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!


  1. Absolutely beautiful pictures. For me the season is when my teaching semester starts and I have never managed to do it :(

    And what a trip for you guys!

  2. Vam is a great story teller. I heard stories non-stop for 3 days after her trip. The first day on her trip she called me on the satellite phone, recited "Kaun chithrahaar hai" and explained every line at 100Rs/min (made me walk out of my business meeting for this:)
    Happy reading guys.

  3. the best thing about treks is the shared sense of camaraderie with absolute strangers! :)
    Wonderful first day experience you had.. now waiting for the rest.. and your preview is lovely... so many flowers!

  4. Vam you are amazing me and Iyer went in to the mood of Kaun Chitrakaar hai :) I think for us the chitrakaar is you for sure :) Keep it going you are the best!!!

  5. What a perfect song for a perfect place!! Oh the mountains are glorious!! Awesome pics, Vamsee!! Your write-up brings your trek alive - I was almost gasping for breath myself! Waiting for the next instalment, and for an opportunity to visit Uttarakhand!

  6. First, that is really a catchy song!

    Second, you are such a great story teller that I was disappointed when it was finished but consoled by the mention that there will be a second part...

    Thanks Vamsee!

  7. Great job Vamsee!
    I read the blog while the song was playing in the background. It was nice i was there sans the agony and the breathlessness. You have the knack of bringing out the pathos! Saru is right; you have become the consummate story-teller. I liked the bit about the pehelwan and the comments in hindi. Nice touch. Travel does open minds, and couple that with the knack of story-telling and you get one good writer. Like Hemingway. You have a good thing going here Vamsee. Keep it up.

  8. awesome - have been wanting to go here. Not sure when I can make it happen. :)

    I agree with you about India, Indians, and faith. I wanted to copy, paste and highlight a particular sentence, but looks like right-click is disabled. :)

    Nice blog. :) Will keep checking. :)

  9. Beautiful pictures!!
    Waiting for the next episodes.

  10. wow!!! great pics... i have been wanting to go there for ages, but the time still hasnt come.... and i am looking forward to seeing it through your pics and descriptions...

    and about the part where pilgrims are not interested in nature, absolutely!!!! my first trip to the Himalayas was as part of a group going to Badri and Kedar, and me and a group of youngsters had to fight to stay back and enjoy the view from the various places,.. all the others just wanted to go to the temple and move on!!!

  11. Mridula,
    You know our guide told us that VOF has a different kind of beauty in May/June. You might want to go there in those months if you can't make it in July/Aug.

    You are leaving comments on my blog. YAY!.
    Thanks. I finally got around to writing this after I read your post on Himalayas. Thanks for that.

  12. yay, the much awaited series:-) and totally worth the wait too ... !

    The first pic is gorgeous, Almost reminds me of Macchu Pichhu - of the pictures I have seen of it !

    The experience by itself was very interesting to read .. having people who stop and help you out is pleasantly nice and surprising too !!!

    Looking forward to the next post .


  13. Deepa,
    I knew that Iyer and you would love the song. Thanks for your sweet comment. You are too good.

    You are always much too generous with compliments. I really did not take too many good pictures on this trek. I wish I had taken more.

    Do you understand Hindi? Saru had the same comment as you. Apparently I told him stories non-stop for 3 days and he said I wrote only a third of what I told him. Next time I should write as soon as I get back home from a trip.

  14. Hi Vamsee,

    A few days back, I was distributing a present for the wonderful blogs. I wonder how I missed your blog! There's a present for your beeeeeeeeautiful blog. Take it from here. :)

    And yes, this post is really lovely. I've never been to the valley of flowers in the Himalayas. But yes, I've been to the valley of flowers of Maharashtra.

  15. Hey Vamsee!
    This is a lovely account of the trip and some wonderful pictures too :) Looking forward to reading the next part of your post..
    And you just made my resolve stronger to visit VOF.. :)

  16. Beautiful place! I absolutely love the photos and will come back to read the post completely! Looks really interesting :-)

    - Pixellicious Photos

  17. Wow... First hike of life must have been a great experience... You seemed to have enjoyed every nit of it.. And btw, you guys organized it yourselves or had some organizer to arrange the whole thing.?

    P.S: Loving your blog. And am followin it now.. :)

    Poetry in Stones Part one at My Travelogue
    My Travelogue, Savoir-Faire

  18. Bhaskar,
    OMG...what do I see here - A rare comment from the man himself!!! BTW, did you ever read Hemingway's travel books? I tried several times and could not go beyond 10 pages. He focuses more about the dark and not-so-cool stuff than the good and beautiful.

    Welcome to my blog and thanks for the comment. I am sorry about disabling 'right click'. Some of my travelogues got stolen and produced verbatim on random websites!


    I remember reading your Badrinath post. That is just 20 km from VOF. It is indeed sad that people worship God and not nature.

  19. Aditi,
    I am as thrilled to see your comment as you were to see my blog post:) The Himalayas were just beautiful, but I just could not figure out how to photograph them. That first picture is the only reasonable picture I clicked from a moving jeep.

    Isn't it sad that we are surprised when people are nice to us? Western society's politeness is completely missing in big cities here. Nobody gives a damn about anybody, although I think small towns still retain our original values.

  20. yeah yeah insomnia is keeping me awake, so I came here :) . I know what you mean, when the landscape around you is so breathtaking, sometimes it just is difficult to even begin wondering where you can start. And then you come back and look at your pictures and realise that you haven't really done justice to it. If the Himalayas don't do this to anyone I wonder what would.

    I am reading three cups of tea and there are so many times something similar is mentioned about words or pictures failing the explorers and then I read ur post and comments... So it has to be the Himalayas u know .. :D


  21. stunning pics and what a post..worth the wait..cant get over the beg..the of my dad used to sing it to me :)

  22. Bhavesh,
    Thanks so much for the award. Your pictures from Kaas valley were very beautiful

    Thanks. We should plan a trip to the Himalayas next year. Let me know if you are up to it.

    Thanks. Do come back.

    Welcome to my blog. We used Great Indian Outdoors to organize it. We flew into Delhi and took a train to Haridwar. They had a driver with an SUV meet us and drive to Govindghat. They arranged all the stays and a guide. I would highly recommend them. They are reasonably priced. Some of my other friends who did this had Sarovar camps organize the jeep, guide etc.

  23. Vam, you are such a great story teller! I can't wait for the next blog. Don't sit on it...write it and post it soon! The scenery remined me of my Kulu Manali & Rohtang pass trip in college which was part of an "industrial tour" :)

  24. Not a word of Hindi, Vamsee...but it sounds like I could and the melody stuck with me throughout the day...haha


    follow Saru's advice ;-)

  25. Beautiful pictures... Gaay, hasn't shown us the pictures that she took from the trip yet!!! Wonder when I'll get the chance to Himalayan hikes ??!!

  26. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the first part of your travel here. Gaay told me a bit about this hike but I am yet t see the pictures from her. I agree with your comment on faith if there was a way to harness the positive energy into something more contructive for the society it would be amazing. I recollect this place called Siripuram near Vellore that I visited this year. In the name of temple (actually golden temple!) one man was trying to inculcate good living habits in people. It was interesting how many people patiently seemed to imbibe the principles while thinking they were just visiting a temple.
    Looking fwd to your next episode :-)

  27. dear Vam

    Sounds so familiar. I got into something similar enroute to Kota Kinabalu. The first day was almost similar, but the second was rising


  28. Aditi,
    That was a great second comment you made. I had Saru read it to justify the not-so-great pictures I took. He didn't buy it though:)

    Oh wow...thanks for that. I don't know how kids get away with these industrial tours. Do you have any pictures?

    :) I will try to follow Saru's advice.

  29. some of the best pics i've seen from VoF trek. coupled with ur narration skills, its indeed a treat! cant wait for the pics from VoF :)

  30. wish I had been there....but m glad u made it....and how! :-)

  31. I am so enormously envious of you right now. LOL. Enjoyed seeing the valley of flowers through you. Wish I knew how to read hindi to thoroughly enjoy the interesting conversations that give your posts their spark.

  32. Hi, I've started with a group on blog catalog and....I have an invitation for you to join the World Photo Bloggers

  33. Saru said it rightly. You are a great story teller.

    But I would like to add something to what he said. He is equally a good photographer. And couldn't have been a better song than that !

    I had read this post thru my reader but thought a personal visit will do much more. :)

  34. Aru,
    Thanks. A few years from now, you and your baby will be ready to scale mountains.

    That is good to know. Actually you can see a lot rude and impatient people even in temples is quite appalling.

    You made me curious now - what happened? Did you blog about this?

    Thanks. I have slightly better pictures for the actual valley itself.

    Let's make a pact to go on a Himalayan hike next year.

    It is so good to see you here after so many months.Sorry about the Hindi, I wanted to translate, but then the fun is lost.


    Thanks for visiting. I appreciate it. I am not sure if I understand your comment. I took all these pictures. He didn't go on the hike.

  35. Hello Vamsee,

    I don't want to bore you with yet another tirade of how good the pictures are and how lovely your narration is but hey I do wanna say it. I haven't been to this part, but 4ish years back, my parents did go there (I was to Himachal and my sister went to other part of Uttaranchal at the same time) yeah yeah all of us are outdoor people.:)

  36. Awesome writer! I used to think how do you remember so many things from your trip and now what is amazing to me is that you remember Hindi conversations too.
    Great job Vamsee! Can't wait to read the next Episode.

  37. Priyank,
    That is one cool family you have.

    You are too sweet, thanks. I remember random, useless things more than useful stuff:)

  38. Beautiful series of landscape shots, I can't believe you went to Himalayas recently, this is amazing Vamsee.

    I m waiting for some bird images in the sequel.

  39. Thomas,
    Thanks. Himalayas are just beautiful. I can't wait to go back there next year. As for bird images, I don't have any because I didn't see or hear any birds. It was too early for winter migrants and maybe because it was the monsoon season, but other than the occasional red wattled lapwing, we didn't see any birds.

  40. Himalayas is Himalaya you can't describe.Yes your photograph are nice in squeal and the blog also.

  41. wowwww woowww wowww.. the photos are truly amazing girl :) Hiking for 12 kms???!!! oh god! hope you are fine now, no post hike effects right? Good that sardarji kept talking to you and distracting you. He did a good job of encouraging you to hike further. Waiting for more photos and the next part of this post :)

  42. How interesting Vamsee, how I wish to visit the place. Right now my heart is humming the same song.

  43. Sorry about my late arrival here Vamsee, but as you know, I am travelling extensively these days. The Autumn has officially ended here with the temperature nearing 0 deg C these days.

    As regards to this wonderful post, having experienced the entire trek personally last year, I can relate to what you say as the memories are still fresh in my mind. Reading your experiences is, as always, a pleasure. Looking forward to part 2. Cheers.

  44. Yes really great photos.

  45. Hi Vamsee! What a gorgeous post! The pictures are awesome!!

    Waiting for you at Blogtrotter, which is firmly back to an amazing building... ;)). Enjoy and have a great weekend!

  46. Beautiful photos, have a nice day Radka.

  47. Hi Vamsee, what a glorious experience this must've been! Now I wish I was in India too, and could join you on these hikes. Though we've done multi-day hikes like Kilimanjaro and Inca trail and others in south america, the vegetarian food situation was so bad that by the 4th, 5th days we'd be pretty weak from not having eaten well. In that light, the paratha, chai, pakora, maggie noodles while hiking in the mountains sounds like pure heaven. :) Great stories, keep 'em coming!

  48. Hi Vamsee!
    Had already commented here. This time is just to tell you that Old Town Bilbao is now at Blogtrotter for your joy. Have a great weekend!!

  49. Hi Vamsee !! This is one of the Finest post of your blog as per me !! Really loved the Song "Chitrakar".What a nice description too !! My Best wishes !!Unseen Rajasthan

  50. Woww, sounds like quite an experience.. and amazing pics.. looking fwd to reading more!!
    and yes, have realised diff people have dif interests while travelling and they are completely focussed in that... :)

  51. Loved the first snap the best....literally took my breat away....awaiting your second post. :-)

  52. Hi Friend ur doing an excellent work.. Can we exchange links...

  53. Fantastic story-telling! Maggi is more Indian that Swiss now. There isn't a remote corner of India where they aren't savored and don't make our collective childhood memories. Loved the bi-lingual dialogue during the trek. :)

  54. Perfectly beautiful! This is such a lovely place to be in! Awesome pictures!

  55. That was a very beautiful place, Gobindghat is awesome. I love those mountains and those towering peaks. This place good for hiking, I want to go there too.

  56. Enjoyed reading this travelogue again Vamsee...waiting for part 2.

  57. enjoyed a lot..specially those awesome pictures!!!

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