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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Weekend vacations: When the unknown inspires

Just another 700m," an unfamiliar, elderly voice encouraged me as I trudged up the last leg of the hike. Poor visibility and low temperature were constant adversaries—ones that I was determined to overcome. Even though my weary muscles were slowing me down, every step brought a smile to my face.

The sweet fatigue of a trek is something that only outdoor enthusiasts can appreciate. A similar satisfaction pervaded our group, which comprised, apart from me, a 16-year-old with his parents, two friends who had managed to tear themselves away from office, and our guide. It was the third day of my Valley of Flowers and Hemkunt Sahib trek in Uttarakhand’s mountains.

This trail is open from June to early October, if weather permits. After the 2013 floods in the state, it was expected that the number of visitors to this area would come down, but the number of pilgrims and trekkers keeps swelling each year. While Hemkunt Sahib is a pilgrimage destination for Sikhs, others focus on the open landscapes of Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers, a World Heritage Site.

The valley, part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, is spread over 87.5 sq. km. Home to a number of rare species like the Asiatic black bear, brown bear, snow leopard and blue sheep, it is a mecca for nature lovers. The entire trek takes no longer than three days but you need another three for the travel. Since there are two long weekends in the coming weeks, this is possible if one plans ahead and takes a couple of days off.

As I stopped to catch my breath frequently, it was the determined pilgrims who motivated me with their words and fortitude.

It was a mixed group—from infants clinging to their mothers to adult males and senior citizens. Spurred by devotional fervour, they trudged up to the Hemkunt Sahib gurdwara.

What’s good about this trek is that anyone who is reasonably fit can attempt it. The trail is well-paved, with timely refreshment stops and sheds with benches to rest.

At 3,050m, Ghangaria serves as the base, with its many guest houses, dharmashalas (religious rest houses) and convenience stores. We got into snug beds and ate hot local food, which included aloo tamatar ka jhol (potato and tomato curry) with rice,​at our luxury campsite. Our spirits were high: After all, the next two stretches would be much shorter.

Two trails radiate from Ghangaria— the Valley of Flowers, at 3,600m, is 6km to the north, and the Hemkunt Sahib gurdwara and Hemkunt Sarovar lake, at 4,329m, are 7km to the east. Both are recommended, on separate days.

The next day, after a good night’s rest, we decided to head first to the Valley of Flowers. A stony path, flanked by countless small waterfalls that join to make the Pushpawati river, led to a thick, shaded forest trail and wide open spaces among the flowers, snow-white peaks visible in the distance. The 4 hours rushed by quickly; we reached by noon. No camping is allowed in the valley and trekkers usually begin walking back after lunch at a leisurely pace. At 3pm, it was time for us too to head back to Ghangaria.

By the third day, Ghangaria felt like home. It was now time to scale Hemkunt Sahib. The Valley of Flowers, largely flat, had been a mosaic of scenery. Hemkunt Sahib’s cobbled turns, however, were steep and remained unchanged until the gurdwara. Heavily marked by pony dung and shrouded in a milky mist, the zigzag trail could not trump the views of the valley. My disappointment must have shown on my face—all those returning from the gurdwara tried to pump me up. Perhaps it was because of them that I actually completed the 7km hike on that cold day.

At the end of the trek, I wasn’t sure which had a more enduring impression on me—the beautiful scapes of the valley or the smiles and words of encouragement from strangers.

Every fortnight, Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros.

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Updated: 06 Oct 2015, 02:34 AM IST
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