Travelogue by Rishi Biswas
I will script on those hanging clouds
Tales of the rolling meadows,
Of skies bluer than my cityscape,
Of the hills and their mystic chants...
It's more than a piece of reality
Maybe an infinite loop of dream
Pushing for an ageless escape,
Hallowed by nature's trance…
Endless miles, cobalt-blue lakes, azure skies and meadows rolling at my feet. I found myself leading a wallpaper lifestyle like a nomad amidst flocks of sheep and hordes of horses. Wearing the utter nonchalance on my soul, I realized that it has been one month since I returned from the Paradise on Earth.
And this hangover is not to get over too soon. The rolling meadows keep rolling somewhere deep inside my mind, translating my conscience from grey to green. And sometimes, I still wake up to the call of rude barren stretches and tricky boulder zones invading my dreams. The snow-clad glaciers, along with their craggy passes and distant streams snaking to the glacial lakes, are a portal to The Divinity. I realized that the Kashmir Great Lakes has left me a message. Like those struggling streams burbling through the scattered boulders, I had to toil my strength out to purify my heart with the bliss of the Creator.
No, I no longer crave for manicured gardens or landscaped carpets to pamper my eyes. I wouldn’t repent walking 1000 miles through the craggy boulder zones or meandering trails over the pastures. Truly, I realized that Kashmir Great Lakes is a trek handcrafted by the Gods, and named after the Gods.
Kashmir Great Lakes: A parameter for the Himalayan Beauty
So, if you ask me how beautiful the KGL trek is, I would rather reply that it's perhaps the most picturesque trek in India. The trek remains open for adventurers and nature lovers between July and September. Rest of the year, the trail remains buried under snow.
Now, you might wonder why people trek the Kashmir Valley when the rest of the country experiences monsoon. Well, the presence of the Pir Panjal Range between Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, blocks the moisture-laden clouds, making the valley a rain-shadow area. Along with this, Kashmir bursts into beauty with its plethora of wildflowers. The temperature remains moderate, ranging between 20 and 10 degrees considering the extremes. For us, we enjoyed clear skies in July, and the temperature at night mostly remained above 7 degrees.
Compared to other treks, KGL brings you much more diversity. The versatile landscapes include challenging boulder zones that test your balance, steep ascends, rolling meadows, and toe-breaking descents. We crossed river valleys jagged with rocks, savored ice packs rolling down the mountain slopes, and most importantly, crossed three high-altitude passes above 13,000 feet (Nichnai, Gadsar, Zaj). Pine, maple and silver birch dominate the vegetation. Among the wildflowers, you would find the purple iris and contrasting yellow flowers painting a canvas more appealing than any oil painting can replicate.
The terrains and landscapes are very different each day. Across a span of seven days, we witnessed six beautiful Alpine lakes, starting from Sonamarg and finishing at Naranag. The highest point at 13,750 feet lies on the top of the Gadsar pass, and this trek is not for amateurs. Although the trail is moderately tough, the prime challenges are the exposure to sun for at least 6 - 8 hours a day, and long stretches to walk. On average, we covered 12- 16 Km. each day.
Trekking KGL with Himalayan Passion
I enjoyed my slice of luck trekking with Himalayan Passion. Dhruv, our trek leader, ever-agile considerate, left no stones unturned to ensure discipline, safety, and most importantly, comfort. Each day, we woke up to the pleasure of a local Kashmiri delicacy in the morning. Sometimes, it was a peach fruit, sometimes the trademark Kashmiri Tea-Kahwa, and on other occasions, black tea. Wholesome lunches and dinners elevated our stamina, and there was always this ‘surprise element’--- a sweet dish in some distant starlit valley far away from civilization.
It would be a sin to miss out our support staff and guides of Himalayan Passion , who chipped in with their respective shares of contribution as we trekked the Himalayas. Among the seasoned guides was Iqbal, always with a smile with one side of his lips, his eyes piercing through your mind, saying “I know what you know”. And while a weary trekker rests at the campsite or waits too long for a gasp of breath, you could hear Iqbal’s familiar voice calling out “Chaloo…Chaloo…Chaloooo…” Swift like a mountain bear, he would always be ahead of the trail, ready to hold my hand and help me cross over the boulder zones.
Then there was the 17-year-old Mustafa, A young lad teeming with agility, Mustafa was always there to crack jokes even at the weariest moments to keep up the spirits of the team. Well, it was on the last day while I was crossing a narrow log bridge (not more than 1 ft. wide) over the torrential stream connecting Nundkol and Gangabal Lakes. Mustafa was holding my left hand, leading me to the safety of the rocks on the other side. Even as my legs trembled and the single log connecting the two banks creaked under our combined pressure, I could feel his fingers gripping my wrist harder than ever. Well, that speaks tons of the wholeheartedness and commitment of these local guides…
And we had Naseer, talkative and pleasant, recommending authentic Kashmiri cuisines like the Wazwan, which we did try out after returning to Srinagar.
I was a new entrant to the team, but the members were amicable and welcoming. Soon, we got going and I never had the feeling that I was traveling with strangers. Among the senior members, we had Tushar Sir and Lalitha Ji, both of them fit and agile till the very end of the trek. Among the younger trekkers were Shubhajit, Ritabrata, Sudip, Amit, Joy, Suraj, Sourjya, Aritra, the trek leader Dhruv, and myself, along with a few others, from Hyderabad, Sumesh, Saikrishna, Suresh Prabhu, Rohit and Rajiv.
Highlights of Kashmir Great Lakes Trek
Duration: 7 days
Distance Covered: 75-80 Km.
Starting Point: Sonamarg
End Point: Naranag
Trekking Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Highest Altitude: 13,750 feet
Temperature: 15°C to 20°C (daytime) and 6°C to 10°C (night)
Rainfall: Moderate chances(Though the trek is accessible mainly in the monsoon, expect rainfall)
Mobile Network: Only postpaid sims (preferably BSNL and Airtel) work in J&K. No network would be available once you cross Sonamarg.
Day 1- Reaching the first campsite at Shitkari (Sonamarg)
Distance: 80 Kms.
Drive time: 2.5-3 hours
Altitude: 7,800 ft
The first day of our KGL trek didn’t involve any actual hiking. Rather, we reached the Shitkari Campsite from our hotel in Srinagar in a “Traveler”. Initially, the weather was cloudy, but the sun peeked into the valley in the latter half of the day. We reached the picturesque Shitkari campsite at Sonamarg, a quaint valley by the roaring Sindh River around 3 in the afternoon.
The 80-km. Drive from Srinagar to Sonamarg (2,730 meters) witnesses a transition in the cityscape. Sonamarg, meaning the Meadow of Gold, justifies its nomenclature with its rustic specimens. As the green pastures open up, you can spot apple orchards and some military check posts by the roadside.
Shitkari has the last accessible motorable road, beyond which only trekkers and their horses can climb. After the formalities, including the introduction session, briefing from the Trek Leader and Registration, we got ourselves busy, familiarizing ourselves with the terrain and getting to know each other.
The sun sets after 8 pm in Kashmir, which gave us the liberty to venture around the campsite and explore the boulders till late in the evening.
Photo sessions during treks are interesting by default. As usual, I kept pestering Ritabrata, Amit, and our practicing doctor, Shubhajit for pictures, and they kept obliging me with the same.
Darkness enveloped the valley pretty fast just after 8. We huddled back to our tents, which the support staff had already pitched for us. During the trek, I accommodated myself with Joy (who clicked most of my pics) and Suraj. This was my first tenting experience, and thanks to Team Himalayan Passion, all the accommodations were perfect.
Dinner was served around 8:30, and we were supposed to leave for Nichnai camp the next morning. Amidst the biting wind outside, the warm rice, dal, sabzi, roti, and kadai paneer, tasted toothsome. Lastly, we had pudding as a sweet dish to wind up our dinner.
Day 2 (Trek from Shitkari campsite to Nichnai)
Distance: 12 Km.
Trek time: 7 hours
Altitude gain: 7,800 ft to 11,607 ft
We rushed through the morning hours to prepare our baggage. The support staff dismantled our tents and carried them away on the horses.
Leaving Shitkadi Campsite, and the last road head
A muddy trail leads upward to what the guides call ‘Table-top’, a steep uphill hike. We left the jeep track and the Sindh river behind. Our destination was Nichnai, and a steep trek awaited us till we made it to the 11,607 ft mark. For the first three hours on the second day, the ascend was steep. For the next one hour, we had a natural descent, while the last couple of hours presented us with a pleasant ascend to our campsite.
Team members on the Table Top
As Iqbal led the way and Dhruv stayed at the back, taking shortcuts, we made our way steadily through the pony trail. As the table-top came to the view, the mesmerizing green foliage invited me to explore the blissful terrain. With a gentle breeze washing my face, I looked down at the spectacular view downwards. It was our basecamp at Shitkari, sitting at a distance, awaiting some other trekkers like us who would probably pitch their camps by the Sindh River!
The first check post of the Army lies around 2 Km. uphill from the basecamp. After verifying our identities and collecting our credentials, they gave us the green signal to proceed. Meanwhile, we rested for a while on the silky meadow, watching hordes of horses carrying tents, rations, and other utilities to Nichnai.
A scattered stretch of maple and pine trees sprang from the rolling carpet. With the silky grass pampering your feet, you would appreciate the shade of the canopy of maples and pines.
On the way to the Nichnai Camp
A birch forest awaits you for the next 2 kilometers at the end of the ridge. The mystic essence dominated the atmosphere in the forest, reminding me of ancient European folklore. The organic essence of the weathered wood of old tree trunks, shady patches, and dark silhouettes of dense shrubs made the ambiance drowsy.
I looked up to count the exhaustion breathing heavy on my neck. And the thick canopy of Himalayan Birch trees blinded me with flaring hope, pampering my spirit to explore the forest deeper...
Standing here, I captured the last sight of the blissful Sonmarg valley, before starting my descent on the other side.
Well, we crossed the forest and started for the river valley. As the clouds hovered over, I noticed a thin pencil-line, silver in color, snaking through the rocks. It was here that we had to descend. The trail narrowed up, and there were large boulders all over. Frequently, horses came from both directions, interrupting our progress. As per the norms of the mountains, trekkers needed to keep to the mountain side to let the horses pass.
The trail was narrow, and all around us were scattered shepherd huts, silver birches, and small groups of trekkers exploring the mystic land. At places, the thick foliage gave way to a beam of sunlight, penetrating the forest floor like a ray of laser-light.
We had our lunch as we descended into the river valley. There were snow-capped peaks all around, blocking the views of the green carpets that we marched over since the morning.
We trekked through the undulating rocky floor and crossed a few boulder zones before the green meadows reappeared. Gradually, it widened to make room for a campsite! Finally, we were at Nichnai camp, and it was around 4 pm on the watch.
Reaching the camp early, we had plenty of time to explore the surrounding terrains. The sun and the cloud kept playing hide and seek, and we refreshed ourselves with a steaming bowl of noodles and two glasses of tea.
One of our senior trek members, Tushar Sir, played his mouth organ. We stood all around him, listening to the spectacular tunes that seamlessly complemented the ambiance of the quaint valley. At the back of my mind, I thought, maybe some artists tune the most heart-wrenching songs to be sung by people like him in some distant valley, when the sun sets behind the snow-clad peaks and people have no hurry but to sit on the meadows and realize the depth of their lyrics.
At sundown, we had our dinner, and were delighted by the variation in meals. Back in the comfort of my sleeping bag in the tent, I kept counting the memories created along the trek with Dhruv, Amit, Ritabrata, Suvajit, Joy, and others. As tierce lulled me to sleep, I uttered to myself:
“This ecstatic experience to walk with fellow trekkers amidst the Himalayan alpine forests is just the reason I will trek Kashmir Great Lakes once more” —
Day 3 (Trek from Nichnai campsite to Vishnusar)
Distance: 13.5 Km.
Trek time: 7 hours
Altitude gain: 11,607 ft to 12,011 ft (Highest point: 13,229 ft)
This was an exciting day for all of us, as we had the first pass to cross (Nichnai Pass) and the first lake to camp by (Vishnasar Lake). All of us were physically fit and mentally firm to take on the challenges.
Leaving the campsite at 8, we headed through a boulder zone towards Nichnai Pass. Well, most trekkers get an illusion of this pass from the campsite, as visible in this picture. From the meadow where you pitch your tent, you can see a rugged ridge. However, the pass is far from the campsite. A hectic and patience-teasing uptrek awaited us, since there were two inward bends in the trail.
All along our way, there were molten ice packs, rugged terrains, and undulating plains thrust upon the earth for miles. The second half of the trek on the third day is more picturesque, with large herds of sheep grazing right beside us in the valley.
For the initial one and a half hour, we made steady progress, making our way through the boulders and soft, melting ice. The steep ascend to Nichnai Pass was challenging. However, the snow-clad peaks on the left, and the pleasing meadows rolling at the right along the upward slope created some unforgettable memories. We started on the right bank of the river and then crossed over to the left, following the uphill trail.
As we neared the Nichnai Pass, the green shades gradually gave way to greys and browns. Walking with my heavy backpack, I could sense the rustling noises from the rocks, swishing sounds from the loose sand, and the occasional clamor of the streams.
Nichnai Pass was the first high-altitude pass I ever crossed. We had some refreshments at the pass and continued the downward journey. The undulating meadow has multiple trails, and these are dotted with yellow wildflowers. From the Pass, a new stream flows adjacent to the trail. The contrasting colors of the snow-clad pass, wildflowers, and green meadows blending with the azure skyline pampered my eyes.
The trail sharply dives just after crossing the pass. There would be fewer rocks, and I loved the green views of the meadows once again. We took our lunch where the river from the Pass crosses to our right. The mountain faces on the left were rugged and barren. This stretch of meadow between Nichnai and Vishnasar is the prettiest patch of greenery I witnessed during the trek. These meadows are wide, and stretch for several miles. The mighty mountains dominate the views on either side. After crossing the river, we trekked for another two hours to reach the campsite.
On the left, the snow-clad Himalayan ranges dominated the view. As we neared the campsite, the barren heights of the mountains at Ladakh beame conspicuous on our right. Between these contrasting hues of the mountains, we walked through a lush green paradise with sheep grazing all over the valley.
The Vishnasar Lake is located around a hundred feet above the campsite. Before you reach this campsite, you would find a wide stream snaking on your right through the meadows. We pitched our tent to the left of this stream, and trekked for another half a mile to get the refreshing views of the Lake.
This lake, as well as the adjacent Krishnasar Lake, has turquoise waters, unlike the Gadsar Lake since there’s no algal growth in the water. When the water remains still, you can get a breathtaking view of the Krishnasar peak reflecting itself in the tranquil waters of the Vishnusar Lake.
Another dusk descended into the Kashmir valley as we sat around the kitchen tent, chatting with our support staff and guides. Horses grazed just beside the stream next to our camp. Large boulders in the stream spiced up the view. I could see the distant colors over the Ladakh mountains fading into the obscurity of the night. On the other side, the high mountains of the Gadsar Pass awaited us for the next day’s ascent. We sat with the guides and talked about our cities, their respective attractions and heritages. It was a pleasure for us to mingle with these simple country folks, and get to know their lifestyles.
The dusk was worth remembering, as I could classify all the blended elements that composed the picturesque canvas far away from my home. The horses grazing by the stream, rumbling waters, trekkers sitting on boulders, army personnel scanning the campsite, cooks preparing our supper, shepherds rearing their herds, two very contrasting mountain ranges from Ladakh and Gadsar range, and the forlorn valley teeming with silent activities inside the tents! Well, all these elements exist, and they have lives. They all have their respective stories. At the end of the day, all of us have a story to tell!
Sometimes, horses grazing around the valley poked their snouts into our tents deep in the middle of the night. After all, every one of us, including horses, have their right to food!
Day 4 (Trek from Vishnasar campsite to Gadsar via Gadsar Pass)
Distance: 16 Km.
Trek time: 9 hours
Altitude gain/loss: 12,011 ft to 10,706 ft (Highest point: 13,750 ft)
I could feel pure ecstasy running down my nerves on the fourth day, and apparently the most strenuous day of our KGL trek. It’s time to absorb the looks, texture, color, and dimensions of the twin lakes, Vishnasar and Krishnasar with all my heart and proceed to the highest point of the trek, the Gadsar Pass (13,750 ft). Our day started early, around 7:30 in the morning, knowing that we had the longest march through steep terrains till Gadsar Pass awaiting us. However, the true essence of the Creator’s wonder lies in the picturesque lakes with exotic windflowers resting beside them, with snow-clad mountains in the backdrop.
We braced up for the longest march, our eyes fixed on the never-ending ridge. Starting with a boulder zone (the one behind our campsite), we took a very thin and steep ridge to the pass. The morning was biting cold, but as we ascended, our blood started boiling and the chill was gone! Thanks to the clear sky, we cherished the purest looks of the Vishnasar and Krishnasar Lakes from the top of the ridge, along with the reflection of the snow-clad Krishnasar peak on the turquoise water— a sight that purifies the inner self, and we get to know the better versions of ourselves. The Krishnasar Peak leads to the Gadsar pass, and the former neatly sits 500 feet above the campsite amidst the snow-clad boulders and herds of sheep flocking high on the pastures.
The water of the twin lakes looks piercingly blue, something which you don’t get to see too often. Besides, the view, blissful enough to hallucinate your senses, lasts for more than an hour till you reach the topmost ridge. Although the terrain is wide, you might get cramped for space in some places. Also, the horses came through, and I felt like taking a shortcut. With the heavy backpack, it was challenging enough, and I realized it wouldn't be a decision logical enough to stray from the trail.
I found myself stuck in the middle of a steep ascent, struggling to pace up the incline with boulders all around. I heard Dhruv calling me from the back “Rishi, you are on the wrong trail”. Collecting my energy, I tried my best to get back to the original trail, scampering through the rocky walls. One of the fellow trekkers (from a different group) appeared at the top of the ridge, smiling, “Do you need support?”. He leaned forward, stretching his trekking pole, and I got a grip of the same and pulled myself to the safety of the trail.
It took us nearly three hours to reach Gadsar Pass. The ascent was menacingly steep, and had several bends. Once I got to the top, it was a relief to watch the trail descend through the boulders and ice.
Right at the top of the Gadsar Pass, the hypnotic views of five lakes left me speechless. Looking down the trail behind, the twin lakes of Vishnusar and Krishnasar tinkered my adrenaline with its sharp blue waters. On the front, we had three lakes– all of them emerald green in color. Among them were Gadsar Lake, the largest of the lot, Yamsar Lake, and another unnamed lake .
It was an ecstatic moment for our team. I stood there, exploring my inward self to reach the deepest dimensions of space, truth, and reality. We stood at the top of the Gadsar Pass, celebrating our achievement and posing for group pictures.
The downhill trek was a gentle trot, although we had 11 more kilometers to trek before we could reach our camp. With lighthearted jokes and occasional stops for pictures, we took the downward trail down the meadows. Well, this stretch from Gadsar Pass to Gadsar Lake is no less than the celebrated ‘Valley of Flowers’. I let my vision explore the wild, dominated by the purple iris, and other red and yellow flowers. Wherever we looked, there were lulling wallpapers cast on the snow-clad peaks and green lakes.
Well, our effort was worth it. Once we were past the highest point of our trek, we were rejuvenated with confidence. The landscape changed from grey and brown to green once again, and the flocks of sheep grazed the pastures, looking like tiny dots all over the meadows. They gave us a tough time while we composed ourselves by a stream during lunch, poking their heads into our lunch boxes. Ah, yes, their wooly backs are very comfortable on my hands!
The valley narrowed up, and we found ourselves amidst high ranges on both the flanks. We progressed to Gadsar Lake, a giant oval piece of emerald nested at the bottom of the snow-clad mountains. This was the last of the three lakes we had seen from the top of the Gadsar Pass. Well, losing altitude from 13,750 ft. to 10,706 ft. meant a lot of descent, and we welcomed the easy downhill path wholeheartedly.
We pitched our camp further down the Gadsar Lake, and it took us more than an hour to reach the campsite. This campsite is located on the army ground at Gadsar. The landscape looks handcrafted by the Almighty, just like a perfect bowl of green hue nested amidst the mountains. The walls of these mountains shone bright green, as the slanted shafts of the setting sun played over the sides — a dreamy treat for your eyes to watch. Then there was a stream, connecting all the three lakes and traveling parallel to our trail. Just before we reached the campsite, there was a ‘horseshoe bend’ of the stream.
Getting our identities verified took around 20 minutes. It was almost 6 by the time we reached our tents. We had more than 2 hours of daylight left. Celebrating what we had conquered, we took the ground and rejoiced our victory till late in the evening. The starlit sky composed a perfect canvas for photography. Ritabrata, Amit, and Shubhajit got themselves busy with the lenses and captured some terrific snaps of the starlit night sky.
Day 5 (Trek from Gadsar to Satsar Lakes)
Distance: 10 Km.
Trek time: 5 hours
Altitude gain: 10,706 ft to 11,985 ft
Having trekked nearly 16 Kms on the previous day, we had the leisure of starting a bit late for Satsar Lakes. However, we had chances of rain, which did give us a nightmare in the last hour of the trek. Today, the landscape was completely different from what we had witnessed so far during the trek. Although the green meadows set up the perfect wallpaper of the old Windows 98 computer, there were rocky terrains and large boulders along with occasional rivulets.
Satsar is a collection of seven lakes amidst a rocky terrain difficult to access. It’s actually located in an alpine valley, and the lakes drain out into a tributary of the Sindh river, the Wangath Nallah. However, only four or five of these lakes are visible, as the others are located on the other side of the cliff. At the backdrop of the green mountains, today we had a picturesque piece of land to travel across. We also got a glimpse of POK and on a clear crystal weather one could view, the Nanga Parvat, but unfortunately on the other side the sky was not so clear on our way to Satsar Lakes.
The meadows, along with wind strawberries growing on them, looked serene. For the first three kilometers, we had a steep ascend. The first thing we had to do after leaving the campsite was to cross a stream over a makeshift log bridge.
We braced up for the uphill climb, which would last for 1.5 hours. Immediately after crossing the stream, we gained altitude. The treeline was below us, and we could see the pine forest through which we would trek the next day. The vegetation included mostly small bushes, grass, and strawberry plants. At around 11,500 feet, there was a traverse through which the trail passes. Rest of the trail takes you through a serene flat land, mostly green, and dotted with boulders.
Well, it resembled an extensive no-man’s land on the top of the mountains. Occasionally horses passed by, carrying luggage and trekkers unable to take the toil. This part of the journey takes you through a different landscape altogether. With streams dribbling over flat lands, and meadows with rolling turf inviting you to take a walk across them, you would find it hard to control your urge to get lost amidst the greenery.
Everything was fine till we reached the first of the Satsar Lakes. The river valley, due to its geographical position, remains cloud-covered most of the time. It was just after we crossed the first of the Satsar Lakes that I felt the first drop of rain on my face. The weather conditions deteriorated quickly. We put over our raincoats and ponchos to shield ourselves from the rain.
And it was then that I realized how fierce weather conditions in the mountains can be! We had been having a merry time, taking our leisurely walks down the enchanting meadows. And out of the blues came a thundershower. I found myself struggling on the boulder zone just before reaching the camp. It had turned slippery due to the heavy rain. I looked around to find the others around me, urging me not to stop. Well, I had to judge every boulder before I could step on them. One wrong call, and my trek would end there.
As I scampered over the boulders, sometimes hopping and sometimes crawling over the rocks, two consecutive bolts of lightning struck the valley somewhere very close. The noise was deafening, and it echoed through the labyrinths of the rocks for a few seconds. I found the boulders escaping under my shoes, and lost my balance twice. With my backpack soaked and my trekking shoes puddled with water, it took me long to reach the camp.
Drenched to the skin and tired, we ate voraciously. The lunch, consisting of rajma and rice, tasted better than everything we had during the trek.
The rain had stopped, and we stood in circles, chatting our hearts out. It was then I told Dhruv:
“This experience crossing the boulder zone amidst the thundershower and uncertainty is another reason, the second one for which I will trek KGL once again” —
Maybe, it was a kiss of death that we all escaped when the lightning struck the away from the boulder zone in the valley.
Day 6 (Trek from Satsar Lakes to Gangabal via Zaj Pass)
Distance: 12 Km.
Trek time: 6 hours
Altitude gain/loss: 11,985 ft to 11,486 ft (Highest point - 13,276 ft)
While the enigmatic Zaj Pass awaited us at 13,276 ft on the sixth day, I realized that crossing Gadsar Pass wasn’t as tricky as this one. Considering the skills required to navigate through the mile-long boulder zone, this stretch was the acid-test for trekkers. Huge boulders remain heaped altogether, and the terrain seemed to be a never-ending field of rocks. Trudging through uneven boulders on all fours, we left the Satsar Lakes behind in 2 hours.
For me, crossing the boulder zone was the ultimate test for my physical and mental stamina, after the rain played foul sport the last day. We enjoyed the boulder-hopping journey, with Dhruv, Iqbal, and Mustafa occasionally lending their hands to help me cross over the tricky spots. The climb through this boulder section from the last camp is completely barren. The stark contrast with the rolling pastures and meadows of the last day— that’s what makes the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek versatile.
Just before taking the steep ascent for the Zaj Pass, there’s a short descent where you can find the tree line coming to eye level. From this treeline, I could see the ridge that lay around 1000 feet above me. Starting from 11,800 ft., we were to zigzag the trail to the first ridge which took one hour. Once we got to the top, there were two more ridges that we had to cross. The roughness of the rocks, and the barren trail ahead looked challenging. By then, we had got habituated with such environments, and with clouds hovering our heads, we made a hurried climb to Zaj Pass. It took another two hours to cross the third ridge and reach the top of the Pass.
Here, the most spectacular view of the abode of Lord Shiva, Mount Harmukh, peered from the canopy of clouds. Lake Gangabal and Nundkol lie at the foot of Mount Harmukh, with the overhanging glaciers feeding the lakes. These twin lakes composed one of the most captivating views of the trek.
Our destination was just beside Nundkol Lake, which meant we had to descend 1,400 feet sharply. The trail was rocky, full of loose rocks and boulders. What welcomed me next were the abstract rock formations down the trek. With green algae and natural vegetation layering these huge boulders, I could feel a mystic essence with the strange clouds and twin lakes forming a perfect canvas at the backdrop.
A long way down, there was a torrential stream hurrying its way sonorously along the boulders. We refilled our water bottles and continued with the sharp descent till we reached the comfort of the pastures once again.
With the water now available and a flat cozy bed of grass inviting tired trekkers, we found it to be the perfect place to take our lunch. It wouldn’t be strange for me to lull myself to sleep amidst this blissful patch of green.
Following lunch, we took a short ascend before we could ultimately descend to our campsite. The twin lakes of Nundkol and Gangabal happen to be favorite weekend destinations for the local Kashmiris. We strolled by the stream connecting the two lakes, where trout fishing happens to be a popular activity. Some of us went on to the Gangabal Lake, which has fewer tents around it and attracts a smaller crowd. It takes half an hour for trekkers to cross the boulder zone and a bridge to reach Gangabal Lake on the other side of the stream.
That evening, something special awaited us after supper. Far away from the fringes of the civilization, our cook had prepared a cake, the first one we saw in a week or so. This was meant to celebrate the success of the trek. The following day, we would be bidding them a goodbye, so, this was the best occasion to cherish our togetherness.
Iqbal, Mustafa, Naseer, and our support staff, including the cook, horsemen, and others gathered in the tent after dinner. They sang their local Kashmiri songs, beating water drums, cans and pots with all their hearts out. Well, the songs were all about the lakes, the natural beauty of Kashmir, and the blissful ambiance that made our trek happening all these days. Not everybody, I thought, gets the privilege to cherish these authentic Kashmiri folk songs. Next, they switched to some Urdu songs, of which I could make out nothing. Yet, as they say, music is a language of its own! We got the tune, clapped our hands and beat whatever we found at our disposal.
As the celebration continued, other locals joined in from separate trekking groups. The local Kashmiris, who had been camping beside the lake, also chipped in with their sound boxes. It was a trek to remember, and a night to celebrate. Far away from our homes, we were in this valley of happiness on yet another starlit night, where the obscure surroundings failed to dim our spirits. We all were from some distinct parts of India, but there we were, celebrating our journey with the local folks who did so much in silence to make the trek successful!
Day 7 (Trek from Gangabal Lake to Narnang and drive to Srinagar)
Distance: Trek:13 Km., Drive: 50 Km.
Trek time: 6 hours
Altitude loss: 11,486 ft to 7,800 ft
Mystic trails through the crowds of pines, long stretches of flat meadows, and meandering boulder paths with abrupt descents spruce up the last day of the trek.
Well, there’s a saying — nothing ends until it really ends! Even on the last day of the trek, we had tons of surprising elements all along the trek. We started the trek early around 6 in the morning. After 1.5 hours, there was a thorough baggage check at the army camp. That’s the reason our trek leader urged us to start ahead of other teams, and we managed to reach early.
The narrow log bridge over the stream doesn’t allow more than one person to cross it side by side. The water flowing below was chilly, and the current was strong. Our guides bailed us out one by one over this log, creaking under our pressure. Mustafa held my left hand, his voice calm, very indifferent to the high current running below us. He led the way, and then I proceeded, taking small steps horizontally sidewise. Well, I thought, this was very normal, a part of the composite lifestyle that these trek leaders lead. My heart was beating fast as I looked at the current. Maybe I was a bit unsteady on my feet as well, with the luggage holding me back. However, Mustafa kept calm, holding my hands tighter than ever, as we proceeded to the safety on the other side.
After crossing the stream, we kept close to the tree line on the right, as we proceeded through the ascending ridge. It took us a couple of hours to reach the army camp, where the verification process took another hour.
The pine forest marks the beginning of the treeline just after this army post. As we entered this forest, the vegetation grew dense, and there was a different yellow flower, a little lighter and bigger than the previous ones, growing over the rocks in bunches. There were small huts beginning to show up on the thickets — the first mark of any civilization. We kept to the right, following the straight trail without venturing into the forests, resisting the urge.
The first seven kilometers of the trek doesn’t really have much of a downward journey. After that, the downtrek was toe-breaking, given that the last four kilometers involved a descent of around 3,000 ft. Narrow trails, loose rocks, and a never-ending downtrek awaited us on the last day. Besides, there were horses and mules getting stuck along the narrow trails with rough rock walls on either side. Unable to keep their balance, the mules often toppled at the sharp curves. For us, navigating the last five kilometers turned out to be a challenge. Well, when you descend 3000 ft. in a stretch of just 4 Km, you can’t blame it on your toes or ankles!
The last few hours to Naranag was the ultimate test of our endurance. We could see the stream and small huts from the top, yet our destination seemed too far. Finally, we reached Narnang at 2 in the afternoon. We had our car waiting at Narnang, and it took us two hours to get back to our hotel at Srinagar.
Back in the hotel at Srinagar
We had a couple of day’s time before we boarded our flights from Srinagar. We feasted ourselves like anything, tasting the Kashmiri Wazwan on the very day we returned. Local sightseeing was on cards, and we made the most of it along with authentic dishes like the Kashmiri Polao.
It was on the evening of our departure to the respective cities, and we talked late into the night. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits, and it was then that I disclosed my third reason to do the KGL trek once again. Dhruv looked at me inquisitively, as I repeated my first two reasons, before pausing a bit.
Then I continued, “I completed most of the trek without my specs that I dropped just after crossing Nichnai Pass, on the way to Vishnasar. Actually, I was taking a power nap on the soft turf while the others were taking their lunch. And it was almost at the Vishnasar Camp 6 kilometers away that I realized that something was missing! I had completely missed picking it up while we resumed our trek. I never had any difficulty during the trek except for the thundershower on the misty boulder zone at Satsar camp.”
“So’, he asked, “What’s then?”
“Well, I will come back to KGL in a year or two to find my specs. That’s my third damn excuse to justify my return to a place so close to my heart”...