Leh greeted me with non-functioning hotels. I managed to find accommodation in a hotel called the Old Ladakh Hotel close to the main market. Sleeping under five thick quilts was difficult, so I waited for the morning. The sun the next morning did bring in some cheer, but only for a little while, till I realised that almost all my toiletries – the toothpaste, the body oil, my shaving cream – were frozen, and needed dousing in boiling water for a few minutes.
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, which is quite close to the airport. Eighteen kilometres from Leh, it is situated on a high hill, overlooking the Indus. Next on the itinerary was the Thiksey gompa, located at a distance of 17 km from Leh.
We (me and my porter) packed our tent, sleeping bags and mats along with the food supplies, and an extra pair of clothing. We started for Chilling, the starting point of our trek, in a taxi. Chilling lies not far from the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers.
We started our trek 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. 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?”
On reaching our first days halting point, 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”. As I prepared myself to pitch my Dome tent, Phal got the fire lit and from a small hole in the frozen sheet, got some water to make our tea and dinner with.
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 do it, but just as dinner was getting ready, it collapsed with the wind. This went on for a few hours, till we gave up. We then just got the tent standing and slipped in it.
That day, before starting, Phal gave me a few tips regarding how to walk on the ice. I took his advice seriously and tried to follow it, but the view around me was so awesome that I would still keep landing on my butt and knees, every now and then. I could not have missed capturing the scenery on my camera for anything!
The surface of the river was changing with every ten to twelve steps we took. At some point, 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 it was difficult to get a firm foothold on these.
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, frightened me because it made me imagine the ice breaking and myself in deep, cold waters! Phal had a very interesting explanation for the cracks. “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, even stretch of it, then, was the rich man’s bit.
On one of the night during the trek, we found an empty cave or a Kamra for shelter. The local people call a cave as 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!
The next morning was even colder. The temperature in my thermometer was -25 degrees but 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, and predictably, I slipped again! However, the sight of the waterfall was enough for me to forget all my pain, and I was up again, in a flash, and ready to capture the waterfall in my camera.
Throughout the trek, it was like walking in a very long hall of a cold storage unit. The difference was in the nature around us which was the best as could be.
On our way back, we had to trek on the same trail as we had come on. The same way back? Well technically, Yes, in fact the Chadar changed by the minute, and the colors and perspectives all changed, and yes, it was quicker downhill, but 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. Weather changed, light came from different angles, illuminating different colours. And of course, the ice!
Now as I write, sitting comfortably under the sun, in Delhi, 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.
Before arriving in the valley, I could never imagine from whatever I had read that winter on the Zanskar could be that harsh. it, forming an ice slab over 150 km in length, and 8 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.
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.