In 2012, opening up of the Kashmir Great Lakes by Indiahikes, took the trekking world by storm. Suddenly trekking in Kashmir became a possibility. The trekking fraternity went into a tizzy.
But at Indiahikes, we were already looking beyond the Kashmir Great Lakes. We knew that Kashmir had a lot more to offer than just one trek. We wanted trekkers to experience what it was — perhaps the greatest trekking destination in India.
Like I had mentioned in my earlier article, explorations start with fact finding. So we started researching from the bottom-up. We scanned Kashmir and looked at two zones closely.
First, the Doodhpathri region in the Budgam district. We knew it had few of the best meadows of Kashmir. Trekkers would not have experienced such wondrous grasslands in our country.
Then we looked at a collection of lakes near the Dachigam National Park — the Tarsar and Marsar. We were already hearing a lot about them. The trek to these lakes looked very attractive. Additionally, the multiple exits towards the Srinagar-Sonamarg highway made it a very practical proposition.
We Were Caught In Two Minds, Though
Doodhpathri, the valley of milk, was sounding extremely enticing, but it was too close to Shopian — at that time, a hotbed of militancy.
On the other hand, the Tarsar Marsar lakes were not trouble-free either. We constantly came across stories of how foreign trekkers had been kidnapped in that region. The stories were real. Everyone cautioned us to be careful.
Suddenly, Kashmir was not looking good for explorations.
Which is why, late in the season of 2012, we sent out a one-man team for a quiet exploration of the Tarsar Marsar lakes. It was led by Rahul, our senior most trek leader, along with two of our experienced local team members.
I remember, I was in Gagangir, our base camp for the Kashmir Great Lakes trek. It was an idyllic barn under the shade of apricot trees on the banks of the river Sindh. Rahul came tumbling in suddenly in the evening, quite unexpectedly. He was wet and weary. He was just back from the exploration of Tarsar Marsar.
He gave us a detailed account of how lovely the Tarsar was, how he had followed the route that western trekkers used to take, going to the far end of the Tarsar lake, crossing a ridge, hobbling over boulders, to get to Marsar near its mouth.
He said there was another lake above Marsar, which was Sundarsar, but the weather didn’t permit further exploration. Bad weather didn’t allow him good pictures either.
He bore further grim news. He said shepherds on the trail didn’t look friendly to him. A couple of them even asked him to head back. He didn’t feel safe.
That effectively put an end to our exploration plans of the Tarsar Marsar lakes. We considered looking at other areas, but we didn’t feel very encouraged. The threat of militancy hung in the air.
What stayed in my mind was a sentence that Rahul told me. He said, “Arjun, Tarsar is prettier than any of the lakes on our Kashmir Great Lakes trek.”
How We Finally Explored Tarsar Marsar
Two years went by. Kashmir Great Lakes was a stupendous success. We felt more confident about Kashmir and knew the lay of the land better. Our connections grew, our apprehensions about militancy reduced.
Our increased connections presented a fresh new perspective of Kashmir — that trouble in Kashmir was more imagined than real, that it was ok to explore Kashmir, leaving out obvious troubled zones.
With renewed hope, we planned for another exploration of the Tarsar Marsar lakes with a fresh local team. This time, Sandhya and I wanted to see it for ourselves, and gauge the threat perception. We could not put trekkers in danger.
So in July of 2014, Sandhya and I, along with Manish Pasad, our chief of operations, formed a three member team. We were going to be led by Aziz Mia, a genial horseman from Aru. He had walked these mountains since he was a child. If anyone knew the lay of the land, it was Aziz Mia.
What We Found During The Exploration
Our fears were put to rest on our very first day of the trek. The trail was splendid and evenly populated by shepherds. There was a constant chatter on the trail. The shepherds were friendly. No one really cared about our presence.
What took us aback was the trek in itself. We were on another splendid exploration of some of the finest lakes of Kashmir.
Though we camped on the banks of Tarsar, the shores of Sundarsar felt even better. It almost felt like we were in an isolated world of our own. The view of Marsar left us dumbfounded. We thought we had seen the best of lakes on our Kashmir Great Lakes trek. But here we were — seeing lakes that matched them equally, lake for lake.
More than that, this side of Kashmir seemed to have a lot more variety than Kashmir Great Lakes. Sceneries changed quickly. The grasslands were exquisite. Each of them were very different. I remember a moment when we were on the Jagmargi meadows. We couldn’t find a way through the grasslands. Flowers were everywhere. We feared stepping on them!
Getting down the other side, we found ourselves in another wondrous valley, each hung out on ledges.
When we dropped down to the highway at Sumbal, that last village of the trek just before we touch the highway, we knew we had another winner on our hands. Tarsar Marsar would match the Kashmir Great Lakes in every way.
How A New Route Was Forced Through The Tarsar Pass
We didn’t need a guide on the trek. We had someone like Aziz Mia — who knew every nook and corner of the region. He took us on pathways least frequented. He didn’t take us on the usual trail to Marsar (which Rahul took, the trail in green below).
Instead he proposed a route to Sundarsar first. From there we would descend to Marsar. He said this route was prettier, though longer — but a lot more accessible for horses (his route in yellow).
There is always a spirit of venturing into the unknown in us. When we camped at the banks of Tarsar, we looked at the jagged ridge overlooking the lake. What if we could force our way through the ridge? Could we find a path to the top and then another path that led us down to the other side?
That way we would save a lot of time circumventing the mountain. We proposed a route that is marked in orange in the picture below.
We looked quizzically at Aziz Mia. He shrugged his shoulders. Even Aziz Mia was out of his depths here. He said no one had set foot on those ridges.
In this Google Earth photo, Tarsar is snow covered. The route Rahul took for the first exploration is in green. It is a difficult route that requires climbing a ridge, and a big section over boulders, followed by a steep descent to the Marsar lake (extreme right).
The route proposed by Aziz Mia is in yellow, a longer but prettier route at the bottom of two valleys. The route takes us to Sundarsar first (extreme right, smaller lake), goes around it, climbs a col before getting to a ledge, high above Marsar (extreme top right)
The route in orange that we proposed was a quick steep climb to the top of the ridge, followed by a quick descent to join the trail that Aziz Mia proposed to Sundarsar and Marsar. This meant discovering a new trail through the narrow ridge line.
We looked long and hard at the ridges, we couldn’t find any trail, not even a shepherd’s path through the jagged ridge line. The prospect of finding a sheer cliff on the other side looked real. The ridge in front of us didn’t give us many openings. Could we force our way through these narrow gaps?
We decided quickly. We would climb up the openings and see for ourselves.
The next morning we set out to find routes through the gaps. We aimed for the first two gaps first, they were close to each other. It was not a difficult climb. In an hour we were at the top.
When we crested the ridge, we gave out a whoop! Right below us was the start of the Jagmargi valley. What relieved us was a clear path from the top of the ridge to the valley below. Though it was steep, we could thread our way down to the valley. We had found a route!
In an unknown land, we had once again found a new route. This new route through the ridge would save us four hours of trekking time. This was godsent. We also had a route that gave us stunning views of the lake — views so good that they have now become part of our yearly calendar.
We named the gap the Tarsar Pass.
But Aziz Mia was hesitant to get his horses this high. He feared they would tumble and fall while descending from the ridge. He wanted to take the horses on his old route, even though it was longer. He felt safer.
(Side Story: Over the next few years Aziz Mia’s fears reduced. He successfully took his horses over the Tarsar Pass, establishing a route for the horses as well)
Aziz Mia Comes To The Fore
I realize that we sometimes don’t give credit to folks who have walked the region for ages. Aziz Mia, who was equally delighted at the new route that we forced open through the Tarsar Pass, now got into his elements.
He showed us a path through a narrow grassy gully that led us to the Sundarsar lake. It was not the usual route to the lake, but one that allowed our horses to come through. It was clever.
Then, going around the Sundarsar lake, traversing through a snowy slope, Aziz Mia led us through a narrow col beyond the lake to a narrow ledge, high above a cliff. We couldn’t figure out where we were.
Below was a huge bank of clouds. Aziz Mia beckoned us to wait. And then magic happened. Like the parting of the Red Sea, the bank of clouds moved away for some perceptible moments. Below, in all its glory, was the stunning Marsar lake. We were dumbfounded.
Aziz Mia had come to the fore.
Ending The Trek On Different Routes
We contemplated the many routes that we could take to end the trek. Most of them were unknown. Very few had ventured this far into the mountains. Most would do the trek to Tarsar and head back to Aru, near Pahalgam.
We, on the other hand, wanted to get down to the Srinagar-Sonamarg highway. That would connect us to our base camp of the Kashmir Great Lakes trek. Rahul, our first explorer, had descended right down to our base camp at Gagangir through thick forests. He had mentioned that wasn’t an easy route.
Aziz Mia again suggested an opening in another valley that would get us to the highway about 20 km away from our base camp. But the route would be easier. It was a route that locals took to bring their sheep up for grazing around the lakes.
What followed in the next day and half was a wondrous walk through the stunningly beautiful Sonamasti valley, which was a valley below the cliffs where the Jagmargi valley ended. The valley in ledges with waterfalls and carpets of lush green meadows was what dreams were made of. Out of the valley, we descended almost five thousand feet to the highway below through an ever changing enchanting forest.
When we stepped out at Sumbal, the last village of the trek, we were exhilarated!
We had found gold.
The Impact Of Tarsar
The Tarsar Marsar opened up another great trek in Kashmir. Trekkers were delighted. Other organisations quickly lined up their treks on the same trail that Indiahikes opened up. We were delighted! The route that we explored had become the standard route for the trek, including the famous ridge crossing through the Tarsar Pass.
Last year, I was delighted to see, for the first time, our registrations for Tarsar Marsar trek overtaking the total registrations for the Kashmir Great Lakes. The Tarsar Marsar trek had truly arrived. It was now as big a trek as the Kashmir Great Lakes.
The Future Of Tarsar Marsar Trek; Exploring The Trail On Horseback
We fell in love with the trails around Tarsar. The more we walked on them, we discovered exciting new offshoots. Above Shekwas meadows, the camp just before Tarsar, we discovered two small lakes hidden within the folds of the mountains.
Then in 2017, Sandhya, alone, with Aziz Mia faithfully guiding her, went exploring the regions around the west of Lidderwat. She had heard of beautiful lakes hidden deep inside the mountains. They went on horseback, like cowboys in western movies.
Deep in the recesses of the mountains, she found the alluring lakes, one after the other.
She wondered if she could connect these regions to the Tarsar trail. They were on either side of a tall ridge. What if she could force a way through a pass just like we had last time?
Unfortunately, exploring alone in unfamiliar terrain wasn’t safe. She headed back keeping these explorations to be done with a larger team. Even today, a trail through those ridge is yet to be explored.
Another exciting proposition is to walk down the mouth of Marsar, follow the stream towards the Dachigam National Park, and descend down the valley directly to Srinagar, just above Dal lake.
With the Burhan Wani killing in 2016, militancy has increased in Kashmir. Then in 2019, Article 370 changed the status of Kashmir. In 2020, COVID-19 wiped out the trekking season. These are grim years for trekking.
But Kashmir has a lot more to be explored. There are exciting valleys in Kashmir where we have never ventured before, and a lot more lakes to be uncovered.
While we wait for trekking to resume normally, we have kept our explorations caged for a while.
Right now we are happy that Indiahikes was able to bring out two of the greatest treks in Kashmir, perhaps in India, to Indian trekking. The Kashmir Great Lakes and Tarsar Marsar.
If you have done the Tarsar Marsar trek in Kashmir (and even if you haven’t), I would love to hear your thoughts on this background story.