In the floral valley

In the floral valley

The small, pretty state of Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the Himayalas, has so many interesting locations to visit and soak in that it may be difficult to cover even the most prominent places in one's lifetime. So, when Siri Holla, an ardent trekker, proposed a visit to the Valley of Flowers recently, two dozen of us quickly signed up.    

The first pit stop was Dehradun, which evoked so many fond memories for me. Not long ago, this capital city of Uttarakhand  used to be a sleepy town with well-laid-out roads that had people bustling around in their woollens to beat the cold. Today, it's like any other overcrowded city that has been taken over by the real estate mafia, putting up ugly structures by the dozen. The vehicular movement has grown manifold, leading to traffic jams everywhere.

The next morning we were off to Hardwar by a minibus driven by Gopal Singh, who would be our driver-philosopher for the next one week. The long drive went off without a fuss and we boarded tongas to reach the ghats to have a dip in the Ganga. Oh, boy! The water was cold and the current was menacingly swift. Holding onto strong iron chains along the river bund, we took short dips in the holy water, which was an exhilarating experience. As if to mock at our timidity, the local teenaged boys were laughingly swimming in the current, like the dolphins.

Liquid strength

Two-three rounds of hot cups of chai infused enough sprint into the steps to help us roam around the old city and come back well before dusk to settle along the ghat to watch the Ganga aarthi. In no time the bank was jam-packed with people squatted on the  floor and pushing one another to get a better view. As the priests performed one aarthi after another, accompanied by the sound of an assortment of musical instruments, the local pandas came around offering prasad and tilak in exchange for a small dakshina. The whole event was over in about 45 minutes, immersing one with a feeling of bhakti. As the crowds slowly dispersed, it was time for the mandatory group selfie!

The next morning, we were off to Pandukeshwar, near Govind Ghat, a 320-km journey. Gopal Singh, an expert driver, who was mostly on the mobile, as he nimbly handled the curves with one hand on the steering, had warned us of landslides along the route. He wanted to reach Govind Ghat before sunset. But it was inevitably late. As the vehicle moved along a menacing hill on the one side and a deep valley on the other, we noticed several fresh landslides  that had covered parts of the road.

At every other turning, gangs of sweepers employed by the Uttarakhand government were ready with their tools to clear the debris and ensure smooth flow of traffic. At one of those turns, Gopal applied sudden break after noticing a huge bounder in the middle of the road. A chill went up the spine, realising that we had escaped being hit by the boulder narrowly. The next one-hour journey was filled with tension as everyone in the minibus took to silent prayers. We heaved a sigh of relief only after reaching Pandukeshwar safely  and thanked Gopal profusely.

The four-day trek to the Valley of Flowers was to begin the next morning, and before dinner, there was Dinesh Kunwal of Himalayas Heaven Adventures to give us a thorough briefing. He mentioned that during the entire season between June and October, the valley would boast of more than 520 varieties of flowers, but how many one would get to see at any given point of time would  depend on weather conditions. Two sprightly young trekkers, Deepak Joshi and Pawan Joshi, were to accompany and guide us.

After completing the formalities of registration, the nine-km trek to Gangaria, which is at a height of 9,700 ft, began in earnest. One comes across a lot of greenery and streams of water along the way to stop and enjoy the beauty of nature  while recovering from exhaustion. Gangaria, our home for the next three nights, is a busy little place with plenty of accommodation to suit varying budgets. Teeming with trekkers from all over the country and abroad, the single narrow street, with many eateries, keeps awake till late in the night. We found that the hot jalebis and samosas were a delight.

Flower shower  

At the crack of dawn the next day, we were ready to make a journey to the Valley of Flowers. Unlike other mountain ranges, it has well-laid-out steps, but the climb is rather steep.

Stretching over an expanse of 87 sq km, the gentle landscape of the valley is complemented by the rugged mountains of Nanda Devi National Park to the east. Together they constitute a unique transition zone between the mountain ranges of Zanskar and the Himalayas. The Valley of Flowers was declared a national park in 1982 and became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004.

As we entered the core area of the valley, what a fantastic sight it was! It gently opened up with the Balsam family of flowers, followed by Himalayan Markshood that sported deep blue colours. Then, it shifted to Purple Meadow Rue, Dwarf Globe Flower, Slender Tape Vine and Marsh Marigold.

If clusters of white Bhutkeshi flowers, with unbelievably different patterns, held sway for some time, there were rows and rows of Blue Himalayan Anemone, Rock Anemone and River Anemone begging attention next. If the sunflower look-alike Himalayan Daisy beckoned for a while, the Blue Poppy with contrasting golden-yellow stamens raised a lot of 'ooh, aahs' for their beauty.

The stately Brahma Kamal occupied quiet corners, but its majesty was all too evident... It was four hours of sheer ecstasy, capped by a sudden shower, to make the visit very, very memorable.

The credit for rediscovering the valley in the 1930s goes to two British people, mountaineer Frank Smith and botanist Joan Margaret Legge. But it was Indian botanist Prakash Chandra Kala, deputed by the Wildlife Institute of India in 1993, who spent a decade in the valley and compiled two books, making an inventory of all the flowers here, with their scientific and common names.          

The next day, we trekked to Hemkund Sahib, one of the most scenic places in the Himalayas. The world's highest gurudwara here, on the bank of Hemkund lake, attracts tourists and Sikh pilgrims from all over the world.

While walking a distance of about nine km, one also has to keep an eye on the pounding hoofs of accompanying mules which take the same route.

Those who could not walk the whole distance  could take the help of mules or kandi (a sort of basket to sit on, being carried by humans on their backs). The pristine lake, situated at a height of 15,197 feet and surrounded by seven mountain peaks, is truly awesome. Nature covers this place with tons of snow and glaciers during winter, making it highly inaccessible for everyone except some bravehearts.

The Antelope Valley in California and Castelluecio Valley in Italy are also famed for vast meadows of flowers, but for sheer variety and grandeur, there is nothing like the Himalayan Valley of Flowers.

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