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Walking the frozen blanket

Pradeep Chamaria | New Delhi |

My first step on to the sheet of ice, found me helplessly slipping. I was lying flat on my back, my arms outstretched and a beautiful blue sky above.This was how the famous frozen sheet, the "Chadar", on the river Zanskar in Ladakh, welcomed me. I was here to trek over the frozen river ~ a trek supposed to be the ultimate experience for adventure lovers.

As I write under the warm Delhi sun, I think of my days on the Chadar. A fascinating kaleidoscope of images, colours and sounds flash by as each day ended with a feeling of completeness, found rarely in the "real" world.

Before arriving in the valley, I could never imagine that winter in the Zanskar could be that harsh. The otherwise powerful flow of the river had come to a stand-still. The sub-zero temperature had frozen the entire length of it, forming an ice slab over 150 km in length, and eight feet thick. I could clearly hear the river's ire at the winter's attempt to curb its flow, as an angry roar under my feet. Throughout the trek, I had to constantly remind myself that I was walking on a river! The ice cover had so many "faces".

Harsh life

During winters, the Chadar is the only route available to Zanskaris to travel in and out of the area, all other routes and passes being blocked by heavy snowfall. Now popular among adventure lovers as a winter trek-route, it 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 minus 25 degrees C.

Landing at the Kushabh Bakula Rinpoche airport in Leh, in temperatures of -16 degrees Celsius, the city greeted me with non-functioning hotels. Most of them shut down for the winter season as there are not many tourists then. Also, the extremely low temperature means heating the rooms and providing water. The hotels that remain open charge guests almost twice that of peak season. I managed to find accommodation in the Old Ladakh Hotel, close to the main market.

I decided to stay in Leh for two days before starting the trek so as to acclimatise my body to the weather there. But sleep eluded me. After lunch I went walking around, through some small lanes, the main market, and the Leh palace. When I returned to my hotel, the heating was on. The relief from the cold, however, was short-lived. At around 10 pm, the electricity supply was cut off, and within a few minutes, everything in the room was freezing. It was a tough night to pass, as I lay restless under five quilts.

The next day I decided to visit some nearby monasteries. The Spituk and Thiksey monasteries, or Gompas, are the famous ones near Leh. I first went to the Spituk Gompa, known for its collection of Buddhist artefacts and for the Spituk festival. Next on the itinerary was the Thiksey gompa, 12 storeys high, with a number of statues of the Buddha. A 15 m high statue of Maitreya Buddha, sits in the main prayer hall.

The trek

After another sleepless night, I started for Chilling, the starting point of our trek early next morning.

Chilling lies not far from the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers. It was a solo trek for me but I had taken Phal, a local guide-cum-porter, with me. We started our trek just before the Markha valley. When I first stepped on the Chadar, an exhilarating feeling engulfed me. I had a hard time finding a firm footing on the ice. Trying very hard not to slip, I started walking. 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?" 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 a fire to make some salty tea. We started again and headed straight 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. It took us three-and-a-half hours to cover a distance of about 14 km from Guru-Do, to reach Tilat-Do. I remember having at least two bad falls and three minor ones. That Phal himself also slipped and fell once made me feel a little better.

Tilat-Do, again, is a tri junction where the Zanskar, Indus and the Chang Tang valleys meet. Reaching there, we found that all the good camping spots and caves had already been taken up. So we had to pitch our tent in front of a large rock on the side of the sandy hill. This reminded me of a very old saying, "There is no advance reservation available in Wilderness". Pitching the tent in the evening was another nightmare. My fingers were stiff because of the cold ~ the temperature was -20 degrees according to my thermometer ~ and the situation was made worse by the 20 km plus wind. We finally did manage to pitch the tent, but just as dinner was getting ready, it collapsed in the wind. We then just got the tent standing and slipped into it. Sleep, again, was difficult to come by, but because I was so exhausted, I did get some towards morning. Phal woke me up the next morning at 6 am, with a smiling face and a cup of hot water to wash and drink.

Packing the tent was even more difficult in the morning than it had been the previous evening. The temperature had fallen further and even with seven layers of clothing on, I was shivering. By the time we set off at 7.30 am, the day was typically sunny with a blue sky, though still cold.

Walking on ice

Before starting, Phal gave me a few tips on how to walk on the ice. He advised me to stay in the middle of the river, the banks being slanted and hence, more slippery. I tried to follow the advice, but the view around me was so awesome that I would still keep landing on my back and knees every now and then. I could not have missed capturing the scenery for anything!

The surface of the river was changing with every 10-12 steps we took. At some points, it would be flat, transparent ice, and just a few metres ahead, frozen froth with ripples in it! The ripples on the surface made walking very difficult as one could not get a firm foothold on them. At one point, after a turn in the valley, we found that the icy surface was missing. We had to climb a rocky hill in order to continue. That was difficult too as much of the surface was sandy and very slippery.

The river bed had small openings at a number of points in the Chadar. I could clearly see long cracks as deep as the river itself, all over it ~ a sight that, more than anything else, was frightening! Phal had a very interesting explanation. "This is the poor man's stretch of the sheet," he said. "Torn at a few places, and stitched at a few." The brightly shining, smooth stretch of it, then was the rich man's luxury.

We kept running into local people crossing the river to reach Leh, as also the other trekking groups,mostly people from Europe.We had to cover more than 20 km to reach MarkalaBao, our next stop. We also had to reach there before any other group and take up a cave for the night's stay. Suddenly Phal shouted, "I found a room." He rushed into the cave and threw our ruck sacks inside. I realized his great hurry when I saw another group returning from Deepyokma, the next day's stop on our itinerary. The local people call any opening in the hills where one can find shelter through the night, a "kamra", meaning room. And what a room it was ~ half covered with rocks, graffiti on the stones, the river flowing right in front of it and snow capped mountain-peaks beyond the river. What more would one want when holidaying in a hill station! There was no water at Markala-Bao, so Phal cut out a chunk of ice from the frozen river to make tea and dinner. We managed to make the cave nice and cozy with a fire.

The temperature next morning was -25 degrees. Luckily, though, there was no wind and so we started off for Deepyokma. Nature had some very beautiful views in store for us that day. A frozen waterfall on the other side of the river, with wonderful icicle formations, made me jump with joy. The thin layer of ice in the middle of the river kept me from crossing over and had to be content with long shots of the waterfall. The noise of flowing water beneath the icy surface also stopped me from being too adventurous.

We had to reach the first village en route, called Nyarak, that day. So we walked on, me hoping to see how the local people lived and, if possible, savour the local cuisine. From Nyarak, we got back along the same trail that we had come. The same way back? Well, technically yes. But it was quicker downhill though as challenging. They say in Zanskar that you have not done the Chadar unless you walk both ways! And it really was even more beautiful. In fact, the Chadar changed by the minute. We finally reached Gurudo on the seventh afternoon and soon after, we were in Chilling.

We went into the first house we came across and the Ladakhi family there, after exchanging a few Ju Le, and Kamzang (greetings and Hello(s) in local parlance), offered us warm water and tea to drink. After a brief rest, we hired a taxi and were back in Leh by early evening.

The walk

Looking back at my trek the ice was clear as glass, shining like a highly polished marble slab with oil splashed here and there. Its smooth slippery surface made walking on it a nightmare. The locals walk with a comical penguin-like waddle. Normal walking requires a "push-off" from the rear foot. The ice does not provide the traction needed for this. It is impossible to "walk" on ice. The Chadar shuffle is a sort of sliding action without lifting the feet ~ taxing on the thigh muscles but safe.

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. The trek on the frozen Zanskar was through a gorge, which truly was an inhospitable terrain, but offered a spectacular landscape ~ truly a photographer's paradise.

(The writer is a freelancer and photographer)