Over the years Maninder Kohli has participated in over 75 treks across the Himalaya with the exception of Kashmir. During 2020 and 2021 he saw an opportunity to correct this imbalance and managed to log in 10 trekking trips in Kashmir. These trips have taken him to several areas off the tourist map allowing him to experience the landscape of the region. In this photo log titled ‘The Call of Kashmir’ Maninder shares his thoughts on why Kashmir should be on every outdoor enthusiasts calendar.
1. Accessibility: One of the reasons why I rate Kashmir highly is due to the accessibility to its mountains. The term Kashmir Valley, refers to a massive meadow, the extent of this feature is best understood through a satellite image. Bordering the valley on the southwest is the Pir Panjal Range and on the northeast is the main Himalayas range. It is approximately 135 km long and 32 km wide. Srinagar is in the middle of this huge meadow. Most of the mountain towns like Pahalgam are towards the perimeter of the valley, the access to these locations are through a flat expanse, very different from driving through zig zagging roads which is typically the norm across the Himalaya.
2. Mountain Villages : As Kashmir is in the north, the region tends to experience snowfall even at low altitude. As a result slanting roofs are the norm in mountain villages to manage the snow build up. With its slanted roofs set in the midst of a mountain backdrop, Aru 2400m would have to get logged in as my most favourite mountain village in Kashmir. Aru is located just 12km’s from Pahalgam and is the start point of multiple treks including the trek to Tarsar Lake and Kolahoi Peak. This image was taken on a sunny day as we started our trek to Harnag Lake with Aru town in the distance.
3. Trails : Kashmir is known for its long and expansive meadows which on occasion stretch for miles on end. Often streams run through the meadows with flowers and boulders strewn around adding on to the drama. This image was taken on the final stretch to Lidderwatt which is about 10 km’s from Aru, At this point the trail descends down to the valley floor and for the last couple of kilometres you trek right alongside the Liidder river flowing down to Pahalgam.
4. Wilderness : In recent years as the popularity of trekking has been increasing we are witnessing overcrowding on some trails. This aspect is taking place in Kashmir as well and there is heavy traffic on the Tarsar Marsar Lake Trek and the Great Lakes Trek. If you leave these two treks out of the equation, Kashmir offers a huge number of interesting objectives comprising high altitude lakes, passes and peaks. Starting out from Aru it took us just 3 days to reach Harnag Pass 3800m. In the distance is Harnag Lake. During this trek of 5 days our team did not encounter a single trekker.
5. Camping Grounds : After a hard day’s trek there is no better feeling than relaxing at a campsite. The key aspect of selecting a camp site on a trek is access to clean water and flat land. In most parts of the Himalaya you have to struggle to find flat land suitable for campsites while in Kashmir one is completely spoilt for choice. One of my most memorable camp sites was on a trek to the Kolahoi Glacier. Our campsite just a few hours ahead of Lidderwat was on a large meadow adjacent to fast flowing Lidder river. A few conifer tress standing tall around the meadow. Our group found the spot completely magical.
6. People of Kashmir : In the last couple of years we have had the opportunity to interact with local tourists. Kashmir has seen a prolonged period of isolation due to the removal of article 370 and covid outbreak, local folks too just like us felt the need to break free. Locals were most welcoming and happy to see tourists come back. Last year we were doing a 16km long trek from Doodhpatri to Yusmarg and met this couple. They had got married a week before and were spending time together in the lovely outdoors.
7. Shepards of Kashmir : The culture of shepherding is big in Kashmir and in the summer months Shepard’s set up base with their animals in multiple meadows. Gujjar’s typical support cattle and stay below 3000m. Bakarwal’s on the other hand, support sheep and goats and camp on meadows at higher elevation close to 3500m’s. On several occasions we have shared a campsite, and had a chance to interact. They are always in the need of medicines and we as fellow trekkers don't mind the opportunity for a hot cup of tea on the trail. This time around fellow trekker Sumedha stopped for a photograph with children who had come to the stream for a swim.
8. Mountain Views : The most dominant and dramatic mountain in Kashmir is Mt Kolahoi 5425m. Its located between Sonamarg and Pahalgam. Last year we were doing the cross over from Pahalgam to Sonamarg via the Tarsar Lake. On the 3rd day of our trek we were on a 4km long flat meadow stretch. This image was taken on the trail soon after crossing the Sonomus Pass as you head towards Sumbal village. The dramatic Kolahoi Peak can be seen standing tall in the distance.
9. High Altitude Lakes : Kashmir region is dotted with multiple high altitude lakes and there is no greater reward than visiting or camping beside these lakes. In August 2020 starting out from Aru we reached Tarsar Lake in three days and camped adjacent to the lake. With some free time on our hands we walked along to the far end of the kilometre long lake and climbed a high ridge. This image was taken from the top of the ridge and fellow trekkers worked hard to record the moment. Due to the reflection of the sun, the lake looked a dark shade of blue. It was a most memorable moment.
10. Autumn Colours : While the popular time to trek in Kashmir is between June to September what I learned was that there is merit in doing trips later in the year as well. Autumn in Kashmir begins in mid-September and ends in November with the onset of winter. The most attractive features of autumn is the reddening of the leaves of the Chinar tree which can rise to about 150 feet high. This image was taken last October at the Dachigam National Park in Srinagar. As we trekked across the Park it was a stunning sight to observe the leaves in multiple hues on the trail and the forest which looked dramatic in shades of orange, yellow and red.
Summary : The ground situation in Kashmir in regard to the army presence and news of incidents in the press can be most unsettling for a visitor. I too have carried a certain level of apprehension and have over the years done only skiing trips and regular tourist travel in Kashmir. In August of 2020 I decided to take the plunge and do a trek which involves tenting out in remote locations. On the first day on the trail all my fears evaporated. Since that period I would have spent about 20 nights in tents across multiple treks and in this process interacted with multiple trekkers, Shepard's and on some occasions with no one at all. Not for a moment did I feel uncomfortable. Am looking forward to a few more treks in 2022.