Sunday, June 21, 2009
Journey to Paradise
Circa 1976....DAV Collage, M.Sc. Botany first year, Dr. Somdev Sharma's taxonomy classes, and field trips to various places in and outside Dehradun. It was the boys only trip to the famous Valley of Flowers that made all of us girls green with envy. We were told that the journey was perilous, there was no proper place to stay, one had to sleep in wayside tea shops and trek endlessly through glaciers and rickety bridges and camp inside the park for days to get a glimpse of the elusive plant species; especially the Brahmakamal, Saussuria obvollata.The desire to visit this Paradise on earth lingered on....even after thirty three long years. The trip was planned, and we set off on a warm and pleasant morning by a private taxi to Govind Ghat, the last point of motorable road. Breakfast at Monal, lunch at shangrila in Karnaprayag and we were in time for gate no. three to Govind ghat. The gate system still exists between Joshimath and Govind Ghat in order to regulate traffic to Badrinath. We had tea at Vishnuprayag where Bibek went crazy clicking pictures of mountain birds, and off we went at full speed oscillating between 2500meters above sea level to 1059 meters. At about four in the evening we reached Govind Ghat and almost immediately started off on a fourteen km long trek to the bustling town of Ghangharia located at about 3020 meters above sea level. The trek was steep, but was breathtakingly beautiful with the playful Laxman Ganga, a small tributary of Alaknanda rushing down through the dense forests of Quercus, Alnus, Rhododendron,Walnut, Pine,Maple and Abies. The bushes of cane, wild roses, prunus and the clusters of Arysema, the Indian Cobra plant in the undergrowth made the journey interesting. Ahead of us was the snow covered Kakbhushundi parvat and then, as we approached Ghangharia we saw the breathtaking and grand glimpse of the Nar Parvat. I could hardly sleep that night; every one hour I would get up, open the window and take a look at the snow white peaks of Nar Parvat. I could hardly believe I was about to realise my dream of a life time; a visit to the valley of flowers, now part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere reserve, and also a world heritage site, 675 sq Km and located at an altitude between 3032m and 3750 meters. The wake up call of "Bole so Nihal... Sat sri Akal" woke me up at three in the morning and we were ready at 5 AM for a trek into the valley. Beautiful bushes of wild rose Rosa Macrophylla, laden with flowers greeted us right at the entrance. The song of the whistling thrush kept teasing Bibek who was going crazy trying to locate and shoot. There was the Plumbeous Redstart near the stream, the Orange Bullfinch perched on an Abies branch and a Pika showing us glimpses of its posterior and hiding into its cave. the Maple, Rhododendron, Betula and Abies trees with their characteristic canopies were enticing us deep into the valley. The red and orange Potentillas, white Anemones, golden ferns, the secretive buds of Rheum and the trying to scare us Arysema were spellbinding. I did not know where to rest my eyes; on the grand snow clad mountains, the lush valley, the colourful floweres or the elusive birds. There was one more treat of course... the cool and crystal clear bubbling water of the Pushpavati river that flows right throught the valley. The tiny Violas and the Potentillas seemed to compete with the Ranunculus, Polygonum, Androsace and other flowers. The valley was just beginning to come alive and the spikey rosettes of Morina were visible everywhere. Sadly, the early blooming Iris was visible only rarely. The different varieties of Primula and Nomocharis oxypetala a wild golden coloured lily of course, made my day.Rhododendron companulatum and many other smaller species were in bloom ,but i did miss the grand Rhododendron arboreum with its bright red bunches of flowers. The imposing Rataban peaks were visible now and they seemed like grand sentinels, keeping a close watch on all the intruders, lest they pluck the flowers and destroy the natural beauty. The tree canopies were equally beautiful, especially the Betula (bhojpatra) tree barks hanging down like A4 size papers ready to be written on. It was already 1:30 pm and the forest guards warned us of the imminent bad weather. Sure enough, we could see dark menacing clouds over the mountain peaks, and the icy cold winds were warning enough for us to start trekking back. We reached the park gates at 4:30 with all the beautiful sights captured in our cameras and more vividly still in our minds eye. There was no network for mobile or phone connection; I was told by the forest guard. Yes, there was a guy in the market place with a wi fi connection and if I were ready to part with Rs 20 per minute, a call could be made. How could I resist the temptation of making a call to my best friend only to share the thrilling experience of my visit to the valley of flowers? The call was made, and then it was time to rest and rejuvenate our souls with garam chai and hot parathas.
The next morning it was time to trek up to Hemkund Saheb, the famous place where the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Govind Ji was supposed to have meditated. So off we trekked at 4:30 in the morning along with an energetic group of Sardars and Sardarnis, with their kith and kin chanting Satnam !Vaheguru! all the way. More and more beautiful sights greeted us and as we climbed up, we could see the town of Ghangharia with its blue roofed Gurudwara becoming smaller and smaller. The trek was perilous, the slopes steep, and the air rairer and rairer. The sun was shining bright, yet we were shivering, as the cold winds from the glaciers around us wizzed past. Two menacing glaciers had to be passed, and we tiptoed across, for fear of dislodging even a chunk of the icy monsters. A gay profusion of Caltha palustris greeted us on the hill slopes. the bright yellow blossoms with their round green leaves seemed to sprout out of every nook. the Alpine Rhidodendron with their pale pink cluster of blossoms were a welcome sight, and so were the Alpine Chough ( a raven like bird with a yellow beak). After five hours of climbing steep and winding path up the great Himalaya, we reached Hemkund Saheb located at an altitude of 4500 meters above sea level. The Sabad Kirtan sounded like some heavenly music emanating from the snow clad mountains, and we were rendered speechless by the sheer granduer and majesty of the natural beauty. After paying obeiscence at the shrine, we made a beeline for the Guru ka Langar; a steaming hot gruel of rice and lentil and a tumbler full of hot chai. Food and drink never tasted so heavenly before! I rested for a while, drinking in the beauty of the pelucid icy cold sarovar, surrounded by snow clad himalayas. It was surely like an emperors court, with the mighty ruler presiding over the day's events with nonchalant benevolence......eons of this ritual must have passed by and many more eons would come and go, and the mountains would stay there, unchangeable yet ever changing.....
The day packs up at high altitudes by 1:30pm and we could see snow shovers on the neighbouring peaks. It was time to leave, we were told. So off we trudged back the steep downhill slope, even more perilous than the uphill trek. It started raining, and the path became treacherous. I can't remember how many times i slid down the stony steps, hurting my toes so badly, that every step felt like a torture. With heavy and weary feet and an equally heavy heart we reached down, and on the way, exchanged pleasantaries with the fellow pilgrims. The changeover was dramatic; we went as explorers and returned as pilgrims.....with a prayer on our lips and a promise to return... as soon as possible.