Valley of Flowers and Hemkund - A flowery paradise

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February 16th 2017
Published: March 18th 2017
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Plans. You can only plan so much and so early but if fate intervenes, then there is nothing much you can do about it. What had been a stellar early plan for a trek to Kashmir Great Lakes, had to be scrapped at the last moment which resulted in a trek to another place I had on my bucketlist.

Kashmir fell into chaos in the first week of July 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter by the military. Indiahikes assured us that we will not face any issues with the trek but most of us were not sure about the situation there and decided to cancel the trek. But we had already booked flights and so we decided to find an alternate trek. Though Indiahilkes offered us Hampta pass trek, I was very interested in going for Valley of Flowers as I had heard a lot about its beauty. Considering it was the perfect time when the flowers would be in full bloom there, (The valley opens only between July to September) I, Vivek, Biswadip and Sourav decided to go for it when we saw that Trek The Himalayas group had the slots available as per our convenience.

Our flights were till Delhi where we alighted and spent a day at before catching the train to Haridwar. I, Biswadip and Sourav stayed at Biswadip's brother in law's place (Vivek stayed at his relatives' house). We reached there at night and in the morning obtained all the items which we would require for the trek. Along the way to the stores I played some PokemonGO which had just released. As the bus to Haridwar was at night, I and Sourav decided to visit Swaminarayan Akshardham temple. Though I had been to Delhi so many times, I had never been able to visit it and I was pretty excited as I had heard a lot about it. And it did not disappoint.

The temple complex spans more than 60 acres. It even holds the Guinness record as the world's largest comprehensive Hindu temple. The main attraction there is the Akshardham Mandir. The Mandir is dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and is built in ancient Hindu style architecture. Throughout, the carvings are intricate and very well sculpted. I can write a lot on the details of the carvings, Mandir, decoration within the Mandir and so on but it makes more sense to just visit and view it 😊. Even if you do not believe in God, the architecture is worth marveling. The complex surprises you at every turn with great artistry. We also went for all the exhibitions which included Sahajanand Darshan (walks us through the how values were preached by Bhagawan Swaminarayan), Neelkanth Darshan (a film showing the journey of Bhagawan Swaminarayan) and Sansruti Darshan (a cultural boat ride exploring our ancient history). Last but not the least was the water show which I had been eagerly waiting for. It was the best water and light show I have experienced anywhere. The detail of light display was just amazing and the narration was engaging. After that we had some food at the food court and left to board our train. Aayush, Tiwari and Aayush's brother Shubham joined us at the station.

The train reached the Haridwar station early in the morning around 6 am. Though our pickup was already there, we had to wait for a few other folks to arrive as all the vehicles would depart at the same time. After about an hour and post a session of tea, we started to Joshimath. The weather was overcast with grey clouds constantly threatening us and by the time we stopped for breakfast, it was drizzling lightly. We had parathas and puris for breakfast followed by some tea. Just in front of the hotel, we could see the river gushing past and the drizzle giving a foggy look to the river flow. As we drove, tributaries of Ganges kept us company in patches along the way. We had two more main stops, one for lunch and then for tea in the evening just as we were about to reach Joshimath. Finally we reached our stay at around 7 after having traveled for about 300 Kms and 11 hours. The stay was location at a very beautiful location. Our rooms were facing the hills where one of the hills had a meandering road cutting through it from top to bottom. Adjacent to our rooms was a big garden too which had a variety of plants which in turn attracted a number of birds. Dinner was arranged in building next to ours on a rooftop. The silent, sparsely lit hills with the moon playing hide and seek through the clouds was a welcome change for us city folk. Our group got acquainted with few of the others who would trek with us the next day. Among them were Ajay, Ananya, Muruga, Sukanya and Yashika. While Ananya and Yashika were from Delhi, Sukanya was working in Delhi, Muruga in Chennai and Ajay in Hyderabad. We also met Chaman Thakur, our trek lead there while we were having our dinner. He gave us the trek details with the do's and don'ts. I and Tiwari also realized that we had met Thakur previously during our Roopkund trek (though we had been with Indiahikes then) where he had heroically (at least from our perspective) helped two trekkers who had been stranded on a snowy slope not able to climb up. He had literally skied down (without a ski but just his trek shoes) and easily pulled them up while everyone else was struggling to walk on straight paths on snow. Post dinner, we headed back to our rooms and decided to call it a night sensing the long day awaiting us the next day.

Save for Maity's monstrous snore (which he had graciously warned us of), we were able to sleep well and get up early in the morning. Once we had breakfast, we got all of our bags to the vehicles and drove to Govindghat which is located approximately 22 Kms from Joshimath and at the confluence of Alakananda and Laxman Ganga rivers. On reaching Govindghat, we had to decide whether to trek for another few Kms or ride there and then start our trek. Though few of us were in favour of trekking, it was finally decided that we would ride before starting our trek. In hindsight, I feel that was the right decision as it was drizzling and the path did not have anything spectacular worth trekking for. The rest of our group consisted of a gang of veteran trekkers from Bangalore (D H Kulkarni, Hanumantrao, P S Kulkarni, A S Patil, Gopalkrishna, Thimmappa and C H Kulkarni), one group from Mumbai (Parthasarthy, Rajiv, Rakesh, Nikunj, Praveen and Manish) and the army doctor duo, Kapil and Gurpreet from Mumbai. On crossing the bridge and reaching our starting spot, we were given our usual dose of the pre-trek gyan by Chaman with introductions to our guides. Considering that water especially during rains are pretty dangerous, he asked us to ensure that we do not stray towards the bank lest we get pulled into the current. Then with one guide at the front and the other at the back we started our journey with green fields and colourful flowers in our minds.

Though we were high on spirit initially, that quickly started dampening with the rains. The drizzle was continuous which rendered my camera useless too. As we trudged along, we saw a lot of small shops at the side. The climb as such was not very taxing as the steps had been well laid considering this is a very famous route to the Hemkund Sahib for Sikhs. We could also see a lot of people climbing effortless and without any shoes. By afternoon we reached the designated place for our lunch in front of a small bridge across Alakananda. We warmed our hands with the hot tea cups and had our lunch as all of our team trickled in slowly one by one. During our wait, Shubham suddenly went to a corner and started reading a book with his earphones on. Assuming that he was on his path to enlightenment, we started off again towards Ghangaria. There was still no respite from rain gods though the drizzle had lightened. The landscapes improved as we moved up with lesser shops and more greenery with a few fields also visible. Finally we reached Ghangaria in the evening after about 12 -14 kms of trekking and after changing out of our wet clothes, happily devoured the evening snacks with a cup of hot tea. It was pretty cold there both due to the rain and the height (10200 ft) at which it is located. Few of us went out to see the shops nearby (not many as it is a small place). During dinner time we were told that our next day plans would depend on the will of rain gods. As there are streams near the Valley of Flowers, which when full cannot be crossed, we were told that only if the skies clear up and there is no rain would we be allowed to visit the Valley. All of us had pretty low hopes of the sky clearing in the morning after looking at the evil dark grey clouds hovering over our heads. Still being optimistic, we retired to our rooms and forgot about all our worries once we were in the warm blankets.

Next morning, I woke up early and was pleasantly surprised to see a cloud free blue sky. The Valley from our rooftop looked pristine and all of us were very excited. After finishing our breakfast quickly, lined up to start to the famed Valley of Flowers. We took a left just before a waterfall (right takes one to Hemkund) and reached the checkpost where we had to enter our names in a register. A number of flowers had started decorating our path already and along with them I was also able to spot a Himalayan Bluetail. As we moved up, the density and variety of flowers started increasing. Our senior botanist, Gopalkrishna was gracious enough to tell us that Blue Poppy was pretty popular there (He even showed us one) and we could see his excitement as he steadily trekked to the top with us. I kept clicking on all the flowers I could find along with some very colourful insects. It was here that I realized that I had been pretty lazy and had not done much prior research on the trek. I would have loved to search for a few of the stunning species of flora and fauna but my lack of knowledge limited this. As we moved on the views progressively kept improving and at one point we crossed a bridge on a river with a huge rock towering us on one side and the hill leading us to the valley on the other. On climbing the hill, we got a glimpse of the valley of flowers for the first time. There was a stream flowing in the middle leading to a mountain which was covered in snow at the top. On both sides of the streams were lush green hills. The valley stretched until the glacier and it was a sight to behold. Few of us decided to move forward along the valley which seemed to stretch endlessly with various flowers on all sides. The view reminded me a bit of the song "Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam" from DDLJ though that was a flat field in Switzerland. We walked until we found a stream where we had our lunch and then decided to head back as the weather started taking a turn for the worse. Till then the sky had been very clear with the sun blazing directly over us. All of us then gathered at a point and started to descend. I had decided to race back (cautiously but quickly) as I did not want to get wet again with my camera with me. I fortunately reached our lodge just before it started to rain and waited for the rest of the folks to reach. When the snacks got ready, all of us sat at the table discussing random topics. The packed lunch had hardly been sufficient for any of us and that led to each one venting their frustrations. That was also the time when we got to know that Kapil and Gurpreet had both been in Ladakh (army camp) with Kapil even spending a few months at the Siachen base camp. All of us were awed by this and and felt super proud to have met them. Even today whenever I see any of their posts or see the ad from Indian Army on TV where a guy says he feels like a superhero, I remember them 😊 Even after snacks our stomachs were still rumbling and so with the Bengali trio of Biswadip, Sourav and Tiwari in the lead, few of us went out to have Samosas and Jalebis. By 7 pm dinner was served and along with it was a cake to celebrate one of our Bangalore veteran's birthday. He gave us a touching story of the values of friendship where his fellow trekker had been like a brother to him during his childhood and had moulded him into the man he is today. With that, a very eventful day came to an end.

The sun was again up bright and blazing to make sure we trekked to Hemkund the next day. Unfortunately Shubham had fallen sick that day and couldn't join us for the trek. Post a hearty breakfast the rest of us left for what was supposed to be a tougher trek than the previous day. The initial route was the same as that of valley of flowers except for the fact that we went straight ahead near the checkpoint to reach a waterfall. Though we could not go near the waterfall, it was a pretty sight. As we moved ahead the main problem we faced were from the mules. As Hemkund is a popular destination for a lot of folks because of its religious nature, there are a number of locals who offer rides on mules to the top. This has resulted in the path being littered with mule poop throughout. Also, when the mules pass one needs to make way for them which is irritating. The path was tougher with the climb being more steep. The scenery too was different with the whole region being mountainous. As we went higher we could also see a lot of birds including the indigenous Rosefinch and Oriental Turtle-dove. A few of us wanted to challenge ourselves and thus started taking a few shortcuts which were mostly steeper routes than the well made zigzagging ones. At one point we had an option of taking a very long meandering path and a shorter but heavily inclined set of stairs to reach the top. Though advised to take the meandering one, I, Kapil and Rakesh decided to try out the stairs as it looked much closer to the top. The climb literally took our breath away in all aspects. The path was decorated with Blue Poppies and Brahma Kamal (though I did not realize those were Brahma Kamal flowers at that time). Huffing and puffing we finally reached the top and took our well deserved break. As we waited for everyone to arrive, realization dawned upon us that Aayush and Tiwari were not with anyone and thus, probably had not left for the trek that day.

At the top at about 15,200 ft is a lake with crystal clear water from the glaciers. The Bangalore group had taken a mule ride here because of its tougher nature and had already visited the Gurudwara (place of worship of the Sikhs). It is called Gurudwara Sri Hemkund Sahib Ji named after Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth Sikh Guru. The general attire before entering a Gurudwara is that one should wear something to cover their heads and one should be barefoot. As we removed our shoes, we could feel the cold creep onto our feet from the floor. After visiting the Gurudwara we came out and went to the langar (kitchen) where everyone is served free vegetarian food. The hot dal and tea were heavenly after a tough trek in the cold. Few folks also took a dip in the ice cold lake which is customary. Then one by one as everyone was done, Chaman told us to start back as the weather was starting to change. This time I took the meandering route and made sure that I had a good look at the famous Brahma Kamal which grows at high altitudes only. Most of the flowers were still in bud stage but I did observe a few which were blossoming. The flowers were covered with yellowish green paper like bracts which provide protection from the cold environment at that altitude. Inside the bracts was an inflorescence with the flowers being dark purple in colour. As I and Muruga were searching for such open Brahma Kamals, we saw Vivek and Aayush trudging up. We gave them a gist of what to expect at the top and asked them to hurry up. The descent felt very long though it was much simpler. There was a drizzle in between which quickly subsided allowing us to continue at a leisurely pace. Maggi was on the menu as an achievement for finishing our trek and everyone eagerly reached the lunch table as soon as they came back. It was devoured at such a pace that our chefs had to scram to get more and more and more. Also, it was our turn to wish Murugan a Happy Birthday on that day. Because of our previous flight reservations, I, Biswadip, Sourav and Vivek had to decide how to spend the 2 extra days. Vivek supremely eager to reach Hyderabad and make use of the two days for some unknown reason, booked a flight back without even cancelling the old one. I, Biswadip and Sourav after considering Spiti Valley and host of other options, decided to keep our options open until we could get a more concrete plan. That night all of us slept with a sense of fulfillment thanks to two days of great trekking.

We woke up the next morning praying for a clear day and a clear road. Though the trek down back to Govindghat was pretty simple, it was imperative for the weather to be clear for us to make it to Badrinath. During the rainy season, the roads to Badrinath generally get blocked due to landslides. The trek down was pretty uneventful. It was simple which was made easier thanks to the sunny weather. For the third day in a row, our luck held and after reaching Govindghat, we drove to Badrinath in jeeps to end our trek with some blessings. We had our lunch there and then after finishing the Darshan at 3 pm, left back to Joshimath. As was earlier, we were separated to two groups each in a different lodge for the night. Post dinner, after a lot of discussion, I, Biswadip and Sourav decided to go to Jim Corbett National Park on one of our spare days. The bookings were made and then all of us decided to leave early in the morning to accommodate the various schedules of all our fellow trekkers.

Fourth day lucky in a row ? Nope. Due to a landslide we had to wait till 12 pm before we could start from our lodge. It looked like it would be an agonizing wait after our breakfast. After a lot of deliberation, it was unanimously decided that we would watch Singham movie (Hindi version) till the roads cleared. With so many people in a room watching Rohit Shetty's movie and with Shubham and Aaysuh's bromance blossoming, it was pretty entertaining. Finally, as we got the green signal, we boarded our vehicles to left to Haridwar. With short lunch and snack breaks, all of us thankfully reached on time. Our ride to Jim Corbett did not arrive and so we went in search of buses first to Rishikesh where we realized that there are no direct buses and then to Haridwar. At Haridwar, after searching for trains or buses, we finally decided to try out a Travels beside the bus stand who agreed to take us to Ramnagar where the safari was supposed to begin. Though skeptical of the unknown taxi provider, we did not have any option but to accept it. Fortunately we reached there safely but unfortunately it had started drizzling there. With all our luck spent during our trek, the rain gods decided to dampen our expectations. Though it was drizzling initially when we started the safari in our jeep, by the time we reached the interiors it was raining cats and dogs. The driver even hit a fence though that was completely his fault and not because of the rain. We got to see only a few deer and birds but an abundance of flowing water everywhere. The safari had to be cut short because of the rain and post that I, Biswadip and Sourav reached the train station to book our tickets to Delhi. With our stomach growling, we bought a few biscuits and chips at the station and left for Delhi an hour later.

Biswadip and Sourav were planning a eatathon or an eat walk or whatever they call it which just did not appeal to me considering I had been trying hard not to gain weight. So we parted ways and my college friend Arvind graciously accepted to host me at his house. I took a cab to his house from the metro station and as expected the area he was living in was pretty posh. I was pretty surprised that he had come home early from his work for me. After a pretty disillusioning day, I decided to get back to playing PokemonGo to cheer up a bit. Post freshening up and catching up on our progress since we last met, I and Arvind went out for dinner. I was pretty tired after that and decided to go to sleep.

I woke up late the next morning and Arvind had already gotten our breakfast prepared. My flight was in the evening and the rest of the day just passed by with me just relaxing. In the evening, I bade Arvind farewell thanking him for being an exemplary host (I am pretty sure if he sees my room, he would just go to the nearest 5 start hotel and book a room there. Whether he would even ask me to stay at my place or book a 5 star hotel directly is debatable) and joined Biswadip and Sourav on the AirIndia flight.

The whole experience was very unique for me. From the ebbs and flows of hope starting from the scrapping of our plan to Kashmir to surreal landscapes at Valley of flowers and Hemkund to disillusionment at Jim Corbett National Park, this trip had it all. Not to mention the inspiring people I met which included veteran trekkers (one of whom was 70 years old) and the army couple. The whole group was very diverse and the experience was very different compared to any of my other treks. I also had to adjust to Biswadip launching into speaking gibberish in Bengali with Sourav every now and then (I was their roommate most of the time). Chaman was a great guy to trek with and I hope to trek with him again in the near future. As far as Valley of flowers and Hemkund are concerned, though from a trekking perspective it isn't tough, the scenery is surreal. It is an opportunity which presents itself for only 2-3 months in an year and any trekker should grab it without thinking twice. But some research before the trek would help you a lot on what to expect and what all flowers to search for depending on the time when you visit the Valley. The weather drops drastically during the night and so, one would surely need thermals and jackets. As a last note, Trek the Himalayas as a group were pretty good. The organization of the trek was great and I did not face any major issues.

Until next time 😊

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2nd June 2020

Excellent blog post
Really amazing writing with excellent description about the trip to flower valley in the Joshimath and the picture of the different flowers is very beautiful.

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