Compared to the five-course meals that most Himalayan journeys tend to be, trekking around Kashmir’s alpine lakes is a fast-food savoury. The closest airport, Srinagar, is well connected with the rest of the country, the drive to the trek head Sonamarg is a mere two hours, and the return drive from the end-point at Naranag just an hour. Yet, I’ve been assured that it’s probably the tastiest meal I’ll ever have. Around every twist in the trail, over the crest of a high-altitude pass, and beyond every glacial lake, I was told, postcard-perfect scenes will play out continuously over the next six days.
There’s just one problem: I’m travelling with 22 other people, and I only know one of them. I have no idea what to expect. But over the next few days I realise that my worries are unfounded. The first person I hit it off with is Amit Kamat, a pharmacist from Goa. Even though he swears by Canon cameras and I am a Nikon loyalist, we find much in common. We frequently stop at scenic locations on the pretext of a water break and go on a clicking spree.
The first day’s walk is a gradual ascent past shepherds’ settlements and through pretty silver-birch forests to end at a campsite (11,500 ft) below the Nichnai Pass. At camp, the blisters have started to sprout, as have the high-altitude headaches, and camaraderie grows as Band-Aids and painkillers are exchanged. Trek leader Rakesh Pant, who is qualified in wilderness first-aid, checks everyone’s pulses and encourages us to stay hydrated. A few people consider turning back, but Pankaj from Delhi, who’s doing this trek for the second time, urges them to soldier on through the first two days. He says from experience that while walking over varied terrain and sleeping on uneven ground, our bodies will acclimatise, and then the beauty of the surroundings will make the effort seem worthwhile. The discomfort will fade, but the regret of turning back will linger even longer.
Pankaj is right. The second day starts with the ascent over the Nichnai Pass (13,500 ft) and though it’s steep, it is not as tiring as yesterday’s lesser slopes. On the other side of the pass, there are meadows filled with wild flowers. Nidhi, an interior designer from Bengaluru, goes into a frenzy with her macro lens. No surprise really, this is the place where many of the photos in Adam Stainton’s definitive Flowers of the Himalaya were shot. That evening we camp a short distance from Vishansar Lake (12,000 ft). The sight banishes any residual headaches and the mess tent is a bright and happy place. A cell phone placed in a large, empty cooking vat becomes an improvised boom box and Mayura, Urvi, Shreyas, Vaishnavi and Neha—the girl gang from Goa—start swinging to the music, blistered toes and cramping calves notwithstanding. Soon we all join in.
Vishansar Lake is even more captivating the next morning, its motionless surface reflecting the glaciers above. As I take a photograph, I hear a splash. Haroon, who has a reputation for spending more time in his swimming trunks than in his trekking pants, has jumped into the cold water. Starting the day with a refreshing dip is a good idea since a two-hour ascent to the Gadsar Pass (13,800 ft) follows. As usual, the pack mules and kitchen staff overtake us within 90 minutes. As I stop to prudently give the mules a wide berth, I’m overwhelmed by the scene below. Krishansar, the next lake, located 500 feet above Vishansar, has come into view and from my vantage point I can see both nestling together like robin’s eggs in a glacial nest.
Beyond Gadsar Pass there’s a series of three small lakes, which are ideal for a swim. Since most of the group, including the girls, is still some way behind, Mariano, the energetic Spaniard, decides to go skinny dipping. He coyly stays neck deep in the cold water when the other trekkers walk by. But the sun is bright, and quite a few others follow him into the water. The walk to that day’s campsite winds past another lake, the dramatic Gadsar Lake (11,800 ft) with huge glaciers hanging above it. There’s also an army post en route where every trekker’s name is recorded and identity cards inspected. Since the group has many stragglers, each taking their own time, the commandant (a jolly Sardarji) and a few soldiers visit our camp in the evening to take down details. They expect to find a quiet scene, since the day’s walk has been a long and hard 12 km (the average is 8 km), but there’s an energetic game of Frisbee on. When the commandant asks the girls to pose together for a photograph as required for the records, they give him a leggy pose with such spontaneous synchronicity that he almost drops the camera in surprise.
The day starts with a river crossing. Some of us take off our shoes and toss them to the far bank before wading across through the thigh-deep water. Others get on the pack animals and are ferried across, resulting in some very miffed mules. After a couple of trips the animals refuse to budge. Wild flowers abound on the walk to the spectacular campsite of Megandob (11,850 ft), a meadow with a bird’s-eye view down the Sindh valley to the upper reaches of the Vale of Kashmir.
The last considerable climb of the trek is to Gaj Pass (13,400 ft), which justifies the hard work with spectacular views of the Gaganbal (11,500 ft) and Nundkol Lakes. By now, though we climb at varied speeds, no one pants or wheezes like we did on the first day. The evening’s camp is by the bank of Gaganbal Lake where I go for a swim. The sacred peak of Harimukh rises above the lake, making it a divine experience. It is said that pilgrimages to the base of Harimukh and Gaganbal long preceded the Amarnath Yatra. Everybody in the group seems to feel the spirituality of the place.
The final day is one of knackered knees and tortured toes as we rapidly descend 3,000 feet over rocky ground. By 1 p.m., we are at Naranag where jeeps whisk us away to creature comforts like a hot shower and a soft bed, just an hour away.
Throughout the trek, the views were as spectacular as promised. But it was the 22 fantastic people I travelled with who made this an absolute cracker of a trip. Each evening, our Frisbee games would get rough and rowdy, even after a day of hard walking. And then an hour later, we’d come together in the mess tent for an evening of song and dance. I learnt to dance the stomping polka from two Slovenian girls, stumbled through the flamenco with Mariano, and applauded as the camp’s staff joined in with Kashmiri folk dances with a Bollywood twist. Our cross-cultural sing-alongs were one of my favourite memories of the trip.
Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “The Great Lakes Escape”.
Duration 8 days
Distance 63 km
Maximum altitude 13,750 feet.
Cost Depends on group size and arrangements. I travelled with Trek The Himalayas (www.trekthehimalayas.com), which has fixed departures. The group has between 18 to 25 people, and the trip costs ₹12,500 per head. Additional costs include travel expenses from Srinagar to Sonamarg and Naranag to Srinagar and the cost of portage on mules.
Arrangements Trek organisers usually provide sleeping bags, tents, and sleeping mats. On my trek, three people shared a four-man tent but it was still a bit of a squeeze. The food was largely vegetarian, though there were eggs for breakfast on some days. It’s always good to carry along energy-providing munchies like chocolate, dry fruits, or granola bars. Drinking water is refilled from streams and springs along the way, and is generally safe. Carry water-purification tablets if you’re very particular. Toilet tents are erected a discrete distance from camp but they’re nothing more than holes in the ground so come prepared. At the end of the trek, you’ll have to spend a night in Srinagar, so remember to book a room in advance.
Rishad Saam Mehta
is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).
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