Kashmir is the land of natural lakes & springs. God has bestowed it with hundreds of such water bodies across its length and breadth. Our ancestors, thousands of years back, must have crossed umpteen mountain passes & valleys to discover these bounties of nature. And since then, they have revered them and held them very sacred. They knew that these are the lifeline of the Valley and protecting them is essential to their very existence.
A lake is called a Saras or Sar or Bal in Kashmiri.
There are many lakes in Kashmir and then are Great Lakes of Kashmir! These are very high altitude lakes, sitting above 12000 ft, in the Himalayas. The only way to reach them is through a trek in the mountains or on a horseback.
Kashmir Great Lakes(KGL) trek is undoubtedly the most beautiful trek in India. Someone has rightly called it a 3D IMAX movie watched live! And it’s equally challenging too! You climb rocky mountains with endless glaciers melting into gushing streams, walk through vast green meadows with sheep lazily grazing in them and colourful wild flowers splashed all over the trail. And the icing on the cake is a minimum of 10 out of several emerald-turquoise alpine lakes, 5 different valleys and 3 very high passes, that you get to explore. The whole trek is like a huge canvas in front of you, painted in myriad colours & hues. The experience is nothing short of overwhelming!
There are several articles already written on this trek, what I would share with you is specifically my experience of it. After my first Himalayan trek of Tarsar Marsar in Kashmir, in 2018, which left me mesmerised, I wanted to explore more such lakes. So, the next obvious choice was the KGL, wherein you get to see many more lakes in the same duration & which is substantially tougher too. However, as luck would have it, the trek got cancelled two years in a row, until this year, when I finally could see my dream of walking this trail, come true.
About the trek
Very high altitude treks in Kashmir can be done only between the short window of July to September. For the rest of the year these lakes remain frozen & the mountains are under snow. I went on the trek in the first week of August 2021. It was a 6-day trek with an extra day thrown in as buffer, just in case, the weather behaves bad. Which it can, very unpredictably. A total of 74 km had to be covered – which meant climbing up & down different valleys through very steep mountain passes. There are easier stretches of walking on flat meadows in these valleys & there are long unnerving climbs over rocky boulders.
You need strong lungs, steady knees & a determined mind to accomplish the journey. It’s very important to be physically fit, especially in the lower limbs, but ultimately it’s your determination & mental strength that actually sees you through. Age too is of consequence. Also, you could be the youngest and fittest in the group and yet not be able to complete the trek, if AMS strikes. Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anyone, anytime, once you cross over into high altitude zone(above 10000 ft). Use of Diamox can prevent AMS.
KGL is usually classified as a moderate-difficult trek but I would put it more towards difficult as the entire six-day trek has a landscape, which calls for very long trekking days with steep ascents & descents every single day. The weather can get roguish anytime, with severe rain, hail or snow & there’s simply no place to take cover. Therefore, if you are a beginner not yet exposed to high-altitude treks, it’s not advisable to start with this one.
Having said that, the efforts are worth every bit of it. Each day is postcard perfect, with a few alpine lakes to look forward to. What makes these lakes even prettier are the glaciers & that feed these lakes, white chunks of which can often be seen on the surface of the lake. And all the lakes are tucked nicely under tall rugged mountains, surrounded by miles of green meadows with a host of colourful wild flowers dancing in the breeze. I wonder, what Wordsworth would have written, had he been here!
DAY ZERO – Srinagar to Shutkadi
Altitude 5200 ft to 7800 ft
The base camp was at Shutkadi, near Sonamarg. Ours was a group of twenty. We travelled to the base camp by cab from Srinagar, which took us around 2.5 hours. The last one km to the campsite had to be trekked with the entire backpack. Thereafter, one could choose to offload the backpack & carry only the daypack each day. The campsite was on top of an elevation, surrounded by mountains and clumps of pine trees, overlooking the beautiful river Sind with the Thajwas glacier peak standing out, right ahead. You could see an odd hut or dhoka of a Gujjar Bakerwal under the trees.
The evening was spent at leisure – we walked down to the river, and generally got to know one another over tea. All documentation & physical fitness checks were done, dinner was had & we called it an early night as we had to be up early the next morning.
The morning ritual was fixed 6–7–8!
Morning tea-Breakfast-March on!
DAY 1: Shutkadi to Nichnai via Shekdur
Altitude: 7,800 ft to 11,500 ft
Distance: 11.6 km
During the morning briefing, we were sensitised that this was the most challenging of all the days as the kilometres to be trekked were many, plus, of all the days, this day had the biggest altitude gain of more than 3000 ft. Normally, it’s not advisable to gain greater than a 1000 ft in 24 hrs, but in this case, an exception had to be made, as you could only camp at a certain terrain.
The day began with a few hours of steep ascent to reach a flat meadow called Table Top. From here you could see the entire Sonamarg valley with the mighty Thajwas towering over it. We continued the walk ahead through beautiful meadows & snow peaks of Shekdur. There was a descent through a beautiful dense silver birch forest, where we spent some good time “talking to the trees”. Thereafter, it was another few hours of ascent to Nichnai for an hour.
Although, we got good exceptionally good weather on all the days, however, the last 45 min on the first day gave us a good experience of how bad & dangerous it can get. We were about to reach our campsite in the evening, when all of a sudden, the skies poured down in vengeance. We were caught by surprise & by the time we managed to put on our rain ponchos, we were already soaking. There was lightning & loud thunder every few minutes. Strange thoughts ran in my head. I wondered whether I would be hit by lightning & probably this was how I were to die! Rain & hail lashed down on us real hard. We were in an open terrain with absolutely no place where we could take cover. Visibility was barely there as rain was falling hard on our faces too. We reached the campsite cold, wet & exhausted. But absolutely thrilled with how fulfilling the day had been.
DAY 2: Nichnai to Vishansar Lake
Altitude: 11,500 ft to 12,000 ft
Distance: 13.5 km
After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to see our first lake of the trek that evening. It was a bright morning – we had a blue sky & the sun was rising golden behind the mountains. It had rained all night, as it did on most nights, so we could not dry our clothes & shoes from the previous day. We put them away in plastic bags to be dried later, at the next campsite. If it wouldn’t be raining, that is. The problem were the shoes. We all carried only one pair each & they were soaking wet! But a very helpful tip of stuffing newspaper or tissues into the shoes worked like magic.
We had a moderate climb for a couple of hours before the gruelling ascent to Nichnai Pass. The pass feels like a wide tunnel with a series of snow-clad peaks on one side and an elevated land mass on the right. Nichnai Pass is at an altitude of 13,500 ft. The ascent to the pass is moderate but it continues for very long which makes it quite an endeavour.
Once on the pass, we were exuberant with our first success. Standing there on the rocky top, the roving eye could just see rugged peaks all around, jutting out into the sky. We captured the moments in our cameras, one after the other, not wanting to miss anything. After all, these moments had to be savoured later on too, when we would be sweating it out in the plains.
A steep descent from the pass for about a couple of hours was followed by an hour of flat walk through meadows with grazing sheep, to reach Vishansar. We caught the first glimpse of the lake from a distance, from the top of a slope at a distance. It was shining calmly in the afternoon sun under the Vishansar peak.
I must mention here how important it is to follow the trek leader closely and not deviate from the trail he/she is on. We were headed towards a stream across which we could see our yellow tents perched prettily. There was a huge bog close to the stream & the guide obviously wanted to circumvent that, so he had chosen a longer path. This fact unknown to us, one of our group mates thought of making a quick dash towards the stream in order to cut time. And lo and behold, she went right inside the bog and with a lot of struggle came out all soaked wet & muddy!
We reached the camp when the sun was still shining bright & there was enough time until sunset. On arriving at the campsite, nimboo paani would be always be ready for us, followed by piping-hot tea & snacks. We put our wet clothes from the last day out to dry, we strolled over to the lake. We had camped just below a low ridge that separated us from it.
The first sight of Vishansar left us open-mouthed. It was like an emerald gem, half of it surrounded by mountains which had glaciers melting into the lake. We spent an hour or so there, having totally fallen in love with it. The positive vibes one could feel there were very strong & I could feel my eyes tearing up. This was my home, the place of my forefathers. While the others went around a part of the lake, I just sat there thinking of them.
Evenings spent at the campsite used to be fun. Good food, lots of games & stargazing together further built stronger bonds! Amongst us were volunteers who would give first-aid treatment to teammates with blisters on the feet or muscle pains. The camaraderie could be felt. We would eat a wholesome breakfast every morning at the camp & carry packed lunch. Dinner used to be served hot complete with a dessert!
DAY 3: Vishansar to Gadsar via Krishansar & Gadsar Pass
Altitude: 12,000 ft to 12,500 ft via 13,800 ft
Distance: 16 km
Although Krishansar Lake is only about a kilometre from Vishansar, one can see it only the next day after about a moderate climb of 45 min from there, as it lies at 500 ft higher altitude. Krishansar is a big deep-blue lake, sitting right under the Krishansar peak. However, one cannot see the two lakes together at this point.
It has a big meadow spread out on its right. In the front, a ridge line rises sharply. This is what we had to cross. The trail initially ascends gradually and one gets a beautiful top view of Krishansar. Every few minutes we stopped to admire the view & click pictures, which never seemed to be enough.
In some time, we could see both the lakes sitting together side by side. After about midway to the top, the incline suddenly becomes very steep, so the heaving and panting starts. With each step you are getting acclimatised to higher altitudes, so it’s natural to affect everyone’s breathing pattern. The gruelling climb ended only at the top of this ridge which is the Gadsar Pass. This was at 13800 ft – the highest altitude that we would touch on this trek!
The moment I stepped on the Gadsar top, all my fatigue & exhaustion simply vanished. Everyone was ecstatic because we had made it through the toughest part! One look down towards the side we had climbed from, and we could see the twin emerald-blue pools of Vishansar & Krishansar, looking like two gems studded in the grey mountainside! And another look on the other side, that we were to descend from, we could see three more gems of blue-green, sparkling lakes one behind the other – Yamsar, a nameless lake, and Gadsar. Later, that day we saw these three up-close as we walked past them. The locals believe in the superstition that going too near to Yamsar or camping there for the night can be fatal as it’s Lord Yama’s lake! Far in the distance one can see a line of of snow-clad peaks. The peaks lie outside our LoC. Gadsar pass often gets snowed in, therefore the buffer day is included, which thankfully didn’t get used in our case.
The descent took us around an hour & thereafter we were literally in a valley of flowers. This was the prettiest part of our trek. We found ourselves walking in a narrow valley with flat green meadows with two ranges running on either side. We crossed the three lakes one after the other, walking on a trail which looked like a sequence from a movie.
The trail on both sides had multi-coloured wild flowers blended in with the green grass, looking merry in wild abandon. You walk through miles of yellow buttercups, purple irises, blue geraniums and many more beauties!
At no point must one underestimate the descent part of the trek. I saw many trekkers do the ascent like a breeze but lag behind during the climbing down. For me, the former is the challenging part.
Everyone had cautioned us about how most people give up while climbing the Gadsar Pass. For me, it was the Nichnai Pass which was rogue & which truly tests your endurance. Gadsar is that loud “in your face” villain but can be tamed with some patience and frequent breaks! On the day of our Nichnai Pass, several people from other groups returned & some women opted for a pony ride.
Gadsar Lake is the prettiest lake on this trek. Nestled in valley under rugged mountain peaks, its milky green water is dotted with chunks of blue-white snow. The lake is surrounded by green grasslands and colourful wild flowers. The view leaves you spellbound. We had our lunch here.
DAY 4: Gadsar to Satsar
Altitude: 12,500 ft to 12,000 ft
Distance: 11.5 km
The trek from Gadsar to Satsar was not a very long day. This was the day when we carried no packed lunch but were to get a hot meal at the camping site as we were to reach around 2 pm. Usually, we would carry packed lunch each day & eat it next to a running stream anywhere in the middle of the meadows of next to a mountain brook!
Satsar is actually a collection of Sat – seven Sar – lakes which are spread across a wide area. We got to see can three of them enroute our camping site.
The grassy plains of Satsar look almost manicured with a pretty stream lazily running through it. The trail from Gadsar was a narrow strip initially. Some of us with a sharp eye, spotted wild strawberries growing on a mountain slope that went along the narrow trail. One look at them said they were harmless, so we all tasted some!
The landscape got interesting when along the trail we saw a few craters, because of which the place is called Maengandob. The guide said these were formed due to grenades that had exploded here during the war but I am not very sure, though it’s not very surprising since the LoC is not very far from here. Here we saw a very unique phenomenon – a stream that was running along, went inside the earth through an opening in the mountainside. Don’t know if it resurfaces anywhere ahead….
Another noteworthy detail is that midway of the trek, from one of the bends in the trail, one could catch a glimpse of the very distant Nanga Parbat peak. We were lucky to have a very clear day so the snow-capped peak was easily visible.
The day was mostly with moderate inclines but not without a couple of hours of a steep climb in between.
At most places we got a flat trail however there were stretches of boulders, that one needed to manoeuvre. The first lake we came across was a dreamy large one, lined with hundreds of yellow buttercup flowers.
DAY 5: : Satsar to Gangabal & Nundkol
Altitude: 12,000 ft to 11,500 ft
Distance: 9 km
We were on the final leg of our trek. The day’s trek went climbing up and down the trail & repeating the same. A large part of the day initially went into climbing over huge boulders. For once, we had to put our trekking poles away. I loved this exercise of using our hands & feet with a sound sense of judgement to hop from one boulder to another. One definitely had to watch for tricky & sharp crevices between them in order to avoid a fall, which could have proved injurious. A few of us found this terrain very daunting & hard to manoeuvre, while some simply jumped over the rocks like a game of hopscotch!
We found us walking through vast undulating meadows & thereafter a climb of an hour. A total of three ridges had to be climbed over to reach the top of Zach Pass, the last of the passes to be crossed. At 11,500 ft!
Once on top of the pass, I was left spellbound. The view was stunning. We could see another set of twin lakes – milky emerald green in colour. The Nundkol on the left & the much bigger Gangabal – right under the Harmukh peak. I spotted one more nameless lake to the left & above these lakes on the mountain.
The entire group fell silent because we all were just taking in the sight in front of us. This moment was the highlight of the entire trek. The pains & aches of the past few days were worth every bit as we had got rewarded several times over than the effort we had put in. The hour or more that we spent there was a very emotional one for me. Sitting there looking at the these lakes & Harmukh together is a sight to behold. Not everyone gets so lucky. I thanked God for seeing me through the tough days & for having the good fortune of witnessing this scene. Gangabal & Harmukh are mentioned in our ancient scriptures & are very sacred places of pilgrimage for Kashmiris. This is what connects us with our forefathers who did penance here. Even to this day, many Kashmiris perform the shradh ritual of their ancestors at Gangabal. A yatra to Gangabal is undertaken every year on Ganga Ashtami which falls around September.
The descent to Gangabal took us a few hours. We spent a couple of very peaceful hours there. Gangabal is undoubtedly the most spectacular and impressive of all the lakes on this trek. Sitting there, looking at the calm waters of this sacred lake with Harmukh blessing you, is a very spiritual experience. We listened to Shiva numbers while feeling the cold water splashing our feet and the sun slowly setting behind the peaks.
It was almost dusk. We walked about 20 min to reach Nundkol. A stream, Krenknadi, connects Gangabal to Nundkol which thereafter flows out from Nundkol to join Wangath nallah which further merges with river Sind at Naran Nag. There’s a thin log bridge that we needed to cross to reach our campsite at Nundkol.
DAY 6: Gangabal to Naranag
Altitude: 11,500 ft to 7,450 ft
Distance: 13 km
The last day – and a contended me.
We were told it was a long day & in order to reach Naran Nag by 2 pm we needed to start early. We had camped at Nundkol just under the Mount Harmukh & could see the huge Harmukh glacier hanging from there. We unpitched our tents for the last time, thanked each one of the supporting staff and set out for one last time.
The initial descent was across a huge undulating meadow with thick conifers all along the way. It was very comforting in a way to have the trees back on the landscape. On the higher altitudes , we had barely found any. We looked back one last time, to catch Harmukh from this angle too, until it was out of sight. It looked beautiful against the blue sky.
A few kilometres into the day, we had to stop at an army check-post where they checked our documents & after a friendly banter, we said our byes to them. It seemed that we were meeting the humankind after an eternity!
Until mid-way, the trek was a mix of ascents & descents, however, thereafter, it was a test of our knees & toes. We were on our way down, which was a non-stop steep descent. What made it more difficult was that the entire trail was made completely of loose stones & gravel. So, you had to make sure that each foot was put out right. We were also cautioned to stay close to the group as the thick pine forests that we were to descend from, was the habitat of bears. This second half of the last day was the first time during the entire trek, that I felt annoyed and on the verge of frustration. The trail went down the mountain in circular serpentine rounds – one after the other. The feet hurt like crazy but the loops seem to be unending.The numbness of my toes lasted even a month after the trek!
Naran Nag town with the Wangath nallah meandering through it, came in sight midway, but that was no respite. We were still quite high up & the anxiety just built up. In fact, in the last 4 km we dropped an altitude of more than 3,000 ft so one can understand the steepness quotient.
To sum it up, the last stretch of the last day is an endurance test which none of us had expected. Once I spotted the Naran Nag temple ruins through a clump of pine trees, I knew I was almost there. The rocky trail finally led to the stone-paved village road which ended on the main road of Naran Nag.
Everyone gorged on the finger licking food at a restaurant that served authentic Kashmiri fare. We collected our rucksacks, clicked the last group pictures & said our good byes promising to meet again some day on some other Himalayan trail.Thereafter we departed for Srinagar.
A big thank you to my trek leader, Krupa and the guides Javaid & Showkat without whom it would not have been possible to successfully complete the trek!
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Pictures are copyrighted. Some pictures have been contributed by fellow trekkers.