The walk up the Gadsar Pass from Vishansar and Krishansar lakes (Photos: Rishad Saam Mehta)
I HAVE ARRIVED IN SONAMARG IN PITCH DARKNESS AND AT THAT FIRST NIGHT’S campsite, have largely operated via touch and feel. It being a moonless night hasn’t helped either. I can hear the cackle of laughter and the hubbub of the campsite that 22 other people are sharing with me. I don’t know anybody in that group that I am to spend the next eight days with, and I wonder if this new “do things on a whim” idea is a good one.
It has been ages since I have put my legs to good use and gone on an eight-day walk over undulating terrain, given my work writing about road trips. Sure, a two-hour walk here or a half-an-hour scramble up a mountain there, but these had been far and few between. So, when I heard about this Great Lakes of
Kashmir trek, I was a bit sceptical about my prowess over paths that undulated and wrapped over the crumpled topography of the Kashmir Himalayas.
But the allure had been too much to ignore. For one, I have always found treks in the Himalayas fascinating thanks to the fact that they take you way up and away, beyond the reach of any form of motorised transport, and secondly, every old book I had read about trekking in the Himalayas had always mentioned that Kashmir was the pinnacle of Himalayan trekking, but unfortunately, political circumstances had severely restricted trekking in the state.
But here was a window of opportunity that I had signed on.
The next morning when I wake up and pull open the flap of my tent, I am convinced beyond doubt that I have made the right move because the beauty that hits me in the face is beyond what I had imagined. And right now, we are at the roadhead, a place that is as yet accessible by motor vehicles. As we would head into the mountains and climb high and far away from the tarmac, it would get even better.
This trek that goes from Sonamarg to Naranag is one of Kashmir’s most accessible treks, and also its most stunning, because it goes past a series of high-altitude lakes that are glacier-fed and sit pretty amidst craggy snowcapped peaks.
The best time to do this trek is in between July and September when the wildflowers are blooming and the weather is generally good, but the rain is a hit and miss. But that day, it was bright and sunny with blue skies and puffy clouds.
And for the first time since I arrived, I meet my fellow trekkers. They are a motley bunch of adventurers with a gang of friends from Pune and Delhi and a Spaniard called Mariano who, like me, has also signed up for this trek on a whim.
With our day packs on our backs, we set off. The camp staff would pack up the camp and load our luggage on mules and follow later, but since they were deft and experienced on this trail, they would overtake us enroute and arrive at the next campsite before us and set up before we arrived. They walked with a purpose while we were walking for pleasure.
That first day’s walk is a gentle stroll that goes past ancient shepherd settlements through silver birch forests and a few hours of easy walking later, we arrive at our camp at the base of the Nichnai Pass. This is at 11,500 feet and so the first of the high-altitude headaches has started to sprout, as have the first blisters. This leads to a campfire discussion about how it is very important to keep well hydrated and tape even the smallest blister so that it has no chance to grow.
On the morning of the third day, a few people are wondering whether this trek is a bit too much for them because the headaches are still around. But Pankaj, from Delhi, points to the Nichnai Pass and says that fortitude needs to be mustered till the summit of the pass and then all will be well.
With his words of encouragement acting like a balm, we all set off and realise that he is right. While it is a bit of a slog getting to the 13,500-feet high Nichnai Pass, it in fact gets easier as we climb higher because our bodies are now acclimatising to the altitude.
Pankaj is right because there is truly salvation in the form of visual beauty on the other side of the Nichnai Pass. There are meadows filled with wildflowers. Someone within the group quips that this is the place where many of the photos in Adam Stainton’s definitive Flowers of the Himalaya were shot.
Our campsite that evening is on the banks of the Vishansar Lake, the first of the lakes. And that night the mess tent is a jolly place. Because all the aches and pains have been banished by the sheer stunning visual feast that is laid out in front of us. The waters of the Vishansar are still and reflective like a looking glass, and so the huge glaciers that hang above it are reflected in its depths. This sends the photographers amongst us in a clicking frenzy. All these lakes do hold some spiritual and cultural significance because this trek has been a pilgrimage trail for many centuries.
The next morning, the sun is beating down and then it just takes one of us to jump into the lake for an invigorating swim and most follow suit.
AFTER THAT GOOD bracing swim, we start off towards the next high-altitude pass of the trek—the Gadsar at 13,800 feet. As usual, the pack mules and kitchen staff overtake us within 90 minutes. As I stop to prudently give the mules a wide berth, the scene below overwhelms me. Krishansar, the next lake, located 500 feet above Vishansar, has come into view and from my vantage point, I can see both nestling together like robin’s eggs in a glacial nest.
There is a series of three small unnamed lakes beyond the Gadsar Pass. These are ideal for a swim. Mariano and I are leading the group, since I wanted to get some photos of the two lakes together with the trekkers straggled along the route. Since the rest of the group is still some way behind and there is not a soul in sight, we decide to go skinny-dipping. We coyly stay neck deep in the cold water while the other trekkers walk by. But the sun is bright, and quite a few others follow us into the water. The last stage of that day’s walk to the campsite winds past another lake, the dramatic Gadsar Lake (11,800 ft) with huge glaciers hanging above it.
But before we get to the campsite, we pass a check post that is manned by the Indian Army and everyone’s name and identification number is noted down. Later that evening, the commandant (a jolly Sardarji) and a few soldiers visit our camp in the evening to take a photograph of the group as required for their log books. They expect to find a quiet scene, since the day’s walk has been a long and hard 12km, but there’s an energetic game of volleyball going on. When the commandant asks the girls to pose together for a photograph as required for the records, they give him a leggy pose with such spontaneous synchronicity that he almost drops the camera in surprise.
Everyone has now settled into a rhythm of waking up, sorting out their daypacks and starting off. But on the fourth day, the rhythm is interrupted because the day starts with a river crossing. There is no bridge and the water is waist deep and flowing at quite a clip. So, we have to form a human chain to get across. Some fortunate (and light) ones are transported across on some rather miffed mules. The mules do two round trips and then, true to their nature, stubbornly refuse to budge. On this day, too, wildflowers abound as we walk to the very scenic campsite of Megandob at 11,850 feet. This is a meadow situated such that it has a bird’s-eye view down the Sindh valley to the upper reaches of the vale of Kashmir.
There is no bridge and the water is waist deep and flowing at quite a clip. So, we have to form a human chain to get across. Some fortunate (and light) ones are transported across on some rather miffed mules
Share this on
There is something soothing in the air on this trek because friendships bloom around the campfire even though many of us are from diverse backgrounds. Easy conversation flows, and the laughter is unrestrained and genuine. And the friendships formed on that trek are strong to this day, years later.
The long and arduous walk up to the Gaj Pass (13,400 feet) is the last of the hard climbs of this trek. But as with most of the walks up to the previous passes, the views more than make up for the hard work. And, in fact, it isn’t that hard anymore even though the path up to the pass is strewn with boulders, making it a sort of technical climb. By now, though we climb at varied speeds, no one pants or wheezes like we did on the first day because we are all well acclimatised. And the breathtaking views of the Gangabal (11,500 ft) and Nundkol lakes also help.
The final campsite of the trek is on the banks of the Gangabal Lake. By now, even those who had been initially hesitant to dive into these cold, glacier-fed lakes jump in without hesitation because the sun is still high in the sky and after spending almost a week with perspiration in full flow but without a bath, the fresh water of the lake feels oh, so good.
The sacred peak of Harmukh rises above the lake, making it a divine experience. It is said that pilgrimages to the base of Harmukh and to the banks of Gangabal long preceded the Amarnath Yatra. Everybody in the group seems to feel the spirituality of the place.
The Harmukh mountain is considered sacred by Hindus, and is often referred to as the Kailash of Kashmir where Lord Shiva resides. There is the legend of the Hurmukhuk Gosoni that is a part of Kashmiri Pandit folklore. CL Sadhu, in his book Some Marvels of Kashmir, has narrated the following story: Once a hermit tried to reach the summit of the Harmukh to see Lord Shiva face-to-face. For 12 long years, he tried to scale the summit, but failed until one day when he saw a gojar descending the summit. When the gojar approached him, the hermit enquired as to what he saw there. The gojar whose goat had strayed and for whom he had been searching, said that he saw a couple milking a cow and drinking the same in a human skull. They had offered some milk to him, which he refused to drink and when they departed, they rubbed a little of the milk on his forehead. As the gojar indicated the spot on his forehead where the milk was rubbed, the hermit was extremely joyful and rushed to lick his forehead. It is said that the hermit attained nirvana and disappeared from the place, to the surprise of the gojar.
The legend is known as Hurmukhuk Gosoni or the “Saint of Harmukh” and the example is frequently used by Kashmiri Pandits.
Straying goats and skull cups notwithstanding, that evening at the base of the mountain and at the bank of that lake is nothing short of nirvana because it was such a beautiful place, and the perfect weather further enhances the feeling of enchantment.
On the final day, though, reality kicks in because we have to descend 3,000 feet over stony ground full of loose rubble. That takes a toll on the knees because even though it seems that descending is less strenuous than climbing, the constant braking and checking your footing exerts more strain on thigh and calf muscles than when ascending. So, that day is all about knackered knees and tortured toes and cramping calves. But when we get to Naranag, the road head, there is a sense of overwhelming achievement and gratitude because not only did the entire group finish the trek in fine form but the weather, that can be very fickle, also held out.
To this day, this trek taking in Kashmir’s great lakes remains my favourite trek ever, even though I have done others like the walk to Machu Picchu in Peru and the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal.