Its late in the night as I sit in the comfortable confines of a railway compartment at the old Delhi railway station. Its a new experience traveling alone as I wait for the Mussoorie
Express to chug into the inky darkness which I hope will take me to a new dawn in my life. I feel more in control of myself and while trying to absorb the atmosphere, I get an occasional strange glance… a single Indian lady with a backpack! I feel good. The
train’s started on the dot at 10:15 pm, and I’m on my way. I quickly settle down for a nap and before I know it, am dreaming of flower-filled valleys and endless meadows with laughing brooks and singing rivers. Only when the train comes to a shuddering halt
at Haridwar, I’m jolted back to reality! The train, for reasons beyond my understanding, halts here for 3 hours before taking off for Rhishikesh, I decide to get off here and proceed to Rhishikesh by road.
Its 6.15 as I take an auto rickshaw called ‘Vikram’ from here to Rhishikesh which costs me a mere Rs 15 on a sharing basis. They charge per passenger and can crowd in about 10 passengers
at a time. It’s been drizzling for an hour now and I expect more rains as I proceed up. The clouds look ominously dark and are hanging low, a sure sign of showers along the way.
The Ganges in Haridwar is magnificent. Unfortunately, my camera is deep down in the rucksack and I’m already regretting not having removed it earlier. I can see a few sadhus having
an early dip in the morning chill.
The road passes up through dense Chilla forest of bamboo, teak and cherry and, Rhishikesh comes quickly. I head straight for Chotiwala’s across the Ram-jhula. This is a famous tea/lunch
stall and is so named, because a Chotiwala sits there, all pink and roly-poly, grinning at all and sundry. He looks weird with his ‘choti’ standing straight up in the air!
I have a quick breakfast and leave my rucksack at Chotiwala’s (he’s trustworthy and moreover having such a distinct hairdo he would be easy to spot anywhere) and join a group of
people on a small trek to Neelkantha. The cobbled path is slippery as it’s been raining and I enjoy the way up with a group of college kids from Lucknow.. Somewhere deep from the jungle comes the trumpeting of wild elephants and we all hurry along…the pachyderms
here are notorious for attacking and a series of stories start on the way up. It’s interesting to hear some of them while most of them are hearsay. We reach at 1:00 pm. I take a dip in the cool stream flowing by the temple and am feeling refreshed. The clouds
are now closing in and a damp atmosphere engulfs us. We hurriedly start the trek down and this time, we are almost running as the clouds threaten to break any moment. I quickly gather my sack from the Chotiwala’s and head back to town. As I check into Hotel
Uttaranchal, the heavens let loose…. I’m glad to be in my room. After a hot bath, I catch a few winks.
What a surprise when I wakeup at 5:00 pm... The sun’s shining as though it’s never rained! One of nature’s tricks!! I stroll down to the GMVN Office and meet a really nice gentleman,
Mr. Allan Sharma, who not only guides me but also lends me the beautiful map of Uttaranchal that is hanging behind his desk. I feel lucky to have met him. He gives me the details of all the probable places I could have a comfortable and affordable stay while
on the move. I profusely thank him and go and sit on the banks of the mighty river.
Watching the river flow, I’m lost in thoughts ~ on the creation of the earth, the bounty of nature and thank God that I’m born in such a traditionally rich, seeped in culture and
breathtakingly beautiful country. What freedom! I sit pondering until the twinkling golden and silver lights start sparkling through homes across the expanse, reflecting a million reflections in the rushing waters. I choose this moment to call my daughters
and my dad and share these happy moments with them. Reluctantly, I walk back to the hotel. On the way, at the market, there’s this sweetmeat shop, Saket, which has a tiny but clean restaurant at the back and serves excellent cutlets and fantastic coffee. My
dinner done, I pick up a few apples and nuts for the journey tomorrow and head back to the hotel and in minutes, I’m back in the land of flowers and mountain fragrances…as I dream on.
Up and away at 2:30 am…to the bus-stand to catch the 3:15 bus for Joshimath. As I settle down, I’m half-sleepy and groggy. As the bus starts, I realize with horror that I’m the
only passenger and the driver is driving like crazy….he has a terrible smoker’s cough and is continuously smoking bidis and coughing. At times I feel he might just double up any moment….and his driving is driving me nuts. I have all my fingers and toes crossed
and am chanting the gayatri mantra to save my own soul! I decide to close my eyes and try to sleep, but to no avail! On the contrary, I’m holding on to all available support with my extremities …and ability!
The journey is awfully beautiful and somewhere along the way, I have managed to lose the Ganges and have no idea when the Alaknanda has joined me … keeping me company… flowing…clouds
hanging really low…the mountains towering above and the yellow-vented bulbuls flying around. I can hear the whistling thrush, the low whistle of a bushchat and chirping of the other birds. We manage to arrive safely at Srinagar and as the bus halts, many Sikh
pilgrims, on their way to Hemkund Sahib are now boarding the bus. I’m relieved at the company. As the bus starts once again on its journey, I try to take some pictures of the narrow bridges across the river but find it difficult to hold steady … thanks to
our ‘Desi-Grand-Prix-Driver’. In fact, most of the passengers are holding on to the seats, windows, bars, each other, whatever … all for their dear lives! I know it sounds hilarious but it is sheer hell! We finally make it to Rudraprayag at 8:15 am. The driver
is having another bidi and I wonder what’s going to happen next… my gayatri mantras begin…Was my dream of a new freedom going to go up in a puff of bidi smoke?
We leave Rudraprayag at 9 am. The journey is slower due to the other traffic on the road – some blessing in disguise. Also, since the bus is now crowded with the pilgrims, the driver
has less opportunity of trying out his driving histrionics. I doze off until we reach Chamoli. There’s a landslide up ahead and all traffic has come to a standstill. I get off the bus and stretch my legs. The mountains are beckoning and I can’t wait to get
to the valley. Just one more night…I arrive at Joshimath at 5:40 pm and have a splitting headache. I check into the GMVN tourist bungalow, which luckily, is bang on the main road. I put my rucksack into the room and order some food, pop a dispirin and doze
off. I am awakened by a cacophony outside the hotel. I freshen up and decide to have a look at the town.
Joshimath is a small town, but a prominent one as Gobindghat (the staging point for Hemkund Sahib & the valley of flowers) up ahead does not have all facilities. As I stroll
down the main market road, there’s no electricity tonight but the whole place is aglow with the soft lights of the candle-lit evening and millions and trillions of stars studded in the sky above. I suddenly realize how dependent we are on technology and how
we have, in the name of progress, lost the many beautiful sights that nature has to offer. There’s a chill in the air and I feel snug in my overcoat and muffler. I walk into a small dhaba on the roadside and order some hot food. The strange glances towards
me continue…but am so hungry that I just ignore them and enjoy the food.
I have a good sleep and am up before dawn. I take the 6:40 am bus to Badrinath. The bus is a hotchpotch mix of passengers. The back is filled with the locals while there are a few
Bengali tourists in the middle. There’s an antique-looking villager and he’s got a running commentary on… of his visits to Haridwar & is adding his own notions and ideas on religion. He keeps looking at all of us hoping someone would lend him ears, little
knowing that we have no choice but to listen to his ramblings….a child is crying somewhere in the back and the bus is packed. The bus conductor has a whacky sense of humor: Bumbai ka fashion…Uttaranchal ka rotation aur Gadhwaal ka mausam – koi garantee nahi!
I agree with him. The mountains are lush green and sheer drops of waterfalls dot the scenery. The clouds are still up there and I can see a build-up. Well, the whole valley is shrouded in fog. It’s going to be another wet day!
We reach Gobindghat at 7:15 and I get off the bus and feel my pulse quicken. I look up at the mighty mountains and breathe in the dew-laden air. It smells good. I take my time to
gauge the exact time I might take to reach Ghangharia and, realise that I have no idea! I walk through Gobindghat, taking in the ambiance created by the hundreds of pilgrims… some sturdy enough to climb in a short span of time while some are so old that I
wonder how’ll they make it??? While I contemplate taking a porter, one suddenly appears out of nowhere, GhanBahadur Singh. He has a kind face and I agree to hire him to carry my backpack. We agree on Rs 200. It has started raining now and I am huddled inside
As we cross the bridge and head towards Pulna, I’m slowing down. It takes some time getting used to walking in the mountains. The fresh air is too good for these hungry lungs of
pollution-laden Mumbai and the going becomes tougher. I stop at Pulna and watch the farmers in their fields. Alongside is a tributary, Pushpawati, in a mad rush to meet Alaknanda. The clouds are closing in now and visibility drops. To add to woes a cobbled
path, mixed with rain slush and horse-shit, makes it all the more difficult to walk and one has to be careful of putting one’s feet in the right place. A slip here would not only be painful but will cause much misery if not be fatal at this point in time.
I make two more stops to enjoy the flavors of the villages and keep a steady pace going. We finally reach Ghangharia at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Ghangharia lies bang in the middle of a dense forest shaped in a gorgeous V shaped valley. The tall pine trees shoot skywards like rockets as if to lay a personal claim to the bright
rejuvenating sunlight, while the clouds come rushing down, blanketing everything in sight. It has an ethereal feel and I suddenly get a feeling of Déjà vu. I can’t believe I’ve reached here – on my own. The tiny hamlet is bustling with pilgrims and I spot
a few Japanese tourists. Just before the hamlet lies an open meadow converted into a beautiful helipad. Today, there are some children playing hopscotch and I am tempted to go join them but I know, I can’t trust my legs now. The last bit was a trifle hard.
In fact, I felt like a Jack-in-the-box and my legs are so rubbery that I practically have no control over them.
I check in at the GMVN guest house and take a dorm-room – all to myself, as there are hardly any tourists. It’s a four-bed room with a bath attached. So far, so good. I dump my
backpack and go out to explore. I walk into a hotel opposite and order some food and afterwards, a hot ‘chai’ and watch the people around. There are all kinds… I meet a local couple from Bhyundar village and have a good chat – about their life … and, they
look so happy together. Somewhere deep inside, I envy them their blissfully simple lives and think of the madness of my own life in a metropolitan city. It is then that I realize what a loser I am! I go out and explore the small lane selling all the various
paraphernalia of temple offerings and flower garlands, sweetmeats and guide books. Spotting a photography shop, I walk in and am greeted by a pony-tailed youth, all smiles and at service. I look at the marvelous photographs of the flowers of the valley. Rajnish
Chauhan is an amazing person and a walking encyclopedia of Botany. A resident of the Bhyundar village, he’s been studying the flora and fauna of the valley and the upper regions of the Himalayas since the past 6 years. He’s passionate about his valley and
as he talks, a glow spreads across his face as he lovingly dishes out the almost-alien names of the flowers. His shop is full of the most exotic flowers I’ve ever seen – all frozen on postcard-sized glossy photographs.
It’s now 4:00pm but feels as though it’s 7:00 in the evening. Rajnish has invited me to come view his slide show at the library. As I come out of the library after the amazing show,
I can feel my toes and fingers going numb with the cold creeping in. I walk back into the restaurant and dive into some hot tomato soup with paranthas and rush back into my room. I order for some hot water for the water bottle I carry. As I wait for the water
to arrive, I pack for tomorrow’s trip to the valley. Everything in order, I jump under the blankets with my water bottle and try to sleep. Outside it is 12˚C and it is raining. The chill is too much and I find sleeping difficult. Have tried all positions and
am not sure if I’ve slept even a wink the whole night.
Am up, even before the alarm goes off and drag my numb body out of bed. Have a quick change of clothes, arrange my things neatly and as I step out of the room, I get a shock of
my life! I can’t see a thing as the fog has completely shrouded everything. And worse, it’s drizzling. I go to the reception area and ask for a chai. I have no choice but to enjoy the moments of a steaming cuppa. The clouds have rolled in too and except the
trees closest to me, can’t see anything beyond. I wait for an hour and then, decide to move on. It has cleared a bit and the receptionist assures me that it’ll completely clear in an hour or so. He was right.
Entrance to Valley of Flowers
I go up to the entrance of the valley and sit there twiddling my gloved fingers. My legs have taken their own sweet time to get there – after a long, sleepless night they seem out
of gear. I buy a ticket at the entrance and wander inside and am greeted by clusters of asters and erigrones – all in purples and yellow, complimenting each other with their unique identities. The path is cobbled through a thick forest of birch, maple and
oak. And yes, lots of ‘bhojpatra’ trees. I come upon a small waterfall and take a few pictures. I slow down here as the path now winds uphill while the Pushpawati flows downhill. After a kilometer I reach an old wooden bridge and standing on it, can feel the
tremendous power of the swollen tributary. Ahead, I bump into some college kids, who have come from Delhi. They are amazed that I’m doing this trek on my own… well, so am I! As we walk together, chatting about this and that, I spy a Himalayan Pit Viper under
a stone. I catch it and show it to the kids who have never seen it. After all the oohs and aahs, I let the snake slide back under the stone. We cross another log bridge and see a glacier where the Pushpawati has cut through. This whole region is now a protected
forest and is named as the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. You are not allowed to carry any eatables or disposable water bottles inside the sanctuary to prevent littering.
The Old Wooden Bridge over Pushpavati
Just as we turn the bend, I find myself gasping for breath. The valley ahead is miles and miles of a many-hued carpet. Yellows, pinks, blues, reds, purples and whites… all clambering
for attention! I feel tears roll down – out of sheer joy! It’s a dream come true. The Bhyundar glacier pass is clearly visible and I just sit there gaping! I am sure this is where the Gods live. I walk the length of the valley, marveling at each miracle of
nature. I take time to visit the resting place of Joan Margaret Legge and pay my respects to the brave lady who brought recognition of the valley to the world. I am almost at the end of the valley when I see the first cloud rolling in. Reluctantly I turn back
and feel certain heaviness in my step as I hasten back. By the time I reach the bridge, the clouds have overtaken me and I’m caught in the downpour. I find shelter under a birch tree. After a 20-minute pour, it suddenly stops and the skies are once again clear.
I’m tempted to go back but decide otherwise and head back to Ghangharia. After a quick meal, I join a group of pilgrims, on the way to Hemkund Sahib.
I start at 2 in the afternoon and although it is a mere 6 km trek, it takes me almost 6 hours to reach up. I think this is one the most arduous trips I’ve ever managed. It is 9
pm by the time I’m through visiting the holy shrine. Undecided whether to go down or stay put, I decide to stay put at the Lakshmanji’s temple. Although I now realize how risky it was to have stayed there, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this again tomorrow.
Fighting the biting cold and fatigue, I manage to pass the night, singing songs to myself and exercising to keep the cold at bay. The mountains look beautiful in the luminance of the moonlight, not to mention the majestic Nanadadevi Parbat rising just behind
the Gurudwara. I don’t feel alone and the mountains seem friendly. At the first sign of dawn, I climb up a small hill beyond the Hemkund shrine and am again down on my knees – this time crying like a baby! The expanse of Brahma Kamals and Fen Kamals are the
tip of the cake!!! It is a tremendously overwhelming feeling, which still haunts me to this day! And what’s more, I am out of film!!! Sheer bad luck. But, I guess the power of memory is greater than any film roll… a life-long consolation!
I head back to Ghangharia, and head straight to the restaurant for a breakfast of the local ‘Madhve ki roti’ and black tea. I go to meet Rajnish but he’s gone off with some tourists
and missed meeting him. But I do meet his father, Mr. Jagdish Chauhan and promise to come back. Back at the hotel, I meet a family from Kerala who are also traveling to Joshimath. Going down was tougher than climbing up because it was slippery like hell! And
by the time I reached Gobindghat, my legs were like two stumps that just wouldn’t bend. I hitch hiked the ride with the family from Kerala, till Joshimath.
I stayed there for two days, visiting Auli. Later I went to Mussoorie and did another trek to Har-ki-Dun… but, that’s another story altogether! This visit to the valley wouldn’t
have been possible without the full support and motivation of my daughters. They believed in me more than I did and I do not have enough words to thank them. My only wish is for them to visit the place for themselves and re-live all the beautiful moments and
experiences that I did.
Valley of Flowers was indeed a dream come true. I have dreamt of visiting the valley ever since I first heard of it while still in school. Since this was my first solo trek, at
the ripe ole age of 45, with low blood pressure and a bout of arthritis, it has been a tremendous achievement. Someday, I want to go there again and open a small school for the village children and give them vocational training.
Some advice to first-time trekkers:
• Always plan your itinerary keeping in mind the delays due to the weather and landslides. They are unpredictable.
• Always carry some fruit, chocolate, candy and nuts with you while traveling.
• A torch, batteries, candle and a matchbox are essential commodities in your kit.
• Keep the contacts of the people you know or meet on the way. It’s nice to know you have someone in case of an emergency.
• Be nice to the local villagers. If you are buying something from them, do not haggle too much over the price – probably that’s the only source of income they have. Life in the
mountains is far tougher than we think or know.
• When traveling by road, keep a map, notepad and a pencil handy – it helps to jot down experiences.
• Keep your money safe – I usually travel with money in my socks!
• When packing, keep your woolies on the top – you never can tell when you may have to start layering yourself.
• Put all yr medicines in the same pocket as your water bottle for emergencies on the way and make sure it is not easily accessible.
• Especially while traveling in the mountains, carry an umbrella or a raincoat or a rainproof jacket.
• It is also advisable to carry an extra pair of shoes – in case one pair gets wet!
• One sure remedy to keep the cold at bay is to rub some Amrutanjan on the soles of your feet before wearing the socks, on hands and in the neck, just before you jump into bed.
• Never tell strangers of your plans nor let them know that you are new to the place.
• The best place to ask for directions is either the tourist office or the police station.