For those who have visited the valley – Kashmir hardly needs any introduction. For those who have not – recall the scenic locations of the Swiss Alps featured in numerous Bollywood movies and photographs alike. The Tarsar-Marsar trek starts off from exactly one such location – Aru, near Pahalgam.
It was early in the 2014 season (June 23rd) when Mushtaq and Kaashi travelled from Sonamarg and put up in a guest house at Khanbal near Anantnag. Delays in the train to Jammu and a frustrating but all too common 3 hour delay at the taxi stand in Jammu (to diligently ensure the requisite number of passengers are cramped up inside a Tata Sumo), meant that I could make it to Khanbal only around mid-night the same day. Too tired to partake in any discussions around the trek, we retired for the night – but not before gorging on the delectable mutton kebabs that Mushtaq had thoughtfully kept aside for a late night snack J
Day 1: Drive from Khanbal (Anantnag) to Aru via Pahalgam
Tired from the previous day’s journey, the plan for today was just to reach Aru, starting point of the Tarsar-Marsar trek. A short 10 minute drive first to the taxi stand in Anantnag was followed by another 2 hours in a shared taxi from Anantnag to Pahalgam. Stocking up on the usual supplies of Maggi, rice, dal and chocolates – our ration for the short trek to follow, we started walking towards the road leading up to Aru.
Being the month of June and a long weekend before the holy month of Ramzan, Pahalgam was choc-a-bloc with local tourists. Making our way through the crowded streets, we managed to hop on to a jeep heading to Aru. Over the next 12 kms, the road winds up gradually, but more importantly away from the teeming streets to the smooth meadows of Aru.
Over the next 3 to 4 days we planned to trek from Aru to Sonemasti, passing along Tarsar, Marsar and Sonsar lakes, ending our trek at the scenic village of Sumbal on the Srinagar – Sonamarg highway.
Day 2: Aru to Sekwas through Lidderwat (4 to 5 hour trek)
A sumptuous breakfast of thin, soft Kashmiri rotis with cups of “namkeen chai” was first on the agenda. Our host in Aru, Mr. Ashraf Gani provided details of the route to be taken and camping spots along the way. He also did mention though, that the route crossing over from the Aru valley to Sonemasti and the Sumbal valley had not yet been crossed over owing to a lot of snow on the high pass. An early retreat back to Aru from Tarsar seemed on the cards, but we decided to trek on anyway and reach the pass first before deciding on venturing any further.
A final check of our camping gear and provisions and our trek was underway by 9 a.m. along a path through some splendid fields and flowering meadows around Aru. For the next 2 hours or so the trail passed through a pine tree forest, a gradual ascent all along. The forest cover did give way at times to views of the open valley with few shepherd huts, green meadows and sauntering horses. Shepherds (‘Bakarwal’ or ‘Gujjar’ as referred to in these parts) with their flock added colour and variety to the landscape as well. A stream crossing and wooden log bridges along the way sure did keep the trail interesting too!
For any trekker, the joy of crossing over a pass and setting foot onto a new valley is magnificent. Passes afford the best views of the whole trail, are the sources of watersheds which keep us hydrated through the whole journeys and the best part, once you reach a high mountain pass, the exhilaration is almost unparalleled, only next to summiting a mountain.
By definition, A Mountain Pass is the highest point of the lowest possible route to connect two valleys. Its the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks and exists on the line of the watershed between them, through which water flows down into the two valleys. Passes are known as a Pass, Col, Saddle, Notch; with slightly different definitions but used interchangably in many cases.
For years, mountain passes have been important routes for trade between civilizations since long. Important centres of trade have developed around the base of the passes, allowing traders to rest, barter their products and reach markets. Passes have also been used extensively for migration, permanent or seasonal, of people. Also, with the mountain ranges always presenting formidable barriers, Mountain passes have been used for war beyond the mountain ranges since long.
The height of a peak from a Pass is the prominence of the peak, which is the minimum height required to ascend a mountain after climbing down from a higher peak.
In Ladakh and Tibet region, passes are known as La, thus the names Khardung La, Chang La, Nathu La, Marsimik La etc.
A few famous passes known as Cols are Auden's Col above Gangotri , South Col linking Everest & Lhotse etc.
On a long Himalayan trek, it is very important to pack your Backpack efficiently. A backpack is your one constant companion throughout the trek, giving you support for those long walks up the mountain.
Before you start packing
Keep in mind the following tips to pack a backpack properly:
1. Depending on your trekking style, you will need to pack varying amount of stuff with you. Alpine trekkers generally carry all their belongings themselves, with loads up to 20-25 Kgs whereas in group treks, you need to carry only your personal belongings, up to 8-10 Kgs.
2. Pack your heavier stuff in the middle of the pack, creating a comfortable centre of gravity. A bottom-heavy pack feels saggy while a top-heavy feels tippy. Keep the heaviest items above your sleeping bag & close to your spine for good support.
3. Keep the items you will need at night only at the bottom except for the headlamp which should always be at your disposal.
4. Make efficient use of outside pockets to keep the oft-required things handy at all times.
5. Keep all the compression straps tightened to limit load-shifting. Make sure your backpack sits well on your back & shoulders, distributing the weight properly.
6. Carry a rain cover and keep it stored in a handy location. Even for water proof backpacks, a good rain cover helps cover the seams and zippers which can allow water to seep in, in case of heavy showers.
7. Keep a separate bag to carry Wet or dirty clothes and socks in your backpack. Keep a small garbage bag to carry personal waste back from the trail
8. Cover all pointed edges and spikes appropriately in your backpack, inside and outside both. Any loose edges can damage material kept beside it.
It was a mixture of trepidation & excitement with which I boarded the flight to Srinagar on my first visit to the valley. This trek was a result of planning going on for the last 5-6 months, a mix of my Chadar trek-mates, School friends and College friends all going for our first trip to what can be considered the most hauntingly beautiful valley, a place entangled in the throes of time, the war cries looming over the silver pearls of flowing Jhelum.
The drive from Srinagar airport to Sonmarg was refreshing, one thing which catches your eye is the vast expanse of the Kashmir valley, very different from what one can find in the other mountainous regions. It is spread over kilometers of flower beds, gardens of chinar, birch, maple & walnut interspersed with the tranquility of the lakes & the Jhelum flowing through.
We reached Sonmarg around lunchtime after a 3 hour drive, all of us coming through the morning flights to Srinagar. Before settling down at our campsite along the Sindh river a few kilometers before Sonmarg, we went to what are famous as the golden pastures of the valley, the name Sonmarg literally meaning so. The place is exceptionally beautiful and it reminds you of the first image every Indian has of Kashmir(thanks to the cinema of the 70’s & 80’s), acres of flowing green meadows against the backdrop of snow-clad mountains. If it is so beautiful right now along a national highway, how is it going to be when we go into the mountains, the question makes the trek seem even more exciting, the excitement of the trail tomorrow barely subdued.
With the other trekkers also coming by now, we all go to our campsite and settle down into our tents, blue spots dotted along the river in a space dominated by greens of all hues.
First day of a trek is full of excitement and challenges. You are finally going to leave the civilization behind and delve deep into the mountains. We all said goodbyes to family on phone, promising to call back as soon as we descend down after 7 days.