A walk in this floral paradise in Uttarakhand is like a trek hand-in-hand with God
Picture this: a one-street village flanked by rickety wooden shops where Sherpa porters sit on wooden benches sipping hot chai, and chatting companionably. You join them and look up. Shafts of sunlight pierce the leaves of the tall deodar trees, cast golden pools on the ground. Above them white puffy clouds lift to unveil mighty peaks dusted with snow. You hear the tinkle of the bells of the first pack mules into the mountains. It is still very early in the morning, but already little Ghangaria, high up in the Himalayas, has come to life.
Ghangaria is the base camp for the trek to the Valley of Flowers, the floral paradise that Frank Smythe famously stumbled upon during an expedition to Kamet in 1931. From here a pathway leads to a small check post at the entrance to the valley. The valley is still three kilometres away but there is enough even in the first 100 yards to make you drowsy with enchantment. As I walk on, a Himalayan pheasant breaks cover, looks back slyly, and scurries into the surrounding forest. I search for him and in doing so stumble into a tree, who is sloughing his old bark like snakeskin and putting on a new one. Next to him purple hogweed clings to the crevices in the rocks and trembles gently in the breeze. Still a few yards ahead, the splashes of purple give way to the smell of wet moist forest.
Nanda Devi biosphere
The valley is in an area called the Nanda Devi biosphere which lies at the heights of Zanskar Ranges. Its unique location accounts for its rich flora and fauna and the perpetual presence of snow. Even at the height of summer the towering peaks that surround the park are snow capped and glaciers stretch all the way down the valley like long white tongues. As I walk on I come to one of them; and then pick up some ice and eat it. It's fresh!
The flowers were so delicate and so beautiful, they could have been made for the lips of pan. I sat on a rock for a moment and a brilliantly coloured Lime butterfly rose and flitted away. He had been feeding on the delicate whorls of the purple-pink Himalayan thyme clinging to the crevices in the rock. What a charmed life his must be to have a lifetime's supply of nectar at his feet! I got up and peered behind the rock to discover a Ruby cinquefoil, just shaking off his nights sleep and opening his blood red petals from between his silver haired leaves. He would bloom here only for another two months, charming the bees and the butterflies.
From here a pathway ran through the centre of the valley. Roughly in the middle of this path, the land dipped gently and at the bottom was a gravestone. This marked the burial place of John Margaret legge, a botanist, who came to the valley in 1939 for further studies. Legge came in May and set about collecting specimens but a few days later she had a fatal slip and was lost for ever. The locals believe that she was carried out by fairies and then turned into a bloomed flower as she ventured too far into their domain. Whatever the truth, her sister came after she died and erected the memorial at the place.
A little ahead, numerous smaller valleys emerged, each formed by the stream of a glacial melt from higher up. In each of them the flower composition was different; sometimes there were several in the space of a hundred yards. In one such valley I came upon a field of strangely shaped reed like Stalks. This lily had a mottled reddish brown spathe (leaf on top), which was curved like a cobras head about to strike. The spathe was upheld on a speckled stem that was like snake skin. To complete the striking serpent effect the flower had a wide open mouth below the hood through which its fang like flower stuck out.
Beyond this were cream coloured oxypetalum lilies nodding in the wind now blowing down the valley. The wind got stronger and stronger and rain came on; but while the other flowers dropped off, the oxypetalums still danced. I stood for a minute looking at them and then one more minute and one more; such was the rapture of the place. Valley of Flowers: it's a place to trek – hand in hand with God.