The snow tourist
Six months after I had rafted on the Zanskar river in Kargil, a friend told me, “You could walk on that river.” I had never heard of the Chadar trek, (named so because the river freezes over in winter). But when I read up on the trek, it fired my imagination. My friend and I decided to brave it last February.
The 70 km trek, from Chilling to Padum, needs a bit of preparation. We flew into Leh and decided to stay there for a few days to acclimatise ourselves to the cold and the altitude. Usually, it takes 72 hours to adapt, but we started half-a-day earlier, stopping on the way at a local market which caters exclusively to Chaddar trekkers, selling gear that withstands subzero temperatures. Many of these are second-hand, left behind by foreign trekkers, but they are affordable and appropriate for the chill. Soon, we were driving the 30 km that separated Leh from Chilling. That’s where the road ends and Chadar starts. That’s also where communication with the world ends. No cellular towers, no satellite cables, it’s a world where nature reigns supreme.
We were a team of seven, including our guide, porters, a cook and an assistant. Day one was completely devoted to training. I am a seasoned trekker, having covered parts of the Himalayas, but none of my previous experience was a patch on what we encountered. It was almost like learning to walk one step at a time — lift a foot, put it down, repeat, the drill went on as we waddled like penguins. I realised why only gumboots worn over layers of socks work; not only do they keep you warm, they save you from twisting your ankle.
It was late afternoon when I stepped on the river for the first time, and promptly fell. In another hour, we retired for the night near a place where the ice had melted, to help ourselves to water. Our local members put down their rucksacks and in no time, assembled a wooden sledge. They set up a modest kitchen with a few vessels, a kerosene stove and insulated containers to carry water. We had with us a lot of ready-to-eat food — semi-cooked chicken, instant noodles, theplas and nuts. That night, as we sat down to eat, it was a surreal feeling as looming mountains towered over us and an impregnable silence reigned all around – we seemed to be the only living beings around as the world hibernated.
Life in the region is arduous in winter. Roads are snowed up, connectivity is minimal and even getting daily supplies is difficult. But, when you watch the locals, you feel inspired. We had planned this trek on our own, so it was a learning experience to see how they handled it. We met people going about their daily lives along the route, without a care about the difficulty of the trek. Children hurried along, part walking, part riding on a sledge, breaking the silence with their cheerful prattle as they made their way to schools. What was a challenge for us, was a way of life for them.
The first night, we camped at Tillet, where the Zanskar river meets a small tributary. Next morning, Chosfal, our guide, woke us up early. Freshening up was an ordeal. If one doesn’t do it quickly, you end up with frost on your face. After a quick breakfast of Ladakhi bread and tea, we were on our way.
The trek is a lesson in discipline. Already at an altitude of 11,500 feet, it does not involve any climbing, but the cold can be unforgiving. The route is treacherous too. By February, the river begins to thaw, so there’s always the possibility of stepping onto thin ice and falling in the river. As we soldiered on, we had to keep rehydrating ourselves, because even though one doesn’t perspire or feel thirsty frequently, one needs to keep replenishing the body salts.
Our schedules were timed to perfection. We never walked for more than three hours at one go, interspersing it with adequate tea breaks, always ensuring we reached our camps on time. The trek taught us about conserving energy. Dinners were early every day because the more we stayed up, the more energy we burned and wood was scarce. After the end of the day’s trek, when we sat down around the campfire, our guide told us stories — about the difficult journeys they undertook, talismans they always carried, like a leaf of the Vidya, a coniferous tree that spreads out like a peacock, believed to bring good luck.
But the best part of the trek were the breathtaking sights that greeted us at each turn. I remember being spellbound at the sight of a 70-feet-high waterfall, frozen into immobility. It was as if God had said “freeze”, pulling the brake on tumultuous life. Below us, layers of frozen ice shimmered in the morning sunlight — shades of green and blue peeped out from amongst the white as we soldiered on. The sunlight only stayed between 11 am and 3 pm, pale, watery, but comforting nonetheless. The days the sun was bright and strong, we would hear a deafening sound that shattered the quiet. It was the sound of the river melting and breaking, huge chunks of snow floating away, acquiring a life of its own. We had to alter our route accordingly, scrambling over rocks and walking in a single file along narrow ledges. At certain places, where the river narrowed to 15 feet, you could hear your own voice echo. At other points, you had to shout out to a person 50 feet away to make yourself heard. Throughout the trek, I saw only one bird and a juniper plant with just one flower.
We camped at Shingra the next night. On the third day of the trek, we took refuge in a cave, which felt much warmer than the tent. By this time, the going had become quite difficult, with the ice melting in several places and making the trek dangerous. Next morning, we decided to return; we had covered about 35 km from Chilling towards Padum, halfway through the trek. We got back to Chilling late in the afternoon and then to Leh in the evening. For me, this was merely a recce. I have to go to Chadar again. I have to finish the journey.
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