Having seen so much of Himalayas already, from Ladakh to Sikkim, I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t by any means for what Kashmir had to offer. I used to wonder, how Kashmir was conferred the title of “Heaven on Earth”? I wondered if they had seen rest of the Himalayas, let alone rest of the world to make such tall claims. Then I found my answer. Little do I know what paradise looks like, but if it’s not Kashmir, then I do not know what is. The minute we set out on the familiar highway to Sonmarg, glimpses of snow-capped peaks and green meadows suggestive of what may be in store for us over the next few days got me terribly excited. The idea was to trek through the alpine meadows into the lap of heavenly lakes, tucked deep inside the wilderness where few have gone before, from Sonmarg to Narnag – what’s now famous as the Kashmir Great Lakes trek.
On the first evening, our campsite was on a small tableland overlooking the valley by the side of the river and the sparkling settlement of Sonmarg. When the sun finally went down late in the evening, considering the days were longest in June, I knew it was time! One of the reasons I love camping in the wilderness is because of the million stars and the delightful Milky Way stretching across the mysterious night sky. Tonight we had it all, clear skies, dazzling stars and a splendid galaxy. Every shooting star I spotted brought forth a sense of calm and a rising sense of anticipation! For I was here, in Kashmir!
The next morning was as glorious as it could get. The sunlight slowly traced the mountain slope as we raced to meet the light half way through. The freshness of the air almost felt alien, but not for long. Thajwas glacier was behind us as we hiked through the green meadows to reach the silver birch trees at the top of the mountain. Here was a shepherd village called Shekdur, where huts had no doors and the trees were sparkling silver in the sunlight. During the colder months, the shepherds would return and take shelter here. Now in the summers, the sheep are grazing at higher grounds.
Beyond this settlement opens a fairy tale like meadows surrounded by snow-capped peaks with horses grazing in its verdant pastures as the stream cuts across at its whimsy. A leisurely walk came to end when a full grown Himalayan dog decided to defend its territory. Slowly we went past the meadows, the horses and the dog to descend into the next valley. Later when we reached our campsite for the day, amidst snow and rock, I came to know that one of our horses had died en route. They told me it was a brown and white pony, I am sure it would’ve been a beautiful animal.
The next day, the mountains made their point clear that nature has the final say in the wilderness. We had to return back from Vishnusar as the snow hadn’t melted on a critical crossing yet. We spent the day walking along the frozen lake instead. Lurking around the corners of the glacial lake and wondering in silent contemplation, a thought was constantly ringing in my head – this is life! Being able to sit by the pristine lake, watching the blue sky reflect in the calm waters, tracing the clear reflection of the mountains and enjoying a cool breeze with a brilliant sun shining down on us. There was a dash of pink and yellow and a whole lot of green everywhere around us. This surely was the good life.
Over the next two days we retraced the same route we had come, from the snow laden pass, through the valley, along the silver birches, into the pine forest and out to the last campsite. On the last day, the group of us collected a decent amount to tip the locals who helped us immensely. The cheerful locals sang beautiful songs that none of us understood. We handed over the money to them over campfire.
Next morning as we prepared to leave from the trek, a little bird told us the entire tip amount collected was happily given to Mansoor, the guy who lost his pony earlier! Bewitched by Kashmir’s immense beauty and its peoples’ incredible generosity of spirit, I was embarrassed of my ignorance — of a paradise I didn’t know existed.