Goecha La: Rendezvous With Mount Kanchenjunga

October is supposedly the best time for Goechala trek. But the rains hadn’t ceased till early October that year and I was wondering whether I should have waited for a few more days? Walking in the incessant rains and slippery slopes of slush into the wilderness of the Kanchenjunga National Park, I was both thrilled and irritated at the same time.

Goechala trek was the last leg of my 1.5 month-long of solo backpacking in Sikkim. I had carefully chosen the early October dates, but who am I to plan anything anyway? What happened over the next few days was exhausting, challenging, thrilling, and insane, yes, but most of all it was a wonderful, overwhelming, fulfilling and soul-soothing experience that warms my heart even today when I look back and think of it.

Inside Kanchenjunga National Park: Goechala Trek
Inside Kanchenjunga National Park: Goechala Trek

My best friend & a fellow-volunteer I met while volunteering in the Sikkim Himalayan Academy decided to join me for the trek. The trek had begun at Yuksom – a quaint little town that was the first capital of Sikkim. Huddled close to the mountains, the charming town gave an insight into what was coming. The stunning views of the Kanchenjunga as seen from the window, the biting cold mountain wind and the undisturbed tranquillity was like a teaser of the grandeur that we were to experience over the next few days.

We met a team of 2, 20-something local boys who were to be our guide and porter, respectively. I profoundly thank these kind-hearted, genuine and absolutely lovely mountain people because of whom, I have been able to walk in the mighty mountains so far. And of course, the mountains themselves for being kind to me, always.

Icy Stream Inside The Forest: Goechala Trek

The younger one, the guide, whom I ended up naming Chyanu Bhai (meaning younger brother in local parlance, I may have got the spelling wrong though) by the end of the trek, looked so young that I was considering requesting for an experienced guide. Turned out that he actually had an experience of independently guiding groups to Goechala for the last 5-6 years. He had been assisting his elder brother (who is a seasoned trekker & trek leader for some of the reputed travel & outdoor companies) for years before independently taking up the guide’s role.

Entering The Kanchenjunga National Park

After getting the permits checked, we walked through the gate of the Kanchenjunga National Park feeling exhilarated. The walk was comfortable with a gradual climb, soothing forest views and the sun shining all the way up to the point where we halted for lunch. We met a few other trekkers, made way for many ‘Dzo’s – the big yak-like creatures that are used to carry the stuff uphill. Chyanu told me those aren’t really yaks, but a crossbreed of yaks and buffalos/bulls.

Dreamy landscape: Goechala Trek
Dreamy landscape: Goechala Trek

The trail this day involved crossing a few bridges that were laced with the colourful prayer flags, and milky white water gushing underneath with a roar. “It is from places such as these that the wind carries the prayers and the soothing sounds of waterfalls far and wide into the valleys and plains, spreading the blessings of the mountains”, Chyanu said, with a sense of pride when he saw me looking fondly at the waterfall cascading beneath and touching the prayer flags. I smiled and told him I completely agree with him – how could I not? It was true, after all.

It felt cooler as we advanced higher and deeper into the thickets of the Khangchendzonga National Park in the later hours. And in no time, it started drizzling. Chyanu urged us to walk faster, but the slopes were getting slippery with mud & droppings of the dzos (I had accidentally dunked my feet in it once and felt awful the whole time!).

Beautiful Vistas: Goechala Trek
Beautiful Vistas: Goechala Trek

In spite of speeding up the pace, we were not able to reach the camp as the rains got pretty heavy. We saw some makeshift huts about an hour before our actual campsite. We were super tired and it was getting dark too. Our resourceful porter spoke to the locals and managed to arrange for us to spend the night there. We were starting to feel the cold of the mountains now. It was here that I tasted the first local drink of Sikkim – ‘thongba’ or ‘bamboo’ – as it is more popularly known as, with our hosts while waiting for dinner. The thongba is made of millets and is served in a container made of bamboo. I don’t remember well how it tasted but I sure do remember the hearty laughter as we sipped and passed around the thongba, aroma of the lentils being cooked, subtle warmth of the firewood and the sound of rain falling outside.

Misty Mountains: Goechala Trek
Misty Mountains: Goechala Trek

There was rain throughout the day 2 and honestly, I couldn’t look around much while walking as I had to be careful of my footings. It was getting difficult to keep up a good pace but we did manage somehow. On day 3 we woke up to a clear sky and the walk this day was such a relief – not only because it didn’t rain but because the walk was lovely. We hiked through dreamy meadows where the free, wild horses grazed at a distance, made our way through hazy forests, walked along and crossed many icy streams – the walk was just too beautiful! The peaks surrounding us were still enveloped in the clouds, giving the whole scene a very dream-like and unearthly look and feel.

colourful wild flora of Kanchenjunga  National Park
Beautiful Landscapes of Goechala Trek

Reaching Dzongri

By the time we reached our campsite at Dzongri, it had started raining heavily again. I was to learn an important lesson here – never to underestimate the mountain weather – not that I ever did but on the Goechala trek (in the month of October, when it doesn’t normally rain so much) it came as a strong reminder of how unpredictable and so damn powerful it is. Most of our bags along with its contents, shoes & socks got drenched. That night we spent a good deal of time in the kitchen tent drying our shoes and socks (mainly) and discussing whether to move ahead or wait for the weather to clear. Next morning we packed up and started walking towards the next destination – Thansing.

Enroute Goechala In Sikkim
Enroute Goechala In Sikkim

Trek to Thansing was again a pleasant one, though it drizzled intermittently. We were inching closer to the last campsite, the views were more unobstructed and overwhelming, colourful patches of wild flora dotted the stretches, mounds of boulders, and grassy slopes kept the sight of trekker’s huts at Thansing hidden away from us.

Colorful Flora, Icy Streams, Giant Mountains: Goechala Trek - don't miss the wild horses grazing
Colorful Flora, Icy Streams, Giant Mountains: Goechala Trek – don’t miss the wild horses grazing

We were about 1ish km away from the campsite, exhausted but happy with the walk and the enchanted by the beauty. Though the campsite was still not in sight, we spotted our porter walking towards us three mugs and a kettle of hot black tea. He had reached the camp with the luggage, prepared tea for us and walked back all the way to serve us tea in the middle of nowhere – saving us the walk till the camp to have it – such are these kind-hearted mountain people 🙂

Chai in the mountains against a stunning backdrop: Goechala Trek
Chai in the mountains against a stunning backdrop: Goechala Trek

Reaching Thansing

The Thansing campsite is my most favourite one ever, though I was able to see the surrounding beauty only after returning from the final climb to Goechala viewpoint and before starting the return journey. Apparently, there are 3 spots or viewpoints (named so for convenience I believe) – viewpoint 3 being closest to the Goecha pass. But as per the rule put up by the Sikkim government, no one is allowed beyond viewpoint 1 – not sure if it’s still the case. So be sure to confirm this and if you can go further and beyond then I guess nothing like it. I learned only later that you don’t really trek up all the way to the actual Goecha Pass due to restrictions by the government. Now I’m not too sure of the reasons, but only wish it will be allowed some time in the future.

It still rained continuously when we reached Thansing. The thick mist obstructed the beautiful views of the surrounding valley & peaks that you can so clearly see otherwise. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the trek and every experience added to it, I was a little disheartened as continued rain could mean we’d have to turn back without visiting the Goechala viewpoint. We had a buffer day but I dearly wished the rains took a break. That night, oblivious to the snowy peaks that towered the clearing where we camped, I prayed for a clear day before falling asleep to the sound of mountain rains.

Trekker's hut at Thansing: Goechala Trek
Trekker’s hut at Thansing: Goechala Trek

Trekking To Lam Pokhri

Next morning as planned, we set out for the Lam Pokhri lake that is almost to the east of Thansing. It was intermittently drizzling and misty. The mist lifted every now and then to reveal a few smaller, unnamed lakes – absolutely clear and pristine. Halfway through, we met a few European trekkers who had also set out for Lam Pokhri but had to return without visiting the lake, as the weather ahead had turned bad; we too considered turning back to Thansing. The mist cover was getting thicker and though we traced our steps back the same way we came, I couldn’t see some of those smaller lakes that we saw earlier.

A Nondescript Lake On The Way To Lam Pokhri: Goechala Trek

The Final Climb Towards The Goecha Pass

It was the last day, last chance, I prayed fervently. I think every trekker that day at the Thansing campsite was praying for a clear day. Chyanu told us he will keep a check on the weather and wake us up at 12.30 am. We ate and slept early that evening with a mix of excitement and nervousness.

At 12.30 am, we woke up – happy at the sight of clear skies. With head torches strapped to our forehead and geared with a day pack, we finally started trekking at 1.15 am. I looked up and gaped at the millions of stars shining in the dark sky and the many snowy peaks along with Kanchenjunga shimmering in the soft silvery moonlight – no matter how much I try I just cannot put the feeling the whole scene instilled in me, in words here.

Without really knowing how or what the trek path looked like and putting all our faith in the mountains, the guide and his experience, we trekked for 4 hours straight reaching just before sunrise at the viewpoint 1 to witness something extraordinarily beautiful, something grand…

Gold!

A Golden Sunrise Over The Mount Kanchenjunga
A Golden Sunrise Over The Mount Kanchenjunga

I stood awestruck at the grand sight that was unfolding before me. The mighty Mount Kanchenjunga stood majestically as if being crowned by the golden ray of sun, turning the world’s third highest mountain into a golden spectacle. Soon the other snowy peaks too bathed in gold. We can go on without not seeing such sights ever in our life and it wouldn’t change much but seeing something this powerful will guaranteed change something inside you – not being preachy and you’ll agree with me too if you have even once seen a sunrise from the mountain top.

Kanchenjunga Mountain Range
Kanchenjunga Mountain Range

On our way back after witnessing the riches of nature, we saw the actual trail that we took in the dark of the night – and it was a very beautiful one. We halted for breakfast by the Samiti Lake and its lovely reflections. Another campsite – Lamuney is around here and though it is closer to Goechala, Thansing is the most preferred site for many favourable reasons.

Samiti Lake & Reflections: Goechala Trek
Samiti Lake & Reflections: Goechala Trek

Tshoka – a tiny Tibetan settlement was our last camp. You’d see a few houses, trekker’s huts, a monastery, a lake and lots of pretty views. Being back broke the trance and solace of the mountains I walked in the past few days but I was at peace. That day I walked around, stayed up late and woke up early to soak in the essence of the mountains as much as possible, one last time, before we started the final descend, physically leaving the mountains behind but feeling it in every pore of my skin.

Beginner’s Adventure Guide to Trekking in the Himalayas

This article was originally published on B-Change

A book, a movie or simply for the sweet sake of wandering, whatever may have inspired you to plan your first trek – go for it! It’s never too late to start anything that has been on your mind for long. However, to do something you’ve never done before and because trekking in the mountains is way different from a leisure stroll, you need a fair amount of groundwork.  Inadequate preparations and half-baked knowledge can turn a great experience into an unpleasant one.

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Image by Michael Foley (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Get ready for that first memorable trek of yours, here’s how I did it.

Getting started: Once you have made up your mind for trekking, start training your body as well. Get a medical checkup done to rule out any major health issues. Hit the gym or add breathing exercises, brisk walk or a jog to your routine. Gradually set slightly higher goals and work towards achieving them. Giving up on unhealthy lifestyle choices will work great too.

Choosing the trek: Though no trek can possibly be called ‘easy’, it is very important for a beginner to choose the first trek appropriately. Many who do not consider this point often return disappointed, sometimes even without completing the trek. Walking in the mountains is not same as walking in the plains. Not everyone’s body reacts the same way to factors like difficulty level of the trail and the altitude. Therefore choose an easy trek first so that you do not risk yourself or others in any way.

Also read: 10 Best treks in the Indian Himalayas

Pack light: The key to enjoy that ‘first’ trek is to pack as light as possible. You do not want to be forever exhausted by carrying a heavy load and missing out on all the fun you came for. By the rule of thumb, pack only the things that are absolutely necessary and ditch those that you won’t even need/use in the mountains.

Pack right: The weather in the Himalayas is quite unpredictable. Check the weather forecast before you pack. The winters are especially bitter, so invest in good quality winter wears; freezing up will be no fun. To keep it light, pack a good waterproof rain jacket that will come handy on windy days and also save you from the odd rain showers. Layering is the trick for really cold days and nights. Throw in a down jacket; the nights even on a summer trek are cold. Pack the fleece/waterproof hand gloves, woolen cap, balaclava, etc., depending on the trek.

Also read: How to pack light and travel smart?

The Gear: Most of the trekking gear can be rented. Depending on your trek buy/rent trekking poles, crampons, gaiters, sleeping bags, etc. for these are going to make the trekking easy and comfortable. Get a sturdy backpack with a good shoulder and back support. Get a good pair of dark sunglasses with UV protection and sunblock/sunscreen with higher SPF.

The shoes: Since you’ll be walking most of the time and the terrain may be rugged, it is crucial that you wear the right kind of shoes. Wearing uncomfortable shoes will ruin the trek, not to mention causing pain, blisters or injuries. You don’t necessarily have to burn a hole in your pocket for the right shoes. Buy the best shoes you can afford based on comfort. Also remember to break-in the shoes well before the actual trek. Pack enough liner socks and warm wool socks ensuring fresh, dry pairs of socks are always available.

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Image Source

Fueling the body: Though you may choose an easy trek to begin with, your body is still going to use up a lot of energy while trekking. Pack some chocolates, energy bars or dried fruits (remember to keep light) that you can munch on to refuel the body. Keep a water bottle handy. Take regular sips to stay hydrated and to keep the fatigue at bay.

The pace: Everyone has a different pace of walking and it is perfectly fine. You may be the slowest of the lot and that’s okay. Remember the hare and the tortoise? You are trekking for a reason and not to race with someone. So maintain the pace you are comfortable with and build your rhythm. Do not push yourself. You may want your guide to know about it though, just so that he/she is aware and won’t get edgy.

Walking in snow/ice: The best tip for this is to – follow the guide! No one knows the place better than the locals. Walking on snow/ice is fun but it’s also challenging at the same time. You’ll develop the skill to tap the pole and gauge by the sound eventually, but until then, follow the guide and observe well. If you are not sure, do not step. Do not go to the edge of snow ever – you could be stepping a cornice. Most importantly, do not walk alone.

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Photo: By sush_makj [via Flickr]

You’re about to step out of your comfort zone and follow your heart. So remember to have fun and enjoy the trek. Explore the wilderness and the mountains to your heart’s content. Feel the wind in your hair; get some tan, watch the sun rise and set over the mountains. Be in the moment and leave all the worries behind. Create your memories for a lifetime.

Have a great first trek! 🙂

Trekking in the Incredible Valley of Flowers

“Phoolon ki Ghati” the board read, meaning “Valley of Flowers”. A mountain stood tall behind it with its peak buried in the wispy clouds. The mist moved about slowly with an aim to embrace everything in its path.

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Entrance to the Valley of Flowers National Park

Incredible! I thought aloud, as I stood captivated by the magnificent view. I stood where the path forked after crossing a gorge & a massive stream. I would take the other path the following day to trek along the glaciers to another wondrous place called Hemkund Sahib. The weather had cleared that morning & day was perfect for the much-awaited trek into the Valley. Perfect weather meant no thick fog, light or no rain, but the temperature would still typically range from 15 to 8 ˚Celsius (59 to 46 ˚F); nights being especially cold. Geared up with my day-pack, a light jacket, and a raincoat hanging around the waist I started trekking towards the fabled Valley, breathing in lungs full of freshest-ever air.

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IMG_0274 Magnificent sites while trekking towards the park

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Melting glaciers

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Crossing the glacial stream

The Valley of flowers can be reached by trekking around 16 km from Govindghat to Ghangria. Porters & ponies are available as well, but of course trekking is the thrill most prefer. There are helipads at the base in Govindghat and near Ghangria too, and that apart no other vehicles are available on the top (such bliss!) We halted at Ghangria the previous evening & trekked to the Valley at the following daybreak.

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The enchanting valley

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Slice of paradise

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The guides inspecting a plant/flower

Hidden for centuries, the Valley was first discovered by Frank Smythe & R.L. Holdsworth, when they chanced upon it in 1931. The story of this discovery is quite interesting too. While returning from a successful Kamet expedition – the second highest mountain in Garhwal Himalayas, Smythe & Holdsworth were caught in a thick fog and lost their way, however, they continued walking. But as the clouds cleared away gradually, they found themselves standing amidst a fairyland bustling with zillion wildflowers.

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Garden of gods

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Many species of flora unique to this place is found in the valley. Almost each one of it has great medicinal values.

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As I inched closer to the valley, it was like a fairytale come true. Glacier melted afar, air crisp with assorted fragrance, meandering clouds almost touching the ground, cold stream gushing & freezing the breeze that touched it, and wide stretches dotted with dainty, vibrant flowers surrounded by lush mountains. Half expecting to hear the tinkling of the fairy chimes; I walked amazed by the stunning flowers & enthralling beauty of the place.

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This enchanted land lays frozen for about 6-7 months of the year. As the snow starts melting in April, the seeds start germinating. The valley is in full bloom between July to August (which is of course the best time to visit), after which the plants start maturing. The valley changes its colors every few days as new flowers bloom. By the end of September most plants are bearing seeds & berries, and the valley soon gets covered by the fresh snow as the Himalayan winter sets in. Stretched over a span of 87.5 sq. km, the valley is a glacial corridor about 8 km long and 2 km wide; with an altitude of 10500-12000 feet (approx.). The Pushpawati River flowing in the vicinity is adorned with pink Epilobium latifolium, commonly known as ‘River beauty’ during its flowering season and is quite a sight, our guide told us.

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Few of the flowers blooming in July end (early August)

We wandered deeper into the valley and reached the memorial of Joan Margaret Legge – a botanist who had slipped and fell off and was forever retained by the garden of gods. A memorial with beautiful inscription stands on the burial spot.

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Miss Legge’s memorial with a beautiful inscription

I breathed in a waft of fresh air, and let my thoughts drift away with the valley’s breeze – over the flower beds, into the gurgling streams, among the stray clouds, along the slopes & over the thriving mountains. The Pushpawati meandered gently from afar as I sat savoring the quiet moments of this alpine valley, where fairies reside.

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Important: Valley of flowers is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, please be a responsible traveler. Take nothing but memories & leave nothing but footprints.

~She leaves a tiny part of her heart everywhere she travels and memories from the place fill up the void in her heart and soul.~

Stories from the Mountains

Lake of moon: Chandratal/Chandertall

The cold mountain winds were blowing and making it difficult for me to walk anymore on the rough trek path towards the lake of moon – Chandratal, situated at an altitude of 14100 ft (4300 meters, approx.). Halfway through, Tenzin – our local friend and guide had slowed down his pace to match up with mine. He was telling me the vibrant stories of mountains, about the days and nights, about the changing seasons, about the adventurous and challenging life there and how he still loved the mountains. A bus from Kaza en route to Manali had dropped us at Batal. After a much needed break and lunch at the famous Batal dhaba, owned by Dorje chachaji and chachiji, the 14km trek had begun.

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Chandertall – 14 KM

I was carrying a small backpack loaded with just the absolutely essential stuff for one day, the remaining luggage was kept at the dhaba. In spite of that, the walk was tiresome. To keep away the acute mountain sickness (AMS) and for a quick acclimatization I kept sipping water while chatting with Tenzin. He pointed out the CB ranges (short for Chandrabhaga) with snowy slopes, the glacier research center setup on the other side of the river (a rivulet, when I was there) while continuing with his many ‘mountain’ stories. The trek path was surely difficult, but breathtakingly beautiful. Spread across many miles, it was in the middle of nowhere. Bordered with layers and layers of brown and white tipped mountain ranges, it was an experience of being out of the world we know. Not a single soul in sight for miles together, with an occasional vehicle whizzing past, I experienced the most tranquil moments of solitude.

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Towards Chandratal

Sundown and I was still walking. Tenzin had rushed to the campsite to make the arrangements for the stop over. It was getting dark and cold. With each ray fading and disappearing, the winds were turning fierce and hostile – a reminder from mighty mountains that I was in their territory. The campsite looked closer still it took me another half an hour or so to reach. After walking for about 5 hours (yup 5 hours for walking + many breathers for a 12KM trek) we reached the campsite. Nope, not the lake still.

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Campsite (PC: Sumana)

Our host Tenzin prepared piping hot Maggi and black tea and the hunger demon in me devoured it greedily. Thankfully, the tents were set up and were furnished with sleeping bags, blankets, tent light. With the temperature dropping every minute, the cold was seeping into my bones. Nature has its own way of doing things, and this is seen here in the mountains. A certain discipline is followed for everything – and like Tenzin said (based on his years of observation) – the icy winds decided to retire at about 9PM. I had a shuteye with many waking and dozing moments throughout the cold night. But surprisingly it was refreshing when I got up at 6AM the next morning.

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Tenzin’s Kitchen

After a hot cup of black tea and only after the sun came out from behind the mountains and filled the valley with the golden warmth, we geared up to trek the remaining 2 kilometers towards the lake. This last couple kilometer looked like forever, but it was one of most beautiful trek paths I’ve walked on. The musing meadows, the peeking brown mountains – some showing off their snowy peaks, the refreshing streams and a blue sky watching from afar created a surreal scene.

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Musing meadows

Waiting for friends to catch up, halted in this mesmerizing place. Totally awed by the beauty of the place I had to click this 🙂

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Awed by the beauty

Still walking and loving it

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Beautiful glacial lake (L)

Finally! Amidst the dusty brownness, I saw a turquoise triangular patch – first view of the mystic lake and instantly felt euphoric.

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First view

As I inched closer to the deep blue waters a bout of adrenaline rush filled me up. The closer view was grand and overwhelming. It was a live painting with impressive strokes. The water was still, crystal clear and blue-green now. The reflection of the brown slopes and blue sky was splendid.

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Moving closer to the lake

The water changed colors from blue to deep blue to blue-green to ink blue, as I walked along the water on the spiky grass.

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Many colors

The lake was beautiful than I had imagined it to be.

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Surreal

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Floor of the lake

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Clear waters

I sat down in contemplation, spellbound by the lake’s alluring beauty.

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Contemplating

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Reflections

The water was so clear that I could see lake’s floor.

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Clear water and stones

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Blue waters

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Nature’s painting

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Prayer stones

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Many shades of blue

I sat there in absolute silence absorbing the stillness of the waters, filling lungs with fresh cold air, getting lost in thoughts and capturing the magnificent view through eyes… little by little deep peace encompassing me.

~She leaves a tiny part of her heart everywhere she travels and memories from the place fill up the void in her heart and soul.~