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Sunday, August 1, 2021

Walking The Frozen Blanket – Chadar Trek

Chadar trek on frozen river Zanskar takes one to altitudes of over 14,000 feet in Ladakh and make him fight extremely low temperatures.

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Pradeep Chamaria
Pradeep Chamaria
I am a photojournalist. Love to travel to unknown and unexplored vistas. Since 1992, I make places desirable for other travelers through experiential Travel Writing.

INDIA. Leh, Ladakh: “HOLY SHIT” – I shrieked, as I slipped on ice and fell during a trek in Ladakh. I was lying flat on my back, my arms stretched out and only the beautiful blue sky above me. This was how the famous frozen ice sheet – called the ‘Chadar’, on river Zanskar in Ladakh welcomed me.

Chadar View, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Ladakh is a land like no other. Lying between two of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges, the great Himalaya and the Karakoram, it lies athwart two other, the Ladakh range and the Zanskar Range. The trek took me to altitudes of over 14,000 feet and had me fighting extremely low temperatures. The temperature was lowest in the mornings, and one particular night, plummeted to -40 degrees Celcius.

Chadar Trek, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria
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Two days in Leh

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My first brush with such low temperature came as a jolt after the relatively smooth landing of my flight from Delhi. As the airplane was about to land at the Kushabh Bakula Rinpoche airport in Leh, the announcement that the temperature outside being -16 degrees Celsius made me shiver.

Monastery near Leh, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Leh greeted me with non-functioning hotels. Most hotels there close down for the winter season. The extremely low temperature meant provision of electric-heating in the rooms and unavailability of water. I managed to find accommodation in a hotel called the Old Ladakh Hotel close to the main market.

Market at Leh, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria
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The weather was inhospitable and a major deterrent. It used to be so freezing in the mornings, that before using my toiletries I had to douse them in boiling water for a few minutes.

I decided to stay in Leh for two days before starting the trek so as to acclimatize my body to the weather there. I went walking around some small lanes, the main market, and the Leh palace. By sundown, most shops and restaurants had started pulling down their shutters, so I hurried up for dinner and returned to my hotel.

On to the starting point

Phalkesh, the 53 year old Zanskari porter, who was to accompany me for the trek, arrived at 7 am the third morning and we started for Chilling, the starting point of chadar trek, in a taxi. Chilling lies not far from the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers. As we spiraled along the kuccha-pukka road to Chiling, the awe-inspiring view of the frozen Zanskar, the frozen nullahs meeting the river and the snow-covered peaks of the Stok range, kept me glued to the window.

Chilling Village, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

We started our trek just before the Markha valley. And when I first stepped on the Chadar, an exhilarating feeling engulfed me. I had a hard time finding a firm footing on the ice. While Phal and I crossed the icy river to get to the other side, the one thought that kept rattling my mind was, “What if the ice breaks?”

Frozen Waterfall, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Thankfully, nothing happened as we crossed over to the other side. At Guru Do, a tri-junction joining the Markha, Zanskar and Indus valleys, Phal decided to take a break, and built up a fire for making some salty that suffused me with a new energy.

Chadar Trek, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

We then headed for Tilat-Do, our stopover for the first night. The trek from Guru-Do to Tilat-Do was fantastic. I could see water flowing beneath the transparent ice. The ice was giving way under our feet, sounding like thin glass breaking under pressure.

Solid ice under your feet

There was solid ice all around me. I walked on the river with 6-8 feet of solid ice under my feet. I could see water flowing beneath the transparent ice. The ice was giving way under my feet, sounding like thin glass breaking under pressure. The ice cover had so many ‘faces’. Clear as glass, shining like a highly polished marble slab with oil splashed here and there, it was a smooth slippery surface, making walking on it a nightmare.

Cross-section of River, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Bed rooms

The night shelters were caves on the hills, which the locals call a BED ROOM. And what a room – half covered with rocks, graffiti on the stones, the river flowing right in front, frozen waterfalls, and snow capped mountain-peaks beyond the river. What more would one want when holidaying in a hill station!

View from Cave, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

After 5 days of trekking in this natural cold storage I reached the first village en route, Nyarak, where I experienced how the local people live and also savoured their local cuisine.   

On your way back

We then started on our way back on the same trail as we had come on. The same way back?

Well, technically YES. To complete the Chadar trek, you have to walk both ways. And I was so happy to have done that as the trek appeared even more beautiful on the way back.

Frozen Waterfall, Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Now as I write, sitting comfortably under the sun, I think of my days on the Chadar. They were like a fascinating kaleidoscope of images, colours and sounds, and each day ended with a feeling of completeness, found rarely in the ‘real’ world.

It was like a timeless travel through unknown cultural and natural vistas. I was stirred by the pure beauty of the place and the age-old culture that still runs strong here. This journey into God’s own valley, took me into some of the most isolated yet inhabited regions of the Zanskar mountains, which you cannot even think of going in summers.

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