Misadventures & Musings on Kashmir Great Lakes Trek

Twin Lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar

Misadventures are inseparable from my trips, much like controversy and the Kardashians, and corruption and Indian politics. From getting my specs stolen by a monkey in a Balinese temple to getting my DSLR stolen in a Parisian church and being locked out of the Airbnb at midnight in Hanoi, misadventures are never too far. 

It was no different on the recent trek to the Great Lakes of Kashmir. As anyone who has ever trekked will concur, the one thing you absolutely need is a reliable pair of shoes. I thought I had one. My pair had faithfully accompanied me on three previous (long) Himalayan treks and then expectantly but patiently hibernated for two years to grace my feet again, what with the pandemic raging outside.

I had spotted signs of distress during the last trek itself but was deluding myself that they had more to give.  Within the first hour of the six-day, 70 km trek, Chetak (as I fondly, ironically, and posthumously christened my shoes) started crumbling. The outer sole layers that provide the much-needed extra grip on treacherous mountain tracks started teetering off and dangling.  Mind over matter, I thought and calmly pocketed the separated soles and soldiered on for the rest of the day. By the morning of day 2, the entire outer sole started coming out making the walk nearly impossible. Without batting an eyelid, our trek leader, Dhaval, pulled some strings (literally) and tied up the pieces. I mentally bowed to him. He was no less than Bear Grylls for me.

Chetak

That saw me through the next two days, including the venerated Gadsar pass crossing. But by day 4, the strings had done what they could. That’s when Dhaval suggested putting on my socks over my shoes. Out came my faux designer socks and they snugly engulfed what were the tattered remnants of my shoes.

Chetak 2.0: Wrapped up in socks

For a while, my designer footgear became a topic of curiosity, admiration, and even envy among fellow trekkers, guides, and locals alike. But with near-zero grip, I fell often and clumsily on the mix of muck and horseshit that masqueraded as the trail on the final day. I somehow negotiated the 12 km of steep descent with no damage to my bones and only slight damage to my pride.   

Ultimately, a valuable lesson was learned. With ingenuity and fortitude, one can overcome any obstacle but it’s way better to just buy a new pair of shoes and not be stingy.

Base Campsite at Shitkadi

Well, now onto more mundane stuff. Like the trek itself. Indiahikes, the foremost authority on treks in India, calls the Kashmir Great Lakes trek the prettiest in India. That’s high praise and as I soon discovered, well deserved. The trek takes one through three high-altitude mountain passes, lush green meadows, mountain rivers gurgling on their way down, and six absolutely pristine glacial lakes, each prettier than the other.

The trek route has no human settlements and no mobile connectivity. It remains covered in snow for most of the year. In the short window from late July to September, after the snow melts and the passes become accessible, nomadic sheepherders bring up their flocks from the valley below to graze on the ultra-nutritious alpine grass. They are the only humans you will encounter on the trek, apart from army personnel and fellow trekkers.

Nomadic sheep herder

Let me issue some fair warning. Parts of the blog may sound like a love letter to Indiahikes. It’s because they deserve it. Not because they paid me (though I would very much like that).

I can’t possibly document the full itinerary better than Indiahikes already has, so you better read it here. I’ll just stick to a retelling of some unforgettable sights I saw and the reflections they evoked.

Vishnusar Lake

While everywhere you look on a trek in Kashmir gorgeous vistas abound, the first jaw-dropping moment came with the first glimpse of Vishnusar lake on Day 2. The placid, glassy waters of the lake, surrounded by steeply rising mountains on three sides just takes your breath away. The tiredness from the arduous walks instantly evaporates. As I sat next to it, along with my thoughts, I felt blessed to be living that moment.

En route Gadsar Pass with Kishansar in the background

The third day is arguably the toughest and trickiest day of the trek but it is packed with visual delights. We crossed the Gadsar pass on the third day. A challenging 3-hour climb took us to the top of Gadsar pass. At 13,800 ft, it is the highest point on the trek.

The view from the top is spellbinding. Snow-capped mountains play peekaboo with clouds on one side. On the other side, the twin lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar – appear as tiny specks of turquoise.

View from Gadsar Pass

Once everyone in our group made it to the top, Dhaval assembled us in a huddle that he calls the gratitude circle. Everyone thanked the people who made this possible for them – parents who bred a love for the outdoors from childhood, understanding spouses who encouraged (or at least put up with) the idea of a solo trek, and of course our excellent support team at Indiahikes. It was an emotional moment for everyone. I couldn’t help starting my vote of thanks with a word of gratitude to the scientists behind the Covid vaccine.

Gadsar Lake

Lunch on day 3 was next to Gadsar Lake.  As I sat on a rock next to a gurgling stream, with the majestic lake in clear view, I realized that I would choose simple food with a view like this any day over gourmet meals in fancy restaurants. The sloping meadow that runs all the way down to the lake was peppered with tiny flowers of myriad colours. A flock of sheep languidly munched on the lush grass. All was well with the world. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Gadsar Lake

Walking onwards from the lake en route to the Gadsar campsite, we crossed a tiny stone hut of a herder. His small boy stood beside his mother and as we waved, he waved back flashing a million-dollar smile. The innocent, heartfelt smile overwhelmed me. I wondered how, in such harsh conditions, with practically no material possessions and hardly any human company, the child could be this happy and contented. I contrasted it with the many contraptions city kids (including my own) have and how little difference it makes to experience happiness. 

Gangbal and Nandkul Lakes

Another high point (literally!) was crossing the Zach pass on the fifth day. The pass faces the mighty and sacred Harmukh mountain. For most of our hour-long stop at the top of the pass, the valley below remained shrouded in clouds. But ever so ephemerally, the clouds parted to reveal another pair of picture-perfect lakes – Gangbal and Nandkul. Okay, I have officially run of adjectives to describe pretty things. I was obviously disappointed at not getting clear views of one of the most spectacular sights on the trek. But I also realized that this mystique of nature is what makes trekking such a cathartic experience.  

The fifth night, at the Gangbal campsite, was our last on the trek. The next day we were to descend down to Naranag and drive back to Srinagar. There was a special surprise waiting for us. After dinner, the ghoda-walas who took care of the horses that carried our provisions came to the dinner tent. With humble utensils serving as musical instruments, they broke into soulful Kashmiri songs. We listened absolutely enthralled and then broke into spontaneous celebratory dancing. It was just another reminder that zest for life trumps material abundance when it comes to finding happiness in everyday life.     

Moideen Chacha- the leader of the ghoda-walas

I can’t possibly write about the trek and not mention what an absolute delight it was to trek with Indiahikes. It all starts from the detailed information you get on the website before you book the trek. They are anal about the fitness requirement for the trek and you are grudgingly thankful for it once you complete the trek without hiccups. The food they serve is delicious, wholesome, and always hot.

Dhaval (Trek Leader), Murtaza Bhai & Aslam Bhai (Guides)

The guides are knowledgeable, competent, friendly, and generous. They have the uncanny ability to magically appear with a helping hand, every time you need them. While I can’t quite wax eloquent about the trek leader on a previous trek, Dhaval, who led us on KGL, was excellent. He led by example, maintained discipline without getting overzealous and we always like we were in very safe hands.

Last but certainly not least, I met a wonderful bunch of people on the trek. This was the first trek where I went without friends. But a group of like-minded individuals, all there for the right reasons, meant that good company and enjoyable, insightful conversations were always at hand.  

The gang

Trekking gets one close to unspoiled natural beauty in a way that’s just not possible through any other means. To everyone out there who hasn’t it yet, give this trekking thing a shot. You can thank me later!

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