Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trek to Hemkund and Valley of flowers

Fast track to Hemkund sahib and the Valley of flowers
For those visiting Haridwar or Rishikesh, a quick visit to Hemkund Sahib and the Valley of Flowers is a sidetrip worth considering........
A visit to the the mountains of Uttarakhand to most tourists means a a hurried pilgrimage to Char dhams of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri. But these highrise mountains have more to offer. There are beautiful pristine lakes and glaciers mostly above 14000 ft that are sources of various rivers including the Ganga that flow down the Indo Gangetic plains bringing it life and sustenance. Then there are lush green forests and alpine pastures and valleys carpeted with flowers of all concievable colours – a feast to the eyes.
On the way to Badrinath a few years ago, I had passed through Govind Ghat where I saw thousands of Sikh pilgrims. On enquiring I was informed that they were preparing to trek to the Gurudwara and holy lake at Hem kund. I was also told that Hemkund remained snowbound most part of the year and was opened for pilgrims only from June to October. My curiousity awakened, I did a google search and the iconic zig zag roof of the gurudwara with a lake sprawled in front of it against the backdrop of snow clad mountains appeared. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh meditated here but its association with the Sikh religion was inferred only as late as the 1930s by a Sikh surveyor. This kindled my desire to visit it sometime.
After an overnight halt at the Sivandana Ashram at Rishikesh, I caught the 3 am bus which began its slow and steady journey puffing and panting on the serpentine roads through the towns of Deopragya, Srinagar, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and then Joshimath. The temperate weather at Joshimath was a welcome respite from the hot and humid Rishikesh and when the plains are a literal oven with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees celcius. We made it for the 2 pm “Gate” at Joshimath (Details of the gate system has been explained at the end of this writeup) and were at Gobind Ghat at 3 pm. Gobind Ghat is a motley town consisting of Gurudwara, Dharmasalas and shops selling souvenirs, trinkets and various items used for worship. From Gobind Ghat, Ghangharia (also known as Gobind Dham) where one halts overnight is 13 kms away. Hemkund from Ghangharia involves another 6 km trek .
Gobind Ghat is located at the confluence of the river Alaknanda with Laxman Ganga. After walking across a rickety bridge over Alaknanda the trek begins. A bridal path with a moderate gradient takes you to Pulian 2 kms away with beautiful meadows and green pastures. After Pulian the bridle path takes you through a thick forest of rhododendrons, magnolia and oak trees.Many of the pilgrims are small todlers and some of them are also octogenerians. There are also many other pilgrims walking along with you or on mules or palaquins carried by four men. Pilgrims coming down from Hemkund accoust you and offer you gulucose powder so that you can muster energy to undertake the climb. There are many temporary stalls on the way offering mineral water, cold drinks, hot tea and snacks. 3 kms short of Ghanghariaa you cross the river Laxman Ganga. From here onwards your physical condition is put to a test. The climb is very steep and the bridal path very slippery. Your speed goes down to 2 kms per hour. Half a km before Ghangharia the path flattens out briefly skirting a helipad Ghangharia is finally reached but your feet weigh tons.Ghangharia is a lively village bursting to its seams with pilgrims. There is a Gurdwara with a Dharamsala, a Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) Resthouse and hotels offering basic accommodation. It must have been quite a challenge transporting the building material for constructing the houses here. There is even a BSNL mobile tower although it was defective during my visit. A light dinner and you drop down like a log of wood. Next day at 4 am you make an attempt to Hemkund. In 6 kms one will be ascending almost 4500 from Ghangharia’s 10,000 feet to Hemkund’s 14,500 feet. On leaving Ghangharia, the landscape suddenly becomes stark and devoid of all trees. However small plants and shrubs thrive. The zigzag path is indeed very steep and the effects of high altitudes make you pant. You cross a small glacier. The six kilometer murdurous climb takes almost 4 hours to traverse. Medical science dictates that before ascending to such high altitudes one should systematically acclimatise to prevent the dangerous effects of mountain sickness. But faith can belie all medical precautions:there are many old ladies walking up who I am sure have not gone through any acclimitization. It is sheer devotion and faith that drives them.
Suddenly you are at Hemkund and the iconic roof of the gurudwara presents itself before you. You head for the lake that adjoins the gurudwara. The scenery is heavenly. Although it is the month of June and it is almost 8 am, the air is chilly and thick snow tenaciously clings to the surrounding mountains. Tradition requires you to take a dip in the lake. You strip to your undergarments and without a second thought jump into the lake. The temperature is just above freezing and you give out loud gasps while taking dips. Hurriedly you get into your clothes and then go to the prayer room on the first floor of the Gurudwara. A hot cup of tea and some Kichdi at the Langar and you are ready to move downhill which takes about 2 hours. Just before Ghangharia the path bifuractes to the Valley of Flowers. One should include a visit to the valley in the itinernary. From Ghangharia it is just 3 kms away. An entry fees of Rs 150/- per person is charged at the gate near Ghangharia. All along the path you see flowers of different hues and colours- blue poppies, geraniums, petunia’s etc. After crossing the Laxman Ganga river the path adopts a slight inclination. Soon the valley is reached, it is carpeted with flowers as far as the eye can see against the backdrop of snowy mountains. After spending half an hour exploring the valley you begin your down hill trek: one hour to Ghangaria and another four hours to Gobind Ghat and then onward to Joshimath reaching there by about 6 pm.
It has been an exhilirating and soul stirring experience. One should do it during one’s lifetime even if you have no religious inclinations and are not a Sikh – the scenery and the flora are I think one of the best in the world. It is one of the “treks you should before you die.”

Important travel tip
Joshimath is 40 kilometers from Badrinath and the takeoff point for Hemkund is Gobind Ghat which is midway. Traffic, both uphill and downhill is allowed from Joshimath and Badrinath on this stretch for periods of half hour each at 6 am, 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm and 4.30 pm and made to cross at a wide section of the road near Gobind Ghat. This is called the “Gate” system of regulating the traffic. This arrangement has been made as the road between Joshimath and Badrinath is very narrow on which only one vehicle can ply at a time. Therefore leave Rishikesh/Haridwar early so that you are at Joshimath before 1.30 pm to make it for the 2 pm “gate”. You can then reach Gobind Ghat by 3 pm to begin the 4 to 5 hour trek to Ghangharia do Hemkund and the valley of flowers the next day and be back at Joshimath. However if you miss the 2 pm gate you will have to either halt at Govind Ghat or Joshimath and waste a day.