India : The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek
January 1, 1970
by JunMei Ling
Having lived in India for over half a decade, I wouldn’t forgive myself if i didn’t visit the Himalayas. So over the years, i did quite a fair bit of trekking in the region, and the respect i’ve developed towards these majestic Himalayan mountains is absolutely unparalleled.
In the summer of 2014, it was college term break and instead of going back to my home country Malaysia, i decided to do something different. From where i lived in South India, i embarked on an exciting journey taking a grueling 2-day train ride and a short flight, headed up north to Jammu and Kashmir, the northern-most part of India, not knowing that i was about to have some of the best travel experiences of my life.
Kashmir is nestled in the Himalayas, with Pakistan bordering the west, China on the east, and the rest of India below. It is a highly militarized Indian territory, with ongoing political turmoil and civil unrest for many years, so do your research before heading there! If all is well and situation looks good, start packing your bags and be prepared to be awed by this beautiful piece of heaven on earth.
The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek
As the name suggests, this trek takes you to some of the most beautiful high-altitude lakes in the Himalayas. This is nothing but the truth, if not better! I chose this trek after reading the amazing online reviews, some claiming it to be the “Switzerland of India” but i personally wouldn’t put it that way because Kashmir has it’s very own charm and beauty that simply cannot be compared.
Quick Facts about this trek :
- Duration : 7 days 6 nights
- Difficulty Level : Moderate
- Type of Trek : Camping Trek
- Highest Altitude : approx. 4300 mts (14,000 ft)
- Best Trek Season : July-September
- Fitness Requirement : Moderate (If you do considerable amount of exercise on a regular basis, you should be good to go. What’s more important is Mental Endurance, to be honest.)
To reach the starting point of the trek, one has to take a 3-hour journey in a shared jeep from Srinagar to Sonmarg. I was happy to have a good friend as my trek mate, along with a great trek team consisting of a guide, a cook, a horseman and 2 ponies! So, with my trekking boots on, rucksack on my back, and a pocketful of excitement, the adventure began!
DAY 1 : Camp by the river | Sleeping with Chickens
First day was easy as we only had to walk briefly to a wide green field by the river, where we would camp for the night. There was a local village across the river, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, which formed our pretty view from inside the tent. The gentle sound of the water stream nearby lured me over, and in no time, i was happily cupping my bare hands and drinking the fresh himalayan spring water, one gulp after another, feeling refreshed but completely unaware of the consequences. (which i will reveal to you later)
At sundown, we had an ice-breaking session with the team while devouring our simple dinner of chapatis and sabji. We were such a dynamic mix of personalities – the goofball, the shy guy, the hyperactive maniac, Mr. Know-it-all, the calm & collected. I knew i was in safe hands, and we would have a good time in the next few days. I remember our cook Manzoor asking us what we would like to eat in the next few days. My goofball friend JuoPei shouted, “CHICKEN!”. Of course, it was meant as a joke.
That night, we slept with chickens in the tent. Live chickens our cook had brought from the village across the river. He obviously didn’t know how to take a joke!
DAY 2 : Trek, trek, trek | Bad tummy
We had an early start to a long day of trek over wide green meadows and beautiful valleys. Summer in Kashmir means lush greeneries, flowers in full bloom, moisture in abundance. In the mountains though, you can never be sure, because after 2-3 hours on foot, the landscape gradually transformed into blankets of white, and temperature gradually dropped. As we gained more altitude, we found a glacier which totally took my breath away.
It started to drizzle when we reached our campsite in a valley. It must have been about 12-15 °C when the wind started to get crazy. Funnily, as though my body was in sync with the climate, i felt my tummy going a little crazy too. Well guess what? Drinking gallons of “himalayan spring water” without a lifestraw or boiling was NOT a good idea. That night, I don’t remember how many times i had to go to the loo. The “loo” being the great Mother Nature.
DAY 3 : Snowy paths, Kashmiri Tea
Manzoor the Cook had made me Kashmiri Kahwa, a special hot tea containing cinnamon, sugar, lime juice, and salt – a natural antidote for a bad tummy. I had no appetite for any solid food, lucky enough i brought some dates to munch on. Life saviour, those dates, i tell you!
The day was full of various ascents and descents. I found myself being energized and empowered by the sights of great nature – which was then transitioning into a picturesque snowy white. Drizzles of rain came and went, came and went, with the occasional brutal cold wind pricking our bones and freezing our ears, cheeks, and butts! Still, we trekked on and on and even stumbled upon a few small lakes!
Our chickens were still very much alive. The cold was getting to them though, so Manzoor the cook had to finally end their lives, and we had one of them for dinner.
DAY 4 : Sunshine, Great Lakes, and Trout Fish!
No more rain, no more tummy pain, but lots of sunshine! Crawling out of the tent in the morning to get kissed by the rising sun was such a heart-warming experience. Tummy feeling stronger, I had breakfast like a king – omelette, chapatis with butter and jam, porridge, leftover fried chicken from the night before. We also finally had our first bath in 4 days by the river! As we were gonna stay on this camp site for an extra night due to bad weather hitting the paths ahead, we had some free time to explore the area and busk in nature.
We explored the area and came upon a few high-altitude alpine lakes, with water a mysterious deep blue, ever so calm and still, reflecting the beauty of the snow-capped mountains around.
Did i mention Trout fish? Hell yeah, we’d got trout fishes freshly caught from the alpine lakes! Grilled on fire, and we had a phenomenal dinner.
DAY 5 : Lunch on the Summit | Hookah with Gypsies
On this sunny day, we attempted to get to one of the mountain peaks from where we could have a clear view of Vishnusar Lake on one side, and the Gangabal twin Lakes on the other side. It was a difficult climb, with very steep 75° slopes, on very soft grounds that crumbled down with each step we took. As we gained altitude, the air got thinner, and oxygen was scarce. There were also some tricky snowy parts as well, one mistake and you’d slip and slide all the way down the snowy slopes, into the half-frozen lakes. Well, lucky we had tough and encouraging Kashmiri men with us, who guided and pushed us all the way to the top!
The second highlight of the day was our encounter with a Gypsy family, who warmly invited us into their little cottage for tea. I remember how the gypsy ladies were complimenting my shawl and engaging in a heated conversation (about the shawl, i believe) among themselves in a language i couldn’t understand. While sipping hot tea, an old Gypsy lady offered me hookah, i took a puff, and another, and another. None of us understood each other, but somehow sitting together and sharing this special moment created a genuine connection – human to human, soul to soul. I smiled, and she gave me a big hug!
DAY 6 : More beauty & wildlife | Campfire & Shooting Stars
At the break of dawn, we started our descent and trekked across wide green meadow fields, rocky terrains and gurgling streams. Met some amazing creatures along the way, especially the rare gems called Yaks that live only on the Himalayan high-altitudes. Said hello to a few shepherds and befriended a thousand sheep and goats too!
That night, we made a huge bonfire to celebrate our last night together. My harmonica and mini tabla were being put to good use, and there was much singing and dancing all night long. Our Kashmiri men were of course belting out Kashmiri tunes and showing us some traditional dance moves. It was a clear night sky with countless stars. As i lost myself in stargaze, trying to absorb all this beauty around me and savour the moment, i saw 2 shooting stars.
DAY 7 : Last Day | Goodbye, Kashmir
I remember talking and singing to a pony named Cheta, while doing the last leg of the downhill trek to the finishing point. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone in the team. These Kashmiri men had taught me so much about strength and endurance of the body, mind and soul, which i will remember for a long time.
The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek is definitely one of the best treks out there. I did it, i loved it, and i wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the universe.
The best part about trekking is the fact that you step out of your comfort zone, push yourself beyond limits – physical AND mental, and achieve things you never expected before. It is never about conquering peaks or taking that million-dollar photo to be gaining a million likes on Instagram. The real reward is the privilege to be in the warm embrace of Mother Nature, a humbling experience that puts you in perspective, and empowers you to be a stronger version of yourself.