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!
After the gradual climb for the first 2 hours, the trail descended down to the banks of the Lidder river. The sight of the silver waters and its relaxing sound only added to the charm of the trek. We could also spot a few abandoned huts on the opposite bank of the river. The thought of camping in these huts or on the banks of the Lidder did cross our mind. But it was too early in the day and move ahead we had to.
10-15 minutes of level walk along the river and a tea-stall offered us a good break and some refreshing tea. Making the most of this last show of civilization, we loaded up on more tea and snacks before trudging ahead to Lidderwat.
The trail continues behind the tea-stall and heads up a small hillock. The forest huts and the large camping grounds of Lidderwat are not visible unless you move to your left, towards the river. The huts were located on the opposite bank and we had to head back down to cross the river over a small bridge to get there.
From here on there are multiple options depending on the location you wish to trek to.
The trail to Tarsar or Sekwas progressed upwards, behind the forest huts and the camping grounds, following another stream. The trail now climbed up moderately for another hour through an open trail, the forest cover and trees now far behind. A short descent thereafter and we were in the midst of some more shepherd huts. A few photographs later, a short descent led us down to another stream flowing from Sekwas.
To head to Kolahoi glacier, one needs to ascend along the same river which we crossed over on the bridge earlier. Kolahoi glacier is at least 3 to 4 hours away and it is advisable to camp at Lidderwat for the night and trek to Kolahoi the next day. Leave early in the morning to allow for enough time to visit the Kolahoi glacier and return back to the Lidderwat campsite before dark.
When heading towards Tarsar / Sekwas, 2 routes are viable. The first route involves crossing the stream and climbing up on the opposite side towards the mountain ridges visible in the distance, keeping the stream to your right. A second option is to continue and climb gradually keeping the streamto your left, crossing a few huts and meadows along the way, and then crossing over at a narrower section upstream to rejoin the first route heading to Tarsar.
Since the lakes were our priority, we chose the first option and crossed over on a snow-bridge and climbed up on the opposite side of the stream. One more hour of steady ascent and we had made our way close to Sekwas.
We chose to camp higher upstream, closer towards Tarsar, instead of the even ground lower below, to make quick way towards Tarsar and subsequently Marsar the next day. We did not have much trouble finding place to pitch the lone tent we were carrying. Soon enough, before the light of the sun faded away, we were relaxing inside the tent and cooking dinner over plans for the trek ahead.
Day 3: Sekwas to Sonemasti via Tarsar (7 to 8 hour trek)
We gathered our belongings and headed towards in the morning by 8:30 am. It was a steep climb ahead for the next 1 to 2 hours, as we chose to cut across directly to Tarsar with little regard towards following the trail. We could see signs of the more-than-usual snowfall in the mountains this season, as we made our way through terrain covered with snow. Given the amount of snow leading up to Tarsar, crossing over to the Sumbal valley seemed like a difficult proposition.
The last 15-20 minutes of the trek to reach the first lake was over a field of pristine, white snow; leading to a snow-covered Tarsar lake, unusual for this time of the year. No footprints or path cut across the snowfield indicated that we were probably the first ones to arrive at the lake this season – only adding to our delight of sitting by the peaceful Tarsar lake! We spent the next hour or so walking around and exploring the lake and indulging in some snacks while we rested near the lake.
Tarsar appeared completely different from the high altitude lakes that we had been to time and again on the Kashmir Lakes trek. This one was surrounded by snow as well as rocky mountains on all sides, in contrast to the greener surroundings and more “open” lakes of the Kashmir Lakes trek (typically bordered by mountains on one side only as in the case of Vishnusar, Krishnasar and other lakes).
As you reach Tarsar beside the stream that flows out of the lake, the trail to Marsar is visible making its way up on the ridge on the opposite, far side of the lake. The path was faintly visible and the entire ridge leading up to Marsar was covered with snow. A trek up to Marsar did seem daunting. We decided to make an attempt and crossed over to the other side of the lake. As we neared the Marsar trail however, the unmistakable bark of a sheep dog stopped us in our track. Thanks to the dog, a shepherd hut was now visible in the distance.
Avoiding a confrontation with the large dog seemed to be our best option. Fortunately, a young shepherd emerged out of the hut and made his way towards us. We were informed that a few locals had tried to make their way up and beyond the ridge to Marsar a day ago. But the snow made it difficult and prevented them and their sheep from crossing over. We were advised not to go ahead any further. A bit disappointed to hear that, but glad to meet and chat up with the locals as always. We decided to relax for some more time near Tarsar, over a round of black coffee to sip on for all :)
It was 11:30 am by now and our planned destination, Sonemasti was still about 4 hours away. In view of the approaching dark clouds and the long trek ahead of us, we decided to give Marsar a miss. Trying to cross over the ridge and descending to Sonsar seemed like a better alternative.
We set out again to find a way over the ridge and climbed up the rocky section of fairly quickly. The view on the other side was simply breathtaking. A carpet of snow awaited us for as far as we could see, heading down the valley towards Sonemasti.
The descent and trek thereafter on the soft snow was undoubtedly the best part of the trek for us. Sliding, glissading, jumping and somersaulting on. Sonemasti was still far away though and the trail buried under snow for most part. A 30-40 minute steep descent from the snowy slopes to the camping meadows was indeed a bit tricky, but was carefully and safely negotiated.
We finally did manage to get to a safe camping ground by 4:30 pm, just before the skies opened up for a brief spell of rain.
Day 4: Sonemasti to Sumbal (3 to 4 hour trek)
Though we got up early in the morning, we decided to rest a bit longer given our long trek the previous day. Following breakfast at 8:30 am, the trek to Sumbal began at 9:15 am. From Sonemasti, the trek to Sumbal is all descent – gradual to moderate to steep sections and numerous stream crossings. Some of the stream crossings were wide, tricky and with a strong flow that threatened to literally sweep us off our feet. Strategically placing wooden logs to aid the crossing and jumping over wet boulders added some zest to an otherwise routine trek down the valley!
We came across many shepherds settled in makeshift huts on the Sumbal side of the valley, waiting for the snow to recede before they made their way higher up with their livestock. Most were surprised to hear that we had managed to cross over the high pass early in the season – and even asked us for more information on the situation higher up in the mountains. The constant barking of the sheep dogs prevented more chatter though – and a cup of tea which we were again looking forward to by now :)
We had reached the upper houses of Sumbal by 11:15 am and another hour of walking through the terraced fields and narrow paved lanes brought us to the road head near the Sumbal power plant. An uneventful 40 minute bus ride and it was back to the familiar, comfortable setting of Mushtaq’s house and of course, crispy rotis with namkeen chai!
PS: We head back to Tarsar and Masrar again in July & August 2015. Find out more and join us on this lovely trek!