatji (this is a very common surname in Uttaranchal) was an experienced driver. He was driving very fast, sometimes dangerously fast. He was taking sharp turns at unconfortable speeds.But finally we stopped worrying about it, and decided to leave the matter with our driver to bother about and turned our attention towards the greenery and mountains outside.
In Hrishikesh we had our first real darshan of the river Ganga. Huge! Water was everywhere. The force and speed were formidable. We passed Ram Zula and the famous Laxman Zula on our way. Suspension bridges are perhaps the only kind of bridges that could possible stand the force of Ganga : They have no contact with the water at all!
The road started winding soon after Hrishikesh. With Ganga flowing, making great sound in the valley on one side and the mountain on the other, such kind of scene continued right up to Joshimath. The weather was pleasant and luckily we were never got caught in road blockage. We noted that it was not only the height but the steepness as well that distinguished mountains here from those in Maharashtra. To add to the differece, the mountains were clad by lush green trees all over. We could notice distince shades of green-blue colours of the distant mountains.
We reached Devprayag after around two hours. Confluence of river Alaknanda and Bhagirathi gives birth to Ganga at this place. Madhwalji told us that one could observe distinct colours of two waters in summer. The winding roads continuedand we followed on. We reached Rudraprayag at around noon. Rudraprayag, the land of tigers and Jim Corbett! They have developed a park around the mango tree, the place where Jim Corbett shot dead the [in]famous man eater of Rudraprayag.Rudraprayag is quite a big town, and is a district place. There were more prayags on the way : Karnaprayag and Nandprayag. [or NANDprayag??]
It was not long before we noticed that we were actually traveling with nine of us on board : Mr [or is it Dr?] Murphy had boarded our Tata Spacio without ourknowledge. Rear tyre of Tata Spacio was flat!
After a much needed 15-minute break, thanks to Dr Murphy, we restarted. It was well past noon and the morning breakfast was through with the digestion process.Yet the scenery outside our windows was more than sufficient to keep us going.But not for too long.
We decided to have lunch at a town called Chamoli. Recounting moments of pre-lunch session and speculating on the post-lunch session, we had our lunch of roti-subji-rice; rounded off by delicious roshogulla!
It seems to be a rule that the regions around here undergo all the seasons in a day's time rather that a year's. After a relatively hot and humid summer of early afternoon, it was time for the rain Gods to perform. Within half hour of Madhwalji's prediction, it started drizzling, soon converting into a heavy rain. At that time, it was the most welcome weather change. The rains (or rather our journey through the rain) lasted for about half an hour, and we had already prepared ourselves for the last lap of the day's journey. The weather was clear now - the mountains washed clean of their tiredness, the clouds had themselves repainted in bright white colour, some of them were strolling around all alone, but most of them clugged together. The nature seemed to have freshened itself to welcome the distinguished guests : us. This was the most memorable section ofthe day's journey. The mountains grew taller, the roads narrower and our eyes, keener. There were some occasions when we could see our road ahead on another mountain "just" in front of us, yet it would take a good 10-minute drive to reach there. On one steep mountain climb, we could count as many as five winds and re-winds of the road on the same side of the uphill. This road took us tonew heights, so to say!
Around 5 O'Clock we reached our destination, Joshimath, at 1900 meters above Mean Sea Level. We had had travelled ~300 kms by road, and climbed up more than a kilometer.
Joshimath has "haathi parvat", the elephant mountain on its one side. The shape of the mountain closely resembles that of an elephant (not to forget Devendra's comment : the elephant turns into a white elephant in winter!). We tried our hands at photography skills; but we knew photos wouldn't be enough to capturethe beauty of the scene there at that time. Later in the evening, after a much needed cup of tea, we went for a walk in the town. By that time the clouds had completely surrounded Joshimath. We had a memorable walk in the clouds. In the market we found raw Apricots were on sale. We bought half kg without guessing weight of each of Apricot. Maybe the dividing half kg by this tiny weight wouldhave helped us in buying not too many of them.
The sun set, the temperature began its descent, clouds thickened still further and after such a wonderful day, it was time to say good night to all the mountains arounnd. Dreaming about the next day, we drifted off to deep sleep...
July 17, 2005
After a rather heavy breakfast at the Gadhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam's rest house, where we stayed for the night, we started for Govindghat. Govindghat, situated in a valley, surrounded by mountains on three sides, is the last motorable-road destination on the way to Valley of Flowers.
Ghangriya, the base camp for Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib is 13 kilometers (read, one day) from Govindghat. These 13 kms would take us from 1900 mts to 3100 mts.
We were somewhat sceptical about trekking at high altitudes. Soon we realised that it was not so very different even at high altitudes (later, at Hemkund though, we had some difficulties). The road is very beautiful. Every coming kilometer revealed new shades. At this time of the year, it is lush green everywhere(snow-clad in winter), river on one side and the mountain on the other, we were walking on a dream route. The rushing waters were provding accompaniment to the musical thoughts in our minds.
Another remarkable feature of this route is that one would hardly find garbage on the road. There are plenty of dust-bins built along, posters and signs encouraging usage of them. This has made the trek truly eco-friendly. (Later we came to know that this was not the situation three years ago, a local body had played a great role in cleaning the existing garbage and coming up with a plan to maintain cleanliness).
The mountains wore silver linings of numerous waterfalls. There were signs of glaciers far in the mountains. As we trekked along, the altitude kept increasing, and so did the force of the river Pushpavati, until finally we came to a huge gushing warterfall. We had our chance to touch the ice cold waterfinally. It was a beautiful sight. The temperature would drop as we neared the water and would go up when we climbed away from it. Even in this cold weather, I was drenched in sweat. However, when I removed my jacket, the cold winds on sweat left me shivering for a moment, before I put on my jacket again.
After a late and rather heavy lunch on the way, we set out for the destination again. It was three kms from there. This was the steepest and toughest part ofthe day's walk, and arguably the most beautiful too. The heavy lunched further slowed us down. We kept climbing - Shantanu and myself in the lead - almost without any stoppage. This was a good test of fitness. Within an hour's time, we reached Ghangriya. The coolness in the air was evident, and it was not even 4:30in the evening. The mountains, even after climbing up so much, were towering over us. We thankfully did not get any rain in this 13 kms walk. The rain welcomed us in Ghangriya. The soft drizzle further brought downthe temperature.
In Ghangriya we met with anther group of trekkers, they were from the Indian Air Force. They had been to the Valley that day and also the day before. They were lucky to get somewhat clear weather that day. We hoped to get a similar weather the next day.
After a long and somewhat difficult walk, we had two rounds of reasonably hot tea. I thought nothing would be hot enough in such a cool weather.
It continued to drizzle on and off till late in the evening. After a dinner of roti-subzi (add paneer to all our meals so far, if I have not mentioned it :)) we switched off the lights of our luxurious bunker-bed dormitory and drew allthe thick sheets available before drifting away in the cold silence of the night.
July 18, 2005
The sun rises very early in mountains. At 5 O'Clock in the morning, the first lights of the day were sneaking inside our room. The deep sleep had very much healed our tired bodies of yesterday and we were soon ready for a new day's excitement.
For the first time in this trek we saw a snow-clad peak of a mountain. It was so near! Yesterday's rain had kept it hidden (or maybe as a surprise for the nextday) from us. A few clouds were still covering part of the peak, but we were sure they would soon go away. We came to know that it was actually a glacier and we would be crossing it on our way to the Valley. The excitement of the moment was unimaginable. Dark blue colour of the sky looked even darker because of thebright white clouds. A good omen was that the clouds were quite thin - this meant that the chances of rain (in the morning at least) were on decline. Our hopes of a clear weather after all were going to be a reality. Weather changes quite fast in this part of the world, so we were still not ready to celebrate these facts.
The morning's cold weather had slightly slowed us down. Life in this small town is slow. It took about 45 minutes to finish our breakfast. And then, finally, we began for the Valley of Flowers.
The trek is about 3 kms from Ghangriya. After this 3kms climb, the valley starts. One can spot flowers right from the start of the trek. At the entrance of Valley of Flowers National Park, Mr Chauhan, an expert on the flowers found around here, joined us as our guide. Chauhanji, a very good photographer himself, is a walking encyclopedia on flowers in the valley. Soon he started throwing complex names of the flowers we saw on the way.
The I learned the technique of taking a photograph and noting down the name of the flower.
The road to the valley is scenic (there is no exception to this rule in this part of the world). The valley changes its flowery dresscode every fortnight orso. The flowers keep changing their location, and new flowers take their position. The flowers keep moving as the snow melts further. And that's whythere is nothing such as a "season" to visit the valley. Every time one visits the Valley, one can expect to find something new and even more beautiful.
There are three glaciers on the way to the Valley and we crossed all of them.The weather Gods were with us and surprisingly the sun came out of the cloudcover. The whole valley wore a flashing bright look - the beauty of the scene was overwhelming - mountains on three sides, green valley in front, and a blue mountain wearing snowy-dupatta, far away on the horizon. Beautiful!
As we walked along, Chauhanji showed us many flowers, we spotted more that 20 species in the day. I doubt if even the best of the photographs can reveal the beauty of the place, at that time.
Weather allowed us to venture into deeper parts of the valley. At a point wecame to Joan Margaret Legge's tomb. Joan, a 55 year old botanist from Britainwho wanted to collect the seeds of the rare flowers in the valley and grow them back home, died in an unfortunate accident in the Valley. She was buried in theValley. A film on the Valley has a comment, "what other way to heaven can be more beautiful than the valley!". All of us sat beside the grave, and Chauhanji told us her story. This is the most beautiful part of the valley, quite far from where the Valley actually starts. All around us was two feet tall fern, a rarespecies, extinct all over the world, found only in the Valley now. Around this place we found the most amazing of flowers, the Lady Slipper, a shoe shaped red-pink flower.
The Valley was quiet, the sun was shining, the sound of the flowing water was bringing in a cheerfulness all around. Every one of us was silent, trying to capture as much as possible with the limited resources.
After about three hours or so, it was time to return. We had a bright sunny day so far, but that increased the chances of a heavy rain later in the afternoon.
I wondered when will man come up with a technology that freezes all those moments,including
the climate, sounds and mood. Buried deep in thoughts, we took leaveof the Valley and all the flowers.
The day was really unusual, as it did notrain even in the afternoon. When we reached Ghangriya, they said it was so hot today that sweat broke out. Imagine such weather at 10,000 feet above MSL!
Not before long, the clouds gathered in the Valley. The nature had decided to close for the day. We were lucky enough not to miss the its performance today.
We climbed down pretty quickly trying to match the names to the flowers that we saw on the way. As had been our daily routine since three days now, we had alate late lunch of roti-subji-rice.
As we were taking rest later in the afternoon, Chauhanji came almost running and called us to come out. Far away on a neighbouring mountain, he showed us a black dot moving. That was a black bear on the move. It was too far to be ofphotographer's any interest though.
Later in the evening, we went for a slide show /documentary screening on "TheValley of Flowers". The film showed important flowers, their names and medicinal usages. We bought a CD containing this documentary for our reference.
After three days, we were very much geared up for the final day of trekking, the day we would climb up to 16,000 ft and reach "Hemkund Sahib".
July 19, 2005
Our guide-in-chief, Madhwalji, decided that he had enough of walking and dumped his plan od visiting Hemkund Sahib. The guide-in-deputy, Gajpalji, was injured and there was no possibility of his climbing either. That left five of us on our own. We were given full freedom!
We started quite late, at around 9:30 in the morning. Today, the weather was quite cloudy and bittery cold. As we started climbing, the clouds covered our path. The visibility was very less. The climb was tough. For the first time in the trek, we felt the effects of high altitude. After every steep stretch of a few hundred feet, we stopped and caught our breath. Even though one did not carry any load, the climb proved to be quite a bit of challenge. Whatever load we brought, it changed the back of Shantanu's and mine quite often!
The road was quite crowded, mostly by Guru's devotees and shouts of "Jo bole so nihal" were vociferous throughout. We must have climbed for about three hours, when we came to the biggest glacier we had ever seen. Suddenly the temperature dropped, winds zoomed. it was a troublesome song to my ears. We took off our cameras and Manoj took out his tripod too. Seeing our equipment, people asked if we were shooting for Doordarshan! We took many photos there, experimenting with aperture width, shutter speed etc. We thought we had reached the gurudwara, as we saw the mules lined up there, looking for sawaris on their way down to Ghangriya. But we had not.
And then began two of the most difficult kilometers of our trek. There were steps all the way up for some comfort, but we were tired and the weather seemed to be adding more difficulties. Last few steps seemed impossible (I was carrying the load as well), but soon I reached the top. Amazingly, the strength seemed to come back after only half a minute's rest. All our team was up there within four hours.
When we reached the top, nothing was visible there, except for a few feet ahead. After some time the clouds cleared up and we could see the Gurudwara and the lake behind it. We tied the Sikh traditional rumals and walked towards the Kund, or lake. The name "hemkund" has come from "Him-Kund" or icy lake. The purest of the devotees take a dip in the lake before going into the Gurudwara. The lake is surrounded by still higher, snow clad mountains on three sides. We could see frozen glaciers on these mountains. We had heard much talk about the coldness of water of Hemkund. We decided to at least dip our feet and hands. And of course we wanted pictures of the moment. There are no words to describe the experience. How much time does it take to snap a photograph? 10 seconds? At most 15 seconds. It took no more than five seconds before each one of us shouted - "hurry - snap it at once, I can't stand here any more. Quick!" The five-ten seconds in that ice-cold water were good enough to freeze even the bones. And then we saw two sadarjis taking the complete dip- it was unbelievable. I decided I shall never ever be afraid of taking a cold-water bath again.
The cloud cover subsided. The mountains on three sides showed their calm reflections on the cold and serene water of the lake. The cameras clicked. The reflections were captured in the mind's eye. The scene was now permenantly inscribed in our memories - or should I say, frozen!
After cleaning our feet thus, we went inside the Gurudwara. The harmonium-tabla-vocals had begun. The devotees were seated inside, covering themselves with thick blankets. The aarti in panjabi tongue was sweet to ears, the whole atmosphere was charged with something supernatural. Our breaths, freezing after exhalation were adding to the effect. After bowing to the Granthasahib, we came out. We were feeling a little uncomfortable and badly needed something to eat.
The Lunger at the Gurudwara offered prasadam in the form of khichadi and tea. The taste was divine and the quantity quite filling, for the moment at least. We felt a lot better after eating. It was already 2 O'Clock (that is going by our watch-- looking at the clouds and the daylight, it still seemed early in the morning). We decided to start our descent. Again, the first two kilometres were difficult : till we reached the glcacier. Even at such heights, we could find some very beautiful flowers.
After crossing the glacier, we picked up the speed. Without stopping even once, Shantanu, the load bearer and myself climbed down. Others followed soon. This descent amounted to 5000 feet. When we finally reached Ghangriya at around 4:30, we felt quite at home (Ghangriya is at 10000 ft). The exhaustion showed up soon. We thought we were not hungry at all, yet when hot rice-curry was served, we ate heartily.
We spent the evening inside our dormitory, cracking jokes and laughing our hearts out. Devendra sang a song for us and we had a good time. We decided we wanted a change of taste and had our dinner in some other restaurant, a Gadhwali food specialist.
Two days of stay at Ghangriya was over. Next day we were to climb down further to Govindghat before taking a vehicle to Dehradun.
The plan seemed flawless - get up early, start for Govindghat, reach Govindghat at around 10 O'Clock and then to Dehradun before late night. Plans such as these look perfect on paper. We had something on our minds and the nature had something else.
We had a good night's sleep dreaming about the days to come and wonderful memories of the Valley and Hemkund. The calmness of the night knew not what would happen the next day...
This is the story of first four days of our trek. It just turned out that the fifth one was the most memorable day. I'll post the fifth day's page soon.