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The Valley of Flowers

Govindghat is a town about an hour from Badrinath and the departure point for Sikhs pilgrims heading to Hemkund, a high altitude lake (4200m) in the Himalayas. The arduous 19 km climb to Hemkund takes two days with an overnight stop in the small seasonal village established by villagers from Ghangaria who spend the winter at lower altitude but run restaurants and hotels for pilgrims closer to their sacred site.

Thousands of Sikhs were in Govindghat, some arriving exhausted from Hemkund, others happily preparing for the climb. We were among the handful of visitors who were not actually heading to Hemkund. We were actually on our way to the Valley of Flowers, an Indian National Park. The park had a short but inspiring write up in our guidebook and we had been attracted by its secluded location: a 16 hour bus ride from Haridwar and 2 day climb. Most of the Sikh pilgrims we crossed assumed we were heading to Hemkund and admittedly we had been surprised by the thousands of pilgrims who (thankfully) were heading somewhere else. The presence of so many people on the trail created a significant amount of litter, noise and horse excrement but in exchange financed the seasonal hotels and restaurants and the creation of the trail itself. The presence of so many people also attracted Nepalese porters, who spent their summer hiking up and down the mountain. I was grateful for the porter that we hired and found the walk up the steep muddy trail difficult even without my pack. I didn't feel as bad about hiring someone to carry my bag when I saw the first, of many, large men being carried up the hill by a teams of porters. We walked fairly quickly but didn't reach our first night's rest stop until nightfall. Mainly because every time we passed someone on the trail they would stop us to take photos. We had never turned anyone down for a photo before that day, but after 6 or 7 hours, with our legs cramping (maybe just mine) we couldn't bring ourselves to stop anymore. The seasonal camp where we slept is a collection of guesthouses and restaurants, including a large Sikh gurdwara, a temple which acts somewhat like a community centre, serving as a place for prayer and the housing and feeding of pilgrims. Gurdwaras are open to people of all denominations but we found a lovely guesthouse overlooking the village's only trail. The atmosphere was festive as exhausted pilgrims made their way into town either from the starting point at Govindghat or from the descent from Hemkund. All the towns' supplies are carried up to the village on foot or by donkey so prices were expensive. Apparently pilgrims were not expected to have to make too many sacrifices in terms of comfort or food. There was much more than expected: hot showers, comfortable beds and menus with as many options as anywhere else in the country including a large selection of Punjabi dishes. The noise and excitement subsided fairly early, with the generators being shut off and people preparing for their next day's trek. We were happy for the quiet as we had been a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that had descended onto the otherwise peaceful valley. The temporary town was built right at the fork in the road veering one way to Hemkund and the other to the Valley of Flowers. When we set out from the guesthouse in the morning we were the only two heading down the trail to the valley. According to the park rangers (Ghangaria villagers) who registered us at the entrance, we were the second group to enter the park that day. The valley, although known to locals who used it for grazing livestock in the summer months, is said to have been "discovered" by a British mountaineer who stumbled upon in while lost on the return from a successful summit of a nearby peak. He named it the "Valley of Flowers" after the meadows of alpine flowers that blossom there. For its botanical importance and simply for its natural beauty it has been named is a UNESCO Heritage Site. From the entrance to the national park there is still a 4km climb to actually reach the valley. It took us for ever to actually get there because I was slightly preemptive in my wildflower spotting. I stopped to photograph every single flower on the trail with Yann urging me frustratingly to move on. When we arrived to the actually valley of flowers I regretted every second I had wasted somewhere else. It's hard to express the sense of awe that we felt while wandering alone through the valley. It felt so far from the garbage-strewn tourist mayhem just a few kilometers away. We found it difficult to leave, but had to make it to the gate before sunset (park closing time). We decided to skip the trek to Hemkund the next day and return to the park for another day of peace.

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