Who says bucket lists are for the young and robust? India-based travel writer, Ranjan Pal, introduces the Great Lakes of Kashmir trek, a Himalayan hike that Pal, a late bloomer when it comes to tramping, recommends for seniors in search of achievement.
The Great Lakes of Kashmir (GLK) trek has been on my bucket list for a very long time.
Arguably the prettiest trek we have in India, it encompasses a trail that passes by seven alpine lakes in Kashmir, glittering emerald-green pools guarded by forbidding mountain crags, themselves adorned with sparkling snowfields.
For Kiwi visitors, the terrain is quite similar to that of the spectacular Southern Alps though the mountains are higher and more sharply defined.
Besides the attraction of the lakes, Kashmir itself was a big gap in my portfolio of mountain treks, since I had trekked pretty much everywhere else in the Himalayas, including Ladakh and Bhutan and, of course, Nepal.
This was not surprising as historically Kashmir has been India’s most troubled state and a major bone of contention and conflict with neighbouring Pakistan. The political instability and the threat of terrorism has kept tourists and trekkers away for decades.
But now with the state firmly under Indian military control and local politics suspended indefinitely, tourists are thronging there in droves.
The harsh winter and snowbound conditions allow for this trek to be done only in the July-September window and given the huge numbers of trekkers we ran into in the second half of August, my tip would be to definitely stick to the shoulder season.
Right from the get-go in Sonamarg, we were overwhelmed by crowds of trekkers and herds of pack animals that seemed to be everything, everywhere, all at once, with the most unhappy repercussions for me personally.
I had begun my trekking career with an iconic trek to the Everest base camp in November 2012 and had followed up with several more to the base camps of the Himalayan giants. I was proud of my trekking accomplishments, which started after the age of 50. But now I was undeniably slowing down; age and diminishing stamina were beginning to take their toll.
Kashmir proved to be my trekking Waterloo.
I had perfected a personal climbing technique where I would climb 100 steps at a time with my head down and then take a break to catch my breath. On a deserted trail this worked well, but on this overcrowded GLK route, my rhythm was broken innumerable times, as I had to frequently stop to let trains of trekkers and pack mules pass.
In the case of the mules particularly, you had to step aside smartly or risk being knocked clear off the trail. My climbing rhythm destroyed and my spirits despondent, I began to lag further and further behind. Eventually, I gave up and clambered onto one of the two back-up ponies, an act I would have considered sacrilegious before, and let it haul me into our camp where I collapsed into an exhausted sleep.
The next day, our group of eight aging adventurers, all college buddies well into our 60s , continued to hike the KGL trail which follows the course of the Pind stream upwards through thick pine forests and grassy meadows until it breaks through the treeline and then loses its way in some nasty-looking boulder-strewn fields.
From our next campsite, we could see the Nichnai Pass (4100m), visible as a distinct notch in the distant ridgeline that towered high above us, with the trail leading up to it appearing as a scar on the face of the mountain.
The day dawned bright and sunny. We left camp in a single file, moving steadily towards the top of Nichnai Pass. I brought up the rear along with our young Kashmiri guide, Umar, who was to prove of great help to me throughout the trek. As I struggled once again to keep up, it became obvious that I would have to rely on the pony again.
What goes up must come down and I have always felt better about descending than ascending. We negotiated the steep rocky slopes on the other side of the pass and reached a long stretch of grassy meadows strewn with pretty purple irises and yellow buttercups.
At the bottom of the valley, we stopped for lunch. We took off our boots and cooled our tired legs and blistered feet in a crystal clear and cold mountain stream. I could have stayed here forever, but I had promises to keep and there were miles to go before I slept.
Reaching yet another crowded campsite, our depressed spirits lifted when we climbed the small moraine behind the camp and caught a glimpse of the first of the great lakes, Vishansar, revealing itself in all its glory. Vishansar is the picture-perfect alpine lake, with snow-streaked mountain cliffs that plunge down into its icy waters from all sides and with incredible aquamarine hues that shift and change in the evening light.
The next day was a rest day and we had the luxury of sleeping in. I waited for the sun to reach its zenith before venturing back to Vishansar and bathing in its clear waters. Scrubbing the sweat and grime of the last few days off my body with Cinthol soap, I felt like a new man. Best of all, there was not a soul in sight; even my trek mates had forgone this singular pleasure. I revelled in my solitude, thankful for having reached this mountain paradise.
The next day, we were back at work on the chain gang, with an early morning start to beat the crowds, headed to the highest point on our trek, Gadsar Pass (4200m). We climbed steadily in the morning sunshine, leaving Vishansar behind and reaching Kishansar, 100m further up. Kishansar is a smaller and paler version of its larger and more robust cousin, Vishansar. The effects of climate change on Kishansar are clearly visible, with grassy tongues of land emerging from its shrinking surface.
Descending the other side of the pass, we passed Gadsar, a spectacular emerald lake and easily the prettiest one we encountered during the entire trek.
Fed by glacial streams plunging down from melting icefields high up, Gadsar is relatively inaccessible and offers no decent campsites, but its sheer beauty will take your breath away.
Reluctantly, we left the lake behind and continued our descent through the green valley until at long last we saw a large cluster of colourful tents, with the Indian tricolour fluttering above the lone army checkpoint. We were now beyond the halfway mark, having covered 16km in the space of over eight hours this day.
The next day, we crossed a snow bridge to get to the other side of Wangath Nallah and then followed a zigzag route up the side of the mountain. Soon this section flattened out followed by an easy though long walk to the next set of lakes called Satsar or Seven Lakes but considered as one when counting the lakes of the GLK trek.
These are more like large shallow ponds, and we passed three of them on our way to the campsite, picking our way over the boulders. Once again, I found a crystal clear and cold mountain stream to have my second wash of the trek.
Our run of good weather ended that night, as clouds had gathered the previous evening followed by a short sharp hailstorm, a loud drumbeat on the roof of the dining tent.
The final pass of the trek, Zajbal (4005m), was hidden far above in the scudding clouds. We took a safer, lower route traversing the mother of all boulder fields to avoid the danger of rockfall from above.
The ascent to Zajbal is steep and relentless, and we were beset on all sides with the usual loud and noisy throng of young trekkers. At least, the clouds parted for a few brief moments to allow us a spectacular view from the pass of the last two of the seven Great Lakes , Nundkul and Gangabal, visible far below.
Dropping down quickly to the valley floor, we walked gradually up to Gangabal for a closer look.
Both these water bodies are much larger than Vishansar and Gadsar – vast shimmering expanses of water lying at the foot of soaring peaks. Gangabal drains into the smaller Nundkul, and this is where we set up our camp. It is a stunning location, with the imposing bulk of Mount Harmukh (5142m), which translates as “the diadem of Shiva”, towering into the sky above the lake.
Far up its sheer rock face, the remains of an old snowfield bleed into the lake in a continuous thin stream of glacial water. At night, with the reflection of the full moon glimmering on the surface of Nundkul, the scene is even more enchanting .
On our last day, we traversed the trail which bumped along above the treeline for quite a bit before abruptly plunging into thick pine forests.
The 1400m descent was long and hard, exhausting and demanding, but eventually the red roofs of the hamlet of Naranag come into view. I was totally and finally done with my last trekking adventure !
GREAT LAKES OF KASHMIR
Fly from Auckland to Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi with Qantas and Qatar Airways, with one stopover in Melbourne or Doha. An onward domestic flight to Srinagar takes 1 hour, 35 minutes.
The writer travelled with White Magic Adventure Travel. We senior citizens took nine days to complete with two rest days included but it can be done in as little as six days. The trip costs about $2000 per person exclusive of the Delhi-Srinagar-Delhi airfare. Srinagar is 80km from the start point at Sonamarg and 50km from the endpoint of Naranag.