‘Miles and miles of unhindered grasslands and forests’, said someone and I was excited from the moment a basic internet search had revealed Tarsar Marsar to be the most beautiful trek in Kashmir. I had just returned from a path-breaking solo effort arriving in Zanskar by Darcha – Padum crossing the 5080m Shingo La.
Everyone met at the Tourist Reception Centre at 2 in the afternoon and we proceeded towards Aru Village, a three hour drive from Srinagar. Pampore; famous for its saffron fields that come to a purple bloom in mid-october, came right after Srinagar. The road was lined with tall poplars and a number of bat producing factories made from the famed Kashmiri willow. A bat was duly picked up, after drawing a hard bargain. Dry fruit wholesalers are based out of Pampore too and its better to buy walnuts, almonds and saffron from here than Srinagar.
We are cruising on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway as the ruins of Awantipora pass us by. Prettily set amidst greens, there’s also a thousand year old Sun Temple in this little town dotted with bakeries that make a stupendous variety of kashmiri breads and naans in the traditional charcoal tandoor.
We leave the dust and grime of the highway behind and apple and pear orchards welcome us into Pahalgam as we have our first view of the milky white Lidder river. Fresh fruits are brought as valleys merge into one another and the beautiful hamlet of Aru arrives. The road ends here and this is also the last place to buy supplies before we ascend higher into the Aru Valley. Our tents have already been pitched beside a briskly flowing stream, we marvel at the grasslands with a cup of chai in hand. The sunlight glistens and creates a magical effect as the evening light fades.
Our guide Jaichand is a jolly fellow; we tease him to be a Rajesh Khanna lookalike! Portable stools and a dining tent is pitched too. This feels like luxury to me. I am used to bare necessities in the mountains. My fellow trekkers are four; everyone from the cities. They tell me that I’m living a dream life. I tell them that I like my everyday difficulties when I travel solo in the high mountains.
Its a mesmerising morning; horses graze, cows amble with the shepherds while they cut wood in the pristine landscape. A fellow trekker exclaims “What a simple life and how the city folk have complicated it!” Breakfast is omelettes, coffee and cornflakes. The staff and guides treat us like family, we feel blessed.
We set off for Lidderwat amid a pitter patter of raindrops, auguring well for the journey ahead. Glorious panoramic views of the rolling grasslands dotted with animals greet us as we climb higher. We cross dense pine and devdhar forests crossing an occasional Gujjar or Bakarwal home designed uniquely in a manner that only the roof is visible at a first glance.
This feels like a dream; there’s so much natural beauty for the eyes to feast upon. Lidderwat is located right beside the Lidder river and is a temporary home to 10-15 families of cattle and sheep herding Gujjars. Its been a relaxing walk with a mind climb and we comfortably reach our picturesque campsite by 2 in the afternoon. Fayyaz; our cook has made Pulao today and we relish it with delight. A Gujjar family invites me home for some ‘namkeen chai’ or salt tea. I click pictures of their cute kids. Their dialect and songs feels similar to Punjabi. Later we also taste ‘doodh roti’, unique to these Gujjars.
We go to the river and dip our feet in the icy cold waters. It pours ferociously in the evening making us shiver in our cozy tents. Our guide, Jaichand teaches us card games and we cheat like little kids. The milky way is prominent, the sky is now clear after the torrential downpour. We have altered the itinerary a little bit and decide to start the next day at 7.
Crystal clear blue skies mark our morning and the steep climb in the beginning is easily dealt with, the cool breeze is our saviour. The bare sparkling mountains resemble the Dolomites in Italy. I am faster than the others and that results in a minor scare when I try to cross a glacial stream on my own. There is one temporary settlement at Hamvas, and we are surrounded by some 3000 sheep! (as the shepherd family claims).
The full splendour of Kashmir is laid upon us as we cross Sekhwas; Kolahoi peak dominates the skyline. We climb the meadows and reach the azure blue lake of Tarsar. Other trekkers experiment with horse riding as an euphemism to avoid climbing after a lovely lunch beside a stream. Tarsar is a glacial lake, the waters of which are considered sacred.
I walk in solitude along the periphery of the lake clicking pictures of the various hues as the sunlight plays hide and seek with the clouds. There is another trekking group nearby and they play antakshari. I join them for some fun in singing in that beautiful environment. The water of the lake shines like diamonds wherever the sunlight falls.
This is the highest campsite of our trek at 3600-3700m. The stars are twinkling brightly, we also spot some satellites moving quickly among solitary shooting stars sometimes. Our tents are sprinkled with dew in the morning. We set off at 7 to encounter a long day ahead of us. An hour’s climb later, we are atop the 3950m Sonamous Pass, the highest point on this beautiful trek. The lake has incredible views from this vantage point. On the opposite side the valley opens wide and small marshes enable growing of plentiful grass for the sheep to graze upon.
We reach the small lake of Sundersar around noon, perfectly located with flowers blooming and immediately find the trail to the hidden lake of Marsar. Me and Jaichand are the only ones who are adventurous enough to climb rocks and boulders and when we finally set our sights on Marsar, we are in awe. The lake is shrouded in mystery and the name literally means ‘death lake’. It is engulfed around a thick cloud cover on its adjacent mountains which reveal to us the paradise that lies beneath.
The rest of the group has marched ahead and we catch up to reach the lovely village of Sonamasti around 4. I gorge upon the pulao and qahwa accosted by the hard working Gujjar kids. The famous meadows of Sonamarg are visible in the far distance. The sun has been taken over by the clouds today, I feel cold and rush to my tent to read more of ‘Gone Girl.’ Everyone else plays games with the affable kids gifting chocolates and I join them later.
We laze in the sunshine next morning knowing we will get back to civilisation after a relaxed downhill walk to Sumbal. Pine forests are back as our company and the sweet aroma rejuvenates us all as the descent is completed comfortably in three hours. We say heartfelt goodbyes to our trekking staff and hastily search for a dhaba to devour food on our way back.
These words rang in my head as I lay surrounded by water lilies on my houseboat in Srinagar.
If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.
This trek was in association with GIO Adventures.