Monday, 4 August 2014

The Peaks of the Valley: Kashmir Great Lakes Trek

There are certain events in one’s life which get imprinted so deep that they redefine our perspective on life. My trip to the great lakes of Kashmir was one of such experiences. With large green meadows, an unusual proximity to nature, treacherous weather conditions, thrilling climbs, rambling walks and picturesque landscapes, I can say it was an all-encompassing trip. My friend and me had quit our jobs recently and before starting our next venture we decided on a little adventure. We came across an organized trek by ‘Trek The Himalayas’ to the Great Lakes of Kashmir. On no second thoughts, we booked, we packed, we traveled and we reached the base camp at Sonamarg. It had been a long day with a tiring journey and sleep easily embraced us with dreams of tomorrow.

Base Camp-Site at Sonamarg
As we had reached the campsite late at night, we did not really realize where our tents were actually placed and neither did we meet our fellow trekkers. The following morning, I opened our tent to, I won’t say an amazing scene but rather an amazing experience, the rustling flow of the water body along which our tents stood erect, the whisper of fresh breeze, the cadence of sounds that echoed in the mountains that surrounded us and the early morning murmurs of my fellow trekkers. After realizing that we have come far from civilization we improvised for our daily chores and immediately realized that these fresh water sources are going to be the gem of our survival kit. After, an initial briefing from our trek lead, introductions and a quick dismantling of tents, we set off on what was going to be a charismatic display of the daunting Himalayas. Our tents, bags of some people who did not want to carry their bags while climbing and cooking essentials were being carried on mules. I and my friend were carrying our own bags and its weight kind of helped in maintaining my balance on the slopes. Our trekking party was full of energetic legs as we started ascending quickly and soon the base camp was out of sight. The introductory chit-chat and initially exuberance to take pictures settled into a periodic thumping of footsteps as everyone’s breathing started getting heavy and all focus shifted to the climb. Our first checkpoint at Shekdur came somewhere around noon where we had the famous Kahwa tea of Kashmir. An interesting blend of spices energized our bodies while we clicked some pictures of the wide plains that surrounded that tea-stall. The climb continued as we came across first patches of ice and the tree line started thinning. We reached our first camp-site while the day was still alive. We were supposed to maximize our ascent on the first day and acclimatize to the reduced atmosphere. Rather than enjoying the scenery that surrounded us I lay down in my tent feeling nauseous and with a strong headache. The trek lead asked me to eat and stay out to acclimatize but the discomfort was unbearable so I ended up sleeping early after popping down a couple of pills.

The next day I felt marginally better but there was no leeway to think as we had to get up and start our climb to Nichnai Pass. This day was intense for me as I struggled with the increasing height and
Trek Trail from Nichnai Pass
growing uneasiness. Some moments did make me forget all about it such as the one where I reached the highest point of that day and looked back to see the trail that we had covered. It felt unreal that just a couple of days back I was sleeping in the comforts of my home and now I am treading on the Himalayas. We have not yet got used to the amazing grandeur of the mountains and how small they made us look. While we kept on walking and my pain eased a bit when we hit large plains, we came across large herds of sheep that the locals brought up during this season to graze the fresh grass. We saw sheep climbing the most impossible sloped of the mountains just to get that perfect grass growing at a place. We smiled our way through to the second camp-site where we banked on the streams of Vishansar Lake. A small hill divided this lake with its sibling Kishansar Lake.
Vishansar Lake Fishing
While I was still coping with my acclimatization, a few of us met a native’s family who served us Kahwa tea and some delicious biscuits. We enjoyed the conversation and then he helped our guide catch some fish in the freezing cold fresh waters for dinner. The ease with which his family lived in the area simply made me wonder the power of human body to get used to its surroundings.

I camped in early in the night again as my mountain sickness worsened and with the most difficult climb as per the trek guide next day I decided to save up my energy. Two days in the mountains worked like a charm as I woke up invigorated and ready for the path that lay ahead oblivious to the plans nature had for us. Here, I would like to mention that there was another large group that was going along us on the same trek and we were climbing along with them as well. This day we were supposed to cross Gadsar Pass. It is said that if you cross Gadsar Pass, your trek is in all practical sense complete. Our climb was greeted with a slight drizzle which made all of us bring our monsoon wear out. Within a mile of climb it started raining heavily.
The weathered soldier after Gadsar Pass
The route to the pass was extremely narrow, on one side of which were steep slopes and on the other side a dooming valley. The muddy path quickly sludged into a no friction impractical climb zone. In the panic of heavy rains and strong winds all groups had separated and the trek leads were nowhere to be found. After my first slip, I realized the gravity of situation and why so many people have started screaming in fear.  Me and a few trekkers from the other group detoured from the path and tried to scale the slope directly. We made some progress but it was futile as our visibility was completely compromised due to the clouds and fog. As I was in front of the pack I had no idea where we were going and we waited for a couple of minutes to let the cloud clear off for a second so we can get an idea of where lies the pass. We found one of the trek leads and somehow crawled through the muddy terrain on top of the pass. If my description did not convey the threat we faced, this pic might. That pink thing is supposed to be my raincoat which tore up with the first gust of wind. On reaching the top I realized that our plight was not over as the freezing winds intensified. As the campsite was still a long way ahead I kept going, this time downhill on the other side of Gadsar Pass. Everything seemed so easy now after our death defying experience on the climb yet we were immensely tired to walk another step.

The camp was still far out and I finally met my friend whom I had lost during the climb as he was ahead of me. Somehow we managed to reach the campsite while following distant figures and following the footmarks in ice. On reaching there we were supposed to go through an army security check post but thankfully they allowed us to settle down first as almost half of our party was still missing. After evening had dawned, the last of our crew came trudging down to campsite thanking god that they finally reached. We made merry around a bonfire after this extraordinary experience that we could never have had sitting idle at home or at work. We talked to the army men after security check and heard about the hardships they have to face on several occasions. This adventure we had was a stroll in the park for those individuals and the pride I felt in Indian Army at that time was overwhelming.

We kept on discussing the events of yesterday as we started our ascent the next day. We were supposed to cross Satsar Pass that day and the weather had not improved yet. It was still raining and the ascent was fairly difficult but not as challenging as Gadsar Pass. Our feet were wary of wet patches this time and we climbed with more confidence than the other day. I had to improvise my raincoat out of a large plastic bag for this day and it worked pretty well even protecting my bag. The dark clouds gave way to few rays of sunshine and its warmth brought a new spring to our step.
Satsar Lake Camp-Site
We hit another army check point and I saw one of the most amazing things there. As it was a shelter nestled among the mountains with no fancy facilities, they created a sacred place out of a mound of earth and placed symbols of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism on that together to represent the various beliefs. Emotions welled up in me as that moment truly defined to me what secularity in India meant and how some people make evil out of it. That image still stays in my heart as we crossed an enormous boulder patch jumping over the rocks. Soon we reached a bend beyond which lay an amazing camp site. The campsite looked like HD Desktop wallpaper and I stood there for a while to let the simplicity of the place sink in. Due to the dangerous experience the other day everyone had failed to enjoy Gadsar Lake, so this time no one wasted a moment and went straight to capture Satsar Lake in their cameras.

The next day we were supposed to reach our last campsite at Gangabal Lake and scale the highest point of the trek. The initial climb of the day was slightly dangerous as we had to make our way over huge boulders resting on a steep slope of the mountain. The patch continued on for about a couple of hours after which we reached a small peak from where we could actually see the highest point of our trek covered all over by ice.
Peak before the Gangabal Camp-Site
In the mountains, visual reception can be deceptive as we imagined reaching the point fairly quickly but it ended up taking several hours. When we reached the highest point seen in the pic, the two lakes were visible. It looked as if the mountains had created a cradle for the resting place of these lakes. We had a steep descent from this point onwards and after resting on the top for a bit we starting pacing down. The sun was shining bright and the glistening water of the lakes called on to us. Finally, we reached our last campsite feeling accomplished. We were supposed to rest for a day on this camp-site. All of us felt rejuvenated instead of feeling tired and we enjoyed some tasty snacks and played cricket. I and my friend having not had a bath for about a week now felt like taking a dip in the lake and we ended up doing that. The freezing waters hit our brain like a shock as expected but we still ended up taking a fairly long dip. That night we had a bonfire and after dinner as it was pitch dark everyone just sat silently on the rocks. When the last lamps were blown off and I looked up at the sky tears rolled down my cheeks. I realized the limited nature of my city life as a myriad of stars twinkled all around me. It was an inexplicable moment and the beauty of which lies in the fact that we are always blanketed by those stars but the city pollution and low altitude just doesn’t let us observe that beauty.
Night Sky @ Gangabal
I can only put a picture here clicked by a fellow trekker Mr. Raj Padia who is a great photographer.

We started our final descent after the rest day ready to absorb every ounce of the purity we had experienced in the past week. The descent was unnaturally fast because of the steep slopes and the tree line we left behind on our first day was soon visible again. We let ourselves go slightly wild as me and my friend literally ran on the slopes trying to veer on the bends but letting the speed control loose. Soon we lost our pack and went way ahead in the woods trying to see the final exit point. Even after a few hours it was nowhere to be seen but we finally saw increasing number of locals and reached a tea stall where we waited for our fellow trekkers. That was the lost stop in our journey as we caught the slopes again and soon we could see civilized establishment which we reached well before dusk took over. Our cell phones needed charging as our family members back home waited for news on our well-being. I and my friend relaxed till the others came down. Soon everyone was bidding adieu as we loaded our luggage on our transport back to Kashmir.
The final descent

The whole week-long episode feels like an amazing dream where I fought physical discomfort against all odds, accepted the might of the daunting mountains, realized the potential of nature to bring havoc, took pride in the efforts put in by our soldiers for our safety and enjoyed the amazing landscapes. But most of all, I felt the satisfaction of living close to nature. Whether it was accepting the darkness without any artificial means to counter it or the multi-purpose utilization of freshwater natural sources or simply finding a private place to take a dump around the boulders. The entire experience was really infectious and I would suggest everyone who reads this to take such a trip into the mountains.

- Dates: July 13 – July 20, 2014
- Approximate Total Cost including travel, purchases etc.: Rs 15,000
- Organized by – Trek the Himalayas
- Number of group members – 12
- Distance Trekked – Approx. 70km
- Difficulty Level – Easy to Moderate

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