We are greeted by a persistent loud sound, as we stumble into our hotel in Govindghat at dusk, after a 13-hour arduous drive from Haridwar. Dawn reveals the beautiful Alakananda river tumbling down furiously, joined further by the smaller Lakshman Ganga.
Steep, black conical mountains stand sentinel. Govindghat, in Uttarakhand, is the starting point for the popular Valley of Flowers trek. The first leg, from Govindghat to Ghangaria, is 14 kilometres.
Of this, the first four, upto Pulna, are motorable. Jeeps are available near the suspension bridge, but there is always the thrill of true-blue trekking, which is what we did. You also can ride a mule or use the recently-opened helicopter service that covers the distance in 10 minutes.
The stench of pony dung permeates Pulna, something you learn to disregard, as you plod deeper into the trek. A walking stick is a crucial accessory for trekkers, and is available at all shops in Govindghat. After we pass Bhyundar with its few eateries, we chance upon the beautiful sight of a glacier descending a far-away mountain. Ghangaria (also known as Govind Dham), at 10,000 feet, is a single-alley town. A Sikh establishment, catering to the needs of pilgrims travelling to Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara, dominates the place.
Valley of Flowers, located at 12,000 feet, was accidentally discovered in 1931, by mountaineers Frank S Smythe, Eric Shipton and RL Holdsworth, while returning after an expedition to Mount Kamet.
Smythe returned later, and wrote the book The Valley of Flowers in 1938. In 1939, Joan Margaret Legge was deputed by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to scientifically catalogue the flowers here.
Unfortunately, she died, falling down a cliff, while collecting flowers. Her elder sister later came to complete her work. The valley is believed to have approximately 520 species of plants, out of which, 498 are flowering plants. The Valley of Flowers was declared a World Heritage Site in 2005.
The distance from Ghangaria to the Valley of Flowers is four kilometres. The first is a pleasant walk, passing under pine trees, and crossing a gurgling stream. There is a Forest Office here where one has to pay entry fees (₹150 for Indians/₹600 for foreigners).
Past the Pushpavati river crashing down the rocky mountainside and the bridge spanning the torrent, the path gets narrower and more rough hewn.
- The nearest airport to Govindghat is at Dehradun, 300 km away. The nearest railhead is Haridwar (290 km). Buses ply between Govindghat and Haridwar/Rishikesh. Cabs can also be hired.
- A few medium-budget hotels are open in Govindghat.
- Badrinath temple is located 25 km from Govindghat.
- Physical fitness is essential for this trek. It is better to do Valley of Flowers before Hemkund Sahib, as the former lies at a lower altitude. Carry prescription drugs that help deal with nausea.
- Raincoats are a must. Carry minimal luggage.
- Valley of Flowers National Park generally closes for visitors on October 10.
Hopeful porters wait with their ‘basket-chairs’, ready to lug up anyone unable to make the climb by themselves. This stretch of the trail is forested for most part, and panoramic. The final kilometre gently slopes into the broad valley, which is flanked on one side by the Pushpavati river. By mid-August, flowers bloom in a rush here. Deeper in the valley stands the tomb of Legge, in a serene, imposing setting.
The Eco Development Committee (EDC) Bhyundar, an NGO, works on solid waste management from Govindghat to Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib. Every season (June-October), they collect tons of plastic waste from the trek path, and send it for processing. EDC screens a 20-minute documentary on Valley of Flowers at Nature Care Centre, Ghangaria. One can support EDC by purchasing books, caps and souvenirs from them. While the trek to Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara, devoted to Guru Gobind Singh, is a spiritual journey for the majority of visitors, it is a serious physical challenge for trekking enthusiasts.
The unique star-shaped architecture of the gurudwara blends with the glacial lake, ringed by now-clad mountains. Melodious kirtan s are continuously rendered inside the gurudwara, and it is easy to spend an hour in the cosy sanctum, where blankets are thoughtfully provided for the comfort of visitors.
The langar works non-stop, and food is doled out at regular intervals, along with sweet tea.