The sun is bright as I step out of the hotel. The narrow lanes of Ghangaria village are sludgy with mud and horse manure. It had rained. I take few steps towards the Valley of Flowers and the sun begins to disappear behind thick black clouds. The mist starts flowing down from mountain top. The peaks disappear; waterfalls hide behind the white fog; it engulfs the village. I am walking in the clouds.
The entrance of the Valley of Flowers is at Ghangaria. I pass through a four-foot revolving door made of thin iron frame. On the left is forest office that collects entry fee of Rs 150 from Indians and from foreigners, Rs 600. The office is a make-shift structure; the four walls and the roof are made with tin sheets welded and nailed together. Most of the things in and around the valley are temporary as the snow consumes everything it can. Flowers wither, trees go dormant, and people move to lower altitude from October to April, when eight-foot thick snow blanket covers the region.
The snow kept this park undiscovered until 1931, when three British mountaineers, Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton and RL Holdsworth, lost their way while returning from an expedition and landed in the valley that was full of flowers. Frank Smythe, who was attracted to the beauty of the place, returned and wrote a book calling this as Valley of Flowers.
There’s a small man in khaki uniform with a military jacket and a blue woolen skull cap inside the office. His face is wrinkled prominently; makes it difficult to ascertain his age. I am the first one to arrive. There is still time for the national park to open. The official calls me inside the office when I ask him the best time to visit the place.
Visitors can always see flowers here, after the ice melts and before the snow falls, but each has a different life-span. The bright-red Rhododendron flower blooms as early as February and withers by June. A species of fleece flower (Persicaria affinis) and Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata) are seen only in August-September. Most flowers effloresce between July 15 and August 15, making this the best period. There are about 498 species of flowering plants here that bears lilies, orchids, poppies, geraniums, roses, primulas, marigold, daisies and anemones. The valley changes its color every 15 days based on the blooming species of flowers.
While we talk, he raises a finger to point in the opposite direction. There is a brown-color creature, dark-eyed with long white whiskers. Slightly smaller than rabbit, it is fluffy with small limbs. Sitting on a big moss-covered rock, it looks in our direction intently.
‘No. Tailless mouse’
As I start for the park, the official suggests: ‘Go with an open mind, not expecting too much. Lot of visitors return disappointed.’
From the entrance, the valley is a 3-km trek. I expect tall trees, competing for sunlight, sprawled on either side of the narrow path carved on mountain slope. Instead, there are fresh wild plants, trees not over 15 feet, lianas, vines and creepers.
At every step there is a play of light. The sun rays that come through the trees, illuminate, brighten and make the flora more vivid. It makes the forest lively. None of the flowers are without insects, or flies, or bees. The water on leaves looks like mercury drops when they reflect the sunlight. At times they appear like diamonds adorned to beautify the arrangement. I start to lose myself observing these. Only when another visitor passes, I realize that the destination is still ahead. As I walk enthralled, I start to envy botanists.
Two youth stop to observe my activity. I am photographing at a Cobra Lily, probably the first carnivorous plant I have ever seen. The leaves of the plant curve to form a hood similar to that of a rearing cobra.
‘Do you study plants?’
‘Are you professional photographer?’
They look disappointed.
I ask: ‘first time to this place?’
One of them has visited the place before. I am excited to hear about the valley. ‘It doesn’t live up to the hype. The flowers are small and scattered all over. I had expected much bigger flowers and symmetrically arranged ‘ I remembered the forest official’s advice.
I reach the valley with an open mind and feel overwhelmed. The extra vibrant flowers, the snow-clad peaks, the sparkling brooks and the gushing streams dumbfound me. No wonder locals believe that fairies inhabit the park. For the divine creatures to reside, this looks like a perfect place. Another tale calls it flower garden of God Indra, the lord of heaven.
The place makes you forget about everything. People roam around carefree with smiles on their faces exchanging greetings with strangers – not a regular occurrence in India. To see the entire park, a visitor needs to walk 7-km one way after the 3-km trek. No one looks exhausted on their way back. They return in the same pace still inspecting the area and hoping they have not missed anything. I do the same. I walk without break or rest with curious eyes.
I cannot not believe that there were no plants or flowers at this place three months back. Plants can go dormant but what happens to insects and butterflies? Do they also travel to the lower altitude like men? The trek that I did, too, receives heavy snowfall. Did the entire alpine forest grow in 3-4 months? Many other such questions fill me as I return. On reaching the entrance, the forest official waves at me.
‘How was it?’
‘I feel the entire region is result of some kind of miracle.’