Where the wild flowers are

The best way to experience the valley of flowers is to trek through it - in the footsteps of the man who named it
Brown's saxifrage
Brown's saxifrage

I felt as if I was walking through God&rsquos own garden &mdash a paradise of beautiful and quixotic flowers blooming as far as the eye could see, splashing the landscape in a riot of colour. &ldquoFairies live here,&rdquo remarked my very able guide Bachan Rana very seriously. He seemed equally enthralled by the wild profusion. Miles of empty space echoed between the rugged high ridges and steep cliffs, which turned into lush green slopes, and descended into sinewy birch forests further below. We walked somewhere in the midway zone through fields of flowers, often finding it impossible not to trample on the blooms.

I was walking in the footsteps of the famed British mountaineer Frank Smythe, who had put this picturesque Garden of Eden &mdash the Bhyundar valley in Garhwal &mdash on the world map with his 1938 book, The Valley of Flowers. Our trail was to lead us through the valley and over the Bhyundar Khal (5,090m) to the village of Ghamshali above the confluence of the Amrit Ganga and Jainti Gad rivers. This gave us a rare peek into the little-visited interiors of the 82 sq km national park.

Smythe and his team of fellow mountaineers had stumbled upon the valley on their way back from climbing Kamet in 1931. They were chased down the Bhyundar Khal by a blinding blizzard only to discover a riot of colour and warmth as they descended further into the valley. Besotted by the unusual flora that surrounded him, Smythe immersed himself in a study of horticulture before returning alone in 1937 for six weeks to further explore and document the mysteries of the valley. His book is a lyrical ode to the floral diversity of the valley and its stunning landscape.

My eight days in the park were nothing short of magical. The monsoon&rsquos mists wafted moodily across the skyline, often cloaking the high peaks under a veil of dense clouds. That didn&rsquot bother me I could barely take my eyes off the rich ground that seemed to sprout a glorious blossom at just about every switchback all the way to the glaciated upper realms of the valley. I slept fitfully every night and dreamt of fairies.

Ahead of the fields of invasive balsam and persistent knotweeds that greet you at the entrance of the park lay the real attraction of the valley &mdash dressed to kill in its finest monsoon colours. At the far end in a nook above Tipra Kharak we pitched camp for two nights where waterfalls drained the slopes above with the most glorious profusion of blooms lining their banks. Clusters of pink dwarf fireweeds with classic drooping hoods, purple gentians and geraniums ran riot along the gushing streams. Just as I was admiring the springy pink stalk of a lovely Himalayan orchid we saw a female Himalayan black bear sprinting up to her lair with her young cub in tow. It completed the picture of the rich flora and fauna of the park.

Over the next two days we gained height steadily to base ourselves at the spectacular and appropriately named &lsquobalcony camp&rsquo (above). From a vantage point of 4,600m perched on a ledge high above the Rataban glacier, we had a ringside view of the surrounding landscape &mdash the Bhyundar valley way below us to the west, the Ghori Parbat peak and its glacier to the southwest, the Khulia Ghata ridge to the north and the terminal moraine of the Tipra glacier to the east. The deafening roar of seracs (ice pinnacles) breaking off the Rataban icefall continued well into the night. The flowers never failed to appear and enthrall us through the ascent. Dwarf sunflowers, blue poppies and other rock-breakers sprang out of this apparently desolate land where it seemed certain that nothing could grow.

The next morning brought heavy clouds and the resulting whiteout dampened my spirits for the pass crossing ahead. The Bhyundar pass (above) has thwarted many attempts in the past due to bad weather and the tricky crossing of the crevasse-ridden Rataban East glacier that lies on the other side of the pass. These worrying thoughts lifted, though, when the clouds above the pass suddenly parted. Even the eerie skull-shaped rock along the pass ridge seemed to be smiling down at us. A beautiful glacial lake just below the ridge to the east shimmered in the morning light and we set about descending to the Amrit Ganga valley below. It was a long day of boulder-hopping and tricky rock fall crossings before we made it to a temporary camp along the riverbank.

I barely noticed the two-hour walk the following morning as I chatted with Bachan. His sharp mountain sense never failed to impress me all through the trek. The altitude decreased and we found ourselves in the rainshadow of the trans-Himalayan belt of the Zaskar range. We walked airily through dwarf rhododendrons and juniper shrubs for a much-needed rest day at the lovely grass flats of Eri Udiyar. Fed by the massive glacial tongues of the Rataban and Nilgiri massifs, the river that had begun as a trickle was by now a raging torrent. We lit up our very first bonfire of the trip (above) for a celebratory night.

The next day we were treated to the mesmerising Pandav Leela dance-drama, as the Marcha Bhotias of Ghamshali celebrated an annual festival. These frontier villages have mostly been abandoned as villagers have been migrating to towns and cities in the foothills and the plains after the 1962 war with China brought their centuries-old border trade to a halt. However, during this festival everyone makes it a point to attend. The songs have no written script and are a part of an old oral tradition. The five dancers in white outfits are manifestations or &lsquopashus&rsquo of the five Pandava brothers. On the very last day the holy brahma kamals are reverentially brought from the higher reaches of the valley to appease the local spirits and deities.

The information

The park
Nestled high in Uttarakhand&rsquos Chamoli district and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the 82 sq km Valley of Flowers National Park supports several endemic species of alpine flowers, with a total of 521 recorded species of vascular plants. Mid-June to mid-September are peak flowering months. Higher altitude alpine flowers are best seen from mid-August to mid- September. The park is open from June to end September. It is also quite rich in fauna and is home to musk deer, bharal, leopards, the Himalayan black bear and even snow leopards.

Getting there
The roadhead is the town of Govind Ghat in the Alaknanda valley, about 26km from Joshimath. On the return journey, you can take a shared jeep or hire a car from Ghamshali to Joshimath. One-way taxis from Delhi to Joshimath can be hired for approximately Rs 8,500. The nearest railhead is Haridwar (284km) and the nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun.

The trek
There is hardly any proper route or even cairn markers on this route and it should be attempted only with an experienced trekking agency. My trek was organised by Great Indian Outdoors (Nalin, 9810366824 and 9411110855, gio.in). We were fully equipped with an NIM-trained guide, ropes, harnesses, etc as the pass, glacier and river crossings can pose a challenge. The food was great with campsites duly cleaned up after lifting camp. As a responsible trekker keep your impact on the environment minimal and ensure your operator does the same. Bring all non-biodegradable garbage back and do not litter.

GIO offers the following treks in the Valley of Flowers

  • Retracing the Footsteps of Frank Smythe This 11-day trek traverses the valley and crosses the Bhyundar Khal at its head. Level tough, for experienced trekkers only. Fixed departures for Rs 39,500 per person including stay, food, permits, porters and transport from Haridwar to the roadhead and back for a maximum of 12 people. Customised trek for Rs 55,000 per person (2 people) and Rs 45,000 per person (3 to 4 people).

  • Comprehensive Valley of Flowers trek This is a shorter and easier 8-day trek which includes camping at Tipra Kharak. Fixed departures for Rs 26,000 per person in groups of up to 12 people. Guide charges are included in the prices quoted by GIO.

Where to stay
GIO runs a large network of Himalayan Eco Lodges and Camps all over Uttarakhand. These comfortable, clean and simple camps come with good creature comforts, and are located at great locations. The food is nutritious vegetarian fare and the vegetables and grains are sourced locally. All tented accommodation comes with attached toilets. Some of these lodges and camps practice rainwater harvesting and use solar power.

I stayed at their green and blue tented campsite at Kanjila, 1 km below Ghangaria. It is definitely a superior option to the noisy tourist traps that have overrun Ghangaria. They have a good six-day package for people who want to visit the Bhyundar valley and the nearby Hemkund lake for Rs 18,500 per person for a group of four, ex-Haridwar.

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