Life above the Zanskar

I landed in Leh to fulfil a long-time dream: go on the mighty Chadar trek. Dubbed one of the most difficult endurance treks in the country, it involves walking over unevenly-formed sheets of ice over the Zanskar River, under the most challenging weather conditions. Little did I know that the experience would be a kaleidoscopic gallery of the people of the land more than the landscape.

We spent a couple of days acclimatising, with repeated instructions to, “Wear four to five layers of clothing to trap heat. Temperatures can go as low as -25 degree Celsius. Never expose your head, hands or feet.”

And, on the first trek day, our group of 12 trekkers, accompanied by two cooks and five porters, met at Chilling. Our guide, native to Leh, was a lean, soft-spoken man, with a propensity to ask himself (and then answer) rhetoric questions in a casual tone that would leave us in splits.

Life above the Zanskar

Trek days were all about routine: at dawn, clanking vessels, splashing water and hushed voices nudged us awake. As breakfast was prepared, some of us took refuge inside the kitchen tent, the only place that provided warmth against the piercing cold outside. Before we set out, the head cook would utter a small prayer holding juniper leaves; we were urged to pin it on our jackets, which we did with reverence.

As our native team members wrapped up the campsite, we had about an hour’s headstart. That really didn’t count: they soon glided past us effortlessly, dragging sledges piled with tents, utensils and groceries. Meanwhile, we stomped on fresh snow and slid on frozen ice, acutely aware of the strong water currents just below our feet.

Life above the Zanskar

Lunch halts were usually by the riverside. Irrespective of the pace that we maintained, we always had a simple, yet hot, meal waiting for us. In the evenings, tents were pitched on flat surfaces between rocky outcrops, and makeshift toilets were put up in hardly any time. As we slept inside the tents, some of the porters slept under the stars, near a dying campfire. It seemed that they were not vulnerable to the elements and fear eluded them.

But, their vulnerability too showed. One evening, a few of them went to collect wood for the campfire. It’s a risky task; in order to collect wood, one has to, sometimes, hike up steep hills and do a balancing act while breaking branches off a lifeless tree. Given the risk involved, we were worried when a porter who went to fetch wood did not return long after dark. We were told he was a novice and that this was his first time as a porter. Till he was found, we feared for his life. That’s when the true value of commodities such as small wood logs, that were so easily taken for granted, struck home for me.

Life above the Zanskar

However long and close be the association with the land that they belonged to, no one can become immune to Mother Nature’s whims. When we never dared to remove our gloves for more than a few seconds, our head cook worked with bare hands. Our guide treated his chapped lips with burnt juniper leaves; I soon thrust a Vaseline box into his palms. All of them seemed to have chosen to risk their lives to earn comforts. During these eight days, their expertise became my adventure.

On the last day, before boarding the van back to our hotel, I heard our guide say his favourite line, “Kyaaa kar sakte hain? Kuuch nahin kar sakte hain!” for one last time. This time, I wanted to know what it is that nothing can be done about. But it was too late; I was tongue-tied and the trek was over. The small, emotional bridge through which we had connected vanished too, but the impact was made. Their simplicity and indomitable spirit will never be forgotten.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 4:03:19 PM |

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