TOWARDS THE HIGH HIMALAYAS (Story 2)
On the road again
The following day we again excitedly travel the roads of the Himalayas towards Joshimath. We stop at the Kali Temple just beyond Srinagar – this temple was raised from its place in 2013 just prior to the massive ‘cloudburst’ and flood that killed 10,000 people. The new temple is still under construction alongside the current temporary position where we briefly enjoy the blessing of Kali in this temple.
Temple bells and the raised Kali temple at Srinagar, Uttarakhand, Himalayan India
We journey on and after arriving at Joshimath, known as ‘The gateway to heaven’, in the early evening we take a walk through the thriving town and up to the Adi Shankaracharaya Temple where there is a 2500-year-old Mulberry tree with a cave below where he meditated in the 8th Century. A major figure in Vedic history, Adi Shankaracharya is a legend in the Himalayas and indeed all of India. The energy around the cave, temple, and tree are palpable and as darkness falls we return to our hotel. Tomorrow will be a big day.
Along the way we see Kayakers resting by the riverside, then the Mulberry tree, cave and temple at Joshimath
The big day arrives
We pack light and drive down into the depths of the valley far below Joshimath on the access road to Badrinath. We move towards Govind Ghat enjoying the views which still excite me every time I visit. The scenery is hard to put into words but the images remain in my memory. The best I can do is describe the steep gray and green craggy outcrops leading to high blue peaks of which some are covered in snow and glaciers, wispy white cloud surround the tops, ever moving in the wind high up on these pinacles – thousands of feet high.
The mountains around Joshimath – on way to Govind Ghat & Kartik, packed and ready for the hike up the mountain
The high waterfall across the valley from the trail and a village on the way to Joshimath
On arriving we leave our driver and car and organise ourselves into jeeps. We travel approximately 3km up what used to be the walking track and is now a road. At the terminus, the smell of horses and manure permeate the air as we sort out rides for Shona and Phyllis to take them up the mountain while we also find a porter to carry our small packs on the 10km trek to ‘basecamp’ at Gangaria. This is a bustling scene of animal and men, confusion and excitement, as we mingle with the other pilgrims heading towards the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund. The Sikh pilgrim trail occupies the same track and the porters carry everything from people’s packs to food supplies and building materials, a true sight to behold.
Barefooted Sikh pilgrim and Shoba at the start of the walking track
The ravages of weather leave their scars
In 2013 a devastating cloudburst flooded the village of Pulna which was destroyed with much loss of life. The new track sits 50m above the ghost town with its damaged track and ruined houses, a graveyard, a timely reminder of the richness and danger of the mighty Himalayas and the forces of weather and nature. I say a prayer for those lost in the flood and those left behind injured and mourning. At one stage on the walk, I meet a man with a leg and arm missing – I don’t know his story but no doubt it was not a happy one. Track sweepers put their hand out for money and there are many so the money does not go far, but I do dig deeper for the man who cannot work.
Pulna and two track sweepers
The trek begins
At the start of the walk, the excitement rises as we pass the back ends of horses on the narrow track and start heading up the valley. Soon we are leaving the hustle and bustle behind and climb higher and higher. The view back down towards Govind Ghat trails far behind and the river below gets quieter as we rise well above it, viewing waterfalls across the valley amidst the cliffs and steep-sided tree covered mountainsides. Tea stalls and shelters strategically placed along the way provide for the pilgrims and porters. Kartik, Shoba, and Suresh move ahead of me as I enjoy the ‘one step at a time’ approach towards Gangaria. It is not always easy and the memory of Dev from 2003 and from my previous walk in 2006 ring in my mind as I recall the ‘not for the faint hearted’ comment. The track from 2006 has long gone; my feet now touch new stones, a new track but known territory.
Shona on her horse ready to go up the trail and Phyllis gets acquainted with her horse
At ‘midway’ I have lunch with Suresh and Shoba before we move towards the steeper part of the trail and the push towards our goal.
Images of the high mountains and the stone track up the trail to Gangaria
The others move on ahead and at times Suresh waits for me to ensure my old bones can do the work needed to get to the camp at Gangaria. I puff and pant a bit at the steepest sections, but each step takes me closer to the familiar view, the forest just about 500m before Gangaria. I spy the row of tents beside the track above two helicopter pads on a flat area that I recall used to be the camp for the horses and their owners.
Suresh awaits for me with the high mountains as our backdrop and the tents come into view
As I approach the tents, I realised this is where we are staying as I see my friends wrapped in warm rugs sitting in a huddle by one tent. Shoba claps my arrival 3 hours and 45 minutess after we left the drop off point, now 10km and a lovely 3,049m 10,200ft (10,200ft) far below. Kartik honours my arrival by saying he is proud and a bit flabergasted that at my age I can do this walk, to which I indignantly chuckle and think, ‘little whippersnapper – I am not that old!’
Phyllis and Kartik wrapped and warm by our tents
I settle in with a hot cup of tea and snacks, soon wrapped in a bright blanket also – the wind is ‘keen’ up here, exposed on this open-sided view down the valley towards ‘midway’ and I smugly tapped myself on the back for reaching my goal once again! Later we take the walk up the steep last part of the track through the lovely forest into Gangaria village with its also familiar narrow main street lined with small hotels and shops, along with the compound where the Sikh pilgrims can stay. We sit on the replacement makeshift bridge (the original washed away in the 2013 floods) at the north side of town after passing the very smelly horse camp and take in the surrounding views into the Valley of Flowers – via the gap in the gorge. We stretch our necks up to where the waterfall flows down from Hemkund and the Sikh pilgrim site with the steep zig-zag track that is 7km long from Gangaria to the lake. The waterfall appears as a mere trickle from what I remember from 2006.
The view from the gap into the Valley of Flowers, flower banner and a flower at high altitude.
Kartik goes bear spotting (black Himalayan bear live in this area) after hearing one had been seen in the local area the day before. After dinner we settle in our tents by 8pm with hot water bottles for warmth and an early night – tomorrow is a big and exciting day.
The big day arrives – The trek into the Valley of Flowers
We prepare ourselves and walk up through Gangaria once again and turn off from the main track to pay our track fees and go into the valley. The walk is pretty and tree-lined as we head down towards the bridge across the Pushpawati river (pronounced Push-parva-ti) which tumbles fast and furiously through the gap and down the valley towards Govindghat. We have some fun sitting inside a hollow tree and laugh at each other’s antics. We take photos at the bridge of the spectacular scenery of the sheer rock faces which appear powerful and daunting – again reminding us of the power of these great mountains.
The flat track at the beginning of the walk into the Valley, the hollow tree and the view back towards the river valley and the track/waterfall at Hemkund
Walking on towards the gap, we did not know that the track had been redefined and find ourselves heading up very, very steeply through the trees to the top of the big landslides which had occurred in 2013 and wiped out the previous track beside the river. It was hard work, the track was made from the local stones, rough and narrow, placed side by side, end to end to form the walkway. Because it was still reasonably new, it had not yet pounded down into a comfortable walk-way. In places, it was so steep some of us thought we might not make it to ‘the big rock’ which marks an arrival point in the valley and our lunch stop!
The beginning of the new track
The new steap track across the top of the landslide – remember this is high altitude!
Arriving at what we thought would be the top, only to round a corner and see more track, heading at least across the terrain and not just up, we dig in with all our heart, soul, and might and finally make it to our goal. The track down to the big rock was easier but also a reminder that we had to climb back up again! The photos in the previous story about my first trip to the Valley in 2006, show the track by the river and these photos show how high we had to climb. Wow, we were NOT expecting this, but we did it! Read previous story here
Suresh and Shoba – happy to have finally arrived in the Valley of Flowers
Phyllis in deep reflection and concentration crossing the bridge near the big rock
A thumbs up for the arrival in this magical amazing valley
The real deal
We lie in the sun and eat lunch by the big rock as we admire the Valley. It is autumn at this time of year and therefore not many blooms to be seen. There are some little orchids and small flowers but no rare blue Himalayan poppies today.
Rare blue Himalayan Poppy – photo courtesy of Surendra Bisht (with his permission)
The Valley itself does not disappoint with glaciers clinging high on the sheer walls of the snow-capped mountainous surrounds and a clear view to the pass from which the explorers came over in 1931 and saw the valley for the first time. A link to an excerpt from a book on this discovery…(1999) enjoy at your leisure. Some historical information: read here or enjoy this short passage: Short history: read here
Smythe and friends came over this high mountain pass at the head of the Valley Of Flowers
The Valley of Flowers sits at 3400m (10,302ft) and from here we observe the zig-zag track and waterfall above which Hemkund (4,632m; 15,197ft) sits back from where we came near Gangaria. We retrace our steps up and across the landslides and down the steep rocky track towards the river. We head back towards Gangaria and our camp for hot tea and snacks. We revel in the accomplishment of traversing this track that was beyond our knowledge, expectations, and imaginations. I am still a bit in disbelief as to how steep it was and apologise to my friends for the unknown harder work we had to do.
The ‘new track’
Resting at the end of this trek
Tomorrow we plan to walk or ride up by the waterfall to Hemkund Sahib.
Horses, waterfall and Hemkund above Gangaria
See the next instalment coming soon!
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