Monday, August 17, 2015

Himalayan Trek - The Great Lakes of Kashmir

It's that time again when the mountains beckon, and you know another trek is on the cards. I had skipped an April trek in Uttarakhand, wanting to explore the Himalayas differently. And different it was...with the Great Lakes of Kashmir trek, a 6 days-7 nights trek that starts from Sonmarg and goes deep into the mountains, passes and valleys of Kashmir.

This time around, I will describe the trek, not so much through a day-by-day account, but as snippets of what the eyes, heart and mind experience while there. Hope it gives you a glimpse of what I felt, and hope it inspires some of you to go experience it yourself too.


We are just beginning to settle down for lunch on the mountain slopes on our descent to Naranag on the last day of the trek. Suddenly from behind us, two gun-bearing soldiers dressed commando style charge down the slopes from behind us, one of them shouting "Idhar milega. Idhar milega". Tensed with the thought of who could be coming from the pine forests below, we stopped all our work to stare at them...until one of them stretched his hand out on the slope below to check if he was catching mobile network. 

The armed forces make their presence felt on this trek as I've never experienced on other treks.  They are first visible as soon as you land in Srinagar, with small groups of armed forces on the sides of the roads and dotting the landscape within the thickets of trees and along farms of rice, corn and apple or walnut on our way to Sonmarg. There are three army checkposts we come across on our trekking trail, the first is at the trek's start from Sonmarg. The military is posted here mainly for the safety and security of trekkers, this being a popular trekking trail among Indians and foreigners. When a foreigner trekker didn't report out from the other end of the trail a few weeks earlier, these army men had gone looking for her and only when they found out she had exited the trail at another point, they were assured of her safety. 

The next Gadsar army checkpost turned out to be the location of our campsite on Day 4. Most of the jawans (soldiers) posted on this trekking trail are from Rashtriya Rifles. They are based here for months at a stretch, and with these locations receiving more than 20-22 feet of snow, the army will leave these posts starting November. You soon realize that the soldiers are as excited meeting you and talking with you, given how little interaction they'd have with others in these remote far flung locations. 

All checkposts proudly have the national flag fluttering, and four flags denoting the four leading religions of India - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Somehow, seeing the Indian flag fluttering wildly in the wind in these remote locations tugs at the heartstrings in a way that leaves one feeling quite choked with emotion. 

The Satsar army checkpost along the way from Gadsar to Megandob on Day 5 was one such. Located at an altitude of 3800 meters and less than 20 kms from the Pakistan border, our entire group of sixteen sang the national anthem here with the soldiers with the flag flying high and our voices blowing in all directions with the strong winds. By the time we ended with Jai Hind!, we realized that not one of us was left dry-eyed. 


You get a good mix of terrain on this trekking trail. You wade through or cross streams and rivers (you're often best advised to take off your socks and shoes and wade through the shallow sections rather than trying to jump over the rocks and invariably slipping and getting yourself wet). 

You climb...or jump...over rocks and boulders, especially near the streams and rivers. At the this time of the year when the summer has melted most of the snow, you still see snow in the higher reaches and also get a little snow to walk over at some places. 


Forests - dense covers of pine, silver birch, maple - are found only on the first and last days of the trek. Other than that you don't get to see a single tree for majority of the way. 

But you don't really notice this fact, as your senses are filled with lush green grass all over mountain slopes, rolling meadows and valleys. It's the kind of green that not only provides a nice soft cushion for your feet as you walk hour after hour, day after day.
 It's also the kind of green that sends you very inviting messages to roll down the slopes, until the little stones and rocks embedded between the grass deter you from converting that thought into action. 


Early mornings usually have clouds that hang thick and low on the mountain slopes just in front of you, as if they've decided to sit down for a bit of rest from all their drifting around.

Even during summer (which is when this trail is best done), you often find yourself in the middle of clouds. At many times during the trek, especially when doing the long climbs to the summits, you find yourself walking in the clouds...with the cool mist in the clouds softly settling over you. 

On the way to Vishansar, you cross the stream and look above to see the steep ascent, wondering how you're going to do it. You start climbing and slowly you realize the thinner air is making your legs heavier and your breath shorter. Your steps gets smaller and you try to maintain a steady rhythm. You see you are following the stream in a reverse direction, climbing higher until the stream is a rapid waterfall. Climbing further until the waterfall is just a small rivulet again. But now the waters are surrounded by glaciers with the clouds floating all around, reducing visibility and giving everything around a mysterious foggy appearance. Some of the glaciers along the edges have neatly carved patterns on them resembling the walls of an igloo as remembered from schooldays. The air is still thinner, and you can feel the coolness - from both the high altitude and from the mist of the clouds. 


Not all mountains are green. Some are full of craggy black stony surfaces. The patches of snow on them try to soften their hard appearance...but as some hastily applied talcum powder, it does little to reduce its raw wildness. Others have sharply etched stone surfaces along their slopes making for interesting sedimentary patterns. Most of them have never been climbed, such as Mount Harmukh that at 5142 meters is the highest in that region of Kashmir and towers over Gangabal Lake, with some of its glacial waters still melting into the lake. The lake has another gushing waterfall on the opposite side that feeds water from the high mountains. This site was considered sacred by Hindu pilgrims before the Amarnath Yatra.


For the first two days, you're left wondering where the lakes are on the Great Lakes of Kashmir trail. Then they start appearing by the end of day 2 of the trek, all majestic and bright blue-green, and cosily nestled between mountains. 

There is the Vishansar lake that is viewed after a short walk from your campsite on Day 2. Kishensar Lake and its scenic surrounding form a constant and splendid view for you as you make your steep ascent on Day 3. 

The Gadsar lake makes a delightful appearance on Day 4 as you push your tired body anxiously waiting for your lunch break. When suddenly after a bend in the mountain, this stop appears in front of you with the river flowing into a bright blue-green lake. The brightly colored flowers in the grass also form a stark background for the beautiful black mountain at the back of the lake that has it own little waterfall spilling its icy contents into the lake. Can there be a more picturesque lunch spot?

Gangabal twin lakes (including Kolesar lake which the twin is known by) is the location of your last campsite, also providing a perfect spot for a dip in the cold waters of the lake or in the gushing waterfall adjoining it. 


Ascending mountains is hard and strenuous. Unlike the earlier treks I had done in the Uttarakhand Himalayan range, this route had not one, but many ascents to passes and summits upto 4300 mtrs (14000+ feet). During some ascents, we particularly felt the strain of the steep gradient and the thinner air of the high altitudes. Small baby steps was the mantra we picked up from some of our more experienced trekkers. Sometimes, you feel like you're just putting one foot in front of the other like a zombie, conversations between you and fellow trekkers reduced to grunts or gestures to pass the water bottles. 

Descents come in all varieties. Some include wider trails and roll smoothly along lush green meadows, such as what we experienced on days 2, 3 and 4 to Vishansar, Gadsar and Megandob via Satsar respectively. Other descents such as on days 5 and 6 are treacherous. 

And different trekkers take to descents differently. Some who can barely put one foot in front of the other on an ascent, suddenly start sprinting down almost as if a button has been switched on, and all they can do is run forward at full speed. 
Some others get taken up by fear of heights on the way down especially if the descent route is narrow and / or slippery. Over a few treks, most will realize that the fears have calmed down and a good steady pace help you reach your destination in a reasonable time and with lesser aches in your knees. 


Flowers! Anything that can be said about the flowers here will be inadequate. It is very interesting that at an altitude and climate where trees cannot survive, little flowers of so many varying shapes and colours not only survive but thrive so wonderfully. 
It is almost as if they are defying the terrain and saying "you may be all massive and tough, but I can still be little and flourish in my bright colours. You can loom over us all you want with your giant size, we are happy swaying with the wind so close to the ground". 

You see them on many large parts of the trail, providing a multi colored carpet over the valleys and the meadows, or looming their dainty pretty heads between the boulders along the rivers. Stretches of yellow flowers continue for vast distances, until purple varieties mingle with yellow...and then there's stretches of purple flowers. And so on with pink, orange, white, many different shades of blue. I tried to capture them on camera but every time you think you've seen them all, one more variety makes it appearance. Be careful not to spend too much time sitting or lazing about in the flowers as some of the flowers are said to create a heady feeling. 

At some places, you see rocks that have developed interesting patterns in bright red (from their iron) and fluorescent green (from the lichen), adding further colour to this dazzling display of nature. 


There are no roads anywhere close to you on your path once you leave Sonmarg until your last day when you make your steep descent to Naranag.  There are instead trails made by other trekkers who've been this way before you, and by shepherds who've been grazing their sheep here for hundreds of years. Everything about their routine is done at its own pace, and in a way that looks untouched for many generations. 

There are no settlements you see, and the few people you do see on these mountains and valleys are on the move. Along with them are hundreds and hundreds of sheep and sheep-herding dogs. And then there are the horses and a few horse-riders...who start as small dots on the horizon of an unending valley of flowers. And then before your eyes, they loom larger and larger until they cross you galloping away on the back of their horses in the wind. As you watch them gallop by in those massive green open valleys surrounded by even more massive mountains, you're this for real?
Lying down another time after the day's trek on the blue tarpaulin laid out on the grass, with the river gurgling a few meters below you. You are surrounded by rough edged black mountains on one side...and green rolling slopes in the other, with one slope letting a long white waterfall roll down its side. You and your fellow trekkers have just finished an impromptu open air massage session for each other.with half-open eyes, you're watching the sun play hide and seek with the clouds as they waft in and out between the mountains. An artist among us is sitting on the grass next to me with her water colours capturing on paper the scenic beauty that lies ahead of her. You hear some movement and a couple of horses who were drinking water from the stream are casually trotting in your midst to cross over to the other side of the meadow. And you're thinking this for real?


The Himalayas stand out for their sheer scale. Everything here is served in mega portions. And it's a good thing being here, being surrounded by its vastness...exploring its vastness on foot. When you traverse this terrain, it is both a humbling and an energizing experience. You appreciate a little more how minuscule you are amidst the vastness of these mountains and valleys that lie strong for centuries and centuries, unconquered for the most part. 

You stay open to the abundant energy within these open natural spaces, and strangely you can actually feel Nature restoring your energy, filling your cells with its abundance despite your body being pushed on a daily basis. In the process of ascending and descending its surfaces, you not only feel a step closer to Mother Nature in its purest also feel a few steps closer to yourself. In putting one foot ahead of the other, you develop a connection - with the ground below...with the mountains and skies above and the universe beyond...and deep within you. 

The Great Lakes of Kashmir trek is a moderately tough trek, given the duration (6 days of long walks, ascents and descents, 7 nights of camping), high altitudes of unto 4300 meters (14000+ feet) and the mixed terrain. But with enough stamina building and gearing up physically before the trek and with the right spirit of adventure, it's a splendid trail that even first timers can enjoy. 

When you're back to the cities, you realise that what you've come from is all real...What we have in these pockets of Nature are how Nature meant them to be in the first place. In order for it to be preserved like this, we all need to play our part in treating it with respect and with love. Fortunately, despite this being a popular trekking route, it has been treated very well by the trekking community making sure there are clean campsites, no trash along the trail, and an overall pristine experience for others to enjoy. After all, when it comes to Nature, however much she has to offer us, I think she mostly tells us to leave her alone and untouched. 


  1. Each word made redo the trek relive the experience feel the essence of nature

  2. Each word made redo the trek relive the experience feel the essence of nature

  3. Very Very Beautiful, Dipali !! Thanks for an amazing virtual tour :)

  4. Beautiful! Wish I had experienced it!