It’s 6:30 am and there, I am done with my customary 50 push-ups to start the first trekking day of my journey.
I am excited but a little nervous too. I had trained rigorously the past six months to live this dream of trekking and backpacking across the mountains. The rule I had set for myself was simple ‘I will keep walking till my mind and/or body stops asking for an encore (or till my wallet says ‘Dude, you got no more!’). Apart from these two conditions, I wanted nothing else to stop me, least of all physical inability! I felt fitter than ever before but was I fit enough to withstand months of trekking and backpacking? I guess I will know that for sure only in the coming days, weeks or the months ahead.
I shrug off these nervous thoughts and go about packing our sleeping bags. Have to hurry as breakfast would be served in half an hour and we would start the trek shortly after.
Today, our trekking route would take us past the meadows of a shepherd village called Shekdur and then to our camping site for the day, a valley called Nichnai.
The start is as steep as it gets!
But as I reach the top of the hill I get the first glance of the green and expansive running meadows of Sonamarg. A breath-taking sight of the kind that makes you forget the sweat trickling down your brow and smile looking up to the skies. As the golden hues of the early morning sun caress the countryside, life starts waking up lazily around us. The blades of grass start dancing in rhythm with the cool breeze and in the horizon the mountains that surround the Sonamarg valley, start glistening with the warmth of the sun nudging it awake from its slumber.
It’s a mesmerizing sight! No wonder they call it the Meadow of Gold.
The vast openness of the meadows captivates us awhile and Amit, our Trek leader from Indiahikes, has to coerce us to pick up pace lest we get left too far behind from the gang who had already made their way past the meadows. Our excitement of the first hour of the trek amuses him and makes him remark ‘You guys have seen nothing yet. Wait till you get to the lakes!’.
We yank ourselves out from our enchanted state of mind and start following that path that descends at first and then slowly starts its meandering climb up towards a forest of maple and pine trees. Once we cross the ridge, the trail skirts down and leads us to the meadows of Shekdur village. It is here that we meet a few local shepherds and their families. Despite its popularity amongst the tourists visiting Kashmir, Sonamarg boasts of a population of just 392 inhabitants (as per the 2011 census of India)
The dispersed groups of trekkers come together once again at this village and we extend our short break to a long one, taking in the sights of the meadows that surround us.
The meadows of Sonamarg are like a vast green canvas in which the cattle herds and the sparse trees are painted in a picture postcard setting.
As we follow the trail, the sparse maple and birch trees are replaced with the Himalayan birch trees. Known as Bhoj Patra in Hindi, it is in the distinctive silver barks of these trees, that scriptures were written in ancient India.
As the trail skirts around small brooks and rivulets, where we refill our water bottles, we leave the trees behind and the landscape changes its attire. We will be missing the trees for the next 4 days of the trek as we climb higher in altitude.
We follow the river upstream and the terrain starts getting a little rough and some of us get to experience the first travails of our trek. Fellow trekker, Aditi misses a step while crossing the river and gets to experience the first dip in the ‘refreshing’ waters of the mountain brook. Sunitha, pulls a muscle on her leg but decides to soldier on with her heavy camera backpack still hugged on to her back saying she can’t risk damaging the camera lenses and the tripod by giving her backpack to be carried by the mules. You need to think again if you carry a prejudice that Indian women lack a spirit for adventure!
This brief period of ‘bouldering’, however bonds us together. Till a day ago we were strangers hailing from various regions of India but in a trek it doesn’t take long for you to meet interesting people and make new friends.
As the day passes by, jokes and laughter flows through the group and gets interrupted only by our winces and grimaces as the hike jostles our body awake from its city slumber.
We reach the camp site of Nichanai in the afternoon, ravenous enough to go hunting if lunch would not have been served shortly.