Starting early, around 5, we walked our way, close to 4 km, to the camp at Shitkadi from Sonamarg. The remaining trek members arrived the previous night and camped by the side of a small brook.
The trek starts off with an unpleasant incline, soon opening up into landscapes of glorious meadows. From here, as we look away into the valley below, Sonamarg along the Sindh river appears as a small settlement. Beyond it, the mountains of the valley on either side appear fading into the horizon in a haze with greens in the foreground dissolving into diminishing shades of blues further away. Behind us all the way up, the slopes are densely wooded with forests of chiefly Deodar, Cedrus deodara and Bhojpatra, Betula utilis, (Himalayan birch). Elms and small leafed Chinar dot the mountain sides.
It a long walk on the first day. So on we went along the steep mountain slopes through the forests of Deodars then, entirely of Bhojpatra trees turned and twisted in strange shapes, their barks peeling off. Besides foaming torrents emerging from melting glaciers, the glaciers forming into beautiful shapes and patterns. Sometimes the path led us through a bed of shingle and boulders smoothened out by the stream. All the time except along closing valleys, the ground rises into grassy pastures below craggy mountain peaks. The receding snow now deposited only in their recesses and gullies showed off greyness elsewhere. Past the tree-line, we have left the forests behind us here and saw them again only on the last day when we started to descend.
We camped at Nichnai at 11000 ft.
The relief of completing a day’s trek after an arduous walk and the impatience in finishing the last stretch nearing the camp, throwing off the load and strolling around or losing oneself in a reverie by the stream while one’s feet went numb in the chilling water is impossible to convey.
Second day, we went to the Vishansar lake. it’s a walk through a typical mountain scenery again. But it is interesting all the time.
The mountains are of such variety…we have grassies, baldies, craggies, blackies, snow –spotted.
On these mountain uplands, Gujar nomad shepherds, guarding immense numbers as huge as 1000 in each flock, come for summer grazing their sheep from Jammu. The bleating of the sheep, calls of the shepherds and barking of the guarding dogs bring animation to the otherwise solitary landscape. Taarak, our trek leader, would come from behind and playfully nudge a grazing sheep, but these woolly beats are oblivious to everything and anything around them. Munching busily the green grasses, they keep these mountain meadows neatly mowed.
A group about 8 locals joined us to help on the trek. Trotting along with the ponies bundled with tents, sleeping bags, cooking stuff and utensils they would start after us, easily catch up, reach well before us and keep the tents ready. Wrapped in blankets in the cooking tent, they doled out meal after meal, 4 times a day, always on time. But their cooking skill was largely elementary and the food was mostly a bland affair. Parvez, Muzzamil along with his relative, xxx, who joined us on the trek lamented eating ‘ghas-phus’, went on to fishing trout in the lake. While we strolled along the lake, catching up with Noorani, we could see a group of 3 or 4 with their fishing lines on the banks. Noorani commenting on the prohibition of fishing and spotting the person on guard himself in the group, quipped “Yeh Cash–mir hai. Yeha celta hai kaam cash se”, almost resonating the same feeling I had in Srinagar.
The next day starting in the wee hours, it rained all morning and all afternoon, now in spurts now in steady downpour. Trek was called off, and we were happy for the unasked holiday, though this led to doing two day’s trekking in a day – starting from Gadsar to Gangabal, skipping camping at Satsar.
While it rained, we huddled in the dining tent talking endlessly and playing. The Pondy gang which dominated by its size, and the closeness among its members of unrelated ages and the mysticism of the ashram life invited many questions from the rest. Coming from Pondy and having graduated from the school there, though Taarak, Sharmista, Hita added their bit, it was Dev who spoke in detail. I, who know a little of the life of Pondy ashram could see his wonderful balancing act, who never wanted to delve too much on Yoga and spiritually and yet had to explain the many unconventional teaching traditions of the school and social life of the ashram. Raj and Adit now quite involved in the spiritual discussion could never get satisfactory answers for life questions bordering around money and career. All what Dev, Prasanna and Aditya (though not from Pondy but having a spiritual bent) offered were elusive answers like ‘you wish and you get’.
The tent, unable to hold the torrent of rain, started to drip. Collecting the dripping water in soup bowls we shuffled places and continued in the clammy tent. Moving on to lighter topics, Taarak, Debo, Shiva and Prasanna doled out stories from their Pondy boarding diaries about jumping windows and garden walls in the dead of night succumbing to humble pleasures like eating a pineapple from a passerby vendor and getting caught; playful acts of pushing window panes leading to wrist cuts, acts of vengeance starting off on a lighter vein turning more sinistrous into acts of peeing in drinking water kuja. And like all Mumbaians who never get enough of the city, our guys Adit, Rishikesh, Vyoma and Tilden too related everyday acts of commuting on a local train, taking a house on rent, walking in the streets of the city with much relish. Adit recounted his tale of coming here, who with his feats of false bus journeys and flight cancellations and rebookings, had to at length pretend to his parents and sister, who opposed his travel to Kashmir in the current unrest, that he is actually travelling to Himachal. Titus in his masterful sharayi-style would reminisce about moments of politico-revolutionary nature from his college days of JNU, from pasting posters to filling up jails.
In next half, a few played Uno, improvised by Tarak, which makes the simple game go on for hours together and the others more conventional games like Teen patti and Poker lead by Adit. Richa, from Pune, Shiva and Hita who mastered the games became fierce bidders and big winners.
In the evening the rain abated but clouds as white smoke gathered about the mountains hung low and swept across the damp sloping pastures. The chances of a clear sky by next day looked bleak. Having lost a day and now with fears of losing another one, upon our inquisitions, all the local cooks and Muzzamil, the second guide, talked about the unpredictability of the weather. But it was Noorani again in his masterful dialogues remarked about the rain, “Ye abhi ek ghante me rok sakta hai, ya 10 din tak chal sakta hai.” and adding to it, “Biwi ka mood… Dilli ka sarkar… Kashmir ka mausam koi nahi bata sakta hai”.
But the sarkar in Dilli is stable and so has our mausam become by the next day and we could continue.
Right in the beginning was the ascent to Gadsar pass at 13500 ft. The slope became boggy from the rain and it added to the already difficult ascent. Trudging and scrambling for an hour and a half, we reached the pass. From here, the twin lakes of Kishansar and Vishnusar can be seen separated by a small hill. As if a treat for crossing this hard stretch, the remainder of the walk was a splendid one through flowery meadows. Vast stretches of land was dominated by yellow cinquefoils Potentilla in such abundance that the mountain slopes appeared as if carpeted in yellow. These flowers would bear us company all along till the next day until Gangabal. Whorls of lavender-pink flowers in multiple levels, Phlomis cashmeriana also dominate the scene forming a wonderful mix of yellow and purple. Intense purple small spikes of Logotis cashmeriana, Yellow racemes of Moorcroft’s Corydalis and purple Pedicularis are met with on the initial slopes. Purple Geranium pratense or meadow Geranium, Yellow flower heads of Long-Leaved Tansy (Tanacetum dolichophyllum), mauve Edelberg’s Cotton Thistle, white saxifrages growing in rock crevices, Himalayan Rhodiola small dainty red flowers in low bushes, stunted asters, beautiful Himalayan Edelweiss, deep blue Gentiana in wonderful geometrical arrangement characterize the landscape. The last blossoms of the Iris hookeriana rose among patches of fading Iris blades. Small spikes of Persicaria affinis ‘superba’ daintily fluttering in crimson and pink appeared on moist soils.
The path ran high above the Gadsar lake. Among these meadows, with deep turquoise waters, it is the prettiest of all the lakes on the trek. As if bearing witness to the dreadful stories associated with Gadsar, which our trek guides later narrated, the snow on the mountain hung in the gullies like a wraith. Later in the evening, Muzzamil recounted his share of experiences; in one of which, a yaksha, nature-spirit from the lake, on possessing a person, could be exorcised by brandishing the only weapon which they are afraid of – an iron rod. In another one where Noorani happened to witness, a tree in his village shed its twigs and leaves in a fitful shake upon the proximity of such a spirit. Despite the fairytale nature of these stories, these were recounted in all seriousness and any sarcasm on our part had to be dismissed.
Just before the camping site was a small army camp at Gadsar. Registering names and showing ID card is necessary. Our Kashmiri trio quite light-footed reached hours ahead of us, bathed and looking fresh now goaded us to take a dip in the stream. Now in our fourth day without bath, looking as dirty as the sheep around, we decided to bath in the chilling waters of the stream. With the sun bright it was not as bad as it appeared.
The topography of the mountains in Taarak’s words change shape and the distances merge. Pulling out a leaf from Taarakology, he would explain to us the day’s route….”we have to take this mountain”, now pointing at it and gesturing “like-this and like-this for a while and then do zig-zag zig-zag on the slope to get to the pass, after that it’s an easy walk on the plain and a descent into the camp”. But it is only the next day you’ll understand, that the ‘like-this’es have become scrambling on slippery slopes and zigzaggings have made you pant and sweat and stop so often and the descents felt never ending.
Later he explained to me that it’s more of trekolgy to mask distances into easy targets and constantly encourage one to take the next milestone.
Gadsar to Gangabal is a long walk of around 20km. It was an easy trek through gentle slopes till we reached Satsar lake. By the word ‘easy trek’ I only mean in relation to other parts of the trek, not implying that it’s like walk in a garden. Though the name ‘Satsar’ suggests 7 lakes, we could clearly distinguish only 2. Unlike other lakes which are formed at the foot of mountains, it is collected at flatland between a wide valley.
At Satsar we had to pass through an army camp. Situated at the mouth of a small pass, it is exposed to a continuous blast of chill air. A group of around 6 army men are stationed here were currently preparing themselves for the onslaught of the coming winter. A toilet hut is being constructed by planting roughly cut Cedar logs. Their settlement is no more than a cluster of 2 to 3 mud cottages, 2 small canopy style tents and a sit out with cedar log studs planted in a square serving as chairs. The cottages look primitive, like those of the shepherds. Walls are built thick, with rocks bound in mud and roofs are mud-packed over cedar beams. In the corner stood a low mud hut serving as temple. Permission should be sought to travel further on both sides. While we are there, drinking sweetened black tea offered by the army jawan, 3 men, shepherds in tunics, bearded, turbaned and shawled, walking for straight 5 days with just a small sack, now headed to Gadsar, looked as if emerged from the medieval land of Cabuliwala.
Pressing forward forever catching up with your group, you tend to forget to look back. From here you look into the valley afar, people now in their miniature forms offer scale to the mountains and the plains around. You then realize the magnitude of the heights and distances these landscapes held.
We broke for lunch at Satsar, where we might have camped. The next leg of the trek is up a boulder strewn mountain. We went up now springing from one to another, now clambering on the rocks. An arduous but exciting climb. The locals with their horses took a circuitous route up. Even from the top of this mountain the Zach pass was at a considerable distance and incline. Up here we get a fine view of the Harmukh, the highest mountain on the trek at 16000 ft. The twin lakes of Gangabal and Nandkol Shimmered in the sun at a distance below the mountain. The path by which we here descend down to the camp too is a long one. Dwarf Junipers growing in mountain crevices dot the slope. Shy long-tailed marmots or golden marmots, a large squirrel shaped animal living in burrows on the slopes, can be sighted.
Exhausted from the previous days long trek, rest day in Gangabal seemed well earned. Harmukh shining briefly in a golden aura in the early morning sun is a sight to behold. Later, a causal morning stroll on the bank of Nandkol, moved Debo. He couldn’t stand the sight of plastic debris strewn all about it. While he swung into action, we helped him clear a section around the lake. Later in the day in the chilling waters of Nandkol, we took our second bath of the trek. Spending our time by both the lakes it was a day spent in leisure.
One of the other games we played on the trek was Mafia, where a Mafioso or simply Mafia secretly selected by a moderator, should outlive the remaining members, called villagers. Everyone sitting in a circle would debate, raise suspicions on the identity of the Mafia. The villagers and mafia (covertly) each oust a member in each round and would continue doing till the villagers spot the Mafia or the Mafia alone remains.
Richa, xxx became masters of deception, while Shiva and Prassana were suspected falsely early on in every game. I myself was hopeless. Taarak came back with vengeance after humiliating defeats initially. Parvez and Adit shouted and shrieked.
The last day, after bidding goodbye to our local group and group photos, we started to descend. It’s one of the distinctive days of the trek, walking through a wealth of Pine forest. The track from Gangabal to Naranaag for a while runs through grassy pastures and then falls by a bed of boulders, an area of a recent river perhaps, where shrubby growth of white umbels of Kashmir Elder, Sambucus wightiana, thrived in huge numbers. As we descended further, we were steeped in the coolness of a great Deodar forest. After a while the Deodars gave way to long-needed Blue Pine. Wafts of air with sweet smell of Pines continued to get stronger as we pushed through. Trekkers starting from Naranag, planning their camps at Gangabal, walked in the opposite direction negotiating this brutal ascent. Under stress of this long rapid descent our knees groaned.
At Naranag, we waited at a hotel until we could leave for Srinagar, in the night. Right next were the ruins of Shiva temple at Naranag, lay on a on the bank of Wangath river, a tributary of Sindh river. The complex has temples built in two clusters. The one in the front, seems to be active, is now locked. A pyramidal make shift arrangement with tin sheets is done for the roof. Built with large blocks of grey rocks with triangular recessed walls over main arching doors, the temple has a remarkable architectural style of its own not seen elsewhere in India. From a distance I felt the form of the temple has similarities with those of the Roman temples. Water from a small spring in the mountains fills the temple tank.
The bed of the river, is full of pebbles in wonderful colours and interesting patterns, which led to a game of collecting the most beautiful rock. Richa, disappointed from her rock not picked up as the best, complained about our philistinic sense. We burned the next 5 hours playing dumb charades.
At around midnight, into the darkness of the night, our car zoomed to Srinagar.