Living the prettiest trek of India!

Kashmir Great Lakes was my introduction to Alpine treks. The KGL trek as it is called, takes you on a 7-day journey through 75 kilometres of jaw-dropping landscapes. From mountains to ridges, from meadows to pine forests, from streams to waterfalls, this one has it all!  And while you are trek, you uncover six spectacular, virgin, ice-fed lakes, one after the other, that would take your breath away! By the end of the trek, it is impossible to tell which one was the prettiest!

Day 0: Sonmarg base camp, 9100 ft : An hour after we left the dusty town of Kangan behind, the striking views of the Himalayan foothills with tall alpine trees came into sight. We got dropped off at Sonmarg, where our brightly colored tents sat adorably on the banks of the sparkling and freezing ‘Nallah Sindh‘. Sipping on my steamy Kahwah*,  I watched a Water Redstart make quick plummets into the river to fetch its evening meal. At the far end, the impressive Thajiwas Glacier rose calmly with fluffy white clouds drifting over it.

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Base camp by the Sindh river with Thajiwas Glacier in the background.

Day 1 : Sonmarg to Nichnai via Shekdur (7800 to 11500 ft, 11kms, 8 hours): We were a small batch of six, led by a 57-year old, age-defying guide, Gulam Mohammed, aka Gulam Chacha. The trek commenced with a gradual elevation on a mountain ridge across the Sindh. As we kept going higher, it presented a bird’s eye view of the charming Sonmarg valley that was waking up to a hazy, silvery morning. The construction of a massive tunnel connecting Sonmarg to Leh was in full swing down below. Beyond Shekdur, the landscape gradually changed from Maple and Bhoj trees to valleys and verdant meadows scattered with brooks and streams and continued all the way up to Nichnai pass. We reached Nichnai around 3 pm. Our campsite lazed next to a calm rivulet flowing amid two wide valleys. The Thajiwas glacier was visible even from Nichnai. Herds of sheep bleated and halted curiously by our camp as they made their way down. As night fell, temperatures dropped and Nichnai got enveloped in clouds and drizzle, but made way for a spotless sky and a dazzling weather next morning!

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Sonmarg valley and the tunnel under construction(right)

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Stark change in landscape beyond Shekdur

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Herds of sheep grazing at Nichnai

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An inquisitive sheep at Nichnai camp. Unexpected rain-clouds begin to gather in the background.

Day 2 : Nichnai to Vishansar Lake (11500 to 13500 to 12000 ft, 12 kms, 7 hrs): The day started with a moderate climb to 13500 feet, then a short descend followed by a long hike on the green pastures that bloomed with petite wildflowers and shrubs. Herds of sheep were in plentiful. From late June through September, snow from the valleys of Kashmir recede, giving way to lush green meadows. This is when the nomadic tribes called ‘Gujjars’ inhabit these valleys with hordes of sheep and cattle; pitching temporary homes as they tread along. With the advent of winter from October onwards, the  weather turns harsh and hostile, thus forcing the Gujjars to retreat to the lower plains  or migrate to the nearby villages for livelihood.

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A Gujjar

Vishansar : After an incessant walk, we reached the massive campsite at Vishansar by late noon. Vishansar lake lies hidden between mountain ranges of varying heights. I walked alongside a brook and passed a boulder patch where I stopped to say hello to a pair of nosy marmots (large squirrels) that squeaked loudly as they watched me over from their burrows. A gentle climb of around a hundred feet bought me to the edge of an imposing Vishansar. Magenta colored Celosia flowers lined its turquoise waters that shimmered under the evening sun. I spent an hour by the lakeside. Nightfall sprinkled diamond dust over the pitch-dark sky. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was able to see every visible star of the universe this day and every day here on till the last day in the lap of Kashmir.

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Pink Celosias around Vishansar lake are hard to miss!

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The shimmering waters of Vishansar

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Relaxing on the bank besides a flower.

Day 3 : Vishansar to Gadsar via Kishansar and Gadsar pass (12000 to 13750 ft, 14 kms, 10 hrs): With Vishansar as the base, we were to scale the towering mountain adjacent to the lofty and naked Kishansar peak, which was about 3/4th of its altitude. A long zig-zag path running from the base to the top of the mountain had an endless trail of horses and ant-like humans in fluorescent clothes drifting on it, inch by inch. The steep ascend of almost 2.5 hours was gruelling and the thin oxygen levels made it even more cumbersome. Half way through the climb, I halted to gawk at the majestic Kishansar lake lying at the base of Kishansar peak. It’s still emerald waters reflected the greenish-blue mountains like a mirror. For an ardent nature lover, Kishansar can end up giving goosebumps.

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Kishansar lake with its magical reflections.

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Kishansar in full view

Even before I could completely soak up what I had just seen, I was already staring at the unbelievable vistas of both Vishansar and Kishansar stacked above one another at a vertical distance of about 500 feet. Standing at the uppermost point of the trail, I  realised that I had overcome the most difficult climb of the trek, but somehow, it felt utterly insignificant next to what lay in front of me..

 

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The spectacular view of Vishansar (bottom) and Kishansar lakes as seen from the top of the ridge

Gadsar Lake: An extended walk continued for a few more kilometers through the grassfields, until the pristine Gadsar lake appeared to my left down a slope. It was at a considerable distance from the trail, but I could still hear the sound of the waterfall that was pouring into it. A glacier ran down from the tall peaks surrounding the lake. Yellow and purple flowers had blossomed everywhere. There was an abandoned military camp tucked away at one corner. Camping was prohibited around Gadsar by the military (thankfully). By the end of my trek through the Great Lakes of Kashmir, I was convinced that Gadsar was undoubtedly the prettiest of all!

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Yellow flowers on the Gadsar pass

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The heavenly Gadsar

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At the Gadsar base camp

Day 4 : Gadsar to Satsar (13750 to 12000 ft, 9 kms, 6 hours) :Gadsar to Satsar was smooth mostly running through plains and boulders. Sat(seven) sar(lakes), as the name goes, is apparently a collection of seven lakes, however, I could locate only a handful. We reached the campsite by lunch and the rest of the day was spent in recuperating.

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The carpet of yellow blooms near Satsar

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Reflections at Satsar

Day 5 : Satsar to Gangbal Twin lakes (12000 to 11500ft, 11 kms, 7 hours): I had unknowingly paced up and exerted myself on the moderate ascend on huge boulders. In the bargain, I suffered mild AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) half way through the trek. Ghulam Chacha mentioned that the pollens released from the yellow flowers had done the trick and not the AMS. Whatever be the reason,  I literally crawled my way up to the last pitstop for Gangbal with a pounding headache, disorientation and fatigue.

When I finally made it to the top, I saw two emerald lakes, Nundkol and Gangbal split by a hefty mountain range with a giant blob of white cloud floating above. It took me a few seconds to convince myself that I wasn’t hallucinating due to my AMS!

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The twin lakes of Nundkol(left) and Gangbal as seen from the highest trekking point

A steep descend hereon led us straight into the Gangbal base camp by late noon. The  mighty Harmukh with its snow-clad peaks and glaciers stood behind the lakes. (The locals worship Harmukh as the protector from venomous insects, snakes, evil and natural calamities). Gangbal was a 10-minute walk away from Nundkol. Gangbal was enormous; the biggest of the lakes witnessed during the entire trek. But it was motionless and extremely quiet, so much so that I could hear the occasional bloop-bloop of fish swimming by its bank. A waterfall splurged out of Gangbal and later joined the stream that gushed out of Nundkol and flowed besides our campsite. At twilight, the sun rays pierced through the clouds and played an opera of shadows and light from behind Harmukh. Night called for some freshly caught trout fish smoked on a bonfire under the sparkling constellations. What a terrific day it had been!

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Nundkol

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A waterfall splurges off Gangbal

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The still side of Gangbal

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The play of light at Gangbal campsite. Harmukh in the background

Day 6 : Gangbal. Rest. A crisp, sunny day with cool breeze and nothing to do! I learnt the  true meaning of the Italian phrase – ‘Dolce far niente’ which means ‘pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness.’ or simply put ‘the joy of doing nothing!

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A horse takes its time out too!

Day 7 : Gangbal to Naranag (11500 to 7450 ft, 15 kms, 7 hours) : It had been a spectacular journey so far, but the real test was now! After crossing the fragile wooden footbridge, we encountered one last but steep zig-zag incline running parallel to a deep valley. To its right, was a lofty mountain range behind which, lay the famous Gurez Valley with parts of it in PoK (Pak occupied Kashmir). To the left, stood the mighty Harmukh. From here on right till the base of Naranag, the trek comprised only of moderate to steep descends for five long hours. The trail passed through spectacular pine forests on both sides with the sweet woody scent of pine lingering throughout! The walk down was an absolute killer on my knees and toes and the ultimate test of my patience.

I let out a long sigh of relief when I finally saw the tinned roofs of the houses of Naranag from a distance. A broad smile flashed through the sweat and tan. I had indeed lived every minute of the prettiest trek of India!

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Romancing the alpines on my way down to Naranag

                                                   About Kashmir Great Lakes Trek 

Kashmir Great lakes or KGL is considered as one of the prettiest treks of India. In 7 days and 75 kms, you uncover 6 spectacular and untouched lakes that lie hidden in the mountains and valleys of Kashmir.
Route : Sonmarg-Nichnai-Vishansar-Kishansar-Gadsar-Satsar-Gangbal-Naranag
Level : Moderate-Difficult. I wouldn’t recommend it for first timers or aged people unless you have an unmatched stamina. Guided trek recommended. I went with Renok Adventures.
Stay : All seven days in tents
Base : Srinagar
Must needed : Good trekking shoes (not sneakers), walking stick, sunscreen, warm clothes in layers, medical kit. rehydration is important. Watch out for AMS symptoms
*Kahwah : Traditional Kashmiri milk-less tea comprising of green Kashmiri tea, saffron, cardamom, sugar and almond chips. A must try 

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