During the early stages of Trek Leading in the Himalayas, it was my dream to trek in the vast valleys of Kashmir. Like any stream of career, trek leading also has a hierarchy for growing in an organization. The more experience a trek leader gains, they would be sent to lead tougher and challenging treks. If you consider the situation in Kashmir, it is generally unstable due to political disturbances. It would be the best for any trek leader to have gained some experience before venturing into the Kashmir Valley. Similarly, when I was an Assistant Trek Leader, I was aiming for the Kashmir season. Fortunately, the wait wasn't for long.
During August, I was headed to the Manali slope, after leading four batches of "Valley of Flowers" trek in Uttarakhand. Due to an unprecedented issue at Kashmir, I was said to reach Srinagar by overnight. When I got the call, I was on my way to Manali. I would still say it was a lucky call for me. I was nervous inside but I was hoping for this day to come, so it didn't seem like a shock. This is how I reached Kashmir, knowing that I will be leading just two batches of Kashmir Great Lakes and head back to the next slope. Never did I know that I will end up spending 52 beautiful days in the most stunning part of the Himalayas.
What's special about Kashmir and its Lakes?
I used to wonder why Kashmir has innumerous lakes starting from "Dal Lake" which covers approximately 22sqkm in the capital, Srinagar. So the legend says that the Kashmir Valley used to be under a sea called Tethys. Several studies also have revealed the presence of Flora and Fauna in the Kashmir region which generally are found in the water bodies. A lot of stories and theories revolve under the same fact that the whole valley of Kashmir used to be under a huge lake or sea, millions of years ago. This is the reason the whole Kashmir Valley has plenty of water bodies.
Here is a part of my journey in the serene and lovely alpine lakes of Kashmir...
Vishunsar and Kishansar Lakes
These two lakes are rather famous by the name - "The Twin Lakes of Kashmir"
These two lakes are the first to greet you during the KGL (Kashmir Great Lakes) trek. When I lead a batch of KGL the first time, I had to read the itinerary a couple of times to understand how many lakes actually were there in the whole trek! In the trail, Vishunsar comes first, and approximately 0.5km ahead, you can see Kishansar.
My personal highlights
The campsite for these two lakes is almost next to the lake which gives you the time to see the lake during the sunset as well as during before the sunrise which gives us the two varied colors of the water in the lake.
During the evening with the sun in the sky, we can see the water in its rich blue color (as shown in the picture), and in the early mornings before sunrise, we can see a colorless lake which is even the more mesmerizing.
Just taking a stroll in the evening at the lake with a book can give you a peaceful getaway from the chaos running in your mind if any. Of all my 3 times to KGL, I have loved being in Vishunsar and Kishansar. Why? Firstly, all trekkers feel very enthusiastic for the first two days of the trek filled with energy, their excitement to see the first lakes welcome them is amazing to handle. Secondly, there is another pair of twin lakes (Gangbal and Nandkul) in this trek which I will be discussing in the later sections of this blog. The major difference you can spot between these two pairs of lakes is that the later section of the trek is more polluted with plastics and garbage near the lakes, which is quite a heart-breaking scene.
Day - 2nd day of the trek
Distance - Approx 21km from Shitkadi (Starting point of the trek)
Altitude - 11500ft - 12000ft
(Note - Explore the lake in the evenings as well as in the morning)
Once you cross the Twin lakes, you reach the Gadsar Pass, which is at the highest altitude for the whole trek - 13800ft (4206m). From the Gadsar pass, you can view the Twin Lakes if it's a clear day with no clouds. After crossing the pass, trekking for around 6km, we reach the third major lake of the itinerary. When you cross the Gadsar pass, the whole valley opens up to a wide area. Immediately after crossing the pass, we also get to see a small lake on the left while descending down from the pass. Since it's inaccessible and not very significant, it doesn't have a name. The locals however call it Yamsar.
Gadsar is a special lake in itself. It is the second biggest lake (next to Gangbal) of all from this region. However, the picture can be misleading. This special for a couple of reasons. The first thing is that if you get a chance to visit this lake in the monsoon season, you can find pretty purple Iris flowers encircling the lake. It is a sight to see. Secondly, trekking to the Gadsar campsite is the lengthiest day of the entire trek. You walk for approximately 14km on this day. Hence, taking a good lunch break by the lake which charges the trekker's energy levels to reach the camp. Also, you can notice that there is a small stream connecting the Yamsar and Gadsar lake.
My personal highlights
If you get a chance to camp next to the Gadsar lake, you should go for it. This can help in reducing the distance for the day and the remaining distance to be covered can be easily covered the next day while heading to Satsar.
At Gadsar, I had met a shepherd who lives next to the lake, down below in his small house. I had gone there to give him some medication where he offered me Lassi (sweetened curd or yogurt) made of goat milk. That was the first time I had tasted it and honestly, I went there in my next batch to drink it again.
Day - 3rd day of the trek
Distance - Approx 14km from Vishunsar
Altitude - 12500ft (lake's altitude)
Satsar means a collection of "Seven Lakes". Depending upon the time when you go, you can find 3 or 4 lakes. All the lakes aren't close by each other and a couple of them are not seen once you trek. The guides can help you identify the collection of the lakes. And if time permits, you can always go and explore the trail with the guides to find interesting stories about these lakes. Apparently from one of the lakes of Satsar, we can trek down to Srinagar as said by one of the shepherds. So, we are just bound to our imagination when it comes to Kashmir because a lot of trails and valley are still unexplored. The shepherds are the go-to people if you need such interesting trivia about hidden trails and stories.
Once you leave the Gadsar campsite, there would be a section where you need to cross the stream of water from Gadsar lake to reach the other side and head towards Satsar. If you trek in the earlier seasons of monsoon, you might be able to find a snow-covered bridge that would help you from the painful process of crossing the freezing cold water stream. But if you want another adventure, this is it!!
After this stream crossing, it's the easiest and the shortest day of the entire trek. During this trail, we can spot hundreds of sheep crossing our way. After crossing the army check post, you can see one distinct lake. Its a part of the seven said lakes.
My personal highlights
After reaching the campsite at Satsar, I took my interested trekkers to the other side of the valley to explore a few hidden lakes in the region with my guide. Crossing the huge boulder and scree section, we were able to reach one of the hidden lakes of the Satsar. It wasn't part of the itinerary, but it was fun to explore. It took us approximately 45min to reach this lake from the Satsar campsite.
Day - 4th day of the trek
Distance - Approx 11km from Gadsar campsite
Altitude - 12000ft (lake's altitude)
Gangabal and Nandkul Lakes
After Satsar, you will be heading to the Zach Pass, the last major challenge of the trek. Over here you get the best view of these Twin Lakes. These lakes are situated in the foothills of Mt- Harmukh. Since the pass is at 13300ft (4000m) if the weather is not clear, you might not be able to spot the twin lakes from the pass. Fortunately, I was able to get the best view from one trip. It is a sight to really capture in the mind as well as with the camera.
You can rest for a while at the Zach Pass and click the pictures. I would suggest not to waste much time here because the weather on this side of the valley keeps changing very soon. You don't want to have rains making it hard to get down the pass. Also, if you reach early, you can spend more time at the lake since they are the last lakes of the trek, and the takes time to cover these two majestic lakes.
So like I had mentioned earlier, these lakes are easily accessible from Naranag (endpoint of the KGL trek) and hence many people visit these two lakes and skip the whole trail. These two lakes are also famous for trout fishing. Once you reach the lake, you will spot that there are a few camps right next to the lake and they are polluting it. However, it is advised not to take a dip in any of the lakes as they are considered holy and also these lakes are unexplored, hence the depth of the lake is not determined. So I would advise you not to do so too.
My personal highlights
Once you reach the campsite, if time permits, its the best experience is to do the Parikrama of the Gangabal lake. This lake, being the largest of the collection, is as wide as 2.5km and the parikrama would take more than an hour.
Day - 5th day of the trek
(Note - You can hike from Naranag in a day to reach these two lakes and camp)
Distance - Approx 9km from Satsar campsite
Altitude - 11500ft (lake's altitude)
These were the collection of lakes from the KGL trek. I have been to the next set of lakes found in the Aru valley. Let me tell you about them...
Tarsar - Marsar and Sundersar Lakes
"Sar" in Hindi means lake. The story behind the name Tarsar and Marsar is based on a legend. It is believed that these lakes have good and bad sides.
The Story behind their names
There was once a shepherd who was traveling with a thousand sheep in his herd from Marsar lake to Aru valley. As the lake approached them on their way, the sheep were thirsty and wanted to quench their thirst. All the sheep gathered next to the lake and were drinking the water. In a flash of a second, the water from the Marsar lake just took in all the thousand sheep. When the shepherd turned around, he was astonished that his sheep were missing. After searching and trying to understand what had happened, he with a broken heart left Marsar and left for Aru. On the Marsar top, he is said to have found a Sadhu (saint) meditating. The shepherd went to him in agony and said what had happened. The saint after listening to him calmly said him to keep walking and his sheep would return to him. The only thing the shepherd had to do was not to look behind anytime. Confused and still sad, the shepherd left Marsar top and went to Tarsar and was headed to Aru. To his surprise, as he crossed the Tarsar lake, he could hear the sheeps sound. The sheep were reappearing from the Tarsar lake. In a moment of happiness, he turned around to see if those were his sheep. Unfortunately, as soon as he turned, the whole magic stopped. The sheep which had come out of the lake were only that he was left with.
So based on this story, the lakes have been named. Mar in Hindi means death and Tar in Hindi means reappearing alive. Hence Marsar is considered to be of a bad omen and Tarsar is said to be good luck. Even to date, the locals and the shepherds are scared of the Marsar lake and nobody camps next to Marsar.
For me, both of the lakes are equally massive and beautiful beyond words.
Based on the story and the itinerary, you are allowed to camp next to Tarsar and however, you can only go get a view of Marsar. Similar to the lakes mentioned above in this blog, these lakes have colors based on the time of the day. When you camp at the Tarsar, you can find the colorless still water of the lake early in the morning.
Both of these two lakes are so massive that capturing a single one of them in one frame is quite hard. You can also notice that Marsar seems a bit of barren compared to Tarsar.
My personal highlights
I always made it a point to go for a Parikrama of any lake when I get time. Similarly, I did at Tarsar. However, I will advise you not to do it alone because there are a few patches that are very risky. Once you have reached halfway, you can find a small sister lake next to Tarsar. It would be a story to tell if you can do this.
Also, before reaching the Tarsar campsite,
at Sheikwas campsite, you can ask your guide or leader to take you to Zadsar, the secret hidden lake. I had taken my trekkers to this unexplored trail and found this hidden lake an hour away from our campsite.
Like I had mentioned earlier, you can always make the best of anything if you really want to. Especially Kashmir can always surprise you from nowhere. But make sure you stick to the said rules by the leader and take additional care for your safety. Being adventurous can also cost you a lot in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The final lake in this region that I had covered was Sundersar. This lake comes in the trail when you head from Tarsar to Marsar. The water level in this lake depends on the season that you go in. The lakeside is the best place to camp and relax, before heading to Marsar viewpoint.
Time Required - 3days to reach Tarsar from Aru and a day from Tarsar to Sundersar and Marsar
Distance - Approx 21km from Aru Village to Tarsar and 8km from Tarsar to Sundersar
Altitude - 12500ft (Tarsar) 13000ft (Sundersar)
Kashmir is rich in such immensely beautiful alpine lakes and its people. However, anyone who visits Kashmir the first time doesn't realize its beauty. They just head to the touristy spots. Nevertheless, these touristy spots are also beyond words can describe. On the same page, we have one lake about which most of you must be aware of...
Pangong Lake or Pangong Tso
If you were wondering how huge this lake is, I am sure you can't imagine. It is as long as 130km in length and around 60% of this lake is in the Tibetian region. It is totally frozen during the winters and gets harder to reach here.
I went here during September, which was probably a lucky time because we were almost stuck in a snowstorm while returning from Pangong.
My personal highlights
I drove from Leh to Pangong like many others. The drive was the best challenging ride I had been in, at that time. However, if you have the right gear, you would have a wonderful drive experience, which I didn't unfortunately. Also plan in such a way that you can stay at the homestays near the lake so that you can explore more.
Also, remember that if you are going to be driving from Leh, you will be crossing the Chang La Pass which is at an altitude of 17500ft (5300m). Be prepared to the altitude hit and also the layers necessary for the dip in temperature. Since most of the road is barren, you can only find one or two small villages in between. It is also advisable that you carry extra fuel since the petrol stations are not very common and no one else would be in a position to help you with their fuel.
Time Required - Drive from Leh for 6hrs
Distance - Approx 225km
Altitude - 14000ft (lake's altitude); 17500ft (Chang La Pass
In my previous blog about the Uttarakhand and Himachal Lakes, I had mentioned about my journey as a Trek Leader. After trekking to these beautiful lakes in the Himalayas innumerable times, it only adds more value every time I go there. It's as if the mountains have a gift for me every time I reach there, I don't deny the fact that I pay a huge price to reach there but once you stand next to these lakes, I feel that its always worth every step I take, worth every stone that I cross as an obstacle. In the end, it is about how much you can endure. Because there is too much out there in the Himalayas.
This is what I will say to my fellow trek buddies,