Getting to the Valley of Flowers National Park is a 14km trek on a steep stone pathway littered with mule shit, your back breaking under the weight of your rucksack—but it’s worth it. Hidden among rocky mountain faces, there’s a profusion of flowers as far as the eye can see.
Lying in the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand, the valley starts at an altitude of 3,200m and rises gently to 6,675m. With more than 500 types of flowers, the Pushpawati river meandering through it and the Tipra glacier in the distance, it’s an oasis of grassy meadows in otherwise rugged mountainous terrain.
Once we reach Govindghat, a small town in Chamoli district 295km from Dehradun, we have to abandon our bus. Govindghat is where the motorable road ends and the trek starts.
A group of nine friends, we decide to walk the 14km up to Ghangria, a small village which acts as a base camp for the valley. Nourished by Maggi noodles and nimbu-pani (lemonade), we trek up the cannabis-lined path, waving to mountain children with rosy cheeks and runny noses. While the valley is open to tourists from April to October, not everyone will enjoy visiting during the monsoon. The flowers are in full bloom, but the rain will slow you down, make you wait before landslides and drench you to the bone, no matter how good your raincoat or windcheater. But the mist makes it all worthwhile. Once you’ve given up trying to fight the rain, the romance of the crisp mountain air, cotton candy clouds and gurgling stream take over.
The valley was discovered in 1931 by a team of British mountaineers led by Frank Smythe. But the better known, rather more loved explorer was a British botanist, Margaret Legge. The story goes that in 1939, while collecting specimens in the valley, Legge slipped and died. Her sister returned a year later and put up a tombstone in her memory. The Valley of Flowers National Park is now recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site for its exotic and endangered flora and fauna.
In bloom: (clockwise from top) The Himalayan mayapple is being tested for its potential as a cure for cancer; blue hackelia (photographs by KR Keshava Murthy); white anemones fill the grassy slopes; and pilgrims and trekkers (Photographs by Komal Sharma/Mint).
Chandrashekhar Chauhan, 34, a guide at Ghangria who has made a short documentary on the valley, puts it well, “If you mark a 1x1m of land in the valley, the variety of plants and flowers in just that area will fascinate you.” Chauhan’s film was screened at the forest department office in Ghangria recently.
If you’re a flower lover, Floral Gallery of Himalayan Valley of Flowers and Adjacent Areas by K.R. Keshava Murthy, released in March, is a handy book to carry. A pictorial flower guide, it gives both the Latin and local names of flowers, their medicinal properties, and other trivia. A plant taxonomist from Bangalore, Murthy worked in the valley between 2006 and 2010 .
“The only book available on the valley (before this) was (Adam) Stainton and (Oleg) Polunin’s Flowers of Himalayas. The book is a masterpiece for a plant taxonomist, but too complicated for the common man. That’s why I decided to provide a book for flower lovers,” says Murthy.
Bisht (he insisted we call him by his last name), a friendly forest officer, is our guide. As we enter the valley, he points out the birch trees. Windblown along the valley’s slope, these are the bhojpatras, on whose bark the Vedas were written. We peel some of the white, paper-thin bark as mementos. But it is the tiny white flowers, the anemones, that move us. A whole meadow full of swaying, friendly flowers, and no cellphones network to distract us—this is close to our idea of heaven.
But not all the plants are friendly. When a friend slips and falls, I instantly reach for a leaf to wipe off the mud, and with my luck, pluck a stinging nettle. For the rest of the trip, my fingertips are on fire.
We spot the endangered blue poppy, or neela posta, growing wild. Its narcotic effects are better known, but it is used as a painkiller in Tibetan medicine. The Sacred Lotus, or Brahma Kamal, stands true to its reputation of being elusive—we don’t see the rare plant on this visit. Bisht casually points to the distant Tipra glacier and says we’d have to walk a few kilometres (6-7km) for a glimpse of it. An orchid called Ladies Slipper, for it actually looks like one, grows in scattered patches, and Bisht tells us that it is poached and fetches quite a price. Orchids and the local musk deer aren’t the only species being poached. An insect-shaped fungus, Cordyceps sinensis, locally known as keedajadi or the caterpillar fungus, which is allegedly used to manufacture steroids, fetches Rs 3 lakh a kilo.
However, the most interesting plant we spot is the unassuming, Himalayan mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum), which contains a chemical called podophyllin that interferes with cell division and can thus possibly prevent the spread of cancer. The plant is under clinical testing.
After this educative tour, we open our packed lunch of parathas and pickle, and have a picnic by Legge’s memorial stone. Walking back along the remains of a snow avalanche, a rock face standing high and mighty, and delicate flowers peeping from rock crevices, we feel inconsequential in front of Mother Nature. Surrounded by the valley and its flowers, we don’t mind.