Gurez infiltration dims scope of trekking in Himalayan lakes
Famous Kashmir Great Lakes in Ganderbal district which attracted hikers from across the globe have been put out of bounds even for locals due to huge army buildup in the Himalayan lakes.
The 7-day Great Lakes Trek between Sonamarg and Naranag covers most beautiful lakes including Gangbal, Kishansar, Vishansar, Gadsar to name a few. The trail also passes through high passes like Nichnai giving a 360 degree view of the mountain ranges, peaks, lush green meadows, and streams.
The trekkers mostly took to these trails during mid-July to September.
However, due to recent infiltration from the Gurez sector, the army has put restrictions on the treks and specifically put Kashmir Great Lakes out of the bounds for the locals.
According to officials at Sonmarg tourist resort, the army is not allowing the trekkers to proceed to the Great Lakes either from Sonamarg or Naranag.
Sources in Police also confirmed that there is a huge army buildup in the area preventing locals for hiking.
“Many groups who had proper permission for the great lakes from the tourism office at Sonmarg had to return back midway as they were not allowed by the army,” said an official at Sonmarg.
He said one of the groups also tried to visit Gangbal Lake but had to return back.
Another official said there are lots of choppers and jets flying sorties in the area.
“It is highly advisable to avoid trekking in the Sonmarg areas especially the Great Lakes Trek,” he said.
Before August 2019, tourism department’s adventure wing at Directorate Office, Tourist Reception Centre Srinagar would give permission for Great Lakes which was also entertained by the army at the basecamp for Great Lakes at Sonmarg.
However, now the Army Camp at Wussun Ganderbal provides its own permissions nullifying any permit from the department.
The army men at Wussun Camp said they have stopped giving permissions for Great Lakes or even to Gangbal Lake which starts from Naranag.
“The operations are going on in the area and the permission is not given now,” said an army man at Wussun Camp.
President Adventure Tour Operators Association of Kashmir Rauf A Tramboo expressed disappointment over the development saying it has further dented the tourism industry in Kashmir.
“We didn’t expect outside travellers during this pandemic. However, local tourism activity was our last hope for our survival this season.”
He said local trekkers use transport services, hire trekking gear, and also take the services of guides and ponywallas for their expeditions which would fetch some earnings for a section of service providers. "But this too has stopped now."
Tramboo who is also an avid adventurer said It is not possible for all to visit army camp in person before setting out on the treks.
“Hiking among locals had picked up and many had planned for the Great Lakes which also got hampered by army intervention.”
Another adventure tour operator said Kashmir Great Lakes trek was one of the main earning sources for the tour operators.
“We would organise treks on this route for locals, Indian and foreign travellers. This was our major earning source. This summer, we couldn’t even organise for locals. We had planned to organise treks after taking negative Covid reports from participants and also maintaining social distancing but army presence has spoiled all plans.”
A government official in the administration wishing anonymity said due to Gurez infiltration, the Army is not allowing trekkers for this route.
One of the most sought after sights on the Great Lakes treks is Harmukh Mountain range and the lakes surrounding it. The range also borders the Gurez sector on the Line of Control (LoC).
The famous trekking route has been under huge military build up after the Government of India’s August 5, 2019 decision stripping JK of its special status and bifurcating it into two Union territories.
In the second week of the month of October last year, the army claimed to have killed a militant in a major combing operation near Gangbal Lake forests. The army claimed the militants had escaped a gunfight near Gurez a week earlier.
Over the two decades, Great Lakes Trek attracted hundreds of Indian and foreign trekkers every season. However, this season almost no group ventured on this trail fearing for their security.
In June this year, a Srinagar resident, Hilal Ahmad Dar, pursuing his doctorate from the Kashmir University (KU) also went missing on the Naranag-Gangbal stretch. He along with five other locals, went on a trek on June 13. On their return, the trekkers claimed Dar went missing in a forest area.
Police later claimed that the missing trekker had joined militant ranks.