By Vincent Van Ross
I spent close to 20 minutes grinding my teeth from 6.20 in the morning caught up in a traffic jam near the New Delhi Railway Station. There were just ten minutes left for the departure of Dehradun Shatabdi Express which was to take me on a 200 km ride to Haridwar in five hours. My restlessness got the better of me. I picked up my backpack and camera bag and waded through the maze of morning traffic which was moving only from one side and the passage for the traffic on the other side was blocked by the aggressive drivers of this side. This happens only in Delhi!
The signal for departure of the train went up just as I stepped into my compartment. I had a smooth run for the next five hours with the Railway staff feeding me one thing after another. I wonder who gave them the impression that I do nothing other than eating! As I alighted from the train and walked out of the Haridwar Railway Station, I found myself flanked by a bunch of drivers who offered me hotel rooms at bargain rates and haggled for rides to assorted places—each one shouting at the top of one’s voice to be heard over the others. They were so engrossed and noisy in pushing their offers, I could have sworn that none of them heard what I was trying to tell them!
In five minutes I got sick of this ruckus and I brushed aside the drivers who were mobbing me. I settled for a young driver who offered to drop me at the Bharat Bhoomi Tourist Bungalow in Rishikesh by his Tempo Taxi for Rs.300.00. The 25 km ride from Haridwar to Rishikesh that took more than an hour was more eventful. The moment we hit the road, we were blessed with a heavy downpour. Hundreds of Kanwarias kept us company along the way on foot, on motorbikes and other means of transport with decorated pots of holy Gangajal slung over their shoulders to be offered at their local Shiva Temples in the month of Saawan. Further down the road, we were overtaken by sikh pilgrims on motorbikes and also jathas on Sumos and other similar vehicles and buses who were headed for Hemkunt Sahib.
The whole stretch between Haridwar and Rishikesh had a religious fervor. The holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh are dry areas. Sandwiched between these two cities, lies Raiwala which is a wet area. Raiwala is an army cantonment and one can buy non-vegetarian food and drinks there.
It took me two failed attempts and one successful trip to the Valley of Flowers to decide that one of the best ways of getting to the Valley of Flowers is to take the conducted tour of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited if you are not too adventurous. Most people visit the Valley of Flowers in the months of July and August. Since these are monsoon months and the entire route is mountainous terrain, landslides come for free with your trip! Tota Ghati (Kaudiyala), Chad Pipal (Gauchar), Pipal Koti, Helong, Paagal Naala and Haaathi Parbhat are some of the areas that are prone to landslides on this route.
Quite often you may not get to the place where you are planning for a night halt. This is where GMVN takes care of most of your worries. They have a strong network of buses which ply on different conducted tours. If there is a landslide, some of their buses get trapped on this side of the landslide site and the others get trapped on the other side. Under such circumstances, the passengers cross over to the other side of landslide site, board the buses on the other side and continue their journey. This idea of transshipment works well in landslide situations and saves a lot of bother. Plus your tour guide will ensure that you have some place to stay for the night. That lets you concentrate on your destination.
Around 7.00 in the morning about 20 of us who were participating in the conducted tour were herded into the GMVN 2X2 bus and our luggage too was shoved on to the last seat as five participants had dropped out. Ramesh Deorari, our tour guide, made incantations to Lord Badrinath, Lord Kedarnath and Ganapati Bappa Morya (a huge chunk of participants for this trip were from Maharashtra) and we started off on our trip to the Valley of Flowers.
We stopped at Kaudiyala for breakfast. This is where the Ganga river flows from the hills to the plains. That creates strong currents and makes this place suitable for white water river rafting. At the instance of some participants who wanted to photograph Dev Prayag, the bus stopped again. Dev Prayag is the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers from where the river assumes the name: Ganga. This is also the place where the priests of the Kedarnath shrine spend their winters when Kedarnath is closed due to heavy snowfall. By noon we reached Srinagar (unlike the Srinagar which is the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, this is a lesser known Srinagar) which was the capital of British Garhwal with district headquarters in Pauri. From Rishikesh to Dev Prayag, the Ganga river flows on your right side. From Dev Prayag right up to Gobind Ghat, the Alaknanda keeps you company. From Dev Prayag to Srinagar, Alaknanda flows on your right. Then you cross the bridge after Srinagar and Alaknanda moves on to your left up to Vishnu Prayag. And, then, once you cross the bridge, Alaknanda once again gets on to your right till Gobind Ghat.
Then we passed through three confluences: Rudra Prayag (Mandakini-Alaknanda), Karna Prayag (Pindar-Alaknanda) and Nand Prayag (Nandakini-Alaknanda). Between Pipal Kothi and Joshi Math we were fortunate to have escaped a landslide at a place called Paagal Nala in Tangdi. Hours before we reached Paagal Nala, there was a landslide along the crevice of the hill. The landslide was cleared but the surface of the road was uneven. So, the driver of the first bus to cross this stretch asked the passengers to disembark and cross over to the other side. While he was crossing this stretch, a lot of water, slush and rubble rolled down the crevice and carried the bus along with it. The driver managed to bail out on time. There was no loss of life. But, the bus and the belongings of the passengers landed nearly 50-60 feet below the road and part of the bus was buried under the rubble and everything was lost. We passed the Paagal Nala unharmed and were fortunate to arrive at our designated night halt at Joshi Math.
Joshimath is one of the Maths established by Adi Guru Shankaracharya. He meditated here in a cave and attained enlightenment under a Kalpavriksha. So, this place is also called Jyotirmath. The Kalpavriksha is still around and is believed to be hundreds of years old. Another important place to visit is the Narasimha Temple. When the Badrinath shrine closes for winter, the priests come down to Joshimath and Lord Badrinath or Lord Vishnu is worshipped in the form of his fourth incarnation “Narasimha” (half man-half lion) for six months here. The popular ski resort Auli is 18 kms away from Joshimath by road. However, Auli can also be reached by the longest ropeway in Asia which is four and a half kilometers long.
The next morning we set off for the Valley of Flowers. Mercifully, there was no landslide while we were negotiating the Haathi Parbhat (possibly as a result of our incantations to the elephant headed god—Ganapati Bappa Morya). And we drove through the 22 km distance from Joshimath to Gobind Ghat in an hour or so passing through Vishnu Prayag, the confluence of Dauli Ganga with Alaknanda.
Gobind Ghat is named after the 10th Guru of the Sikh pantheon—Guru Gobind Singh who had meditated at the Hem Kund. All vehicular traffic comes to a halt at Gobind Ghat. From Gobind Ghat a crude, meandering bridle path takes you to Ghangaria which is 13 kms away. There are several ways of negotiating this distance. You may trek all the way; hire a mule; hire a Nepali porter called “Pittoo” who will carry you on his back in a cane basket called “Khandi”; or, hire a palanquin (Paalki) which is carried by four Nepali porters. If you are handing over your luggage to a porter, please make sure that you take his identity card issued by the Gram Sabha. That is how the Gram Sabha ensures that the porter does not walk away with your luggage. The identity card is to be returned after taking delivery of your belongings.
I settled for a mule. Mules are interesting creatures. They can carry you on long distance rides. They will try and balance themselves to make up for any imbalance you may create by perching awkwardly on their backs. And, if you are really unwieldy, they may throw you down by shooting up on two feet!
Ideally the mule handler should tell you a few things—particularly if you are a first timer. Most of them do. But, sometimes they forget! Just in case you climb on to a mule without a proper initiation, try to remember a few things: You will find a metal ring in front of the saddle…don’t cling to it. If you happen to lose your balance or lean on to one side this ring might either break or come off. And, the next thing you would know is that you are lying on the ground clutching the ring! If you look carefully, you will find another ring below that which is actually part of the saddle…well, that is a safer bet!
When you are precariously perched on the back of a mule in mountain terrain just remember three things: If you are moving uphill, lean forward and help your mule balance itself during the climb; if you are moving downhill, lean backwards and if you are on plain ground just sit straight. That way you will make things easier for the mule and yourself.
It took us close to five hours to negotiate the steep climb from Gobind Ghat to Ghangaria. Doing 13 kms in five hours is making slow progress. But, that is the way it is. You cannot take chances on this kind of terrain. Most of the people you encounter on your way are pilgrims headed for Hemkunt Sahib because the route to Hemkunt Sahib and The Valley of Flowers is the same up to Ghangaria. A little futher, you encounter a fork. If you take the dirt road on your left, you get to The Valley of Flowers. And, if you take the one on the right, you reach Hemkunt Sahib. We had a night halt in Ghangaria. It was quite chilly and it rained a lot.
The next morning we made our way to The Valley of Flowers. The valley of flowers is an eight kilometer long, U-shaped alpine meadow formed by retreating glaziers. The valley is hemmed in by Lakshman Ganga and Alaknanda rivers. The majestic Rataban peak towers over the valley. The sky was overcast with clouds and it drizzled on the way. Just before the entry point to The Valley of Flowers, we saw the remnants of a glazier. After three kilometers of trekking, we caught a glimpse of the gushing waters of Pushpavati river which flows through the Valley of Flowers and becomes a tributary of Lakshman Ganga near Ghangaria Laskshman Ganga then meets Alaknanda near Gobind Ghat. A little further, we encountered another glazier. This was much bigger and expansive than the previous one. After a trek of another kilometer, we reached the main valley. Unlike the British mountaineer and explorer, Frank Smythe, I did not discover The Valley of Flowers by chance. And, it wasn’t the first time I had been to the Valley. But, my excitement at seeing the whole valley carpeted with numerous species of colorful wild flowers was no less. The valley begins to bloom in April when the snow starts thawing and the blooming season continues through October. But, every few weeks the valley changes color according to the flowers that bloom during that period—that is the beauty of this enchanting valley.
Way back in 1931, an expedition of six British mountaineers spent four months climbing Kamet (25,447 ft), a mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas and exploring the area around it. Frank S. Smythe was one of them. After conquering Kamet, the expedition descended to Gamsali, a village in the Dauli Valley and crossed the Zanskar Range which bifurcates the upper Dhauli and Alaknanda Valleys through the Bhyundar Pass (16,688 ft) to explore the mountainous terrain near the sources of two important tributaries of the Ganga river, the Alaknanda and Gangotri rivers.
As the expedition members descended into the Bhyundar Valley, R.L. Holdsworth, who was also a botanist, stretched out his hand and pointed towards the rocks in front of him and exclaimed in a voice choked with excitement: “Look!” Frank’s eyes followed the outstretched forefinger of Holdsworth and rested on the incredible splashes of blue. The mountainsides were littered with fragrant primulas! Not one; not two…there were hundreds of thousands of them.
Primulas are small flowers that grow in clusters that could number as many as thirty to an umbel. Further down the Valley, they came across a variety of flowers including androsaces, saxifrages, desums, yellow and red potentillas, geums, geraniums, asters, gentians, anemones, nomocharis, marigolds, glober flowers, delphiniums, violets, erittrichiums, blue corydalis, wild roses, rhododendrons and a whole lot of other flowering shrubs. At the end of the expedition, Frank visited the Bhyunder Valley again. In 1937, Frank returned for further botanical research and went on to write a book entitled “The Valley of Flowers” which he dedicated “To all who enjoy hills and the flowers that grow on hills.” This book was largely responsible for making the Valley of Flowers so popular. Apart from the rich variety of flowers found in the Valley of flowers, it is also home to several species of butterflies and hill birds and endangered mammals such as Musk deer, Bharal, Bear, mouse hare and snow leopard.
There are hundreds and thousands of alpine meadows all over the world which are littered with wild flowers of all descriptions during their blooming seasons. But, none so colourful; none so variegated; and, none so enchanting as the Bhyundar Valley tucked away in the Chamoli Garhwal district of the north Indian state of Uttrarakand. No other geographical zone in the world can claim to have the floral diversity of over 300 species of wild flowers within an area of just 87.5 sq kms as the Bhyundar Valley. No wonder it is called “The Valley of Flowers.” To conserve and preserve this unique natural heritage and to maintain its ecological balance, The Valley of Flowers was declared a National Park in 1982. The UNESCO endorsed the importance of this national park by declaring it a World Heritage Site in 2005. The Valley of Flowers is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve which is spread over 5,860.69 sq kms in Chamoli district of Garhwal and Bageshwar and Pithoragarh districts of Kumaon.
Miss Margarate Legge, a botanist from the botanical gardens of Edinburg was sent to study the flora of the Valley of Flowers and to collect samples of these exquisite flowers in 1939. While collecting flowers from rocky slopes, she slipped and fell to her death. Later on, her sister visited the valley and built a memorial where she was buried by the local people. The epitaph on her grave reads: “I will lift mine eyes unto the Hills from whence cometh my strength.”
The GMVN operates tours to the Valley of Flowers from July to September every year. The months of July and August are touted as the best months for visiting the Valley both by GMVN and the Wildlife department of Uttaranchal. But, there are reasons to believe that April to June may be a better time to visit this valley. The blooming season for the most prominent flowers of the valley such as Rhododendron (which is the state tree of Uttaranchal) which paints the valley in red, pink and white; primulas on which the monal pheasant feeds and which lends a distinct hue of blue to the valley and the blue poppies for whom the Japanese tourists travel thousands of kilometers to have a glimpse are between April and June. This has been endorsed by the local photographers. The other attractions of this valley are: Brahm Kamal (which is the state flower of Uttaranchal) and Bhoj Patra. Much before paper was invented by the Chinese, the holy scriptures of Hindus, were written on Bhoj Patra.
According to local legends, Lord Hanuman collected the Sanjeevani Bhooti from these hills to revive Lakshman after he was wounded in a battle with Ravana’s Son, Megnad. Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, later meditated near the Byundar Valley as penance for killing Brahmins during the war with Ravana. Pleased with his meditation the Gods showered blessings on him in the form of flowers. There is another legend which says that Guru Gobind Singh had meditated at Hem Kund in his previous birth and the Gods had showered flowers on him. The flowers in the Valley of Flowers are believed to have sprung up from the flowers that fell in the Bhyundar valley. For centuries the local herdsmen held the valley of flowers in great awe and avoided grazing their cattle here believing that it was the Garden of Gods!
During the last century, the herdsmen mustered enough courage to graze their cattle in the valley. That created a controversy. Environmentalists claimed that cattle-grazing was causing environmental damage to the Valley of Flowers. The herdsmen countered that the cattle was only feeding on weeds They claimed that as a result of cattle grazing, the blooms were improving year after year. The controversy came to an end in 1982 when the Valley of Flowers was declared a National Park. There is zero tolerance in an area designated as a National Park as far as human interference is concerned.
Between Gobind Ghat and Ghangaria, there are two villages. The first one is just a kilometer uphill called Phulna and the second one is some six kilometers further up. Both the villages are inhabited by the same people. About 75 families inhabit these villages—most of them Chauhans. They are believed to be pastoral folks who migrated from Rajasthan. They were engaged in agriculture and they also raise cattle. However, they are diversifying to other professions. Some of them have opened shops while some of them are running hotels in Ghangaria. And, some of them have taken to photography in a big way. During the summer season, they live in Bhyundar village. When the winter approaches and there is heavy snowfall making Bhyunder village inhabitable, they move down to their winter homes in Phulna village.
Over the years, the environmental degradation in this area has been a matter of concern. So, the people of this village formed the Eco Development Committee in co-ordination with the Wildlife department to clean up the mess. The EDC has managed to clean the path from Gobind Ghat to Ghangaria and generally ensures that tourists who visit the Valley of Flowers behave responsibly. They also maintain an interpretation centre where the visitors can get information and clarifications or buy books, pictures and other material or watch a movie on The Valley of Flowers.
I came across an interesting message in one of the photo shops. It read: “Please keep the valley clean—leave only footprints!” What a cute message?! And, believe me…that’s all I left there!
On the way back we were stuck up at Helong for several hours waiting for the omnipresent GREF personnel to clear a landslide. Two bulldozers worked vigorously for hours to clear the rubble. My trip to the Valley of Flowers was essentially an eco tour. But, nature added a little adventure to it!