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.
The first part of the climb today takes us to a vantage point, Shekdur table-top, from where you can see the entire valley we have left behind, with meadows of Sonmarg visible in the distance. It is a moderate ascent of 3-4 hours to reach here. Shepherd huts dot the landscape here and we also had 3 beautiful children for company along the way. We continue forward through a stretch of pine forests, gradually gaining height. It is important to remember that on the first day of the trek, most people feel slight shortness of breath. This is perfectly alright, considering for most of us, the physical exertion would be a big difference from our sedentary lifestyles. Give your body time to settle down into a rhythm, there is no need to rush ahead, just keep moving at your own pace.
Climbing out of the small stretch of forest, we can see the Nichnai nullah ahead. We reach its bank & settle down for lunch. The trek further is along the valley now, along the Nichnai Nullah which is flowing down from the Nichnai Pass. Our camp for the day is along this path, 2 hours ahead, at the base of Nichnai pass which we intend to cross tomorrow. The campsite is beautifully located, right along the nullah, with its roaring waters providing a constant roar all through the night.
For a trek which has more than 7 lakes all along, we haven’t yet seen any. And today is the day; we are all excited to walk towards Vishnusar and Kishansar lakes. But first up is the Nichnai Pass, our first real challenge on the trek. Even though by all standards, this is an easy pass to cross, but it can be over-whelming, coming on the second day of the trek. We tug ourselves up along the Nullah, crossing it over towards its true left bank and continuing further.
We get the first signs of what we will see all along the trek. A carpet of red flowers welcoming us towards the pass, refreshing the difficult journey. On the right side hidden behind a ridge is the Nichnai lake. We don’t go towards the lake, as it’s off the way, its turquoise waters nevertheless calling out to us.
Crossing the pass, situated at 13500 feet, we descend on the other side to a vast open valley. It is a scene straight out of dreams, green grasslands interspersed with a rivulet flowing across. We sit down at the base of the pass and enjoy our lunch, prolonging it just to soak in the place within us. After lunch, it is a pleasant walk towards our camps, just below the Vishnusar lake. We leave our backpacks in the camp and rush up towards the lake. It is magnanimous, the first lake on the trek and I am already sold on it. The calmness you encounter along these lakes is something you will seldom find anywhere else in this world. We just sit along, each one of us lost in their own thoughts, enjoying the mini waves on the surface, with mighty mountains in the background.
After as sumptuous dinner and sleeping in the lap of nature, we are ready for what is considered the toughest climb of this trek, the Gadsar pass. The way to the pass goes along the twin lakes. Crossing the Vishnusar lake, a gentle climb takes us towards the Kishansar lake. A feature of the twin lakes on this trek is a stair case model, each lake above acts as a feeder to the lake below. In fact there is one more lake hidden above Kishansar which feeds into it.
The climb towards the pass is tough. Its 3 hours of ascent, at a steep angle without any flat paths. All along the climb, you can see the path towards the pass and it can get overwhelming after a point of time. The key on this and on any difficult climb is to keep the focus on taking the next step. This would help you in achieving the ultimate goal of reaching the top.
In my opinion, the view from the top of the pass is the second best on this trek (Read on for the best view that too involves a set of twin lakes). Looking back, the twin lakes look majestic, sitting nestled between the peaks rising around them. And ahead is a very long valley, colored red/blue/green with flowers and grass. This is the Valley of Gadsar Lake, which lies ahead on the trail. You can see another smaller lake ahead on the right side, Yamsar Lake, supposedly poisonous and we keep off it.
A treacherous descent down for half an hour takes us to the valley floor from where it’s a meandering walk straight ahead along the meadows to Gadsar Lake. We stop here for lunch and its simply mesmerizing. The lake is amazingly beautiful with a variety of flowers all around on its banks. The lake is fed by small streams coming down from the mountains but does not have a visible outlet of water. Locals believe that the lake is haunted and it’s not considered safe to stay here for the night. So we move along after lunch towards our campsite further ahead in the valley. Today we pass through the first army check point on the trek. All the trekkers and support staff is checked for identity by the army team. The folks at the camp are really happy to see trekkers and mingle freely with all of us, sharing stories and anecdotes about local places. We camp just next to the army camp for the night.
A relatively easy day, coming from yesterday’s long climbing day, we move towards the Satsar pass today. It’s a long walk, gradually gaining height towards the pass. We move in the same valley along the stream which we cross over around 2 KMs ahead on the trail. The trail moves into another valley towards left and continues further. It’s a beautiful spot where the group regroups and sits for a while. This spot affords mighty views of K-2 in the distance on a clear day.
The approach to the Satsar pass is the easiest on this trek. It’s a gradual walk up the grassy slopes upto the pass which has an army outpost on the top. All of us are again checked here and after another session of bonhomie with the Army guys, we move forward. Satsar pass is named so for the 7 lakes which are spread across the path ahead of the pass. The first lake comes right next to the pass and these jewels in the valley continue forward for a kilometer or so. We rest near one of the lakes and gather for lunch. It’s a prolonged session of gossips and gyaan culminating in most of us taking a siesta next to the banks of the lake.
The camp is just ahead of the lakes and we stroll towards the camp after lunch and rest. The camp is situated in a wide valley with high mountains all around. We all end up playing Frisbee for 2-3 hours and enjoying the day. It is one of the most relaxed days on the trek and everyone is enjoying it to the full.
After an enchanting night, where we spent time trying to capture the Milky Way through our cameras, we all wake up refreshed for a tough climb towards Zach pass. The valley near Satsar affords wide-angle views of the night sky and we were able to get some gorgeous shots of the night sky.
The trek towards the pass starts with a climb along a ridge towards right from our camp. We move through a boulder stretch with a steep slope, rapidly gaining height towards the neck of the mountain. From here, the trail moves towards right into a high valley towards the pass. It’s a tough going from here on, with everyone huffing and puffing their way towards the top. It takes us an arduous climb of almost 3 hours to reach the top of the pass. Lo and behold, here is the BEST view of the trek. We have in front of us, the twin lakes of Gangbal and Nundkol, cradled under the mighty Mt. Harmukh. It’s a sight not granted to many people in this world. All of us just sit back and gaze at the magic mountain, with its hanging glacier. It plays hide and seek with the clouds and it’s not long before the mountain completely disappears, the locals saying that it was our good luck that we got to enjoy the mesmerizing scene but by the time the cameras came out, the mist had risen from the valley. A lot of the trekking teams are not fortunate enough to get a clear window to view Harmukh from Zach pass.
An hour or so later, we pick ourselves up, still lost in the gorgeous views and make our way down into the valley, towards the Nundkol lake which will be our campsite for the day. It’s a long and easy descent, passing through a small stream after which we get up towards a small ridge around the twin lakes and then descent down again. This last camp is right next to the lake and we enjoy the serenity of the water right outside our tents.
When your routine for the last 5 days has been to get up early and rush to pack everything and get going, it’s a refreshing change to have a rest day on the trek. Today, we get a chance to explore the twin lakes of Gangbal and Nundkol. The day starts lazily munching our breakfast and getting ready for going out and having fun. A bunch of us decide to go and take a dip in the freezing waters of Nundkol, a brave move I must say. The water is freezing cold and the first few moments in the water really hit you hard. But it’s really a refreshing feeling to get into the water after so many days and the 3-4 minutes in the water gets all of us in high spirits.
After a leisurely breakfast, we move towards the Gangbal lake which is situated higher than Nundkol and feeds into it. A bright sunny day lifts everyone’s spirits and the group spends time together, a few of us drifting off into the lake alsoJ. While the whole group decides to head back for lunch, 4 of us try to complete a full round around the Gangbal lake. What happened hereafter is an adventure none of us would ever forget. The Parikrama which we thought would be complete in an hour or so took us a good 4 hours to do. Two of us lost our slippers (yea we were wearing slippers instead of trek shoes, it being a rest day) and all of us had to wade through an icy cold stream coming down straight from the top of Harmukh while doing the parikrama. Bare-footed, hungry but at the same time, very content, we reached back to the camp just before it was getting dark and were met by stern words from the Trek leader about getting lost.
The last night on the trek was spent with a camp fire and all of us danced around long into the night. We celebrated the Jewish New year with a group of 3 American Jewish trekkers along us. The bonhomie and closeness you develop during a trek is one of the best things which happen on the mountains. Without the cellphones, the apps, the whatsapp’s of the world, you actually get around talking to people and getting to know them intimately. We retired to our tents very late into the night, with a tinge of sadness at the impending last day of the trek.
Everyone dragged themselves around in the morning, reluctant to get ready and leave the company of the mountains, our guides, porters, cook and each other. It is going to be a mostly downhill journey but we start with a slight ascent towards the neck of the hill, going around Harmukh towards the true right side of the stream flowing out of the Nundkol lake. We now enter back down into forested areas, crossing over an army outpost. A relatively flat trail takes us back to the first sign of civilization, a small tea shop, selling excellent tea and baked bread. We all treat ourselves to the delicious bread and cups of tea.
Now starts the last leg of the trek, a long and difficult descent towards Naranag, crisscrossing straight down the face of the mountain. It takes a good 2-3 hours and many breaks to rest the troubled knees and toes to get down, the last part proving so much more difficult when you can just see the road head around the corner.
Back to *humanity*, we visit the ancient stone temples of Naranag. Personally for me, its never a good feeling being back from the mountains, but its always an opportunity to look forward to the next adventure. We all say our goodbyes to the team and, with nostalgia in our eyes, sit in our vehicles towards Srinagar. The last day is spent around Dal Gate, staying in a houseboat, taking a walk around the lake, enjoying the Shikara ride early morning in Dal, enjoying the freshly baked bread from a bakery nearby. And with a heavy heavy heart, I bid goodbye to the heaven on earth, with a slight tear in my eye at the thought of leaving. But, I know, I will be back, back so many times again.
Join the WildBooters as we go to these slopes again.
Check out the Kashmir Lakes Trek at http://www.wildboots.in/kashmir-lakes-trek.html