It is often pontificated that Kashmir is “Paradise on Earth”, full of gushing streams, snow-capped mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and meadows. It has got both touristy places like Dal Lake, Pahalgam and offbeat lesser known but equally beautiful places like Warwan Valley, Bangus Valley and so on.
Since I was a kid, I always had a fascination with mountains, maybe because I lived right at the base of Zabarwan mountain and had always wanted to visit one alpine lake of Kashmir during my lifetime. It felt almost embarrassing that being a Kashmiri I had not been to any one of the famous alpine lakes of Kashmir.
Finally, in this recently departed summer, I had a chance after so many years to fulfil this dream of mine. It was my brother, his childhood friend and me who would undertake this journey to the alpine lake. We choose Kausar Nag Lake, the largest alpine lake of Kashmir nestled in the PirPanjal mountains. Kausar Nag is the source of the mighty Aharbal waterfall, often remarked to be the Niagara Falls of Kashmir. The place is located in the Kulgam district of Kashmir.
Due to limited time available, we decided to complete the journey in 2 days, while usually it should be done anywhere between 3-5 days to completely take in the beauty of the trail.
On a Saturday morning, we left our home in Srinagar and started driving towards Aharbal, the starting point of the trek which was about 75 kms away. We reached Aharbal at 08:00 am and started packing our stuff on the horsebacks. We put all our heavy stuff like tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment on two horses that we took on rent from Mushtaq sahib, who was also to be our guide. Everyone was left with one backpack containing drinking water and some snacks.
The plan was to reach Mahinag that evening, camp there and go for the lake the next morning, and then trek back to Aharbal and drive home. We started our trek at 08:40 am, the lake is a 16 kms trek from Aharbal. Our first stop was to be a high alpine meadow named Kongwattan, the trail follows the Aharbal stream throughout the trek.
The water of this stream is of deep blue colour the likes of which I had never seen. The trail passes through the pine trees, whose fragrance was filling the air and everyone who was part of this journey felt free from the shackles of the world. At Kongwattan we stopped for a half-hour rest, had something to eat then continued.
Just after leaving Kongwattan the tree line ended, so from there to the lake and back to Kongwattan, there are no trees hence no shade on the trail. Whatever trees there are, they are far from the trail. So out came sunscreens and a lot of them. The journey continued while meeting other fellow travelers. But we were in a hurry, crossing small log bridges and sometimes wading through streams on foot. Crossing ice-cold waters on foot refreshed our rapidly tiring legs and gave us a new lease of life.
We reached our midway point at 02:00 pm, and in the far distance where the lake is we could see grey clouds gathering. After taking a small rest, we started again but now it was getting windy and it started raining before long rain jackets came out, but we did not stop. Our guide said the best place to camp is at Mahinag which is directly below the final climb to the lake and that we should not stop before there. But I was getting exhausted and wanted to camp there, but the guide was relentless and said he had a family camped there with their livestock and that we would be safe there.
After allowing me the rest for another half-hour, we continued braving the winds and the rain towards Mahinag basecamp. Finally, we reached at 5:00 pm, took our stuff off of horsebacks and started our work for the evening. My brother and I worked on pitching our two tents, while his friend started preparing dinner on a gas stove which we had bought with us. After tents were pitched, we started to get a fire going, but being so high above the treeline there was no wood available anywhere. But our guide’s family were kind enough to provide us with some logs.
We started the fire, had our dinner by the side of it and then the stargazing started. I have never in my life seen such a beautiful sky, far from the artificial lights the milky way galaxy was easily visible. So many stars I thought to myself this is how our ancestors would have seen the sky all those years ago. The beauty was such that one could spend the entire night looking at the sky, but we knew tomorrow we had to get to the lake, so off to sleep we went.
I was given an entire tent to myself, while my brother and his friend took the other one. The guide went off to sleep in his family’s camp.
The next morning, we woke up at around 04:30 am, by 05:45 am we had packed our tents and other stuff and were ready to go. We left all our camping stuff with our guide’s family and continued on to the final ascent to the lake.
This final portion was the steepest part of the trek and most difficult one. Starting at 06:00 am, it took us till 08:30 am to reach the lake. This part of the journey was full of stops, we would trek for 10 minutes and stop for 5 minutes. At more than one point I thought about giving up and going back, but the thought that the lake is just a few hundred metres away kept pushing me.
Our bodies were broken but when we gazed upon the lake, something did happen inside our bodies. My heart skipped a beat more than once. What a sight; blue, still waters. The lake looked like a giant mirror; on the far side of the lake big slabs of snow were floating. The blue waters surrounded by brown rocks looked otherworldly, it looked heavenly.
We stayed at the lake till 09:30 am, we did not want to leave but we knew if we had to make it back home the same day, we had to leave soon. With heavy hearts, we left and continued back to Mahinag base camp, and were back there at 11:00 am. We were invited for lunch there in a Bakerwal hut made of conifer logs and mud. After having lunch and thanking the family for it we started our journey back at 11:45 am. The journey back was a breeze, there was spring in our step, having looked upon the most beautiful sight of my life, henceforth I’ll call nothing more beautiful than Kausar Nag. We reached Aharbal back at 05:00 pm, spent some time at the waterfall there, left for home at 5:45 pm and were back home at 08:00 pm.
Wow! What a journey, I said to myself while trying to sleep when I got back home.
I always used to think the saying that “Kashmir is Paradise on earth” was overrated and did not get what all the fuss was about. But I was so wrong, and I would like to apologize to my motherland for not knowing and appreciating how beautiful it is.