My Great Lakes experience

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The Great Lakes trek – Blog

Text: Muhammed Yahya Virani
Photography: Leena & Jayesh Desai, Varsha Mehta, Narayan & Namrata Chougle

It began as a distant dream to accomplish one of the longest and best trekking route in India-“The Great Lakes”. Gathering inspiration from those who had been here, reading from past travellers’ experiences seemed it’s gonna be one magical trek for sure. But the ground reality was different this time around in Kashmir. All the assurance about the political situation in Kashmir was needed, safety of each of us was always a priority. Most of you by now would be quite aware about it even before reading this blog about the Great Lakes trek. Travelling by Swaraj express from Bandra Terminus at 08:20 right up till Jammu Tavi was itself a very happy feeling. Visiting Kashmir again, after been there in April at Pahelgam, means back in Jannat on earth in less than 100 days – WOW. After halting in Jammu for the night I took the Jammu – Srinagar flight as I was not sure if the roads would be open or which direction was the convoy (tariff direction) going. As of what I had heard and known about the tensions prevailing it was better not to take any chances. The distance between Jammu and Srinagar was the shortest that I ever flew in my life. It took just 25 mins. Getting in and out of the airport took twice the time – phew! Briefly after the take-off, our Captain switched on the mic, wished everyone a very good afternoon and informed us that, at 2 nautical miles, we could see the Amarnath shrine. Everyone on board got excited to get the aerial view and seek blessings. This unique experience of the pilot being my tour guide will always stay in my heart for a long time. Special thanks the #GoIndiGO airlines.

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Day: 1
At Srinagar airport it was business as usual- lots of army personnel, BSF vans; less people though. For some reason I had already my mind to walk out of Srinagar airport with a 60 litres green haversack ALIVE. Little did I know (cared less) that there was a curfew imposed and hence everyone was supposed to stay indoors. After all in Mumbai when auto rickshaws and taxi union decide to go on a strike, it’s like a curfew that has hit every Mumbaikar (No offence to any person living or dead / or to any group). After walking for about 20 minutes, I reached a crossroad where I gained insights that my padyatra till Srinagar city will be for 12 km. The reason for me to travel from Mumbai to Jammu was a trek. And my adventure spirits were already activated like a butterfly in the Mughal garden (Jammu) hopping from one rose to another. I continued to walk only to be pickup by our local guide in private car after a short distance. The participants for the Great Lakes trek from ChalNikalPade had assembled in Srinagar and based on the travel advisory, we left our hotel after 21:00 post an early dinner. The plan was to drive till Naranag, pick up our supplies and start trekking the next morning. Our journey of approx. 50 km from Srinagar to Naranag was different. As some stone pelting was reported, we had to be extra cautious to avoid the windscreen of the car being smashed by some random stone throwing at us. The route was via old Srinagar hence BSF and Indian army forces were seen on the road. A special mention here is of our drive over a bridge on which the BSF jawan had asked us to drive 200 meters without headlights ;). Even in the darkness I could feel one army personnel at every 25 meters. Jammu being in a very politically sensitive zone, it is recommended to carry your original photo – address ID card at all times. Our night halt was at a homestay (those who have trekked in the Sahyadri know what it means), this is where the sleeping bags were assigned. This is where we learnt that sleeping in a sleeping bag is an art worth learning especially for high altitude treks in the Himalayas mountain range.

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Day 2:
Naranag (2275 metres) to Trunkhol Meadow (3,400 metres).
Early start of the day was with a picture-perfect view from the windows of our home stay with pine trees, snow clad mountain peaks and squirrels hopping around, that seemed magical. Post breakfast considering omelette and cornflakes with tea being replaced with traditional Kawa, we set off to visit the local Naranag temple complex. This complex is now protected by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and belongs to 4th century era. Though most of the structure is now in ruins, there are efforts undertaken to restore and save the remains of the temple by covering the roof with tin sheets and keeping the vicinity clean. We came back to pick up our day packs and started trekking #TheGreatLakes as our non-essential items, ration, tents, kitchen was already loaded on horses to be carried. A steep climb for day one, with the average age of our group being 50 years was a welcome challenge. Zigzag was the only way up, slowly inch by inch we moved. At halfway, we stopped at ‘Kidemat’ a small makeshift mountain tea stall. Lunch was maggie noodles and some traditional puri with Kawa. We reached here after about 5 hours of trekking. Refilling our water bottles topped up with Tang (orange flavour), we moved on to complete the trek for day one. Our night halt was at the forest cabin, sleeping in a sleeping bag.

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Day 3: Gangbal Valley (3,572 metres).
Starting early in the morning for the shortest day of #theGreatLakes trek had its own fun. The trek was from Trukol base to #Nandansar Lake which lies on the foot of Mount Harmukh. Our first lake view of this beautiful trek was approximately after 5 km for that day. The glacial waters drain from Gangbal Lake and Northern glaciers of Mount Harmukh and enters Nandansar Lake. Post lunch we visited #Gangbal lake for selfies and some chilled river-crossing experience. We pitched the red, green and black tent for our night stay. The night sky was clear with just a million stars that could be counted till sunrise. The night experience when we are high on the mountains, near the flowing river even one solar battery tent light seems magical.

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Day 4: Satsar Valley (3,764 metres).
There was no network but we connected better. The view of sunrise at Mount Harmukh cannot be explained in words you need to experience it in this life time. Folding our tents-red, green, black and the chequered kitchen tent, we started to trek once again on a bright sunny day. The trek route was a mixed terrain, walking on stony paths, meadows with steep ascends and scenic as usual. We crossed seven lakes collectively called as ‘#Satsar’. Our cook served pulav rice and green apples for lunch. Our venue for lunch had an awesome view with a small stream flowing-by and a billion small 5 petal yellow flowers nearby. Here, we came upon our first army check post of this trek. While we are waiting for clearance from the Indian army to proceed further with our trek, I saw Leena share Pure Magic biscuits with the army jawans (which they gracefully accepted). The Karakoram range is visible from the army check post. Continuing our trek from the army check post, we soon came upon a stream whose water entered a well called ‘Dukta Pani’ (water of pain) only to disappear in the earth. Legends say that the water resurfaces in Pakistan (unverified). Later in the evening we visited another lake close to our campsite called ‘Yamsar’. For me, this was the most beautiful lake of the trip; small, half the size of a football field yet beautiful.

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Day 5:  Gadsar (3,586 metres) valley.
Our day started with another steep ascend much awaited by the young-at-heart trekkers. We crossed the less scary single bali bridge again, as we had crossed it the day before to get to our campsite (will share some beautiful pics of this live action too). With Jayesh Desai leading us, we were stopped by a loud screeching call from the wild in the mountain high above us. This was my first encounter with the Himalayan Marmot (see photo).

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After photographing the Marmot (which of course were not selfies) we restarted our long trek for the day. We were all suddenly under attack. With no sign or warning call, a flock of INCOMING 1000+ sheep started running towards us. (No reasons for me to guess why or what was happening as I do not speak the ‘Sheep’ language. Video already uploaded on YouTube for your reference). We surrendered without a fight. Soon one of the local shepherd came to our rescue like an angel in disguise. Our trek day would not end without a step ascend and this was challenging with rain and cold winds that blows at such high altitude trekking routes. With wet shoes, ponchos, and 32GB space in my camera it’s never gonna be enough. By now we had not just acclimatized but started growing in our desire to capture this beautiful moment to cherish it for a long time. The funda was simple – steeper ascend is deeper descend.

Descend that day was simply mind blowing and superb. Just before the campsite we had to climb down a snow wall at 40 degree. This becomes all the more challenging without Koflach (ice boots) and crampons. My suggestion to the team was to descend very slowly banging your heels in the ice. We came upon the second Indian army post on #thegreatlakes trek. Followed by the usual investigation and standard operating procedures of the army had by then been nothing difficult.

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Day 6 Kishensar Valley (3,844 metres) – Nichnai/Table Top (3,475 metres).
We started the day a little behind schedule as it had rained in the night and early morning too. Standard operating procedure was to fold the red, green, black tent and then start trekking. After steep climbing, we got the best view of #Kisansar and #Vishnusar which was like the gods had reserved the best lake view for the last. The image will stay in my mind for a very long, long time. With a small rock like the one that is seen at Burhanpur ghats (folk tales say that Ashwatthama bathes on it) opposite the Shia Qila. Visit Burhanpur to know more.

It’s still a 30 minute trek downhill to the campsite from here. Crossing the river one more time, water still being icy cold, I encountered a flock of 1000+ sheep again. But this time they just stood unmoved. Was I looking scaring to them or were they intimidating me, I will never know. I stood still and using my hands asked this big brown sheep that seemed to be their leader “This way please” and everyone just obeyed. It seem hilarious that I do not speak the ‘Sheep’ language but the leader of the sheep clan speaks and understands English. With all the convincing and expertise, Narayan Chougle managed to get the nomads make for him and Namrata Chougle the wild vegetable of the meadows for dinner plus some river fish fried for breakfast. Though, most of the trip designed more of a VEG menu, I tasted river fish for the first time in my life, a treat that I deserved after trekking till here I guess.

With the trek coming to end and being super charged with excitement I do not remember we had lunch today. Ascend of the day came very quickly after crossing yet another stream of icy cold water. We had to remove our shoes as the water was knee deep. A good four hour steep climb for a view that takes your breath away is worth every paisa. This is where we cross the Nichnai pass, the last high altitude pass for this trek, from where the long descend starts once again. To reach our campsite called ‘Table top’ was the next best known challenge. The descend was never ending for me as I met a few hundred of sheep, cows, goats and kota (houses used by high mountain nomads) on the way down. Our last campsite was pitched near a village who had very passionate children playing cricket. After having kawa to my heart’s content I walked with a blue ‘Frisbee’ and introduced the kids to a new game.

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Day 7: Sonamarg (2692 metres)
Last day of this awesome trek was standing at the door of my green tent, not wanting to come out as missing the mountains is like missing a heartbeat for me. But like all good things come to an end I dragged my feet with a heavy heart to follow Standard Operating Procedure to fold the red, green, black tent and then start trekking. On reaching the road head, to my delight, I met Rai sir, Mehfooz sir, Shazeeya mam and others from Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering as they were returning from the rock craft practice and going to the camp at Thajiwas for lunch. This was the best icing to the cake for successfully completing the #theGreatLakes trek with that ended in Sonamarg.

Learnings for those who came in late: An old jungle saying Pathom comics.
There are multiple streams to cross on this trek.
Your shoes will get wet
Carry a good rain wear at all times
Have plenty of water.

The Great Lakes Highlights: #TheGreatLakes #GreatLakesTrek #ChalNikalPade #Srinagar #Kashmir #Trekking #Sonamarg #JIM #JIM&WS #JawaharInstitueofMountainerring #tent #Lakes #India #meadows Balibridge #rivercrossing

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