Fascinating journeys unfold when we drop the need to plan and instead follow and have faith in the flow of life. It is only then when perfect alignment can manifest. The onset of my journey starts with a vague idea of its direction and then leads me to where I shall reach. So here is the latest adventure that very unexpectedly brought me to the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers, variety of flora and is home to rare and endangered animals. Many Yogis are known to have visited the valley for meditation.
During this trip it was still off-season. The higher Indian Himalayas remain closed during the winter months. This high altitude region is often not passable due to heavy snowfall, glaciers, landslides, lack of stable roads and infrastructure support. Hence during off-season villages are deserted and all Char Dham pilgrimage sites as well as the Valley of Flowers remain closed. It is during that time that I was blessed to wander on quiet paths to Yamonotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and the Valley of Flowers. It is in stark contrast to an otherwise busy and crowded setting during the season summer months.
What intrigues me about the Indian Himalayas is not the untouched and unique beauty of its landscape alone, but much more than that the spiritual power it contains. This world’s highest mountain range was and is the home of the great masters on Earth. In the spiritual world the Himalayas are a mystic energy powerhouse. What pulls me towards this region are ancient spiritual locations and hidden temples that the great scriptures and masters speak about. What fascinates me is the wisdom and secrets of Dev Bhoomi, the land of Gods, as the Himalayas are called here as well. Countless swamis, sanyasis and sages have walked unknown paths in this majestic mountain region. It is here where the secrets of our existence are revealed and mystic appearances encountered. I believe for those who travel towards Self-realization, for those sincere seekers, it holds an indescribable attraction spell.
“Madam, Badrinath is not yet reachable. The roads are still damaged from landslides during the winter months.” is the disappointing reply from the hotel staff. “But we intend to walk to Badrinath. Is it passible then?” I ask. There is a moment of pause. I can read the puzzlement on their faces that a white woman intends to walk for more than 30km through the high altitude tiny mountain pass to Badrinath. “The government will not allow you to pass, even if you walk” they insist. After days of driving on endless curving roads through the Himalayas, and a fast setting daylight this evening, we decide to stop at this random hotel we spotted on the way. At this height of the Himalayas the tiny villages often only consist of a few sporadic basic houses of farmers with cows, mules and dogs enjoying a peaceful simple life. I feel lucky to have found this quaint hotel. With the news of an apparent not reachable Badrinath, we decide to call it a day.
In the morning the sound of a rushing river and birds wake me up and majestic mountain peaks along side Alakananda river greet me through the window; a sight which was hidden from me during check-in in the late evening. Grateful for the serene morning and keen to explore, we are soon on our way to do a 13km trek….or so we think. The recommendation from the hotel staff “Walk up this mountain for 4kms, then you will see a trek” was simple and all we knew. Within a less than 1,5 hours walk we find ourselves in deep Himalayan forest, listening to the many foreign sounds of nature and animals and no human soul around. Our village was long left behind one of the first mountain peaks we crossed.
It is only when we pass an old sign that our day suddenly takes on a different shape. Its paint and writing are almost completely fainted. Valley of Flowers I can make out to read in wonder. Swami Rama wrote about this valley in his book “Living with Himalayan Saints”. I remember his experiences in this valley, the surreal diversity of flowers and the intoxication of the mind. We are stunned to have randomly ended up on a path towards this unique valley and excited to have found our destination for the day. I am also aware that we now have to conquer a 34km long journey in one day – that is 34km uphill climbing with a 3,350 meters altitude, equipped with a bag of biscuits, water bottle and a shawl.
The trek winds through forest, riverbeds, glaciers and waterfalls. We crossed two tiny villages with half of the houses deserted and a handful of farmers. The season has not yet started and the Valley of Flowers is still officially closed. It is hence no wonder that we meet almost no other villagers and find ourselves completely alone on a deserted silent trek through deep forest. The tranquility and beauty of nature is overwhelming. Yet after eight hours of almost continuous uphill walking our speed has sharply decreased and my focus narrows from the surrounding down to each curve ahead instead; hopeful each time it may be the last curve till we reach the peak of our trek. By now we are also keen to find any new road sign that could give us a hint if we are actually still on the path. We walked for hours, following a small path deep into the Himalayas and are unable to find any road signs that confirm if we are still on the right track. But at this point it is too late to turn around. We decide to go onwards and see where it leads us.
Finally, when we are almost on the same height as the glaciers next to us, we know we must be very near to our destination. We cross a completely deserted village. With its empty houses, sealed doors and many broken windows it makes a perfect setting for a ghost town. I am glad I don’t walk alone. We easily overcome the final obstacle of a completely broken bridge ahead, find a narrow enough path to cross the river, jump from stone to stone and finally see the long anticipated gate “Valley of Flowers”.
We are thrilled and watch majestic mountain peaks surrounding us, a giant waterfall streaming down into a glacier and rivers embracing us from both sides. I watch the first signs of flowers and plants blooming. Yet the emptiness and stillness of our surrounding brings a chilling feeling along as well. For the last two hours not one single human soul crossed our path and my mind mischievously brings up the thoughts of snow leopards and bears, whose home is this region. By now it is 4,30pm. With dark snow clouds hanging in the peaks of the glaciers and the first signs of an early setting sun in the Himalayas, we know we need to be fast. I already befriended myself with the thought that we may have to sleep in a cave or find a deserted house in the previous ghost village.
So swiftly we move onwards, watch in excitement plants and flowers bloom alongside our track, when our journey comes to an abrupt halt. We see a massive glacier lieing ahead of our path. “Stop, don’t move” my friends says concerned. The glacier snow visibly started to soften, partly melt and gives sight to a river flowing underneath it. Walking over it bears the high risk that we could fall through the melting ice into the strong current of the river. We walk up and down the glacier in an attempt to find any solution to pass. We finally conclude the only option is to walk over part of the snow, jump from stones to stones and climb up a steep hill. “What will you do if I die” my friend asks. “I write a nice letter to your parents” I reply sarcastically with a smile, yet I watch him go ahead with terrified thoughts of “what if”. He slowly throws heavy stones ahead to test the thickness of the ice. I follow. My focus is fully with each of my movements, carefully testing the ground and trying to find heavy rock corners to crab onto. Done, we crossed the glacier and are now infront the vertical hill right next to it. With each step we try to crush little corners into the mud and search for stones in the wall that could carry our weight. I start to feel uncomfortable. The higher we climb vertically up this stone and mud wall the less I seem to be able to get solid grip. Finally I come to a dead end. “Go, push ahead and hold onto this stone,” my friend says. “I can’t,” I shout back. My voice is clearly getting higher. “Yes you can. Right there. This stone,” he continues. My heart starts beating faster. By now I feel the tip of my feet moving around, searching for a stable grip in the wall. Small stones keep falling straight down into the glacier underneath me. I find a tiny plant and hold onto it. I pull and test its strength. It seems stable. I push up and see my life hanging with one hand on one tiny plant, while my legs and right hand lost all grip by now. I panic and scream. Deep fear engulfs me. “I can’t.” I shout. Yet determined not to give up, I try a second time, which is followed by another wave of panic and a scream that cuts through the silence of this deserted land. After moments, which seem like an eternity, my friends sees the panic in my eyes and says, “Let’s turn around. It is not safe. We lost too much time already.”
It is 5.30pm when we decide to walk back to our hotel. It is the trek back home now which proves to be the most important part of my journey; all learning happened here. We calculate the time and conclude “Impossible to reach the hotel during daylight. We may only reach close to midnight.” It seems pretty clear. We have a night walk through the deep Himalayas ahead. I often played with the thought of a Sanyasi life and envisioned how it may be to live the life of a wondering monk. “This is a great test for me” I reassure myself and start to walk back home. Yet the more I watch the sunlight set, the more the daylight vanishes, the more my speed seems to increase as well. Needless to say already for the past hours my muscles and joints are in very deep pain from the continuous high altitude trek. But well aware of what lies ahead of us, physical pain seems the least of our challenges right now.
I loose myself in thoughts and replay todays event at the glacier. If justified or exaggerated by my mind, either way, I contemplate about the deep wave of feeling “fear of death” rushing through my body while hanging onto that plant. I try to catch the root of this reaction. I like to believe I fairly detached from all worldly things, am neither afraid of what lies ahead beyond death nor do I feel I have pending things to fulfill in this life. Then what provoked this panic?
But before I can come to any conclusion, my thoughts come to an abrupt halt, when my friend suddenly stops walking, lifts his index finger and indicates me to remain silent. I do not dare to move. The sound of what sounds like a cheetah roaring, is followed by the fading sound of moving leaves. This one is too easy for my mind to catch and to visualize a cheetah being next to us. After a long while of stillness, we continue to walk in silence. We do not utter a word. Adrenalin kicks in for the next hours while we walk in pitch-black darkness through the deep Himalayan forest. My mind goes wild and plays all possible cheetah scenarios I could ever encounter. The beginning of a heavy storm accompanied by lightening and thunder in the near distance provides the perfect backdrop to the play of my mind.
I now wish I would have never seen the wild cheetahs crossing my path in Rishikesh and Nepal just a few weeks earlier. The sign at the beginning of our trek in the morning is too vividly in my memory as well. Beware of cheetahs and bears it reads. We learned from the villagers that bears and cheetahs are a sincere high risk in this region. Suddenly I gratefully remember Swami Rama’s story. During his wandering days in the Himalayas he once went into a cave, which he realized only once entered was the home of three little tiger cubs. By then the tiger mother had appeared at the cave entrance. Swami Rama after initial fear convinced himself that because he was not there to harm them and because the tiger mother can feel his intentions, he could simply and calmly walk out of the cave again. And so he did. He was right. Nothing happened to him. I was always fascinated by this true encounter of Swami Rama. Such experiences help one to control fear and give a glimpse of the unity that lies between animals and human beings. Animals feel what we feel. They feel if we are fearful, aggressive or peaceful. They are highly sensitive beings. So this cheetah too will know our peaceful intentions….. and if it is hungry clearly there are plenty of goats to eat from the village that are much more most tasty than two humans. I conclude and slowly feel tension leave my body.
But yet the question of what provoked the panic at the glacier and now again with the cheetah remains. I go over it many times and finally realize it is not fear of death but rather fear of pain that evoked that wave of adrenalin within me. And pain is a feeling. It is not me as such. It is a passing expression. I remember past spiritual activities of watching my pain simply dissolve in nothingness. It is a reminder that I am not the one who sleeps. I am not the one who dreams. I am not the one who is awake. I am the one that observes all these states. And as long as I choose to live in duality, Maya continues its play of illusions. Only in non-duality a natural and unshakable feeling of fearlessness arises. Contentment engulfs me. The distant heavy thunder becomes a mere play now, created just for us. We enjoy lightening hitting Earth infront of us, brightening our surrounding. I slowly become aware again of my physical body, feel its incredible heaviness and the strong tension of my muscles, exhausted from a whole day of high altitude trekking. Finally we curve down the last winding hill towards our village and are greeted by the flickering lights of village houses. Just when we are only 50 meters away from the hotel, heavy rain begins. I smile, thank mother nature for her patience to hold the rain for us and gratefully and completely exhausted fall into the hotel chair. What an incredibly blessed day!