It so occurred that during a sluggish evening I was browsing pictures from Chitral and Swat regions of Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan; what I saw was shimmering lakes, jaw-dropping meadows and an alpine landscape that made me jump out of my chair. My awe and wonder was to skyrocket as I saw more pictures from the region.
“It was during this bout of wanderlust that I came across a couple of trails in the Gurez district, passing through a series of lakes on the Indian side of Kashmir”
A bit of foraging to dig up some trust-worthy writing from the obscurity of internet reveals that hikers have been frequenting the routes that I had my eyes on. I was to find out later that this region had witnessed a brutal kidnapping of 6 backpackers (Brits, Norwegian, American and German nationals) by Islamic militants in 1995, an event which catapulted the perils of Islamic militancy in the Kashmir region to the international forefront, and in many convoluted ways led to the hijacking of an Indian airplane in Kandahar, and the bomb blasts in Mumbai, India. Seasoned travels pals Karan and Parth join in from Delhi and we set our heart to walk through this troubled paradise. The Meadow is a recommended read if you want to know more about these unfortunate incidents.
We spent a couple of days at Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, to sort out the logistics for our trek- stock the ration, arrange for a guide, and acquire the elusive permits needed for entering this territory. Amidst the hordes of people arriving in Srinagar for the famed pilgrimage of Amarnath, we made our way to the tourism department. We ask around, point to our destination on maps of varying scale, and are eventually asked to come back a day later. We persist. After a long wait for a certain Mr. Ahmed’s signature on our permits had us deliberating if we shall spend whatever remained of our day sipping Kaawah in our cozy houseboat, or head to Sonamarg, the starting point of our trek. Anxious for some activity, we dump our bags and ration on a jeep, give a ring to our guide, and head to Sonamarg. The drive from Srinagar to Sonamarg passes through some spectacular Himalayan landscape. Two men with their ponies were waiting to greet us at a bend from where we were to leave the road and tread the meadows.
Soon it starts to rain and we hastily arrange and load our bags on the mules, make a dash for last minute essentials, put on our ponhcos. A few long and quick strides later we had left Sonamarg behind, and we could see rolling green earth for as far forward as we could see. The rain had stopped and a wonderful rainbow arched over Sonamarg. Our guide’s confession of love for a beautiful young girl that we passed on the way ensured that the ice was broken soon.
“The gentle meadows were lined by silver birch and maple trees and dotted by wild horses who broke into spirited canters after every round of grazing”
We crossed a rivulet to approach Shekdur, our first campsite. The smoke that gently wafted from the many huts which lined the meadows created an idyllic scene. While we prepared to camp, one of the shepherds invited us over to his hut – we exchanged news, information and pleasantries. While the ladies prepared salted tea and milk-based bread on hot fire, we chatted with the children, who were shy, curious, excited, nervous – all at the same time.
The next day we bid good bye to the shepherd’s family and continued our hike. Making our way across the birch and maple trees, we soon crossed the tree-line and were getting ready to cross the Nichnai pass at 14,000 feet. The pleasantness of the greens gave way to the sea of snow fields. The blinding glare brought out the sunglasses, and we hurled a few abuses at our sub-optimal sports shoes as we trudged along ever so slowly. Hunger set in prematurely and we washed down a few loafs of bread and mayo and continued. The descent led to more expanses of lush green meadows, intersected by the virgin waters from the snowmelt.
“The romantic in me took a backseat as we prepared to wade through the icy cold water and have a thousand needles pierce through our bodies”
The blue irises that dotted the landscape worked as an antidote and I got busy photographing the grandeur which lay in front of me. By late afternoon, we had set up our camps next to the river, and in the middle of hundreds of sheep. Vishenrsar lake, first of the many lakes that we were to come across, was a brief hike from the campsite. The lake lies in a basin, surrounded by towering peaks – a sheer delight to a nature lover. Wild flowers were swaying gently in the cold wind that seemed to blow though the channel created by the lake’s outlet.
The night was starry, and the hot vegetarian food that our guides cooked us for dinner left us satisfied. The whole ritual of packing our presence to move to a different location and the associated excitement set in.
“Gradually, we climbed up, rewarding ourselves with a panoramic view of the lake, albeit the cloud cover sucked all the colours out of the landscape”
As we stopped to soak in the ambience, a nomad passed us, and inquired if we could donate any of our warm jackets to him. Alas, we weren’t too sure of what lay ahead of us to indulge in an act of kindness. The gradual ascent continues and soon we get a view of the Kishensar lake as well. Muddied, dirty, and partly frozen, it didn’t justify the association with Vishensar as its twin. The chunks of ice floating in the lake during peak summer was a good reminder of the altitude we were at. While the ascent to the Gadsar pass, the highest point of the trail tested our endurance, the descent tested our nerves. Slippery, patches of melting snow, steep, muddy, rain – by no means a run down the hill. The mules had it harder than we did. After an hour or so of careful treading, we were again amongst the rolling greens. We were greeted by the army personnel – permits were verified, our guides were inquired, we were photographed and a few customary questions asked. Do you have cigarettes? Do you have tomatoes? Questions were hurled at us while we learnt that their ration for the week had been delayed – their chopper couldn’t make it to the base owing to bad weather. The campsite wasn’t too interesting, but we were warned not to drift far away from the trail- they had rights to shoot at the slightest suspicion.
After an uneventful night, we were hoping for a promising morning. Overcast sky helped us make a push for another strenuous climb with multiple switchbacks – albeit with beautiful shades of yellows and greens, and a plethora of wildflowers. The wind and the drizzle accompanied us for a good part of the day. Soon we reach another temporary army settlement at Satsar. Friendly men in uniform invited us to be seated inside as the winds howled outside. A small adda over hot cups of tea was welcomed by all, while our permits were verified. We continued our uphill journey, crossing a series of non-descript high altitude lakes, often hopping from one rock to another to avoid the wet marshland around the lakes – the distinction often blurry. The drizzle persisted until we reached our campsite. We waited briefly before pitching the tents, hoping for the rain to take a break. The clouds subsided ever so slightly, painting pink on the horizon. Now was the time to have a drink, smoke some greens and relax. A local shepherd came down a few hundred feet from his lonely hut to invite us for tea – too tired to climb any farther, we retire after some star gazing.
We woke up to another cloudy day and after the usual business of freshening up, we made our way to Gangabal, the largest and last lake on the trek before we reach civilization again. Thick fog descended soon after the start, reducing the visibility to an extent where it was near impossible to see anything beyond my own feet. What followed was sheer conundrum – the guides and the horses were out of sight, so were my friends. After an hour of guessing the trail amidst the fog and snow fields, and some help from a shepherd, I finally managed to get back on the trail. The fog cleared for a short while to reveal the twin lakes of Gangabal and Nundkol, and the seemingly black Kalsar lake in the distance. The fog danced its way to hide the lakes again in no time. We descended into the valley in no time, took a powernap on the way, and made it to the Gangabal campsite just in the nick of time to able to pitch our shelters before the drizzle turned into a heavy downpour. Cravings for french fries ensured that we finished our stock of potatoes – albeit black pepper’s absence was felt strongly. Meanwhile, some beautiful notes from a faraway flute coaxed me to get out of my tent and take a look around. Fortunately, I had my camera.
“A self-taught flautist, he entertained me with some beautiful melodies while I took a few pictures of him against the majestic Harmmukh peak, adorned by the hanging Harmukh glacier”
Spirituality filled the air. By now, a handful of local trekkers had set up their camps around the lake, most of them visiting from Naranag, where our journey was to end. Some were at the lake fishing for trouts, some completing the entire journey in the opposite direction to us.
The next morning was bright and cheerful – the campsite abuzz with activity, and the holy Harmukh reflected with precision in the calm waters of Nundkol. The final descent began soon; bitter–sweet feeling of leaving this incredible country set in on the way, and also of parting from friends and our wonderful guides – the relationship with whom grew stronger with every step on the trail. Harmukh was never out of sight for the next few miles as we made our way back to the tree-line through tiny human settlements spread across huge meadows. Signs of civilization emerged soon, however, what appeared to be downhill stroll, turned into a never ending snaking trail. Every step now taxing the knees and inducing a silent cry. Naranag surfaced after multiple rests on the way – bees, shops, motor vehicles, school-going children – it was all too familiar.