It was three and a half years back, and it was my first Himalayan trek. I found myself in Srinagar, all geared up, in spirits, preparation and in terms of packing. Two days were spent gleefully admiring the sights and smells of the capital city. But truth be told, I was waiting for the day when I would get onto a tempo traveller and be driven to the base camp of the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek.

It was the summer month of July. And it was the year when the clouds burst heavily over Sonmarg in Kashmir, just a couple of days before my very first Himalayan trek. The valley was in tatters with roads cut off and people stranded everywhere. Sonmarg (very close to it) was the start point of the trek. I felt disappointment begin to gnaw at me.

The (supposedly) first night of the trek spent in a hotel in Srinagar and the next day in a homestay somewhere between Srinagar and Sonmarg drained almost all of my hope. The highway blocked, our tempo traveller stuck on the way and finding no way to reach us and carry us to Sonmarg, the anticipation of more rains high up on the mountains charted out the perfect excuse for me to return home.

Had I given up too soon?

The next day, as a clear sky greeted us and vehicles on the highway started to move, broken bits of hope felt a flicker of life returning upon them. Maybe our tempo too would reach us now. But by noon, we realised there was no way it could make it to where we were.

Our trek leader (from Indiahikes) gathered us all. He wanted to know how badly we wanted to trek to the Great Lakes. He wanted to know how desperate we were to not go back home. He wanted to know how much we were willing to compromise, adjust and accept inconvenience over a dream. In my heart, I said a unanimous “Yes” on behalf of everyone.

He said, “Let’s do it then!”

Our mode or transportation from the homestay in a Kashmiri village to the base would be a goods carrier. Of course, there wouldn’t be any seats. Something to hold onto? Yes, each other. Chances of turbulence? Beyond doubt. Our bags were heaved onto the vehicle and then we adjusted ourselves against its walls and each other, said our prayers, and were off towards the Great Lakes. My scepticism was still alive; weather conditions suggested it wouldn’t be safe to trek up the Himalayas. Nevertheless, I was ready for the journey, wherever it took me.

Day Zero

A day of waiting spent gazing fondly at the mountains and the lush green fields from the homestay (and not so fondly at the traffic jam on the highway) and waiting impatiently to tread the high mountains.

Day One

Our vehicle
was a goods carrier that we all got onto along with our bags for a very bumpy ride on the roads of Kashmir.

The first stop
after we started climbing, was this green meadow that overlook the highway and Sonmarg valley below.

Looking yonder, I realised that the only way ahead was going to be up the mountains. We had left behind the roads that vehicles tread; now we were on a journey that only our feet could undertake. 

First lunch
of my life amidst rolling green valley and tall mountains. In the distance, Sonmarg valley glistened in the sun, waving us adieu. The next stop would be our campsite for the night.

Day Two

First morning in the mountains
after a very chilly night, saw me wrapped up and still shivering.

That morning, it also dawned upon me that for the next few days, I would wake up in the lap of the mountains, each night spent at a different campsite.

Smiling faces gathered around me and warmed up my heart with their laughter and continuous banter.

Walking through the meadows accompanied by shepherds and their grazing sheep, I let my thumping heart relax for a while.

We had just crossed the treacherous Nichnai Pass, walking at the edge of a mountain that had no path for humans to pass. The rains had made it impossible to take the usual easier route, and thus we had to hang onto our dear lives and our dear trek leaders and guide to make it to the other side.

Where is the road?
I asked. From where I stood, I could see no trail where I could land my feet.

Brown and white landscape
greeted us as we left the green hills and valley behind. There were rocks. There were remnants of melting glaciers and moraines.

It was absolutely surreal for a first timer to be walking through and past snow fields. Each time I blinked, I blinked hard to make myself believe that I was not on the other side of a screen; this was real.

Let’s take a rest
they said and immediately plonked themselves on the rocks. It is such a welcome statement when your trek leader (Gurdip from Indiahikes) and trek guide say this.

Campsite just round the bend
I turned and looked at what I had left behind me.

Often, we are so engrossed in what lies ahead that we undermine the journey that has been. Being in the Himalayas with enchanting views constantly bombarding me, I (for the very first time) found myself turning back and sighing too many times thinking that a moment experienced is also a moment lost to memory forever.

The Vishnusar campsite
completely bowled us over. After the first night, I didn’t think that a campsite could be any more awe-inspiring. But it was and would continue to be.

At the end of the trek, I would find myself saying that each campsite of the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek competes hard to be the best. And for a first-timer, this competition only lands itself as a boon.

The last rays of the sun
breathed some warmth before it set behind the mountains. Sunsets high up in the mountains are the most breath-taking experiences, perhaps only sometimes overshadowed by sunrises.

Day Three

Waking up to this view
I think, “I could get used to this!” The Sun calling out to the mountainside, gingerly nudging the giant mountains to wake up from the slumber of a very cold night. The handful of humans too step out of their tents, roll up their sleeping bags, pack their lunch boxes and get ready to explore much more.

Vishnusar Lake
the first of the twin lakes of the Great Lakes Trek, shone like a mirror in the early morning light. The perfectly calm water, giving away no hint of its depth, reflected the surrounding mountains and the sky.

Kishansar Lake
just half a kilometre away from its twin, presented itself as a balm for eyes have somehow managed to turn themselves away from Vishnusar. Much smaller but bearing the same characteristics, Kishansar has a very calming effect on trekkers who are about to undertake the strenuous uphill walk to the Gadsar pass.

The valley leading from the twin lakes and towards the Gadsar pass is a delightful walk.

The twin lakes of Vishnusar and Kishansar
from the top of the ridge is an overwhelming sight, to say the least. Persistent rains had changed the colour of the lakes, which are otherwise a surreal blue when seen from the Gadsar Pass. Implausible is also the climb up through extremely narrow and steep mountain path. Thanks to helping hands, I did manage to reach the top.

As I turned around the green and brown of the valley from where I had climbed up had turned to snowy white. To make the descent journey faster, I didn’t run; I plonked my backside on the freezing snow and glided down.

First sighting of the Yamsar Lake
from the pass. How tiny it looked and almost inconspicuous. The lake still had floating sheets of ice and I couldn’t wait to reach it. But I also wanted to stop my steps from reaching the lake as the walk carried me through such a mesmerising valley. What is this desire that breaks my heart into two?

The Yamsar Lake and the blue it flaunted, was nothing like I had seen (or perhaps will ever see). A soothing and yet stark shade of turquoise perhaps, I still wonder after all this time, the remnants of ice sheets only making it more difficult to turn the eye away. I wish I could camp for a night here, but I had to move on.  

The campsite at a distance
and I heaved a sigh. It had been a long day of walking—ascending and descending; through valleys, ridges, passes. My legs wanted to collapse.

Strangely, at the end of each day as evening soon approached the mountainside, each time I was closer to the campsite for the night, I was filled with an indescribable gloom of yet another day coming to an end; my journey shortened by yet another day.

The sun had set
on the campsite. The tall mountains surrounding the modest campsite had well curtained the last of the sun rays from reaching us on that evening. It was so quiet. Campsites on high mountains are bereft of humans, with an exception of trekkers like us. There is but the abundant presence of animals who shy not from prying humans, of the wild forces of nature, of green, white and brown.

Day Four

Treading past valley of flowers
first thing in the morning, I felt rejuvenated. With an entire mountainside covered in a green blanket and finely dotted with flowers of many hues—abundance of yellow interspersed with violet with some white sprouting—this definitely was one of the most picturesque places of my journey.

Walk in the green park
the only difference being the width of the path we trod on.

An abundance of tiny lakes
greeted us from time to time as we walked past the valleys secured by tall mountain walls on either side.

And mountain streams
gushed past, sometimes challenging me to cross the icy cold waters and sometimes just walking alongside me for some distance before taking a turn and disappearing.

A fog-covered campsite
came to sight at the end of the fourth day in the mountains. My already shivering being gradually approached the tents, the gloom of early evening bringing with it the sad news that we wouldn’t be able to trek up to the much-acclaimed Gadsar Lake that evening. And even if we did, the clouds would make it almost impossible to view the miracle in all its glory.

That’s the Gadsar Lake
I exclaimed. The gods above had been merciful, and the dark clouds dispersed for just about enough time for us to live this once-in-a-lifetime moment next to one of the most mesmerising, magical lakes of Kashmir.

Up close to the Gadsar Lake
and I could feel warm tears slide down my cold cheeks.

My entire journey, right from when I had boarded the goods carrier till this moment had been overwhelming, an experience nothing like I had had before. Why then did my eyes choose that particular lake on that particular partially cloudy evening to deceive the feelings deep inside? When the scene being played out in front of me found me the purpose of my wanderings and why I had chosen to trek the Himalayas for the very first time, why did I feel so much heaviness in my heart?

I just sat on a hillock
wondering about what had just transpired by the lake when I had let my feelings flow down my cheeks. This journey wouldn’t be the same again and neither would I remain the same person that I was when I boarded the flight to Srinagar. Is this what they mean by finding peace?

Day Five

Boulder crossing
at the beginning of the fifth day of the trek. For close to two hours, I navigated huge rocks, trembling rocks, and deceitful rocks without breaking an ankle.

I may never come back to this
My heart cried a little as we stopped to take rest and I looked back at the place where I had just been and may never be again.

The mountains may all look alike at times, yet for someone who has walked the mountainside, exploring the landscape as much as herself, they will remain distinct in memory for many, many years to come.

I stood there
knowing that I will not stand there again. I took turns looking at what I was going to leave behind and what lay ahead. I had been sceptical. I had wanted to return home each time my numbing fear of heights had gripped me illogically. I had, yet, managed to reach where I now stood, with happiness in my heart.

Gentle green hills
and a valley in between, whispered to me that the tall snow-clad mountains had indeed said goodbye. Now green spread in front of me for as far as my eyes could see.

And one final walk through snow
with an overcast sky shrouding the top of mountain peaks. This view too would linger for long.

End of the last glacier
and we stepped on brown again before beginning the descent.

First view of the Gangbal and Nandkol lakes from Jaj pass
I was lost for words. Did I leave behind the most breath taking of lakes and campsites or was I headed to one? Were my emotions getting the better of me or was it just the mountain air making me delusional? What had I to lose except for myself?

On the Jaj pass
we stood for a very long time as clouds floated above us, teasing us with glimpses of the blue lakes below and Mount Harmukh in front of us. They say, on a clear day, the peak is magnificent, but I wasn’t complaining. I liked the dreaminess the clouds lent to nature’s canvas displayed in full glory in front of me.

The long descent
on gravel and through narrow mountain path to the final campsite of the trek. As I gingerly carried myself down, my steps would slow down with exhaustion. But at every turn of the mountain, as the view of a perfectly blue lake would show itself to me, scurry I would.

At the Nandkol campsite
I perched myself on the bank and stared hard at the lake extending far beyond my eyes could see, bringing back memories of all the evenings gone by in the last one week since I had left home. It was this freezing lake that we swam in on the last day of the trek. It was beside this lake that we bid adieu.

Customary cake
I believe this is, an Indiahikes ritual marking the end of a trek, my very first Himalayan trek.

Gang of three girls
we were in a group of 18 trekkers.

The last of chilly campsites, rolled up in a sleeping bag, I lay wide awake. I wondered, “What has this journey been? What has bedtime been away from the comforts of a known bed and huggable pillows, where the mountains cradled me every night and starry skies blanketed a queue of orange tents as a group of trekkers slumbered inside?”.

Day Six

The gang
The trekkers, trek leaders and guide, and the wonderful, ever smiling and obliging mountain people who looked after us and ensured the well being of our bodies and spirits throughout.

The climb down towards Naranag
was more difficult than all the ascents combined. With a heavy heart, I passed by towering trees, their shade and beauty taking away some of the melancholy I felt in my heart.

An open valley and view of the mountains yonder
put that smile back on my lips. I knew I was going to miss the snow-clad beasts till I returned.

Nothing beats the feeling
of warm green grass, the sun shining in the sky, the trees swaying just so gently and the grey mountains smiling from afar.

The last stop
at the last tea shop before we reached the plains. I sat outside in the morning chill to feel the unsullied mountain wind against my skin one last time before I reached civilisation.

A version of this story is published on Tripoto.

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