Sibling Trekk(ipp)ing @ Valley of Flowers & Hemkund

On a hot and humid April evening my brother proposed going tripping: Singapore, Malaysia… A spoilsport for any travel plans abroad, my expected response was “Why? If you’re up for going trekking in the Himalayas, I have a plan.” A skeptical look later I suggested “Valley of Flowers: check it out. We shall go in July. Start working out from tomorrow. Cardio.” I thought this would go nowhere. But he got back the next day saying “I’m up for this.” I asked others if anyone else was. No takers. So be it. A sibling trip! Between us, I was the one with an inveterate attraction to all things dangerous: from Love to Himalayas. I was to do the planning, but I had a trip to Sikkim ahead, so this could wait, for now.

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Q. Why Valley of Flowers?

First, I had been wanting to go for ages. Something or the other would keep coming up every year during the limited window of mid-July to August when the flowers blossom. Second, my brother had never been on a trek. I thought that he has the required fitness to experience Nature at its best surrounded by the Himalayas. Due to the Gurudwara at Hemkund, Valley of Flowers is reasonably mainstream, the route well laid out with no forest trails requiring guides. You need to be fit and travel light and you are good to go. Seemed like a good first trek to me. Zero chances of getting lost, washrooms throughout. Third, while I would have loved to outsource planning to the likes of India Hikes, I could not make the date commitments it required and did not want to go with a crowd on this perfectly doable trek, since the logistics are so convenient, even if one is traveling solo.

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Logistics

My aversion to planning and commitment meant all that was done for the trip was a ticket to Delhi and from there a train to Haridwar. Surpassing my own standards, night stay at BedHubs, Haridwar had also been booked, a decent travellers’ hostel. Plan was to take a bus to Joshimath next morning, and in case a bus is not available, the journey would have to be broken as per the route map saved on my phone:

Delhi – Haridwar – Rishikesh – Deoprayag – Srinagar – Rudraprayag – Karnaprayag – Chamoli – Joshimath – Govindghat-Pulna-Bhyundar (Valley of Flowers)

Our plans involved public transport (and hitchhiking of course!) all the way. My rough mental itinerary involved being Joshimath bound once in Haridwar. From Joshimath figuring out the process to reach Govindghat and subsequently to Pulna from where the trek would begin.

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Things that I got lucky on, but in hindsight I should have kept in mind were: Joshimath is a good ten hours from Haridwar, the kind of distance for which buses would leave early morning. The government bus leaves around 5:30 a.m. (which we slept through) from Haridwar. A private bus at 7:45 a.m. (for Rs. 400 per person). We were lucky enough to have made it in time for the latter! Otherwise, the route map would come in handy: find something for Srinagar and then as far onward as possible towards Joshimath, but we were spared that pain in favor of the pain of a ten hour long bus journey on an under construction highway. Disembarking in the Joshimath market at 6 p.m., finding a place for the night was a piece of cake. Accommodations for Rs. 500-600 (per room) are easily available near the taxi stand. From Joshimath, shared SUVs are available to take one to Govindghat (from the Badrinath stand) for 70 bucks per person. A two hour ride away, the taxi drops one near the highway. A short walk through Govindghat, past the gurudwara, one reaches the point from where shared vehicles to Pulna (another 4 kms away) are available. One can take this vehicle (40 bucks per person) or start the trek from Govindghat itself. Finally, the moment my brother had been training for was here.

Things to keep in mind

One, when going to the Himalayas, do not ever keep a tight itinerary. A spare day or two for plans washed away in landslides, etc. helps. Two, in the hills start early. Chances of rain drastically increases post noon. Public transport is available either early morning or in the evening. Three, fitness helps you enjoy the beauty of the majestic Himalayas. Four, when returning, keep in mind the kawars at Rishikesh and Haridwar, the trek might be during the Hindu month of sawan. Five, the flower diversity gets better with more rainfall in August. The trade-off is more flowers versus more landslides. Six, there would be no telephone network beyond Govindghat (unless BSNL).

The trek

Pulna to Ghangria (10 kms approximately)

Barely an hour into our trek, we started the usual ‘bhaiya aur kitna hai’ which met with the standard lies from the locals to uplift our morale ‘bas, thora aur hai’. Pulna to Ghangria (which is like the base camp for Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib) is an 8-10 kms trek, but honestly, these numbers don’t matter when trekking. The key is to keep going. One of the things I love about trekking is the mind games you have to play. There are enough moments to give up, surrender and say I just cannot. But then you look at those around and then give yourself over to where the track is headed, one step at a time, going only one way: forward. Enjoying breathtaking views, the sound of thundering water and motivating each other, we finally reached the helipad at Ghangria after what seemed like a lifetime of struggle and enterprise! The problem was that it was not our final destination. Ghangria market was another two kms away. Preparing our brain for another two kms when it had already gone dancing in the meadows full of flowers with a “done for the day” attitude proved quite a task. We somehow pulled ourselves for these blessed two kms to the main market and decided in favor of food before lodging (we started trekking around 10 a.m., reaching Ghangria around 2 p.m.). Finding an accommodation for Rs. 300 per room per day is fairly easy in mid-July. I am told that the rates vary wildly depending on the number of visitors.

After Day 1 of the trek, I realized that to keep our luggage light, my brother and I were horribly unprepared in the event of bad weather. My brother was in an ignorance is bliss mode but I knew that a bout of rainfall and the two of us would be royally fucked. While there were options to rent raincoats, jackets, and anything else you might need, I really did not want to go down that route. Anyway, my guardian angel was all smile and sunshine. The weather we experienced was amazing: just perfect.

Ghangria to Valley of Flowers (7.5 kms approx. one way)

Day 2 of the trek was for Valley of Flowers, locally known as Bhyundar Valley. We had been told it is a 6km stretch but relatively flat, hence fairly easy. I personally don’t think so. Or may be the flat of the locals is in comparison to the incline of Hemkund, because from Ghangria to the Valley is no piece of cake my friend! The views are of course breathtaking, and O! What flowers my countryfolks! The sights is why I love, adore and respect the Himalayas. Standing lofty and serene. Above the realm of human joys and sorrows. Weaving its own magic, the lights and shadows, the patterns on those rocks, the vegetation, the water: the Himalayas command respect and deserve our devotion. What we have done with these pristine commanding heights is a telling tale of our ambition and desire of “changing this world”, if only we had given as much attention to preserving what was there rather than changing the world!

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The gates to the valley open at 7:00 a.m., the last entry allowed till 2 p.m. Showing impeccable punctuality, brother and I, with ration of the day packed, were at the gate at 6:45 a.m. Then started the walking, hiking, trekking, resting, random truth circumspect knowledge sharing (that peak is Nada Devi, that peak is Hathi Pol, with nobody an expert, everyone going by their desire to disseminate information!). Amidst my brother’s “where is the Valley” and “tomorrow are we taking a horse to Hemkund Sahib or no?” we finally reached “Here is the Valley of Flowers” point. My brother decided he was very happy and content resting on a rock amidst the flowers in the meadows at the point we had reached. Leaving him sunbathing I decided to trek a bit further in what was my conception of paradise. The place was beautiful. A sunny day, specks of cotton balls in a cerulean sky, the alpine meadows full of flowers, snow-clad mountains standing guard,  water falls and the wind in the meadows the only sounds, Life’s Good! We returned in the evening, a quick lunch later we were dead for a few hours. Our legs hurting, my brother asked if we would be taking horses for Hemkund Sahib the next day.

Hemkund Sahib

There comes a fork in the road when one leaves the hamlet at Ghangria behind. Both the paths are equally well taken and laid out, no chances of getting lost anywhere in the woods or the meadows! At the fork, head left for the Valley of Flowers National Park (UNESCO World Heritage site as well); head right for the steep trek to Hemkund Sahib. The math was: Hemkund Sahib is at a height of 4633m, Ghangria’ altitude: 3049m. The distance of the trek: 6 km. An ascent of 1600m in 6kms. Badhiya hai. Add to this that when the locals said Valley of Flowers is a cakewalk, we came back dead. I told my brother we did not have enough cash for a horse (a lie) and so we had no option but to trek. The weather, what a darling. When we needed sun we had it, when we needed cloud, we were engulfed by them. My legs hurt when we started off for Hemkund. My brother kept proposing horses, more than fatigue it was to annoy me. Made me wonder for the zillionth time since childhood how and why people say ‘he is such a good friend that he is like a brother’. Nobody can replace or come close to being a brother: I would not take so much bull shit from anyone else and nobody has given me as much hell as he has. I would kill a person if I am denied the remote for the sake of sadistic pleasure, unless that person is a brother and being annoying seems to be a part of the job description! You just cannot become a brother, I would not put up with it.

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His maggi breaks, my “look at all the plastic around” outbursts, a combined “Yaar! Aur kitna door” breaks and a hell lot of “short cuts” marked our hide and seek through the clouds on this steep ascent. On our final shortcut, when we left the stone track in favor of stairs, it was a flag within our sight that marked the Gurudwara, which kept us going, apart from the beautiful blue poppies (Himalayan Queen) in full bloom along the track on the higher reaches. The moment we reached, the nearest bench, and flat we go. We did it! O yes! His first. My first after my illness and ensuing gluten sensitivity. After a few minutes of rest, full of pride, we finally decided to explore further to find out why exactly did we make ourselves go through all this. All doubts were laid to rest at the sight in front of us:

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We sat for quite sometime at the edge of the lake, towards the Lakshman Temple adjoining the Gurudwara: definitely the more peaceful and picturesque corner. Helping ourselves to the langar of steaming hot khichdi and tea, we finally embarked on our trek back to Ghangria. This was it. The trek was done. In another day we would be back in network zone, back to the grind. Not a day of rain! We had come to Valley of Flowers without an umbrella or poncho, and as luck would have it no rainfall while trekking! We were back by 3 p.m. and the extra day I had kept for the trek was now an available resource. The general proposal in Ghangria was in favor of Badrinath, merely 25 kms from Govindghat.

Badrinath

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The next day we started at 6:30 a.m., as all other days, from Ghangria to Govindghat. While trekking back, we laughed at our folly of having stopped at a shop barely a few meters from the starting point at Pulna three days ago to ask the person how far we had come, and the person telling us that the most difficult part was over, it was now fairly easy ahead! To realize that we had barely begun! It is these things that make me want to keep going back to the Himalayas. The friendly banter, the clueless fellow travellers, the hope and zeal of wanting to finish the trek, the fear of what if I am not able to, all the while the majestic Himalayas surrounding you.

We emerged on the Govindghat highway a while later, to be told that no buses are to be had till late in the evening, a private car being our only option. The moment of reckoning had arrived. #Hitchhike! A vehicle loaded with goods was coming in our direction, my hand, the driver’s searching look, my reply “Badrinath?” with a look towards the vacant seat next to him, his nod indicating us to get in, brother and I running towards the other side, while I inquired the amount (70 bucks per person). Amazing fellow. Showed us places of interest along the way, told us stories of the region, and before we even knew it, we were in Badrinath. I had expected a crazy pilgrim town but it was deserted. What fun! We roamed around, shopped, bumped into a set of travelers who we had kept bumping into over the last three days in the Valley. We tagged along with the group to head to Mana, India’s last village, and everything India’s last: from teashop to temple. Forced tourism but well, we did not really have anything else to do, so might as well see the cave where Vyas dictated the Mahabharat to Ganesha! The high point was of course Baba Barfani minding his own business in a cave, tourists meddling with his business because, well, that is what tourists do!

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The following morning at 5 a.m. was our bus to Rishikesh. Full of interesting Shiva bhakts and kawars, the journey back had its fair share of fun and adventure, with smoke billowing from our bus, barely a few kms from Badrinath. Turned out, it was some problem with the bus’ brakes! We did reach Rishikesh: alive and well. I had been to Rishikesh sufficient number of times to be my brother’s guide around the place.  The iconic Lakshman Jhula was apparently shut but when my brother and I walked straight ahead with a lot of confidence nobody stopped us, so we walked on! Walking along the Ganges, I showed him a few places, finally burrowing inside Little Buddha Cafe. It had started to rain, and the two of us kept sitting in the cafe with a vantage point view of the the Ganga, now flowing with a dense mist, the whole setting appearing surreal.

Post the evening Ganga aarti and braving the sawan madness, we were at the bus stop to draw the curtains on our first trip together: a trek in the Himalayas, my favourite kind of holiday, which now meets my brother’s approval as well! Throughout the trip people stared at us when we said we are siblings out on a trip: apparently siblings don’t do these things, I wonder why not. We should. To know that we continue to have the capacity to drive each other nuts!

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