As the train rolled into the station of one of the seven holiest places for Hindus, Haridwar, in Uttarakhand, in the early AM, we hastily wore our shoes and clambered out.
We had boarded the late night train from New Delhi and were on our way to the Valley of Flowers and the Holy Hemkund Sahib. We were travelling with another couple, whose husband was a pro at trekking.
We had pre-booked a Swift Dezire from the station (For Rs 13,000 or USD $200) to Joshimath and the driver was waiting for us at the station. Sipping some hot tea at a stall outside the station, we asked him why a distance of 280 Kms would take us almost 9 hours! It seems the condition of the road is not the best in many places and the drive is mostly through a mountainous terrain. Hearing that, I quickly popped an antihistamine into my mouth.
Wanting to reach there before sunset, he asked us to hurry.
Driving ‘into the sunrise’ is always beautiful and the pleasure is doubled when you are on the roads in the hills. The sun rays play hide and seek with the peaks of the mountains in the distance and seem to nudge nature to step out of its slumber.
The gateway to the Valley of Flowers – Srinagar
By 9.30, we were at Srinagar, which is a beautiful city situated almost 800 mts above sea level on the banks of the river, Alaknanda. The clean mountain air had built up our appetite and we had poori-aloo and hot tea at a small restaurant. We failed to notice at this point that my friend’s husband was not eating heartily.
The 9 hour drive up to Joshimath was quite taxing. We stopped once or twice to freshen up at roadside small eateries which didn’t have the best washrooms, but we didn’t have much choice. We traded that discomfort for stunning views of the valley below and the mountains above.
All the five ‘Prayags’ (confluence of holy rivers), incidentally, fall on this route. So, the drive to Joshimath also brings out the spiritual in you.
Confluence of the two mighty rivers; Alaknanda and Dhauli Ganga at Vishnuprayag, which is one of the ‘Panch Prayag’s’ where pilgrims come to offer prayers and perform purification ceremony.
Joshimath/ Jyotirmath (1890 mts above sea level)
We had booked in a homestay which was really comfortable. We paid Rs 2500 for a double bed with breakfast thrown in. Joshimath is dotted with hotels and dharamshalas as this is a popular winter and adventure destination, not to mention, an important Hindu pilgrimage, too.
We reached at sun set and it was already getting dark. If we were not so tired, we would have spent some time soaking in this revered holy town. But we could feel the nip in the air and preferred resting in anticipation of the tough trek ahead.
The next morning, we set off after a hearty breakfast of paranthas and hot tea. Soon we realised that there was no internet connectivity and we were now cut off from our homes.
A private taxi for Rs. 2000, would take us to Pulna via Govindghat. Govindghat, about 20 kms away from Joshimath, is the commencement point for trekkers going towards Hemkund Sahib or the mystical Valley of Flowers. By road, it takes about 45 minutes. One can otherwise share a cab with other people and pay less.
There is also a chopper service from Joshimath to Govindghat, subject to weather conditions. They charge Rs. 3200 per person and drop you off just 2 kms short of Govindghat.
The die-hard trekkers, start their trek from Govindghat itself and it’s a real tough climb between Govindghat and Pulna, a distance of 3 kms.
We had decided on taking the cab till Pulna, since my friend’s husband was looking ‘paler’ by now and this was closest to our next halt, Ghangaria. No cabs ply beyond this point, after which you either walk or ride a horse. It’s again a laborious walk of almost 10 kms to Ghangaria, more so, since we were carrying our baggage too.
Walking along the narrow, stone-paved ascending trail, along the river, Lakshman Ganga, I recalled the cloud burst of 2013, which had washed away some trails, making the trek more difficult since then.
We took around four and half hours to cover this stretch.
Ghangaria (At almost 3050 Mts)
This place, as expected, was abuzz with tourists. Every other building seemed to be a hotel here. Shops were filled with equipment needed for the trek.
We had pre-booked our stay for the night in Hotel Kuber at Ghangaria, for Rs. 2000. Here, no breakfast was included. But there is no dearth of eateries here, though not much variety in the food. Most serve ‘paranthas’, bread pakoras and the ubiquitous Maggi noodles and you are forced to survive on these with packets of biscuits and chips thrown in.
We collapsed on our beds, the moment we reached our rooms. Starved for food, thanks to the walk in the crisp mountain air, we requested room service. Feeling better after that, we were willing to explore this tiny place. Other than a Gurudwara here, this place is basically a halt for the trekkers moving into the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib.
Since treks for general tourists close from 15 October to March, the locals too, pack up their wares and come down to Joshimath.
Towards Valley of Flowers
In the morning, after breakfast (most restaurants serve only vegetarian while some serve eggs), we started our trek towards the Valley, at 7 AM.
We made a grave mistake of not packing any drink or other food items for the trek. We were just carrying a bottle of water each since we didn’t want to carry unnecessary load while walking. Our friend had hardly eaten since we left Delhi and was looking totally washed out, but didn’t complain, not wanting to ruin the trek for others.
No horses are allowed in the Valley of Flowers. For those who cannot make the trek, porters, called kandis are readily available for Rs. 2000, who carry you in a basket placed on their back.
After a climb of about 600 metres, the track bifurcates; the straight one leading to Hemkund Saheb and the other turning left to the Valley of Flowers.
Before entering the Valley of Flowers, trekkers need to purchase a ticket for Rs. 150 at the gate of the Nanda Devi National Park and enter their name, which would be struck off when they exit. It’s important to remember that the gate closes at 5 PM and so, one needs to be back before that.
We were in high spirits as the weather was wonderful. The lofty mountains of the Western Himalayas, looked so serene. The rocky surface, covered with green, as far as the eye could see, beckoned us to almost hop, skip and jump on the path that led us into the Valley. In the distance, we could see the snow-capped mountains.
We started crossing a small, wooden bridge, built on River Pushpavati, that leads into the Valley of Flowers. The ‘completely drained’ friend stopped right there. Motioning us to continue, he assured us he would catch up soon.
Since there was no network connectivity, we were reluctant to leave him as we wouldn’t be able to track him later. But on his insistence, we moved on.
Needless to say, the valley that was undiscovered till 1931, was a delight. It looked like a backyard of God’s residence. It finds mention in the Ramayana as the place Hanuman was sent to, in search of the ‘Sanjeevani booty’. It is also the habitat of the Himalayan Birch (Bhojpatra Tree), on the barks of which, Ramayana, is believed to have been written.
As we walked, on the more than 3 kms trail, the view of the wild, colourful flowers was mesmerising. At places, the clouds almost seemed to touch the ground, playing with the carpet of riot colours. Flowers that we had never seen before in the plains, were growing in every niche.
Small waterfalls cascaded down the mountains. We filled our bottles from these waterfalls, as we continued walking, soaking in the beauty of the place.
Time and again, we turned to look for our friend, but couldn’t see him. Not willing to leave this haven, but worried about him, we turned back on the track and reached the bridge.
We found him almost in a delirious state, exactly where we had left him. How we almost dragged him back with the support of two men, is another story!
That evening, we rested in the room, using our exhaustion as an excuse to look after our friend.
The crux of the whole episode is, do your homework well before going to places that have no net connectivity or accessibility to basic food. We were unable to even give the man a simple cold drink/juice or biscuits since we ourselves, were starved for some replenishment. Remember to always keep some refreshments and SOS medicines on you while travelling to remote places. On mountains, keep yourself hydrated or the altitude can have an adverse effect on you.
And yes, do not attempt such treks, if unwell.
Hemkund Sahib (at approx 4600 mts)
We left our friend sleeping comfortably in bed the next morning and headed to the Sikh place of worship and pilgrimage, Hemkund Sahib. It was a steep climb of almost 5 kms on a winding path along the River Lakshman Ganga. Mules and kandis are available here too.
This time we decided on hiring a kandi (Rs. 1000) just for company and to carry our stuff in his basket.
We left around 7 AM and reached the holy abode at 10.45 AM. This trek is more lively as there are food stalls scattered here and there on the sides of the track. The climb is also very soothing as after covering a distance of just two and half kms, the palliative sounds of ‘Gurbaani’ and ‘Shabad Kirtan’ start falling in your ears.
Standing at the edge of the pristine water of a lake that freezes in winter and has ice cold water, the rest of the year, Hemkund Sahib is like a dew drop fallen from the heavens. We soaked in the beauty of the place, making note of the seven mountain peaks that surrounded the lake.
We paid our obeisance and enjoyed the ‘langar’ in which ‘khichri’ (A rice and lentil preparation) and hot tea was served.
The Gurudwara has provision for pilgrims to stay the night as trekking after sunset is not recommended.
Completely refreshed, we started our trek back, this time taking just two and half hours to reach. On the way, our guide pointed towards a mountain which was covered with the ‘Mythical Flower of Gods’ – ‘The Brahma Kamal’. These flowers grow only in the upper ranges of the Himalayas. Its illegal to pluck any of them.
We stayed the second night too, at Ghangaria. Saddling our friend on a mule for the long trek back to Joshimath the next morning, we were happy to walk, since it was all downhill now.
Our friend is back on his feet after spending a week in the hospital with 106 temperature and already planning his next trek!
Do be alert with the kandis as the guy whacked two of our warm jackets!