Unfortunately for us, it rained all night at Ghangaria. The morning of our trek to Hemkund Sahib was cold and it drizzled heavily.  We were in two minds about whether to skip or continue with the trek when the boredom of being stuck in Ghangaria for the whole day made us go for it. So, after a quick breakfast, we got ready in our woollens and joined the steady file of Sikh pilgrims trudging up the mountains for Hemkund Sahib. Though the weather was grim, we were very happy to leave Ghangaria behind and the little village, which stood at the icy confluence of the Pushpavati and Bhuyandar Ganga rivers got shrouded in mists. At 10,003 feet, it was nothing but a shabby seasonal pitstop for trekkers and pilgrims and was home to people offering ponies and porter services. After leaving the hotel in Ghangaria, we refused both the porter and ponies and within minutes of our Hemkund Sahib trek got drenched to the bones.

The rainy morning of our Hemkund Sahib trek

The rainy morning of our Hemkund Sahib trek

The trek to Hemkund Sahib was a sharp contrast to the beautiful Govindghat to Ghangaria hike. While the other one was a lovely pleasurable experience done at a leisurely pace, we tried to get over with the Hemkund Sahib trek as soon as possible. Being wet in the cold weather was a bone-chilling feeling and to make matters worse, the trail was slippery and muddy. Incessant rain dropped the visibility and acute mountain sickness made us terribly lightheaded. There were several glaciers on the way and we stepped over them gingerly while plodding behind the stream of pilgrims.

Hemkund Sahib by the “Lake of Snow”

Hemkund literally means “Lake of Snow” and situated at 15,200 feet above sea level it was not difficult to understand why. A beautiful glacial lake surrounded by 7 snow-crested peaks, Hemkund Sahib has a gurudwara which is much revered by the Sikh community. Inaccessible from October-April, it reopens in May when Sikh pilgrims, following their religious concept of “kar seva” or volunteer work, repair the snow-damaged trail. Sikhism follows tenets mentioned in the holy book called Guru Granth Sahib which compiles the teachings of all their 10 gurus or teachers. A graceful monotheistic (believer in one God) faith, Sikhs traditionally fashion themselves as saint-soldiers. They are also hard-working fun-loving folks who are one of the friendliest and most tolerant people in India.

Hemkund means the “Lake of Snow”

Langar at the world’s highest gurudwara

Their gurudwaras are open to all and many travellers avail the free/dirt cheap accommodation and meal facilities (langars) provided by them. The meals served in gurudwaras are called langars and are prepared from stuff donated by volunteers. Cooked and served by the volunteers as well, everybody works in perfect coordination in a gurudwara. Gurudwara meals or langars are very popular in India as the food served is simple, delicious, and freshly cooked. Being a foodie, I love eating at langars and looked forward to having one at Hemkund Sahib, the world’s highest gurudwara.

Star-shaped Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara

The Gurudwara of Hemkund Sahib has a beautiful star-shaped building that stands by an icy lake. It is believed that the 10th Sikh Guru Govind Singh had meditated there for years. A small temple dedicated to Laxman, the younger brother of Lord Ram (Hindu mythological hero) who had also meditated there is located nearby. It is a beautiful location at a spectacular height and we trekked nearly halfway, pausing every now and then underneath wild rose forests to watch the spectacular Himalayan scenery unfold below. As we climbed higher, the panorama of the entire Bhuyandar Valley (the area consisting of Ghangaria and Valley of Flowers) peeped out from the misty veils and there were glaciers, alpine flowers, and rocky green meadows as far as eyes could see. Peaks rose and fell in snowy angles and flowers filled every inch of the trail. Blue poppies, primula, brahmakamal, and many other exotic blooms splashed the mountains with bright colours, and tailless rats and rosefinches flitted about in the relentless rain.

Flowers filled the meadows

Stepping over glaciers to reach Hemkund Sahib

Tea and snack shops lined the trail and a constant stream of ponies, porters, and palanquin bearers made walking hazardous. Our lungs nearly burst midway and over lunch of steaming cups of tea and Maggi (instant noodles), we considered hiring ponies for the rest of the uphill walk. We rested at the tea stall for some time, waited for the rain to stop, and watched the hard-working pilgrims trudge uphill bare feet. Hiring ponies in the middle of the trek was not easy and neither did the journey get any smoother for them. The ponies trotted up in the rain, bouncing over every stone step and the ride made us both very saddle sore. The trek got tougher as we neared Hemkund Sahib and the rain came down in torrential sleet, making the visibility drop to zero. Everything got cloaked in cotton wool white and we waited in the freezing rain for the visibility to clear.

Hemkund Sahib trek from Ghangaria has beautiful views

The communal kitchen gathering at the gurudwara

Hemkund Sahib was hidden in mists when we reached there and we quickly escaped to the huge communal kitchen for warmth. Big fat kettles steamed on roaring fire there and we grouped together with other visitors to escape from the rain. The kitchen served hot sweet tea to the waiting crowd and we relished it with bowls of wholesome porridge. It was very crowded inside and people, dogs, and even a few birds took shelter there from the freezing rain. The rain thankfully stopped soon enough and mists cleared making the stunning Hemkund Lake emerge like a dream.

Why do you choke the Himalayas with trash and plastic?

A lovely still cup-shaped lake, it placidly reflected the snowy peaks on its surface and we watched in amazement as devotees jumped in the freezing water to pray. We watched the spectacle and the beauty of the snowy lake, till it started raining again and we left quickly to avoid freezing again in our wet clothes. The return trek was nothing short of a mini-disaster as we had fights with people littering the beautiful Himalayas and the sight of plastic-trashed mountains killed the charm of the trek. We descended as fast as we could and by the time Ghangaria waterfalls came into sight, our legs had turned into jelly.

There was an abundance of flowers around Hemkund

Leaving Ghangaria for the foothills

We were drenched to our bones, saddle weary and exhausted to the point of numbness. Ghangaria village was, as usual, a rainy, muddy mess and we fought fiercely for extra buckets of hot water. The hot shower felt like heaven and tea in bed under blankets had never felt better. The masseuse appeared like a genie to soothe some ache away and we drifted off into a dreamless slumber. Funnily enough, the next morning was clear and the sun shone brightly on the peaks as we trekked our way down to Govindghat. It was our last day in the magical Himalayas and leaving it was harder than we had thought. Our old friend dropped us back at Joshimath, from where we boarded the shared taxi and returned to Rishikesh.

Back to reality

This time it was a silent ride back and throughout the entire journey, we kept our eyes peeled to the magnificent beauty of the Himalayas. Rishikesh arrived with orange kavariya madness, and noise and we hid in our rooms at Bhandari Swiss Cottage till it was time to go back to Delhi. The Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib, despite being such mega travel disappointments were simply unforgettable.

It rained all night

And the morning of our trek was cold and misty.

We started with

Our Hemkund Sahib Trek

Despite the rain.

It would have

Been a beautiful trek

Had it been

A bright and sunny day.

Different flowers

Of various

Shapes, colours

And sizes,

Filled the trail.

They were exotic and unique,

Rare like the Brahmakamal,

Along with beautiful

Common wildflowers.

Gorgeous panoramic views

Unfolded as we went higher

And Hemkund Sahib

And its devotees

Appeared before us like magic.

Although both the treks

Were failures as trips,

I would do anything

To redo the experiences of a lifetime.

Follow the rest of the Uttarakhand series