"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf. " ~ Tagore


Valley of Flowers

Romola Butalia, Editor, India Travelogue spends a month wandering alone in the Garhwal Himalayas, and follows the trail to the Valley Of Flowers.

It took innumerable stops and an interminable time to cover the distance of 25 kms from Badrinath to Govindghat by bus. At the few tea stalls on the road I located someone willing to carry my rucksack to Ghangria, 13 kms of cobbled, uphill path, away. I usually avoid those who call themselves 'guide' but I did not exactly have a choice of porters, and I was impatient to reach Ghangria before dark. The 'guides' are invariably pushy, talk incessantly and have seen too many Hindi movies.

Setting off at 1 p.m. after a hurried lunch, GovindghatI bought a cane with an iron tip, which would come in handy when crossing ice sheets. On the pilgrim route to Hemkund Saheb, the trail to Ghangria is populated, commercial with tea stalls at every bend, cobbled for the mules, and littered, since we Indians have this amazing ability to drop our garbage with aplomb and walk on undeterred. Admittedly, there is much less garbage and dung than on the pilgrimage route to Kedarnath, but that is small comfort, when one is walking on it.

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The first 6-7 kms was sheer joyless trudging, until I had gained some height and could glimpse the Himalayas that I seek on treks: remote, majestic, splendid and still. The tea stalls got less numerous, my porter had given up on the possibility of striking a conversation and had made himself scarce, the pilgrims I passed were too tired to want to know where I came from and whether I was really alone. Luckily I was not asked where I was headed, since everyone obviously had a single destination - Hemkund Saheb. The pilgrims were now content to chant 'vahe guru' whenever they could spare a breath from the arduous climb. All in all, I had recovered my state of equipoise and could enjoy nature and walk without human interaction.

I started enjoying the trek. It was moderately steep, increasingly more beautiful and I was in tune with my surroundings. By the time I reached Ghangria, I was happy to call it a day. At the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam rest house, the only available accommodation was a damp, seedy 9-bedded dorm. I scouted around and found myself a basic but neat single-bedded room with attached toilet, in a private lodge near the GMVN. The only information that I could get about the trail to the Valley of Flowers was that no-one was going on that route yet.

I wandered through the market to get the flavour of the place - it was a one-night halt on a pilgrimage route - no particular vibes in the hustle and bustle. I went to the Gurudwara and as always, the faith and serenity of all Sikh places of worship, attract one to tarry a while longer. I stayed for the kirtan and the ardaas, enjoying the sonorous readings from the Guru Granth Saheb, which invariably ring of a distant familiarity.

Outside the prayer hall at the gurudwara, there were hundreds of people moving to and fro, busy with the business of settling themselves in for the night. I joined the langar, then wandered out and thought it befitting that I should have 100 gms of hot jalebi. Walking back to my lodge, I retired early. At 4.15 am I was woken with steaming hot tea and a tepid bucket of water.

At day-break, I was walking towards the bifurcation point where the trail to the Valley of Flowers heads left off the main trail to Hemkund Saheb. I revelled at being completely alone in the high Himalalayas at last. The trail was well-marked and the surrounding views were superb. Less than a km away, sitting on the path, in obvious uncertainty, were two trekkers in their late twenties.


The Forest Ranger had apparently decreed that the trail was not officially open, that anyone attempting it was going at their own risk, that there were several glaciers and one particularly dangerous one a km ahead.
Rajesh's inscrutable, impassive Oriental face gave nothing away. Ajeet's contrasting transparent look of incredulity, his widening eyes and dropping jaw, said it all. "Are you going alone to Valley of Flowers?" was the redundant question. They were debating whether they should be sensible, back off and go towards Hemkund Saheb instead. The Forest Ranger had apparently decreed that the trail was not officially open, that anyone attempting it was going at their own risk, that there were several glaciers and one particularly dangerous one a km ahead.
I turned the corner and realised why they had stopped in their tracks - ahead was the first ice-sheet. It had been a long time since I had glissaded on glaciers. I stepped gingerly on the ice and crossed slowly and with exceeding care. From the other side I beckoned Ajeet and Rajesh, who were waiting for a cue from me.

What a spectacular trail - hardly a human footstep to disturb the path. Bark of bhojpatra littered the ground, instead of sweet wrappers and juice cartons. Verdant green, the occasional early flower peeping through, the mist and the sunlight, the roar of the river bounding over rocks. When we reached the impossibly dangerous glacier, we were already committed to Valley of Flowers. I looked at the glacier critically from several angles, trying to see ahead. It curved an impossible distance. Sheer vertical cliff led to the river, cascading over rocks. The latter part seemed possible, but the initial bit was undoubtedly dangerous.

We decided to attempt another route, clambering over boulders, scrambling across loose stones, hanging onto slender branches on the way. I sat down, took a deep breath, debated the pitfalls and decided to opt out. Their sense of loyalty prevented them from easily leaving me behind. They were insistent that it was easier ahead. I waved them on with, "Judge your own limits, don't take unnecessary risks, have fun and take care." Within 10 minutes, Ajeet returned to extend a hand, "I'll help you across the boulders, after that the path is easier." I declined the offer, "I will slow you down."

I watched their vanishing figures, scrambled back with considerable difficulty on to the main trail, and sat and watched the river and the glacier with a mixture of anger, resentment and hurt. I realised I had really been keen to go to Valley of Flowers. Finally, I turned back. I had walked a half km back when I saw six young locals, sitting on the path. They greeted me and asked me where I was coming from. I explained my predicament. One of them volunteered, "We'll take you across. We are working 3-4 kms ahead of the glacier, clearing the track for the season." After a short discussion, during which I explained how poorly skilled I was to cross, the young volunteer confidently promised, "You want to go there. We will make sure you reach." I trooped back with them.

We saw Ajeet and Rajesh, much higher up on the glacier, still struggling across the ice, obviously tired and shaken.
The first step on the vertical ice, and I was already slipping. Two of them were gripping my hands so tightly, I was being yanked back on my feet. One of them was saying, "Just don't be afraid. We'll make you cross." I had to make a more determined attempt. They cut a path through the ice for every step of the way, as we crossed a half km glacier, regaling me with stories of their initial falls, their lives in Chamoli where they study, their summer work on daily wages to clear roads.

We saw Ajeet and Rajesh, much higher up on the glacier, still struggling across the ice, obviously tired and shaken. Two of the group readily agreed to guide them across. They guided us across several ice sheets and glaciers. Chatting all the way, they showed me a small cave where they had spent four nights, while clearing that section of the path. We sat and shared a single packet of biscuits I was carrying. One of them said, "Do you know why we are doing this? When you go back, you will tell 5 people that we helped you cross, and the people where you live will think we are good people." I promised them I would tell more than 5 people.

The Valley was beautiful. It was mid-June. The flowers were not yet in abundant bloom. Yet, it was still worth every step of the way. After a couple of hours, I reluctantly turned back. At the toughest glaciers, Ajeet, Rajesh and I walked together as a team, supportive and concerned. Back at my lodge in Ghangria, I slipped my tired feet out of my shoes, hurriedly packed my rucksack, ate a tasty lunch brought up to my room, interviewed the porter organised by the lodge owner, and set off at 2:30 pm, at a brisk pace downhill to reach the main road near Govindghat at 6:30, to catch the last gate. I took the front seat of a shared Jeep and hopped off at Joshimath to take a room at the first half-decent hotel, rest my aching legs, have a refreshing bath, eat a hearty meal and hunt for an STD booth.

Three weeks later, when I returned to Mumbai, Ajeet's e-mail was awaiting me:
"Hope you are back at Mumbai and are fine. How was your tour? Am sure it was very exciting. We saw you at Joshimath taking a bus for Karanprayag. I am sure you moved to other sites. Though we shared a short time with you, will always remember it. Looking forward to hearing something special and exciting.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.