Until I went to Kashmir Great Lakes, I thought autumn was my favourite season to trek. Cloudless skies, a forget-me-not blue above me, colours everywhere, warm days, cold nights…
It couldn’t get better than that, could it?
And then I trekked to Kashmir Great Lakes at the end of August.
Between August 27th and September 7th to be precise. It was in between monsoon and autumn — the mountains were undergoing a kind of transformation. The clouds, the colours, the flowers, the views! There was an unreal mix of clouds and blue skies!
So today I’m putting together a photo story of my trek. I went with my colleague Suhas, so you’ll see his name popping up a few times.
I’ll start with my entry into Kashmir.
My first view of the Kashmir Valley was from my flight. For a few minutes, we were over a bed of clouds.
And suddenly, we surfaced below the clouds and the green valley opened up!
Flying over mountains is something I can never get enough of!
On the first day of the trek, we had clear skies.
In fact, it was fairly hot.
The trail passes through few of the most beautiful silver birch and maple forests — the longest stretches of these forests that I’ve seen.
On the very first day of the trek, you cross a mountain pass – Nichnai Pass.
And then you emerge amidst tall mountains all around.
You camp at Nichnai that night.
(I was not well in the beginning of the trek and covered the first day’s trek on horseback. That’s a different story altogether. So I did not get too many pictures of the first day’s trek. My real trek started only as we approached Vishansar).
The next day, we trekked to Vishansar.
That’s when the clouds started coming in.
We were surrounded by tall cliffs and clouds as we explored the Vishansar and Kishansar Lakes.
The next morning, we started our climb to Gadsar Pass.
It was a wonderful morning to trek!
Clouds made a gorgeous roof over our heads, filtering sunlight.
There were just enough clouds to shelter us from the sun, but not too many to obscure our view!
The higher we climbed, the better the view got and bam!
We saw this from Gadsar Pass!
The photo doesn’t do justice. (No photo ever does justice to Kashmir).
But this was just the beginning of things to come.
And the view on the other side of the pass was no less! ↓
The thing about the Kashmir Great Lakes trek is that you think there are around 7-8 lakes on the entire trail.
But that’s not true.
There are tens and tens of tiny lakes, like these in the picture!
And they all make the trek what it is.
Our next highlight was the Gadsar Lake.
We all pestered our Trek Leader asking him if each of these tiny lakes was Gadsar Lake.
He said “Hold your horses! When you see Gadsar, you’ll know that it is Gadsar.”
After around an hour of walking, we saw Gadsar. It was unmistakable!
It was pretty as a picture, feeding off of the melting snow from the cliffs above.
The cliffs above looked rugged, especially with grey clouds close above them.
We sat by the side of the lake for a while, just taking in the turquoise waters.
Then we made to leave. Our campsite was a couple of kilometres away.
I remember wishing the trail was longer!
Because what we walked through was a spectacular valley full of purple flowers!
We reached the Gadsar campsite in the afternoon.
It was like the clouds around were telling us a story!
A rugged grey mountain would emerge from the clouds, tall and glorious. He would shake off the clouds around him for a few seconds, bask in the precious sun and go back to his foggy den.
That night, we went to sleep protected by big mountains.
The next morning, we started our trek to Satsar.
It was a lovely day to trek again.
A beautiful mix of clouds and blue sky!
Once we entered the Satsar Valley, COLD drops of raining began falling from the clouds. We half-trekked, half-ran to the Satsar campsite, which was far away.
The Satsar Valley itself was engulfed in rain clouds.
We saw the 7-8 lakes of Satsar in a hurry as we ran to the campsite.
Once we sat in our tents, it completely stopped raining, revealing a gorgeous blue sky.
We even saw a circular rainbow, which I failed to capture.
That night we went to bed early. Suhas and I watched an episode of Planet Earth before sleeping, which showed us animals in the mountains.
We had to climb Zach Pass the next day.
The next morning was extremely foggy. We saw dense clouds floating in and out of the valley, like they all had somewhere important to go.
Turns out they were coming along with us to Zach Pass. Because ALL we saw was clouds that day.
We started our walk through the clouds, over the boulders of Satsar.
FYI: The Kashmir Great Lakes trek is pretty deceiving. Most pictures show you lakes, meadows and Switzerland-like landscapes. Hardly anyone tells you that you have three mountain passes to cross, that you cover nearly 12 km everyday and that there’s a 2-hour boulder section from Satsar to Zach Pass.
That was nearly two hours of hopping, skipping, jumping, crawling over these boulders.
It was incredibly fun! Suhas and I hummed to ourselves and we boulder-hopped.
Both of us felt like Himalayan Ibices!
Before we knew it, we had reached Zach Pass!
This is when something incredible happened.
The five of us who reached first stood at the pass looking on the other side of the pass. We had seen so many pictures of the view from here.
But we saw nothing.
Just blank grey space.
Since we had reached before the rest of the team, we sat there, talking to each other.
I sat wondering whether I like clouds at all, because I had heard so much about the view from Zach Pass. And this grey space is all I got.
Then suddenly, Suhas shouted “Oh my god look!”
And then we saw it.
The clouds just above the two lakes cleared up slightly, revealing blue waters far far away.
We got to see it for only 30-60 seconds before the clouds covered it up again.
The rest of the team waited at the pass for nearly 25 minutes but didn’t get to see it again.
But the five of us were thrilled to bits. We ran down the pass, enjoying the descent and the clouds around.
Our best view was yet to come.
Now that we had lost height, we were below the clouds.
The lakes were not in our view anymore. They were hidden behind the mound we were walking on.
We walked impatiently, eager to get a good view of the Gangabal Lake.
We went huffing puffing, talking to each other.
And as we turned a corner, we stopped mid-speech.
We were here.
The most dramatic view we had seen on the entire trek unfolded before our eyes.
It took a while to process the view.
We sat down gaping.
The lighting, the clouds, Mt Harmukh (16,780 ft) rising up from Gangabal, the lake shimmering, it was all too much!
We slowly walked closer to the lake. It was one of the most beautiful walks on the trek!
Spending time by the Nandkol LakeNandkol is the biggest Lake on the trek.
Both Gangbal and Nandkol are fed by the melting ice from Mt Harmukh.
If you don’t know, Mt Harmukh is historically significant, because it was from atop this peak that the world’s second tallest mountain was discovered. It was in 1856 that Thomas Mongomerie from the Great Trinometric Survey noted down two prominent peaks – naming them K1 (Masherbrum) and K2.
We spent some time by the lake, until it started raining. Then we ran back to our campsite.
We saw this Kashmiri mother and son crossing the bridge — the first sign of civilization after 7 days!
At the campsite, we were a bit dejected.
It was the last day of the trek and none of us wanted to descend the next morning.
The usual end-of-trek blues.
But a game of cricket brought everyone back to life. Especially because it was during sun set and Mt Harmukh was standing like a sentry in the backdrop.
The best part of that evening was the sun setting behind Mt Harmukh.
I couldn’t tear my eyes off of it.
As the sun began to go down, all clouds scooted from the sky and flewtowards the mountain, as if clothing it in warm layers for the night. The sky turned blue.
And within no time, there was this furious fire in the sky behind Mt Harmukh.
I was glued to the view for nearly half an hour, unable to look away.
I felt a solid sense of gratification going to sleep that night. Every minute on this trek (even on horseback) had been worth it.
The next day, on our agenda was a long day’s descent to Naranag.
We sat in the tent for a while, still bundled up in our sleeping bags. We wondered what the view was like outside.
Like a child unwrapping a bar of chocolate, I fumbled with the cold tent zip and lifted the dewy flap. With bated breath both of us peeped outside. And we let out a silent gasp of awe.
We had a direct view of Mt Harmukh and the glacier on it.
As we started our descent, we looked back one last time at Mt Harmukh.
The top of the mountain was beautifully aglow! Not a sign of a single cloud.
It was the first time on the trek that we couldn’t see a single cloud.
And then there was that moment when the sun rose just above the easterly hills and spread a golden glow on the meadows.
Oh we were weak in our knees looking these meadows!
And then we entered the treeline!
Trees! We were seeing trees after five tree-less days!
And they were in such lovely autumn colours — orange, green, yellow, ochre, brown!
It was a lovely sunny day trekking through this endless forest.
And just like that, our trek ended.
Until now, I maintain that Kashmir is the most beautiful place I’ve been to.
I’m not showing off, but I have been to the Alps in Austria and to Yosemite and all those “postcard-perfect” places.
But Kashmir is not for pictures.
It is for you to experience on foot, with a backpack and a tent.
It is indeed paradise.
A video from my trek
My trek mate, Vignesh Shenoy made this video of our cloudy trek to Kashmir Great Lakes.
I highly recommend giving it four minutes of your time.