Vrinda Ramanan sets out with a team on the Chadar trail, crossing the frozen Zanskar braving high-risk conditions. Her story.
The Zanskar Valley known as the “Bayul” — the land of copper and red is in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. It is surrounded by high mountain ranges on all sides — the Great Himalayan Range on the South west, the Zanskar Range on the North East and the high mountain ridges of the Karakoram run North-West to South-East on both sides of the Doda and the Kargyak valleys.
During summer that lasts for four months, the road connects Padum, the district headquarters of Zanskar with Kargil. Throughout winter, due to heavy snowfall Padum is cut off from the entire world as all the Passes and roads are closed. Hence, the frozen Zanskar remains the only way for the local residents to commute and trade. The inhabitants of this place lead very simple lives tending their cattle, working on their fields, preparing their own food, weaving their own clothes and building clay houses with roofs made from wooden branches of the willow tree.
The frozen Zanskar has remained the only route available during winter. The local inhabitants have for a thousand years used the solid, iced up waterway to trade their butter and their other wares and to reach the villages perched at inconsiderate heights above the river on the mountains.
I have seen the Zanskar in total turmoil in summer, like a young rowdy, violent and unruly, wanting to break its way and make it over the gorge. The waters of the river would move in a confused manner, raving and ranting furiously.
During winter, the watercourse takes on a different hue. With all its senses controlled, the river is a vast expanse of ice and snow — meditative and tranquil. Frozen sculptures crafted by the sudden freezing of the tumultuous waves of water create poetry on the “Chadar”. The melting waters carry demurely the ice and snow, gurgling softly, as if murmuring a soulful song. The waters of the Zanskar freeze and form a blanket of ice and snow and hence is known as the “Chadar” which means “blanket”.
We were a small group of adventurers from Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Manali who wanted to enjoy the Chadar, walk on its challenging terrain and experience the extreme cold. We spent two days at Leh to acclimatize ourselves to the wintry chill weather when temperatures plunged to -20 degrees Celsius.
The drive to Chilling, 40 km from Leh in the Leh-Srinagar Highway, was our road head. It was on a very irregular, snowy path. The river was a sheet of ice at some places and was flowing down at others; it was our first day and we were excited and apprehensive, all at once. After a few initial falls we learnt to walk smoothly on the “Chadar” and reached Tilat Do, our first campsite.
The roar of the Zanskar filled the otherwise silent hours of darkness and we spent a sleepless night waiting to start off on the real expedition the next morning.
After a nutritious breakfast we began our walk to Markala. The ice walkers or crampons that we attached to our heavy boots helped us negotiate the paths of ice and snow spread before us.
At one point there was a huge outcrop of rock and the solid ice path was a few feet below it. Cold water flowed nearby. We had to lie on our stomachs and crawl under the rock for a few metres. Welcome to Chadar! This particular point is known as “the gateway to Chadar”. We spent the night in our tents at Markala, a beach site on the true left bank of the river and the next morning started off to Trips Cave. Besides walking on the “chadar” we had to scramble over rocks. A simple slip and we would be frozen instantly in the icy, cold waters, so we had to tread carefully and slowly. We could not afford to rest even for a single moment as the base we were walking on could crack under our weight. The ground was, at places covered with ice and below this sheet, water would be flowing silently.
Thin layers of ice
At Nyerak, there is a spectacular frozen waterfall that is captivating and the locals have an interesting story spun around this magical cascade. From Nyerak, the Chadar trail gets very tough as we had to go over thin layers of ice; sometimes dig our feet into the powdery snow or walk in ankle deep water. With the help of a climbing rope we crossed this tricky part. We had to walk over slippery stones near the river and then finally we had to climb a steep slope before we did some bouldering to reach Tsarak Do. This is the place where the newly constructed road ends. A vehicle took us to Padum, the capital of Zanskar. A quiet town with an idyllic landscape, this place has a population of about 700 people. During winter, most of them move to Kargil or Srinagar. The night temperature dips as low as -32 degrees Celsius. A heightened sense of patriotism filled our hearts when we celebrated the Republic Day along with the local inhabitants.
This trek can be undertaken only from the middle of January to the middle of February, as it is only during these months that the river is well frozen. The highly energetic helpers accompanying us dragged all our luggage on wooden sledges and would also sometimes carry it on their backs when they would have to negotiate a raging part of the river or even jump over rods precariously driven into the ice walls. While the members spent the cold nights in tents, our cook and the attendants slept in the naturally formed caves fighting the cold in front of a warm fire. During the other months, when the river thaws, the locals scramble over rocks and amble up steep slopes to reach their villages. We covered a distance of 120 km in eight days.
The local Zanskaris are waiting restlessly for the day when the Chadar road that is now being constructed from Chilling to Padum will be complete. Though trekkers and adventurers would miss the Chadar, for the people of Zanskar, it would be a blessing!
Keywords: Zanskar Valley