“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 ;)).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!