(By Ashis Ghatak)
Setting afoot for exploring the unknown Himalayas always tickles the adventurous me. Trekking I thought to be a domain of the youngsters and for a daring first-timer, it might be a tad too late if one crosses 40 and that too for a hard core trekking covering a distance of 70 kms in 7 nights 8 days might be bit too ambitious. Then there were the uncertainties of gelling with 25 unknown people. But the excitement was a plenty. When our Qualis parked beside the lodge of Srinagar three members hopped in. One of them sat beside me and was the most vocal of all. The second boy, little grave, sat in the front seat. The third one was a girl, like a runaway damsel having a devil-may-care attitude. As the driver was speeding towards Sonamarg alongside the roaring Jhelum, we were moving into a wonderland.
We were to walk for half a km from the place where the car dropped us. The orange camps were visible soon and trek organisers greeted us with tea and pakoras. Initial formalities done, we were to wait for our other members. Sun was too lazy to set there giving us enough scopes to while around and take snaps of the picturesque Sonamarg. When the dusk faded, the twinkling Sonamarg from the distance looked enchanting.
I was placed with Ravi and a poet-singer Suyash in one camp. We had to wait for the day to break in to see the faces of our fellow trekkers as last night when they joined us in the campside we could only see the faint silhouette of them. I found that I was not the only first time trekker; in fact most of them were so. With Kesari Sir(69) topping the list there were several others much senior to me.
As we reached Shekdur where we took Kashmiri khewa and noodles from the last shop of our route, we bid adieu to the distant sights of Sonamarg. I never found green to be so resplendent. The tall silver birch trees, the ferns at my feet and the grassy undulating meadows had all the shades of greens. Dipankar and Niladri, comrades from my city gave me chances to converse in my mother tongue.
The tall shades of the intermittent trees held relieving shadows in vast sunny valleys. Gradually the trail became little rocky and we faced snow for the first time.
It was from that time itself, I started sliding and falling repeatedly on snows. From October these areas go under thick wrapper of snows making the place inaccessible even to the shepherds and local villagers. Dipankar perched inside a rock like a shade over his head and placed his packed lunch of paratha-sabzi-pickle on the most exotic rocky dining table beside the flowing stream.
The final phase was a prolonged boulder-trek. It seemed to be unending since our helpers kept on urging us to move despite the gradual giving in of the exhausted limbs. Intervals of taking rest became more frequent, huffing and puffing, stooping on the trekking poles became more audible and even the daypack on the shoulder appeared to have gained extra loads.
Imtiaz, one of the support staff, kept on pointing his fingers at a distant somewhere as we kept asking ‘how far’ in every alternate second. But when the orange tents peeped out from undiscovered twist of a rocky route, all voices of discontent were gone. Smiles came back and we reached one of the most fascinating campsites beside the mountain stream at the valley donned with millions of brown heads of grazing sheep. As we reached, the soup with noodles and a glass of black tea specially arranged for me by Imtiaz were ready. Hitting the sacks inside the campwas just a matter of time. I had a brief chat with my tent partners and soon closed my eyelids in the lap of nature.
Though we had a long day trek, the new day dawned with no trail of tiredness.
Imti’s special black tea for me was nectar. Breakfast done, we were all set for a hard day’s trek. Men from the plains have an uncanny fascination for treading on a snow covered ground. I was no exception. Javaid, the guide from Sonamarg assured me that snow would be aplenty. Soon we saw vast stretches of snow lying ahead of us as we took an upward left turn crossing the glittering stream beside ourcamp side.
Nestled amid the rugged ridges the aerial view of Nichnai lake appeared to have the distinct semblance with the political map of India. The greenish blue water of the lake simply amazed me! A nature’s handiwork to create an Indian map in the remote and mostly untrodden terrain of Kashmir!
Crossing Nichnai pass was fun. By the time I got adjusted to falling on the snow and instead of walking, I let myself skidded on the snow more. Ice capped ranges lay at hand shaking distance. Only a thin dark muddy strip made of the trailing footsteps was visible amid the entire landscape of snow. At our feet, there were yellow season flowers appeared too tender to be trodden. Even the tiniest flower seemed to be throbbing with life. I wondered how only a divine hand could nurse and rear them up.
This trek is pitched as ‘meadow’ trek but the meadows come very few and far between. When they come, they simply embrace our souls and soothe our frayed nerves. The grazing sheep kept munching grass with tireless rhythm and often stared hard at their alien gazers. The choric bleating of the rams pronounced their sheer dominance where humans are branded as transgressors. They grazed all the day but just followed the goatherd holding a stick and sweeping them back home at the day’s end.
Visansar lake campsite was another stunner of a campsite. You can see high hills everywhere and listen to the ripples of a gentle stream that flows incessantly over the pebbles.
The lake was a few yards away and the excitement of seeing the lake was preserved for the day after. Instead, with Yash and Parth I got a chance to run around with a cricket ball. We were more relieved than the day before as our body had got already acclimatized. The day after was given to revelling. I rested my rambling feet beside the fascinating Visansar lake. The vast expanse of Visansar, the colour that keeps changing with the changing lights of the day, got my eyes transfixed to it.
Silence was so musically accentuated by the continuous chirping of grey and yellow birds skimming on the gentle ripples of the lake.
The lake side, dotted with those yellow and purple spikes of flowers was often lined by red-breasted beetles. Surrounded with green hills, Vishansar lake got etched in our soul.
Camping at Vishansar gave scopes for all the trekkers to become friends. Spirit of revelling reached its acme when we formed teams and had unleashed fun in playing cricket in the most beautiful natural landscape of snow-capped hills.
I discovered Suyash to be a fellow Ruskin Bond admirer. The chirpy Disha, Parth and Yash seemed to have uttered an unpronounced oath of a never-ending friendship. Raghu Sir, the dentist by profession, threw open his doors in Bangalore for any visit there. I loved the undying spirit of Vaishali, mother of two, who helplessly returns to the mountains again and again. Enjoyed the companionship of Dipankar and Niladri and their wives and of course, Geeta auntie, the elderly lady nearing 60 who kept egging me for writing a blog on our trip.
Ominous clouds were at a distance when we left Vishansar lake the next morning. For the most of the day I had to keep my camera inside the bag as rain never allowed me to dare destroy my lens.
When continuous rain made the thin slice of path even thinner and slushy, when I literally crawled on to the mud with my hands as soil under my feet was losing its grip, when thick fog turned the visibility almost zero, I simply had nothing much to ask for than to wait for the trail to end. I kept on walking, or rather crawling on my chest in that incessant rain. The path was completely washed away and I was creeping at the edge of the hill.
Suddenly, to my horror, I found a horse slipping his leg and falling in an irrepressible speed down the edge of the hill. But his master did something incredible. Just as he saw his horse rolling down, he jumped for his life in that rocky slushy edge to reach the reins of the falling horse. Both of them were rolling together for 60/70 feet after which he grabbed his beloved horse.
Another episode opened my eyes as who the real heroes of our life are. After negotiating the deadly pass when we were trekking in a relatively safer zone, we suddenly found Geeta auntie slipping on the snow and falling down the snow-covered slope in a breakneck speed. Shrieks were all around when Javaid threw his body like a bird onto the snow and started rolling towards Geeta auntie who was by then uncontrollably heading towards a rock jutting out of the snow.
It was stuff straight from the films as Javaid rolled faster than Geeta auntie and slanted his body to catch the hand of falling lady before she hit the stone. To our biggest relief we found her to be quite all right apart from slight injury on her feet and palm. In mountains there is always someone God-send. Truly, Javaid became the hero of all of us from that day onwards.
Gadsar pass was a sight to cherish forever. It was 3600 snow and we walked through high walls of glacial snows.
It was raining all the way and the trekkers were appearing like small moving dots amid white wrapper of all encompassing snow. Time and again it was proved that nature has its rewards for those who brave it. The still emerald green water of Gadsar lake with big chunks of ice floating on it was a sight to watch out for. Smiles came all around and walking till the rest of our journey on that day was much relieving. When we were greeted with warm water by the army men patrolling the check post, we ultimately realised that perhaps the ordeals came to an end.
The camp side was as usually picturesque. It was a valley covered all around with high hills and there was a neighbouring goatherd’s cottage where we saw a wonderful sight. A lady was nursing a horse and another cub of horse was hovering around with weak legs. We wondered knowing that the cub was just a few hours old as it was born last night. Seeing the light of the earth, the young cub was already on his legs preparing himself to get ready for the battle of survival. Evening set in little early that day and we were all hoping for a clearer sky for our next day trek towards Satsar Lake.
Sun never really peeped through when we started our next day trek for Satsar Lake. As Javaid pointed out the high hill we needed to pass, we found it insurmountable considering the billowing clouds that surrounded it. We put on our ponchos right from the outset of our journey. The drizzling started soon and we started taking longer and harder steps. We had to cross the pass fast before the rain got harder.
I found it exerted the stamina and tested my endurance level to the hilt. Terror struck at midnight. We closed our eyelids hoping for a sunny morning the next day but the hope suffered its rudest jolt. Thunder struck so terrifyingly hard 10 thousand odd feet above the sea level that it challenged the most intrepid adventurer. Streaks of lightning ripped the sky and the sound that followed kept on sending shivers. The force of rain increased each second and all the nightmarish images of cloudbursts were troubling my mind. The night did end and with beating heart I unzipped the tent to peek outside. The familiar blue light of the dawn comforted me.
We kept on taking repeated glance at the mountain tops to see if clouds were moving away. To our relief, it was really clearing. Once you start trekking and see all your fellow trekkers come out of their hiding, the trails of fear lurking in you will gradually disappear. The face of nature changed for the better. The inescapable feelings of the hours of trekking getting gradually numbered started gripping my mind.
The final ascent towards Zach pass was beautiful. We were carving our way beside the mountain stream that lay cradled in between two mountain ranges.
The path was little slushy with melting glaciers and sunrays were making striped light and shades. Tired feet were denying to climb any further because whenever we thought that might be the final ascent, another loftier hill appeared. But when I reached the edge of a snowy slope I saw the most beautiful sight.
Everyone screamed out to welcome me in their fold. They were sitting scattered on the snow and rocks, all beaming with laughter and relief. There were no more peaks to climb and a vast verdure of undulating greenness lay open in front of my eyes. Only in the far distance stood aloft the mighty Harmukh peak. Just down below there were the twin lakes, Gangbal and Nandkul. The clean blue water of the lakes looked mesmeric from the height.
The twin lakes accompanied us till the end of the descent. Mind never felt jaded. The thought of one last day trek was giving a sense of well being as well. Most importantly, the fear of dark cloud seemingly evaporated and dangers appeared to have been a day of the past. There was a mixed feeling of something coming to an end and also happy feelings of returning. In the evening the fire flakes were streaking out in gale from the logs of bonfire. We were lost in carefree abandon, singing songs and dancing to the folk tunes of local guys. Night sky was more lustrous with millions of twinkling stars.
Trek to Narnag was a perfect ending to a fairy tale week. The first part of the trek was through a terrain of vast green undulations spotted with horses and cattle. Kashmiri villagers carrying woods for fuel made the setting idyllic. A week after we were back into forest of tall trees. Through the tall stems of the shaded forest, ice capped mountain ranges kept looking at me, reminding me of the last seven days when I stayed so close to them.
We returned to civilised world with the signal bars appearing in the mobile phones. Listening to the voice of the loved ones back home brought us smiles of happy tidings. But when the Scorpio took me to my hotel I could not help bearing in my heart a firm sense of belonging to the majestic Himalayas and longed once more for the hilly haunts, the verdure and the vast unknown.
The Great Lakes Trek commercially known as Sonamarg-Vishansar-Naranag Trek is an alpine himalayan high-altitude trek in Kashmir Valley in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Trailheads: East: Sonamarg
Trail difficulty: Moderate
Season: June to September