If you’re a fan of snow and chilly regions in general, there’s no place better than Chadar! See from Aashish’s eyes exactly what it’s like to be on a frozen river, surrounded by vertical cliffs, with deadly icicles hanging at the edges of the cliffs.
Blue. Brown. White. If these are the only colours you ever knew, for how long would you have lived? I stayed with it for eight days. Every mountain face looking up at the sun is brown, the rest of the mountains covered with snow, and of course as the name suggests the frozen lake is plain white. We could see the sky whenever there was a clearing, a blue like the one you cannot see in cities, unpolluted and natural. Whenever Chadar cracked, there was turquoise, emerald, white and blue gushing its way through it.
Through the bone chilling days, it was a walk to remember. I think of the first day, I turn around after a half hour’s walk, completely losing sight of the road, just footprints from a long line of trekkers walking on the same path. Creek! Tick tuck tuck! The sound of ice cracking, like the shattering sound of glass, you look down praying it’s not the ice under your feet. You make your grip on the trekking people stronger, look for pole around you to see who can come to your rescue; this is all a part of the challenge in this trek.
DAY 1: 10 February (Sunday)
Delhi to Leh; Acclimatise in Leh
Landed at the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Terminal, Leh at 12 noon and reached the Guest House which was a half an hour drive from the airport. I stuck my head out of the car for the fresh mountain breeze. We checked into the guest house and gathered together. Hot soup and lunch was served, where we first introduced ourselves as we formed the Special 26 group. 26 trekkers from different parts of the country all here to embark on a journey of a lifetime, a journey made to test the depths of endurance and the heights of commitment.
Just after lunch we went into the market to make a few last minute purchases. At that altitude and temperature, one can never be sure if they are prepared enough. One mandatory requirement on this trek would be gum boots, specially designed for walking on ice and partially save you from direct contact with water. There are a host of army stores which cater to all kinds of trekking needs. Except for the essentials, most of the market is closed in winter, which did not give us much scope for shopping. Late in the evening we climbed up to Sanchi stupa, a Buddhist monastery near our hotel from where we could get a panoramic view of Leh with light twinkling in the houses. It served us like a warm up session before the big day tomorrow. Sufficient sleep is essential at this altitude for faster acclimatization.
DAY 2: 11 February (Monday)
Drive to Chilling; Camp at Tilat Sumdo
After breakfast, we packed up and took a Swaraj Mazda to Chilling which is 80km away from Leh. The roads in Leh are commendable. Long stretches of black, in the vast landscapes, with military areas along the way was a delightful drive. We stopped at the Magnetic Hill, passed by the Pathar Saheb Gurudwara, and the confluence of R. Indus and R. Zanskar. The turquoise waters of Indus and the pale frozen water of Zanskar. That was the first glimpse we got of the river. We could see it frozen, a hint of what we are stepping into. The road got narrower as we wound around the mountains, now with the river just by our side. After a 3 hour drive the road ended and the bus halted. We took our bags and walked down the steep face of the mountain and set foot on the frozen river. It was a 5 minute walk to the other bank of the river, where the tents were set and the team was awaiting our arrival. We all retired to our tents for a brief period and then gathered for lunch.
The task for today was to go on a practice walk on the river. Walking on ice is a different game all together. The gum boots were a huge asset. We walked for half hour. All of us being very cautious, taking steps like we have learnt walking for the first time, experiencing the thrill of walking on frozen water. Though we were partly relieved to get back to the tents, all of us wanted more of this adventure.
DAY 3: 12 February (Tuesday)
Trek from Tilat Sumdo to Shingra Koma (12 Km)
We all gathered around for our first briefing, beaming with energy and joy. The rules were simple, always follow your guide and watch your step. The ice could be thin at certain places and sometimes it’s just water. The safest thing to do would be to follow the guide in a straight line since he will keep checking the path. Follow the person in front of you and lead the way for the one behind you. A special walking technique where you partially glide and not lift your feet to avoid slipping. After a few falls, by mid-day we were getting in to the rhythm of it. It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached the camp site, and feasted. It was the perfect setting to play some outdoor games and getting to know the rest of the group with whom we will be spending the rest of the week.
DAY 4: 13 February (Wednesday)
Trek from Shingra Koma to Tibb (15 Km)
We knew the drill, wake up, get dressed have breakfast and be ready to walk. It would be the longest walk of the trek and it also happened to be the coldest day. We would get into two sleeping bags and put a hot water bag in it, as the nights get colder. We set time goals and walked taking short breaks in between. One thing about this trek is, we are not climbing mountains and seeing different terrains. It is more of a flat walk with the only challenges being the cold winds and the ice-walking. Once you have your way around them, you will experience the glorious beauty that Chadar is.
DAY 5: 14 February (Thursday)
Trek from Tibb to Neyrak (13 Km)
In this no man’s land, it was just the 26 of us coming together as family or friends. We celebrated Valentine’s Day by wishing each other, and tossing around a few energy bars and dry fruits as gifts. What I saw today, will be etched in my memory for a long time to come. The day started as usual, our morning buzz and the long straight walk. We stopped at a hot water spring, which came as a respite after the endless ice. Splashed some water and drank till we were full. It was only after noon, there seemed to be some excitement among the helpers, guide and the trek leader. First the porters came and handed each one of us a twig and a prayer flag. They said anyone reaching this point was given this auspicious token. We walked a few yards after that, just around the corner and there it was, standing tall, sparkling in the sun, shades of blue with every contour, well-shaped like the work of a chisel, a magnificent waterfall.
We stopped there and clicked many pictures. A sense of achievement showing on everyone’s face. We walked through those cold days and slept shivering in the night to see this nature’s wonder and we were there standing in front of it. All the way from the top of the cliff, it was frozen. Like a chandelier with hanging pendants, every drop that ever tried to fall over that cliff is frozen, captured over time, so clear. One has to stand in front of it, to witness its beauty. The cold was getting to us, and it’s just then we realized we haven’t reached the camp site yet. It was still further away. We had to leave the waterfall, but we knew we were coming back to it tomorrow. We reached the camp site by 1400 hrs. Neyrak, feared for its excess cold and the blasting winds, was the farthest point on the trek. We found a shack and believe me we couldn’t be more thankful. We sat together around the fire place singing, playing, sharing jokes and stories. Our laughter echoed in those mountains.
Look at the stars, look how they shine for you…
The night progressed much after the dinner, when through the most clear sky we spotted stars and constellations. The trek was only half done!
DAY 6: 15 February (Friday)
Trek from Neyrak to Tibb (13 Kms)
Catching one last glimpse of the frozen waterfall over our shoulder, through the bends we walked ahead. Today was a particularly bright day and we came across many locals. What is an intense, challenging trek for most of us is merely a daily walk for them. They were coming from much higher up on the river, the adults for trade or work and the kids for schools in Leh. I spoke to some of the kids about their school, helped a few people drag their luggage on the sledges. It’s always good to interact with people to know about their culture and region. I walked at the end of the line trying to capture as many scenes as possible; trying to soak up all the beauty, for this day would never come again. Now that we were completely acclimatized to the cold, the cooks, porters and the trekkers had a good game of ice hockey, followed by a lot of dancing for Ice Ice Baby…
DAY 7: 16 February (Saturday)
Trek from Tibb to Shingra Koma (15 Kms)
One must think it is unamusing to walk in the same terrain for 80km but trust me, the wonders Chadar shows every day is nonpareil. It is simple. Depending on how cold it is, ice takes different shapes, and depending on how bright the sun is, some parts of it melt and take another shape. So, no two days or no two points on Chadar look alike. I even wondered at times, if it is the same route we have walked a few days earlier. Even the mountain faces seem different from either side. Audacious trekkers that we were towards the end, we crawled up to crevices on the river, and drank the fresh, cold sparkling Zanskar water. We reached the camp site early, so after a brief break, we decided to trek up some more. From there we spotted a family of ibex. Their natural camouflage in the muddy brown mountain slopes made it difficult for us to track them and we put our HD zoom lens to use. In the distance we could see clouds sinking around the mountains, after which we retired to our tents. Since it was our last camping night, we ended the day with singing and dancing at the camp fire, being entertained with some Ladaki songs by the staff and the trekkers catching a beat or two with their own numbers.
DAY 8: 17 February (Sunday)
Trek from Singra Koma to Tilat Sumdo (12 Kms); Drive from Chilling to Leh Was it not just yesterday that I feared the cold, and thinking of the impossible feat of walking on ice and it was the last day. We aced it. We must have looked like soldiers marching with confidence. Temperature a few degrees below zero, is hot according to our new trek standards. Our pace was slow. Probably, because we were unsure of how it’s all coming to an end. We were not ready to leave, not yet! By late afternoon we reached our first camp site. Hot lunch was served followed by group photo sessions. Not every day do people walk on frozen rivers! A couple of us, took it a step further by taking a dip in the river. Isn’t life all about challenging yourself and push yourself to do something more than what you have already done! Post lunch, we climbed up the hill side, got in to the van and back to Leh. It was a long night of celebration and togetherness, the end of one trek and plans of another one.
DAY 9: 18 February (Monday)
Depart from Leh
There are not many flights that fly out of Leh. So, coincidentally most of us ended up taking the same flight or the next one. A stark irony, staying together even when departing. We said our farewell only at the Delhi airport. Through the flight window I could still see glimpses of mountains, reminding me of the week that has gone by, but moments that I will cherish for a lifetime..