Chadar! What comes to our mind when we hear this word? Probably an innocuous shawl or a blanket as we’ve always heard this term being used, but my definitions were forever changed when this January, I undertook one of the most challenging and extreme things I’ve done – the Chadar Trek!
The Trek, actually a frozen river trail is conducted over the Zanskar River in the Zanskar region of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir during the chilly winter months of January and February. It is truly an amalgamation of exquisite beauty and mortal danger, going hand in hand.
The trekking group was a diverse one coming from all ages and backgrounds, though the doctors and people in construction and architecture outnumbered the others. We were a group of 17 from Delhi NCR, Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur, Visakhapatnam and Pondicherry.
We reached Leh via air and landed at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport to witness an outside temperature of minus 15 degrees. Trying to cope with the mind numbing cold, we were escorted from the airport to our lodge – the Rainbow Guest House, one day prior to the trek. All arrangements were taken care of by Travandyz and the Crazy Peaks support staff. Those who’d come earlier went out for sightseeing around Leh while we decided to stay back to acclimatize. However, later that afternoon, we ran into each other at the Leh market for the very crucial shopping for gum boots, spare socks, gloves and other essentials for the trek.
The new arrivals visited the Shanti Stupa on Day 1. The Stupa, a Buddhist white domed structure situated on a hilltop provided a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, leaving us all awestruck. I close my eyes and can still hear the soft whistling of wind and the absolute calm that prevailed there.
The already acclimated group visited the Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib and the Confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers known as ‘Sangam’. As we reached our lodge, we were given very particular instructions by the trek leaders on how and what to pack for the trek and what to offload and the schedule for the next day. After dinner at the guest house, we retired to our rooms. I lay in bed excited and nervous for what stood in store for us the next day, trying to get some shut-eye.
We woke up early next morning and after a quick breakfast, we boarded the tempo travellers and set off for the starting point of the trek, a rather bumpy ride towards the end on mountain roads to Chilling. We reached past noon and moved down to the river banks of Zanskar river and stepped for the first time on the frozen Chadar. The ice was well formed at the edges but flowing with great force in the centre – a brilliant shade of deep blue.
The important part for our journey henceforth, was to identify and tread on the well formed ice and avoid the dangerously thin and brittle portions of ice.
After a quick lunch of yellow rice and papad prepared by the cooks on kerosene fired stoves, we began our walk on the ice, sliding our feet forward as that is the correct way to tread on the Chadar. One needs to avoid as much as possible to break contact between their feet and the ice, distribute the body weight bending forward and slide the feet forward. Learning this is a crucial part of the trek. As the walk started, so did the falls and I was the one to make the first fall. Hence, also began a competition of who’d be the one with the maximum falls in the end.
Slow and not always so steady, we covered 4 kms that day. After walking for 3 hours or so, mesmerised by the different patterns of frozen ice and the sounds we made on while walking on each type, we finally made our way to our first campsite at Bakula. The tents were already set up by our accompanying team of porters and cooks, all local Zanskaris.
As we reached, we were provided with a hot cup of tea and snacks after which the team of porters went about their way preparing dinner and distributing sleeping bags for the night while some looked for dry branches for the fire. Soon, darkness came over and the full impact of the cold hit us, it felt as though it was a living entity in itself, ruling the air and everything around. Our group of trekkers huddled close together in the dining tent, adjusting themselves at odd angles with the slope. Some ‘Frozen Uno’ games later, dinner was served to us, simple yet hot. Everybody slurped their way through the soup and dinner.
The interesting thing about the food prepared during the trek is that only the basic ingredients are carried along, all the water used in preparation is taken from the Zanskar river flowing nearby, sometimes going to the extent of making a hole in the frozen Chadar just to retrieve some water for the same. As a result, all the food prepared is mostly water based. But the hard work and determination of the local Zanskari team is commendable.
The star studded sky outside was like I had never seen before. After a while, we retired to our tents. It was a real struggle to get into the sleeping bags. I accepted the challenge gladly though, Chadar being my first trek. The camping out in the open in tents was a whole new experience for me as well. Somehow, zipping ourselves up in our sleeping bags, we drifted off in an on and off sleep.
We welcomed the next day with a cup of hot tea served right in our sleeping bags. We noted something intriguing in our tents as we sat up and small pieces of frost fell over us as we brushed against the sloping walls of the tent. It seemed that since the tents were water and wind proofed from the outside atmosphere, the only source for that thin layer of frost was the water vapours we breathed out during the night.
Post a breakfast of toast, jam, eggs and rusks along with some hot tea, we were all set to go. It was a clear light blue sky, and as we started moving, we realized it was a very well formed stretch of Chadar with deep slabs of ice, myriad patterns, to the entire river stretch being totally covered with ice bank to bank at some places. The texture and patterns of the ice kept changing every few hundred metres to our surprise, abruptly turning glass like and super smooth at times, making people do a sort of dance to maintain their balance, but alas, only a few succeeded. The walking stick was a help sometimes, to assess whether the ice ahead was solid or brittle.
As we continued to walk, we came across a small waterfall at Tsomopal Dhar, which has one interesting tale. In history, the people of Naerak region in Zanskar were facing dire water problems due to absence of any water streams. Hence, a lama (chief/high priest) decided to journey to Tibet to find a way to get water. Out there, he met higher beings who agreed to help him and gave him a box asking to open the same only at the place where the lama wanted the water to flow. The lama started his journey back and travelled till he reached Tsomopal Dhar but seeing that his journey was nearing an end, his curiosity got the better of him and while resting there in a cave, he opened the box. Inside, he saw there were two fishes and one jumped out, he immediately closed the box, however one fish had already escaped and disappeared in to the ground. From that place, a stream of water started flowing and the same flows till date irrespective of whether it is winter or summer. There is no freezing of that water.
And indeed, there wasn’t. All along the way, all the small waterfalls we came across were frozen, the ones before, the ones after, all except this one. Dumbstruck, we stood there for a while before making a move forward.
All along the way, the river twisted and turned beautifully, the path becoming scarily narrow and tricky at places with the sunlight trickling in at few curves and crevices. After what seemed like an impossibly long walk, we had our much awaited break for lunch and hot tea. After resting, we began the post lunch walk, slowly and a bit more steadily and to our surprise, reached our next campsite at Tibb after walking for about an hour. We walked a total of 14 kms that day. Excited, we paced the last stretch and reached the tents. The sight was one to behold, the brilliant sunlight illuminating the area and the numerous caves all around the valley.
Camping & Dining
We offloaded in our tents and the hot cup of tea was very welcome. Relieved after what seemed like the longest walk, we sat in the dining dent but experienced a sudden chill as soon as the sun went down. That night was definitely the coldest one of the trek with temperatures falling as low as minus 25 degrees to minus 30 degrees. It was a very uneasy sleep with the wind blowing outside furiously, flapping the tent side walls and making violent sounds. That night, all I wished for was the time to pass on and to hear the call for the morning tea.
It was an early start the next day, as we started determinedly for our destination for the day – the Naerak campsite. It was a comparatively more difficult stretch, the path treading alongside the river banks with a width of merely a metre or less and very smooth ice. At several places where the ice was too tricky to trust, we has to climb up the nearby rocks and boulders and descend down when we came across firmer grounds.
We walked slowly and with utmost care, so as not to slip because one misstep could lead us into ice cold waters. The very river, which had seemed of utmost beauty when we first stepped onto the Chadar, seemed to be a terror now. Chunks of ice kept floating in the river, oblivious to those walking on the side.
At places, where the Zanskar flowed rapidly and violently, the ice formation took place only on the edges, presenting us a walk on a narrow ledge of ice with steep rock on one side and icy waters on the other side as well as below the narrow ledge.
Situations like these, the experience of the guide helped us immensely, facilitating a safe crossing and arrival to camp site.
After a long walk and a quick lunch, we moved forward, exhaustion visible in the way we walked and finally reached our final campsite and the turning point of the trek – Naerak after a total walk of 12 kms for the day. Taking a break of 5 minutes for tea at the campsite, we headed for the frozen waterfall at Naerak about two hundred metres away. As we excitedly made our way and set eyes on the majestic frozen waterfall of Naerak, it seemed like the entire journey was worth it. Relief seemed to wash over me that finally, half of the trek was over. All left to do was to trace the path back.
Days 5, 6 and 7:
The return leg is nothing I’d like to describe in detail though I’d say we were fairly shocked on our way back when we found the Chadar considerably broken and unlike the days before.
Ice is an omnipresent factor of this trek and it has a changing face every day and every few hours. It changes as per the prevailing weather and climatic conditions. A route that was secure one day could be the most adverse the next day just because of a few hours of overcast sky at night and sudden rise of temperature.
A similar situation made us realize our worst fears when an elaborate stretch of the Chadar was broken, and consequently, we were forced to do an extremely steep and tricky long climb with very little foot space over the protruding rocks. If it wasn’t for the accompanying team of porters (who made us cross by taking our hands asking us not to glance below), I’m not sure if we would’ve made it to the other side.
One more thing I’d like to bring out is the way the porters carried the loads, sometimes in excess of 30-40kgs. Backpacks and other loads are carried using sledges and pulled by them manually. At places where one has to take a detour and leave the ice, the sledges, designed to have slings allow the entire load to be hosted onto the shoulder of the porter, after which he climbs up the mountain in search of the alternate route. It was a very challenging situation because of the strains on the shoulders and the heavy load sliding behind while moving on slippery ice and tricky rocky climbs. But the happy grins on their faces even while doing so, never failed to win our hearts. I am deeply grateful to them for their concern for our safety and the never tiring efforts.
The team of porters were indeed very warm people and I got to know it better when I joined them on the second last day of the trek at one of the Tibb cave by the fire to hear them sing and talk about their life incidents.
Of the many things that I learned, I realized ice is a devious thing, waiting to drag the unsuspecting trekker down as one is mesmerized by the landscapes displayed at every turn and consequently, lowers his guard as to where the next step is being placed, often resulting in an embarrassing fall.
If one actually comes in contact with icy waters (which I too had an experience of , walking a small stretch in knee deep ice cold waters of Zanskar), wet clothing needs to be changed immediately otherwise the water freezes in a moment causing further complications.
Days 7 and 8:
We reached back, tired but exhilarated on completing the feat successfully. After prolonged hot water baths and naps, we had a get together pre-farewell party that night which very well extended to the next day.
After some morning shopping at the main Leh market, the majority of the group set out to visit the Thiksay monastery. The monastery offers a breathtaking view of the Indus valley and the Himalayas. Spinning the prayer wheels there and sitting atop the place, one can easily feel the silence and peace and is worth visiting for that alone.
Later that evening, the farewell party took place at the Grand Dragon hotel and continued well into the night as everyone bid each other their goodbyes. It had been one tumultuous week and I couldn’t have been more at a loss for words when asked to describe this adventure.
All I can say to conclude is, “It was one hell of an experience!”
About Vandy & Travandyz,
Went on my first ever trek through Travandyz, this January 2018. The Chadar Trek! It’s amazing how Vandy took care of everything so meticulously, always being up and about. The spirited person that she is, she’d never let you get bored if you strike a conversation. Thank you for one super trip!
Pics used have been courtesy: Hari Mohan Gupta, Dr Anurag Mishra, Vandana Mishra(Vandy) & Shafaat