From Rishiketh, we followed the Hindu and Sikh pilgrims as they made their way up the Ganges to the many sacred sites amidst the headwaters. The road followed a narrow, twisting route high above the river, and Mohan, our driver, was often slowing to a crawl as we passed places where the debris from recent landslides littered the road. Each turn opened up new views of tree-clad hills, with hamlets clinging to steep slopes and narrow terraces following the contours for rice cultivation. We passed orange-clad sadhus (Hindu holy men) who were walking the whole distance to Badrinath (some 300 km from Rishiketh) and were, in turn, overtaken by less patient pilgrims in cars sporting orange flags and honking horns. Macaque and, occasionally, langur monkeys, stared curiously at this procession through their valley whilst cows wandered to and fro across the highway in search of grazing.
Rice fields clinging to a hillside near Joshinath in the upper Alaknanda Valley, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016. The upper picture shows sunset over the Alaknanda just below Srinagar.
This is a pilgrimage, of sorts, for Heather and myself too. Thirty years ago, I gave her a copy of Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers as an engagement present and our destination on this long, slow journey into the high Himalayas is the valley that Smythe first described back in 1937, and which is now a World Heritage Site, famed amongst botanists for its rich alpine flora (over 500 species of flowering plants). Our slow progress up the valley was partly dictated by the terrain, but also by my need to acclimatise to the high altitude. Smythe first stumbled into the valley by chance whilst on a climbing expedition and, when the clouds shift, we get glimpses of high peaks in the far distance.
At Deoprayag, 68 km from Rishiketh, the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers join to form the Ganges. There is a mass of brightly-coloured houses, each almost on top of the one below and, at the bottom, ghats, emphasising the importance of the confluence to Hindus. Our route is along the Alaknanda, so we drop down to the bridge across the Bhagirathi, passed chai stalls and wayside eateries, and followed the road towards Badrinath, another important Hindu shrine, and Govind Ghat, the start point for the Sikh pilgrims’ trek as well as for the Valley of Flowers. A little further on, we stopped at a busy little café with a row of pots bubbling away at the front for our lunch and ate vegetable thali with hot roti straight from the stove.
Deoprayag, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016, where the light brown Bhagirathi (on the left of the picture) and the darker brown Alaknanda (on the right) join to form the River Ganges.
Lunch stop at Biyasi, between Rishiketh and Srinagar, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016.
The complicated interplay between the sacred and secular continued as we moved up the Aleknanda valley. The enormous power of the Ganges and her tributaries, fed by the monsoon rains and glacial meltwater, is a resource that a country with few other energy sources, a population of over a billion and huge ambitions cannot be wasted. The first of several hydropower projects that we saw was at Srinagar, about 80 km above the confluence. When the dam was closed in 2013, a temple to the goddess Hari Devi had to be relocated. Within weeks, the devastating floods occurred in the valley, with over 15,000 fatalities. Now, the government is paying for the temple to be rebuilt in exactly the same location, on a platform resembling a small oil rig accessed via a bell-lined gantry.
The Hari Devi temple just upstream of Srinagar, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016.
We needed two overnight stops to cover the distance from Rishiketh to Govind Ghat, where we left the road set off on foot with cheerful groups of Sikh pilgrims along a footpath that wound along a forested valley of a tributary of the Alaknanda deeper into the hills. The vegetation changed as we climbed: pines, hazel and chestnut were amongst the trees that we recognised from home during the early stages of our trek. These had replaced a mass of less-familiar trees – “jungle”, in the truest sense – on the lower slopes. As the valley narrowed and the path grew steeper, the broadleaf trees became less common and first deodar cedars, later spruce and fir, appeared amongst the pines.
The early morning drizzle petered out as we climbed; rain ponchos were stowed and we walked on in tee-shirts and shorts, stepping aside periodically as columns of pack ponies pushed past us laden with supplies for the villages above us. We paused at a chai stall, catching our breath as we looked back down the valley and at the churning river far below. Then, we turned our eyes back to the path and continued upwards, pausing again to talk with a group of Sikh women from Leicester who were making the pilgrimage. By this stage I welcomed every opportunity to stop to catch my breath; I suspect that an extra day of acclimatisation would probably have been beneficial.
Lunch was fresh potato paratha, eaten with hot lime pickle and more chai, in a shack on a hillside, exchanging pleasantries with the stately patriarch of the Leicester clan before pushing on for the last kilometre or so, through a stand of fir trees and into the scruffy village of Ghangharia. This is where the pilgrims – whether of Govind Singh or Smythe – spend their last night before the culmination of their journey.
“Pharmoethnobotany” near Bhyundar, Uttrakhand Province, during our trek to the Valley of Flowers, August 2016.