Thursday, 11 October 2012

Kashmir Great Lakes Trek (Aug 12 to 18, 2012)

Tell someone you are headed to Kashmir and the first thing they will ask you – “Is it safe?”
A trip here last year convinced me it was and when a friend mentioned The Great Lakes Trek, I went ahead and registered.
As the trek dates came closer, I started to worry about my fitness level, my preparation was really bad and I was not sure if I would complete the trek. I was constantly motivated and encouraged by friends. Finally when the DAY arrived I decided to give it a shot. The worst that could happen would be that I might have to return without completing the trek.I was going with five of my friends and all through the flight I kept warning them about the possibility of them carrying me back.

After a day’s stop over at Srinagar, the group reported at the camp set up 3 kms before Sonamarg. Since the tents were already set up all I had to do was choose one, sit back wait for others to join. Small hilllock was explored in the meantime. Other than the fantastic view of snow capped mountains and distant valleys, we also got to watch some birds in action. The stream close to our camp site worked as a bird bath, it was amusing to watch yellow-breasted greenfinch enjoy a dip in the water every now and then, russet sparrow juvenile would chirp not stop till the parent returned with feed. 

A lone stone chat appeared from no where, allowed me a record click and disappeared the way it came.
As trekkers trickled in, hot pokodas were served and thus began the journey to paradise.  The night was spent star gazing as a meteoroid shower was expected. Spirits and energy were high, conversations continued till late night.
The next day was supposed to be a 2 hours climb to Shekdur, followed by descent. I was dreading this part, after all it would tell me how fit I was.
Huffing and puffing I made it through the first 30 mins realised that it wasn't so bad. The climb was steep initially, after a while it was a gradual ascent. The high altitude made its presence felt; even a simple walk felt like an uphill. The views were breath taking.

The path started as meadows dotted with nomad huts , grazing horses and sheep, it then gave way for Chinar trees whose leaves looked like that of maple, and then we walked along the Nachnai River crossing small streams along the way. While some of us hopped on rocks to avoid getting wet, some took a direct dip in the streams.
The camp for the day was along Nachnai river, since we reached by 2 pm we had plenty of time to explore and relax. The pass that we had to conquer the next day looked like a tiny dot at a distance.  
While some entertained themselves by playing Antakshari, Prasad and I walked around trying to find birds. The white capped water redstart  didn't think we had enough exercise for the day and made us walk around quite a lot just to get a good look at it. Finally when we managed to identify its territory, we found a spot to sit and watched it feed and sing. And when that disappeared behind the rocks, we noticed a tiny brown bird camouflaged beautifully, walking daintily along the edges. Slightest of movement would send it hiding behind a rock. We later figured that it was a brown dipper. The other interesting sighting was a falcon, though it was very brief it was exciting enough to keep us occupied.
We started early the next day (at least by my standards). While it was cold when we started, layers of warm clothes were discarded with a short time. The start was not pretty as we walked past sheep pen we covered our nose, tried as much as possible to avoid stepping on sheep droppings. Of course when none of that helped we just cursed and moved on.
 Once we got past the Nachnai pass the walk turned out to be like a stroll in the gardens. 
The valley was a carpet if flowers; one could see pink, yellow, blue, red, white flowers in bloom everywhere. The guide pointed out the ones that could be eaten. Multiple breaks were taken to spend time admiring them and the view.
Other than the valley of flowers, the highlight for the day was seeing Vishnusar Lake. 

Crystal clear water, slight reflection of the glacier and mountains, sound of flowing water, of course a little bit of sunshine would have made it wonderful. I am not sure if it was the altitude of the proximity to humans, we hardly got to see birds. The only lucky sighting was marmot which ventured out every time there was slight sunshine. Our guide managed to strike a deal with the Shepard and procure Himalayas trout. Aditi spent time in cooking it for the team who ate it with relished.
As we sat around the bonfire that night, Sachin mentioned the trek was good but he didn’t have any major event/happening to report on Facebook. I think God heard him. As the next day turned out to be a day designed just to answer his prayer and it matched scenes from my nightmare.
All along the guide kept warning us about day 3, it was supposed to be the hardest and longest. Assuming it will be a steep climb and continuous walking, we had stocked snacks and water. What we didn’t expect was heavy rains. Just as we crossed Vishnursar it started to drizzle and from then on it just got heavy. The non stop rains ensured that cameras stayed in and as we passed Krishnasar lake we didn't bother to stop, but continued towards Gadsar Pass. The rains had made the track slushy and as more people passed the track it got slippery  People tried scrambling up where possible. This meant most of us were going up in wrong directions. After a couple of slips I was starting to get worried. Every two step I took I went back 5 steps. Then like angels Subbu and one of the guides were next to me, they ensured I made it to the top. While we waited next to the glacier for the other to join, the temperature kept dropping. I could feel my fingers go numb. When we could not bear it any longer some us convinced the guide to let us keep walking as it would keep us warm. View from Gadsar Pass was beautiful. One could see 3 lakes from up there. Gadsar Lake itself was among the best we saw, with chunks of ice floating in it, the shore surrounded by yellow flowers. We constantly wished the rain would stop and we could enjoy the views a bit more. While the walk was among the most beautiful tracks, wet, cold and hungry the scenery could not be enjoyed. The downpour continued through the night forcing us to eat dinner under the umbrella  While I kept praying for it to be dry the next day, Aditi kept reassuring me saying that in Himalayas if it rains through the night the next day is sure to be a sunny day.
The next morning the rains had stopped, the mist hung low. 
Chirping birds welcomed the day. I got to make a picture Rose Finch for the first time and managed to get really close to Fire Fronted Serin. 
While we traced the path we had to take I noticed a raptor circling and landing along the path. On closer observation I could see a lot of crows doing the same. My sixth sense told me there could be a carcass there. I was hoping that we would go as close as possible to it.
We started quite late and it gave us time to access weather conditions. After waking through a small stretch of narrow and slippery path things started to look better. 
Clear sky, green grass and horses grazing made the setting look like scenes from an English movie. Since there were no rains one could stop often to smell the flowers and eat wild strawberries.
As we got closer to the spot where I had seen the raptor land, I noticed a bunch of them. Since the group was slightly noisy, as soon as we approached they started to hop away. It was surprising that they didn’t fly away, but choose to hop to a higher point. Even when the guide followed them except for one that flew, the rest just hopped higher. After watching them for sometime we moved on.
When we crossed the Indian Army camp close to Satsar Lake, we were greeted with chocolates, biscuits and hot water. For people walking for hours that seemed like heaven. The 7 lakes of Satsar were not very impressive as the earlier ones but were still beautiful. As I walked past the lake the terrain changed and became rockier. One had to jump boulders to get across. The camping site was beautiful. It was in a valley next to a stream. The day was extremely cold and I chose to spend most of the day inside the tent. When I did manage to step out I joined the group playing a game called Mafia.
Day 5 started with me chasing a falcon for a shot. The closer I tried to get further away it went. I finally gave up and headed but. We started the trek with some boulder crossing and soon were on the path towards Zach. Since the top of Zach pass was not visible we had no clue about the distance that needed to be covered. When we could finally see the pass, people on top of the Zach Pass looked like ants, it seemed like there was lot of walking to do. But in reality it was not that bad. Finally when the pass is conquered the view of 2 lakes at the base of Mt Harmukh is spectacular. 

On a clear day one can see 4 lakes from here. Due to the cloud cover I didn’t get to see all 4 at the same time. The camp was supposed to be at one of the lakes. The decent to camp site looked scary. It was almost like a vertical drop. Since it was a rocky terrain one could not just run down. By the time I reached the camp my knees were wobbly and I could not wait to rest them.
Being one of the first to arrive meant that I had the lake all to myself.  I used the opportunity to take a quick dip.  The water felt refreshing, especially when one has not had a bath for 5 days. The only uncomfortable bit was realising that the place had locals fishing close by. 
Later in the evening when the rest of the group took a dip, some of us decided to explore Gangabal Lake. From Zach pass it looked twice the size of the lake we had camped next to (Nundkul). Walk up to Gangabal provide us with some impressive view of Nundkul and a nice walk along the stream. It was hard to see the complete Gangabal Lake from the side we were on, but it still looked very beautiful.
Back at the camp it was time to cook, someone had suggested we cook for the porters and cooks who had travelled with us. Brilliant idea but most of us were not used to cooking for a large number. Though all the girls put in a lot of effort, I would not for sure say this was a great success. Note to self: never get roped into such idea.
What made up for dinner experience was the performance by the locals (helpers, mule owners). They sang a lot of Kashmiri songs, danced to some and had all of us tapping our feet. While some were sad about the trek ending, I was looking forward to a proper bath and a soft bed.
Before the trek, I had read that the descent on the last day was steep and tiring. So when the trek started I expected the descent to start almost immediately. But that was not the case. There were hours of gradual climb to complete before the descent. The view continued to be stunning but there were lot more people doing short treks. At one point where we stopped for a break our guide dislocated his elbow while trying some photography stunts.  Luckily Ankur and Nanditha managed to do first aid and we continue walking.

Soon the meadows that we trek on gave way to pine trees. 

The fragrance of pine was captivating. I spent some time trying to figure which part of the tree emitted it but could not identify it. There were a lot of butterflies puddling on horse dropping. Constant stream of horses and trekker didn't allow me enough time to capture the fluttering beauties.
The decent was gruelling, my heel and toes had started to blister, and walking had started to get painful. While I could see the end point of the trek, it seemed to really far away. Finally after asking multiple people walking by I was overjoyed to hear that I was almost there. It was a relief to reach Naranag and sit. Felt like heaven to take off the shoes. After a plate of Maggie noodles, reality hit me. The trek was over, while I had spent the previous night hoping for it to end quickly now I wished I didn't have to head back. I wanted to walk in the flower filled meadows again. But like all good things it had ending and with a heavy heart I had to accept it.
The hope that I will go back there again continues to live on.


  1. Excellent photos and narration. Loved it.

  2. The photos are amazing as usual.. and Aish I think the narration too makes the picturisation better..

  3. Kashmir tour - Kashmir is a part of northernmost Indian state Jammu & Kashmir. Most often, a Kashmir trip begins from Srinagar – the summer capital of the state, and we also chose the same. Srinagar is well connected to Delhi by roads, railways and flights.

  4. I had been crawling all over the net trying to tag the name of the bird that I clicked at Gadsar camp of the Kashmir trek and look where finally google leads to find the answer! :)

    Great pictures and an interesting write-up about our trek, Aishwarya!

    And yes thanks to you that the lil birdie in my writeup now has a name - Fire-fronted siren! :)


    1. Utsow... Small world won't you say ;)...

      I am glad you like the write up... Thank you. And when yours is done do share it

  5. Can you give me the route plan & expense detail!

  6. Hi Aishwarya - Just came across this blog about the trek. My wife and I are very keen on doing this. There is a concern - when you are camping what type of basic facilities are provided? Should we prepare for open-air loo or are there some sort of very basic hygienic areas for the same? Do we need to join some trekking group or can we trek on our own at our own pace? i.e. do you get to see enough trekkers on the route so you dont get lost?

    1. Hi

      Thanks for visiting the post.

      As for answers to your question here goes.
      Loo: Most trek you tend to be far away from civilisation and open loos are what is used. So you can carry a lot of tissues.
      Trek (Group vs alone) Trek group will help reduce your cost per person. WHen doing it on your own you will still need to hire guide and ponies to carry your tent, food supplies etc. Most days you won't trek more than 6 kms and treks are finish by 2-3 pm
      There maybe chances that you will see some trek group in places close to Harmukh.

      Hope this information helps. Do feel free to get back to me if you any more questions

  7. wonderful post....going there this August and readng this got me more inspired....thanks a lot Aishwarya

  8. wonderful post....going there this September.

  9. Excellant post......very informative......going there this Aug. Can u pl. give any tips/ do's and don't for trek? i am worried about my fitness that very difficult?

  10. Hi, I would not say its very difficult on most days. There are steep climbs but that is normally done in the first 2 hours, after that its mostly gradual ascent. Some level of fitness is required as it will help breathe as well as walk in higher altitude

  11. Well narrated. Good photos too. I treked this July with TTH. Unforgettable memories. Details here.

  12. Hey Aishwarya, very well written blog and useful indeed. Can you share the contcat details of your guide ? Thanks !!