The mystical Valley of Flowers, upper Himalayas, Uttarakhand, India. Photo: John Muir

So close, no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters …

On the wall of Café Milestone, on the highway to the upper Himalayas

The Himalayan highway Café Milestone announced the arrival of summer 2022 with buransh flower (rhododendron) and Malta (blood orange) squash bottles displayed for sale. The reappearance of Malta and the deep-purple buransh juice marks the beginning of the end of the coldest winter I have experienced in Rishikesh in nearly two decades.

The coldest winter, hottest summer, and happily sunny weather have an end as with all things in this impermanent universe. And so too within six months, I predict that the peculiarly prolonging pandemic ends its pestilent problems for this planet’s populace.

Every anti-pandemic breakthrough helps. This January, biologists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, found that buransh flowers have antiviral properties to fight the SARS-CoV2 virus.

Buransh grows in the upper Himalayas of Uttarakhand, India, and in Nepal, Bhutan, China and Pakistan. Its high-altitude homes include the Valley of Flowers – my second Himalayan destination circa 2005. This is the magical-sounding valley where beautiful celestial maidens are said to dance and play after sunset.

Others experienced a less heavenly reality. My friend Vipin Sharma, a veteran Himalayan trekker, found the Valley of Flowers not the paradise of beautiful flowers as far as the eye can see. “Overhyped,” he smiled. Buransh – the state tree of Uttarakhand – escaped the hype.

With anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory properties, buransh is good for health, said Harish Koli, the English-speaking owner of Café Milestone. It’s on the highway near Gular village en route from Rishikesh to Badrinath in the higher Himalayas. “[Cricket player] Virat Kohli is a Punjabi Kohli with an ‘h’,” he grinned. “I’m a Garhwal Koli without the ‘h’.”

Koli had worked in a factory in Punjab, but soon returned to the Garhwal Himalayas for good. “The factory owners make crores [millions] of rupees from our work, but don’t treat us with respect,” he said. “I will remain here for life.”

Locals like Koli have found livelihood in their rural area of birth. Their remaining in home territory was helped with pandemic-battered economies worldwide shrinking to more localized boundaries. “People who chose to stay in the village are content,” he said. “We are happy here.” True enough. Less want, more happiness.

I had first noticed Café Milestone when Harish’s uncle Basudev called out to me on a cold cloudy morning a month ago, as I was walking on the Himalayan highway to Gular village. “Come and warm your hands,” he invited from across the road, sitting before wood fire in a tin can.

“Self-help is the best help,” proclaimed a hand-drawn poster I saw on the cane wall opposite that hid the river bank and the Ganges flowing below. The poster with impressive pencil drawings of Bruce Lee, Mohandas Gandhi and a little girl wore respective captions of “Fighter,” “Peace” and “Save Girls.”

The pencil-sketched poster in English, gloriously incongruous in a small Himalayan highway dhaba (highway eatery), ended with verses (as I found later) from the American band Metallica’s 1991 hit “Nothing Else Matters”:

“So close, no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters …
… Every day for us something new
Open mind for a different view
And nothing else matters.”

Harish’s friend Ashish was the artist, some deeper-thinking, heavy-metal music-loving young man who is “somewhere there” further up in the mountains.

Harish Koli, Café Milestone.

Further away up in the Himalayas are hidden mysteries of the universe, some of which I experienced in Tapovan and Badrinath years ago. Those subtler realities include less visible beings (devas) directly or indirectly helping or supporting meditating humans, of powers of the mind as yet unknown to conventional science.

But these experiences are mere milestones in the journey to experiencing real happiness: fully purifying the mind. It’s a long and most beneficial journey.

Journeys begin with the first step, the next step, and progress step by step – as with the mendicants and sanyasis on foot who pass by Café Milestone. They walk from or to Joshimath 220 kilometers away from Rishikesh. All focus on taking the next small step without slip-ups, in the journey of a thousand miles, in a professional career, in life’s work.

The generously serving, beautiful gurdwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) in Rishikesh advises pilgrims trekking to Hemkund Sahib Ji, a sacred site near the Valley of Flowers: “Take small steps. Do not rest too long while taking a break – you will feel less tired. Do not leave the path to take shortcuts.”

Right steps lead to milestones that merely indicate traveling on the right path to the destination. The destination can be far away. But in life and in meditation the risk exists of getting stuck up in one place or phase. Keep moving, great teachers said.

“Determination,” said Vipin, of the single most important quality to conquer tough trails, exhaustion at the edge of physical and mental limits – as he had to, 20 years ago, when his world became a blur struggling without food in the mountains of Ladakh. Strong determination comes to the rescue – the most needed quality to go beyond endurance frontiers, reach and pass each milestone, and arrive happily at the final destination.

The writing cost of this article is donated by a good friend; the series is in association with Red Chilli Adventure and Sukoon Home Stay, Rishikesh. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle,, The Hindu and others.

This is the third article in an eight-part series. To see other “Postcards from the Edge” articles, use this link, which will be updated as the series progresses.