Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Valley of Flowers : Trek Part -II

Day 3. Finally we will be heading for the place for which we had come this far – the Valley of Flowers. The weather looked good. Even though it was cloudy, it was not raining. Despite the pains in the limbs, we were ready for the 5 km trek. We had no other option but to climb as ponies are not allowed into the VOF. We were to climb to a max of 1500 feet over these 5 km.

Our bookings at the GMVN guest house at Ghangaria was getting over by 12 noon of the day. As per our initial plan, we were to look for other accommodation in case we stay there for the third day. But after taking opinion of locals, we understood that we can go down to Govindghat even after coming back from the VOF trek. This obviated the need for spending another costly night at Ghangaria. Accommodation and food at Govindghat is much cheaper. The check out time at the GMVN guest house is 12 noon. As we were unlikely to comeback by 12, we had checked out and left the luggage at their office.

We started off after breakfast at around 8:30 am. We had hired pithoos or (porters) for the kids @Rs.250/- per person for the round trip which was expected to take about 4 hours. We were not botany enthusiast to know the names of flowers and so we did not hire any guide. The only worry was that we should not get lost. Having the pithoos with us excluded this possibility. In fact once inside the park, we understood that one can not get lost as the trek was very distinct.

The initial one kilometer of the trek is same for both Hemkund and VOF. Around the 1 km mark from the village, the road bifurcates. One goes to Hemkund sahib and the other to the VOF. ‘Welcome to the Valley of Flowers National Park’ – the first signboard greeted us. Various other signposts at the gate provide useful information like flowers and their blooming season, and also what you are not expected to do inside the park. The entry fee at the gate is quite hefty. It was Rs.50/- per head plus Rs.100/- for still camera. We had to pay entry fee for the pithoos as well. After paying Rs.400/- as entry fee, we were allowed in. Our names got lodged in the entry registrar for ever.

A narrow strip led me into a fairly thick forest with tall trees. It was like walking inside a jungle without any fear of wild animals. Amazing! My mind got drifted into another world. I fall behind the pack by quite a distance. Left on my own on this unforgettable nature walk, I proceeded slowly clicking almost every flower on the way. After some time we got into an open area and crossed a makeshift bridge around a glacier. We had crossed another steel bridge on the way. One more bridge was found to be under construction deep inside the valley.

After about an hour of climbing up and down, we reached the open area of the valley. Most of the people were found to have taken a break by a fairly large glacier on the Pushpawati river. This vantage point also provides a magnificent view of the valley ahead and the hills around. Ecology of this area is preserved in a highly protected environment. It is still pristine. 11000 feet is not a very high altitude, yet you can see 3 glaciers (and touch) in the entire trip all round the year.

The trek continued along the Pushpawati river. The landscape was a sight to behold. The cloud was playing hide and seeks with the hills around the valley. Carpets of wild flowers covering the slopes up the mountains were a very soothing sight. However, after walking for about 2 kilometers we found the landscape a bit monotonous. It was still a sight to behold, but it was not changing anymore. One can continue walking ahead, but we had decided to call it a day. Some of the tourists were seen continuing ahead. Some tourists were seen taking packed lunches with them. These people are most likely to stay back at Ghangaria for the day. But we had to travel down to Govindghat as well.

Inside the park we saw even grown up peoples riding pithoo's back. Even though the allowed weight for pithoos is about 70 kilos, one fat fellow who was riding a pithoo looked much beyond that limit. One human torturing another compensating it by paying money. It looked so shameful. The guy also understood our scornful glances and avoided any further eye contact.

We had returned to Ghangaria by 2 pm. Had a quick lunch and got ready for the descend to Govindghat. The restaurant where we had all our meals had arranged for ponies. We hired 6 ponies this time, including one exclusively for luggage @Rs.250/- per pony. We did not see any organized way of booking ponies at Ghangaria though there is a counter at the entrance to the village. We had no option but to hire ponies as we would not be able to make it to Govindghat on foot before dark. In nay case we would have required at least 3 horses for luggage and kids.

I had mentioned earlier in my posts that descending on horse back is not fun. The horseman always remains ahead of the horses and keeps pulling the horses all the time. Because of this horse tends to slip at times on rocky slopes. We found that one gentleman broke his leg after his pony slipped and literally fall on him. The horses are plied in pairs. I was on the horse on the back which always tends to walk by the side of the trek away from the hill. The fear of the horse slipping and taking you down the hill was real and kept me on tenterhook all the time. On our way down we met people who had started from Govindghat as late as 5 pm. These people were either alone or in small groups of 2 or 3 persons. They had barely traveled 2 / 3 kilometers by 5:30 pm. How they could think of traveling rather trekking at night was beyond my understanding. Even though the trek is fairly well laid out, but there were stretches with landslide where it was difficult to maneuver even in daylight. There are no facilities for staying or sleeping on the entire stretch. May be the makeshifts food stalls provide some shelter. But it will be too cold to sleep in the open. This is sheer foolishness.

Anyway, we had reached back Govindghat by dusk. The descend to Govindghat took us about 3 hours with a break for tea. On arrival we had collected the Prasad at the Gurudwara for our offerings at Hemkund Sahib. This time we had preferred to stay at Hotel Kuber which probably is the most well maintained hotel at Govindghat. As it was almost dark, we got the rooms at good bargain.

My limbs were almost numb. Every step was a big torture. I had decided to have a massage of legs paying Rs.50 that night. Whether it provided any relief was doubtful. But we slept hard that night. Exhausted but satisfied that we had completed another memorable trip two exotic places. It certainly was a trip of lifetime.

Day 4 : We could contact the driver late in the night after our arrival at Govindghat the earlier night. Though the driver had a mobile, connectivity depends on availability of power. We had started off with the first gate at around 8 am. Till about Pipolkoti it was a smooth drive. But then we got stuck in landslides at two places. These blockades consumed about 2 hours time, but fortunately the road was cleared. There is serious possibility of getting blocked for an entire day or two on this stretch. We had expected this on our way up, but that did not occur then. But to complete our experience of the trip it occurred on the return trip.

Even when the debris was cleared and the road was opened to traffic, the long queue made it difficult to pick up speed. The delay had made us consider another change of plan. This was the seventh day since we have left Delhi. All were exhausted and wanted to reach back home as early as possible. Instead of going to Dehradun then stay there for the night, we had decided to continue our journey to Delhi via Rishikesh. We reached Rishikesh around 7 pm and headed straight for the government bus stand. A UTC deluxe bus was to leave at 8 pm. We booked our tickets and said goodbye to Honey, the cab driver. The guy was good; much better than the driver we had traveled with last time. We had reached back home around 5 am next morning. It was a non-stop journey by road of 550 km. A bit too much for the body which was already aching.

Anyway, we thanked God that we had reached back safely. My colleague Chandan had asked me as to how I could think of traveling on that dangerous route for a second time. I also do not know. May be because of the serious willingness to see the Valley of Flower? May be because we could not take the holy dip at Badrinath last time? May be something else? But this probably is the last time I had gone that route. But who knows!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Om Shanti Om

It has been a long time since I have watched a movie in the first week of its release. But last Monday, I had watched Om Shanti Om. My wife and kid wanted to watch Sawariyaan. But I thought it would be very boring to sit through a love story for 3 hours. So I took them to Om Shanti Om instead.

Trying to be film critic! Nothing great, but not bad either. One will not get a headache after getting out of the cinema hall. What were missing in the movie were regular doses of humour that we expect in any movie these days. Deepika Padukone appeared to be a product of media hype. She is not a great face or actress. But SRK makes up for all these to a great extent. Of course SRK sells. In fact the film will probably go on to be a hit because of SRK.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hemkund Sahib : A journey of lifetime

As per the change of plan going to Hemkund Sahib took priority over VOF. But we had understood that we will not be able to climb the torturous 7 km trek to Hemkund. Therefore we were to hire ponies.

When we got up in the morning, the weather looked ominous. A consistent heavy drizzle greeted us. But the rain had totally stopped by 8 am and the sky cleared. We could afford to start late as we would be traveling on ponies. We had some light breakfast and started off at around 8:30 am. We had hired pithoos for the kids @Rs.540/- for the round trip. It would be impossible for the kids to ride a pony alone, neither it would be easy for an elder to travel with a kid.

Charges per pony was Rs.340/- one way. This includes a charge of Rs.40/- levied by the Eco Development Committee, Bhyundar. I asked the person as to what is charge for. The stark reply was that ‘Environment Tax’ This tax is levied on every traveler on pony or palki or pithoo, but not for those on foot. Given the large number of visitors, they must be collecting a good sum, but how they utilize the money is not exactly known. I could see some sweepers wearing EDC uniform along the trek sweeping the horse dung off the road. However, the same fellows will double up as beggars asking you to give them something on your return journey. The begging is more in the style of darwans keeping alive the British legacy – salute and then beg. You do not normally see beggars on Sikh pilgrim sites.

While trekking a steep climb is arduous, riding a mule on a rocky trek is no fun either. You feel the constant stub on your spine. Despite the discomfort, we could easily go past those devout and brave who had started probably around 5:30 or 6 am in the morning, braving the rains. The climb is really stiff. It was all the way up without any let off. 4000 feet climb is to be covered over 7 km. It was easy to observe that the percentage of people on ponies easily outnumber those on foot on this second leg of trek. I really appreciated those brave people huffing puffing their way up. Some out of compulsion, but some out of sheer devotion. Being non- Sikhs, we probably were among those few exceptions who were going there as a tourist. But you call it a destiny that we all were traveling to Hemkund despite it was not in the itinerary of of my co-traveller's family.

It took us about 3 hours to reach Hemkund Sahib, the revered holy shrine of Sikhs. It is said that Guru Govind Singh had attained enlightment here in his previous birth. It takes about 6 hours to reach there on foot from Ghangaria, i.e., almost @1 km per hour. One should appreciate the effort of people who had constructed the shrines at 14000 feet. The shrine is located on the bank of the lake or sarovar surrounded by seven peaks. There also is Hindu temple dedicated to Laxman, the brother of Lord Rama. Laxman also supposed to have done penance here. The place remains buried under several feet of snows for most of the year.

I had it in my mind that if I can make it to Hemkund, then I will take a dip at the lake, however cold the water might be. It would be the experience of lifetime to take a dip in the icy cold water of a lake at 14000 feet. Almost every sikh arriving there were seen taking the holy dip. The sun was playing hide and seek with passing clouds. I had observed that the weather becomes warmer when sun was in the frame. I waited for such a moment, took my clothes off quickly and plunged into the icy cold waters. It all happened in a flash. I did not feel the cold. My wife recorded it in the handycam. But could not take a still shot. So I had a second dip. This time I felt the biting cold. I will have no repent from my visit to Hemkund. Not only I went there, I also took the holy dip in the icy cold water. A young guy asked me on return –are you Punjabi? I relied in the negative. He probably was surprised to see a non Punjabi taking that icy cold dip.

Brahma Kamal, a kind of lotus that grows on land in the area at this altitude, was seen in full bloom on the upper areas around the lake. I climbed those mini hillocks to get some good photos. I had never exerted that much just for photography. The effort was worth. Incidentally, Brahma Kamal is the state flower of Uttranchal. There is a story in Mahabharata where Brahma Kamal is mentioned. Remember the story of Bhim meeting Hanuman in a jungle. Bhim was going up the jungle looking for Brahma Kamal when he met Hanuman disguised an old monkey. These areas around Badrinath are associated with the Pandavas and Mahabharata in a big way. They supposed to have lived here and went to the heaven from Badrinath. There is a famous trek known as “Swargarohini Yatra’ or the Ascent to the Heaven, which is suppose to follow the trek the Pandavas used for going to heaven. Badrinath has a lot of mention in Purans and other mythology.

Coming back to Hemkund, no one stays there at night. The interiors of the Gurudwara appear to be a wooden structure. For Prasad, one is issued a receipt against their offerings. The Prasad is to be collected at Govindghat on return. We joined the devotees in the langar for lunch. The langar is not like the one in Amritsar. But it certainly is appreciable to feed so many people at 14000 feet. Everything has to be carried up there on a daily basis including firewood. The crowd started dispersing soon after langar around noon. One has to leave that place by 2 pm to reach back Ghangaria by twilight. Ponies are available for 200 to 250 for the downward journey. But most of the people took the downward journey on foot expecting it to be easier.

Easier!! Coming down the steep rocky trek was a nightmare, specially when we took the shortcut. To add to the woo, it had started raining almost as soon as we had started. It was a heavy drizzle. We had to put on the plastic raincoats or barsatis. The rain had stopped after an hour or so. The trek had also become relatively better sloped. The rain had made the trek bit slippery at places. We limbered down the trek slowly trying hard to maintain grips in the interlocks of rocks to prevent slipping or fall. Because of this the calf muscles got badly stressed. After about 5 kilometers of journey downward, we could see the Ghangaria village. That appeared like a mirage. The condition of legs were so bad by then that we had literally dreg them to reach hotel. I was so exhausted that somehow I managed to make two glasses of Glucose water and then lied motionlessly for about 10 minutes before normalcy returns. It took us about 4 hours to come down. We thought coming down on foot would be easier!! But believe me, coming down on ponies would have been still harder. To add to my problem, the plastic raincoat had soaked me out from inside with sweat. My clothes were so wet as if I had got drenched in the rain. I should have torn them off once the rain had stopped.

We had ordered a bucket of steaming hot water to soothe the muscles. In fact the demand for hot water had gone up suddenly and we had to wait for our turn. Those who had taken at least one way journey on foot that day could be easily identified in the crowd. The portions from hips downwards were so sore that every step was painful. Climbing up or down even a 6 inch step was torture. The masseurs were seen doing brisk business. They charge Rs.50/- for massage of legs. But we had decided against it and made use of the combiflam tablets and muscle relaxants.

By next morning, we had recovered fairly enough to think about day's plans of going to the VOF. We had to trek to VOF. Ponies are not allowed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Find Accomodation in Europe

I have seen some sites which cater to accommodation requirement of some specific European cities. Like this one caters to accommodation in Amsterdam. Though they offer accommodation in some other cities, may be through some other link partners, they seem to provide value by giving other required information a traveler may want to know for the place. Like this page on EasyToBook provides a detailed info on tourist attractions in Amsterdam. These are useful information one can use. They also offer accommodation in non Dutch cities like New York, Dublin or Rome.