In 2008, I first came across the existence of the Valley of Flowers. While I waited to see the images of this flourishing valley on my screen, I wondered when would I be able to visit this heaven-like place. Many people confuse the Valley to look like Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden of Kashmir or Keukenhof of Amsterdam. I would request all of them not to confuse their expectations. This grand landscape blooms every year with some of the most colourful and rare flowers.
My intention to experience this Valley was very clear from the beginning—to walk to it and explore it in its grandeur. What makes it more elusive is the fact that it is only accessible for three months of the year. When I got a chance to travel with Great Indian Outdoors this July, I knew that my prayers were being answered.
It was a first for me to trek with a group of strangers. I was told, ‘There are 18 people in your group, so we will have to split you all into two groups.’ A quick math and I knew there would be nine in my group plus two guides. 11 people made me very apprehensive! How was I going to survive this multi-stranger encounter?
I took deep breaths and prepared to meet everyone at the meeting point in Haridwar. We took our seats in the minibus and started out on the 12-hour journey to Auli. It wasn’t until the first refreshment stop where we introduced ourselves and broke the ice. Two pairs of trekkers were travelling with friends, one with spouse and three of us were by ourselves. Most of my fellow climbers were from Bangalore.
On the first day of the trek, walking through the crested pathway, crossing the bridges and panting through the steep turns; Vishwa halted a number of times, offering to help me with my rucksack. Along with Naveen, he hiked at slower pace in order to keep me company. On occasions, my guide, Yashpal, joined in with motivational words and anecdotes to keep me going.
In less than 30 hours since introductions, we had shared jokes, doubts and fears and diverse stories from all other travel experiences. I was looking forward to explore the Valley of Flowers the following day with the people.
The next day started early, with hope and unity. Blessed by the weather gods, the day saw a very healthy play of sun and shade. At the check-post, we were introduced to the very jovial and the well-informed Rajneesh Singh Chauhan, our naturalist for the day. Enthusiastically, he showed us rare flowers, poisonous plants, tasty berries and textured barks and leaves. I must admit, it was very helpful to have him with us, since I am otherwise clueless about flowers.
After crossing the forest through the zig-zag steep trail, I was happy to see the open space with the dramatic cloud cover. Curiously, I continued walking on the stony way to meet a few acquaintances from the previous day. A little ahead, I faced one of my worst fears—crossing a waterfall. These sections of water are a result of melting glaciers or rainfall in the higher mountains. Either way, it did not please me.
I think my feelings were evident on my face. And while I geared up to walk across, a number of hands magically appeared in front of me. In a matter of seconds, I was on the other side. That’s the thing about compatibility—it comes naturally.
The Valley was beautiful. As we stopped for lunch by Margaret Legge’s Memorial tomb, some of us napped under the harsh sun while the others continued photographing the changing landscape.
But it wasn’t until the next day when I truly thanked my stars for my new found friends. Hemkund Sahib is a steep 7-kilometre stretch from the campsite and the initial few kilometres were motivating, scenic with the clear views of Nar Parbat and Ghangaria. However, after 2.5 kilometres, things were not as beautiful at all. We were surrounded by the cloud cover and frozen by the condensation. I felt my hike become mechanical and the climb get tougher.
Amidst the quiet, misty morning, we met a few trekkers, who were returning from Hemkund Sahib, and they shared a few encouraging words with us. Though it was only Suvra’s company that kept me going that day. Initially, Yashpal, Suvra and I were climbing together but as we progressed, Yashpal broke away from the group. If it wasn’t for Suvra’s subtle humour, I doubt if I would have made it to Hemkund!
The descent was remarkably different. The weather remained the same but we managed to walk down together. While Sujit and Kaushik, IT professionals from Bangalore, who were trekking in North India for the first time, took turns to position themselves at each hairpin bent and wait for us (they were sprinting through the rocky terrain). Being a cautious walker, I was in a confused disbelief that it was their first trek! And needless to say that their concern to check on us every 100-200 metres was more than encouraging.
Having climbed Hemkund the previous day, the walk to Punna village/Govind Ghat seemed like a cakewalk. We walked together, took a few victorious Selfies, laughed aloud to jokes and stopped for tea at intervals. In a matter for three days, we had started to look out for each other and understand preferences. Would it be the same if the group had met in a city? I certainly have my doubts.
The mountains have their own language of teaching us life lessons. Perhaps, we all became more receptive and open to change since we were travelling. Or because we were pushed out of our comfort zone, we learnt that our apprehensions are more or less the same. Possibilities are many. But my experience has taught me that travel doesn’t change who we are; it only maximises or diminishes certain qualities in us.
And that makes me wonder if my trek to Frank Symthe’s Valley of Flowers would have been different if I didn’t have the enthused group accompanying me? I’m sure it would have been quite the opposite; dull and quieter. After all, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.’
Day 1: Meeting Haridwar in the morning and onward drive to Auli. Night stay at Himalayan Lodges and Camps in Auli.
Day 2: Drive from Auli to Govind Ghat. Cab from Govind Ghat to Punna village (about 3 kilometres.) Start trek from Punna to Ghangaria campsite (11 kilometres climb.) Night stay at campsite.
Day 3: Hike to Valley of Flowers and return to campsite. Approximate distance 6 kilometres, one way. Night stay at campsite.
Day 4: Hike to Hemkund Sahib and return to campsite. Approximate distance 7 kilometres, one way. Night stay at campsite.
Day 5: Hike down to Punna village (about 11 kilometres.) Cab from Punna to Govind Ghat. Further on drive to Badrinath and Mana village. Return to Auli Lodge for the night.
Day 6: Departure from Auli to Haridwar by road.
Note: This trek was in collaboration with the Great Indian Outdoors. If you like what you read, to experience the Valley of Flowers yourself, book here.
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23 thoughts on “Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib: A Trek with Strangers”
The article brought back all my memories of the trip. It comfortably highlights every part of the trek weather it was the fun, the fear, beauty or the kindness it had to offer in a very delightful manner. Keep it up Amrita and thanks to Great Indian Outdoors for making it a memorable experience.
Apart from being a wonderful writer Amrita is also a very kind person and a great nature lover.
It was a beautiful time and I think we got lucky more than once. Thank you for stopping by and the kind words. I hope to see you again soon :)
It is true few times we think we can’t climb more in the mountains and a thought to give up then we are motivated again and continue walking.
How was the cold weather at Hemkund Sahib?
I have been there few years ago but I missed Valley of Flowers. Maybe one day.
If you have been to Hemkund on foot, Valley of Flowers is more than easy for you :P It was too misty in Hemkund, unfortunately. I was frozen and the sarovar wasn’t visible. But I can’t complain. It has been an incredibly beautiful experience.
Ur post has actually encouraged me to visit this place .. Looking forward to creating some memories of my own.. Thanks for the much needed boost …
Please go soon! It will be worth your time and experience. Let me know how the Valley welcomed you :)
This post brought back a lot of fond memories of my solo journey into the enchanted Valley of Flowers back in 2008.
‘The mountains have their own way of teaching us life lessons’ Couldn’t agree more. As I was trekking up the 13km Govindghat and eventually the Valley of Flowers and the Hemkund Sahib, the high mountains surrounding me just made me feel so irrelevant. The Grand mountains, the fragrant Valley induced a mild high I’m sure as I was never so overwhelmed by nature as I was on this trip.
Good that you had a guide to explain you about the flowers. I just went mad clicking photographs of the kind of flowers I had never before seen in my life till then. Hopefully next time I’ll go in with more research.
Valley of Flowers, Ghangria, Govindghat, Hemkund Sahib – man im on a nostalgia trip. I think I’m going to revisit my Valley of Flowers diary and hopefully write a post on my dead blog:)
Please do, Nimish. You sound romantically involved with Valley of Flowers and the only way to share the love is to write for us :) I’m glad the post brought along such fond memories, especially since you were travelling by yourself. I love the landscapes, they always win my heart. I hope to see your photos from your visit soon :)
Oh the trail has changed a lot after they built it again post cloud burst incident. Now the trails are much wider, cleaner and at places have well painted railings. :)
It’d have been quite easy for you. ;) We had started our trek from Govindghat itself. How many waterfalls did you encounter on way to VoF? We had 7.
Also path to Hemkund Sahib looks so tempting now. We had just big rocks and that too full of pony poo. I’ll show this post to Vasu and I am sure he’d want to go again. :)
Nicely written.. can you believe I’ve not yet completed because I was writing one post for each day!
Traveling with like minded strangers is definitely good. But where are the flowers?????? :)
Oh, yes the trail has changed since a lot of it was damaged and broken away. I have totally lost count of the waterfalls! Must have been six to VoF and two glaciers to Hemkund. The pony poo is a given, Nisha. Our trail was coated with it, amongst other unknown, slippery earth!
I have very many stories coming up. Can’t share all the ‘blooming’ secrets in one post, nah? :) Thanks for stopping by, Nisha.
I LOVED this post. Being a bit apprehensive of being thrown in with a bunch of strangers myself, I can understand precisely what you were thinking at the start. While travel can be such a great binder, it can also magnify differences between people. And I’m so glad your experience was the former. It definitely sounds like quite the gruelling itinerary (at least from my perspective). Looking forward to the rest of the stories from your experience!
I agree, Revati. I’m cautious and forever-apprehensive of meeting new travel companions. Luckily, I’ve got along with most of them. And the trek to Hemkund was as tougher than I expected but once over, I felt contentment fill me up :) More stories, coming soon!
I liked what you said – “But my experience has taught me that travel doesn’t change who we are; it only maximises or diminishes certain qualities in us”. Something that I will dwell upon over coming days or weeks :)
The apprehension of travelling with strangers is very evident in us. Being able to accommodate someone else in our own personal space is a breakthrough in itself. I generally do a mix of travels. Sometimes I prefer to travel solo and at other times with people (mostly they are strangers). Only one type of travel (solo/ group) becomes a little too much for me and I need change often.
Looking forward to more of your stories from this trek. :)
Yup, you’re right Gaurav. Striking a balance is necessary since too much of anything gets us too comfortable or rigid. I’ve began to believe that a healthy mix of travels is essential too and try and make space for it. Thankfully, none of us have to follow a hard and fast rule :)
Interesting thoughts there! Companions do make a difference. And especially on treks like these :).
Good post, thanks for sharing the story!
Glad you liked it, Anita :) Hemkund would not have been possible without a companion for me. I’m happy to have struggled steep with someone else to laugh with!
Well most of my travels and treks have been with strangers…As friend might not want to join :) ..When I did Everest base camp, I had severe issues with my knees while descend …Keeping in mind I haven’t trekked in years ,EBC with just days of training was streneuous for me.But when I was picked up by Sherpa on his back as my knee cells were damaged and doctor was not possible, the whole group of strangers stood by my back and kept me entertained while I lie on bed crying…..Thats what strangers to do you on these kind of expedition.. I have always felt that your close friends might fail in such times while a stranger doesn’t …
I know what you mean, Rutavi. In such moments, the vulnerable us is suddenly dependent on strangers and it is remarkable how these people help us. Most of such people have become good friends of mine now. It also helps us grow as people, I feel. Sorry to have read about your knee injury. The mountains can be tough, if not for strangers-turned-friends :)
Booked the trek in the month of September. Looking forward to it. Can’t wait to venture it after reading your post. Do share some tips, dos and don’t during the trek.
Please go! It’ll be fun :) Next post with all tips and guidelines.
“That’s the thing about compatibility—it comes naturally.” – This line. So much power in it. Makes you wish we could realise it every step of the way.
P.S.: Your opening lines to this post is exactly where I’ve been at since the past couple of years now. 2016 hopefully! :)
2016 it is! If there is one thing that the mountains have taught me, it is living in the present. So go no sooner the Valley opens next year. I’ll come along, virtually :)