Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue Part VI


Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue
Part VI

Flowers in the Mist

The moment I stepped out of the shelter of the rock-overhang, the world around me turned misty. Till now, all my energies had been focussed on one single goal, that of reaching the Valley safely and without incident. Now for the first time my mind, free of the stress of the journey, looked around; I mean really looked. What I saw is difficult to describe, even by someone as verbose as me. But I will try, though I am not too confident I can do it justice.



At first it felt as if I were looking at the world through a wet, translucent paper. Clouds covered everything, but the clouds were not the thick, foamy things that we see floating in the sky. Here they were wraithlike, made of fine mist; and behind them, the Valley shimmered a smoky-grey. My sworn enemy, the track now stretched flat through the centre of the Valley and here its previous demon-like stance was softened, tamed into a pretty, glistening path that first dipped and then rose in a gentle upward slope before disappearing behind some hillocks in the distance. As I looked more intently, the Valley began to bloom out of the mist under the intensity of my gaze. I noted beside me, flanking the path on both sides and stretching far into the horizon, tiny flowers borne on tall reedy plants that gently waved in the breeze. They were of the prettiest shade, a blend of rani and baby pink, the Impatiens sulcata, or the giant Himalayan Balsam. The entire meadow was covered with them and the only thing my inadequate words can compare them to, is a Dali landscape: gray evening sky dotted with pink stars.


Slowly as the rain came and went, I became aware of black rocks spotted with lichen dotting the landscape; and in that shifting, shimmering air, they looked like ancient mammoths out for a stroll. The flowers grew thick and it was just like Frank Smythe had described, "One couldn't take a step without the fear of crushing a flower!" Further down where the valley dipped, the pink balsams were replaced by towering Milk Parsleys or Wallaich's Selenium (Selenium wallichianum). These are also known by the rather romantic name - Wallaich's Everlasting. The flowers are in an inflorescence that radiates from the centre like the spokes of a whee and are of the palest milky yellow. They too grew in a dancing abundance, replacing the pink Impatiens stars with their diaphanous yellow lace.




The Valley was hemmed in on all sides by towering hills whose peaks were made of jet black rocks with steep jagged faces. But at the base, their formidable demeanour was softened by the lush green of the monsoon grass which had crept up and now lay in velvety swathes over them.

I was mesmerised by the general beauty of the landscape and completely content with just the two flowers I had seen till then, the Impatiens and the Milk Parsley. It was Dinesh who drew my attention to the other flowers which, though not as attention-grabbing, were equally beautiful. He pointed out tiny bellflowers of a pale milky ochre growing on plants hardly a foot in height, whose centres had a whole Rangoli of designs. Being presbyopic, I couldn’t quite appreciate this intricate design with my naked eyes. But I was smart enough to take a closeup with my zoom lens and now when I look at that picture, I marvel at the unparalled creativity of Nature. I spotted balloon like blooms of the palest pink, growing just near the bell flowers, that  looked for all the world like Chinese lanterns strung up by fairies for an evening soiree. Dinesh told me that they were the buds of the bell-flower, but he was wrong. I found out later that these are Campions (bladder campions to be precise, though calling them ‘bladder’ campions is doing them a grave injustice. I’d rather call them ‘pink lantern’ campions) and I can say that they were the prettiest thing I saw in my entire trip.



I also saw pink and purple geraniums, blue thorowax, more anemones along with their sibling - the ‘sunnymones’, pink lousewort, hooded yellow horned lousewort, the trailing bellflower, the bright chrome-yellow Ligularia, both the stem clasping and the Jaquemont’s varieties, violet fleabanes that resemble aster, blue oxalis, tiny, tiny star-like blue gentians, Shangri La balsams and many more whose names I do not know. I was spoiled for choice, scrambling around from one flower to the next, quite like a three-year old let loose in a toystore. But my camera was playing spoilsport, repeatedly either misting over or becoming clouded with raindrops. I had carried the smaller of our cameras because the Canon 3100D is a heavy thing and unlike it, my small camera did not have a lens hood. I must advise you that if you ever happen to visit a scenic place in the monsoons, you must carry an umbrella, a camera with a lens hood and a bag load of chamois leather to blot the rain and the mist.














As I struggled with my lens, my eyes caught a flash of purple. Whirling around, I found to my absolute delight, a tall plant with blue flowers growing on a tiny outcrop of rock. It was the Giant Bellflower, of an iridescent bluish-purple that reminded me of blue bells. I scrambled awkwardly up the slippery rock to get a good angle, with my poncho flapping around my legs like giant batwings. The picture I managed to take was average but the picture I treasure in my mind’s eye is exquisite and perfect!



If you have read Part I of this travelogue, you will remember that I had spoken of the Blue Poppy, our mascot for this trip. I had read that they grow in greater abundance in the valley of Flowers than at Hemkund Sahib. But Dinesh told me that lately these poppies were found less and less in the Valley of Flowers and more at Hemkund Sahib. When I enquired why, he said it could probably be because it was getting warmer in the Valley (height 12000 feet) while the temperatures at Hemkund though warming up, was still cool enough (because of its greater altitude of about 15000 feet) for the poppy to grow.

This piece of information left me morose and my mood was not improved when Dinesh also let on that the last group of tourists he had taken up the Valley only two days back had not seen a single blue poppy.

But the Blue Poppy did not fail us. On a rocky ledge on the left flank of the path, Dinesh pointed out a single plant with three blue blooms. The oldest flower was faded and drooped a little, but the other two were of the blue of autumn skies and held at their centre bright golden stamens. I spotted a few blue petals of some older faded flower strewn around and I knew that tomorrow, these flowers would not be there anymore. As I frantically clicked, my eyes misted over. Those poppies were a kind of culmination for me, for us, of our long seven-day sojourn with all its uncertainties, fears and misgivings, and also of the excitement, the camaraderie and the undiluted fun. I am an incurable romantic and kind of like to believe that the Blue Poppy had bloomed just for us and had weathered the incessant rain and storm just so that we four could meet up with it.


We must have spent about an hour in the Valley by now and I think the altitude was getting to me. I felt wet and uncomfortable and when BB, the sun worshipper went and plonked herself down on a rock and refused to budge saying she wished the sun would come out and we could see the Valley in its sunlit glory; her glumness infected me too. I scrambled up the rock along with her and we both sat there in silence, watching the rain come and go, watching the pink dotted fields fade in and out, watching the other trekker follow the trail further into the Valley. The other thing that was worrying me was the thought of the descent down that demented path; and in worrying about this, I made the terrible mistake of letting the fear of the future spoil the present. CC was the smartest of the three of us, for she went on ahead (the Valley stretches for 6 km further down) up to another stream, something I so wish I too had done that day. She told me later, of how standing beside the stream in that magical fairyland dotted with pink and yellow flowers and surrounded by those wise old mountains, she had teared up; just like I had done before the Blue Poppies.

I will not bore with the details of the return trip save for a few special vignettes.

During the descent, BB our flying Marwari and DD, a closet ‘Flying’ Bangalorean, sailed over those crazy stones in flat three hours. But CC and I took close to four hours and perhaps a little more, gingerly climbing down at the speed of snails. I was terrified of slipping and breaking my ankle while CC was terrified of falling down the gorge and drowning in the Pushpavati. Like Vitalstatistix with his fear of the sky falling on his head, we both had our pet fears; but unlike me CC was not shy of asking for help. Since I was lagging behind, with Dinesh taking up the rear-guard, she was left to fend for herself. Wisely, she asked a passing young man for help. It turned out that this fella was self-same lawless Punjabi Munda we had met on our way up. This young man helped the struggling CC negotiate those treacherous stones through the entire four kms, all the while entertaining her with the story of his young life. Later as I too got to know him, I realised he was a charming, polite and respectful young man. His disarmingly candid talk revealed a soft vulnerable mind that belied his lawless Punjabi exterior and it brought out the maternal sentiments in both of us. And for me personally, it was a vindication of the age old adage: Appearances can be deceptive.

Another interesting interlude occurred when we were hiking back from Ghangria to Pulna. That morning, the sun had come out in all its golden glory and consequently our sun worshipping, photosynthetic feeder BB was in her element. As we climbed down the trail, she asked Dinesh to sing. Though baulking at first, at BB’s repeated insistence he sang for us a lively Pahari song. BB sang along with him in her typical bindaas manner and for a moment I couldn’t help thinking that in all probability, Dinesh was convinced that we were a bunch of borderline psychiatric cases. But that was not all. BB who was in her full flow, now stopped at road bend and leaning against the rock bench, she said to Dinesh, “I will sing a Bengali song for you Dinesh. It is written by Tagore. You may have heard of him. It is a song in praise of light as a source of positive energy.” I do not know how much of what she was trying to convey was grasped by Dinesh, but maybe that was not in the least important. BB now broke into that Tagore classic, Alo aamar alo……. The Song of Light. She has a beautiful voice and is a trained classical singer; and as she sang full throated and free, under a jewel-blue sky, the snow covered Rataban peak glittering in the distance and the sunlight filtering in through the jewelled green of the forest, a kind of languor grew upon me too. I closed my eyes and sang along with her…Aalo Aamar Aalo Ogo Aloye Bhuvan Bhora….**








The last anecdote, a funny but sweet vignette is a pleasant way to end this six part mammoth (by my lazy standards) travelogue. This happened while we were putting up for the night at the Army guest house at Joshimath. The soldiers in-charge of the guest house were from the infantry. I was rooming in with CC and I noted with amusement that each time the soldier brought in something for us, say like tea or water or fresh towels, CC would express her gratitude to him with a polite thank you. Now CC is not called CC just like that. She is Coco Chanel through and through, the epitome of sophistication, chic and elegance. She is not beautiful but she has something about her, something within her, something in her smile, her voice, her words and  her demeanour that shouts to the world, “Here is a Lady!!!!!” Now Rifleman Kewal Ram from the rural heartlands of Rajasthan, the rough-gruff rifle handling, terrorist bashing infantry soldier was completely unused to so much propriety and so much gentility. The first time that CC had uttered her killer thank you, he had not replied, probably because he was caught unawares. The second time when CC took the tea cup from his hands with a bright sunlit smile and a brighter thank you, I thought I heard something that sounded like a “Huurgh” from our soldier. The third time, when he came with fresh towels and was bombarded with another Colgate powered smile and a honey crusted thank you, he was ready. I did hear another ‘Hurrrpmh’, but I thought I had heard something more there. The fourth time when he knocked on our door (I forgot for what), his reply to CC’s thank you was a guttural but prompt and much clearer, though heavily accented, “Welcome!” As I shut the door and collapsed on the bed in a heap of laughter, CC looked at me in baffled wonderment at what it was that I thought was funny!  

                                         Epilogue

Every night, at that twilight juncture when one is not asleep but not quite awake either, I return to the Valley. 


I find myself huffing and puffing up the steep slope right through that cloud-mist, as rain prickles my vision. The giant pink balsams nod in encouragement as I pant by them, but the stones at my feet are horrendously uneven as ever and as ever, unfriendly. My stick searches for a secure surface to hook on and as it does that, I can hear, far below on my right down the deep ravine, the Pushpawati dashing through its gorge in madcap abandon. Before me, a thin road of stone glistens with rain as it snakes up and then down the lush green valley before disappearing into the mist. 

I missed seeing what lies beyond, for I had missed venturing ahead. 

I am now filled with an aching curiosity: what lies ahead, there in that mist shrouded green, between the black mountain walls that rise on both sides?

The botanist Ms Margaret Legge’s little white grave? 

More flowers, each prettier and wilder than the next, flowers this botanist who died young surely must have loved? 

Baby streams gurgling like chatterbox children?

The moraine edged glacier where Pushpawati takes birth?

The sharp white peaks of the Rataban?

What, what, what.........???

This is how the Valley has been calling me every night, a compelling call, like the Sirens of Circe, calls that I cannot ignore.  I must go back.

Must.



***********************************************

PS: If you liked my travelogue, leave a word.

*****আলো আমার, আলো ওগো, আলো ভুবন-ভরা ।
আলো নয়ন-ধোওয়া আমার, আলো হৃদয়-হরা ॥
নাচে আলো নাচে, ও ভাই, আমার প্রাণের কাছে—
বাজে আলো বাজে, ও ভাই, হৃদয়বীণার মাঝে—
জাগে আকাশ, ছোটে বাতাস, হাসে সকল ধরা ॥
আলোর স্রোতে পাল তুলেছে হাজার প্রজাপতি ।
আলোর ঢেউয়ে উঠল নেচে মল্লিকা মালতী ।
মেঘে মেঘে সোনা, ও ভাই, যায় না মানিক গোনা—
পাতায় পাতায় হাসি, ও ভাই, পুলক রাশি রাশি—
সুরনদীর কূল ডুবেছে সুধা-নিঝর-ঝরা ॥
Light, O my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my beloved, at the centre of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmine surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my beloved, and it scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my beloved, and gladness without measure. Heaven's river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.


Monday, 10 September 2018

Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue Part V


Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue
Part V

A Long Way Up

At first it sounded like an airplane taking off; but as I listened, longer and more closely, I could hear a veritable orchestra of other sounds: drips, clicks, rattles, gushes and whooshes……..! Her name was Pushpavati, the river of flowers. The World Wide Web says that she was named thus because the Gods found petals of flowers floating on her bosom. That of course is mythology. I don’t know who of the mortal world gave her this name for even Frank Smythe, the discoverer of the Valley of Flowers makes no mention of this river in his travelogue. But nonetheless, no name would have suited her better than ‘Pushpavati’ or the Flower River. She is born somewhere high up in the Rataban and Nilgiri peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas and flowing through the Valley of Flowers in its entirety, she joins the Lakshman Ganga at Ghangria.


As I descended that demented path of stones (described in detail in part IV), the river’s thundering became louder. Once I was safely down, I hurried over to the bridge that was strung across her breast. It was a fairly sturdy bridge resting on strong-looking concrete pillars; but when I stood on it and faced the flow of the river, the current was so strong that for a moment I had this feeling that all would be swept off: me, the bridge, the pillars, everything. It was unsettling, so I scuttled off the bridge to the safety of the more solid ground on its banks. I stopped there for a moment to savour the wild beauty of the rain-swollen river as it hurtled down the deep gorge.


‘Why this furious speed, Pushpavati?’ I asked her.

All white foam and whiter froth, she never paused to answer.
But I knew why she raced at that breakneck speed, at that drunken haste. It was because further down in the valley beyond, the Lakshman Ganga waited to catch her his arm; and she couldn’t wait to immerse herself into him.

Ahhh, pyaar diwaana hota hai………mastana hota hai…..


I had turned a little maudlin with these thoughts, but all amour was wiped off my mind when I surveyed before me the steep grey path to the VoF stretching at an evil seventy-degree angle, topped by those demented stones. But I no other option available to get to the VoF short of growing a pair of wings; so I clenched my teeth and my loyal stick and staggered slowly up the track.


The path moved through varied backdrops: bare black mountainsides alternating with fairly thick jungles. The jungles were filled with silver birches (Bhojpatra, Betula utilis), the beige-brown bark peeling off their white smooth trunks. The bhojpatra was used in ancient times as paper for sacred texts. I also found plenty of five pronged leaves lying strewn around and mistakenly thought they belonged to Chinar/maple trees. It was later that I realised that these leaves were those of the Oriental sycamore.  As I walked, drops of rain trickled off the leaves, new moss on tree trunks glowed fluorescent green and a faint daylight dripped through the lattice of branches above, shrouding everything in a faint yellow-brown haze.


This part of the trek was, I think the most challenging. The path was long, stony and steep; and the steadily increasing altitude compounded the misery. It was also raining, a fine misty sheet that clouded my camera lens, adding to my growing unhappiness. The track at places was quite narrow, of less than two-men width and when the pitthoos rushed by, they sometimes left us cowering on the treacherous edge of the road. This was scary because the drop from the edge was a sheer thousand or more feet and a fall would have meant immediate annihilation.


I was, as I have mentioned before, the rate limiting member of the group and here too, like on the Pulna-Ghanghria route, the other girls had moved on far ahead and I was left all alone. Well not exactly. Dinesh was always present behind, reminding me of a conscientious nanny who would never abandon her charge. I will forever be grateful to Dinesh, for without his silent but reassuring presence, I don’t think I would have been able to complete the trek. All my memory-pictures of the trek up and down the Valley will always have Dinesh in the backdrop: a short, slightly built youngish man in a blue pullover, baggy track-pants and hand-me-down Quechua boots, a head of untidy close-cropped hair, a three-day stubble stippled in gray and a simple smile flashed through bad teeth crinkling his eyes into a thousand wrinkles. Like a good guide, he was unobtrusive but available when required, and his honesty was an added bonus. What I particularly liked about Dinesh was that he spoke very little and when he did, he spoke sense. Like that time when he told me of how since the Valley had been made into a National Park and the grazing by local goats forbidden, many flowers previously seen were not to be found anymore because the goat dropping fertilised the soil of the Valley. Later I also learnt that these goats grazed on weeds such as the Polygonum and when no goats were allowed in, the running-amok Polygonums were elbowing out the other less hardier variety of flowering plants. I also read that the govt was now spending lakhs of rupees in trying to weed out this weed. Well……..that’s what happens when we try to interfere in the natural course of things.

I was lagging behind, and while I did manage to catch up with DD occasionally as she was being victimised by the altitude, the other two Tenzin Norgays had zoomed off ahead and now even their designer rain-cheaters were not visible. I told myself that by now they would have reached the Valley. But surprise of surprises, at the next uphill bend, I found all three of them huddled on a rock, munching almonds and egging me on upwards with their smiles. 

Tum log aage gaye nahin?” I asked, feeling nice that they hadn’t.

“Oh no….! We would never enter the Valley alone without you, Aibee……………!” They chimed.

A warm feeling crept up my throat and settled there. Of course, they wouldn’t. How could I have thought that they would.

A little later, Dinesh announced, “We are almost there. A little charai, then a little ‘down’ and then flat, flat…..!” He smiled at us.

I looked ahead. I could see his little charai. After what I had crossed below, that little charai was truly ‘little’. Enlivened I got ready to move. Ahead, there was what looked like a landslide of grey stones and boulders.

“What’s that?” I enquired.

“A sliding zone. It’s a place where rock falls are common. We must cross it fast.” Dinesh cautioned.

But before we could move, we spotted a young man standing amidst the rocks, on a high stone taking selfies.

“Hey!” Dinesh yelled, “Please move.”

I yelled along with him helpfully, “Helloo, helloo……..!”

But the young man was too interested in his selfies to heed us. Shiny turquoise jacket, slick gelled hair and a fair face framed by a Shahid Kapoor beard.

Punjab da munda. Totally lawless.’ I grumbled, shaking my head. We crossed the rockfall zone quickly, past the munda still engrossed in selfies and clambered up the little charai. It was now a ‘down’ as Dinesh had promised, down all the way till a cute gushing mountain stream bridged by a single battered tin sheet of a bridge. Across the bridge, a few metres ahead was the green and red Forest Department board that announced, “You are now in the Valley Of Flowers.”

Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



The four of us clung together in celebration of our victory (for it was nothing less than battle that we had won) and belted out our dear old school anthem at the top of our tuneless voices,

 “To East and West…….”

I don’t know what people around thought of a gang of four bedraggled middle-aged women with flying black ponchos and waving hiking sticks singing some strange angrezi song in a stranger angrez accent….but who cared? None of us did. It was exhilarating singing that well-loved song and we would have continued, enthusiasm undimmed had it not been for a pitthoo who shooed us out of the way unceremoniously, thus putting an end to our stellar performance. Fortunately, Dinesh had offered to record our little show and I can remember distinctly his highly amused but indulgent smile behind the camera as he filmed our performance.

Dinesh herded us all under a huge black rock and advised us to first have our lunch. It was raining, and everything was wet and cold and that lunch of soggy parathas is not something I remember with much fondness. On top of that, that rock was the only shelter for the truckloads of hikers who had swarmed into the Valley that day and we kept elbowing each other within its narrow confines.

I was chomping on my paratha when suddenly, an elderly gentleman standing before me toppled in slow motion on to his side. It appeared as if he had been leaning against the pitthoo chair and had slid down, throwing him off balance. But he propped himself up immediately, goofy smile on his face , all the while assuring everybody that he was alright. However, after barely a minute, he fell again. This time he was caught by a person from his group. While in this man’s arms, I saw with horror that he had fainted again.

I stuffed my half-drunk Frooti into DD’s hands and rushed forward.

“Make him lie down. Make him lie down! I yelled, but nobody seemed to be paying heed to my words. Exasperated, I yelled “I’m a doctor!” But in that weird black poncho with rain slithering across my wet face and lank hair, I probably looked more like one of Macbeth’s witches than a doctor and it was difficult getting the people around to listen. I kept insisting that they lay him down flat on the ground but maybe because the ground appeared muddy and dirty, they hesitated. I told them to raise his legs, thinking it probably was a simple fainting spell. As someone, raised his legs, I fumbled around in that crowd for his wrist and was reassured to feel his pulse. The man by now had recovered consciousness and was protesting, “I’m ok. I’m Ok!” But his pulse was fast and weak, and I wondered whether those fainting spells were related to something more sinister than a simple fainting attack precipitated by altitude. He was sweating a little and that scared me even more. But his tour guide was nonchalant.

Kuch nahi hua. I’ll give him ORS and he’ll be Ok.”  

I was like “ORS????????????”

“Get him down to Ghanghria, partner. Pronto!” I hissed through gritted teeth. But the guide did not heed my words. He was busy making his panacea of ORS and refused even to bring out his bottle of oxygen. Maddened, I caught hold of the man from his group, the one who had caught the patient as he fell and asked, “Who’s he travelling with?”

The man pointed to an elderly lady napping on a pitthoo chair.

“Jesus!” I thought. “What do I tell her? That her husband was probably having a heart attack and it would take two and half to three hours to get him to Ghanghria?”

She had woken up with all that commotion and seeing her husband lying on the pitthoo chair, she tottered forward.

I asked her, “How old is he? Does he have some chronic illness?”

“No!” she waved me away. “Nothing. He is sixty-two.”

My eyebrows touched the roof.

What was the need for a sixty-two year old to ascend to 12000 feet ? Did he think it was a joywalk in Mughal gardens? Couldn’t they remain happy at some luxury Mussoorie hotel sipping green tea and eating pakodas or holiday at some Goan beach-resort with a gaggle of grandchildren? What was the senseless need to go traipsing up to 12000 feet riding piggyback on another man over a track of demented stones, all to see some silly flowers hiding in the mist?

Sixty-two!!!! Hey Bhagwan!!!

I grasped the group member by his shoulder.

“Listen,” I told him. “Get him down on a pitthoo before something terrible happens. Heed me, for God’s sake. I’m a doc. Don’t listen to your ORS drunk Guide.”

Saying that I moved away.

Advice given readily and free of cost has zero value. This is something I’ve learnt over the years and rarely do I distribute advice freely. But the man had looked ill and because three episodes of syncope (fainting spell) at an altitude of 12000 feet without acclimatisation in an elderly man should never ever be taken lightly, I had been forced to intervene. Now I had done my bit and it was now up to the group to act as they deemed fit.

I moved away. Better things were waiting.

The flowers were calling………………..




(To be continued)

PS: Later Dinesh informed me that they had evacuated the gentleman down to Ghanghria by pitthoo.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Valley of Flowers: A Travelogue Part IV



 I
The Flowers are Calling

Dilli aur kitna duur?” I enquired of Dinesh. He was standing a few feet ahead of me, one leg propped on a black rock, chewing a stalk of grass. At my question, he pointed up. “Abhi hai Madam. Upar jana hai.” No little white lies this time, only hard cold facts, all uphill.

Throughout those nearly eight hours, I was to enquire of him the distance to the Capital an infinite number of times and each time he would smile that special smile of his as he answered me, tailoring them to the prevailing situation, sometimes assuring, sometimes blunt with the bare tritb and sometimes with his trademark sweet, little white lies.

My insides groaned.

I followed his fingers to where they were pointing. Up, right above my head I could see the path zooming forward with people trying to keep up. But that was not all. Much above that path immediately over my head, I spied bits of pink, orange, red and blue as they peeked from between the intervening trees. More trekkers in brightly coloured windcheaters and raincoats, but what chilled me was they were much, much above me, maybe hundreds of feet, appearing like little specks of fluorescent light at that immense height.

Wahan? Baap re!!!”

I looked back at Dinesh for succour. I got none. There was for me only his smile of affirmation.

Hell! Hell! Hell!

But of course, there was no turning back for the flowers were calling and I had a rendezvous to keep. I took a swig of water, gritted my teeth, pulled the backpack tighter and continued the painful plod uphill.

As I climbed, my heart beating like a mad bull and my breath blowing like a steam engine, something flashed across my mind, something from a long, long time back, read as a child: a saying from a Russian folk tale.

“How do you make a long road short?”

I knew the answer to that.

“By song!”

But of course. 

I fumbled in my pocket and retrieved my earphones. Thankfully, some songs downloaded in the past were still available on YouTube, even without an internet connection. I turned the volume on full blast. Runa Laila’s soulful voice flowed in warm swathes over me “Ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa ……”

And so I continued the relentless ascent, slowly and arduously; the long road kind of shortened by the heartbreakingly beautiful ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’, Tagore’s soulful ‘Mone Robe Kina Robe Aamare’, and the lively ‘Mere Rashke Qamar’ played in turn, again and again and again (for I had only these three stored in my phone) till the cell battery succumbed, to exhaustion or heartbreak or perhaps to just boredom.

II
That Demented Track

Waking up at the crack of dawn, packing and repacking backpacks, checking raingear and water supplies, slathering on sunscreens and day creams and what nots all happened in a whirl of suppressed excitement that morning. Dinesh was there dot at six to pick us up. We moved with him from our guest house to Ghanghria proper, a distance of one km. It was a gentle climb but as I climbed, I realised that even walking 10 feet was making me breathless. I knew it was the altitude and the early morning nip in the air did not help.

Dinesh asked, “Madam, gloves chahiye?”

Knowing that the moment we walked a bit more we’d start feeling warm, I refused. But I was a little apprehensive about the altitude and made a mention of it to the other three, but they paid me scant attention. ‘Ignorance is really bliss,’ I snickered in my mind, testy at being ignored. Though sore, I didn’t pursue the matter for I had full faith in my trusted little Diamox ki goli which I had stuffed up the girls’ throats last evening and today morning.

We slowly walked up a track that snaked between colossal deodar trees, to the tiny hamlet of Ghanghria. Ghanghria is a nightmare of mules, their brusque owners, ramshackle shops and hundreds of trekkers and pilgrims all jostling one another in a giant cauldron of steaming mule droppings. It was horrible, but it was where we were to have breakfast. The stench notwithstanding, some hot tea, bread-butter and poha soothed us to some extent, and immediately after Dinesh gathered us all up and quickly herded out of that stifling cauldron, out into the open. Here the track crossed the handsome Lakshman-Ganga over a strong iron bridge and then bifurcated, the one on the right shooting straight up to Hemkund Sahib and the one on the left meandering around lost for a few hundred metres till it arrived at the Forest Check post which was also the entry to the Valley of Flowers.

          One was supposed to buy tickets at the entry point and enter names into the guard’s register. As Dinesh helpfully took care of all these tiresome formalities, we spent the time looking around. There were two large posters of flowers strung across the walls of the guard post and I snapped a picture of them, thinking they would help me identify the flowers I hoped to see in the Valley.





From here the path spread gently upslope. It was not raining but the sky was over-cast and I could see clumps of clouds sitting atop the dark hills that ringed the valley. The trail was narrow but had railings at certain portions and I found the slope very congenial. The flowers had already begun to show themselves, lining the path and my happiness was complete. I began snapping picture after picture and soon the girls had left me straggling, far behind. But I was not in the least bothered because Dinesh was there right behind me, bringing up the rear. He pointed out flowers to me, just like he had done on the road from Pulna to Ghanghria:

“You remember the Anemone we saw? See Madam, this one’s a Sunnymone!”




“That bright maroon flower? It’s a Potentila.”


“These are dog flowers, these pink ones.”


I was clicking as fast as possible.

But the trail was crowded, people jostled against one another and often I was pushed as I tried to take pictures. I found myself wishing it was a little less crowded. At one point, we came across a huge human traffic jam. Impatiently I peeked ahead but could not quite make out what had caused the roadblock. Alas, little did I know that the start to all my woes was just two feet away. Slowly, as the jam cleared, and I moved up, I saw with a shock what lay ahead and was responsible for the sudden slowing of the trekker-train. The trail now sloped, sharply downwards at nearly ninety degrees and instead of the expected smooth flat paving, it was composed of stones of all shapes and sizes that had been placed at weird angles, their sharp uneven edges pointing skywards.

I turned askance at Dinesh, “Where do I put my foot?”    
                      
In answer, Dinesh flitted across those jagged stones as if he was a ballerina on Kajaria tiles, leaving me feeling like a fool. But of course, that was just him giving me a demo of how to negotiate those stones for he immediately climbed back and put out a hand helpfully. But, as I later remarked to CC, my ego is bigger than my as# and of course I wouldn’t take his hand unless as the last resort. So after careful estimation of the angles of the paving stones, their coefficient of friction, their surface area to the tenth decimal point and other such applicable trigonometry and geometry and laws of physics, I gingerly placed one foot on a stone surface. I expected to immediately slip, lose my footing and plunge headlong into the Lakshaman-Ganga, but surprisingly, my foot held. Kind of relieved and again after another set of detailed calculations, I placed my second foot on another stone. Dinesh, I think must have taken a short nap in the interval between these two footsteps of mine. This entire routine of calculation and estimation and foot placement, all undertaken in Bollywood slow motion was to continue throughout the entire trek and only someone with Dinesh’s infinite patience could have borne my scaredy-catness with such good-humoured patience. 

The entire track in the Valley of Flowers, right from this point on, was made exactly in this same manner. It was if the mason/road builder had sculpted an unintelligible abstract stones sculpture, instead of a track. It was crazy how the stones were laid, all higgledy-piggledy: some with tips like the point of a spear, some at obtuse angles, some at right angles, some at acute angles and some with such treacherous gaps between them that I was certain to suffer a tri-malleolar fracture if my ankle got caught within their confines. And all this madness was at a sharp, nearly ninety-degree gradient. Because the route to the Valley was uphill, this crazy track was still do-able as I had no problems clambering up. But all the while as I negotiated that demented track, I shuddered to think what I would be facing on the way down. I have since that day taken a decided umbrage to stones irrespective of shape, size and composition and am also eagerly waiting the day I am able to get my hands on the chap who laid that track. I have for him the choicest tortures described in Hell, boiling oil and red-hot spears being only some of them.


I'll end this edition with a note of gratitude. Throughout this extremely uncomfortable and not-so-easy hike, three things stood by me steadfast: my hiking stick, my Quechua high ankle boots and of course my three songs (the ones I have mentioned previously). I grew to depend so much upon that little stick that later, walking on flat land without it, I found myself feeling empty, as if something vital was missing from my outfit. And as for my boots, they were without question, worth every naya paisa of that whopping five grand that I had paid for them. One thing that I am petrified of is slipping and these boots never let me down in this regard even once through those eight long hours. Additionally, they were completely waterproof and kept my feet warm and dry through all that rain and walking through streams. I was also glad that I had bought the ones with ankle support for they kept  my brittle bones and lax ligaments safe right through the trek up and down those deadly stones, licensed to fracture………..





To be continued...

Alu and the Crown God

I had rolled barely a hundred metres down the road when I spotted her gambolling in the adjoining park. "Heyy Alu," I called ou...