Kashmir, India had always been in that proverbial travel bucket list of mine.
My close friend and travel companion, Mona, and I had laid to rest our grand plan of going to the Everest Base Camp and we sought an alternative – Kashmir was it.
At the tail end of the hiking season last year in September, we took off to northern India. There were security concerns but we quietly brushed it aside as we felt that if one were to wait for a political resolve there, one may never get around to Kashmir.
And so it began: Our five-night trek to the three lakes – Tarsar, Marsar and Sundasar.
We journeyed through crocus fields, walnut and apple orchards against the backdrop of mountain ranges. Constant reminders of the political disputes remained with the presence of military personnel at every turn, less than 1km apart and with numerous checkpoints.
We arrived at the picturesque resort town of Pahalgam after a three-hour drive. Then, a further 12km through narrow roads and tricky turns took us to the Aru Valley.
There we were, at the foothills of our adventure. Already at an elevation of approximately 2,400km, I was not as pre-occupied of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) as I was of reaching our campsite at Lidderwat before nightfall. It was supposed to be a six-hour trek but since we started mid-afternoon, we were worried about making it in time.
Our guides, however, assured us that we would arrive with time to spare.
We embraced the views that began with clusters of fir trees, and as we gained altitude, pine trees were all we could see. Eventually the trek levelled, opening to the grassland as we walked the gentle slopes among the grazing sheep. Intermittent encounters with the Gujjars, nomadic shepherds, reminded us that we were not alone in this natural expanse of captivating beauty.
The crystal blue waters of Lidder River soothed any fatigue and anxiety right until our final crossing over a wooden bridge. We made our way over a grassy mound and saw ahead of us Kolahoi peak, all 5,425m of it.
We then looked back and were greeted by the sweetest of sunsets. The fading sky was laced in pink, a shadow of the mountain range and the alpine cluster in the foreground completed the frame. The Persian couplet from poet Amir Khusrow that was quoted by Mughal Emperor Jahangir in describing Kashmir, “If there is a paradise on Earth; It is this, it is this, It is this”, came to mind.
Lidderwat is a perfect camping site set in a valley with an elevation of 2,783m. While Mona and I gazed about us, breathing in the mountain air, the crew of six men set up tents and started preparations for dinner. Thundering growls in the distance could be heard and in no time, it started to rain. It was a cold and wet night out on my first ever camping trip.
On the second day, we started a little late with a trek towards the Kolahoi Glacier. We enjoyed an evening by the roaring flames of a campfire. It’s like an initiation to Kashmiri and Hindi music and gave us the opportunity to engage in conversations with our guides.
Our third night was to be at Shekwas, a valley midway from Lidderwat to Tarsar Lake that sits on 3,365m. The route to Shekwas offered varying landscapes to traverse and admire. The vistas of the almost autumn Greater Himalaya Range, the meadows strewn with wildflowers, the river crossings that included frequent boulder hopping. The day started with clear skies but in time, threatening clouds filled the sky. We set up camp after a cold, six-hour trek of ascending trails, just in time before another rainfall. It was then that weather considerations altered our itinerary – we decided to take on just the one lake, Tarsar.
With that, our Kashmir adventure was shortened to four nights.
The overnight storm had dusted snow upon the surrounding peaks at the camp.
It was a brisk morning that warmed up as we began the gradual rise of 3,794m to Tarsar Lake. We trekked, and also took intermittent rests when we rode our young horses. Anxious to view the lake, we made our way through the vast meadows and ridges.
Then suddenly there she was, the jewel to our trek. The diamond-shaped, crystal clear lake. If upon our approach it seemed unfriendly and somewhat dark, the winds that scattered the clouds cast a shimmering warm shade of blue. Indeed, time at the lake was determined by the temperamental clouds.
As always, the return leg of any journey seemed shorter and somewhat easier. The Gujjars were heading home to Islamabad with their flocks as the colder months were approaching. Our guides – Asif and Fayaz – chanced upon a lingering household and arranged for tea.
Hospitality knows no bounds here and our cups were continuously topped up, as were our plates with freshly baked breads. Mona and I frantically searched in our backpacks for something to gift the family. We offered a paltry selection of biscuits and chocolates for the children and produced a hand sanitiser and sun block for the ladies, these being all we had on us on our trek.
It would have been amazing to have been able to carry a simple conversation with them, but all we could afford was to show them the photographs we had taken and resorted to gestures that inevitably ended with our hands on our hearts with thanks, then clasped together in prayer and good wishes.
Our last night at camp began with another bonfire but again, it rained. But it was an opportune moment for reflection, really. Cocooned in the sleeping bag and with the steady pitter-patter of rain against the tent, I congratulated myself. It had taken me this long to go on a camping trip.
Sure, I did not subject myself to the bare basics – I had engaged the services of Kashmir Mountain Adventures to organise the trip; my preoccupation was to ensure that I remained relatively strong and fit to endure the hours of trekking that ran up to approximately 10km each day.
Blissfully not having to pitch tents or being weighed down with a backpack of necessities throughout, our meals were also well taken care of by the cook who journeyed with us. I had forfeited four days and nights without running water – that meant no showers and perpetual bad hair days, and of course no bathrooms. But it was a small sacrifice for the wealth of experience in nature and relationships.
The home stretch from Lidderwat to Aru dawned with a light drizzle. Clear skies no more, it seemed to toll the end of an exhilarating adventure. We took upon a leisurely pace through the grassland and ridges. A light mist hung low, the gushing Lidder River an audible surround sound throughout. So many shades of green as far as the eyes can see and the air, so crisp. We inhaled deeply at every step, our senses absorbing the entire atmosphere.
When I spied the village at Aru sparsely scattered before me I was filled with regret at having to get “back to life, back to reality”. Yet there also seemed an inexplicable sense of relief. As much as I had relished nature and her boundless beauty and pleasures, I also missed the accustomed comforts of urban living.
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