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Far from the maddening metropolis

By: Kannan Kasturi Email By: Kannan Kasturi
January 2011
Far from the maddening metropolis It is 5.30 am as the train pulls in into Dehradun to heavily overcast skies. A hundred yards from the station, the rain begins in earnest, testing my wet weather gear, which I unveil in a hurry—so begins a hectic day of mountain travel.

This trip was planned just 10 days ago. I badly needed a break from my desk work and the environment of the mega city of New Delhi and longed for clean air and strenuous physical activity. A trek seemed like the perfect idea, but it was the third week of July and the monsoon had set in all over India. This was certainly not the right weather for traipsing around the countryside. But there was one place in the high mountains, I remembered, that was best experienced in the monsoon. Known as the “Valley of Flowers,” it is an alpine valley over 11,000 feet high tucked away in a remote corner of Uttaranchal near the border with China. July and August are considered the best months to visit this charmed valley, surrounded by snow clad peaks rising 16,000-20,000 feet and blessed with a climate that supports an astounding variety of flowering plants; July is when the valley flowers were in bloom.

I decided to chance the risk of landslides and blocked roads— a common occurrence in Uttaranchal in the rains— and the discomforts of trekking in wet weather. I planned my route and made reservations online for night halts at the convenient government-run Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guest houses and for the train to Dehradun, a convenient rail head in Uttaranchal. From Dehradun to the nearest road head to the Valley of Flowers, I decided to rely on whatever form of public transport that was available. I made a list of articles needed to avoid being miserable in wet weather; waterproof shoes and pants, a rain coat and a waterproof cover for my backpack.

And so here I am sitting sideways with my neck bent at an uncomfortable angle at the rear end of a Mahendra Trax— a vehicle that can seat 6 comfortably but right now has 10 passengers— heading into the hills from my starting point in Rishikesh. Joshimath is my destination for this evening and the road passes through small towns with lovely names—Devprayag, Srinagar, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag and Chamoli. I must reach Joshimath by this evening. The reason is simple—there is no public transport on these dangerous hill roads after dark and my room for the night has been paid for in Joshimath—with a “no refunds” clause attached.

We follow the river all the way; it is the Ganga up to to Devprayag and the Alakananda beyond. At Srinagar, I manage to get the coveted front window seat of the shared taxi and it is a great relief. I look outside and see the signs of development invading the hills; visible are the tunnels and embankments of the Alakananda hydro power project. I get talking to Sundra Singh Rana, the driver, and learn that part of the beautiful Srinagar town is slated for submergence. Rana asks me why I am traveling alone. In subsequent days, many others will ask the same question. We exchange our little travel adventures from the past. Rana too is planning to travel—to the plains, he says with a little laugh. He offers to show me around Rudraprayag, his home, and drop me back in Rishikesh on my return journey. We exchange mobile numbers and he helps me board a bus leaving for Chamoli. I have made good time because Rana has been driving up the ghats like a maniac. As we approach Joshimath, the banks of the river again look like a construction site. A board proclaims NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project. Twelve hours after leaving Dehradun, I reach the GMVN guest house in Joshimath’s main bazaar and stake my claim for a room.
You can’t sleep after 4 a.m. in Joshimath. That is when the hawkers start peddling the seats on the first buses leaving for Haridwar and there is bedlam in the main market. After the buses depart, the noise is replaced by singing. I am pleasantly surprised to hear the strains of the familiar Suprabhatam broadcast, presumably, from the nearby Vasudeva temple. Suprabhatam in the morning is a South Indian custom and here I am in the far north of India. I later come to know that historically, South Indian temple customs have had a strong influence on the temples of Badrinath and Joshimath.
I am standing at the shared taxi stand by 6 am, but it is some time before the taxi has its full complement of 10 passengers and we start for Govindghat. There is stunning scenery all the way along the narrow and deep Alakananda valley, but all I can see is the backpack my nose is buried in.
The trek starts at Govindghat where I cross the Alakananda on a suspension bridge. The path follows the Bhyundar valley and the Laxman Ganga river in a north easterly direction. It is 13 kilometers and a 4,000 feet climb to the day’s destination, the tourist village of Ghangria that is used by pilgrims to Hemkund Sahib as a night halt. I decide—it turns out, wisely—to take a porter with me to carry my loaded pack, which seems to have got much heavier than when I started out. Khet Raj Khemka, my Nepali porter, sets a fast pace and initially, I keep up, too proud to ask him to slow down. He does not look to be more than 20 and has been in India only two months after interrupting his “plus two” studies to earn a living.

The walk is scenic but the crowd of pilgrims, and the constant care to be exercised to keep from getting pushed over the edge by ponies carrying people, keeps one preoccupied. All I want is to get quickly to my destination and so, not unsurprisingly, does my porter. The last three kilometers of the trek, just after crossing the Laxman Ganga, are grueling, with a steep ascent. Five hours after leaving Govindghat, I am able to change out of my sweat drenched clothes at the comfortable GMVN guest house at Ghangria. The rest of the day is spent in slow recovery—tea, food, a warm bath, sleep.
Towards evening, I decide to try out a masseur who has been persistently doing the rounds of the rest house rendering his “tel maleesh” cry. Rajesh is from Bijnor in UP and spends the season—June to September—in Ghangria like the rest of the workers and shop keepers. The massage, costing all of Rs 50, is indeed invigorating and brings new life into my tired legs. But Rajesh’s hands tend to stray at times and I have to set their limits pointedly. Next morning I am ready, bright and early, for the trek to the Valley.

It is a beautiful morning with a royal blue sky, brilliant sunshine, and a few wispy clouds playing hide and seek with the distant peaks. Crossing a small bridge over the Lakshman Ganga and entering the gates of the Valley of Flowers National Park, one leaves behind the porters, mules, and the rush of pilgrims young and old. The path winds through a narrow gorge along the Pushpawati that merges downstream with the Laxman Ganga. On either side are vertical rock walls rising 2000 ft. I reach the other end of the gorge, to a stunning view of green slopes climbing to rocky heights streaked with snow and partially hidden by clouds.

When I emerge from the narrow gorge that remains in darkness most of the day, an alpine meadow begins to open up almost at a right angle. The path suddenly disappears in a rock fall, but a helpful sign points the way over large boulders. The jagged mountain tops are in sharp focus as the sun comes out from behind the clouds—I miss my sunglasses in the brilliant light. The path now turns due east. Another helpful sign board gives directions and proclaims that we are at a height of 11457 ft. A beautiful valley stretches into the distance with the snow capped Rataban peak (20,231 ft) at its head.

This was the valley that English mountaineer, explorer, and incurable romantic Frank Smythe chanced to come upon in 1931 during a climbing expedition and named the Valley of Flowers—a name that has endured since. Going through his book later, I find this description: “... we descended to lush meadows. Here our camp was embowered amidst flowers: snow-white drifts of anemones, golden, lily-like nomocharis, marigolds, globe flowers, delphiniums, violets, eritrichiums, blue corydalis, wild roses, flowering shrubs and rhododendrons, many of them flowers with homely sounding English names. The Bhyundar Valley was the most beautiful valley that any of us has seen. We camped in it for two days and we remembered it afterwards as the Valley of Flowers.”

Perhaps spurred by the grandeur and loneliness of the place a thought lodges in my head. Life may be a journey but there are some stations at which one must stop on the way. Here is certainly one of them. The gurgling of distant streams and the roar of closer waterfalls is ever present. I spot a beautiful red headed bird with predominantly pink and black colors—a rose finch. According to my copy of ornithologist Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, the rose finch breeds in the summer at 10,000 ft and higher in the Himalayas and heads south in September. I replenish my water bottle from a stream with crystal clear “mineral” water from the northern slopes of the valley. Further up on the path, I meet a person going the other way. “Nothing much to see ahead” is his unsolicited message. Perhaps he has been expecting something along the lines of a Lalbagh flower show. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I guess. The place is a veritable botanist’s paradise. There are hundreds of species crowding the valley floor with their exotic shapes and colors. I take close-up pictures of some flowers with my plain vanilla camera. Back home, I identify a few with the help of an excellent online repository of information about Indian flowers—www.flowerofindia.net—flowers with exotic names such as Himalayan cinequefoil, milk parsley, green bellflower vine, horned lousewort, and dwarf fireweed.

I have given myself till noon—that would be five hours—to walk outwards before I should turn back. The path leads to a rock on the banks of the Pushpawati from where the moraine at the head of the valley is visible. This is the perfect spot for lunch. I have also found a companion for the return journey and we have an easy walk back discovering the flowers and birds of the valley. The Pushpawati river is laced with the pink of “river beauty,” the dwarf fireweed that grows on every bit of exposed soil.

Clouds are fast descending down the peaks. At the park gate, I find out that 81 others have entered the park that day. It is 5 pm when we reach Ghangria. I stop at a bookshop and buy a copy of Frank Smythe’s 1937 classic “Valley of Flowers.” The 13 kilometer downward trek to the motor road at Govindghat the next morning is far easier. I mark every turn on the way down—I am sure I will be coming up this way again.

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