In late September last year, I joined Sahastra and a group of four friends on a trek to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. When we reached there we were told that the season for flowers had slipped behind us by two weeks. We prepared for disappointment but instead discovered to our happy surprise that the Valley in September was fall's magical fairyland, ready to be tucked in for a long winter nap. This piece was published as the cover story in India Abroad Magazine, August 27, 2010.
|Autumn burnishes the Valley of Flowers with ochre, gold and fawn|
|The peak of Nar Parvat as seen from Ghangharia, 3 km from the Valley of Flowers. The cliff walls on either side of the valley rise thousands of feet.|
The last of the flower enthusiasts, who had braved the monsoon rains and the profusion of leeches, had departed weeks ago. The blossom-studded meadows that had charmed visitors from June to August were a distant memory. Gone were the much photographed Brahma Kamals (Rheum nobile) and cobra lilies. The violet primulas and buttery-yellow marsh marigolds had disappeared. The edelweiss had turned into ashen stars. The celebrated Himalayan Blue Poppies, which bloomed during the monsoon and held an inexplicable fascination for Japanese flower-seekers, had turned into membranous cups rattling with seeds. Pale pink balsams with translucent stems were still in flower though some already bristled with seed pods. Only the geraniums, hemmed in by natural hedgerows of lilac asters and mustard inulas, thrust out their cheery pink and white blooms to greet the sun.
|The Valley as seen from the trail. |
The heart of the Valley is a good hour's walk from this point.
A consummate mountaineer, writer and photographer venerated by many of his contemporaries, Smythe had climbed extensively in the Himalayas as well as in the Alps and the Canadian Rockies. He had attempted Mount Everest three times — twice with Hugh Ruttledge and once as a member of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s 1938 expedition. Smythe wrote more than 27 books and travelogues before he died at 49 of complications induced by malaria.
|Bursts of remnant colour light up a tawny field|
Near its end is a chapter titled ‘Autumn in the Valley of Flowers’, which served as my lodestone, as I wandered in Smythe’s footsteps barely a week before the tourist season ended.
|The entrance to the Valley of Flowers National Park|
|A long walk|
|In the Valley, even the sun is a late riser|
‘Sir, try this,’ urged Rajneesh Singh Chauhan, offering me a fistful of dark grains and snapping me out of my reverie. After a half-day with our garrulous guide, our group had grown to trust him implicitly. We obediently nibbled and sniffed at things he held out to us, including berries, wild thyme and basil.
‘Balsam seeds,’ he said with a grin that could disarm a samurai. He popped a few in his mouth. Encouraged, I followed suit. They were delicious, with the rich, mulchy flavor of walnuts. ‘Great topping for ice cream,’ he remarked in Hindi, grinning until his slanted eyes disappeared in a maze of suntanned laugh lines.
Ice cream was the farthest thing from my mind. On the sunniest of days in the valley wind-chill can make your teeth chatter. Just a few minutes ago, I had basked in the glorious sunshine wearing a thin tee. As I fastened my shoelaces in the shadow of a humungous boulder the wind chafed at me, forcing me back into my fleece pullover. In my backpack I carried reinforcements: A scarf, mitts, a windcheater and a fleece-lined rain jacket.
|Himalayan Balsam. Its dry seeds made for excellent eating.|
|Appetising aromas rend the air in Ghangharia|
|Ghangharia, seen from the entrance to the national park|
|The GMVN guesthouse at Ghangharia is the best place to stay|
|There is still some nectar left for this butterfly|
Crossing a suspension bridge across the jade-green Alaknanda we embarked on a trail that ascended to the picturesque village of Phulna, fringed by beds of marigold and cosmos. Three pittoos (porters) walked ahead, slinging our bags effortlessly. The stamina of these Hindu émigrés from neighboring Nepal, who compete bitterly for business with the Muslim mule-drivers from the plains of Uttar Pradesh, is legendary. Along the way, we encountered pittoos carrying children and elderly pilgrims in khandis (large cane baskets). Heavier human cargo was borne in palkis (palanquins) by four porters. Mule drivers positioned themselves tactfully at the toughest points of the trail, easily persuading exhausted pilgrims to complete the journey on muleback.
|The village of Phulna, true to its name, is fringed by beds of ornamental flowers|
Every half-mile of the trail is swept by sanitary workers employed by the Eco Development Committee Bhyundar, a non-governmental organization formed by the villagers with the support of the state forest department. They harvest the trash in gunnysacks and the gargantuan heaps contrast sorely with the emerald-green hills as they wait for mules to ferry them to Joshimath. The trash is then transported to New Delhi, 310 miles away, to be recycled.
It took us seven hours to walk from Govindghat to Ghangharia. The trail, which wound beside the roaring Hemganga, ascended 4,000 feet through forests of plane and oak to rhododendrons and conifers in the higher altitudes.
|An affluent stream joins the Hemganga uproariously|
From Ghangharia the trek to the valley was shorter, but no less demanding. The park, all of 55 square miles, is open from 6 am to 5 pm. Camping is prohibited and collecting specimens is illegal, though there are no checks of any kind. Notified as a National Park in 1982, the Valley of Flowers, along with the adjoining Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
|In the centre of the valley|
|The grave of Joan Margaret Legge|
|This massive wall of ice is what remains of a glacier that has receded by a third of the distance in the last few decades|
Hunger, we empathized with the bears, was a big motivator. We returned to Ghangharia and fell greedily upon the hot pakoras and gulab jamuns at our favorite eatery. Thunder reverberated in the valley behind us and Nar Parvat disappeared in a halo of clouds. When they cleared an hour later we saw that the peak was draped in a fresh coat of snow.
Over dinner that evening Chauhan let us into a secret. “There is another valley where few people ever go and we might find flowers there if we are lucky,” he said. The next morning we left before sunup with Chauhan toward the leeward face of Hathi Parvat. We crossed the Hemganga at Bhyundar and took a trail through dense forests of blue pine, hazelnut and deodar. Griffons and bearded vultures patrolled the sky as we skirted a tributary of the Hemganga studded with blinding white boulders. We entered a birch forest where the monsoon had departed reluctantly. Orange bracket fungi clung to the trees and pools of clear water sprung at our feet.
|The ashen stars of dried edelweiss|
|Geraniums look cheerily at the sun|
“This,” he announced, “is the other Valley of Flowers!”
|Knotweed in the "Other Valley of Flowers"|
A distant murmur of thunder alerted us to the present and we hurried back to Ghangharia. That night I slept uneasily, dreaming of wilting flowerbeds and snowstorms in the valley. As September slipped behind us, the Valley of Flowers completed its gentle transformation into the Valley of Potpourri, rustling with phantom blossoms and perfumed with thyme and juniper.
On our sullen return journey to Govindghat, Bhyundar resembled a ghost town. The padlocked doors told us that the entire village had moved downhill to Phulna for the winter. With four days for the pilgrim season to end, the shacks that had served us parathas on our way uphill had also shut down.
Every year, with the first snowfall in late October, a hush descends over the valley, punctuated only by the frosty chatter of the Pushpavati. Griffons seek out carrion at lower altitudes and black bears tuck into tree hollows to hibernate. Even Rajneesh Singh Chauhan, ever at home in the mountains, locks up his store and returns to Joshimath to wait out the bitter winter.
Hail and sleet erode the bridle track to Hemkunt Sahib, allowing the Valley of Flowers to sleep undisturbed until the first pilgrims return in June to rebuild it.
|Milky with silt, the Pushpavati drains the Bhyundar Valley|