Trekking through Kashmir – the heaven on Earth…

Kashmir Great Lakes (047)

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After landing at Srinagar airport, I collected my rucksack and almost immediately started looking around for people with rucksacks or groups of youngsters in hiking outfits etc to strike a conversation. I had come to Kashmir to join the ‘Kashmir Great Lakes’ trek by Indiahikes. The trek is called so due to the fact that we would be seeing some of the finest lakes in this part of the mountains, on a route from Sonamarg to Naranag. Since mine was one of the first flights out of all the trekkers in the group reaching Srinagar, I had to kill time outside the airport waiting for the others. Our vehicle wasn’t scheduled to leave for another couple of hours or so. I contacted our driver and based on his directions started walking toward the outer security gate, some 10-15 mins away. While walking I noticed a bunch of trekkers yapping away in an incomprehensible language and then I heard the name of our driver so I was pretty sure these guys had also come for the same trek! Narasimha, Anusha and the gang, now that we’re friends I’m sure you guys aren’t offended 😉

Now this was one of the few times that I had signed up for a trek without knowing anyone beforehand. That, in addition to well, me being extra-extrovert and chatty, I got talking with the group – nice and enthu group. After reaching our vehicle, in a short time few other groups trickled in and after a little chitchat we were on our way in three sumo/qualis kind of vehicles (in India ‘Sumo’ basically refers to any similar SUV class vehicle and not necessarily the one from Tata!). By this time I had self-invaded into another group of lively guys from Mumbai/Pune/Nagpur – Niraj, Viral, Mansi, Rama and a few others from Goa – Sharvani, Vignesh and Mrudula. Before heading off to our base camp, we all made a lunch stop, somewhere in Srinagar itself. In line with my carefree attitude, I had not made a hotel reservation for the last day of our itinerary when we would return to Srinagar. I had hoped to just ask around where most of the guys were crashing and book a room / pitch in with someone at the same hotel. That worked out rather well and it was decided that Vignesh and I would share a room on the last day. Mrudula called the hotel right away and everything was set; sweet! Mission accomplished – I had found a bunch of lively and welcoming folks and instantly made friends to hang around with; I wasn’t going to be the ‘lone trekker’ anymore! 🙂

After lunch, on our way out of Srinagar we passed by the famous Dal Lake – our first expressions were basically on the lines of “what is the big fuss about this lake?!” It absolutely did not seem one bit appealing to most of us – it was overcrowded with boats, there was a blanket of hyacinth at many places and just plain unclean; a very sad state of affairs indeed.

Throughout the 3-4 hour drive to Sonamarg, we chatted and laughed over crazy stuff and it was great ice-breaking time. Apparently all of them did not know each one personally before then too, but only through common friends! We finally reached Sonamarg after sunset and after a quick hike from where our vehicles dropped us, we reached our base camp.

Here we met our leader, Pradeep, our guides Khurshid and Altaf and the rest of their team which would be with us, carrying the community gear, cooking food and basically taking care of us for the next few days. After a much needed hot dinner and an elaborate briefing and introduction session, we all soon settled in our tents. Niraj and Viral would be my tent-mates till the end of the trek.

My tent-mates, Viral and Niraj

My tent-mates, Viral and Niraj

The next morning we were woken up by a series of whistles by Pradeep and this would be our alarm throughout the trek! Everyone took in the first good sights of the mountains, since the previous night we couldn’t see anything much in the darkness.

Sonamarg, nestled in the mountains

Sonamarg, nestled in the mountains

In an hour or so, everyone freshened up, had a nice breakfast (all our meals were cooked for us by the staff) and eventually packed up and got ready to leave the campsite. Since majority of the trekkers were new to the Himalayas and didn’t feel too comfortable carrying their rucksacks / bags, the horsemen accommodated these bags along with the community gear on horses. Of course, the few of us with an itch in our buts were adamant on carrying our own stuff everyday so we just sucked it up and started walking!

Some of the cozy cottages we came across

Some of the cozy cottages we came across

The next few days we trekked through different terrain and camped along the way at various sites. On our way we saw some of the beautiful lakes that are so famous in this region. The time spent at camp was totally fun too.

Kashmir Great Lakes (094)

Our jolly good cook and staff

Kashmir Great Lakes (103)

Naina and me

I think Naina joined us at one of our intermediate camps because I don’t recall seeing him from day 1. Surprisingly, he recognized me from my previous year’s trek of Stok Kangri, during which he was one of the guides! It was very nice meeting him again and we were both elated. Later, on more than one occasion, Naina and I would just hold hands for balance and literally run on the slopes, overtaking the other trekkers and most of the times breaking the ‘normal’ path for a more challenging ‘straight cut through’ route. I was thrilled. Of course, he was sure of my capacity and not once did I ever feel we were doing anything unsafe.

Kashmir Great Lakes (060)

Mansi, Viral, Niraj, me and Rama

Kashmir Great Lakes (022) Kashmir Great Lakes (025) Kashmir Great Lakes (043)  Kashmir Great Lakes (048) Kashmir Great Lakes (049) Kashmir Great Lakes (062) Kashmir Great Lakes (073) Kashmir Great Lakes (081) Kashmir Great Lakes (085)

At one of the campsites we were stuck because of bad weather. It started raining heavily and because the route ahead was through unstable terrain, we had to stay put till the weather cleared. There was an army camp nearby that we had crossed on our way and apparently through them a message was conveyed to the authorities higher up informing them that a group of trekkers was stranded indefinitely. In this part of the mountains there was obviously no cellphone coverage. Moreover, even though normally satellite phones are carried by such large groups, they were prohibited in these regions due to security concerns (we were basically within 50 km of the Indo-Pak ‘Line of Control’, or LOC). Although there was an extra day in our itinerary, even that proved to be insufficient; we had to wait another day till the downpour stopped and we could continue onward. However, we all enjoyed this unscheduled halt too – playing dumb-charades (a lot of it!), antakshari, riding a horse around camp and what not! Despite the jolly atmosphere, we were all getting anxious to move ahead too. Most people had flights out of Srinagar as per the original itinerary. One middle-aged trekker had a painfully swollen foot from the previous day’s hike. This was all adding to the drama but eventually everything ended well. We decided to double-up the last two days’ section of the route and essentially covered it in one long day. Finally we all got to Srinagar in time to catch our flights back home.

This was definitely a very memorable trek. We all gelled so well during the 8-10 days and I can say for sure I’ve made some great friends! And as always, the Himalayas will keep drawing me toward them, ever so strongly each time…

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