A hike in the Himalayas: A Journal 2/2

This is the second part of the Himalaya journal. If you’d like to check out the first part, you’ll find it here.

Day 3. Where have the flowers gone?
3049 m to 3500 m and back

We wake at five to the sounds of prayer coming from the temple next door. The sun is already on the rise, illuminating the surrounding snow capped mountains. We grab a quick breakfast, snacks and the Dutchies and start yet another climb to our destination, Valley of Flowers. The uneven path takes us about three kilometers further from the village through a Nordic-looking forest and before we descent later that afternoon, we never even realise how steep the way is. We’ve rested and left our backpacks at the hotel – we’re buzzing with energy.

The valley stretches out before us as a vastness of green spotted with a few glaciers that haven’t melted yet. The air is crisp and the sun is high. It gives all the colours a bright hue that almost hurts the eyes. (I’d like to point out that none of the pictures in this post have been edited whatsoever.) We have passed a couple of puffing Indians on the steep way up but they have fallen far behind and the only thing traversing through the valley is us. I’m the last in line and shuffle forward slowly, lazily. if I turn around and put my back towards my friends, all I can see is green grass and snow caps, and it feels like I’m the only person left in the world.

Most people visiting Ghangaria are Sikhs on a pilgrimage to the holy Hemkund Sahib, so the Valley gets very few visitors. On top of that, the valley area suffered from a huge flood just two years ago and they have only recently finished all the renovations. A couple of years ago the valley would see thousands of visitors each year but last year there were only 181 adventurous hikers.

The path in the valley itself is not an easy one. Stones are strewn across in a seemingly irrational order, so I need to step carefully not to twist my ankle. The further into the valley we progress, the more forceful and wider become the streams that we need to cross hopping from one stone to another. I lose my balance as I’m just reaching the other strand of the biggest stream, and splash goes my camera into the water. (Lucky for me that the water is so clean that after an overnight stay in a bag of rice my camera actually functions better than before its little dip.)

There are no dust bins inside the valley as they want to maintain it as natural as possible. That means there are no snack stalls either so we have carried biscuits and nuts with us for lunch. (Ben has got rid of my bag of spicy nuts and dried peas and I’m secretly happy about it. They tasted horrible.) To avoid dehydration we have been logging along heavy two-liter canisters of water, but we quickly run out of drinking water. Luckily I’ve brought my LifeStraw (and I swear this is no advertisement!) and it is quite a lifesaver. It is easy to carry and very light-weight, and can filter most bad stuff out of the water. The ice cold glacier water tastes like heaven,

We have been lucky, since usually the sky would be filled with clouds (just search Google images), but today they only start moving in during the afternoon when we’re already making our retreat. On the way back we meet two big tourist groups lounging at various points of the path. I can only feel happy that we have made an early start and managed to enjoy the magic the valley has to offer on our own.

Day 4. Glad we took the horses. Kinda.
3049 m to 4329 m and back

Even before our heroic expedition to the valley, we had predicted that our poor legs would probably deserve a break and instead of climbing the winding six-kilometer stretch to Hemkund Sahib, we would hire a couple of mules, or ponies as they rather liberally called them there. Besides, I am a star-struck pony girl for life. I used to go horse-back riding once a week for about ten years before I moved out of my home town, so I was excited to get back in the saddle, even if it would just be a slow and steady mountain mule.
Did I just say sound and steady? Yeah, forget that.
We watch the ponies through the door way as we are having breakfast. Ben makes a comment about the dun one, ‘how it loves to climb’. There is a little pile of rocks on the streets and the pony is trying to climb on top of them. I laugh and tell them, ‘That’s my pony’. Turns out, it was.
It is me, Anne, and the mule driver, plus our three mules. The boys are quickly left behind as our driver ushers our ponies to go faster and faster. I nervously laugh and tell him that we’d like to go slow, slow, and he smirks and nods even though he doesn’t speak a word of English. As our journey progresses, I start to feel like maybe he doesn’t understand body language either. The path is wide enough for three ponies to step side by side, but mine has decided he likes living on the edge and spends most of the first hour as close to the cliff as he can. If anybody gets in front of him, he is furious, and I mean – pushing past them on the outer side of the path furious. I haven’t got reins and for some reason Anne’s have been taken away after a while, too, so all I can do is kick the pony’s cliff side and talk sense into him. Our driver keeps stopping Anne and giving her directions in Hindi, and while they’re below us behind the last curve, my pony happily trots along the edge and occasionally stops to graze.
After an hour of riding we take a break. Without any explanation they put me on a different pony that is attached to another one, and the crazy one is left climbing small piles of rocks at the rest stop. The rest of the way up I finally have time to take in the breathtaking view and for a bit I have been liberated of my fear of death. Screw you, crazy pony.

Hemkund Sahib is one of the most holy places for Sikhs. The service that is held there is broadcasted around the world non-stop, and the sing-songy calls to prayer never let the place go quiet. We climb on a small hilltop to enjoy the sun (it was supposed to be cold up there, but the sun has made it a pleasant place for a lazy afternoon hang-out) and get some snacks. The boys decide to venture higher up, but I know I’m a slow walker and prefer staying where we are. Anne and I lie on the grass for what it seems like an eternity, with the Himalayan sun on our faces and the sounds of songs coming from below. It is still early, and the surrounding mountains are still clearly visible.

We descent back to Ghangaria on foot after the cloud moves in and covers us completely. We are all drowsy and absent-minded; the altitude has crept up on us without a warning. For the last time we view Ghangaria from high up as we make our way back into the town and towards a steaming hot Punjabi dinner.

Day 5. Out there be dragons (but we can’t see them)
3049 m to 1875 m
It has come time to kiss the town and the mountains goodbye, and we do it so light-heartedly, minds set on adventures to come. I guess we both feel a little bit uneasy thinking about all the work we have gone through to get to this place, and how we will most likely not do it again since we have seen what we came to see. It is a special kind of sadness when you’re leaving a place you’re rather sure you will not see again.

Breathing gets easier the lower we descend. On our way down we’re laughing and practically prancing along the path – the past two days trekking has been so tough that it seems ridiculous I ever had such trouble climbing up this tiny little hill we’re descending now. However, it has rained and the stones are slippery. We have had incredible luck with our visit since we have had the chance to see all our destinations unhindered by clouds. Now the way down is covered in thick mist which paints the scenery in eerie greyness.

We made it!

Back in Joshimath we meet up again with our trusted Dutch friends and go get the most delicious tandoori chicken we have ever tasted. I feel victorious thinking about the insane hike we have just completed. The memories are already starting to turn into a surreal blur in my mind. Can a place that magical and far-away actually exist?

I look at the pictures and see my face smiling in them. I leave the Himalayas with the sense of achievement; out there be mountains, and I have conquered them.

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