Sunday, November 8, 2009

Valley of Flowers - A Hike in the Himalayas

A song kept playing in my head. I don’t think I heard it on the radio that day. In fact, I don’t remember hearing the song in ages. I recited the lyrics to my friend Gayatri (Gaay) and asked her if she heard it before. Not surprisingly, she did not. I myself heard it only twice or thrice in my life. I didn’t know which movie it was from or who played the lead role. It was one of those songs I remembered watching on Wednesday night Chitrahaar many many years back. The song was very appropriate for my surroundings and I kept humming it as we walked on the trail. A few minutes later, Gaay stopped and screamed “Vam, look at this. Isn’t this the song you were talking about?” What a weird coincidence! The smart people at Garhwal Tourism department made a marketing poster of the national park using that very song! Why write a poem when there is a Bollywood song! There it was, on a nice yellow board (which I neglected to photograph), the lyrics of the song. Here is a video of the song I found on youtube.

Yeh Kaun Chitrakar hai
Yeh Kaun Chitrakar hai

Haree haree Vasundhara pe nila nila yeh gagan
Ke jis pe badalo ke palakee uda raha pawan
Dishaye dekho rangbharee, chamak rahee umang bharee
Yeh kis ne phul phul pe kiya singar hai
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai

Tapaswiyo see hain atal yeh parawato kee chotiya
Yeh sarpa see ghoomeradar, gheradar ghatiya
Dhwaja se yeh khade huye hain wariaksh dewadar ke
Galiche yeh gulab ke, bagiche yeh bahar ke
Yeh kis kavee kee kalpana kaa chamatkar hai
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai

We were in the small picturesque village of Gobindghat, the starting point for the hike to the famous Valley of Flowers National Park. This being the month of August, the entire area was dressed in a layer of green. The valley was surrounded by towering peaks that seemed to be reaching out to the sky. The Alaknanda River was roaring past us drowning all other sounds. It was truly a sight to behold and there is no better way to describe it than the song above.

Valley of Flowers is a very moderate hike. You can do it easily, don’t worry about it”, said Bala of Great Indian Outdoors. Now, moderate hikes in the US are those that can be completed by kids and their grandparents. So, we did not hesitate to bring Gaay’s 60 year old mom. Our justification was “Well…she takes a long walk on the beach every day, so she should be able to do the hike”. In hindsight that was a very foolish argument, but in our eagerness to make our first trip to the Himalayas, we lost objectivity.
One look at the trail and we knew that aunty would not be able to do it. We put her on a mule and within minutes, she disappeared from sight. We hired porters for our luggage and set off on the hike. With our REI hiking poles and backpacks, Gaay and I looked every bit the intrepid trekker that we were not. Actually Gaay had done a few hikes before, but this was my first multi-day hike.
The first two kilometers were almost entirely uphill, but Gaay and I did not flinch. There was a bounce in our steps and a smile on our faces. It was a beautiful morning - partly cloudy with a pleasant breeze. We walked on, ignoring the guys that were trying to convince us to get mules too. There was no tree cover, so it was good that we started hiking before the sun was up. It was not easy, but we were determined to walk. I asked our guide, Bachchan Rana if the entire hike was going to be this hard. He pointed his hand in one direction and said “See the mountain there; See the clouds behind that mountain. Our campsite is beyond those clouds. Yes, the hike is uphill all the way”.
That did not deter us. “He is exaggerating” I told Gaay. We moved on with the kind of foolish optimism that you can only have when you start something new. An hour later, I figured we must have walked 5 kilometers, at least it felt that way. I turned to our guide and asked him the mileage. He raised an eyebrow and in a semi-heckling tone replied “Oh…this was nothing. I don’t think we even walked 2 kilometers”. We had another 12 kilometers to go! It took us ½ hour to walk a kilometer, so another 6 hours to go! Walking 14 km on a flat surface is really not a big deal, but the elevation was what was causing us to slow down. Also, a big part of the hike was boulder hopping. It was a dirt path and the recent rains had dislodged the pebbles and rocks. Our hiking pole was really useful here.

A couple of hours later, we reached the first village on the way.
Hot Chai, Maggie Noodles. Come have some parantha and chole” screamed the vendors. They even had a working phone there, so I quickly called Saru and checked in with him. After sufficiently exaggerating the toughness of my hike , I hung up and moved on. Based on what I read from previous reports, I expected a very dirty trail, but it was clean. Bachchan told us that Garhwal tourism department was taking extra measures to keep places clean. Gaay and I walked on while discussing a variety of topics ranging from US foreign policy to Bollywood gossip and time flew by. It was getting warm and my feet were beginning to hurt. Gaay was my cheerleader and kept my tempo up. She would walk a little ahead of me and make cheerful announcements – Shade ahead….great view…flat patch etc. She was a great hiking partner. We were also cheered on by other hikers on the trail. Some would pass on toffees, some would go around offering a spoon of Glucon-D and some would just say kind words to encourage us “You have come so far, the rest is very easy, It's almost over etc”. We knew that was not true, but were still touched by the kindness of these strangers. Coming from Mumbai where nobody gives a shit about anybody, this was a pleasant surprise. Most of these people were headed towards Hemkund Sahib, a popular pilgrimage site for Sikhs. One such person, Harpal Singh Sidhu became a constant companion on the trail. In his late forties, this was Harpalji's third time on this trek. He was a tall overweight man walking with the help of a sturdy bamboo stick. “See this; it is the best quality stick you can find. I had this specially made for the hike. If you need to find out how good a bamboo is, look at the rings - the farther they are, the stronger it is. You don’t get walking sticks like this outside of Punjab” he said.
When he found out that my hiking pole was from the US, he quipped आपकी America से मजबूत मेरी Amritsar की लकड़ी है”.

The hike became harder as we went up and I was getting tired. I was stopping every few minutes to catch my breath.
"छोटे छोटे कदम, सर नीचे और बस खयालों में डूब जाओं" said Harpalji. That was really good advice and it helped me move along easier.
"वोह Pehelwan ji को देखिये, आप से तीन गुना मोठे है, पर शिकयत किये बिना चलते है। पता है कयू ?
I was hungry, pouring sweat, my heart beat was at a dangerous high and this man wanted to have conversation! Gaay and I were a little embarrassed that he was calling his friend a "pehelwan", but we later found on that he was indeed a pehelwan - a state level weight lifting champion.
Harpalji continued his monologue "वाहे गुरु का नाम लेते है और बस पैर अपने आप चलने लगते है। आप कौन से भगवन को मानते है? This was really not the time or place to tell him that I was an atheist, so I was struggling to answer the question when he carried on
"Andhra Pradesh से हो, तो शायद Tirupathi के Balaji को मानते हो। आप उनका नाम ले लीजिये और काम आसान हो जाएगा".
In this trip, we came across a lot of people, young, old, thin, fat and even a few handicapped people. Most of them were very religious and kept chanting "Wahe Guru" the entire 14 kilometers. Faith is one thing we have in abundance in India. I really wish there was some way to harness that positive energy to change our society. How is it that people are able to stand in queue for hours together in a temple, but cannot stand in line for a second in a super market? How can we manage to keep the temple clean, but trash the road towards it? How can these people respect God, but not nature? 90% of people that go to Hemkund sahib do not bother to visit the Valley of Flowers which is just around the corner.
In fact, some people told me very frankly " वहा कुच भी नहीं है" Sigh! Check out this video I took of a group of pilgrims.

The first few kilometers don’t offer great views, but as we went higher, the trail went adjacent to the beautiful Pushpavati River. White water gushing down the mountain is a sight to behold. When we stopped for lunch after 10 kilometers, we picked a shack right next to the water. Balancing ourselves gingerly on a rock, we lowered our feet into the stream and immediately pulled out. It was ice cold! We sat on the rock, dipping our feet in and out, while the cook prepared our meal. There is nothing that relieves tired feet more than a cold or hot compress and the river was doing its job splendidly.

We still had 3 kilometers to go when we took our 1 hour break for lunch and let me tell you something - Don't EVER take a long break when you are on a hike. Once the legs get used to sitting down, they will not want to go back to the torture of walking. Mine protested heavily, but we moved on. "We are almost there" said Harpalji. Every step felt hard and the damn trail was still going uphill. I was groaning with every step. Gaay was in a much better shape than me, so she was doing fine. Harpalji kept convincing me that the end was just around the corner. At one point I lost it and screamed at him "You are lying to me". He laughed and said "मरनेवाला को थोड़ी केहते है कि तुम मरने वाले हो? The last 3 km took us at least 2 hours with breaks every 5 minutes, but we finally came up to an opening from where we saw our tents. Gaay went ahead of me to order hot chai and pakodas. That is one cool thing about hiking in India - you are never too far from chai or pakodas. Harpalji had another km to walk to the village of Ghangria where he was staying for free at the Gurudwara. He invited us to visit Amristsar "मेरे बीवी के भैया के पतनी के साले Golden Temple मे काम करते हैं. आपका VIP दरशन हो जयेगा" He didn't leave it at that. After I came back home to Mumbai, he called to check and see if I reached home safely. Like I said before, I was touched by this man's kindness.

It was 4 PM by the time we reached our tents. A hot shower later, I settled down on a wicker chair and refused to stand up for the rest of the evening. As the sun was setting down, we had a beautiful view of the mountains ahead.

To be continued - The Truth about Valley of Flowers

Here is a preview of what is to come in the next episode of the travelogue - a little bit of snow peaked mountains, a little bit of flowers and wonderful scenery all around!