I stood atop Ramii Datch, a ridgetop cairn-dotted crossing, taking in the sweeping views of the large and brilliantly blue Tarsar Lake below. The landscape and scope of the lake was unlike anything I had witnessed in the rest of my Himalayan treks. Sheep grazed languidly along its grassy upper slopes and a deafening silence resounded as the almond-shaped lake sat mirror-like, without a ripple. The alpine lake was mesmerising, surrounded by dramatically sloped ridges descending to the lakeshore below and gullies sneaking up with remnants of glacial ice that had fed the lake over ages.
It was just the second day of our four-day hike and I was already touching close to 4,000 metres at this ridge, also the highest point in our trek. On the other side of the ridge at a short distance shimmered the edge of Marsar, another lake similar in magnitude and beauty. Numerous conversations with Sayyed Tahir, our immensely knowledgeable lead guide, and Mohammed Adil, who ran Cliffhangers India (our local and throughly professionsal trekking agency), brought the region alive as a veritable lake district with some interesting and better variations to the trek we were undertaking. To be fair our consideration had been more driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and a vague idea of a quick trek.
On the double to camp two
We had come up from Shekwas, a beautiful campsite at the junction of three valleys with shepherd camps dotting the surrounding hills and streams running on two sides of a beautiful grassy flat. The first day had been a nine-hour long yet spectacular climb as we clambered up from the postcard pretty village of Aru, through dense forests of pine and cedars to lunch at the rolling green meadows of Lidderwat. A post lunch push had got us straight up to Shekwas at 3,300 metres from where a leisurely stroll the following day had got us up to the Tarsar Lake. Led by Tahir, who had by now covered over 60 lakes in Kashmir, the three of us made it to Ramii Datch for the grand views of the lake and beyond. We were in the Zabarwan range, which is a short sub-mountain range that lies between the Pir Panjal and the Greater Himalaya. Our short four-day hike was a traverse over this range that divided the Lidder and Sind valleys, making its way from Anantnag district into Srinagar district, through the rich biodiversity of the Dachigam National Park.
A leap of faith
We were a ragamuffin gang of 12, a diverse group of bankers, one of them was on his very first trek, a spirited lawyer who was also an actor, a deep sea diver and proficient skier (also on her first trek), and a twelve-year-old spunky young girl, Tara (accompanied by her two doting parents) who by the end of the trail would have undertaken her most challenging hike! The rest of us were regulars, always willing to jump on a trekking bandwagon. Besides, my friend Maninder Kohli, who had got this diverse group together had done his due diligence. Mahmoud A. Shah, head of the Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club had given us the assurance that Kashmir was perfectly safe to travel. It then seemed relatively easier to take this leap of faith and venture into the valley which had been silent for almost a year.
Shah later elaborated that in spite of the upheavals the valley had faced, no tourist had been targeted in the region since the infamous kidnapping of some western tourists way back in 1995. An avid trekker himself, Shah had visited over a hundred lakes in Kashmir and a weekend trek was de rigueur for the die-hard mountain lover. “I am addicted to these mountains,” he remarked as he recounted the steps he had taken to bring more locals and youth into the ambit of trekking in the valley. His SundayTreks initiative supported by the tourism department had been a raging success as many signed up for day hikes in the surrounding mountains. In fact, it was refreshing to see so many local trekkers along the way, some of whom had planned a day hike to the lake and back!
Travelling in the times of COVID
As for COVID, the state had a clear policy for tourists and trekkers. A COVID-19 test was mandatory on arrival, the result of which will be declared within an hour. To be doubly safe, we had all undertaken the RT-PCR test in Delhi as well, 72 hours prior to our departure. We were the very first non-state tourists of the season to head for a trek in Kashmir.
Perhaps the only anomaly was the weather, which played truant with incessant rainfall, reducing our already short trek as we reached the Heevan Hotel in Pahalgam. The beautiful all-wood property sat wistfully along the raging Lidder River, fed by streams, waterfalls and glaciers of the upper valley where we were headed. Normally the state receives far less rainfall than other hill stations, with the trekking window extending from mid-June to mid-October.
After soaking in the magnificence of Tarsar Lake, we crossed the ridge into the valley of Zajimarg. The backdrop of the receding lake called for a good photo op and many social media profile shots were knocked off on the protruding ledge near the top. It also served as a great vantage point to view the peaks of Amarnath to the northeast and Muktinath to the south. The descent to the wide open expanses of Zajimarg was short and swift. It was the end of August and the main flowering season behind us, yet a plethora of alpine flowers carpeted the meadows. As we moved northwest towards Sunder Sar, hopping over a boulder gully, Kolahoi—known as Kashmir’s Matterhorn, due to its striking resemblance—came into full view. It had been playing hide and seek through clouds since Tarsar. Now looking at it in all its majesty with its sweeping sheer granite walls was breathtaking. Our other guide Tauseef had been on several expeditions and had scaled it a couple of times.
We were now officially in the Sindh valley. The lake’s calm waters lapped gently across its periphery and I just sat for a while to soak in the energy.
The Sindh Valley
In the grip of a white out we made the descent from Sonmus Pass into the Sonmasti Valley below where our last camp of the trek lay. We reached the Gujjar village camp by early evening where refreshments and a cheery camp instructor awaited us. We recapped our experience that evening with glowing tribute to the fabulous local team from Cliffhangers India who guided us throughout. The following morning I paid a visit to the summer settlement of Bakarwals from Sambal as they welcomed me into their thatched roof tenements.
Our last day was nothing less than a rollercoaster ride. Amid heavy rainfall we made the descent to Sambal in the Sindh valley, navigating rivers of mud and sludge a result of the incessant downpour. Slipping and sliding, we made our way through the numerous log bridge crossings under which ran feisty torrents. It was a meditative four hours where our eyes scarcely left the ground. The surrounding aged conifers stood witness to our awkward trespassing.
We had an early evening flight to catch but lunch awaited us at a houseboat on Nagin Lake organised by the affable Mr Shah, which we didn’t want to miss. So Tariq, our driver in true Bond style, deftly swerved his Innova like a sports car with narrow misses and thankfully no hits, through crowded lanes, all for a sampling of Kashmiri wazwan.
Paradise had just opened its doors and I had but sampled only one picturesque valley. Future visits were a given and the next trek already planned for. The flight took off leaving the valley veiled in clouds far below. I too sank into a reverie, reminiscing, in detail, the wilderness of Kashmir and the mesmerising turquoise depths of Tarsar. It didn’t last for long though as a polite nudge from the air hostess reminded me to don the mandatory face shield and mask. While the death stares from my co-passengers didn’t help me much, I honestly believe I should have been let off the hook, for it was the serenity of Kashmir that made me forget the unusual times we were living in and provided the most ideal escape.
Nearest airport: Srinagar (89kms, 2 hours to Pahalgam)
Take a shared cab from Pahalgam to aru, the base camp. Cabs are frequent to Aru and easy to get to.
What to eat
Be prepared to be greeted with almond- laced kahwa and noon chai.
Meat lovers must not miss the tabak maas, laal maas and gushtaba.
Vegetarians can indulge in delicacies like dum aloo, nadru yakhni, haak and modur pulav.
20kms from Srinagar on NH1A, enroute to Pahalgam lies the village of Lethpora, Kashmir’s main saffron cultivation region. Pick up saffron from the numerous shops that line the highway for just Rs 250 per gram.
>>Duration 7 days
>>Ideal for both beginners and seasoned trekkers
>>The best time to visit is mid-June to Sept
>>Book your trek with Cliffhangers india
Where to stay
Head to Hotel Heevan near Lidder river in Pahalgam. The property features well-equipped cottages, deluxe suites and deluxe rooms. Enjoy a steaming cup of kahwa at Abhsaar, the coffee shop or authentic Kashmiri fare at Dilkusha, the fine-dining restaurant.