A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip

Tripoto
18th Aug 2017
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Day 1

"There is something about water. Take a dip and you will know." said the caretaker of the highest Gurudwara in the world as I seemed skeptical about taking a dip in the bone-chilling glacial lake at dusk on a mountain top at 4300 meters altitude, completely camouflaged by a dense grey fog. Little did he know that I had come prepared with my swimming gear.

There was a reason all my friends backed out from visiting the Valley of Flowers. The intense rain during mid-September, which brings beauty in the form of thousands of flowers in the Valley, also brings about the beast in the cloak of destructive landslides. A friend of mine had a relative in Indo-Tibetan Border Police, posted at Badrinath told us that the situation was worsening each day. However, the day before I commenced my trip, I called Dehradun ISBT and they told me that the bus had successfully reached Joshimath that day and would ply the next.

It's a 9hrs journey from Dehradun to Joshimath. The bus leaves Doon at 6 in the morning and reaches Joshimath in the evening. Govindghat is where you rest for the night which is 18km away via shared taxi. The trek for Valley of Flowers and the pilgrimage for Hemkund Sahib commence from the same place called Ghangria which can be reached through a common 13km trekking corridor from Govindghat. The generous Sikh community has established Gurudwaras both at Govindghat and Ghangria under the Hemkund Sahib Trust Foundation.

Govindghat Gurudwara beside Alaknanda River

Photo of Govindghat, Uttarakhand, India by Animesh Anand

Everything I own is mostly waterproof as I study in Dehradun where the clouds are untrustworthy. This proved a lifesaver for me upon reaching Govindghat as it was drizzling continuously. When everyone went their way after stepping out of the taxi and I stood their alone with my borrowed rucksack, is when I realized that I was all alone. I looked up at the humungous mountains seeking strength, unfortunately, it came in the form of heavy rain.

I reached the Gurudwara at Govindghat and requested a room and was accommodated with another person. To my surprise, my roommate was traveling solo just like me. We established a rapport owing to the similar background story behind our adventure. Something that I learned from my expedition is that you begin a solo trip alone but you never end it alone.

Day 2

The rain continued the next morning, despite which we left by 6 o'clock along with 50 odd pilgrims. The journey begins at the mouth of the bridge over the Alaknanda River. I don’t know what can be called majestic if not that bridge; the other end shrouded in mist, rendering everything obscure, the mighty white river gushing in full force below and the tall rocky mountains rising into the clouds. It took us exactly 6 hours to cover the 13km trek from Govindghat, half of which we hiked along the river and the other half was spent climbing up a mountain to the one-street village of Ghangria.

Photo of Hemkund, Uttarakhand, India by Animesh Anand
Photo of Hemkund, Uttarakhand, India by Animesh Anand

The Gurudwara in Ghangria had us spellbound by its humble beauty. We sat under a large tree with a carved trunk seeking shade. The idea of being idle for the rest of the day was unbearable and we wanted to leave for Hemkund immediately. Everyone we met who was coming back from Hemkund then warned us since the pilgrims leave for Hemkund before the day breaks! Although Hemkund Sahib is a 6km from Ghangria, it is a difficult trek and takes 5-6 hrs to cover due to the steep trail. Oxygen levels deplete at this height and the Gurudwara is closed after the highly acclaimed langar in the afternoon. It is our decisions that define our life, and it is marked by moments. This was one such moment where we made a decision that would change the course of my life. After this trek, I saw the world in a different light, as one and not divided by its sophistication. As a geologist, this would be my baptism.

Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand

We left for Hemkund at 1:30 in the afternoon. While crossing the diversion for VOF, 800mtrs away from Gurudwara, we saw a waterfall with a gushing noise that could be heard from miles away. As we crossed the waterfall we met people coming from the other end. All of them blatantly warned us to go back. After an hour of climbing, we were on top of the tree line and the VOF trail was partially visible on one side. On the other side stood Hathi Parvata at 6300 meters, so tall its top was way beyond our line of sight. The importance of a trekking pole and good trekking shoes could not be overstated. We realized that we must hire a pony if we wish to complete what we had started. Unfortunately, no porter agreed to go back up. By this point, we were breathing heavily due to fatigue. We were left with another hour of climbing while the last bunch of people was climbing down.

Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand

At 5:30 in the evening, we saw the gates of Hemkund Sahib. Dense mist engulfed the whole mountain top, nothing but the stairs and the gate was visible. As we entered the deserted premises we found the Gurudwara closed. We traversed the length of the Gurudwara looking for the lake. Neither the lake nor any human soul could be found. In a sudden swift motion, a breeze came and lifted the misty shroud and I found myself standing near the edge of the lake.

The architecture of the temple is unique. The walls and benches are lined with thick woolen clothing. During the six months, it is open the high priest lives there along with the staff. The shallow end of the lake is filled with pebbles and is 30ft deep at the other end. I stood at the edge of the lake, took a look at the mountains eerily visible across the mist and went inside the lake. The water chills you down to the bone. I started to swim, to counter the cold. I could only swim for 9 seconds and came out gasping for air. The caretaker ordered us to come inside. After 30 minutes of shivering despite being covered with all the blankets available, the kitchen staff gave us hot water which felt like the elixir of life. By this time the evening Kirtan had begun and they opened the gates of the temple. Everything fell into place.

Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand

We began our descent rejuvenated along with the soft notes of the Gurbani which provided us will power. We were just back halfway when it got pitch dark and started raining and we had to use the phone's flashlight under the poncho itself. We ate the langar which felt like a godsend. I called my parents via public landline for the first time since reaching Joshimath After our deadly escapade I felt like I’d gotten a new lease on life, and their faces were the first thing that came to my mind.

The Trek to Valley of Flowers and the pilgrimage to Hemkund Sahib both start from at the foot of a mesmerizing waterfall in Ghangria. The entry gate and the ticket counter are situated 300 m from the waterfall towards the left through an already flowery trail. 20 odd people were waiting for the counter to get started, which was at a halt due to minor landslide in the trail owing to the continuous rainfall the past day.

The official entry time in the valley is 8 am and exit is 5 pm which is sufficient to explore the valley. The entry fee is 150 per person.

Photo of Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India by Animesh Anand
Photo of Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India by Animesh Anand

The trek spans 8 km from the Entry gate. The first km is a rocky trail going through a forest. The trail moves along a river until a grand metal bridge arrives across the river into a mountain. The next two km are steep and lead to the topmost edge of the mountain giving the first glimpse of the cloud-covered valley.

Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand

It is rumored that people have fainted due to the overpowering aroma of collective flowers. Know this, that once you have visited the valley your perspective towards life will change. You will become a kindred spirit taking on adventures that would make the story of your life worth sharing. The last 5km well-laid trail is blissful covering various small brooks to cross and multiple sub-trails to explore. There comes a time in the trail where the plant right beside the trail becomes too large that it seems you are walking through a flowered labyrinth.

Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand
Photo of A Geologist's Baptism : Valley of Flowers & Hemkund Sahib Solo Trip by Animesh Anand

By the time we were back at the Entry Gate, it was 5 o'clock and the patrolling party was leaving for their daily scouting to round up all the people who entered the valley. Activities like these have kept the sanctity of the valley intact over the years.

In a normal situation, I should have rested at the Gurudwara after traversing 41 km in one and a half-day but it was essential for me to be at the Joshimath Bus Station the next which particularly meant another 13 km for that day. Since this was not the case with the friend, he decided to rest and start for Govindghat the next day. After charging up my phone for half an hour I bid farewell to him, exchanged numbers and wished him luck for life.

I had no idea what fate had decided for me, little did I know I would remember it forever my life. The sun had already set and I had just started my 13 km trek through the dense jungle. The first leg of the trek was just downhill which I ran, a decision which turns out I would regret the next 2 months while walking with a cane.

It was during the second leg of the trek things started to get scary and magical at the same time. I was hiking between thick jungle on both sides of the trail with the night sky above, visible sometimes through the crevices of the canopy. I believe it was the clearest night sky I have ever seen in my lifetime and the closest I have been to the stars. As soon as I reached midway, I started hearing voices of grown men. Although scared, my gut feeling made me pace up. I reached four men clad in all white with makeshift natural pole navigating themselves through the trail without the help of any light source. All this time I never realized the savior that my phone's flashlight had been. They were relieved to have received my assistance and I was happy to have found their company. A perfect symbiotic relationship.

'You only start a trip solo, you never finish one' would become mine go to advise for people asking anything about trekking. The entire distance back to Gurudwara was spent in conversation and them getting to know me and my solo trip. They were Hemkund pilgrims from Punjab who were inherently farmers but high officials of the village Panchayat. I had almost damaged my left knee and was barely able to walk the last 3 km. Since it had been raining at all times in the last two days and I had been walking the most of them, my shoes were completely done with. I was almost crying when I reached my bed at 10 in the might and let it all out when I did.

Day 4

The rain of the last two days had let to multiple landslides in the route and no buses were plying for that day. Disheartened, I went and sat at the Langar in the Govindghat Gurudwara. I was almost starting to panic when few people came to sit in the langar across me. I was glad to see familiar faces in a time of adversity. They were the same people I met the day before and as it turns out they had an SUV they had driven all the way from Punjab. They offered me a ride till Haridwar which happened to be one of their checkpoints. On the way, we saw two landslides which delayed our journey by 4 hours and we reached Haridwar at 11 in the night. After finding the Haridwar bus station completely deserted, I was advised by a local samaritan about a location from where I could get a lift to Dehradun.

Bidding farewell to the group at midnight I stood at a fork in the middle of nowhere. Since this was a busy and only route to Dehradun, I easily got a lift in a supply truck, whose driver was a Joshimath native and become nostalgic listening to the tale I narrated him for his help. As planned I was sitting in the class, I couldn't miss, the next morning thinking about the next winter trek.