Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 4: Valley of Flowers - a walk among the heavens

The razaais (quilts) were very good. I had a well deserved sound sleep - the kind which one gets after hard labour. Climbing Ghangria was no less an ordeal. We were half-woken up by the bhajans sung by the pilgrims going to Hemkund. Later Sanju tells me that it was 5:00AM. Where do these people get the energy to be up so early in such frigid climate? I tried to put off the inevitable  (getting up) as much as possible. 

Bad news was waiting for me as soon as I woke up. Cramps. The previous day's dehydration had finally found a way to assert itself. I tried asking for "Electral" in the local drug store... He blinked twice and asked if a masala lemonade mixture would do. Any salt is better than no salt at all. I bought it paying 10 times the MRP (Re 1/-). I think the shopkeeper - a kid, about 10 years old - saw the pain in my face and knew instantly how badly I needed it - a true White Tiger. After the morning chores, we were all ready for breakfast. This time, we wanted to try something on the way to the Valley of Flowers - Hotel Kuber. We were surprised to see the exact same menu. In fact, it even had the small print "Hotel Devlok" printed at the back. After much deliberation, we all settled for the usual - Onion Parantha and Aloo Parantha. Only one of us broke the shackles and tried Corn Flakes - with disastrous results ;-)

After our breakfast, we were joined by Raghubir Chauan - our botanist guide for the day. He is a short man. His interests include - flower watching, guiding, bird watching, tree watching... all round naturalist. He is a very good photographer too. During the monsoon months, when the valley is open for tourists, he accompanies groups of them into the valley as a guide (for a nominal fee - of course). Most of what comes next is gyan downloaded from him. Even though the official protected perimeter of the "valley of flowers" starts about a kilometer from the Ghangria, Chauhan says geologically even the Ghangria valley belongs to the valley of flowers. The proof of the same was right in front of our eyes - beautiful flowers lined our path all the way. 
After crossing a small makeshift bridge, on our left is a public toilet - courtesy department of sanitation, Chamoli. Beyond that the path bifurcates into two. Left goes to the valley and right goes to Hemkund. There is a check-post where we deposit the entry fees (Rs 50/- per person per camera?) While the modalities were being taken care of Mamu got busy shooting a bird - white beaked brown chested red something. I added some geographical prefix and called it Great Himalayan White Beaked Brown Chested red something. It does sound authentic. Doesn't it? Any way, my mind was not entirely into anything... the hamstring was irritating me like a poorly composed background score of an art movie. I gulped as much "masala lemonade" as I could. The rock salt that was used had a peculiar smell/taste.

The first flower that was caught our guide's attention was the Serpent Lily. Hm... how did it get its name? As we left Ghangria behind, we descended down the valley towards the river. The river that gives us company today is "Pushpavati" (named hence as it originates in the valley of flowers). Since our guide had a very good idea of what to show and what not, he was zipping through these paths. Obviously a wide variety of balsams and innumerable nameless (since we did not know it) flowers did not interest him. He stopped by the smallest flower of them all named "Forget-me-not". Very often he kept telling that we were very lucky since weather was very good and we had to hurry up, so that we could be in the valley while the weather was still good. The next thing he waited to explain was burrow - a hole in a tree. This is the winter home of a honey bear. He did not say anything about its summer habits... which made me a bit weary. The hole seemed did not seem large enough for a fully grown adult. However, even a baby bear could beat me running on one and half legs. Half an hour of walking gets us to a iron bridge across the Pushpavati. There was a huge tree uprooted tree stuck amongst the rock below the bridge. If a tributary of a tributary of a tributary is so ferocious, one can only imagine the power of the Ganga.

After crossing the bridge, there is little up hill path and the real valley unfolds itself. Yesterday, I met this gentleman who was descending to Govindghat and talking to his friend in a familiar Kanglish accent - typical "Hale-Mysooru" mannerisms. I wanted to test if my guess was right and greeted him with a "Namaskara". He immediately took the hint and switched to appata (pure) Kannnada. That was when I realised, only kannadigas us "Namaskara", not "Namste"... not "Namashkar"... not "Namaskaramu"... I found something very simple that was unmistakably identifiable as Kannada. Never the less, I enquired about weather and what I could expect to see... "Swarga saar, Swarga!!" (Heaven! truly Heaven) that was how he described it yesterday. Now I see what he meant. Even in the scriptures, this is the place where heaven and earth meet. This is the abode of Gandharvas (lower caste among Gods). They are "fairy" equivalents in the western mythology. They have enough magical powers to take care of their chores without worrying too much... and spend most of their time singing and dancing. They are known to be scholarly and take their literature seriously.

My leg was still hurting... and I took as many breaks as possible. Chauhan and gang were at least 20 minutes ahead of me. After few more minutes, I noticed a bunch of ladies taking Patel shots one after another... I tried get past them after mustering a muted smile (read: excuse me, excuse me). One of them read my mind and replied - "Look at the Glacier, the first one !!!". Ha... a glacier. A beautiful one, split right in the middle and ready to fall down. "Dear Ladies, this is not a happy picture. Melting glacier will only cause floods and destruction... yada yada yada..." I sighed and went past them without telling a word... I still wonder if that lady really read my mind. Creepy. They say every thing in nature protects itself. This glacier made itself a huge favour by by placing itself at a steeper part of the valley - out of bounds of the people walking up and down the valley. Posing as a background does not hurt it... but making snow balls out of it only hastens the melting process.

After walking past the glacier, we get to see this!! It was worth walking every inch of the way... We are surrounded by mountains on all three sides. We can not see the tops of any of these mountains as mild fog has decided to play hide-and-seek. On the only side that was clear, we can see the snow capped peak of Ratoband (6000m+). Another look around and you definitely know where the "Sadaa Kannali pranayada..." song of Kavirathna Kalidasa was shot - or rather where it should have been. Green grass, blue sky, white mist and a stream of pink balsams. "Swarga saar, Swarga!!!"

As we walk past the colour of the flowers change... from dominant pink to lavender to purple... As one gazes up the mountains on his left, he can see how these flowers have colonized (yes, they are called colonies). There is a definite patter, like a flowing river - from high in the mountains to the stream in the valley. A few days ago, we saw the marvel of confluence of rivers... merging of water of different hues. Today we see a sea of flowers with streaks of red, pink, purple, yellow and blue... Chauhan says the valley changes colour each week. The flowering cycle of these plants is so well adjusted that they do not seem to fight with each other at all... the bees/flies of the area have their hands full for the entire monsoon. 

There are flowers whose names only Chauhan can remember... I can only describe them thus: flowers with beard, with a tail, with horns, double colour, multi-colour, guess-my-colour and what not. There were flowers that were bell shaped, candle shaped, onion shaped, pickle (close cousin of cucumber) shaped, horn shaped. There were tiny ones smaller than fly... with petals as thin as needles... One odd thing though, there were not many fragrant ones. I put 2 and 2 together and assumed that it must be because most of the insects of the area must have been photosensitive and not the smell-catching kind. There are however a few - wintergreen and thyme. Wintergreen is edible and is used to make Iodex. Now you know why I stressed on the edible part ;-)

The visitors do have their part in the nature. Look at how they perform their solemn duty of pollination. Look at the flourishing balsams along the path. The only danger is when they unknowingly bring seeds of some dominant species that can potentially spread like a virus and destroy the colonies. Luckily, there are very few species of flowering plants that can survive in this cold weather. More over, to succeed here you must make the most of three months of sunshine. After walking for about two hours (that did not seem like it though) we come to a huge rock. There were already some people on it, Chauhan one among them. The view from the top of the rock is not that different from the ground below... An elevation of 20 feet can not change your perspective when you are surrounded by (4000m+) mountains. Nevertheless, I had to climb it... in spite of aching hamstring. Bad decision. I became even more slower. This is usually the place normal tourists head back - those who do not have an able guide like Chauhan.

He promised that the scenery was even better if we walked two more kilometres. Again he reminded us that very rarely does weather co-operate like this and we should not miss the opportunity. Onward we marched. He was right. It was like walking from the doorway-to-heaven to heaven itself. The valley becomes broader and we could see clearly till the very beginning of the stream. Chauhan kept showing us wonderful flowers and explained their intricacies using his pocket lens. At some point, it did become meaningless - in a good way. What was that Shakespeare said about a rose... whatever. He surely was not here, even in his dreams. At the fourth or fifth stream, he decided it was time to head back - after lunch.

We had flavoured jolada rottis (somebody please translate), loads of chikki, almond sticks (you get it some where in Gandhi Bazzar). I was concerned about de-hydration. So I drank water from every stream we crossed and re-filled the bottle as often as I could. If there was something called over-hydrating, I would have got it that day. Chauhan had timed it to perfection... half way back, it started to drizzle and wind picked up. Need I describe how a mountain side would look when white clouds go past green pastures only to be scattered by the wet and shining rocky tops. The light was still intact. Would have made pretty pictures. But pictures could have told even half the story. There is a reason why they do not allow people (however decent and green you are) to camp inside the park... They would have a tough time to vacate them. 

The journey back sad... L and me kept a brisk pace. Little did we talk. There were people still coming into the valley. We did not have the heart to tell them that it was raining, and they will probably tick the valley off their list without even seeing its doors. There was a group of people (mostly middle aged) that visited Hemkund in the morning, and planned VOF for the afternoon. That does not do any justice... neither to Hemkund, to the valley nor to the tourist. We took a small break at the Galcier... clicked a few Patel snaps for others. We still did not talk much. I think silence is a normal response after witnessing something magnificent. The next stop was the bridge. This is a favourite spot for weary travellers to pick themselves up. There is always something about flowing water and clarity!! Hm... for me it was much more than that... a level rock, cool wind meant 30 minutes of most satisfying afternoon nap.

Chauhan realised that Mamu was disappointed with the valley since he did not spot any bird. He took Mamu on a detour with a promise that he would show him some nesting sites. Soon they disappeared into the woods. My leg was slightly better now. L had come out of meditation of some sorts, and were ready to head back to the hotel. As soon as we reached the hotel, I made it a point to take ample rest - slept like a baby. I heard all the others trickle by one by one. When it was night fall, they woke me up for supper - Hotel Himalaya again. But this time, we ate some pulkas and stuffed tomato (stuffed with grated paneer). As suggested by R, I ate as much salt as taste would permit. Hopefully tomorrow would be a good legs day !!!

Wondering why there are no photos of flowers in the "Valley of Flowers" description? Watch them all here :
(Fair use and disclaimer: Photos are not from our trip. It is from Pravin Kawale who visited the valley a week before us. But we saw the same set of flowers. He is a much better photographer than me ;-) )


Anonymous said...

saying it got back fond memories from the trip would be totally cliche!
you have a way with words. good work :-)

Wildlifestyle said...

Hey It is a nice writeup.
Tickeled few of my bones with fond memories. Good photographs to support , Like to contribute mine too.
Good work.

Mamu(Jayaram Jahgirdar)

deepak said...
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