Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2

19th Aug 2009
Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 by Abhishek Talwar

Hemkund Sahib & Back - 19 Aug 2009

Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 1/1 by Abhishek Talwar

Someone forgot to tell me that one of the effects of high altitudes is a splitting headache accompanied by eye - goggling insomnia! I'd spent the whole night bundled under half a dozen blankets, staring into the darkness as the pain throbbed from one temple to the other. Hour after agonising hour I just stared up, afraid to move lest the cocoon of warmth I'd created around my body got disturbed, and any part of my skin would come in contact with the freezing sheets. If I shut my eyes, I'd see kaleidoscopic visions dancing before me, vivid pinks and violets against a deep dark background - couldn't figure out which was more painful, eyes shut or open! Just as I was grappling with this existential dilemma, Vikram came knocking, announcing it was 0430hrs and we'd be starting our trek to Hemkund Sahib in an hour.

Told him I hadn't slept the whole night, and may not be able to make it. Imagine my shock when he just laughed at my tale of agony! Here I am telling the man of the torture I've had to endure, without a a wink of sleep, and all I could elicit in the form of sympathy was laughter - good natured, but still, laughter! "Pop 2 of these and tell me in 20 minutes if you still want to skip the trek today" he said, proffering a strip of some paracetamol. I dutifully swallowed 2 pills (Saridon, I think), and went back to my misery. Forget 20, in 10 minutes the splitting headache had vanished, and I felt totally refreshed! It was like I'd just awoken from a good 8 hours of sleep! I quickly dressed, put on my shoes and headed out. After a cup of tea with the ubiquitous glucose biscuits we began our ascent to Hemkund Sahib.

The mountains in the early morning light, as we headed out from Ghangharia en route to Hemkund Sahib

Photo of Ghangaria, Uttarakhand, India by Abhishek Talwar

We made our way further through the main street of Ghangharia, passing other pilgrims and trekkers as everyone prepared for their day. In about 15 minutes we'd passed the town and were steadily ascending the mountains, as the sun peeked out from the peaks (no pun intended!). I sidled up to Vikram, who explained that it was common to have splitting headaches at altitudes above 10k feet, until you acclimatise - in the interim, it is a good idea to take aspirins (or any paracetamol), since these are blood thinners and help in the circulation, thus mitigating the effect of the altitude! Great help, if only I'd known the previous night, It would've saved me the torture of what I'd gone through! I still couldn't explain how I felt refreshed and strong, despite a 14Km climb the previous day, and no sleep at all in the last 24 hours, with another 12 hours to go before I'd get any rest at all!

We steadily kept plodding onwards. If the start of the trek to Ghangaria last morning seemed steep then, it paled in comparison to this morning! Some of the parts were virtual 45+ degree ascents on loose mud paths with nary a foothold and sheer drops on one side. The day was dark and gloomy, besides being very cold (we later found that the day temperature was around 5 degrees, and the only saving grace was that there was no wind to add to the chill factor!). As we climbed on, my thigh muscles started burning with the exhaustion and lack of oxygen. Soon, I'd also developed a stitch in the side. A quick glance at the team showed everyone to be in their own form of private misery, except Vikram, who patiently led us on upwards into the mountain. After about an hour or so, I hit my second wind, and from then on at least stamina wasn't an issue. I remember feeling a sense of pride when I glanced down to see Ghangaria far away below! Here we were, in our fancy trekking boots and insulated gear, weathering all that the great Himalayas could throw at us, and plodding on to our goal, undaunted.....when we suddenly passed an old couple. The man, a Sardar, would've been around 80, and the lady a couple of years younger. He was dressed in a salwar kurta, with rubber slippers on his feet, while she was wearing a salwar kameez, dupatta tied around her waist and BROKEN PLASTIC CHAPPAL!!!! No jackets, no sweaters, no shoes (forget trekking shoes), and all their worldly possessions in one cloth bag that the lady was carrying slung over her shoulder! Their entire being was focussed on the climb, as they gamely put one foot before the other, and kept muttering 'Waheguru' under their breath, their belief giving them the strength and fortitude to go on. We said a cheery 'Waheguru' to them as we passed, humbled by their sheer grit and simplicity. any sense of pride I'd felt quickly dissipated. There was a little tea shop at at the next turn, more a lean to shelter with a couple of stones doubling up as benches. We halted there for a warming cuppa. In about 10 minutes, the old couple caught up with us, and graciously accepted our invitation for a cup of tea. It turns out they were from Gurdaspur, and this was their 8th visit to Hemkunth Sahib. When asked how they'd manage in their basic clothing, they just smiled, shrugged and said 'Waheguru di meher'. Faith truly is great!

Not a great picture I'm afraid - but if you look closely you can make out the old Sardarji in the grey kurta & his wife in the red salwar kameez, walking away between the 2 small trees!

Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 by Abhishek Talwar

In about 3 hours we reached the summit, to be greeted by a massive Gurudwara flanked by 7 towering peaks on 3 sides. Just behind the main building is a lake, the Laxman kund, fed by an underwater stream. We were greeted with sights of the faithful stripping to their undergarments, and taking a dip in the freezing waters! More out of not wanting to miss out, than any religious fervour, I decided to try my hand at it. By the time I'd stripped to my briefs, my teeth were chattering, and my body was shivering uncontrollably. Grabbing a chain anchored to the shore, I gingerly put a toe in the water. If it was cold out, the water was worse. I realised slow and steady wouldn't work here, and by the time I mustered the courage to go in one step at a time, if I managed to muster it at all, I'd probably die of exposure. So against my better judgement, I took a couple of deep breaths, clenched my eyes shut, gripped the chain tight and jumped into the lake, feet first and knees bent to the chest. Strangely, the cold wasn't the first thing that hit me - what hit first was the fact that all the air I'd pumped into my lungs was expelled in one millisecond by the cold! I pushed my legs down, to find the bottom barely about 3 feet below, and pummelled myself up to get a breath in. In a moment my head broke the surface, as I thankfully drank in large gasps of air. The faster i breathed, the faster the cold pushed the air out. Or I burned the scarce oxygen to keep warm, I don't know which it was. After about 45 seconds of fighting the losing battle to breathe, I stepped out of the water, only to realise I didn't have a towel to dry off! Not bothering with such trifles, I re - wore the layers of clothing I had, only to realise I wasn't shivering anymore!!! It was as if the lake had leached out every ounce of chill from the body, or more likely, shocked the body into acclimatising to the cold.

So near, you could almost reach out and grasp it! Hemkund Sahib is just behind that bank of cloud - close as it seems, it still took as an hour to reach from here

Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 by Abhishek Talwar

The gurudwara itself is a pretty large building, the floor lined with warm deep carpets, blankets almost. After paying our respects, we headed to the langar hall, for a meal. The days menu was khichdi, which I had 6 bowls of! I don't know if it was the exhaustion, the cold or the sheer beauty of where we were, but I haven't had such delicious tasting khichdi in my life! After eating our fill, we thanked the amused volunteers in the langar and headed back down. The trek back down was an easy 2.5 hour - long stroll, enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery.

Passed this gurgling stream on the way to Hemkund Sahib. Needless to say, the water was brilliantly refreshing!

Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 by Abhishek Talwar

Once back in Ghangaria, we decided to explore the little township. A couple of minutes away from our lodge we found a GMVN bungalow, with a bookshop / history centre with it. Picked up a delightful book, KAMET CONQUERED by Frank Smythe. As i settled in for some pre - dinner reading, I stumbled across two facts - Frank Smythe and his party 'discovered' the Valley of Flowers during their expedition in the 1920's (yeah right. Just like the Westerners were the first to discover that the earth is round!), at least as far as the Western civilisation was concerned! The other fact was that on his ascent to MT. Kamet, Frank spent several sleepless nights once he crossed the 10k feet mark. Apparently, at this high altitude one doesn't need to be asleep for the body to repair itself - all that is required is that you lay absolutely prone, like you were asleep, and even if you are wide awake, you will recover all your strength, and all the repairing / maintenance that the body carries out when you are asleep, still happen. That explained the mystery of why I wasn't exhausted, despite not having slept a wink in the last 36 hours or so!!

Managed to find a copy of the book! A little rundown after all these years, but still makes for good reading!

Photo of Trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib - Part 2 by Abhishek Talwar

Dinner was Aloo paratha, but not before we 'took bath', thanks to the hot water made available @50 bucks a bucket, and we were tucked in by 9, bundled up against the cold. I went back to Frank's adventure in the Chamoli mountains, dozing of reading about his expedition, and dreaming of 'discovering' the Valley of Flowers the next morning!

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