Many years ago, Gautam Gode asked me if I'd be interested in joining him on the Kashmir Great Lakes trek (often referred to as "KGL"). I immediately said Yes! A group was formed, and plans were drawn up in earnest. I even seem to recall having booked flight tickets. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Our guide's parents won the Haj lottery, and he had to escort them to Mecca. We didn't want to take a chance with another guide, and so we scrapped our plans.
In May 2018, back in hot humid Chennai after having just completed a trek to Rupin Pass, I was itching to get back to the cool bracing air of the mountains. I pinged Gode: "Any treks that you're dying to do?". "KGL" came the prompt answer. "Let's do it in August end, by then the rains would've come and gone." A few quick internet searches later, and we were booked with Bikat Adventures, from 25th Aug to 1st Sept. As the date approached, work exigencies kept hovering over our heads like dark clouds that threaten to rain. However, this time our luck was right, and we managed to get off work, and do the trek we'd been dreaming about for a while.
KGL generally starts at Sonamarg (8,700 ft), winds its way through Vishansar, Kishansar, Gadsar, Satsar, Gangbal and Nandkol lakes, ending up at Naranag (7,400 ft). It takes 6 days, including a buffer day for bad weather.
There's a lot of climbing and descending (approx 3,000 ft each day), and lots of rocky moraines to cross along the way. You reach a point where you feet scream in protest at the sight of rocks... you just yearn for soft grass to walk on. Walking on rocks takes a special kind of foolhardiness. It is a bit like skiing - when you lose your fear of falling, is when the risk of falling goes away.
Our fellow trekkers
Gode I thought knew well, but you don't really know someone till you share a tent with them without having had a bath for 6 days. He was the perfect companion, quiet, reserved, not letting on that I stank. It was only towards the end of the trek that I revealed that I had an impaired sense of smell, a consequence of sinus surgery a few years ago. The poor man.
Chetna and Jignesh were Mumbai-born-and-raised Gujaratis who now live outside Manchester. We bonded immediately on shared hiking experiences in the Peak District. Unfortunately, they had chosen to come to KGL straight off their international flight, and therefore jet-lag, food, and water all combined to give them a tough time.
The rocky moraines didn't help either, since they were used to walking across the gentle rolling grassy hills of England. Bikat staff tried really hard to accommodate their dietary preferences (dinner at 4:30 pm!) and I think they began to enjoy the trek towards the end.
We really lucked out - Bikat's groups are small anyway (not more than 15), but it was just the 4 of us this time! I'm really thankful Bikat didn't make some excuse and cancel the trek, but I'm sure they made a loss on this one.
The small group allowed me to experience the benefits of such a size first hand. As opposed to the larger 20-25 person groups of an India Hikes or TTH. There are advantages, for sure. Most days, we left camp last (45-60 minutes after the last group), but reached the next campsite first.
Towards the end, in his usual dry style, Gode said: "you've seen one, you've seen them all." But somehow I felt each one had its own magic. Vishansar was the first lake we came upon, and so it was special. Gadsar, which is featured to the left, is really pretty. Satsar is seven little lakes, but the setting is spectacular, since you get your last look at POK from there. Finally Gangbal and Nandkol, the "money shot" at the top of this post, is what everything thinks about when they hear the word "KGL".
Most afternoons were free, and some days there were little side excursions we could take. I grabbed every such opportunity, and got to see a few lakes that few other KGL trekkers get to see. If you ever do KGL, I strongly recommend it. There are two lakes above Satsar camp, and two lakes above Nandkol and Gangbal respectively (you can't do both, but do at least one). The guides (lazy buggers) will tell you it takes a long time, but no, it doesn't. I was there and back in 3 hours.
Other trekkers and their trek organizers
We had groups from Indiahikes (IH) and Trek The Himalayas (TTH) with us, and I got a chance to compare Bikat, our organizer, IH and TTH. Both IH and TTH groups are much larger, but the TTH groups were loud (playing music past 10 pm) and didn't have the environmental consciousness that IH is known to be obsessive about. TTH's campsites were filthy. That's one organization I'm definitely not going with anytime soon. Bikat's small groups are a big advantage, but I wish they were as environmentally sensitive as IH is.
The trekkers from those organizations were interesting. A lot of them seem to have offloaded their backpacks, and yet were struggling. Young people, maybe 25-30 years old, were puffing and panting, walking slowly, or gave up and rode a mule. Arjun Mazumdar, founder of IH, has commented on this -- people's tendency to ignore the physical requirements spelled out before they start a trek. Is there a solution? Besides subjecting them to a fitness test on day 1? I'm not sure if that'll work.
The people of Kashmir
I think the one thing that I enjoyed the most was interacting with the locals. From this sheep shearer, taking a tea break from the tiring job of shearing his sheep, to these two small boys who were helping an elder relative tend a herd of goats, everyone we met was almost uniformly friendly and welcoming.
A "Salaam Aleykum" almost always got you a "Waleykum Salaam" and then a conversation would ensue. "Where are you from?" "Where did you come from today?" "How do you like our land?". The people of Kashmir, like hill people everywhere, are tough but warm, simple and welcoming.
Was I ever concerned about my safety? Never. Ever. The presence of Rashtriya Rifles posts at three points of the trek were a grim reminder that we're in a place where an AFSPA is needed, and our Army, which should be guarding the border, is employed in internal security duties. But the Army-men we met were also warm and friendly, and gave us no concerns at all. I must say that I didn't sense the same warmth for them from the locals, but that's just a gut feeling.
On balance, KGL is a great trek. Accessible, tough but not too tough, and remote enough that spectacular views are almost guaranteed, if you time your season right.
Executive, entrepreneur, investor and mentor to social entrepreneurs, golf and squash addict, author of thrillers... In short, an amateur dabbler in new experiences, and provoker of thoughts.