I had a jittery feeling the night before we were set to leave. The plan had been hatched 48 hours in advance. There were six of us. And we were packing all the essentials.
“Hey, did you get the axe? The axe is important.”
“What about the cooker? Don’t forget the pressure cooker.”
We were all excited about this. We had spent a good amount of money buying all the commodities with the result that now our duffel bags and cardboard boxes boasted of luxury.
Butter, jam, cheese slices, chicken, mutton, big packets of fine Basmati rice, noodles from a company with a big name, cookies and what not.
But it wasn’t the food that we were excited about. Not that we were heading for a big buffet party, anyway. Looking around the room carefully so as not to miss anything important, we were preparing ourselves for the next day. The six of us, dressed in our casual wear, were heading for Gangbal, an alpine lake high up in the mountains to the north-east of Srinagar.
Some of the reviews about Gangbal that I had received from various sources were circling my mind since the morning of the big day: Gangbal is an extremely beautiful place; Grossly exhausting; It’s not for the physically weak; You haven’t gone to Gangbal. C’mon!
I had never gone trekking before. So I was looking at it like an opportunity to challenge myself to do something that was demanding, physically as well as mentally.
I had a close look at all my associates in this act and then I glanced at my trekking shoes. I was hoping they would not betray me. We shoved our bags and other things in the back of the cab we had rented, and left.
It was an average one and a half hour drive from Srinagar to Naranag, the point where the Gangbal trek starts. The drive was marked by us discussing the essentials of the trek like staying together on the course and keeping water, energy drinks and quick bites such as chocolate bars and dates, handy.
It was sunny and after hurried hugs amongst ourselves, we started our ascension towards Gangbal. We loaded up our stuff upon three horses/ponies that we rented at Naranag itself. The ponywala was to accompany us as a guide all through the journey. This slender 27-year-old Gujjar named Aslam, sporting hennaed hair, was our guide for the trek.
Since his marriage at 18, he has been guiding tourists and renting them ponies to make a living. In winter, Aslam walks down the city and works at houseboats.
Along the way, Aslam sang a folk-song he has learnt from his elders: “Dilaan Gaafil na ho ik din ki Duniya chhod jaana hai, Bageeche chhod kar khaali zameen andar samaana hai” (O’ heart, don’t be blithe, you have to leave this world one day/ Walking from gardens, you will merge with earth).
His authentic, true-to-his-roots folk voice melded perfectly with and resonated in the hilly surroundings, providing a respite from the exhaustion that we were already starting to feel two hours into the trek.
We were climbing the strenuous trail of Butsheri, a steep climb of 3-4 hours. This trail passed through dense pine forests and reached Trunkhol.
The zigzag course of the stream running through the green valley below was getting lost out of sight and the ruins of the ancient Shiva temple of Naranag were no longer in sight.
The path ahead intermittently threw open a view, as if opening the window of nature and allowing a peek into the beauty of the Land. It is at these points that we sat for a limited time, taking rest and getting mesmerized by the impeccable beauty of the surrounding mountains.
On the way up, we met many descending trekkers; some returning from Gangbal, some from Trunkhol and some had travelled even beyond. All of them had equal praise for the beauty awaiting us.
“It’s totally worth it,” one of the trekkers told us on his way back. The very remark instantly filled us with an insurmountable amount of renewed energy as we continued to trek through the mountains.
Within some more time, we reached Hotel Khidmat, a dhaba-cum-refreshment point run by a Gujjar known as “Gaami Bhai.” It was at this point that we had tea and biscuits and after expressing our gratitude, continued on our track.
“I wouldn’t mind walking for another ten hours, provided that the track is like this from here on,” I said to one of my friends.
The track after the refreshment point is much gentle as compared to the Butsheri climb. Some two hours after the refreshment point, the density of the forests gives way to lush meadows — a welcome sight. The greenery was soothing and provided gentle respite to the eyes and the mind. On the way, there are streams that flow beneath big round boulders. The pastures are smooth and majestic.
Upon reaching a pasture land topped with two beautiful huts, we contemplated pitching the tent but ultimately decided to do otherwise.
Our decision bestowed upon us the arduous task of continuing our tiresome trek, at least for another two and a half hours.
But the very same decision also bestowed upon us the blessing of witnessing the early one of the grand spectacles of nature known as Mount Harmukh—a mountain with a peak elevation of 5142 meters, lying in the Northwestern Himalayan range with the Karakoram range bordering it on the north and the Kashmir Valley on the south. A glacier majestically sits in its lap and the water from this melting glacier feeds the Gangbal lake and the Nundkol lake, the latter being the place where we pitched our tent.
Too exhausted to do much, we quickly prepared dinner and hastily ate it, jumping into our sleeping bags. The morning held a secret.
The moment I opened the chain of my tent in the morning was the exact moment that I fell short of words to express.
Bright sunlight tearing through the curtains of clouds to fall upon the now glittering water of the Nundkol Lake. Washing my face with that water was priceless. The refreshment that I felt was unprecedented. A half-hour climb and you reach the Gangbal Lake. This lake is blocked from sight by a hill which means that you cannot see the Gangbal Lake if you are at Nundkol itself.
The landscape didn’t cease to amaze me for a single moment during the course of the next three days that we stayed there. Every angle is amazing; every piece of land beautiful; every sight encapsulating and every minute of time relaxing.
No phone calls to disturb you. No social network notifications to bug you. No calls for deadlines to stress you. No calls from the office that boss wants to see you NOW.
Just you and nature, as pure a relationship as it gets, with honest beauty smiling in the background. The scene reminds me of one of Lord Byron’s famous lines:
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…”
Once you come from this visit back to your place, a lot of things and sights become totally mundane, (for time being though). Too beautiful to be put in words would be an understatement for what I witnessed.