The Kashmir Winter Trek to Marchoi Valley: Trekking in a Pandemic.
After months of staying home alone during the lockdown, I was itching to get outdoors to break the monotony of my daily routine. Although I love trekking, I hadn’t been on a proper expedition-style trek in almost 2 years. This, combined with being stuck at home, had me actively searching for treks and expeditions. With international travel on hold, my only options were treks in India. That’s when I found out about the Kashmir Winter Trek to Marchoi valley. It was a short 5-day expedition on an offbeat trail, in a beautiful river valley in Kashmir. Also, having heard countless stories about its beauty, Kashmir is one place that I’ve always dreamed of going to. It was the perfect opportunity to visit what is often referred to as ‘Jannat’.
Travelling during covid
With the risk of covid, I was understandably quite nervous about the trip. I was adamant about taking all the recommended precautions throughout my journey. What reassured me was that all the staff in the airports and on the flight were extremely professional and everyone was pretty strict about the regulations. I was assured that my trip would be safe. Additionally, Adventure-Pulse had taken me through their SOP for COVID-safe treks. On arrival in Srinagar, we also had to have a mandatory covid test, so I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip without worry. Following this, we were off to our first destination, Naranag, the village which would be our starting point.
Homestay in Naranag
We were picked up in taxis and it was a short 4-hour drive to the village of Naranag. Since it was my first time here, my eyes were glued to the window throughout the ride, taking in the Kashmiri landscape in all its winter glory. We also stopped by a scenic cafe to have a hot cup of Kahwa, a traditional Kashmiri chai.
On reaching Naranag, we were welcomed with warm smiles and the customary Kahwa. We would be spending our first night at a cosy homestay in the village. It was also a great opportunity to get to know the people living there and their way of living, an experience I would choose a homestay over a hotel any day.
Trekking to Dumail Base Camp
The next day was the first day of our expedition, and we would be taking a short hike to Dumail. Dumail is located at the bottom of a river valley, surrounded by numerous magnificent mountains. This is where our base camp was set up. As we were trekking, we could see the snow-covered tops of the mountains in the distance. One of these, as the guide pointed out, we would be climbing in a few days. Once we reached Dumail, I saw our campsite set up against the most picturesque backdrop of the valley. There were tall pine trees surrounding us and a crystal clear stream ebbing and gushing right next to us, providing the most picturesque backdrop to our camp.
This was going to be our home for the next few days. Every day we would start from here, trekking to our destination, and coming back for the night. Here we were also introduced to our guides and cooks, who helped us get acquainted with the campsite. That evening, we went for a short walk nearby, as a sort of short acclimatization hike. This was also the time we first encountered a ton of snow. So naturally, a load of pictures and an intense snow fight ensued. Being out in the open after so long felt so good!
That night we sat in front of a campfire, a comfort much welcomed, as the chilly wind was starting to pick up. After a delicious hot dinner, we reluctantly left the campfire and went to our tents for our first night in the mountains.
The views of Marchoi Valley
The next morning, we woke up to the smell of hot coffee and a scumptious breakfast to prepare for the long trek ahead; we were ready to go. This was the day we would be trekking up to the Marchoi Valley. A little while after we started walking from base camp, we got a first glance at what our day was going to be like. There were swathes of snow covering the mountains and the valley from top to bottom, as far as the eye could see. The wind had sculpted the snow to look like waves, so it seemed like an endless ocean of snow, right in front of our eyes. Since I had never seen so much snow, I spent some time clicking pictures and just admiring the vastness of it all. The trail to Marchoi valley followed the edges of the mountains which made for a thrilling trekking experience.
As the day went on and we climbed higher, the snow started getting softer and softer, until at one point we were walking in knee-deep snow. Each step was leaving a 3-foot hole in the snow. As it was getting increasingly harder to keep climbing, we decided to stop under the shelter of a tree by the edge of a mountain, the only area that wasn’t covered with snow. There we sat and ate our packed lunch, and then huddled up around a makeshift campfire. Once we were all warm, we decided to turn back and head to base camp. Walking back, we were finally able to appreciate the beauty of the Kashmiri valley, with the glistening snow in the afternoon sun.
After an exhausting day of trekking, a hot plate of Maggi was a welcome sight. Dinner was followed by some time sitting by the campfire, singing songs and sharing stories of our trekking adventures, which was starting to become something of a daily ritual. Being so far away from civilization, the clear night sky made for the perfect observatory to admire the stars, which were so bright we could even make out the different constellations, something I’ve only seen pictures of.
Climb up to Shadimarg top
The next day we would be climbing to Shadimarg top, a snow-covered mountain top. After packing lunch for the trek, we set off climbing the nearby mountain. It was quite a steep climb initially, climbing through the dense pine forest. We had been camping at the base of this mountain. We had previously seen it in the distance while trekking to our base camp on day 1 and couldn’t even fathom climbing so high up into the mountains. It was tough in the beginning, but with the help and motivation of our guides, we kept pushing through it. Occasionally, a view of the valley would peek out at us through gaps in the trees, which gave some respite from the steep and difficult climb.
All of our hard work and determination was well worth it in the end, as we climbed out of the tree cover and into the snow. We were treated to the most spectacular view of the mountain tops of the valley. I could see the whole valley, and even our homestay in the distance, where we slept on our first night. Forgetting all the exhaustion and hunger, everyone took a moment to just appreciate what was in front of our eyes.
Even though I’ve now seen and climbed a number of mountains, this view was simply breathtaking, unique in its own way. Eventually, I did find my hunger back, and we found an empty shepherd’s hut to have our packed lunch. I was honestly quite surprised to see a shepherd’s hut at such a height. These huts are used by the locals during the summer months, when there’s no snow and the mountains are covered with lush green grass. Nevertheless, for us it was the perfect shelter in winter, protecting us from the chilly wind and snow. Having finished our lunch and still mesmerized by the view, we then headed back.
Descending back down the mountain was a little tricky because of the melted snow and mud. However, our guides were a great help and kept assisting us throughout. Once we were back at base camp, we were sitting around the campfire for the third and final time. Reminiscing about our short, yet adventurous expedition. I was a bit sad that this beautiful trip was coming to an end but still glad that I could have this experience, especially given the current circumstances.
The final day on the Kashmir Winter Trek to Marchoi Valley
The next day we helped pack up the camp, learning how to fold and pack tents. Camping responsibly is an essential part of any expedition. This means not leaving a single trace of a camp or humans being there. Leaving behind the pristine nature, we trekked back up to Naranag, where taxis picked us up and took us back to Srinagar.
The last day on the Kashmir Winter trek to Marchoi Valley was spent exploring Srinagar and trying out the local cuisine.
As our plane was taking off, I was left feeling like this trip had been way too short, and with a longing to explore more of this beautiful region. I’m looking forward to my next trek in Kashmir and can’t wait to come back again.
Words and pictures by Kanishk Pande. This article is a part of our “Trekkers’ Dairies” series where fellow trekkers share their experiences trekking around the world. Got an interesting trekking story? We’d be happy to publish it. Contact [email protected] for more information.