9 Days on The Frozen Zanskar

On the Chadar after 15 years - memories remembered & created. With just the frozen river & 10 strangers for company.

ByPrashant Sareen
9 Days on The Frozen Zanskar
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The plane banked to the right to make its approach in to Leh airport. The wing tip slowly dipped and as if like a pointer marked the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. The Indus, a deep green. The Zanskar, with a mostly unbroken crust of ice as far as the eye could see. It was a reassuring sight. In a few days I would be walking on that ice with a group of ten happy people.

Some trips are hard and even harder to forget. After 15 years, once again I was on the Chadar. In 1998 I did the trip with Abhinandan – my friend at the time, business partner since. We were both itching to strike out on our own and were searching for a film idea that would announce us in style. The Chadar seemed like a perfect place to start. Every year since that first trip we have spoken about going back and reliving the journey without the stress of shooting a film. Unfortunately it was not to be. That is until 2013.

This is a re-edited version of the original film which was telecast to collect funds for the victims of the devastating cloudburst above Leh in 2010.

It so happened that a couple of years after we finished the film, our friend Milan saw it and decided to give Chadar a try. He decided to help others experience the thrill and started guiding small groups on the Chadar. He has been on it five times since then. So, when I got his mailer in my inbox I wanted to see how much of it is the same. I also wanted to see if I had it in me to handle the Chadar again.

The Zanskar gorge is one of the most isolated spots in the most scantily populated district of India. There are small habitations – some just two or three families – and they are few and far between. For the people of Zanskar, access to Leh is difficult at the best of times and impossible for the most part of the year. During the short summer months the Zanskar river is a raging torrent of water. The high passes such as Shingo and Gandala are the only way out of the region. For about 8 months, the passes are snowed in. The extremely low temperatures in January and February slow the river and a sheet of ice crusts its surface. The Chadar is formed and a tenuous link to Leh opens.

Constantly shaped by the wind, sun and clouds the surface of the Chadar is a dynamic living being. The ice crunches and cracks under your feet. The mild roar of the river keeps you company. Often you can hear the low, menacing sound of fracturing ice.

It was exactly how I remembered it.

The Chadar trek is hard. It’s cold, very cold. In the narrow gorge, the sun barely touches the ground. The wind feels like a knife. The cold and the constant discomfort play games with the mind. Some lose their appetite, some their sleep. It is quite common for people to become testy and oversensitive.

Fortunately, all the members of the group had a very valuable quality – the ability to laugh easily and loudly. The rest was easy. Without the crutch of our phones, tablets and iPods we turned to each other for company. The isolation of the Chadar makes it easy to let your guard down. Conversation was freewheeling, often dripping with expletives and scatological details. Burping was not frowned upon, instead scored on a scale of 0-10.

You quickly realise that you need each other to help manage mundane challenges. I did. I could never find my wet wipes – an essential for the morning routine. I lost my water bottle and at another time my headlamp. But never felt the lack of them. There was always Gautam or Kumar I could turn to. A day later Manish found both items in his bag and helpfully explained that he was looking out for me. Good for me, because left to my devices I would have lost them forever.

The morning alarm was the sound of the pressure stove being fired up. A little later the happy voice of Lobsang outside our tent with cups of hot tea would stir us out of our sleeping bags. Eager hands would grab at the steaming mugs and pass them around the tent. The next hour would go by very quickly. With wet wipes clutched, a quick visit outside to grab the best view. Followed by breakfast and then the struggle to pull on frozen boots and crampons. With numb fingers it’s no fun. My fingertips would routinely bleed with cuts and abrasions I did not feel. If we lingered around the fire a little more than necessary, Tsering, our guide (General as he liked to called), would stir us up and shoo us on our way. It’s tempting to hold out near the fire but it’s the walk that really warms the body.

Warm food is a big mood elevator in difficult conditions. Breakfast and dinner were big meals. Porridge, cold cuts, peanut butter, baked beans and rotis for breakfast. Chicken, a vegetable (truly a luxury given that these were flown in from Delhi), dal, rice, pickle and even dessert for dinner. Our cook Wangtuk would rustle up a surprise every other meal. Lunch was a hurried affair. A noodle soup or Maggi chased down with hot Tang and green tea. A quick refill of the water bottle and off you go.

Most nights we slept in a tent. It kept the wind out, but our breath would frost up the inside and make the outer layer of the sleeping bag soggy. The third night was at Neyrak in a couple of rooms meant for keeping sheep safe from poaching snow leopards. The rooms were without any kind of ventilation except the door and a small square foot skylight in the inner room. I am not claustrophobic. But that night something snapped. I had to step out and deep-breathe for several minutes to clear my head. I barely slept that night.

Next morning, an hour’s walk from Neyrak brought us to the point where we left the Chadar and moved up a nullah to the village of Lingshed. The approach to Lingshed is challenging in parts – steep, narrow track carved into the side of the mountain by footsteps. By Zanskar’s standards, Lingshed is a city. There must be at least 50 or more houses in an area ringed by mountains on three sides. In the summer, I can imagine the village and its fields making a spectacular setting. From Lingshed you can reach Lamayuru over the Shingo-la. That night we slept in a beautiful room with glass windows running across two walls and a wood fired bukhari in the centre.

Lingshed was the half way point of our time on the trek. The next day we retraced our steps back towards Leh.

Image courtesy: Milan Moudgill

The next two days were largely uneventful. One night we camped in a cave called Hotung Bao. The night was surprisingly comfortable. Sleeping in a cave is one of the two must-have experiences on the Chadar. In 1998 we had slept only in caves. The other one is the most feared but without which the Chadar experience is not complete.

Image courtesy: Milan Moudgill

On the last day of the trek we were all in a lazy mood. We had only about 3 hours of walking to do to reach the road for our pick up to Leh. Tsering, however, was looking worried. He wanted us to move as early as possible. He was nervous about an infamous stretch that is often unstable. And that day it was. The ice was broken. We approached it to find our porters rolling up their trousers. There was much chatter all around as they decided on where to cross. Wangtuk opened a route along the rock face. Tsering tried another route that cut across from the edge of the gorge towards the centre of the river where there was a narrow sliver of firm ice. Moving slowly, prodding with his heavy wooden stick to check the depth of the water ahead he made it across to firm ice. We changed into our gumboots and chose to follow Wangtuk. The ability to hold the side of the gorge was reassuring. The rocks under our feet were slippery and uneven. Chunks of ice abutted our thighs. The side of the gorge under the water level curved at a sharp angle. And what seemed like a fold in the rocks overlapped the angled edge and made it difficult to hold balance.

Madhavi was a few steps behind me. I stepped out of the water and rushed off to the sunny patch just ahead to change into dry clothes. Tsering extended his walking stick to Madhavi. In that moment, she lost her concentration and slipped into the icy water up to her chest. It’s difficult to imagine all the thoughts that must have raced through her mind in that brief moment before she found her footing and pulled herself out of the water. But they must have been overwhelming. Hypothermia, frost bite…Tsering gave her no time to dwell on her fears. As she emerged ashen-faced, he encouraged her to walk on. Fortunately the road was just another half hour’s walk.

Image courtesy: Milan Moudgill

The thrill of the trek hasn’t changed a bit in all these years. But so much has changed as well. Most of all, Chadar is not an enigma any more. In 1998 even locals in Leh gave us blank looks when asked about the Chadar. Today groups of trekkers descend on the Chadar virtually every day. Back then, the road in the gorge ended at a village named Chilling. In 15 years it has been extended another 15 kilometres (the plan being to extend it to Darcha where it will connect with the Manali-Leh highway.) The moot point is that once the road is complete will that mark the end of the Chadar trek as we know it?

Image Courtesy: Manish Chandra

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