Untold Kashmir: Trekking to the Great Lakes (Part I)

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Great Lakes Trek in Kashmir
The campsite at Shitkadi

For most travellers, lakes are not considered prized destinations. They would rather go for iconic rivers, famous beaches, and great cities. Those who have an appetite for water sports, lakes are not overtly popular as they offer little options for surfing, snorkelling or diving. Still there are some stunningly beautiful lakes scattered throughout the world, worth visiting. In India the Kashmir valley is famous for its alpine lakes, unknown to many conventional travellers.

Now at the twilight zone of my trekking career and as a languid man I am not temperamentally and physically at my best. Considering every aspect of my mind and body, I chose the alpine lakes of Kashmir for a trekking mission, anchored by a trekking agency. I thought this moderately difficult trek could be the right choice for both myself, my wife and her couple of close friends.

On this trek, our first campsite was at Shitkadi. We could see Sonamarg from up there. The meadow of gold is an alpine valley, perched on the bank of Sindh River, about 75 km from Srinagar. Sindh is the largest tributary of the Jhelum River, born in the upper western Tibet valley at Mansarovar Lake. The river with a snaked motion continues its journey westward through Gilgit, Baltistan in Pakistan and finally flows into the Arabian Sea. At the distance, Jojila pass could be seen beside Amarnath Peak which separates Ladakh region from Kashmir valley. 

The breathtaking beauty of the valley

Shitkadi is on top of a hill, about 3 km from Sonamarg. We passed a small hamlet, populated by shepherds and peasants. Village children cheerfully grinned at us. Beyond the valley was a forest of maple, pine, and silver birch, but not many flowers. A tree more striking than beautiful, with an evil looking crocodile like head had fallen flat on the ground. Above the forest remote hills and a blue sky lingered obstinately. In the east the grey mountain range is poised reassuringly with the hanging Thajiwas glacier. It had earned a name as ‘snow surprise’ for the Sonamarg bound tourists. The path gently climbed through the green glen. A warm incense of maple and pine tree resin invaded my nostrils. Then it came to a wide sloping lap. The grasses here were less limp and grew little, after the winter snow left it. But already sheep and goats were busy grazing here. This was a beautiful camping site known as Sekdur. 

 

Also read: Maneybhanjan to Lamey Dhura in a Land Rover

 

 

People from Srinagar often come here for a day trip to freshen their minds. Beyond the alp, the panorama changed. A forest of fir dominated the domain growing among enormous boulders. The rock debris created from frequent rock fall. The difference between lower and upper forest of Kashmir Himalaya must be seen to be appreciated. The lower forests that extend upwards to some 8000 ft., are full of insects, flies, and animal life. Whereas the upper forests are characterised by their silence. The whisper of the fallen leaves, occasional intervention of songbirds broke the eerie of silence. Sound of my pumping heart only came to my ears. Here sunlight slipped between the tree-tops through the foliage and created a vivid interplay of light and shade on the forest floor. The path emerged from the wood onto another alp and descended to a river valley. A favourite grazing ground for sheep and goats. Here to our pleasant surprise, we encountered innumerable blue and white anemones and primulas in seeds. We proceeded along the boulder covered riverbed. A dark green-purple bloom and a host of pink rock jasmine were basking under the deep blue sky. Stone huts of the shepherds charmed us from a distance. We had our packed lunch at noon to refuel our aching limbs for the rest of the journey, sitting beside the moraine edge of the stream. A gentle breeze was caressing my face. We had a glimpse of snow-clad mountains around us. A feeling of self-contentment engulfed me as I sensed that my love for the mountains was sealed in an eternity. 

Trekking through enormous boulders

On the way suddenly the valley stretched wide open, and the route ascended sharply to a ridge. A bed of blue fumitory flowers on the hillside caught my attention. It bloomed majestically between boulders. We were on top of a hill plateau. From there we could discern down the vast stretch of valley floor blanketed with yellow iris. The urge of sleeping on the heaven floor swept over my mind. We descended on the meadow along a gentle slope and settled our camp on a valley of flowers. The place was called Nichnai (11500 ft), which marked halfway of the trek. Support staff displayed the skills of rock climbing on a boulder. I was wondering about these youths, who were looking after the urban trekkers from the plain with utmost care. They were angelic. Soon the yellow sunset turned into scarlet and gradually faded out to make way for millions of sparkling stars in the night sky.

A rock-climbing demonstration by the support staff

Next morning, I woke up to a bird song. A white capped water-redstart heralded a new day. It was a perfect morning. Not a tinge of cloud stuck to the sky. Dew–soaked grass shone like glittering glass on the meadow in the brilliant sunshine. Today we were supposed to camp on another alpine grassland, known as Vishansar or Vishnusar. It is a holy land for Kashmiri Pandits. They believe Lord Vishnu ruled this valley and make an annual ritualistic visit to take a holy dip in Lake Vishansar. We would have to cross Nichnai Pass (13500 ft) today. The pass was visible at a distance from the campsite. It was lying just to the right of the twin snow clad peaks. A light breeze stirred. The whole atmosphere was teeming with life. I felt at one with its creator. It was a well trudged path ascending with head spinning climb. Snow crowned peaks were looming large and staring at the valley menacingly. As we gained the Nichnai Pass, the sun was smouldering hot on its crest. 

Head of the Bakharwal family

From the pass as we could see, the tree line had long vanished and the valley was covered with protein rich grass. Weather was appreciably warmer. BSNL network got its life here. Trekkers were busy trying to connect to the so-called civilisation to reassure their near and dear ones of their safe journey into the wilderness. It looked like some part of the valley had been extensively burned, presumably with the intention that it would improve the fertility of the ground. But fire destroyed numerous juniper bushes. On the way down we encountered two makeshift shepherd huts. Suddenly there was lightning in the western sky. Slate colour clouds were creeping up. Violent thunderbolts reverberated amongst the peaks and soon rain began to fall with its full vengeance and continued without interval for a long time. A head of a shepherd tribe known as Bakharwals, approached and invited us heartily to take shelter in their temporary nomadic tent. 

 

Bakharwals are a cattle rearing nomadic tribe. Their seasonal migration oscillates to different altitudes of the mountain with their herds in the valley of Jammu & Kashmir. Scholars have different views of their origin. Some say they hailed from central Asia, while others are of the view that they are the descendants of Kushan. But similar physiognomy between Kashmiris and Jews confuses us. The skin, prominent nose and head shape are bewildering, whether they are from Aryan or Semitic descent. 

Bakharwal dog kept a close watch on the sheep

The Shepherd family’s hospitality was exemplary. The tent was cosy as they burnt charcoal in a metal can. I had a long discussion about their nomadic life, their problems, and their future over kahwa (a traditional Kashmiri brew of green tea mixed with saffron flakes), which was offered to us.

“We are nomads, and this valley is our country. We walk it, we smell it, we know it. We keep our identity here. The most beautiful thing on earth is our valley.” The herdsman sadly said, “the nomadic way of life is coming to an end.” With a heavy heart I felt pity for them. A little boy with a lovely innocent face couching in his mother’s lap was silently munching biscuits presented to him. I murmured to myself. Let the Nature God save these children of God of the fallen paradise which leads them to an uncertain future.

With a magical suddenness, the rain stopped. Atmosphere was still misty and moist with water vapour. We resumed our journey. A double rainbow appeared in the sky to our joy. On the way a big herd of goats and sheep assembled on the vast meadow. A tanned shepherd dog kept a close watch on the herd. 

The valley was totally covered with alpine flowers

The Bakharwal dogs are an ancient breed. But this breed is dwindling now. These dogs used to traverse the Pir Panjal range in the rugged mountain. They are now an endangered species almost on the verge of extinction from various causes. They are bred by the Gujjar nomadic tribes as livestock guardian dogs. These vegetarian dogs are very loyal to their masters but can be fierce if needed. They eat bread made from maize and milk, completely different from other dog breeds. They have a similarity with Tibetan shepherd dogs. In the nineties due to militancy in the upper valley, they were killed in great numbers because they used to bark and alert the military along the LOC. Nowadays, even in summers Bakharwals are scared to camp in the upper ridges. Thus, many of these dogs are infected with diseases in the lower valley, and die younger. The administration has no scheme and compassion to save these wonderful animals from extinction. 

We almost reached the Vishansar camp site, where we had to cross the Neelum river with ankle-deep chilled water. This river originates from Vishansar lake and flows westward to meet Sindh River. It was an ideal campsite on a vast meadow stretched to the slope of a distant mountain. A big cascading waterfall on the left was rushing down from the cliff and joined the river with full force. Few yards away from my tent was a shallow stream. The lake was not visible from the campsite as it was veiled behind the intervening ridge. The valley was totally covered with alpine flowers like aster, gentian, potentillas, geums. It was impossible to take a step without crushing a flower. The Kashmir valley has a rich diversity of endemic plant life. 

To be continued…

Images courtesy: Pijush Roychowdhury

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10 Responses

  1. Fortunately during Covid Ive read this story in the author’s Bengali book on the same subject , ” Sarovar ……. etc. This writing in particular will mesmerize many readers globally as it is written in English. Due to this reason this write up will attract many readers internationally and give them a taste of training around some famous lakes and their related stories first hand

  2. A very well written travel story on the hinterlands of Kashmir valley introducing us to its flora and fauna , the original nomads , and their oneness with nature.Will wait eagerly for the next instalment

  3. I had a mixed feeling while reading this piece. While I felt how could I not find about these lakes while I was planning my kashmir trip last year, but at the same time I felt, that it’s good that these places are not over exposed, brutally commercialized and over exploited by tourists who in most cases tend to be no sympathetic towards nature. The author’s description is impeccable but what touched me the most was his analysis about the date of the Bakhatwal dogs. Looking forward to read the next part.

  4. I had a mixed feeling while reading this piece. While I felt how could I not find about these lakes while I was planning my kashmir trip last year, but at the same time I felt, that it’s good that these places are not over exposed, brutally commercialized and over exploited by tourists who in most cases tend lack both sensetivity and responsibility towards nature. The author’s description is impeccable but what touched me the most was his analysis about the fate of the Bakhatwal dogs! Looking forward to read the next part.

  5. Wonderful description of the mesmerising Kashmir . The author has penned the details in such a vivid way that one feels as if travelling along with him . Waiting to read the subsequent chapters too in future .

  6. A travel writer in true sense, the explicit description of the journey in the wilderness of Alpine valley gave me the serene feeling of being present in the journey that you made. The choice of words, the phrases and the short sentences used in the write up is remarkable and full of vibrancy. Impatiently waiting for the second part

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