The best of the journeys are the ones that are least planned. This strikes me as the mini bus we are travelling in winds through the snaky and precipitous road inside Aru National park. The drive brings back the memories of the fear I felt when I first journeyed in a recklessly driven and rickety Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam bus along the treacherous, hilly stretches of Uttarakhand. But what breath-taking surroundings!
Aru, the base camp of the trek, looks spectacularly beautiful and serene in the fading evening light. The orange-coloured tents are pitched in a glen, away from a small hamlet. We are a group of twenty three, mainly from Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi. Our trek leader is a passionate, bearded young man, Ankit, who is in love with the mountains. The trekkers exchange pleasantries, strike up conversations with each other and when darkness finally envelopes all by 8.30 pm, slip into the tents.
The next morning, sky is clear and mood upbeat as we begin the trek. A slushy climb along a village track. Then we enter the deodar forests and occasional pines. A comfortable walk through the conifers. Most of us have offloaded our rucksacks and carry a light backpack. We walk in and out of the forests and the slopes are gentle. Lunch break is near a stream. Water is clear and clean and none of us have any hesitation in quenching our thirst.
Our campsite in Lidderwat is in a large grassland. There is a government department building nearby which looks like a forest guest house. Two more groups are camping a hundred metre away from us. Lidder river gurgles downhill. We gorge on hot bread pakodas. A cricket match is on in the backyard of our tents. A lone woman trekker from Europe sits atop a rock and watches the proceedings with interest and occasional smiles. She is trekking alone to Kalhoi glacier which is the source of Lidder river. During an evening walk, I come across another lone Western trekker who is sitting at the mouth of his small tent, painting the vista in front of him. He doesn’t notice me or doesn’t care. I take a quick peek at the small canvas and get a glimpse of trees and snow peaks.
The next morning is bright at five and damp and dull at six. Ankit takes the tough call of going ahead with the trek hoping that the weather would improve. It doesn’t and we walk in the constant drizzle. Ponchos and raincoats are out. The climb is a bit tedious today and there are not many trees now. A few trekkers are tired but march on bravely. The toughest part is crossing the rivers. It is not dangerous but the water level is slowly rising. The chill freezes the bones and the force almost sweeps us off. After wading through rivers and streams four times, the sole of my right shoe comes off. Nagendra lends his gaiters to me and it makes a good job of holding the sole in its place. By noon, many are exhausted and all are hungry and we invade a small Gurjar house on the way. There are several Gurjar habitations dotting the terrain. What a lovely people. Men are tall and handsome, women are exceptionally beautiful and children are angelic. The ladies serve us Kahva tea and we polish off our packed lunch savouring the warmth of the house and the hospitality. A Gurjar woman shows an abscess on her shin and pleads for medicine. A child has a gash on her leg. A man asks for stomach-ache reliever. It is a tough life up here in the mountains. What in case of an emergency?
Rain relents briefly when we reach Shekwas, our camp site. Draught horses, with their fore legs tied together lazily graze in the meadows. The landscape is bewitchingly beautiful and dazzling blue Aconitum flowers are everywhere. There are many more too, of different hues. White, blood red, yellow and blue.
Cloudy skies clear by 7.30 the next morning to a collective sigh of relief. A stream hugs the trek path throughout our walk, giving us the company of its murmur. It is a moderate climb of five kilo metres and the weather gets better as the day progresses. Butterflies bask on flowers and a skink briefly mirrors sunlight on a rock. What a panorama! Green undulating grasslands interspersed with clear brooks. Mountains all around. Ground carpeted with blossoms of indescribable beauty. Now I know what Amir Khusro must have felt when he recited;
“Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast,
Hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast "
"If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this”.
It feels wonderful to walk slowly during a trek and more so if you walk alone. You don’t need words. There is so much to see, so much to appreciate, so much to soak in. As Ankit says, trek is about the walk and not about reaching the campsite quickly. We are at Tarsar lake before lunch time. All of us try our hands in pitching the tents and it is easier than imagined. The tranquil lake beckons. The rocks and boulders strewn around become the royal seats. The blue waters are crystal clear. This and Marsar are holy lakes for the Kashmiris. No one is supposed to touch the waters. Stone throwing and polluting in any form is prohibited. Our Kashmiri guide, the ever-affable Bilal warns of terrible weather in the event of sacrilege.
As I walk in the vicinity, I notice a trekker from another small group of youngsters, spit into the lake. I am aghast. So are my trek-mates. I confront him and sparks fly. The literate hooligan feigns ignorance and apologises. Later, the same group throws stones into the lake, plays loud music and dances at the banks. This time, I keep my counsel.
On the fourth day, we cross the Tarsar peak in the morning. This is the highest point of our trek, at around 13,400 feet. All rejoice at the successful scaling. After the ascent, the steep downhill walk is tricky. And then it is rolling grasslands all the way till we reach Sundarsar lake. The campsite is next to the waters. The weather is windy and chilly. Anup has pitched and reserved a ‘lake view’ tent for me and sanjeev. After lunch we head towards Marsar lake, a small distance and a sharp climb away. The blooms are everywhere. Delicate, creamish Saxifraga flowers with red and yellow centre cloth the lakeside rocks in all their splendour. We walk past the boulders, streams and more flower beds and begin the ascent. The hill which looked innocuous from far seems intimidating now. Once atop, it is a leisurely stroll of twenty minutes to the viewpoint. Marsar is mesmerizing and we enjoy the view from the hill overlooking the lake. The lake is supposed to be almond shaped but I am not so sure as one side is a straight line. The skies continue to disappoint the shutterbugs and clouds clear only in bits and pieces revealing a reluctant blue underneath.
Later in the evening, a game of cards in the dining hall followed by checking of blood pressure and blood oxygen level by Ankit. Then the much awaited, lip-smackingly delicious food cooked by Kushal. We wonder how this man manages to dish out gajar ka halwa, custard and cake at 13,000 feet!
In the night, I try my hand at sky photography, aided ably by Kishan. Not a bad beginning but results are not entirely satisfaying. The chill in the air brings out gloves and thermals and I snuggle cosily into the sleeping bag.
Sonmasti is our last camp and the downhill walk is easy and relaxed. Again we reach early and have lots of time to explore the area. Some people decide to take a dip in the cold and sparkling waters of the rivulet nearby. Later in the evening I spot several Himalayan mormots on the hillside. They look healthy and alert. They let out a shockingly shrill alarm call on spotting me and scurry towards their burrows. Sonmasti waterfall is not huge but charming.
The last day of the trek is a tiring, arduous downhill trudge of twelve kilo metres in searing sun. But the sights are rewarding. Again a wide array of stunning flowers, high, narrow waterfalls in the distance, bewildering variety of mushrooms. Sumbul is welcomed with a sigh of relief and vehicles are waiting to take us to Srinagar.
This has been one of the best weeks of my life. No internet, no phone, no TV and of course, no office. Absolute company of nature and new friends. Hills, brooks, lakes and above all, flowers of paradise. I can’t wait to get back to the hills again.
(Here is the link to some pictures)