The 2013 flash floods, and recent reports of cloudbursts, rivers flowing over the danger mark, and landslides, have taken a toll on Uttarakhand’s tourism. Everywhere we went, locals — from hotel owners to porters — lamented their loss of income. There are few tourists — Indians or foreigners — coming to these parts, and everything, from rooms to pony and helicopter rides, was offered at discounted rates to those who dared to explore.
We were on our way to the Valley of Flowers, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is open from June to October, annually. Like most trekkers, we began our journey from Rishikesh, which acts as the base for those heading to the Garhwal Himalayas. Reports of landslides and cloudbursts forced us to ditch the option of a private vehicle, and we opted for state transport (Rs 365 by bus, one way) instead. These buses have a transfer system — if the road is blocked by a landslide, they transfer you to a different bus on the other side, and you continue your journey. We had nothing to worry about though. The day was sunny, and we made the trip from Rishikesh to Gobind Ghat in less than 12 hours.
Gobind Ghat, Ghangaria and Shri Hemkunt Sahib, too, can be visited only from June to October. (Sneha Mahale)
Gobind Ghat, a tiny town in the Chamoli district, is the starting point for trekkers heading to Ghangaria — a small hamlet 14km away, which serves as the base for those going to the Valley of Flowers or Shri Hemkunt Sahib — a Sikh pilgrimage site. Gobind Ghat, Ghangaria and Shri Hemkunt Sahib, too, can be visited only from June to October. Once the season ends, the hotels and shops are shut. People disperse to their hometowns. They become ghost towns, only to reopen in June next year.
We began our trek on a clear morning at 6am, from Gobind Ghat. In recent years, a motorable road has come up along the first 3km. Locals operate share cabs that carry up to 10 tourists for `30 each. We chose to walk this stretch. The steep climb knocked the wind out of us, but the scenic journey took our breath away. We saw mountains, cascading waterfalls, and lush greenery everywhere. The river Pushpawati gave us company along the way. We completed the 14km trek in about 6.5 hours, with ample stops to click pictures, have breakfast, take chai breaks, or just to catch our breath.
Ghangaria arrived and looked picture perfect. Surrounded by mountains, with clouds often descending on the small hamlet, it provides lodgings to travellers with varying budgets. But a low tourist season meant that you could snag rooms usually costing Rs 2,000- Rs 4,000 for as low as Rs 300 a night.
Then, the big day arrived. The gate to the Valley of Flowers, which is about 500m from the main Ghangria market, opens at 7am. We were told to reach there at 6.30am to avoid a queue. We made it at 6.55am to find out that we were the only ones there. A Rs 150 ticket gets you access to the park for three days. “Be back by 5pm,” we were sternly told by the guards. We commenced our walk of about 3km. But there was a catch. The original Valley of Flowers route was badly damaged by the 2013 floods. The new route, which was earlier used by shepherds, was opened in 2015, and has a steep climb and descent of 2km. The narrow path was treacherous at times, the stones became slippery in the rains, and the drops were sudden. It took us about 2.5 hours to cross the stretch, and we barely saw more than 30 people along the way.
Clouds descended regularly into the valley, which was made up of green meadows that had clusters of flowers in bloom. (Sneha Mahale)
But when we reached the meadow, after crossing a temporary bridge that could be blown away by a strong gust of wind, the picturesque surrounding blew our mind. There were tall mountains all around us, some still with snow peaks. Clouds descended regularly into the valley, which was made up of green meadows that had clusters of flowers in bloom. As we walked up the trail, we were surrounded by patches of purple flowers on one side, while yellow and red flowers dotted the other side. The landscape changed ahead, as white flowers came into view. Still further, pink was the dominant colour, with stray blue flowers around. It was a sight to behold. As we sat down to soak in the view, it was hard to believe that beauty this stark and untouched could exist today.
We spent four hours at the park, and at each turn, myriad flora popped up. Though the steep descent took a toll on our knees, this trek is recommended for anyone searching for paradise on earth.
1. In 1931, British mountaineers Frank S Smythe, Eric Shipton and RL Holdsworth lost their way while returning from an expedition to Mt Kamet. They reached a valley, which was full of flowers. They named it the Valley of Flowers
2. Established as a national park in 1982, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005
3. Almost 300 species of wild flowers bloom here, including the Brahmakamal, the Blue Poppy and the Golden Lily
4. It is spread over an area of 87.5sqkm
5. Legends associate this valley with the area from where Hanuman collected Sanjeevani herbs to revive Lakshmana in the Ramayana
6. There is a samadhi in the park dedicated to Miss Margaret Legge, a botanist deputed by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, UK. She arrived at the valley for studies, but had a fatal slip.
Shri Hemkunt Sahib:
A 6km steep trek takes you to the gurudwara at a height of 15,000ft. The pristine lake here is the perfect place for a dip. Beautiful Brahmakamals bloom around it.
2. Joshimath: One can visit the Shri Shankaracharya Math, the 1,200-year-old Kalpavriksha tree or the Narsingh Temple.
3. Auli: A ropeway from Joshimath takes you to this beautiful hill station, surrounded by snow-clad peaks. On a clear day, you can get a view of Nanda Devi – India’s second highest mountain peak.