Trekking in the "Switzerland of India"

Trip Start Jul 13, 2009
Trip End Jul 20, 2010

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Flag of India  , Jammu and Kashmir,
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ever since I knew that trekking was possible in India, on their side of the Himalaya range, I have been enticed to want to explore the Kashmir region.  Trekking guide books advise against the idea of venturing into this area due to the political problems that Kashmir has gone through in the past 20 years.  Everyone we spoke to said this region is entirely beautiful, but they would still advise against traveling solo into the area.  We explored our options and set ourselves up for a 7 day trek into the lakes basin north of the village of Narranag with a local guide and 2 village horsemen.

The mountains we would be venturing into were still the Himalaya range.  Actually this is the end of the long chain of mountains that form the Himalaya before they are cut off by the mighty Karakoram range in Pakistan to the north.  With the foods and gear on horses we were light on our backs with only a lunch and rain gear and a liter of water to hike during the day.  We gained incredible amounts of elevation on the 1st day tirelessly making endless switchbacks to get above treeline and to the first camp.  We finally rounded a bend to expose the high-altitude meadows that would be our home for the next week.  The scenery was grandiose and so beautiful to surround ourselves with.  "The Hills are Alive....!!!"  It really was the "Switzerland of India" as so many had declared.  The lush green hillsides surrounded by impressive glacier-carved mountains was quite a change from the dry, barren landscape of Leh where we previously were and only 200 miles to the east. 

This area has a classic trek of 7 days where one can traverse from where we started in Narranag over a few passes to reach the town of Sonamarg.  We got the heads up that the passes were still snowbound because of the harsh winter and the horses would not be able to cross, so we had to confine our trip to one side of the range.  We spent 2 nights at each campsite, usually one day to hike to get there and set up and relax with one day remaining to make day hikes around the camping area.  So the 1st spot we took Sadiq, or horseman, with us on a hike up to Kolsar lake up in a high basin overlooking the valley before coming down to build a campfire.

At the 2nd campsite near Gangabal lake we spent the 1st day getting there, and a bit of fishing.  The 2nd day we hiked up into the upper basin and made a complete circuit around the huge lake, with Majeet (our guide) and Sadiq, and tried our hand at fishing every 20 yards or wherever we thought we had the instinct that the fish were biting.  We each came up with a few fish, some more worthy of our dinner than others.   By the end of the day we'd put together a generous portion of fried fish to supplement our vegetable and rice dinner.

By the time we'd moved towards the last group of campsites we made our way up to a saddle on the ridge after endlessly climbing.  We finally reached the ridge in a cover of fog and saw that the north side was completely snowbound while the south side we'd been climbing showed no signs of snow.  We debated the issue until the local guys had convinced us that it might be possible - but Caroline, sensing their doubt and being a lover of horses, pleaded that we turn around and head down.  The horsemen clearly didn't want to risk breaking their horses leg.  The snow was slippery enough that even I could not descend without falling (I tried my luck a short ways...) and the horses, weighed down with gear, were going to have a helluva time.  It made sense when Caroline said that if a horse breaks it's leg it we'll have no option but to leave it to die.....and that's these guys bread n' butter, their only way to make wages.  It just didn't make sense.  We all headed back down, even though a bit disappointed, we found a gorgeous final campsite for the last 2 nights and were able to make a day hike to view the area that we would have descended to. 

We had a great time hanging out with the locals, the shepherds in their homes, and our friendly guide Majeet.  We immersed ourselves into an incredible backcountry and made it our home for a week, and given the intense political situation in the region, I reflect on our having seized this opportunity as one that might not even be a viable option in the future if ignorance is tolerated and human injustice prevails and it becomes unsafe for tourists to visit this small slice of an Earthly paradise.  I consider us lucky to have had this experience....

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