In nature especially words don’t have enough power to describe such a canvas of color and imagination. Try I may but the real picture comes when experiencing it yourself taking your own steps on the carpeted green off far from the concrete jungle and peer your eyes into the forest or up to some viewpoint up high and say I am going further. Nature frees the mind from the rat race that usually traps our minds and takes us back to a time and a place much simpler. No longer do you care about your comfy bed and pillows, steak dinners, or other luxuries because now you have the stars once hidden by unnatural, artificial light casting its spells across the sky and pure, oxygen pumping and invigorating green trees along your path. In nature, I feel freer I feel stronger and I feel born anew. Something so simple, so free that should never be taken for granted.
Expecting the Unexpected in India Day 226-231: The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek
After passing many border roads organization signs that conveniently spelled the acronym ‘BRO’ (signs that provided humor on otherwise terrifying roads with more traumatizing reckless driving such as ‘be gentle on my curves’, ‘never mix whisky and driving risky’), I could finally put pavement behind and continue on by the power of my own legs. The trek began just outside of Sonamarg climbing a steep beast for our initial day but finally I was heading into the land of mountains where my heart and soul lies. Sure I got a short respite in Gulmarg but I needed this more than ever after the chaos of Srinagar. I kept looking back at the snow capped mountains and large green masses and those that welcomed me on further as I put behind me a world of unnecessary complexity. We passed our first of several Indian army border checks since the Area is very sensitive with even somewhat recent invasive attacks from India’s friendly neighbor to the northeast over Pakistan’s desperate attempts claim Kashmir. On this first day of the trek, the pace was light, far too light as I was ready to race up the mountain. I usually stayed at the front chatting with the couple from Portugal English Tom and German Johanna with our local Kashmiri guide who didn’t speak much English but had the coolest beard in the world with a mountainous smile that fit his love of posing for pictures as if he were a model. Past our originally planned base camp we traveled higher and through the well shielded forest before walking along the glacially chilled and clean river water (tasting refreshingly fantastic as a near and ready source that I depended upon to get my daily 6 liters) while hopscotching over the rocks in this grooved passage towards the first night’s camp. As a routine that would follow the rest of the days we got tea and snacks before some leisure time and on this day like any other when given the opportunity I found a place to sit for some time alone quietly to look around at the majestic mountains analyzing each impression and rhythm of the rock as well as the stark white contrast of the snow upon it. One of the cooks a local guy from Sonamarg who I found out later to be eighteen years old looked at me as a friend possibly from my initial offering of the Color Run wristband that I had been wearing and caring with me for all this time in the trip. He liked it so much I figured it was as good of a gift as I could give someone. Before dinner, we had our blood pressure readings and oxygen levels taken but since my hands were so cold they joked time and time again that I am dead or have no heart. After eating with all of us shuffling into and of the dining tent, three of us Tom, Emil, and I somehow managed to squeeze ourselves into one tent.
We began the day with the thankless routine that started at five in the morning with the 5, 6, 7 a.m. of tea, breakfast, and preparing our packed lunches before starting the trek late per usual. Some of the trekkers in the group weren’t set up for this sort of thing so we lost four of them as they returned back to Srinagar. The rest of us crossed the freezing cold river barefoot. It was so cold it legitimately felt like the cliche of standing or immersing oneself in pins and needles until they were nearly so numb I thought that they had been dismembered. Once the sensation and feel returned to our ghost white feet, we continued on to our first pass of a mountain that required me for once to wear some sort of long sleeves. This first pas was relatively easy and brought us some excellent, clear views of distant snow capped peaks way past the valley we would soon be descending into. To get to the valley floor, we first had to cross over a relatively inclined glacier which with my habit for imbalance was a tricky mission that eventually led me to bypassing all when I simply slid down on my behind for a chilly sled ride back to ground level. After other water crossings and many continuous opportunities to stare at the snow and ice hugging the upper bowls of the mountains above us, we reached Gadsar Lake quite early in the day. I took this opportunity after dropping off my baggage at the campsite and eating a quick snack provided by my cook friend Ishtiyaq Thirray (Kangan) – who sadly broke the wristband but still kept it as a souvenir – to walk up a steep hill luggage non-inclusive to a view point over Gadsar Lake and the snow streamed mountains ringed around me and our campsite. After I chatted using simple words and gestures with the passing shepherd tending to his flock of sheep and goats and tried to imitate his whistle/call to the animals failingly, I sat there on my stoop that chilled piece of stone admiring the view around me and talking to myself. Yes I was talking to myself and while doing so I was uncovering words of wisdom. Here I was trekking through the Indian Himalayas far far away from my home that place of comfort, support, and security tackling challenges I would have never expected to endure and uncovering layer upon layer what makes me who I am. My main goal more than to see these beautiful places in the world is to discover myself not in some overly spiritual way like those self-help books describe but to see what makes me tick by going through the gauntlet of life. I don’t expect life to be easy nor do I want it to be because that simply would just be too boring. Through the hard times especially I am learning most about myself that I am a tough one to break both physically and mentally. I could just as readily take the easy way out and still be able to say I have seen a lot but at the end of the day I want more, I need more. This whole mission is not about ticking off countries, cities, sites, etc. one after another; for me, there is a larger purpose that goes in line with a quote that I enjoy from the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”: “…I hope you see things that startle you, I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before, I hope you meet people with a different point of view, and I hope you can live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” As beautiful as the beginning of that quote is, I know there are times that I will fail, that I won’t want to get back up, that people will doubt me and discourage me from living my dream but I know I must continue fighting. If I have done this much, come this far, and learned as much as I have to this point, why can’t I go one step further. I know that when I get home the temptation will be to return to the norm to live as I once had to give up the fight but now I know what is truly out there what is capable of being had and people can’t trick me into believing another. It is like watching a magician perform his act when you already know it’s secret. You can’t be fooled anymore, you know what hides behind the curtain. No longer are you tied up with your arms and feet dangling like a marionette with the artist choosing your every movement. You have the power and the thought to decide. Freedom at its finest. Along with this and so many other thoughts for a solid half an hour I delved into my mind a powerful, beautiful mind at that (not being cocky, just honest). I know that I am stronger than most people realize and most people themselves. Too often we listen to what other people say taking their word for what it is. One thing I have learned while traveling is that a lot of people are full of bullshit. They speak words and all they are are just words. They tell you these things so convincingly that you are expected to at no fault believe them when in reality many people don’t know anything. I am not saying I know everything, far from it, but I think I am learning some simple truths and realities that most people choose not to come to terms with. I feel my strength growing with every word I speak and every challenge I face. I am not the most outspoken person around nor do I want to be. I speak when the moment arises and think when the time calls for it. Just because I am quiet doesn’t mean I have nothing to say. I love these quiet innocent moments to myself with nature as my muse. She speaks to me and I listen while admiring her beauty. It brings out these thoughts empowering my passions. I descended back to camp with a close watchful at the lake below me so blue, so emerald, so pure still with a heart beating not only from the lack of oxygen up here but from the acknowledgement of where I stand both physically and spiritually for lack of a better term. Back at camp before dinner we played a game called mafia that got quite a few of us animated and got conversations going as this was an investigative game to discover who were the moles in the group. At dinner I sat with my cook friend Ishtiyaq who encouraged me over and even feed me extra rations more than the others since he liked me that much. He could speak Hindi with the Indians in the group but our friendship somehow went on another level. At night past dinner and after plenty of others already decided to go to sleep, a group of us including Tom, Johanna, the couple KD and Reety, Kanishka, Emil, the fellow film buff Shyam, and Shekhil with a name that fit his height, played movie charades with the goal to describe movie titles by gestures alone. I am pretty good at charades but KD in an infamous move challenged me with the movie “JFK”. I was all over the place with it by first trying to just get the letters since I couldn’t describe individual words so I began trying to imitate words that began with ‘K’ which included me imitating a kangaroo of all things. When that effort hit a clear, sturdy brick wall, I turned my attention back to the man himself Mr. JFK. I got extremely animated and despite the chill in the tent and in this frigid climate, I was overheating in my desperate attempt to will this movie title into being from my teammates. I described a flag, pounded my chest as an American, stood proudly saluting and speaking as if I were giving a grand declaration behind a podium, etc. and sure enough I finished in time all out of breath. And so my nickname was set in stone with KD and Reety, the fun and humorous couple, as JFK or Mr. President as mainly an inside joke between us. Emil had his bout of altitude sickness during the night but otherwise for me I slept splendidly considering I made myself a pillow out of my own rolled up shirts and shorts.
In the morning after our usual routine, we set off up and around the hill I summited yesterday evening passing another tinier yet still crystal blue lake while passing the highest pass of the trek called Gadsar Pass. It was a steep, winding, formidable beast but I conquered it with relative ease jogging up the last portion toting my heavy backpack to reach the other side. Just completed behind me stood two of the Great Lakes with their splendent glacier infused slabs of ice hugging the upper limits of the surrounding mountains while they slowly melted producing streams of waterfalls that deposited into those lakes. As for what stood and lay ahead on the other side of the pass, I found a glacier immediately held on our path that led eventually to rolling valley while far beyond the brim of the bowled valley stood snow capped mountains that played hide and seek behind the shifting clouds. Even though it was only ten o’clock I had my lunch, a lunch that I earned. After a break, we descended into the valley while easing our steps over the declined glacier. Continuing on, we passed rolling green meadows that held a dense assortment of purple, yellow, blue, and red flowers that could have upstaged the famously named trek called the Valley of Flowers. We also saw what I can easily surmise was and would be the most beautiful lake of the trek. This medium sized lake was framed by glacially clad jagged night black rock with floating chunks of ice chilling the lake to the deepest most picturesque blue that deserves more punctual, justifiable words to describe. If this weren’t all enough, up above magically appeared a halo rainbow ringed around the sun touching off a sight of all sights. After the real lunch break that thankfully produced a second hobbit style lunch in my favor from KD, Reety, and crew, we trekked on past more sheep and goats while also seeing the rare marmot before descending to our ready made tent complex that resided near a small adjacent village and the all too familiar Indian army stronghold. On this night I got generous helpings from my cook friend and called it a night after doing some stargazing amongst this blessedly artificial light deprived sky.
On this day we had a fair climb winding our way around this mounded slab of earth high over a river that according to our smiling, bearded guide cut through to nearby Pakistan amongst their mountains that we could visibly see. Across another chilled icy river we crossed barefoot to reach a meadow of deeply hued yellow flowers that could have been taken from the movie “The Sound of Music” in this world that more closely resembled the European Alps than this border controversial land debated between Pakistan and India. After the wind swept Indian border patrol camp that was the largest of my time in the mountains, we passed the fog clogged view of another icy lake to reach our camp seemingly well placed next to a picturesque waterfall on one side and another more rocky terrain opposite with further possibilities upwards to explore when given the chance but that chance never did arrive as rain and fog swept through the land we called home for the night depriving me of the opportunity to see what else may lurk. This night was a rough one with fog, mist, and waves of rainfall turning into familiar culprits but this didn’t stop my friend from blatantly serving me up mounds of food without my request and to the amusement of all around. I joined him at his side while he served all the others as the two of his sat with an unspoken bond.
Today we set out for a camp that would likely be our last with only a walkout trek remaining so as I walked step by step I had an inner debate within myself whether I would continue on the following day to Naranag which waited as our departure point or reside in the camp for another full day with no serious trekking on the docket. I hopped and skipped bouncing on the teetering rocks like a flawless pogo stick with each touch representing possibly my last as some gave weight to others. Along another one of the many glacial infused streams on our way that gave life to all that needed it with a thirst quenching blast of H2O, we climbed over another pass to likely my favorite sight of the entire trek. Here deep below we were offered a grand viewpoint downwards of the twin Gandabal Lakes if my ill advised memory serves me correct until the fog thick and layered took its place. Until that time when my glorified and naturally significant view was deprived of me, I could see those lakes frigidly blue so chilled my nerves shivered kilometers away from its lapping shore and then there were those mountains those awe inspiring mountains that fell short of others I had walked below but held within its grasp those lakes and gave each of them life with their glacial pride. The entire way down we could barely see past the next turn ahead but we continued our steep cliff-lined descent until we at last reached camp. Reety was the perfect bodyguard to Mr. President with a Pittsburgh University ball cap that resembled an FBI hat and a cover that legitimately fit her role as a bulletproof vested body guard to El Presidente. With my backpack alleviated from my back, I walked along the first lake with my usual posse of Tom and Johanna before joining Shekhil and Shyam while waiting expectantly and hopefully that our horsemen might reel in a freshwater fish for our first taste of non-veg in quite some time. Over a rocky teetering dam, we crossed over barefoot to the other twin lake to see the sun peer through the clouds and offer a beam of radiant dusk light onto the far corner of the lake. Back at camp after dinner where my cook friend most obviously of all gave me more food than all before and even with each added helping of galub jamun dessert expected an eating contest between the two of us. It was a humorous joke within camp amongst my friends that despite our shared line of verbal communication we had become friends the two of us me and the cook from the local village of Sonamarg. That night we played movie charades before getting kicked out of the dining tent to the outer limits of our tent village to play some games and chat while lit by the near midnight light of the stars and the burgeoning moon. At this point, I practically decided to walk out tomorrow with most of my closest friends committed to doing the same so this was our last night together and what a bittersweet moment it was.
Even though I planned on doing a simple hour trek around the lakes and get another viewpoint of the area, I chose to instead spend my last moments here with my fellow trekkers a group I will fondly remember that made the trek even more special than the nature destined it to be. Despite the time being short, we grew close and I got some newfound perspectives of India and people in general. After saying our goodbyes to those that stayed behind, we trekked out amongst the pines with green being the only shade concerned. While getting to know Kanishka for the first time, we continued to descend through this steeply wound path amidst this populace of pine until we reached Naranag itself. To the misfortune of all we had to go out of our way to Sonamarg to our original homestay village thanks to the absent minded of two which added on to an already long journey to Srinagar. The road and the ride back for whatever reason felt more dangerous than what I had experienced previously which delivered to the humor of all the rest as I hummed and mumbled to myself my own misfortune hugging to the seat and my invisible seat belt in my position in the front seat with a clear view of each new awaited deadly encounter. We all got into Srinagar safety saying goodbye to those who chose other accommodation besides my home of Hotel Swiss. The night was bittersweet with me half-tempted to linger the next day for clear and obvious reasons but I was mostly settled on leaving the next day for Leh on the long road to the land of Ladakh.