Gripping the steering wheel with one hand, our driver blasted his horn at the bus heading straight for us on the narrow, winding road. While I held my breath, the other bus swerved to the inside, passing so close I could admire the nose ring on an Indian woman staring out the window. Focusing on her jewelry kept me from worrying whether our bus still had all four tires on a road that dropped off steeply to the Ganges River below.
Trekking in India with the whole family struck many of our friends as a bad idea. Should you really take your children and grandchildren on such an adventure, they asked? During that harrowing bus ride I sometimes wished I’d listened to them.
Spending a night in Rishikesh allowed the 1960s generation to show the teenagers where the Beatles wrote many of their songs and where they introduced the world to transcendental meditation. The atmosphere in Rishikesh seemed to have changed since then.
The next stop was Govindghat, where we left our bus to join Sikh pilgrims on an eight-mile hike to Ghangaria. The village comes alive only four months a year when the snow has melted enough to clear the trail. Porters and mules carried our luggage so we could direct our energy to the more than 3,000-foot elevation gain.
Arriving at our modest hotel, we had to be patient while a bucket of water was heated over an open fire and brought to our room. There was no shower, only a drain in the bathroom floor. Our heads and took turns drying off with the one towel provided. With no Internet or television, we struggled with electronic withdrawal.
While the rest of India suffered under sweltering heat and monsoons, the air in the mountains was cool, and soft rain watered the flowers while we slept.
Up early the next morning we headed toward “the place where the gods showered flowers on the earth.” That’s what the locals called it until British mountaineer “Frank Smythe” renamed it The Valley of Flowers.
Gone were the incessant honking horns on the road to Govindghat and the clatter of mules that carried our luggage up the rocky path to Ghangaria. Gone were even the sacred cows, barred from this World Heritage Site so they wouldn’t munch on the wildflowers.
At nearly 11,500 feet, what the guidebooks called a simple four-mile trek was taking all my energy. Watching waterfalls tumble down green velvet hillsides encouraged me to keep putting one foot ahead of the other.
Finally, only one rickety bridge kept me from my goal. I surveyed the metal-covered boards balanced precariously on piles of rock. With no guardrail to steady myself, I stared straight ahead and tried to ignore the tumbling river just below.
Safely over the bridge, I saw that my struggles had been rewarded. Purple, pink, gold and blue wildflowers filled the valley, often growing shoulder high on both sides of the trail. Some of the hundreds of species we recognized, like roses, poppies, orchids, marigolds, daisies and anemones; many others we couldn’t name. Flocks of yellow butterflies dipped and fluttered among the blossoms.
The stragglers met up with the leaders on a flat rock in the meadow. There we rested, sipping from our water bottles and savoring this valley favored by the gods. The children were already engaged in a fast handclapping game, which they could play endlessly. The rest of us watched for the clouds to part so we could glimpse the 20,000-foot peaks on the border with Tibet.
Reluctantly we headed back to the village ahead of threatening rain clouds. Strolling through Ghangaria, we observed a way of life we could never have seen at home. There were few real houses, with tradesmen sleeping in the back of the shops and restaurants that lined the narrow stone streets. During the rest of the year they live in Nepal or at lower altitudes in India. Yet in this seasonal village we found all the services we needed.
Hemkund Sahib, our goal the third day, was less than four miles away, but even more of a challenge. We would be climbing the steep, rocky trail that zigzagged back and forth to over 13,600 feet. Some were feeling the altitude and chose to ride a mule. Although porters carried most Sikh children and even some adults.
At the top we covered our heads before passing through the stone archway into the holy site. The mountains, sadly, did the same, allowing only occasional glimpses of the seven peaks surrounding the lake. We removed our shoes and joined the pilgrims as they worshipped in the silver-roofed temple. A few in our group were brave enough to take the ritual plunge three times into icy Lake Lokpal, men on one side, women on the other.
The Sikhs were making a religious journey to where their guru, Gobind Singh, is believed to have meditated. For us it was a different kind of journey. Meeting the physical challenge of trekking in the Himalayas, even with the help of mules and porters, gave us a feeling of accomplishment. The slow pace of travel allowed us to sense why these mountains and rivers have been revered for centuries. If we faltered, there was always someone ahead on the trail to provide inspiration or someone behind who needed encouragement. Young or old, we relied on each other in ways we never would have at home. Together we made it up the mountain and back down again.