Lush meadows, azure sky, limpid lakes, an autumnal aura encapsulated the whole landscape of lakes, mountains and passes that we crossed on our recent trek to Kashmir, Great Lakes. The trek receives its name from the numerous glacial lakes encountered enroute. We were told by our trek guide, there are around eighty lakes in that region, we saw just seven of them!
We were picked up from Srinagar airport and transported to Gaganger, our base camp in Sonamarg. After a quick introduction and briefing by Vikrant and Joslyn the trek leaders, we warmed up to a delicious dinner and rested through
We retired to our respective tents for the night, we were four girls in one tent and that kept us cosy and warm. Next morning, after a quick breakfast of coffee/ tea, cereal and sandwich, we embarked upon our journey around 8:30am, headed by Riyaaz, our guide. We were a team of twenty five, a group of thirteen of us from across India and a group of twelve from Hongkong. The first day as expected was the most difficult both in terms of stamina to trek such a long stretch and acclimatization. The terrain was beautifully green for most part of it, through forests and meadows. We crossed Shekdur and after numerous breaks and a packed lunch of puri sabzi alongside a brook, we dragged ourselves along until we reached Nichnai pass, our first campsite around 6pm.
We were greeted by steaming soupy maggi and tea. I was unwell with cold and headache, so I popped in a dispirin and slept through the next hour. By the time I woke up, the sleeping bag felt wet, the tent felt suffocating and outside there wasnt a single ray of light. However, the headache had disappeared and I sprang back to my spirit.s After dinner around 8:30pm we sat for sometime around the fire lit by the horsemen and chitchatted under a clear sky teeming with millions of stars, something you wouldnt really see in the cities!
Our routine for the next few days were fixed. We would wake up to Joslyn, our trek leader’s whistle between 5-5:30am for tea. It would be thankless to not mention that through those few days, the kitchen staff who got to know of my preference would prepare tea without sugar, separately for me. In such conditions, this was nothing short of luxury ! Breakfast and lunch (to be packed) would be ready by the time we would clean up, rolled back our sleeping bags, dismantled our tents and got ready for the day ahead. I cannot think of a single instance when Mustafa, the cook, repeated the menu. Little things that make all the difference!
The trek to Vishansar on the second day was relatively shorter and easier, the terrain slightly different with mostly meadows to cross. We reached the campsite by afternoon and hiked up to the lake. A marvelous green and blue shimmered in the sun. Photo sessions followed. We got back to the camp for evening tea, bread pakoda, antakshari and mafia.
Before long the whistle blew for tomato soup and croutons, some more mafia, dinner and a game of cards before we froze in our respective tents, trying to sleep. It was windy and even more colder. I woke up that night to the roaring wind beating against the walls of my tent, I froze in fear of the tent being blown away, although nothing of that sort happened. It rained quite heavily through the night but had cleared up by next morning. The raindrops had crystallized on our tents, we had to shake them off before dismantling.
The third day began with a steep climb… in sometime we reached a height from where both the lakes Vishansar and Kishansar could be viewed together. We were awestruck by the haunting beauty of it. The sunlight and the strange peace of the mountains would flow in us as we walked, few advantages of being in such intimate contact with nature. We peaked to the highest point of the trek, the Gadsar Pass, at 13,800ft. It was unbearably cold and windy, albeit a lovely day with the sun shining strong and bright. After a brief pause, we started our descent. We broke for lunch at the Gadsar Lake. The terrain hereafter was flat and dotted with the Iris flower.
We reported to the Gadsar Army camp where we were very warmly received with glass of warm water, smiles and conversations… about an hour later we proceeded to our campsite. All of our campsites were along the river, our life-source through those few days. We washed and cleaned up, the kitchen staff washed utensils and got water for cooking, some washed their clothes (members from Hongkong team), and we even filled our bottles for drinking water from the Sindh river, which accompanied us through major part of the trek.
On the fourth day, we started by crossing a river, barefoot! Painfully numb the icy water cut like knife, and to worsen matter some of us stopped midway unable to move while some stepped on mossy rocks slipping and faltering right in the middle of it! Precariously we crossed over holding on to our guides Riyaaz, Javed and Joslyn. We descended a bit before climbing up just above the treeline, followed by a flat walk through the meadows. We walked the narrow paths etched against the mountain wall keeping to the left. One lone maple tree watched us move over the otherwise barren terrain. I dreamt about that maple tree later that night.
We reached the second army post and underwent a more rigorous process of id checking and interrogation. Moving ahead we found the first lake of the seven, Satsar, meaning seven lakes. Upon reaching the campsite, I rested and watched some others resting….been a hard day after all ! I napped upon a rock in the sun while this beauty rolled alongside. Soon after some of us, climbed some more mountain and crossed some boulder strewn path to visit another lake nearby.
We came back to the campsite and attended to our usual mafia and antakshari, snacking over delicious khichdi and tea, grateful and humbled by the simple pleasures of life and the untiring service of these agile mountaineers, the very warm and hospitable staff of Indiahikes. With each passing day, our capacity to bear the cold go better. A layer of thermal would do the trick by the night, days were usually sunny and we were walking most of the time, so a jacket/ sweater was enough.
The fifth day according to me was the most difficult with some serious boulder hopping and balancing act! The ascent of the third day was easier than this. I suffer from slight vertigo, and every time I looked down I froze before I could move ahead. Fellow trekkers kept on encouraging me, Mustafa and Riyaaz helped me along… The long descent was bad on the knees and toes. A flat meadow walk followed, before climbing up a ridge. We broke for lunch on Zach pass, which greeted us with yet another surprise! The view from atop encompassed both Nandkol and Gangabal lakes cradled by snow capped peaks.
Our campsite was on the other side of the ridge on the bank of Nandkol Lake. This last stretch of walk over the ridge was the highlight of my trek. That last one hour, I walked alone without another being in sight. Some had reached the camp while the others were way behind. It felt like walking into a sunset hidden behind a smoky snow-capped peak… Mountains humble me and I have long stopped trying to capture the grandeur of it in words… The surrealism touched me like magic, and any analysis of it would destroy the poetry, so I’d let it be…
Some tasty noodles and soup was ready for snack. The readiness of the kitchen staff amazed me, almost everyday before we reached they were prepared with the evening snack, such luxury was unimaginable !
The next day was a buffer day for us. Since we had completed the trek as per schedule, we had that one day of rest on which we decided to picnic at Gangabal Lake. The following day was a respite from waking up early and everyone was seemingly happy with the well-earned leisure. We broke our fast over some delicious aloo paratha, which kept on vanishing even before they arrived! Post breakfast we went to Gangabal Lake to idle away some time by the crystal lucid waters of the lake.
We came back to the campsite around noon and headed straight to the Nandkol Lake, for what we would like to call as the luxury himalayan spa…. we sat on the edge of the rocks for long, dipping our legs into the cold water and splashing some on the face…such rejuvenating experience ! After lunch we met the other group, the last batch for the season led by Vikrant had arrived. They had camped some fifteen minutes away from us. Pleasantries were exchanged and pictures were clicked over tea…. the evening was a finale with a bonfire, folklore and dancing by our friends from the mountains and Hongkong. A special treat of Biriyani followed before we retired for the night… In fact every dinner was a fare for that matter, with options of rice and chapati, salad, dal, sabzi and a desert. We had two birthdays which were also celebrated with cakes at an altitude of 12000 ft… the best birthday celebration one could wish for!
I sat outside my tent staring at the stars and enjoying the silence, knowing it would not be available from the following day in the plains. It was like collecting energy from the silence and beauty around to be able to grapple with life anew!
The sixth and final day was our last descent to Naranag through a misty forest. It rained and impeded our progress. The mists added to the mystery and we whiled away our time stopping to take pictures every now and then… we may not admit it but it was an intentional delay to stay a little longer in the mountains…. The climb downhill through muddy roads and pine forest makes for a beautiful sight. The last bit was quite steep in terms of descent and the rain made it slippery.