Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kashmir - The Paradise that we hardly know of.

“Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast”
The famous Persian couplet declares “If there ever be a paradise, it is here, it is here, it is here!” Way back in 2008 when I made my first visit to this enchanted land, I think I understood what they meant by paradise. But I also thought I had seen better places. Until it hit me in the face, I didn’t realize my ignorance. There cannot be another paradise and there cannot be another place that can compare to the beauty of Kashmir.

Watching the photos from this amazing photographer from Pakistan called M Atif Saeed (http://www.flickr.com/photos/atifsaeed/) and obsessing over places shared by this facebook page called Explore the Beauty of Pakistan (https://www.facebook.com/ExplorePakistan), I was almost killing myself trying to find a way to visit these places. Little did I know that I could visit places of such beauty in our own country until this trek happened.

Writing a blog is good in more ways than one, before you think I am digressing, allow me to explain. I have put it down many times on my blog that plans seldom work as they should, accept the change and look for the good in whatever happened to you. So the trek was close to a disaster, of the supposed seven heavenly lakes, I got to see only two, one completely frozen, barely recognizable as a lake. The other lake, Vishnusar was the only saving grace of the trek. It was beautiful beyond description and trying to put its beauty in words could be a futile attempt at best. But I am going to find something good out of this trek by the end of this post.

Yet here I am raving about the Kashmir trek, for apt reasons as you would find out soon. The first day was glorious, so was the night. The galaxy that our dear earth is part made its grand appearance that night and every night after that. Watching the stars and shooting stars is something I could do forever, I love the dark nights that much. (Of course I am still scared of the nights ;)).

Camping in Kashmir

Snowy Surprise!
The second day started with a good promise, green meadows, snow capped peaks, grazing horses, pleasant sun and an exhilarating feeling of trekking in Kashmir. As we reached the silver birch forest along with thousands of sheep, the spirits were only soaring high until they came down crashing down that is. As we reached the next valley, a whole lot of snow welcomed us! Walking on snow was fun for the slightest moment until it became clear that so much snow can only spell doom to the trek in the coming days. But the optimist in me was still hoping against hope, after all I had so many instances where not giving up hope paid so well!

Nichnai Campsite, Kashmir

Heaven on Earth, really?
But not this time, the views were still splendid, so were the campsites but snow is not half as beautiful as greenery, wild flowers and colorful lakes. After two long days on snow, when we reached the third day campsite, the greenery brought such respite from the monotony of monochrome that the heart knew no bounds. This is when I realized why Kashmir was called paradise on earth! The idyllic setting of vast green meadows, the crystal clear stream reflecting the blue of the sky and huge snow capped mountains surrounding in all directions would put the best camping grounds to shame. What could also put us to shame was the amount of garbage lying around the place, plastic, beer cans and more such signs of civilization making their way into the heart of wilderness.

Vishnusar Campsite, Kashmir

Paradise unknown? Rather, Us - The Ignorant!
This was the also time to get the shock of my life. Turns out we Indians are the only ones unaware of the beauty of Kashmir so far. This route has been tread by foreigners for years. There have been Italians, Israelis, French and more of their kind, who have trekked across this entire supposedly forbidden area. Frankly to tell you the truth, at this point I am tired of trying to beat the foreigners in discovering places in our own country. They reached Ladakh much before we did. They reached Spiti, Goa, Shekhawati, Kutch, Gokarna and everywhere else before we did! Not that there is anything wrong with them discovering new places, just that I am so tired of not knowing places in our own backyard.

Kashmir Valley

The half frozen Vishnusar Lake, the saving grace!
That evening brought more disappointment as we found that the snow hasn’t cleared on the critical Gadsar Pass yet and that we would have to return back from here retracing the same path we came through. Just like that, from dreaming of visiting seven lakes, we came down to visiting one lake and that marked the end of the trek as I knew it. The next day we stayed put at the lovely campsite, visited the gorgeous Vishnusar, which otherwise would have been a nondescript lake, but thanks to the abundance of snow, we got to see some striking patterns. Few of us spent a whole lot of time lurking around the lake, talking to our guide who told of many more trekking routes in Kashmir, of his many experiences guiding foreigners on this route. That day I realized the true essence of a trek lies not in rushing from campsite to campsite, but instead staying back and being in the place. Apart from Vishnusar, the realization of how my further treks should be could be the other saving grace of the trek.

Vishnusar Lake, Kashmir

Time for Kashmiri Kahwa!
That afternoon we got ourselves invited into a Kashmiri makeshift home by the stream. The lovely lady of the house (tent?) offered us the Kashmiri specialty, kahwa, a tea made with saffron, tea leaves and some spices. The tent was extremely cozy blocking the cold winds from outside. We also got to see the so called “Winter wife/husband” a small basket filled with burnt charcoal, that keeps the Kashmiris warm during cold days. They carry this basket inside their long robes. Another saving grace, if I may call the encounter so.

Kashmiri Kahwa

That evening was spent strolling around the idyllic campsite as the sun was feeling generous. The lovely evening light lasted a long time for these were the longest days of the year. The night was brilliant again with the galaxy coming up in all its glory. I had a real good time shooting the night skies and the glowing tents. The joy was short-lived as tomorrow we start back to the same place we started from.

Finally, the enlightenment!
The trek back was nothing worth mentioning, left to myself I would’ve brought down the spirit of entire group, that’s how disappointed I was. But thankfully I always manage to find myself in the company of cheerful people who lift my spirits. I did have good fun being in the place, enjoying the moment, but the thought always was lurking at the back of my mind, of the trek that could’ve been, of the seven lakes that I could’ve seen!

But all is not lost, like I said many times on my blog and because I said so many times, I am forced to follow my own advice and find the bright side. Even though the trek didn’t go ahead as expected, I did meet a lot of wonderful locals and trekkers alike, I came to know a lot about Kashmir and the possibility of many trek routes, got to see a different and lesser seen avatar of the lake, shot some exquisite night skies, got some great shots. In hindsight the trek doesn’t look so bad doesn’t it? Well, if I hadn’t known what could’ve been, it wouldn't have been that disappointing. But now I am ready to go back again. And if anything, the trek has been enlightening! I never knew of this paradise of ours, until now!

Milkyway and tents, Kashmir

Now that I’ve ranted or whatever that was, let’s answer your questions, shall we?

So why was the trek ruined?
Because I went in the completely wrong season. The locals made it very clear that July is the best time to visit the lakes in all its glory. July is the time when the snow melts and makes way for the green grass and wildflowers of variety! Of course the official season is till September, but I reckon by that time the mountains would have no snow left on them. July should be the good time.

What is the trek called anyway?
This is popularly called the Gangabal trek in Kashmir. The route goes something like this – Sonmarg – Nichnai – Vishanasar – Kishansar – Gadsar – Gangabal Lakes – Naranag. It is not a beginner trek. It is moderately difficult, not because of the altitude, but because you need to cross mountain passes everyday to get down to the lakes and climb up again the next day. Is it worth it you ask? Totally!

What are the other options to trek in Kashmir?
As I found out, there are many more options to trek here. There are many heavenly alpine lakes tucked deep inside the pristine valleys. There’s Tarsar-Marsar trek close to Aru, Pehlgam. It is a 5 day trek apparently. There’s also one Lake Tulyan around 20kms from Pehlagam. Apart from this there are routes from Sonmarg to Wular Lake, one of Asia’s largest fresh water lake, to Bandipore in Baramulla district, treks to Gurez and much more. Googling for treks in Kashmir does give a lot of links to locals organizing these excursions, call them up and ask for more options.

How safe is it to trek in Kashmir?
As I see it, the chances of something happening to you are much higher in Srinagar than anywhere else in Kashmir, for that is where you would usually fly into/fly out of. The treks are fine but when a situation builds up, it is mostly in the towns or villages and not in the mountains. Many foreigners have been trekking on these routes for long, so it is not entirely unexplored territory. You should be fine. But then again, take your call. Just FIY, I went there twice so far.

Anything else?
Many of these treks routes go through army check posts, for obvious reasons. If you are stopped by army at any place, cooperate! In the guise of friendly banter, they will interrogate you in every possible way. They are merely doing their job, answer all their questions patiently.

Also as it turns out, Kashmir is famous for trouts and is also known as angler's paradise. All these lakes and streams are full of trout and you can fish with a permit, issued by the Department of Fisheries, J & K Government against a fixed tariff.

Lastly, let’s protect our paradise!
I am writing all this information in good faith. Let’s not litter, let’s not over crowd and let’s be responsible. Kashmir could be the last piece of paradise we haven’t inundated yet. Let’s keep it that way. I will come up with another post soon on this matter. Till then just enjoy the discovery!

65 comments:

  1. Great post and beautiful photos Neelima! :)

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    1. Thanks Abhijit, where are you heading next?

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  2. Super! :) waiting for your next post on Kashmir (hope you make it there soon! :) )

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  3. Amazing pictures!!...reading about the beer cans and trash makes me sad though...I hope good sense prevails!

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    1. Thanks Shweta, yea the beer cans were off putting. I can only imagine what will happen when more of us reach the place.

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  4. Beautiful pics. Nice read. Which trek group had you gone through?

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  5. I'm still to read this article, one look at the first picture and I scrolled down straight to the comments section, and I saw the last picture and scrolled faster :D

    That first picture tells you a whole story and the last one leaves you in suspense.

    Brilliant! Now to some reading!

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    1. Ha ha, thanks ravish. I don't think anyone is reading the words. ;)

      With the new lens hopefully lot more galaxies now. :)

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  6. you are awesome... love those pic :)

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  7. Great journal. Wonderful pictures! I am sure you will get another chance to see the rest of the seven :)

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  8. Breathtaking photos. The place looks stunning.

    www.rajniranjandas.blogspot.com

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  9. Wow... what a great post...one I will use and definitely share. What a gift you have in taking photos.

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  10. Lucky you to have experienced the heaven on earth. Beautiful pictures and a very nice write up.

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    1. Thanks Sanju, now I truly believe it is paradise on earth.

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  11. Is this the India hikes Kashmir Great Lakes Trek? :) I was supposed to go on this one but cancelled it on hearing about the snow fall

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    1. Yea, the same one. Good thing you canceled, no point going in any other month apart from july.

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  12. Great pictures. You don't need a full frame.

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    1. Ha ha, it is just not possible that one can be satisfied with camera gear, I want full frame. :D Thanks.

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  13. Very helpful post and nicely captured images!! Did you go in June? I am going for the same trek in September. It would be my first Himalayan trek; when you say it is not for beginner's, its making me think twice :( can you give me some insights as to how I should prepare for the trek?

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    1. I say it is not for beginners because the days are long and everyday one needs to climb up a mountain and get down to the lake. I guess running 5kms a day should do or follow whatever has been suggested by the trek organizers.

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  14. Nice!!
    One of my friend cancelled this trek due to heavy snowfall.

    If everything goes well, I should be trekking there next month!!

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    1. Starting July, the trek should be fine. Hope you get to trek there, it is beautiful.

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  15. Great post with lots of info and some wonderful shots! Thanks for sharing :)

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  16. This is the time when I secretly wish that wonderful travelers like you didn't post about paradises like these. It wouldn't be too long before this gets shared on all social networking sites and (so-called) civilized folks throng these places and make a mess out of it! Sorry if I sound harsh to other people, but I've seen many places like these spoiled in a matter of few years. Anyway, thanks a lot for sharing your experience! Keep at it and enjoy life :)

    -Sunil

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    1. I understand your feelings and often times I have felt the exact same way. But if I followed that thought, this blog would've never existed to begin with. :)
      The conflicting thoughts still remain and am thinking I will do a post on it too. Thanks!

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  17. The star pics are just mindblowing...
    This is one of my unfulfilled dreams to take a shot like that...
    Lets see if its possible in the Spiti Trip next month...
    (In that sense, do u think that place offers similar views?)

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    1. Any place far from light pollution offer similar views of the night sky, provided there is no moon. :)
      I saw/shot the galaxy in Spiti too. If you are there during/close to new moon, keep an eye on the sky! Look how that rhymed, he he!

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  18. Hi Neelima,

    Your pictures are incredible. Would you mind telling me whether it was a self-organized trek or whether you went with a company? I would love to do this stretch.

    Thanks
    Swati

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    1. Swati, I did the trek with a group called Indiahikes. But like I mentioned in the post, you could go to Srinagar and also arrange for this trek. If you are going, my suggestion would be to do the trek over a period of 9-10 days and enjoy your time along the lakes. The week long trek is too rushed to actually enjoy the place.

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    2. Wow, I would keep that in mind next time I am in that part of the world. A holiday in the Himalayas is long overdue as it is.

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  19. Excellent notes and pictures..as usual!
    How did you take the last snap shot named.. "galaxy_milkyway"?

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    1. Took a 60Second Long Exposure image with 2.8 Aperture and ISO 800. Camera fixed on tripod obviously. :)

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  20. I am left speechless by not only your description of Kashmir - but of its nature beauty. It is truly a paradise, heavenly & only hope i can one day be blessed with the opportunity to see its beauty with my very own eyes. £i3

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    1. Kashmir is truly a paradise when it comes to scenery. I hope you get to visit the place soon.

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  21. possible to do w/o guide or porter?

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    1. is the trail recognizable? i have other stuff like tents stoves etc..

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    2. Well, after the snow melts I think the trail should be visible since it is used regularly by the shepherds and they can be found along the trail too. So maybe doable without guide.

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  22. Hi Neelima,

    Amazing pictures & an equally amazing write up.

    I am planning to do this trek with Indiahikes in their 7th July-14th July batch.
    I have done treks before including one with YHAI, but this would be my first time with Indiahikes.

    Could you kindly shed light as to how your experience was with the trekking group.

    Thank You
    Warm Regards

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    1. Like I said in the post, our trek in June was ruined. So my experience with Indiahikes was very disappointing on the Great Lakes trek. I had done Roopkund and Kugti Pass with IH in their early days which I quite enjoyed.

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  23. Hi Neelima...wonderful pics of a wonderful place...i m planning to do this trek during first week of august with Indiahikes...can you tell me your experienxe with them?

    Thanks

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    1. Hi, look at my reply on the above comment, it was quite disappointing.

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  24. Hi ,

    What is the best season for this trek without rains/not much snow but lot of greenery? July/August it would probably be raining and September may start getting cold !!

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    1. I don't think September will be cold, am guessing late August early September should be good.

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  25. hi maam i with two of my friends have planned to do this trek. our tickets are confirmed to reach srinagar on 27th august. however we are experienced trekkers hence we do not want to go with travel agencies like indiahikes and all. it would be really helpful if you could provide me with the guide details from your experience. like name and contact. the rest we will manage. expecting your quick reply. :)

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    1. Sorry, but have no contacts as I went with Indiahikes. I hope you got to do the trek.

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  26. it was a good read for me :) what trek do you think is possible during mid november?

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    1. No clue, you'll have to ask this question over at Indiamike forums.

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  27. What a coincidence Neelima- I had been seeing his pictures from Pakistan on flickr as well- and started exploring options.. before I went on the Lakes trek!

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    1. Oh you did this trek? When? And where are the pictures?

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