Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek

Sonamarg – Nichnai – Vishansar – Kishansar – Gadsar – Satsar – Gangabal – Nundkul – Naranag


Your body aches. The calf and thigh muscles are struggling to cope with continuous ascent. The body screams. The mind ignores the screaming, cajoles and motivates it. “A little more and we’re there. You can do it. You’re the best there is; if you can’t, no one else can”. The body responds and you lumber on.

The breathlessness catches up with you. The weight of the backpack seems unbearable. The shoulders ache. The lungs are fatigued. The mind steps up again. “Let’s do this in phases”, it says. “Every fifty steps, you can rest”.

The power of the human brain at work!

Why do people trek? As I signed up for my first ever bone-breaking, sweat-inducing trek; I asked myself this question. I hoped the trek would give me an answer.

Day 0: Srinagar (5000 feet) – Sonamarg (7800 feet)

Even before reaching Srinagar and way before beginning in the trek I got my first glimpse of Himalayas on the flight entering Srinagar. As I half-dozed on the flight subconsciously taking in the usual beautiful cloud formations; I snapped wide awake on suddenly become aware of enormous snow-clad mountain peaks standing across our way. The hovering clouds were painted with peaks above them nearly at the height at which we were flying.

And then as the aircraft descends through the shimmering white, one sees them! The lower part of the peaks which were hidden by clouds suddenly comes into visibility; giant, lumbering, grey-brown mountains proudly and scornfully looking at our tiny humble airplane.

Srinagar, on the outset looks like a normal Indian city, until that is, you take a closer look. The city is teeming with CRPF personnel; but from what I am told from locals, a semblance of normal life and plenty of common tourists have returned to Kashmir which is much better than the gloomy nineties.

We took a cab from Srinagar to Sonamarg which is roughly a four hour drive and nearly double the altitude. With 25 people on our trek organized by IndiaHikes, as we introduced ourselves; I listened to people casually throwing in statements like “I’ve been to Roopkund, Rupin and Chadar”; “I come to the Himalayas every year for a trek”; “I’ve been travelling in this region for the last one month”. I kept my mouth shut except occasionally showing my ignorance by asking the location of above mentioned treks.

With my morale down (although there were other first-timers like myself), I mentally prepared myself for the upcoming ordeal.

View from Sonamarg campsite

Day 1: Sonamarg (7800 feet) – Nichnai (11500 feet)

A first experience of lugging your hefty backpack isn’t pleasant; and when the first part of your trek is a steep uphill, “isn’t pleasant” is a gross understatement. We sweated in 30oC at that high altitude and panted and moved clumsily with gasping breaths. (Glad to say, nature doesn’t differentiate much between first-timers and experienced trekkers).

We walked and walked for what didn’t seem more than a month before we reached our first pit-stop. With flaming lungs and aching shoulders we relieved ourselves of our backpacks and looked around.

The view was undoubtedly glorious. Behind us was the town of Sonamarg looking pretty in the distance along with the Sindh River flowing alongside. The view ahead was a green cover full of pine trees standing tall on the mountainside.

Digression: A picture might be worth a 1000 words but try telling that to 25 panting folks trying to catch their breath. I’d rather write all about it from my couch than sum up the energy to take a pic then. Still for its worth-

We moved on (groaning) and made our way for another hour or so whilst we crossed the pine trees to a different one – silver birch trees. These trees (in plenty) covered the next part of our trek.

Within shade and a relatively easier path, we made swift progress before reaching and pit stopping at a beautiful small stream; where we had lunch and a much-needed rest.

Moving on, with our guides fooling us to believe we were almost at our destination, we walked on (and on) amongst treacherous rocks this time around. Rocks are treacherous, period! We hopped, skipped and jumped over them; all it takes is one unstable rock or one mistimed jump to get an ankle twist. However we made it through safely.

Eventually we reached our camp in Nichnai by afternoon and had a luxurious rest there. Camps are usually placed in valleys were one is surrounded by gigantic mountains, with the occasional glacier in sight, the Thajiwas glacier in this case.

As I sat beside the flowing river coursing its way through the rocks in all its brutality and purity, I wondered for the umpteenth time about the power of water and the scant disregard many of us show for the same.

Day 2 – Nichnai (11500 feet) – Nichnai Pass (13500 feet) – Vishansar Lake (12000 feet)

The second day is easier. We now knew what to do, had learnt to pack/unpack tents and took lesser time to finish the everyday routine.

We stepped for Nichnai Pass; a three hour grueling climb with absolutely no shade unlike the first day where trees surrounded us.

As we reached the pass (breathless again), we were greeted with strong winds and unexpected colorful shrubbery. The passes seem to be a hospitable placed for wild shrubs and treated to a truly beautiful and colorful sight.

Colorful shrubs
We walked on from the pass descending this time at a rapid pace unable to stop on occasions even if we wanted to.

Halting for lunch at yet another passing stream (there are thousands such probably), we crossed a relatively flatter meadow with more colorful shrubs, dozens of sheep and scorching sun to finally reach our campsite – Vishansar lake (our first lake on the trek). 

Vishansar Lake
I’ve in the past been enraptured by the beauty of Himalayan lakes and this was another such beauty.

Surrounded by huge mountains, unknown and not easily accessible to humans, this lake is absolutely crystal clear, filled with shimmering blue-green water that mesmerized us. One just needs to sit beside the lake gazing at the changing water color (with the sun’s reflection) and listening to its lapping sound to feel completely soothed.

Day 3 – Vishansar Lake (12000 feet) – Kishansar Lake (12300 feet) – Gadsar Pass (13700 feet) – Gadsar (12000 feet)

We crossed Vishansar lake to move to Kishansar lake around 250 metres above Vishansar. Yet another beautiful lake black in the morning light.

Vishansar and Kishansar Lakes together visible from our trail
Moving on, we reached what I felt was the toughest part of the trek. A lengthy and steep four hour climb; off a cliff with a trail that a fat pony might have refused to go on to; and a vertical drop on one side.

The trail


Fear! The mind reeked of it. I was in my worst nightmare. The breathlessness and the weight of the backpack were forgotten. Gone were the aching lungs. Pure and absolute panic! Walking on the edge of a precipice. On a trail that couldn’t accommodate more than a pair of human feet. One dominant part of the mind saying, “you’re a gonner”, the other part steeling itself, “you’ve to do this, there is no other choice.”

I walked. Upwards. Taking cautious steps. Doing my utmost best not to look down. Walk and walk, slip, panic, get a grip and walk again. The pattern repeated. Scream mentally in agony as the steepness of the precipice increased, go on all fours not trusting my two feet, clutching at small rocks and finding scant comfort.

Actually the climb wasn’t that dangerous, but with fear things take a different perspective. The legs are unable to take normal walking steps which they would otherwise effortlessly do, without the sight of a few hundred feet of vertical drop.

We made it. I made it. Presenting Gadsar Pass! 13750 feet. The highest point of our trek.

After the pass, it was relatively easy. Barring one steep descent, it was a walk through the meadows. And what absolutely beautiful meadows at that! The meadows were filled with color with yellow being the most dominant; even more colorful than the previous day.

Green meadows
We walked on through a sea of colorful shrubs before reaching our third lake of the thread – Gadsar lake. And now I am running out of adjectives to describe lakes, but this one was as elegant as the previous two. After walking on for a few more hours, we reached our campsite to relax at the end of the hardest day of our trek.

Gadsar Lake
More colorful shrubs

Day 4 – Gadsar (12000 feet) – Satsar (12000 feet)

Our trekking guide, Pradeep told us that the toughest part of the trek was over. The route for the day supposed to be one small cliff and then plain meadows, he said! Ha!

I was back in my favorite nightmare. Steep cliff! Walking on all fives. Two hands, two feet and a broken trekking pole.

Without describing the previous day’s fears, suffice to say I made it. Again! This was a little easier and of shorter duration than the previous day.

View on the way!
We walked on for another hour or so until we reached our campsite (near an army campsite); an absolutely glorious green meadow with hundreds of sheep and goats grazing peacefully.

Hundreds of sheep
At our campsite, we were informed of the existence of an unnamed lake nearby across a cliff. Three of us enthusiastically went across in search of that lake but couldn’t find anything at first. On pursuing another narrow path further away from the cliff and going further up (around an hour from the campsite); we were unexpectedly treated with the sight of a large beautiful lake glittering blue in the sunshine. Our quest proved fruitful.
The unnamed lake
A thunderous sunset

Day 5 – Satsar (12000 feet) – Zaij Pass (13400 feet) – Gangabal Lake (11500 feet) – Nundkul Lake (11500 feet)

We got up to swirling mist as we made our way over rocky territory (moraines) this time around. Rocks and more rocks, we ascended over a vast bed of rocks one step over another; sometimes hopping, sometimes treading cautiously, sometimes slipping over them. After a continuous ascent over the rocks which took a lot out of us, we reached another area of steep green meadows.

Swirling mist and Satsar Lake
“The Dark Knight Rises” talks about the worst prison being the one which gives hope. This day’s path was one of the toughest with every new hill being hidden behind the previous one only to lull us into a false belief that we are almost at the pass. The amount of ascent over these mountains was just morale sapping after we had dealt with the rocky outcrop.

Cold and misty, with visibility reduced to minimum, we lumbered on. It was an absolutely brutal test of our stamina, endurance and resolve.

Finally we reached Zaij Pass (13400 feet) and encountered rain for the first time. Not very heavy, but enough to make us worry about the steep descent from there. Steep descent, edge of a precipice, rain, slippery rocks – what more could one ask for!!

We quickly moved from the pass and descended. With me refusing to look over the outside. Sometimes tentatively, sometimes briskly. We did the descent in quick time in steady rain (which didn’t increase thankfully). I surpassed myself!

After yet another mountain climb and descent we reached the twin lakes of Gangabal and Nundkul at the end of an energy-sapping; endurance-testing day.

Day 6 – Gangabal Lake, Nundkul Lake (11500 feet)

Day 6 was a rest day with us camping and relaxing at Nundkul Lake.

We spent some time to go over to Gangabal which over another adjacent mountain when it started raining. We still managed to reach Gangabal which was the largest lake of our entire trek. An enormous expanse of water which stretched endlessly into the mist. The Harmukh Peak behind the twin lakes looked imposing in the distance.

The rest of the day was spent in relaxing and avoiding the continuous rain and sharing experiences with each other.
Nundkul lake
Gangabal lake

Day 7 – Nundkul (11500 feet) – Naranag (7500 feet)

With a day of rest refreshing us, we stepped down to civilization. Gentle slopes and greenery to begin with, some more rocky patches before we settled into descent walking through pine forests. The slope was gentle and comfortable and first; before eventually becoming steep to the point of putting a tremendous impact on our knees and toes.

View during the descent
Green mountain forest cover
At a few places, we ran unable to stop with the steepness of the descent. Descent, descent and more descent. We kept going downhill, vaguely wondering who said descending was easier than ascending.

After brisk walking we began to see lots of tourists going the other way uphill probably only till Gangabal. 
We continued our descent amongst forest cover before reaching Naranag - tired, exhausted, but delighted at having completed the trek.

Day 7 – second half – Srinagar

We took cabs from Naranag to Srinagar and reached there by evening. With not more than a few hours of day light left – we chose to experience only the most unique points of Srinagar.

Staying on a house boat and a shikara ride on the Dal Lake.

The house boat was a pleasant enough and comfortable experience with the highlight being the evening Shikara ride. We saw a beautiful sunset over the Dal Lake and lots of floating Shikara vendors trying to sell different items from jewellery to snacks etc.

Dal Lake
Sunset on the Dal Lake
The lake is a world of its own with complete markets floating on the same – MeenaBazaar and Old City Bazaar with lots of shops selling shawls, bags, woolen clothes etc with other shops selling dry fruits, kesari etc. There is also an entire vegetable market within the Dal Lake.

The Shikara ride seemed the perfect way to relax at the end of an arduous trek.

Some necessary mentions:

  • Indiahikes: Our trekking organization who did a great job of arranging for the trek, handling all logistics and making sure we had a great time.
  • Our trek lead, Pradeep who did a great job and leading the trek and being responsible for everyone.
  • Our local trek guides – Altaf and Khurshid. What giants they were! Slightly built, with a wiry frame; they carried our loads when we struggled, they gave us a hand when we slipped, they did everything and more for us than I could have ever imagined.
  • The rest of the staff – Naina, Bilal everyone from the horsemen to the cook who made our life so much easier and comfortable by providing 5-star food, and everything else we needed. Most importantly, everything with big smiles on their faces.
  • Everyone on the trek- what fun we had. With Uno, singing songs, Dumb Charades, Mafia and generally a great bonding that we developed and helping each other when required.
  • The Green trail: With Indiahikes’s initiative, we were able to collect lots of garbage dumped on the trail; we made sure our own campsites were clean before leaving every morning and we made sure the mountains were a cleaner place after we left with filling up to a dozen or so big bags of garbage. If only, everyone would be so sensible.
  • The toilet tents: an experience in itself but surprisingly bearable and acceptable with no worries about the stench.
  • Advice: Never, never, never carry more than what is necessary. There is a lot of difference in carrying  7kg vs 8kg of weight and so on. Just pack the essentials, and throw out all the extras. Carrying ~ 10kg is going to be really really tough.


You learn about courage. Courage, not being the dashing ability to trek flawlessly; but of bravery and endurance.

Of people who go on with broken knees and shooting pains; of people who walk on with blisters the size of the foot itself; of people who attempt their first trek at the age of 40; of people who fight ailments like BP and still decide to venture on this trek; of people who candidly admit they are slow and fight themselves in making an attempt to keep up.

At the end, it’s not about completing the trek (well obviously, that too). It’s probably learning about oneself; one’s courage and endurance; about appreciating the glorious beauties of the mountainside; about a sense of personal accomplishment; but maybe most likely to take some time off our every day’s routines and do something different and challenging.

For more pictures, visit this link.


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  1. Good job! :) Any idea if asthmatics are good to go for this trek?

  2. superb arun....nicely written,

    everyone would relate themselves with your entire description.
    all the memories just flashed through reading this.

    good job

  3. Thanks all!
    Soma, tu to kar hi lega, I think. Thode preparation ke baad..

  4. Arun, Nice write up, this will bring readers to Himalayas to experience it.

  5. 'some necessary mentions' part sounds like filmfare jeetne ke baad wali speech :D

  6. Kudos...for the trip and the blog!! :) :)

  7. good job rambler......inspiring stuff....

  8. wow! your blog is a confirmation that iss trek ko ek baar to try karna banta hai, so inserting it in my to do list... thanks for sharing ! :)

  9. Superb ! Arun
    Written very well .
    Glad u had a nice trip.

  10. Looks like an interesting trek, very well written

  11. Hi, very well written !! Can you provide the contact details of your guides Pradeep, Altaf and Khurshid ? Thanks

    1. Hi Amit, I went through the Indiahikes group. http://indiahikes.in/kashmir-great-lakes-trek/
      They might be able to guide further; I do have Pradeep's contact number - 9916001109; not the others. Don't know if he is still with the same group though.

    2. Very insightful . Planning the lake trek this month July 25 th with India hikes . Can u provide some more information about the trek . deeptha.reddy@yahoo.in

    3. What kind of information do you need additionally?

  12. Awesome read going for this trek but i have to brave the current turbulence in the valley