I can safely say that our hotel in Ghangharia was one of the worst in which I have ever stayed. The rooms were draughty, dirty and damp, there was no hot water and the cheerful Nepali kitchen staff had a very limited grasp of health and safety. This is one of the downsides of being a Guinea pig for a tour party: we stayed in two excellent hotels and three perfectly adequate ones but, occasionally, we have to suffer so that next year’s paying guests don’t have to. The tented camp, just outside the village, looks like a much better bet for next year.
On the plus side, the low cloud disappeared overnight and we awoke to blue skies with just a few puffy cumulus clouds and gulped lungfuls of cool mountain air in order to banish the fetid atmosphere of the hotel. The track out of Ghangharia was quiet: the Sikh pilgrims have to walk further and climb higher than those of us heading to the Valley of Flowers, so had made earlier starts. We paid our 600 rupee entrance fees at a hut beside the path just after our route diverged from the path that the Sikhs took, and followed the track through a fir forest overhung by enormous vertical cliffs of much-folded ancient rocks.
The Valley of Flowers is a hanging valley – a glacial valley which ends in an abrupt drop as it joins with the valleys below. This meant another stiff climb along a path that zig-zagged up a hillside and across the site of recent landslides. We were now walking at about 3500 metres, and I was reminded of the limitations of my acclimatisation programme with every step. But we had reached the tree line and the valley had broadened out to give us our first views of the valley that Smythe had first seen in 1931. From where we stood at the western end, the valley extended for about five km due west before reaching the foot of the Tipra glacier. Behind these, peaks (several climbed for the first time by Smythe and his associates) rose to 6600 metres although, during our visit, most were hidden by clouds. On either side of the valley there were lateral moraines deposited by the glacier in colder times whilst the Pushpawti river, carrying the glacier’s meltwater, has gouged out a V-shaped notch along the mid-line of the valley.
Looking west up the Valley of Flowers towards Tipra glacier with stands of balsam in the foreground. The photograph at the top of the post shows our first view of the Valley on arrival from Ghanghria.
There was a profusion of flowers but, to our mutual surprise, the most abundant by far, especially close to the mouth of the valley, was Himalayan balsam, scourge of British river banks (see “The politics of pests”). After a while, however, we started seeing more diversity, especially in areas where the balsam was less prevalent and as we pushed further into the valley. Everyone has to leave the valley by nightfall, which limits the distance that visitors can penetrate to a couple of kilometres, so there were many areas that Smythe described but which we could not visit. Nonetheless, Heather, the real botanist in the family, photographed about 100 different species (her own accounts will follow) at a time of year when important groups such as Primula and the orchids are long past their best.
The prevalence of balsam was intriguing. This is its native habitat, and we don’t have enough knowledge of the plant communities in this part of the world to know how typical these extensive stands of balsam are at these altitudes. Smythe reported its presence but also commented that it was ruining pastures in the area. However, he only made a couple of visits so his opinion, too, may not be definitive. We did learn from a park ranger that the cover of balsam had increased in recent years. When the valley was declared as a World Heritage Site grazing was banned and though this was at a very low level (a single family), we did wonder whether this had a role in maintaining habitat. On the other hand, the balsam here is much more varied than the monocultures of Impatiens glandulifera that we are used to seeing in the UK, where it was introduced and perhaps we are approaching it with minds pre-conditioned by negative attitudes at home? I. glandulifera is found in the valley, but I. sulcata, the Giant Himalayan balsam, is more common here. There is no doubt that the splashes of pink-purple flowers across the floor of the valley were a dramatic fulfilment of many peoples’ expectations as they first entered the valley.
Valley of Flowers, looking west at about 1.5 km from the foot of Tilpri glacier. The plants in the foreground are (probably) Campanula latifolia (bellflower) and Selinum wallichianum (milk parsley), one of several umbellifers that are found in the valley.
By now, the sun was sinking and we needed to start retracing our steps back down to Ghanghria. Our personal odyssey was over; we had seen the Valley of Flowers. For Heather, at least, it is probably “au revoir” rather than “goodbye” as there is a strong chance that she will bring a tour party back here next year or the year after. For me, who knows?
And, yes, I did collect some diatoms from a stream whilst I was in the Valley of Flowers. I’ll write more about those at some point. Somehow, too, I must have communicated my interest in the diversity of the microbial world to the kitchen staff of our hotel, as they kindly sent me back down the track to civilisation with a payload of grumbly enteric bacteria. But you don’t want me to write too much about that …
The Valley of Flowers, showing abundant stands of Persicaria polystachya, a very common plant along river banks (i.e. in the habitat where we would expect to find Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, in the UK).