Trekking in the Himalayas is a double delight on your senses. If the glorious vistas don’t leave you mesmerized during the day, the Milky Way and the shooting stars are sure to leave you spellbound during the night.
There is this one moment of the first trekking day of my life that has been imprinted deeply in my mind. We were a bunch of friends heading towards Sandakpu with no prior experience of trekking, most of us terribly unfit and without any guide. As is wont with such a deadly combination, we lost our way a couple of times and even though it was long past dusk, we were still on the trail. We were tired to the bone and our mind was numb with the pain and the cold. I had been holding on to my senses by putting my head down and trudging up the hill chanting the mantra just one more step…just one more step. But after a while, my feet just stopped moving and I crashed. Letting go of my heavy backpack and stretching my tired back I remember looking up to the sky and seeing the most incredible night sky ever. ‘Twas my first sight of the heavens at night from the Himalayas and it was a surreal experience to the say the least! – a clear night with not a speck of clouds and the glittering stars appearing so close by that it felt they were growing from the branches of the tree under which I was lying sprawled. I knew then that I was smitten and I would keep coming back to trek in the Himalayas.
Last night at Nichnai campsite was also a similar experience for some of us who braved the cold and stood outside our tents spotting constellations and shooting stars.
Today, we are heading towards Nichnai pass, with an added excitement of coming across the first of the Great Lakes of Kashmir, Vishnusar, late in the evening.
As per the elevation chart of the trek, today we have a tough climb during the first few hours before we cross the Nichani pass. There is a chill in the air and the breathing starts getting heavier for all us with every feet of climb in the altitude but the soothing green meadows and the friendly banter between the trekkers getting to know each other keeps us going.
We reach Nichnai pass a couple of hours later and I find myself lost in thoughts of Winterfell and the House of Stark. I guess the jagged mountain peaks up ahead in the horizon nudged my thoughts towards the ongoing fictional drama in the fantasy book series I was hooked into just before I began the trek. However, it takes just one look at the ground below to yank me out of the fantasy land and bring me back to the reality which right now was as beautiful as any fantasy land. The ground was bursting with an amazing range of blooming wild flowers that stretched for miles together.
After crossing the Nichnai pass we seemed to have arrived in Kashmir’s own Valley of Flowers. Flowers of myriad designs, colors and dancing rhythm (yes, some were actually dancing with the wind). I go on a mad shooting spree trying to capture heaven…but in vain. No camera could have actually grasped the magic of that moment. The enchanting wonderland had to be seen to be believed. However, Sunitha (yup! the same stubborn lady from Mumbai who was still lugging on her heavy camera backpack despite the leg cramps) joins me in this futile quest as we try keeping those moments alive by shooting them down a hundred times over (as paradoxical as that sounds).
The rest of the gang carry on ahead towards the campsite and it is left to our trek leader, Amit, to once again drag us out from the spell that the land had cast on us. However, the spell seemed to be contagious as after a few minutes’ walk down the meadows, even he takes out his camera and lies prostrate on the ground trying to capture the moves of a dancing flower that had caught his eye.
We pass through the streams of sparkling water fed by the melting glaciers from the mountain peaks that surrounded this garden of wild flowers. It had been warned to us that since we were climbing quite a steep height today, the dreaded AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) might afflict some of us but the day passed without any incidents. Everyone seemed to have been put under a spell by the unbelievable landscape that spread beyond us. We reach our campsite around three in the afternoon and after a quick lunch we head towards Vishnusar Lake. The campsite was beside a mountain stream that gushed past a vast green meadowland and Vishnusar Lake was almost a mile away at the other side of the river bank.
For the second time of the day my breath was taken away by the sight that greeted us when we reached the lake. That’s one of the other things of trekking in the Himalayas – you tend to get breathless two times over. At first the hike through the difficult terrain taxes your body and leaves you breathless and secondly, your breath is constantly taken away by the incredible landscapes that greet your eyes. Considering the fact that we were all coming from the concrete jungle of the cities, we better get prepared to get breathless multiple times over.
We sit by the side of the lake, hypnotized and mesmerized (and yes breathless!). It seemed Nisha was the first one to come out of the trance when she got up and started hovering around. But we were proved wrong a few moments later when she jumped right into the lake and swam across a good 20 meters towards a boulder in the middle of the lake. She wasn’t out of the trance she had dived right into it!
The girls in the gang were putting the boys to shame by letting go of their inhibitions and embracing the beautiful moments head-on in the spirit of adventure.
I decide to take a walk around the lake and see if I can get a good panoramic shot of the landscape. I realized that I would have to get to good height if I wanted to capture the entire lake and up ahead in the distance the slopes of the hill that surrounded the lake seemed to be a good spot. Sunitha, who by now has become my Pardner in Crime decides to join me. We inform the rest of the gang that we would be back after an hour or so after taking a few shots from up the hill and head out bouldering across the side of the lake. A big lesson that I keep learning (and forgetting!) everytime I am in the Himalayas is that the objects/targets that you view in an enchanted state while in the high mountains are atleast three times away than what they appear to the naked eye. So if you look ahead and think you can reach a place in one hour, make that atleast three hours. Similarly a target that seems a day’s hike away is usually three days away.
Needless to say, it takes us almost an hour and half just to reach the spot that we had envisioned for taking a panoramic shot of the lake. A strenuous hike where we cross multiple streams that carry and feed the water into the lake from the melting glaciers sorrounding the lake. Our pace slows down when we have to pause every few meters and build bridges (by pulling out rocks lying beside the streams) to create a walking/jumping path across the water channel. By time we reach the spot for the photo shot we are exhausted and our shoes are dripping wet after having encountered quite a few falls while trying to navigate the streams.
The third time of the day that my breath is taken away!!! (At this rate, by the end of the trek, my lungs would have probably grown to twice its size trying to play catch up, what with the breathlessness that I had been subjecting it to.)
Was it worth such an effort and risk just to capture this one panoramic moment?
The thrill of watching the pristine waters of the Vishnusar amidst the solitude of the mountains was worth more than a thousand falls, I would say. Unfortunately words or even pictures fail to capture or do justice to the beauty of such breathtaking moments.
By the time we finish taking the pictures it’s almost six in the evening and with dusk setting in the temperature also starts dropping rapidly. We realize that we had to scramble back to the camp as soon as possible or risk having our wet feet frozen in the cold. However, scrambling down the hill especially when your feet has gotten wet and numb turns out to be an almost impossible task and after a quick session of brainstorming we decide to walk across the hill instead of going back the same way we came up. We are also hoping to cut some distance and reach the camp faster, if we are able to hike across the slope instead of going down and around the lake.
Easier said than done! The higher slopes of the hill also had larger set of boulders. From scrambling down slippery rocks we were now climbing up and climbing down…climbing up and climbing down….those huge boulders. The new strategy after that session of brainstorming wasn’t such a good one after all as half hour past we were just 20 meters away from where we had started. We ditched the strategy, perhaps realizing that common sense (and not some brainstormed strategy) was the need of the hour and decide to go back and follow the same trail we had taken while coming up here. It would mean risking a few more slips and falls in the water but getting back to the camp wet, cold (and hungry!) seemed like a much better option than having to freeze to death out in the open.
Going down was made even more difficult now with the fading light and a body that had endured an almost 10 hours of punishing trek throughout the day. To add to the worry, Sunitha now insists on carrying her camera backpack herself! (It had taken quite a lot of convincing but she had finally relented to let me carry it for her a few moments ago when we were scrambling up the hill). She straps it tightly on her back and goes out following a simple but effective method, since our shoes were already hopelessly wet, there was no point in trying to build bridges once again while crossing the deeper ends of the streams. So there we went, splashing and wading through the cold water which at times was almost up to our knees.
We reach the side of the lake within a few minutes and come across Altaf, our local trekking guide hired by Indiahikes for the course of the trek, who had earlier in the evening run across the boulders and gone to the other side of the lake to enjoy his own special moment of skinny dipping in the lake. He had thoughtfully stayed back to wait for us (for her?) by the side of the lake just in case we got into trouble. He looks at Sunitha and smiles shyly saying he would have come looking out for us (for her?) up the hill if we had not made it back before dark. He gallantly offers to carry her camera backpack but no prizes for guessing what her answer was.
We arrive back at the camp with soaking wet feet and an exhausted mind and body but the sight of the warm tents and the delicious smell wafting through the air from the kitchen tent lifts up our spirit in flash. It looks like there is something different being cooked in our kitchen tent today or was it just my hunger playing tricks with my mind.
Whilst we were going through our lil adventure, it seems that the rest of the girls from the gang had befriended the local shepherd family who were staying in a tent not very far from our camping site. When the two of us were wading through the cold water and shivering in the cold they were sipping on the hot and stimulating Kahwa served by their friendly hosts. But looks like we didn’t miss out on all the goodies as they had managed to buy some fresh trouts from the family (so it wasn’t my imagination gone haywire, something was indeed fishy about the smell from the kitchen) and also some precious wood for a campfire later in the night. Like I said earlier, I had my inhibitions before the start of the trek as I had never trekked before with an organized group but boy! trekking in the Himalayas seems to carry a different charm altogether when you are in the company of crazy yet enterprising and resourceful ladies.
After the surprise and delectable feast of rice and machar jhol for dinner (and who could have prepared it better than the Bong gal of the gang, Aditi) we warm ourselves by the campfire and talk about the amazing day that had gone by. However, the exhaustion after the strenuous hike of the day gets to the trekkers and one after another, folks slowly retire for the night but looks like my buddy Sunitha and me have one more adventure laid out for us before we could call it a day – to dry out our wet shoes in the campfire!
Altaf had gone out of his way to help folks throughout the entire day when they had trouble crossing streams or negotiating a tough climb (and not to forget, escorting back lost trekkers) and after such a tough day at work one would have expected him to also hit the sack early but even he wasn’t done for the day. He strongly insists and takes over the shoe baking process from Sunitha (he calls her Suni now) and regales us with his nuggets of insight while talking about Kashmir, the people, the mountains and the unique culture.
It’s almost 11 at night now and the fire has burned down to its last embers but looks like tomorrow we will have to endure hiking with wet shoes as despite the long baking process over the campfire, the inner soles of the shoes were still wet.