Thoughts & Ideas

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Trip to the Valley of Flowers III - Hemkund Saheb

                                              Gurudwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib Ji
 Inside the Gurudwara

The next day we visited Hemkund Saheb (HS) which is located at an altitude of about 15,000 ft and is a place of Sikh pilgrimage and has a Gurudwara (Gurudwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib Ji) beside a small glacial lake surrounded by seven mountain peaks. It was discovered by a Sikh Army Surveyor in the early 20th century who recognized it as the place where Guru Gobind Singh had done meditation as described in his memoirs. The place is snow bound from October to May every year and, as such, is open for pilgrims only from June to Sept.  

We just did not have the energy to trek up the 5000 feet and so hired ponies. It was a nerve- racking experience traveling on the steep mountain track on those ponies. We also felt more than a little ashamed passing numerous old and young pilgrims stoically doing the same journey on foot.  

 Shridhar & Me

 The only temple in India dedicated to Lakshman

We reached HS by mid morning and the trip was well worth all the trouble. We saw various varieties of beautiful wild flowers on the way, though the surrounding scenery was blocked due to heavy clouds and mist.  On reaching HS we walked around the place and beside the lake a little. We did dip our toes in the ice cold water, but did not have the courage to bathe in it, though there were a number of people having a bath! Next we visited the Lakshman temple also located there before proceeding to the Gurudwara where we sat down to listen to the Gurbani and had prasad. We then had lunch of khichdi and tea at the langar and interacted a little with the numerous pilgrims there from whom we came to know that oxygen levels start falling very fast after 2 pm, so it was advisable to leave by then. It was a painful, tiring 6 km walk back to Gangharia, though it was fully downhill and it was quite late in the evening by the time we reached our hotel. 

Lunch at the Gurudwara - Khichdi with Tea

                                         Some friends we made there - Sikh Pilgrims

                                We crossed this glacier on the way to Hemkund Saheb

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Trip to the Valley of Flowers II - The Trek

The next day (day 5) we left early in the morning on a shared Sumo for Govindghat (8000 ft), which is about 30 kms from Joshimath on the road to Badrinath. The trek to Valley of Flowers (VOF) and Hemkund Saheb (HS) starts from there. We reached Govindghat by 8.30 am and had a lovely breakfast of tandoori pyaaz paratha before setting off for the trek. One has to first cross the river Alaknanda on a small non-motorable bridge and then start walking. There is also an option of riding a mule or pony! It was then that we realized that there was no way we could do the climbing while carrying our luggage. Help was close at hand, with numerous licensed porters offering their services and we hired one to carry our luggage from Govindghat to Gangharia

There was a regular procession of people, old and young, men and women, who we met on the way on the trek beyond Govindghat. They were nearly exclusively Sikhs traveling to HS on pilgrimage. There were also many small shops all along the way selling edibles and water. We had thankfully also bought small walking sticks on Shridhar’s suggestion. These were about 3 feet long with a metal pointed cap on the base and were very helpful in maintaining balance while climbing on the uneven steep pathways. The pathway goes along the Laxman Ganga as it tumbles down in haste to join the Alaknanda

We reached Gangharia by evening and found a small lodge – single room with attached bathroom (Rupees 600 per night), which was relatively clean and spacious. Electricity was available only for about 2 hours in the morning and evening and, on request a bucket of warm water was available in the morning to take a bath. There are no regular telecom facilities beyond Govindghat, either fixed line or mobile. However, at Gangharia sat-phones were available at Rs.20 per minute. Gangharia has a large Gurudwara where langar was available, but somehow we did not have any meals there. 

Next morning (day 6) after having a hearty breakfast and stocking up on chips and chocolates we started for VOF. Since camping and overnight stay is not allowed in the Valley of Flowers, Gangharia is the logical base camp for the trek. Travel beyond Ghanghria is on foot at nature's pace since the entry of ponies is also prohibited. The trek is subject to strict ecological discipline and the trekker is expected to be concerned about the ecosystem of the region. 

A little beyond Gangharia there is fork in pathway, with the left hand path leading to VOF and right path leading to HS. And lest I forget to warn you dear reader, the pathway upto Gangharia is full of mule shit inspite of constant cleaning by an army of sweepers. The sight and smell is quite unforgettable.

As we trekked towards VOF breathing became extremely difficult and we had to stop every few steps. We then met up with some people who were returning and who advised us that the going onwards was very difficult and warned us against continuing. We nearly lost courage but being eternal fool hardies, decided to continue. A little later, on the way we met a forest guard who advised us that breathing was difficult due to the extremely low oxygen levels and suggested we should keep walking slowly while taking deep breaths and would surely reach our destination. This gave us much encouragement. 

There were very few people on the route to VOF from Ghangharia, as most pilgrims to HS have no interest in visiting VOF. The 4 kms of slow climbing was very difficult going but we, somehow managed to reach the VOF by mid day but were too exhausted to go deep inside the valley. 

What beautiful scenery on the way and what beautiful flowers growing naturally. I had heard and read so many times about glaciers but saw them for the first time and also walked on one!   We reached VOF by mid day, but did not have any energy left to explore it further and decided to return by 1 pm since the trek back is also quite strenuous. By 5 pm we were back in Gangharia and fit only to flop down on our beds. 

Apart from the flowering plants, the place is also populated with wild animals like the Himalayan birds, butterflies, Tendula, Musk deer, Bharal Mountain goats, Himalayan bear, mountain leopards, Himalayan tail less rat etc. We looked hard all over the place through our binoculars but did not see any of larger wild animals. We did get to see a number of birds and of course the unique Himalayan tail-less rat. 


The Trip to the Valley of Flowers I - Getting There

The Valley of Flowers (VOF) in the district of Chamoli in Uttrakhand has a certain mystique and I had wanted to visit it for long before finally getting a chance to go there in September 2011. Situated deep in the heart of the Himalayas, close to the border with Tibet and fairly inaccessible, this spectacularly beautiful meadow located at an altitude of about eleven thousand feet, post monsoon, has many varieties of Himalayan wild flowers blooming which covers the floor of the valley with a carpet of myriad colours! It is an awesome sight with a contrasting back drop of majestic peaks and a gentle brook - the Pushpavati, a tributary of Alaknanda - flowing through the valley. 

Though local shepherds must have been familiar with the area for grazing their goats and sheep during summer months, it was popularized by the British explorer Frank Smythe who “discovered” and named the place as 'The Valley of Flowers' in 1931, on his way back after a successful expedition to Mt. Kamet. Ferns, dwarf iris, dwarf larkspur, dwarf rhododendrons, primula, blue poppies, fritillaria, asters, potentillas, inula grandifloras and hundreds of other species grow wild in the Valley. The Valley becomes accessible from late April when the snow starts melting  and becomes a riot of colors by August/September with well over a thousand varieties of flowers, shrubs, orchids and plants in myriad hues, differing textures, and colors painting the valley in a gorgeous display. The valley is a natural plantation surrounded by the dazzling snow clad Himalayas, a feast for the botanist and amateur alike.

I had done quite a bit of research on the internet before undertaking the trip, but none of it had prepared me for the actual travel and stay conditions. First, the season for visiting VOF (from July to September) coincides with the monsoon months and the trip includes traveling about 300 kms by mountain roads (from Haridwar to Govindghat). During the monsoons there are frequent small and large land-slides which makes the road impassable, and which can take anywhere between a couple of hours to up to a week to clear. The roads are maintained by the Border Roads Organization, who have stationed bull dozers at regular intervals all along the way so as to reach and clear up such land-slides at short notice. However, since landslides are unpredictable at the best of times, there is no way to ascertain before hand as to how much time the trip might take. As such, budget for extra time for traveling. None, repeat none of the travel sites I had consulted before making the trip had mentioned anything like this. At the same time, the local people we met during the trip considered the land-slides and consequent closure of roads as something quite natural. Second, the actual trek – about 13 kms from Govindghat (8000 ft ASL) to Gangharia (10,000 ft ASL) and then another 6 kms from Gangharia to VOF (12,000 ft ASL) is quite strenuous for those not used to walking in the mountains. Though the pathway is well maintained and there are plenty of small eating joints along the way (upto Gangharia), the fatigue from the climb and the low oxygen levels can be quite debilitating. The consolation is that there are plenty of masseurs available at Gangharia who do a good leg-massage for about Rs.100/-. The trip to VOF is incomplete without visiting Hemkund Saheb (HS), a Sikh religious spot. The climb from Gangharia to HS of about 5000 ft over 6 kms is steeper and even more strenuous. The trick (as explained by an Austrian climber who we met after completing the trek) is to walk slowly and steadily and climb up to Gangharia (from Govindghat) on the first day, then spend the next day relaxing in Gangharia to let your body get acclimatized to the low levels of oxygen. The next day, trek up to VOF and then again relax for a day before attempting the climb to Hemkund Saheb. For the adventurous, the option of traveling on horse-back from Govindghat to Gangharia and again from Gangharia to HS is available. But for those not used to riding horses, especially on such steep trails, the trip is a major exercise in maintenance of courage as I discovered on reaching HS from Gangharia!

We had planned to complete the entire trip in 5 to 7 days, having budgeted one day to travel from Haridwar to Joshimath (approx 300 kms) and spending the night there. The next day was planned to travel by road from Joshimath to Govindghat (about 30 kms) and then trek up to Gangharia spend the night there and visit the VOF the next day, then visit HS the subsequent day, before returning the same way. But the actual traveling experience was quite different. 

I reached Delhi by way of overnight flight from Bahrain where I was joined by Shridhar, my nephew and a budding professional photographer. We immediately proceeded to the Anand Vihar bus terminus to catch a bus for Haridwar, reaching there by evening. It was an old creaky bus, and I have reasons to believe that it did not have the required licence to travel on that stretch of highway. It frequently stopped to pick and drop passengers and refused to move until it was filled to at least 125% of its capacity. Nevertheless, we had been able to get decent seats and since the idea was to reach Haridwar by evening, we were not much bothered. On reaching Haridwar we came to know that due to landslides the road to Joshimath was blocked and there were no buses leaving Haridwar. The thought of aborting the trip before it had really started was quite depressing, but we were feeling quite tired and therefore booked a room at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) run hotel which, though dirty and expensive, was conveniently located right across the Haridwar Bus stand / Railway station to spend the night. After resting for some time, in the evening we went for a stroll upto Hari-ki-Pauri and back. 

Early next morning we checked at the bus-stand and were glad to learn that the road-block had been cleared and buses had started plying to Joshimath. We decided to take the first available bus which started by 8 am and we expected to Joshimath by late evening the day. We journeyed through Rishikesh and various other small towns and reached Srinagar (roughly midway) by afternoon, encountering a couple of road blocks due to small land-slides on the way. 

The entire route from Haridwar to Joshimath (and onwards till Badrinath) travels along the Alaknanda and is very picturesque with the narrow road clinging to a steep mountainside, and an angry river roaring away at the bottom of the valley. All along the route one passes through numerous pilgrimage spots like Rudra Prayag, Dev Prayag, Karan Prayag etc. as well as various nameless small villages growing rice on terraced fields.  

Past Srinagar, there was a major land slide and after waiting for 2 hours in the bus, we investigated as to how long would it take for the road to be cleared and realized that it would take at least one day. We could see the land slide. It was huge. There were two bull dozers clearing the rocks from both ends but appeared quite ineffective in view of the amount and size of debris to be cleared and so decided to return to Srinagar and spend the night there.

We waited all day long the next day for the road to be cleared so as to be able to resume our journey, but to no avail. Meanwhile, after resting for some time at the hotel, we spent the day roaming in and around Srinagar. The next day (day 4) there was still no sign of the road getting cleared and we started feeling extremely restless. The fact that there were many pilgrims who were returning from Srinagar in view of the indefinite nature of the road blockage was also not very encouraging. But having traveled so far, we were not to be deterred. On making enquiries, we came to know that there was an alternative route via Pauri to Karan Prayag where we could rejoin the (blocked) main highway, but which would mean a 60 km detour and traveling by jeep through a narrow and winding mountain route. There was another family we met at the bus-stand in a similar situation and together we managed to convince a Sumo driver to take us till Karan Prayag. Another couple of travelers like us made up a full complement required to convince the driver to take us. It was a beautiful scenic route though quite bumpy and nerve stretching at times. There is one small bit of the trip which is permanently etched in my mind – traveling on a road on the ridge of a mountain for about a 200 meters with the land falling down by at least a couple of thousand feet on both sides!

The Sumo dropped us at Karan Prayag by evening and from there we took a local bus to Joshimath, reaching there by the time it was getting dark and found accommodation at the GMVN run hotel, another quite a dirty and expensive place. It was later we found out that there were plenty of decent private hotels at regular intervals all along the route, which were both cheaper and cleaner.