I was awoken by a sudden announcement that the boarding had started. I looked around to find people standing in line, with still hazy sight from my deep slumber and sweaty forehead I proceeded to stand behind the line, and I saw families with their little ones with sun-kissed cheeks resembling bright red apples, they had conversations between them which were pretty difficult to grasp and thought to myself as to how foolish I must have been to think that all north Indian languages had familiarity in them. It was not difficult to notice how different they were with their sharp features and fair complexion compared to the Dravidian features in me. The boarding completed and my flight from Delhi to Srinagar was for one hour and fifteen minutes, there was a bit of nervousness and excitement to visit the northernmost part of our country from the southern place, after forty-five minutes the clouds cleared to give me a glimpse of the towering Western Himalayas, the first glace made me get a feel as to whether it was indeed real? The view was spectacular and beyond my wildest imagination, the bright sunlight on the snow-capped mountains had a golden reflection around. It was a priceless treasure for sure and I thought to myself as to what I had done to deserve to witness such a marvellous creation.
The captain announced landing as I was craving for more time of the majestic views, it was a short flight and as soon as we landed, I stepped out into the open, the air seemed different, so pure and people’s smiling faces all around, I had never felt this welcomed anywhere in my life. I boarded a prepaid taxi and headed straight to Sonamarg for the base and start point of my trek. The capital city of Srinagar was truly amazing, it had an air of unique culture and history with ancient monuments all around with brilliant wooden carved architecture. After a drive for an hour with the city traffic, I reached the pristine Dal Lake. ‘Amazed’ is a small word to describe the grandeur of this lake, I had not seen a lake so huge and serene, the colourful smiling Shikara boatmen waiting for tourists to take them around the Lake, I couldn’t contain my excitement of witnessing the alpine lakes and Kashmir Great Lakes Trek on the trek that I would embark shortly, the road to Sonamarg passes along the lake up to the Moghul gardens from where we took a deviation towards Ganderbal, things were only getting better with the journey, every moment had something splendid to showcase.
It was a picture postcard view at every turn and I knew for sure that I would get a landscape portrait just by pointing my camera in any direction, once we passed by Ganderbal, we reached a bridge with a raging river below us and my driver Mr Ajaz informed me that we had entered the Sindh Valley and it was locally called Nallah Sindh, the road ahead till Sonamarg would be next to the river, there are no words to describe the beauty of this valley. I could have taken this ride forever with lush grassland, forests, river, and surrounding mountains, it was a dream ride where I didn’t notice for a second for how the 3 hours had passed. We approached Gagangir which is a village 10 km behind Sonamarg, it had a huge table mountain that stood in front of us, the road and valley became narrower once we crossed the village, Ajaz told me that Gagangir is the last village accessible during the winter months and the road ahead to Sonamarg closes during the winters.
I reached Sonamarg, a huge valley with lots of glaciers around, it’s indeed a meadow of gold which the local name Sonamarg signifies, what captured my attention was the huge Tajiwas glacier that was visible from all fronts and has one of the tributaries joining Sindh river. Sonamarg is also an alternative route to the famed annual Amarnath Yatra taken by the Hindu pilgrims during the months of July and August. I spent whatever little time I had walking around the meadows with mesmerizing beauty as I had to reach the start point of the trek by evening. Shitkari is a small hamlet and was the start point of the trek, it was just around 1 km from Sonamarg, and the campsite was on the other side of the river. I was greeted warmly by few locals at the campsite and one guy with sharp Aryan features introduced himself as Mr Owais and he was trek guide for our us, he was tall, well-built and I was wondering why this bloke was not in the movies with such looks. I was introduced to my other team members who would be trekking along with me, most were from the southern region, some were calm, some were sharing their travel stories and few were discussing work which made me roll my eyes, I really did try hard not be judgmental. We were served tea, the aroma of the tea itself ensnared my senses and the first sip blew me off, it was a local drink called ‘Kewa’ which was brewed with saffron, spices and sugar, I wondered why was this delicious drink was not made a national or an international drink? We were asked to assemble after a while for a team briefing, we sat in a circle and our lead guide Owais gave us the small pep talk on Kashmir, Sonamarg, its surroundings, hiking etiquette, safety, and other things that we would encounter on the trek.
We were assigned to our tents with 3 people sharing a dome-shaped tent, I was not new to trekking and was quite used to being away from civilization once in a while which always kept in good spirits, after a lavish dinner spread, I didn’t really miss home food as the food provided was delicious with different varieties, We retreated to our tents for the night and I introduced myself to two other persons in the tent who were also from the south and would be my tent mates for the rest of the trek.
We were awoken with a loud whistle for morning tea, I felt as though I had just slept. I crawled out of my tent to finish my morning chores and assembled with the rest of the team for breakfast, it was a continental spread fit to be at a 5 star hotel back home, we had a quick briefing session with Owais and started our trek with heavy backpacks, trek poles, and sufficient water for the journey ahead.
The treks started with a gradual ascent on the meadows which zigzagged up to a tiny ridge kind of a feature, which was also the first rest point, we turned around and could witness the entire Sonamarg market and the surrounding mountains, it was also our first checkpoint with the army personnel, we had to show our ids and permit for the trek which is recorded by the army folks, after a short and brief interaction with them, we proceeded further with continued ascent for 20 minutes and had our first meeting with the Kashmiri Gujjars, they lived in small custom made mud cum wooden huts and lived in the meadows in the summer months with their livestock. They were nomads with history dating back to 300 years in the valley, they too had a distinct feature in them with their colourful traditional dress, after exchanging few pleasantries we ascended up further for another hour and reached a spectacular meadows which were called the table top, we ran in all directions clicking pictures and refilling our bottles by the small stream, our lead guide Owais informed us to take a few minutes to rest here, it was a break much needed after a strenuous climb from Shitkari.
After a small break, we proceeded further to a forest patch which had lots of silver birch trees in it, the sudden onset of cool weather under the canopy of trees was something which we were not expecting, it didn’t last long though as we entered a moraine patch with the full view of the beautiful Nichnai valley, it was a narrow valley and worth the effort of reaching so far, we stopped by the stream and enjoyed our packed lunch with potatoes and Indian bread. After about 2 hours on moraine and well-marked trail we reached the Nichnai campsite and camped around 100 ft away from the stream, the first day was tough as I had not hiked for a while now and coming from the plains to this altitude was little taxing on my knees, the tents were already pitched as the horses which ferried our load had overtaken us and camp was set up with hot tea prepared to be served on our arrival, I was amazed at the local staff’s endurance levels. We quickly changed into our warm wear as the wind was pretty harsh, it was getting cooler by the evening, we had a small introduction session with our team and it turned out most of them were from the corporate sector. Owais was a well informed and an experienced guide, he knew the local region well, he took a small workshop on camping, survival skills in the mountains for an hour, today he taught us how to pack a backpack and how I realized how little I knew about what to pack for a Himalayan trek. I headed back to my tent with tired shoulders and legs, I had one of the best naps in over a long time, and I woke up early feeling good looking forward to crossing the Nichnai pass. After breakfast the team had to cross the icy cold water in the morning barefoot, it made my feet numb, had a feel of a knife piercing my skin, Owais gave a helping hand to whoever struggled, the guy must have been on a different level to help so many staying in the water for so long. The climb to Nichnai was gradual we made it up to the pass in 2 hours, it was a small pass and as soon as we crossed it, the valley opened up and we are in front of a huge valley with flower beds all around, the views were mesmerizing and breathtaking, I couldn’t help as I was taking pictures from every corner, it never seemed enough, the descent was easy and we reached a flat ground in the valley, the meadows were filled with sheep’s, a lot of Shepard’s reside in this area for the summer months with their flock, we managed to reach the camp in short while and I was keen to witness Vishansar lake, only a small stream was visible in front of our campsite. We sat down waiting for our guide Owais instructions, he made us have lunch and informed we would take a stroll for 15 minutes, we climbed a small ridge and there it was crystal clear blue waters of Vishansar Lake, the view from the top made it even more spectacular, it was one of the jewelled lakes of Kashmir. I stay put near the shores of the lakes, wanted to feel the surreal beauty in front of me.
After going around the lake for an hour or so, we returned back to the camp, I was wondering how much more can nature offer?
Next morning started with us crossing the stream again, I was thankful for the boulders that formed a natural bridge, we started towards the highest pass of the trek and the climb was pretty intense with the trail zigzagging all the way to top, though the pass looked threatening from far, it was gradual and we managed to go to the top in 3 hours, en route we found Krishnasar lake on our left and it was identical to Vishansar Lake with its beauty, from the top of Gadsar Pass at around 13k feet we got the majestic views of the surrounding mountains and views of both Krishansar and Vishnusar Lakes.
Feeling elated of crossing the highest pass of the trek, we descended to Gadsar valley, and it had a wide variety of flowers with different colours, lush green meadows, and glaciers, it was a long walk towards Gadsar Lake, it was easy as there was no climb. Gadsar Lake resembled a huge well, there was something about the lake that made a quite uneasy, the lake looked as though it had a never-ending depth to it and we sat here and had our packed lunch. We were not camping by the lake, our camp was further two hours from the lake near an army camp, we were welcomed with warm water by the army personnel and they took down the team’s details for the record. Our tent was pitched right next to the camp, we made an early retreat to the tent as we were tired after a long day trek. Day 5 started with a good bright sunny weather, it was an easy start with flat traverse on the mountainside, there was not much challenge during the first 2 hours and there was only one small climb and we took a deviation towards Rasbal meadows, the scene resembled a huge golf course, after a small walk we witnessed a place where the water flew inwards to the ground and nobody could figure out where the water was going, Owais mentioned it was called Doobtha Paani in local language meaning sinking water, we crossed a small stream and proceeded towards the next army check post of Satsar, the army personnel were quite friendly and finished with their usual formalities of recording our names, as soon as we crossed the army check post we came across small water bodies, Owais informed to the team that this area consisted of 7 small water pools and therefore the name Satsarsaran Lakes, we moved across a moraine section and reached the Megandob camp, the camp was surrounded with rocks and boulders. The evening was fun as we were thought few survival skills by Owais, he gave us hands-on experience on wilderness survival, and there was a lot of excitement in the team with the learnings for the day.
Next morning started with us crossing the stream and walking through the boulders, it was pretty scary traversing through the boulders, we always had a helping hand from Owais, it gave me cliffhanger moment and I was quite relieved when it was over, the next stretch was a gradual ascend towards Zachbal pass, it took an hour and we were on top of the pass, the views from the pass was brilliant with the views of both beautiful lakes of Nundkol, Gangabal with Harmukh peak in the background. We descended towards our camp, though it looked far, it took us lesser time to reach the camp at Nundkol Lake which got its name from a saint in Kashmir, we spent the evening watching locals fishing in the lake, we moved around and relaxed by the lake till late evening, tomorrow was a rest day and we were quite looking forward to exploring Gangabal lake which was the biggest lake of the trek.
We woke up late on the rest day and proceeded towards Gangabal Lake which was only a 15 minutes hike, the lake was huge and got its name from the river Ganga, the local Kashmiri Pandits took an annual yatra to this lake in the months of September, it took almost half a day to explore the lake completely and we came back mesmerized by what we had witnessed so far.
The last day was little emotional for us as we had gone through so much and witnessed such amazing towering pinnacles, lush meadows, jewelled lakes, glaciers, and most importantly the warmth, hospitality of the locals which made me feel that I was a demon coming from the city, we were so used to this, I wished this could have lasted forever, with a heavy heart we started our journey towards the last leg of our journey towards Naranag, the views kept us on our toes every minute of the trek and didn’t fail to surprise us even once. The descent took us around 5 hours and we walked through the pine trees till the end, Naranag was a small village with a popular ancient temple built during the 8th century by Lalitaditya, I was back to civilization after what it felt like a short time, our cabs were arranged to Srinagar and I gave a bear hug to my guide Mr Owais, there was one thing for sure that this would not be my last journey at Kashmir, I promised myself that I would explore this place which was blessed with abundant beauty. I feel everyone should embark on this journey away from civilization once in a while to know how to be composed and learn to be resourceful. This would just be the start of a journey to this magnificent place.