Setting afoot for exploring the unknown Himalayas always tickles the adventurous me that lay in my inner recesses for long. A wee bit skeptical that was I from the pictures of the places in the website as I never dared to trek apart from my comfort zone. I was little apprehensive too as I might be left alone in the group of 40s. Trekking I thought to be a domain of the youngsters and for a daring first timer, it might be a tad too late if one crosses 40. A first time trekker going for a hard core trekking and hiking at the altitude of 13.5 thousand feet, covering a distance of 70 km in 7nights 8days might be bit too ambitious. Then there were the uncertainties of gelling with 25 unknown people and apprehensions of adjusting to lot many probable first time experiences including chances of shunning the civilised habits.
But the excitement was a plenty. I knew once I took my best foot forward, there was no looking back and sharing space with 25 unknown people would be a challenge of an extended Big Boss in Nature. And most importantly, there is no end to begin anything in our life and who knows, this might be the beginning that doesn’t know any end! And it did begin on 12th of July.
When our Qualis parked beside the lodge of Srinagar three members hopped in. One of them with caps on and a stubble of maintained carelessness sat beside me and was the most vocal of all. He, a software engineer, had trekking experience before but not in the Himalayas. He was coming with two of his friends here and post-trekking had a plan of going to Ladakh from Srinagar. Wowing indeed. Naturally i got a partner to express my eternal sadness of never making up to Ladakh however close I reached. The second boy, little soft spoken and grave, sat in the front seat. He was chipping in occasionally and he had several trekking experiences at his back. And the third one was a girl, like a runaway damsel having a devil-may-care attitude. She entered and fumed at the back of the car fretting about the ‘lousy city’ having no coffee shop at all and soon lay down on the seat crouching dangerously as our car took the spiralled roadways to Sonamarg. The Kashmir-Leh highway beside the roaring Jhelum was the gateway to heaven. As the driver was speeding upwards, the scenes outside were receding fast as we were moving into the realm which all of us were visualising for days.
We were to trek, as they say, ‘walk’ for half a km from the place, and some 3 km away from Sonamarg town. We five, Parth, the software man, Yash, the businessman and Disha, Saswati’s tent partner for the next seven days, put our backpacks on and walked slowly and silently catching the attention of inquisitive villagers’ eyes. The orange camps were visible soon and a beaming group of IH boys greeted us with tea and pakoras. Initial formalities done, we were to wait for our other members as they were coming from a different route. Sun is too lazy to set there giving us enough scopes to while around and take snaps of the picturesque Sonamarg and the peaks around. When the fading dusk gave way to the full moon, the twinkling Sonamarg from the distance showed the promise of the next seven days that was going to change our lives for ever.
It was going back to the hostel days once more as guys and girls had to put up in separate camps and I was placed with Ravi, a soft-spoken disciplinarian and my ‘watch’ for the next seven days , a man from Bangalore and the poet-singer Suyash from Mumbai. We had to wait for the day to break in to see the faces of our partners as last night when they came and joined us in the campside we could only see the faint silhouette of them in the flooding moonlight. Ashish Pathania, a first time leader in Kashmir though having several experience of trekking and leading elsewhere in the Himalayas at his disposal, briefed us and we got introduced to one another. Now several of my preconceptions got cleared up. They are like—
1. We are not just the two first time trekkers and in fact most of them were so.
2. It is going to be a tension free, do-whatever-you-feel-like type careless abandon, under the watchful eyes of Javaid the guide and Ashish, the patch leader and a host of fantastic troupe of helpers from the team IH.
3. I was not the eldest of the group. With Kesari Sir at 69(started trekking at the age of 62, when I might prepare myself to take leave from this world itself.) topping the list with several others much senior to me, I could be at peace.
4. You will be what you are not in the days before this trek.
The first day trek could be divided in three segregated chapters. As we notched the point where taking khewa and hot noodles from the last shop for next seven days, we bid adieu to the distant sights of Sonamarg. I never found green to be so resplendent. The tall silver birch trees, the ferns at the corners and the grassy undulating meadows had all the shades of greens in them. Souvik, my NRB(Non resident Bengalee) friend from Bangalore was going through a déjà vu as he had been here after an aborted first attempt last year, was through the huge barks of those birch trees searching for some birds in his tele. Dipanjan and Niladri, experienced comrades from my city gave me chances to converse in my mother tongue where Dipanjan was recollecting his Goechala trek visits some time back. It was pleasing as tall shades of the intermittent trees held relieving shadows in vast sunny valleys. The second phase of the trek was little rocky and we faced snow for the first time. And it was the from that time itself, to quote the dynamic Raghu Sir, the senior dentist from Bangalore, “Ashis I think you have gone back to your childhood days”, I started sliding and falling repeatedly on snows. There were tall trees no more and we started treading just beside the mountain streams. These streams are formed of fast melting glaciers. Trekkers who came before us must have found more snows and trekkers to follow will find more waters in the streams. From October these regions will go under thick wrapper of snows making the place inaccessible even to the shepherds and local villagers. For the next seven days we got the most purified water of our life. We were instructed to take a litre of water before starring everyday’s trek with little sips of water during the day. We sipped in pretty faster to do what we have seen in the films and clips. We held the water downstream and filled the bottles. No mineral water of the world could produce such thirst quenching taste as the stream water had. Who can forget Dipankar perched inside a rock that was acting like a shade over his head and placing his packed lunch of paratha-sabzi-pickle on the most exotic rocky dining table beside the flowing stream!
The third phase of the first day trek was a prolonged one hopping over the big boulders. It seemed to be unending since our helpers kept on urging us to move despite the gradual giving in of the exhausted limbs. Voices of discontent were murmuring around as the first day trek should have been curtailed. Intervals of taking rest became more frequent, huffing and puffing, stooping on the trekking poles became more audible and even the daypack on the unaccustomed shoulder appeared to have put on extra loads. Imtiaz, Saswati’s saviour for the entire trekking days, kept on pointing his fingers at a distant somewhere as we kept asking ‘how far’ in every alternate second. We could afford to stand for some seconds taking deep breathing without letting our back to rest on the alluring stones. But when the distant orange tents peeped out from undiscovered twist of a rocky route, all voices of discontent were gone. Smiles ,gradually getting broader into a toothy grin, came back and we reached one of the most fascinating camp side beside the mountain stream at the valley donned with millions of brown heads of grazing sheep. In came the soup with noodles and a glass of black tea specially arranged for me by Imtiaz. Hitting the sacks inside the camp was just a matter of time. A brief chat with my tent partners and finally closing the eyelids in the lap of nature.
Though we had a long day trek gaining nearly 3000 ft, the new day dawned with no trail of tiredness. Imti’s special black tea for me was as good as a nectar. Breakfast done, we were all set for a hard day’s trek. A trek from Nichnai to Vishansar was memorable for two reasons or rather for two different phases of our trek. Men from the plains have an uncanny fascination for snow peaks or treading on a snow covered ground. I was no exception and one of the first questions that I asked to whoever had any idea was ,” will we get snow there?”. Javaid, the guide from Sonamarg and the man who led other groups before joining our team assured that snow will be aplenty from day 3 onwards. We had the cup of our excitement filled to the brim when we saw vast stretches of snow lying ahead of us as we took an upward left turn crossing the glittering stream beside our camp side. A few hours upward and we got to see the first lake. Nestled amid the rugged ridges the aerial view of the lake appeared to have the distinct semblance with the political map of India. Strange isn’t it! The greenish blue water of the lake simply amazed me! A nature’s handiwork to create an India in the remote and mostly untrodden terrain of Kashmir! Crossing Nichnai pass was fun. By the time I got adjusted to falling on the snow and now instead of trusting my foot, i let myself skidded on the snowy pathway from the top of hills down to its base. Slip sliding away amid screams of joyous yell. Ice capped ranges that always lured me from an inaccessible distance became my bed and the peaks around lie at almost hand shaking distance. Only a thin dark muddy strip made of the trailing footsteps was visible amid the entire landscape of snow. And at our feet was the yellow season flowers appeared too tender to be trodden. I carefully stamped my pole so that not a single petal got broken. Even the tiniest flower seemed to be throbbing with life. These flowers wake up when the ice melts and falls back to sleep once again when sleets of ice cover them up. However transient, they line the way of our trek and keeps intriguing us with the invariable question of the divine hand that nurses and rears them up where only angels dare to tread.
And then the meadows. This trek is pitched as Kashmir ‘meadow’ trek but the meadows come very few and far between. When they come, they simply embrace our souls and soothe our frayed nerves with its vast verdure of summer. At a certain point of our trek we saw the ice capped hills receding at our back. To our right miles and miles of barren hills as we have seen in the pictures of Leh and to our left were very high hills whose peaks are dotted with patches of glacial snow and covered with thick clouds. In front of us vast fields that reached to the distant horizon with only hazy undulations afar. The grazing sheep keep munching grass with tireless rhythm and only a stray sheep kept staring hard at their alien gazers. The choric bleating of the rams and sheep seemed to pronounce their sheer dominance where we, the humans are branded as transgressors. Nothing doing. Often we tend to share a toast of the tranquil glory where these nature’s inhabitants have a permanent claim. The shutterbugs got scattered in an undisciplined wandering to capture the reflection of the peaks in big poodles of water formed by the intermittent glacial streams. But however undisciplined you are, you are never to lose the way. After all you are governed by the Nature’s ever vigilant eyes. Just follow the trail and you would reach your destination without losing the way. We are also like those home bound flocks of sheep who graze around all the day but just follow the leader to reach their abode as the daylight wanes and the goatherd man holds a stick and sweep them home. Visansar lake campsite was another stunner of a campsite. You can see high hills everywhere and listen to the ripples of a gentle stream that flows incessantly over the pebbles. The lake was a few yards away and the excitement of seeing the lake was preserved for the day after. Instead with Yash and Parth I got a chance to run around with a cricket ball thrown to us by any support team member. We were more relieved than the day before as our body had got already acclimatised and most importantly we were getting a day break from trekking. The plains of the campsite gave us a scope to set up a merry playground where we revelled to our hearts out the next day.
The day after was given to revelling. Utilising fully the welcome break from the day-long trekking, I rested my rambling feet beside the fascinating Visansar lake. The vast expanse of Visansar, the colour that keeps changing with the changing lights of the day, will get your eyes transfixed to it. Silence was so musically accentuated by the continuous chirping of grey and yellow birds often found skimming on the gentle ripples of the lake and the humming of the bees. The lake side, dotted with those yellow and purple spikes of flowers was often lined by red-breasted beetles. The sound of peace swooped on the earth. Surrounded by green high hills with crevices cradling trails of glaciers from where thin streams were gliding down into the lake, Vishansar got etched in our soul for permanence.
Camping at Vishansar gave scopes for all the trekkers to become friends. Spirit of revelling reached its acme when we formed teams and all of us had unleashed fun in playing cricket in the most beautiful natural landscape of snow-capped hills. Under the stern eyes of Kesari Sir’s umpiring, two teams of trekkers and IH support staff had the time of their life. It reached a pretty finale with the brief yet touching celebration of Neha’s birthday. Neha,14, was the youngest member of our team. I discovered my tent mate Suyash to be a fellow Ruskin Bond admirer(don’t think Suyash will be getting any better place to read Ruskin Bond than the stone beside the lake where he hung up his trekking shoes and got absorbed in Bond’s kingdom.). The chirpy Disha and her other friends Parth and Yash seemed to have uttered an unpronounced oath of a never ending friendship with me and Saswati. Raghu Sir, the dentist by profession, threw open his doors in Bangalore for any visit at the southern part of our country. Got introduced to Laxman sir, the doctor by profession, who joined our group a day after and showered his affection both to me and Saswati for the rest of our trek. Loved the undying spirit of Vaishali, mother of two, who helplessly return to respond to the call of the mountains again and again, alone, but never lonely. Enjoyed the companionship of fellow friends from our city, Dipankar and Niladri and their wives. Ravi, my other teammate and his wife, Vaisali’s blissful dry fruits and Geeta auntie, the agile elderly lady nearing 60s who kept egging me for writing a blog on our trip. Coming close to all of them, the day at Vishansar Lake, was the high water mark of our seven day trek in the Paradise.
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone. Some times the hard times won’t leave me alone.
Some times the cold winds blow a chill in my bones.
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone.
Trekking towards Gadsar Pass would be something indelible for the wrong reason. Or why wrong, something for which adventurous spirit in us frantically beckon. Ominous clouds were at a distance when we left Vishansar lake. Heard and read many blogs on rains in Kashmir but as long as don’t experience it, it will give you no impression how dangerously beautiful it can be. For the most of the day I had to keep my camera inside the bag as rain never allowed me to dare destroy my lens. But I couldn’t even trust my eyes to record what I saw in my way. When continuous rain made the thin slice of path even thinner and slushy, when I literally crawled on to the mud with my hands as soil under my feet was losing its grip, when a desperate search for someone’s hands made Saswati scream for her life, when thick fog turned the visibility almost zero, I simply had nothing much to ask for than to wait for pass to end and a bend to find something to smile. Remembered to see in a flash the ethereal sight of twin lakes, Vishansar and Kisansar, from the high but didn’t spare a second more because the muddy soil was getting threateningly slippery if i stood anywhere for long. I kept on walking, or rather crawling on my chest in that incessant rain. Once a turn came when I saw my trek mate Yogalaxmi at a distance covered with fog and drenched in rain and none in front of me except Niladri and Madhutrishna, his wife. We were stranded as the path was completely washed away and we were reclining on the edge of the hill. Niladri went ahead to search for anyone at the next bend leaving me with his wife and Saswati. Time passed, nobody came and even Niladri too went out of sight. What made Saswati shriek in agony was the intolerable blisters she was suffering and something happened that had our heart stuck in our mouth. Everyday when we started trekking our horses would carry our offloads and all the equipments for camping. They are the best walker in the mountain roads and whenever they pass by, we just give them a royal treatment by allowing them to pass by. But that day a horse while passing us, slipped his leg and started falling in an irrepressible speed down the edge of the hill. But the man who was in charge of the horse did something incredible. Just as he saw his horse falling down the hill, he almost jumped for his life in that rocky slushy edge to reach the reins of the falling horse. Both of them were falling together and after scratching their bodies against the rocky surface for at least 60/70 feet downwards, the man could hold his beloved carrier. We breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the horse staggering up again and the man behind him also got up to walk afresh. Whatever confidence was left in Saswati, this terrible fall of the horse soaked everything out of her. After an endless wait two messiahs appeared from nowhere. One was Aftab, the leader of another group of trekkers and Imtiaz, our very own. Aftab rushed down from upper ridges and held Saswati’s hands, reassured her by giving his own boots and Imtiaz appeared with his ice axe, digging soil to make roads for us and pulled us from catastrophe. Another episode opened my eyes as who the real heroes of our life are. After managing the deadly pass when we were trekking in a relatively safer zone and light was gradually improving a bit, to our horror, we discovered that Geeta auntie had slipped on the snow and was rapidly falling down the snow covered surface of the hill in an breakneck speed. Shrieks all around and then it was compounded as we saw Javaid bhai throwing his body like a bird onto the snow and started rolling towards Geeta auntie who was uncontrollably heading towards a rock jutting out of the snow. It was a truly filmic stunt when Javaid rolled faster than Geeta auntie and slanted his body to catch the hand of falling lady before she hit the stone. We tried to rush as fast as we could and to our biggest relief found her to be quite all right apart from slight injury on her feet and palm. A smiling Geeta auntie forced us to hail the spirit of this great trekker. And to quote Parth, leader of our fellow IH group, “In mountain there is always someone God send”. Truly, Javaid became the hero of all of us from that day onwards. The more we said about him and Imtiaz, the more it would be less to express our admiration for the real heroes.
Gadsar pass was a sight to cherish for ever. It was 360 degree snow and we were walking through high walls of glacial snows, a thin path made by our leader Javaid and the trailing footsteps. It was raining all the way and I can still see in my mind’s eye the vast Gadsar pass where the trekkers’ body were appearing like small moving dots amid white wrapper of all encompassing snow.Something again which we have seen in films or in National Geography channels. Time and again it was proved that nature has its rewards for those who brave it. When Gadsar lake appeared at a certain bend, wryness on Saswati’s face was replaced with a colour of faith in Almighty and the benevolent nature. Kesari sir and Laxman sir climbed up just behind us and captured the smiling Saswati. Who says she was literally crying for life just an hour back! The still emerald green water of Gadsar lake with big chunks of ice floating on it was a sight to watch out for. It was as good as a sight conjured up in your dreams. It was something for which you can risk your life too. Not many more beautiful scenes you can ever witness in your life, for sure. Smiles came all around and walking till the rest of our journey on that day was much relieving after traversing the most dreadful pass of the entire trek. Thick cloud covered the route like a canopy and when we were greeted by the army men patrolling the check post with warm water, we ultimately realised that perhaps the ordeals have come to an end.
Gadsar pass trek from then had become the benchmark of fear for the rest of the tour. Whenever there was a situation of panic we would think of the trials of the Gadsar pass trek and then everything appeared pale in comparison. However, the camp side was as usually picturesque. It was a valley covered all around by the high hills and there was a neighbouring goatherd’s cottage where we saw a wonderful sight. A lady was nursing one horse and another cub of horse was hovering around with weak legs. We wondered to know that the cub was just a few hours old as it was born the night before. Seeing the light of the earth in this Paradise, the young cub was already on his legs preparing himself to get ready for the battle of survival. Evening set in little early that day and we were all hoping for a clearer sky for our next day trek towards Satsar Lake.
Sun never really peeped through, clouds though not appeared that ominous, never dispersed when we started our next day trek for Satsar sake. With the fresh experience of undergoing the biggest ordeals of passing the highest pass in the most inclement of weather, everything would appear better. As Javaid pointed out the high hill we needed to pass, we found it insurmountable considering the billowing clouds that surrounded it. We put on our ponchos right from the outset of our journey and kept the camera inside from very beginning. The drizzling started soon and we started taking longer and harder steps jumping the beaten track and climbing like a mountaineer. We had to cross the pass fast before the rain got harder and personally I found it exerted the stamina and tested my endurance level to the hilt. We had seen how the muddy strip of pathway receded fast in continuous rain and so we avoided the muddy path and stepped on the grassy land and kept moving upwards instead of taking gradual climb in spiralled paths. I slipped countless numbers of times and whenever panic seemed to settle in, I deliberately brought the image of last day’s trek in that deadly Gadsar and everything became easier. Truly mountain never gives priority to any experienced climber. However experienced you are, on a new day trek, it is as good as a first time trekker. That is what we saw when a multiple times trekker in the Himalayas, Vaisali, felt out of breath and needed immediate attention. I will again remember the camaradie with greatest pleasure when under the direction of Parth, the TL of another IH group, we formed a close ring, a circle around Vaishali. Thus she could breathe easy getting a human shield from the chill that was almost hitting the bones.
Parth gave me company in the last phase of that day’s trek. Saswati got a new hero in him too. Despite advising me not to put on three-quarters(I was wearing the same in the first day), I never saw him without his trademark three quarter and red jumper and the reassuring smile that nothing is insurmountable if you keep on moving. Way is the only way out and one needs to trust on his feet and an unshakable, unwavering positive way of looking at one’s own ability to cross the hurdles. Just don’t think that you can fall and fall you will never. Parth is an excellent singer you know and I particularly loved the lines that he sung within his mind, the quintessential lines of life that Anand Bakshi wrote years before,
“Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jate hain jo makam
Woh phir nahin aate, woh phir nahin aate”.
Parth was narrating in soft voice his travel experiences and echoed our common sentiments that how Kashmiris were the victims of the most unfortunate warfare. Kashmir is the real heaven and why some self-seeking individuals are hell bent in destroying this majestic beauty! Kashmiris are one of the best people we have all met in our life and why they are deprived of the happiness by some alien war mongers! We looked around the rain washed verdure and truly found nothing more beautiful than the all enveloping greenness around the miles and miles of undulations climbing up to the snow capped peaks at the distant horizons. The only true denizens of this Peace were the countless flocks of grazing sheep in these meadows and humans are quite petty know-alls beside them. Our slow steps reached another picturesque campside of Satsar with the threats of rain still looming large all around. I must confess, bit of restlessness was creeping even in me too.
Terror struck at midnight. When you take the terror head on, it often retraces its step. But when the terror looms large unseen, it appears impregnable. We closed our eyelids hoping for a sunny morning the next day but the hope suffered its rudest jolt at midnight. Thunder struck so terrifyingly hard 10thousand odd feet above the sea level that it challenged the most intrepid adventurer. Streaks of lightning ripped the sky and the sound that followed kept on sending shivers. That very sound of rain which would have lulled me to a desired romantic slumber, found me waiting for its cessation with bated breath. But the force of the rain increased in every passing second and all the nightmarish news of cloudbursts and flood that I had read in the newspapers started knocking at the back of my mind. Was keeping my fingers crossed fearing what might be going on in Saswati’s mind as her tent was a few yards away. I was fearing to hear growing murmurs to come when the terrifying trio of rain-thunder-lightning showed no signs to stop. But perhaps everyone one of us buried their ears in the makeshift pillows inside the sleeping bags and chose to wait for the nature god to smile. It did smile at last. After testing our patience and the strength of how fortified we are when we have ventured into the dreadful terrain of nature, it finally flew away to another mountain. The never ending night did end and with beating heart I unzipped the tent to peek outside as the familiar light of the dawn comforted me.
It was not that good a morning as we wished one another. It seemed quieter for the wrong reason. Meeting her eyes I could sense breeding discontent that might take bigger shape if i continue to stretch my adventurous instinct. The hills around us was still dark, parts of the horizon was little clear but the mountain tops remained murky. But the hill that Javaid pointed out for our that day’s route was little clear. Saswati asserted to skip trek to Gangbal and come down straight to Narnag and if needed take a rent of a mule and move all alone. I relayed it to Parth, our temporary trek leader as Ashis was not there. Parth took a second to cancel the plan as reaching Narnag in a day is impossible as there is no short cut. Since the sky wasn’t clearing up we had to make a delayed start. If sky still refused to clear up, we had to call off the day’s trek and would move on for a nearly 16 hour long trek the day after. One thing was made loud and clear that there is no short cut to reach Narnag. Move on as they say in the hills and mountains are the best teacher of life. No matter the sky sulks or smiles , trust your legs and keep on moving.
We kept on taking repeated glance at the mountain tops to see if clouds were moving away. To our relief, it was really clearing up and in the southern part, part of blue sky was also visible. Parth made us mentally strong reminding us of the first phase of the journey being most tiring trek on the rocky mountains. After that it will be a gradual ascent towards the final pass, Zach pass, and then the alluring descent up to our next campside.
Once you start trekking and see all your fellow trekkers come out of their hiding and start taking baby step forward, the trails of fear lurking in you will gradually disappear. And as it was seen time and again, being true to nature has always has a reward. The face of nature changed but only for the better as we kept crossing one after another rocky mountains. Rocks did give us trouble in the first day and personally it was the rocky terrains only that daunted my freewheeling spirit. Then again, that is another persona of a mountain and once you fall in love with mountains, every single facet of her is bound to enamour you. It was atypical of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High or something that i had seen in spaghetti westerns. Tall cliffs, undulating roads through huge boulders and steep to steeper climb. I couldn’t believe my feet when all the initial hesitation and apprehension of the boulder trek vanished in a whisker and not just trekking, we literally hiked on the stones that perched precariously on the hills. One mountain we crossed and we looked back with pleasure and relief as what we passed so effortlessly. Breaks that came in between seemed to be more joyous than those of earlier days. There were frequent group photo sessions, sipping water from whomever you find beside you, a candy to be offered by Geeta auntie or that delectable dry fruits of Vaisali. Most of the time i preferred to be at the back of the line, either to exhort the trailing Saswati (or when Imti or Yash was doing the honours on my behalf encouraging her to pull through with the bait of a bar of Snickers), to stop a while or two more to swallow whatever flooded my eyes. It was an invariable feeling of ,’may be the last time’ and i absorbed myself to watch the rugged mountain with scattered glaciers at my left or the distant snowy peak that peeped through at a certain bent or the tiny creeper that kept tremoring at my steps or a lone purple flower sparkling at the sun-rays sitting at its edges. Not that what more to come but the inescapable feelings of hours of trekking getting gradually and gradually numbered start gripping my mind.
The final ascent towards Zach pass was beautiful. Rocky mountains having been trekked we took a right turn and it was truly a cinematic setting. We were carving our way beside the mountain stream that lay cradled in between two mountain ranges. The path was little slushy with melting glaciers and sunrays were making striped light and shadows all around as cloudlets were settling in patches in near blue sky. Me and Saswati lagged behind for some time. We saw Kesari uncle and some of us walking slowly at the hill we had passed but in front of us there was no one for quite a distance. Tired feet were denying to topple another climb because whenever we thought that might be the final ascent, another loftier hill appeared. So when we could see the distant peak(not exactly a peak but a flat high mountain), we concealed our excitement thinking reaching there we might discover another upward climb. Truly, they are so tantalising and testing at times. When we almost reached the snow covered Zach Pass Imti climbed down and took Saswati’s hands and they two also had gone out of my sight. And lo! Even the last bit of snow left a trail. I slipped a couple of time again and found hard to maintain balance as there was none around. Holding the tension of what i might see at the other end of the hill, i extended my trekking pole a feet more, dug it harder on the snow and pulled my body to see the most beautiful sight of our 7day’s trek. Everyone screamed out to welcome me in their fold. They were sitting scattered on the snow and rocks, all beaming with laughter and relief. There were no more peaks to climb and a vast verdure of undulating greenness lay open in front of my eyes. Only in the far distance stood aloft the mighty Harmukh peak. Just down below were the Gangbal Lake and its twin, Nandkul on whose side our last night’s tent would be set up. The clean blue water of the twin lakes looked mesmeric from the height of 12,700 ft of Zach Pass. In between the distant high hills and the place where we were making merry was miles and miles of vast greenness, a steep downward climb and then a long meadow walk. Javaid and Imti assured us of no more ascents and perhaps that was what made us go broader in our grin.
The downhill journey was again something dissimilar to what we had undergone in last few days. Hills were distant making the valley look much broader. Since you get wide open sky between two distant mountain ranges, floating cloudlets made parts of sun washed valley appear shaded and part of it so vibrant. The twin lakes of Gangbal and Nandkul would accompany you almost till the end of the downward trek. On the extreme left of your way, hazy hues of Alpine forests beckon you frantically as that would be the way for your final day trek towards Narnag. Mind never felt jaded despite the trials, yet, the thought of final day and back to Srinagar was giving a sense of well being as well. Most importantly, the fear of dark cloud seemingly evaporated and dangers appeared to have been a day of the past. When at the day’s end, as usually we two and the ever faithful Imti reached at last, we felt happy, quiet and philosophic. There was a mixed feeling of something coming to an end and also happy feelings of returning. Photo sessions galore, final night of memorable dining together and that ever so touching bonfire with all the support staff and Suyash’s soulful singing. The dark canopy of huge dome above and the flakes of fire streaking out in gale from the burning logs with a whole lot of wayfarers lost in carefree abandon for one last time, singing songs, clapping in harmony and the local guys dancing to the folk tunes. Night sky seemed to be more lustrous with few millions more stars shining above. Then there was thanksgiving, something that came from the bottom of our heart for all the staff and support staff of IH. Words would remain forever incomplete when we remembered Javaid bhai, Imtiaz and Ashish bhai, Parth and Aftab. You people were simply great.
Gangbal to Narnag was a perfect ending to a fairy tale week of our life. The first part of the trek was like grazing through a terrain of Switzerland. But as Souvik remembered, the place is much more beautiful than that of Europe and America as he had firsthand experience of travelling in those much fabled places of the world. Vast green undulations spotted with horses and cows and occasional Kashmiri villagers carrying woods for fuel. Time stood still. A solitary farm house in that vast expanse with the snow capped mountain ranges at the distant horizon cast a spell with its unparalleled beauty. A week after we were back into forest of tall trees. Spiralled pathways through huge alpine forests are more of a familiar Himalayan trek. I have seen sort of this in Himachal Pradesh too. Smiling villagers appeared at the bend of roads more often; toffee seeking kids again come with their incessant yet musical refrain of ‘hello toffee”. Pine fruits lay scattered in the path, the branches of the pine trees bowed down to bid you farewell after passing some of the best days of your life in the mountains. Through the tall stems of the shaded forest, that ice capped mountain range kept looking at me, reminding me of the last seven days when we stayed so close to them but now gradually getting farther away with every single downward stride we were making towards Narnag. We reached a tea stall owned by a local villager, first again after a week and that noodles and delectable khewa were all too invigorating. That the civilised world finally welcomed you back got revealed with the signal bars started appearing in the mobile phones. Listening to the voice of the loved ones back home invariably brought us smiles of happy tidings.
Touching the earth of the plains the first thing I heard was the congratulatory messages from my partners who had reached before. Saw my face after a week in the mirror of the restaurant where all of us flocked. And I hated to see it, trust me. Suddenly in a second I became self conscious of my unkempt look which i could so easily forget in the last seven days. A synthetic sense of exterior beauty leaped in and gave me a disturbing feeling. But, just loved the way my friends and trekkers became an extended family. They filled my heart with all the loving parting words they said. As a token of an indelible memory, I gave away my trekking pole to one of those ‘hello toffee’ kids, much to his delight.
In the last rays of the day the Qualis zoomed through the green fields and the ever flowing Jhelum. Tired eyes drooped with the scattered images of days that we had just left and left forever. Remembered the first day’s journey with me babbling with Parth at my left and slightly sceptical Saswati at my right.(sceptical of course of our future fellow trekkers), Yash sitting in front and speaking as less as possible and Disha was like that runaway lover jumping in the bandwagon. Just a week and we were together sleeping, drooping and dreaming together for may be another week in Paradise in some day, in some point of our life.. And we got another friend, the poetic Suyash, who seemed to have been affected the most when curtain finally fell on our tour. The hug as the wheels of the Scorpio screeched to a halt beside our hotel in Srinagar literally invoked a desire to be again, may be at the other side of the mountains.
I am ending this long drawn travelogue with the ever fresh memories of every single second that I had passed with some of the best people of my life. The face of Imtiaz keeps coming and the lines that Kishore Kumar sang ages back-
Raah pe rahte hain, yaadon pe basar karte hain Khush raho ahal-e-watan, hum to safar karte hain [[We are the nomadic ones, spending our lives on roads and making do with memories Hoping you find your happiness, as we have found our solace in this journey]] Remembering the parting words of Geetha auntie, “Ashis, I will be waiting for your blog”. So here it is for you, Geetha auntie. May be a little late, but finally I could. Bye bye till we meet again..