Monday, 28 September 2015

Valley of Flowers – A Piece of Heaven on Earth

This must be a Hindi movie dream sequence where they show these happy people who have just died in the previous scene, smiling and walking among flowers in a heavenly like place which you think is heaven. You are not sure how it happened with all your sins and all, but yes, you are in heaven. It seems it did take a while to get here but who says getting to heaven is easy. There are snow capped mountains all around. The skies are the bluest you have ever seen. Cottony clouds float over you just beyond reach. The cool breeze sings to you. The air you breathe is so pure. You can hear the water gushing. This is a sensory delight. And then these millions of flowers everywhere – as if the stars have come down and they are all so tiny and colourful. This can’t be the world you spent your life in. You are happy and smiling too. This is heaven and you want to stay back here never to come back.

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand

It really was not simple getting to this piece of heaven. First it involved lots of lusting over the photos you saw and blogs you read in the past few years. And then the trek – oh yes the trek! But then things began to fall in place and friends who have visited give their inputs and share their experiences. It is time to fulfill your long pending wish to see the Valley of Flowers in Dev Bhumi or Land of Gods called Uttarakhand. The flowers in the valley bloom from June to September. By middle of September the temperature drops and flowers start to wilt and fade. But this is your only chance and you grab it.

The first of the three bridges to cross to get to the Valley

That is where you are headed to - between the two hills. The Valley of Flowers should be just beyond

This is your first time this high in Garhwal as the little bus from Rishikesh rolls towards Govindghat over hairpin bends with the river Alaknanda, deep below, giving you company all the way to Mana and beyond, and you know it would be a great week of mountains, rivers and flowers.

Fast forwarding to the fairly hard and agonising trek to Ghangaria from Govindghat, you retire for the evening in the hotel room nursing your aching legs. The painful details about getting to Ghangaria will have to wait. It seems after the floods of 2013, all tracks have been laid fresh and unfortunately they have become longer and steeper and arduous.

Looking Behind, Ghangaria sits hidden among the pine trees

Next morning could not have been more perfect. The skies are blue, the air cold and crisp. Today will be a day to remember. You leave behind the town of Ghangaria as you make your way across a stream. You will go straight ahead towards the valley while the devotees to Hemkund Sahib will turn right for the steep climb into the mountains.



Climbing a ridge you come to the entry gate where the visitors pay for entry ticket of Rs 150. Names and age are noted down in a register. The park is open from 7 in the morning till 2 pm. You are supposed to be back at the gates by 5 pm so that the caretakers know that nobody is left behind in the valley after dark.

Okay now time to be honest. After yesterday’s tiring hike from Govindghat to Ghangaria today (ok you were hiking in the mountains for the first time and did not really expected it to be this hard; especially the second half after crossing Lakshman Ganga river from where it is uniformly vertical and killing and you really feel like crying until after one final push and gasp you find yourself in Ghangaria), you are actually thinking that you will just saunter into the valley without breaking a sweat – Wrong!

The second bridge over river Pushpawati - Steep Climb begins here on the way to Valley of Flowers. Notice the blue skies in the morning. On the way back the skies have turned grey and drizzle had started. That is mountain weather for you

That is until you come to the same river Pushpawati (Pushpawati joins Bhyundar Ganga at Ghangaria and forms Lakshman Ganga that meets Alaknanda at Govindghat) roaring in all its glory. And you know the same story is going to play out today too. Only this time it will be almost vertical and harder.

The paved trail is quite new and apparently lot of effort went in laying it

God had really intended to hide the Valley of Flowers well. At Ghangaria, when locals pointed out the Valley, all you could see were two cliffs like hills with the river flowing in the middle. The right hill has a sheer vertical bare face where even seasoned rock climbers would whimper and back off. The left hill could have a path going up but the tree cover hides the hill completely. Up beyond in the distance you can see mountains with snow covering the tops and clouds hugging the peaks. But where is the valley - you have no idea. Looks like you will have to find out the hard way.



Apparently, the terrible floods of 2013 had washed away the gentle path that ran along the river. So in its place, the park authorities have built a paved track up the left hill for about four kilometres. And you are huffing and puffing your way up this track – second day in a row. And it is not pretty - your body protests all the way up.

And quite fiercely flows Puspawati - you can hear the cascading waters high on the hill even as the river disappears in the maze of trees below



The heavy vegetation on this hill is obscuring the way. So after reaching every hairpin bend you try to look up for any end in sight but there is no way to find out. Looking up only gives you a light head. You put your head down and plod your way around another bend but the track still has no visible end. So you again try to get your breathing normal, try not to shoot many photos since they entail holding the breath and here you are fighting to keep your lungs from bursting. Still there is no sign of the valley. You are not sure how long you can do this.

Stairway to Heaven

First View of Valley of Fowers

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not - Ralph Waldo Emerson


Upon reaching the top of the hill the path finally begins to lead forward but the steep inclines continue. And finally, after it seems like an eternity you think you make first contact with the valley. Yes the valley IS well hidden. As you walk on the left of the river, the valley lies sprawling on the right stretching into the Eastern horizon as you see more mountains in the distance. This indeed is the Garden of the Gods and Gods intended only the few blessed to have this view.

First view of the Valley does put everyone in good spirits. Here the gentleman from Malaysia who loves Himalayas and visits India every year shows his Yoga moves! The approaching lady from Florida US, shared the pain of climb to Ghangaria with you the day before. The elderly and sprightly lady with the camera earned your respect for climbing this steep trail

The path takes you down to the river Pusphawati, this time from the left. At this point the Valley of Flowers officially begins.

Selinum wallichianum (Milk Parsley) - The queen of all umbellifers, the most beautiful of all fern leaved plants - and the flowers are star shaped

Valley of Flowers or Nandan Kanan - Garden of Lord Indra

The feeling that you are finally in the Valley of Flowers is of euphoria. You forget the travail of the trek. Your face glows up as you begin to immerse yourself in the beauty of the place. This is the ultimate place of bliss.


When I am silent, I fall into the place where everything is music - Rumi


Millions of Stars - Valley of Flowers

The path continues into east taking the visitor deep into the valley. And then there are these flowers. They are everywhere. They are so dense that there is no way you can step off the paved path onto the ground. You actually cannot see the ground. All you see are the plants with tiny flowers on them of all colours stretching in all directions. It is like an embroidered sheet has been spread over the Bhyundar Valley. Now you want to lie down and just gaze at the sky, at the mountains and at these innumerable varieties of flowers. There is no other explanation on how this came into being - you are certain this is divine intervention when Gods showered flowers on this god blessed place. 

Dekha ek khwab toh yeh silsile hue
Dur tak nigah main hain gul khile hue


The tangle of flowers and leaves

This is mid-September and the plummeting night temperature is already wilting the plants. The plant leaves are turning different shades of yellow, brown and even red.  Soon the valley will be covered in snow. When the snow melts in summer next year, the seeds protected under sheet of snow will germinate and the valley will once again be carpeted by colourful flowers. This has been repeated for ages and historically since 1931 when six lost British mountaineers chanced upon this God’s marvel nestled between Himalayas and Zanskar mountains. The team included Frank S Smythe who later wrote a book on this wonderful discovery which he called Valley of Flowers based on his follow-up visit to the valley in 1937.



Valley of Flowers along with the Nanda Devi National Park to the east combine to form the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Nanda Devi National Park and Valley of Flowers were declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

Valley of Flowers, Uttarkhand

UNESCO’s website describes the valley as: Nestled high in West Himalaya, India’s Valley of Flowers National Park is renowned for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers and outstanding natural beauty. This richly diverse area is also home to rare and endangered animals, including the Asiatic black bear, snow leopard, brown bear and blue sheep. The gentle landscape of the Valley of Flowers National Park complements the rugged mountain wilderness of Nanda Devi National Park. Together they encompass a unique transition zone between the mountain ranges of the Zanskar and Great Himalaya, praised by mountaineers and botanists for over a century and in Hindu mythology for much longer.

Looking towards Ghangaria - the way you came in

Looking to the left
Closer view of the peaks on the left

Looking straight out into the East as Valley of Flowers stretches for about eight kms


The setting is spectacular. Looking behind to your right is the gap through which you just entered climbing high over the river. On the left peaks tower covered with snow. Looking ahead, mountain ranges on either side run lengthwise cocooning the valley and making it almost inaccessible. The Valley is about 2 kms wide and 8 kms long. Up directly ahead, you can see more peaks. Nanda Devi and Kamet peaks, the highest mountains in Garhwal would be just ahead.

Valley of Flowers - This is Heaven

Right now you just want to enjoy the moment. It does feel like heaven. You have seen such scenes in Hindi movies. Entire frame and the characters seem to be glowing under golden sun. The camera is always pointing into the sun giving the scene an ethereal feel as colourful sun bubbles pop up. Characters are happy and smiling and so serene. Only being in heaven could make you glow so much. You are in such a scene right now. You want to run through the flower beds with your hands outstretched feeling the leaves and petals and breathing in the divinely scented air.



Valley of Flowers




Though not as extensive as July or August but still there are enough flowers to keep you interested and if you look hard enough there are some interesting varieties too. But shooting the tiny flowers through the tangle of stems and leaves is lots of effort. Do you want to spend the limited time bent into the plants clicking photos or do you want to stand tall and look around at the mountains, at the peaks, at the clouds as they wrap themselves around the peaks or you just want to close your eyes and try to imprint this moment and this slice of beauty on your mind? Right now there is a bouquet of choices and you try to do a little of all.




Here, walking on the path through the valley, you meet fellow visitors. Most of the foreigners you met and chatted with while trekking from Govindghat to Ghangaria yesterday, you meet them here. And everybody is happy being here in the valley. Nobody is complaining about the possibly lesser flowers this year around. It is the feeling of finally being here in the valley after years of desire, months of planning and days of travelling that counts. And on a picture perfect day under blue skies nature has reciprocated and blessed all of us. Even as the clouds float overhead draping the valley under shadows and then the shadows would lift and the golden hue returns to envelope the valley once again.

Valley of Flowers - Israeli friends with whom you had great conversations on the treks and restaurant in the town

Time to get back to your World - trek to Ghangaria

In your travelling experience, there never seems to be enough time to see once you are there. Here in the valley, the thumb rule is to start walking back at two so that you hit the gate at five pm on your way out. Reluctantly, that is what you do, looking over the valley and at the mountains, at the river and at the million flowers so that the scene, the views, the scent, the feeling stays with you forever.

Valley of Flowers is and should be on the top of every traveller’s ‘To Visit No Matter What’ list of places. All it needs is a little planning and you should be able to find a happy you in the piece of heaven next year.

Getting There: Valley of Flowers takes time to reach and first time travellers need to take it easy especially when coming from the plains. Mountainous roads, trekking and height of 3500 m mean ideally you should reach the valley on fifth day if starting from Delhi.

Day 1 – Delhi to Haridwar by train and another hour by bus to Rishikesh
Day 2 – Rishikesh to Joshimath by bus (260 kms or about 10 hours). Plenty of local buses ply on this route. Breaking the journey and stopping over at Rudraprayag (140 kms or 5 hours) is recommended. Attend the Arti at the banks of confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. The break will help you acclimatise with the heights gradually.
Day 3 – Rudraprayag to Govindghat (130 kms or about 5 hours). If buses are not available at Joshimath, take shared jeep from Joshimath to Govindghat
Day 4 – Govindghat to Pulna (3 kms) by shared Jeep. Pulna to Ghangaria trekking or you can ride ponies (about 12 kms, trekking time of 4 to 7 hours based on how young and fit you are; riding pony will take about 3 to 4 hours). The later stretch is all uphill and quite tough. There is an option of riding a Deccan Air helicopter from Hotel Bhagat in Govindghat straight to Ghangaria in three minutes flat
Day 5 – Ghangaria to Valley of Flowers and return to Ghangaria – Trek of about 4 kms one way. The trek going into Valley is steep and very tough. Start at 7 so you have about four hours to spend in the Valley before starting back at 2pm. The entry ticket into the valley costs Rs 150 and is valid for 3 days. Since, you have reached this place after a lot of effort and it is unlikely that you will come back again, the writer recommends, you visit the valley over two days - first day for photography (macro photography is tiring and takes time) and the second day for walking deep into the valley. 


What Else to See
Day 6 – Trek to Hemkund Sahib from Ghangaria – the climb of about 8 kms here is even tougher so ride a pony
Badrinath – One of Char Dhams and only an hour away from Govindghat
Mana – India’s Last Village. Walk the 3 kms from Badrinath enjoying the sights offered by Himalayas and River Alaknanda. In Mana, see Vyas and Ganesh Gufa where Lord Ganesh wrote Mahabharat while Vyas dictated. Also, see River Saraswati and Bhimpul  

Accomodation
All places in Garhwal region have GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam) hotels and tourist rest houses along the way. The locations are quite clean and suit all budgets. In Govindghat, you can either stay in the Gurudwara or Hotel Bhagat. Ghangaria in addition to GMVN property has several hotels including Hotels Sri Nanda Lokpal Palace and Kuber.

In Ghangaria, Hotel Himalaya is recommended for eating - definitely tastier and cheaper than the food that will be served in your hotel!

Travel Tips
·        Sit on right side of bus from Rishikesh to Srinagar and sit on left side from Srinagar to Govindghat to enjoy the views of Alaknanda and Panch Prayags at Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnprayag, Nandaprayag and Vishnuprayag.
·        Carry medicine if mountain roads make you nauseous
·        Carry walking stick and rain ponchos before starting the trek at Govindghat – shop in the lanes of Govindghat, next to Gurudwara
·        For the trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria, packing light is recommended. All extra stuff can be deposited at Govindghat gurudwara.
·        As you leave Govindghat behind, everything costs double – Tea is Rs 20 and water bottle is Rs 40!
·        There are eateries on the trek route from Ghangaria from Govindghat
·        Evenings at Ghangaria are chilly, so pack accordingly

Footnote: Photographing the individual flowers in the Valley of Flowers is not easy. First, you have access to flowers only besides the track. Getting onto flower beds is tough and you really don’t want to damage the plants. And then you got to sit down to reach to the tiny flowers. And if you are squatting, it is hard to put the viewfinder to the eye. Photographing with the zoom cameras, holding your breath at these heights, is again tricky as the subject flower keeps floating out of focus. And then if you do manage to do everything, the breeze at this exact moment is guaranteed to exasperate you!

Related Post on this blog:

Flowers of Valley of Flowers

6 comments:

  1. So beautifully told about the valley. Yes, I completely agree with you that it is a place well hidden in the laps of of mother nature. Photographs have come very well.Great!

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    1. Hi Anupam,

      Thanks for reading. Of course no words can describe the beauty of the valley. And the reason its still this beautiful and pristine is its comparatively difficult accessibility. Had such a great time getting to the valley and spending those few divine hours here.

      Regards

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  2. Nirdesh jee yeh post pad kar dil literally Baag Baag ho gaya.... ..:)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Prasad bhai,

      So happy about your heart going garden garden - hahahaha. The Valley of Flowers is a special experience and I truly feel blessed being here. If not already, you should plan for next July-August so that we can see more beautiful views in your post!

      Cheers

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  3. As I was reading this post, it seemed as the valley had come alive in front of me. It was as if I was right there, feeling the crisp valley air, marveling at the sights.
    Lovely post Nirdesh ji. And thanks for all the details about getting there, will come super handy to anyone planning a trip.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Ragini,

      Thanks for visiting.

      Yes, the Valley has this effect. Whether standing in the middle here or looking at the photos, the Valley has this pull for the viewer. I am sure that pull will bring you here, if not already, soon. Of course, the effort of travelling and trekking of five days, brings in an exhilaration beyond description, when the travellers finds himself in the Valley.

      Looking at hindsight, I think travellers should visit the Valley for two days - one for photography and the other day to walk to the farthest point in the valley.

      Yes, the inputs were shared by friends, which I thought will come in handy for future travellers.

      Cheers,

      Nirdesh

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