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Chadar Trek

Crawling on narrow ice ledgeAsitav Sen was born and grew up  in Kolkata (Calcutta) and somewhere along the way Dreams of travel took hold.   A thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn about different cultures and the inspiration of  Satyajit Ray’s film Agantuk have all played their part in his wanderlust.  This is his account of an ice trek he made on the frozen Zanskar River with friends and colleagues. The Zanskar River, a tributary of the Indus carves its way through  the isolated, mountainous region of Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  For the Zanskari people, the Chadar Trek, as it’s known, has long been the only route out of the mountains in winter when the passes are closed by snow and now for adventurers a winter trek to dream of.  Asitav recounts the trip with an infectious freshness, from the obstacles that had to be overcome in getting the trek arranged to the physical ones faced on the journey along with observations on the culture and way of life.

The Editor

Chhaang being served

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
- Virginia Woolf

The Dream

The submerged truth started emerging on Nov 10, 2010 while me and some of my friends were commenting on an album I had recently uploaded in Facebook. The album was regarding a road trip I had recently completed. I expressed my interest to visit Leh. But the plan was to witness a rich heritage & culture and to the superb photogenic landscapes. When Neeraj Mathur, Devasish Sharma and Somenath Roy expressed their interest, I started talking to people regarding the plan. I was planning to attend Losar.  Only a handful confirmed. I also got myself confirmed that there were possibilities of roads to the major tourist places being blocked during winter due to snowfall. And due to the cloudburst, possibilities of Losar being organized in a proper way, was also less.
I had almost given up the idea of visiting Ladakh in winter, when suddenly the Idea of trekking on frozen Zanskar river struck my mind. Also known as Chadar Trek, it is arguably the wildest trek in the world. I had a talk with Neeraj Mathur. He agreed. Devasish Sharma and Somenath Roy said they will confirm. I had a talk with Prafulla Ranjan. He also agreed. There were few others who were in dual state of mind.

I started searching the internet for more information. Unfortunately, proper information is not available on the internet regarding the trek. This has and is helping many people to earn a lot of money through commission. Since most of us do not have proper contact information, some people exploit and use the opportunity. They will organize the trek for you and charge more than double. They will suggest you equipments and places from where to buy. You will buy those, later to discover that you could have bought it at much cheaper cost (I experienced the same).

Experiencing the wildness of the Chadar is a dream. I wanted this dream to come true. The first thing was to set a deadline. After discussing with Neeraj and Prafulla,  we decided that we’ll reach Leh on Jan 16, 2011.

The Search for Dreamers

After deciding the dates, there were two major things to do. To find a proper guide and organizer. And to find more people who’ll trek with us. There were at least 20 different agents (Local from Leh as well as agents from the planes). I gave my full effort. The agents from the planes were very costly due to obvious reason that ultimately, they will pass on the event to a local agent on commission. Even local agents were quite costly. Mostly because they were also going to pass on the event to some guide. My search ended when I got in touch with Tsering Phunchok. I discovered that Tsering is the founder of Shanti Tours and Travels as well as the guide himself. Having done this trek more than 60 times, his experience was beyond comparison. He gave us extremely good rates. So good were the rates, that at one point of time, we thought that may be he is a fraud or may be, his services will be extremely poor. However, we got the clear picture when Tsering came down to Delhi for his personal work. Neeraj Mathur met him for detailed information. The meeting gave us a lot of clarity regarding the trek and the possibilities.

Now, we were only 3 and we had taken a rate for 6 – 10 guys. Less than that would have made the trip too expensive for us. My search for more people continued. While I was trying to gather information from the internet, I created a post in Indiamike forum asking for people to join our group. I sent out emails to a few people had posted earlier in the forum. Pradeep Kumar, one of them, called me up within a few days. He agreed immediately. Now we had the fourth person with us. I had committed Pradeep Sir a group of 6, which was an absolute necessity to make the dream come true.

The search for trek partners continued. Friends after friends were called. All said that they will confirm later. I had an interesting observation during this time. All who had to accept the offer, did so within two to three days. Those who didn’t respond within this time frame, didn’t agree later. Sandipan Nath (my college junior), I had a belief, would never say no to such adventure. However, he also refused due to some personal issues. Biplab Das and Avishek Saikia, both my college seniors, who was in constant touch for a few days regarding the trek dropped their plan.  However, least expected person whom I called up, Vikram Goyal, agreed immediately!!! But his only issue was to obtain leave. That didn’t help much. The search continued. I must have approached more than 100 people! Piyush Bhatter and Kumar Spandan, both my ex-classmates from NITS also refused. Then, one fine day I got Rahul Varadarajan online. I briefed him the was the whole idea. He confirmed the very next day. Now, I was sure of 5. Vikram was still a dilemma!!! By December I was sure I won’t be getting anymore trek-partners. In fact those who had agreed were also in doubt whether it’ll be possible with 5 guys. All had the question in mind – what if one misses out? The challenge was to retain all who had agreed. I decided to reinforce the confirmation status by purchasing the tickets to Leh. We shifted our date to Jan 17, 2011.

We purchased the air tickets on Dec 02, 2010. Vikram initially wanted to fly from Srinagar. But later he also changed the plan and decided to fly from New Delhi with us. He purchased the ticket on Dec 04, 2010. With tickets to Leh confirmed, all of us became sure that the plan’s final (Coz, with tickets purchased, I knew, Vikram will surely arrange the leave). This boosted up the confidence of the group and we started to search out for the equipments, which was again an indispensable task.

Mathur met Tsering in New Delhi on Dec 03, 2010. He collected all possible information which included a list of equipments too. Pradeep Sir, being a regular trekker had almost all the equipments unlike others including me.

Equipments

The Search for Equipments

Jackets Trousers and Daypacks
Many people suggested many things. North Face was the best option without any doubt. But, not only are the jackets too costly, they’re not available in India too!!! We had three options:
- First, to hire it from Leh. But we were not sure how the jackets will be. We would have had to turn back from Leh itself in case, jackets were not available on hire or in case they were not good enough. Who would have risked that!!! We dropped this option. (However, good down jackets are available on rent, which we discovered later).
- Second, to hire from IMF, New Delhi. But they confirmed that they have only fleece jackets available. Down or filled jackets were not available. So, we had to go for the third option.
- Third, to buy sub-zero jackets manufactured in India. I searched out a few makers of sub-zero jackets in Kolkata. There are a few people in Kolkata who are professional mountaineers and trekkers, who manufacture/rent out mountaineering and trekking equipments.  Among them, Hi-Trek owned by Soumya Mukhrejee who gave me a good deal. I ordered 5 polyfill jackets, 5 waterproof trousers and 5 day-packs. He got them manufactured, which I collected in Kolkata.

Shoes
Shoes, the most important and the most difficult one to arrange!!! Again there were options.  For Rahul, Prafulla and Vikram, we decided to hire Millet ones from IMF, New Delhi. While myself, Mathur and Pradeep Sir got North Face ones from Kathmandu.

Other Gears
Headgear of Outdoor Research was bought from Adventure 18, a shop in New Delhi. The gear is extremely good. But  the same thing is available in Leh at 1/3rd the cost, which we later discovered.
We bought the Quechua and Head brand gloves and liner from Manish, another shop owner from Delhi. Liners were very useful. But, seldom did we use the gloves.  We hired Gaiters from IMF, New Delhi.  Eyegears with 100% UV protection were also bought individually.

With all set for the trek, we all started counting days.

First sight of the Himalayan range

First sight of the Himalayan range

Jan 13, 2011
Danapur Express. I started for Kolkata from Patna.
Jan 14, 2011
Reached Kolkata. Went home. Went out to collect the jackets from Hi-Trek in Belur. Vikram started from Ludhiana. Prafulla started from Patna.
Jan 15, 2011
Prafulla and Vikram reached. Rahul started for New Delhi. All those who were in New Delhi, met Tsering for final discussion. I bought the necessary medicines and toiletries.
Jan 16, 2011
Early morning flight to New Delhi. From Airport, I directly went  to Debasish da’s (Debasish Barthakur) place. It was a good feeling, meeting college senior, junior and batchmates. I met Manosh and Boka after a long time.  Rahul also reached New Delhi. By noon, Mathur, Prafulla, Vikram and Rahul came down to Debasish da’s place where we distributed the jackets, trousers and daypacks. We went out for further shopping. Battery for camera, chocolates. Vikram bought camera. trousers etc.  We had a party at Debasish Da’s place in the evening. Went started for Mathur’s place at 11 night.
Jan 17, 2011
We were still in the car, on our way to Mathur’s place. Reached at 1. Slept for 3 hrs. Started for airport at 4. We reached airport at around 5:30 in the morning.
With every passing moment , we could feel the increasing excitement within us. I met Tsering in the check in queue for the first time. I met Pradeep Sir also in the same queue.
One should have seen the faces of other passengers while we all had to open our shoes for x-ray!!! People looked at us in pity. Some looks even suggested that we were aliens!!!
The detailed scrutiny by the security personnel suggested that we were looking like terrorists for sure. They took time, long enough to make us the last passengers boarding the flight!!! At last we boarded the flight.

About an hour after the flight took off, we had the first sight of the Himalayan range. We all were awestruck!!! The clicks started. We started clicking pics desperately. We thought that probably it was our last opportunity to witness this beauty!!!

We reached Leh airport. The temperature was 13 degrees below freezing point. After collecting our luggage, we boarded the cars Tsering hired. A 10 minutes drive through the hibernating town took us to Shanti Guest House. We just kept our luggage inside the room and went straight to the common (dining) room for tea. The best part in Shanti Guest house was that we never felt that we were outsiders. The food and the dishes were be kept on the low height table and we used to serve ourselves. But at times, Tsering would go out of the way to serve food at times or may be pour tea or pour warm water from flask.

Shanti Guest House

Shanti Guest House

I had a discussion with Tsering and discovered an interesting thing. When Ladakh was opened to public, mostly foreigners would come and stay. They did not expect a luxury during their stay and their motive was to experience Ladakh. They usually would do their works themselves. The local people, who were new to the industry of hospitality, grew up (in the sense of tourism) in a way synchronized with the expectations of the foreigners. But when the Indian tourists started flowing in, their expectations were different. They will expect their each and every single work to be done by others. Their logic would be that they are paying for that. They would demand water to be sent to room, tea to be served in the room or food to be served etc. Initially Local people were not comfortable with this habit and did not encourage Indian tourists. However, Since last couple of years, the inflow of India tourists has equaled the inflow of foreign tourists. Naturally, the local people are also developing in the similar manner. I observed the trait in our group also and compared with another foreign group who were staying in the same guest house.

” It seems that a few years down the line, Ladakh tourism will focus more on these things and it’ll turn into any other hotspot of the country where people go; not to breathe the different air, not do live a different life, but to kill some more time in the name of masti. Apparently, the local people will also change. The lust for money will pretty soon kill the innocence we discovered.”

We had a wonderful Ladakhi dish for lunch. It was a stew of spices, vegetables and wafers made of wheat flour – called Thupka.

Market Leh

Market Leh

After lunch, we went out to the market.  Due to the cold, most of the shops were closed. That helped in the removal of most of the ‘artificial‘ in the locality. I understood why the trip was so special. It is so, because the ambiance of the place was not artificially created to attract tourist and hence lose, rather hide (not necessarily intentionally) the true local taste. I have been to some of the tourist places in across India. Everywhere, everything seemed artificial. Say for example, my last tour (prior to this one) was in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. What I experienced there was very good without any doubt. But somehow, somewhere, I missed the local taste. The feeling of being there. I stayed in hotel. Visited beaches, etc. etc. But all of it was for the purpose of tourism. The local Andaman and Nicobar were so far hidden and I could discover very little of it.
Coming back to Ladakh, the market was small but left an impression. The shops were not decorated for tourists.  They were for the local people. We bought apricots and woolen socks. We had a nice time in the market. The guest house was about 3 Km from the market. We returned. Had our dinner. And went to sleep in the warm room. Tsering gave us sleeping bags to sleep in, so that we get habituated. Rahul, Vikram, Neeraj and Pradeep Sir had some trouble with loose motion. I was yet to experience. Praffula was already on norfloxacin as a precautionary measure. No one faced any other problem till then. Diamox was working well.
Jan 18, 2011
We woke up. Freshened up. The superb view from the window gave a good start to the day!!!  Went to the common/dining room to discover superb Ladakhi Fulkas ready!!! These double layered thick round bread with warm air inside tastes wonderful with butter and apricot jam. We used to leak the Fulka with fork and put butter and jam inside, between the two layers.  The grand breakfast was followed by Ladakhi tea!!! The tea is prepared with butter made from the milk of yak. Its salty in taste and works good!!!
We met Rinzin, Tsering’s brother in law who plays for India in ice hockey team! I had no idea that ice hockey was played in any part of India!!!

Thiksay and Hemis Monasteries

Thiksay and Hemis Monasteries

By 9 o’clock, we got ready and started for Hemis monastery in a car. We stopped at Shey, in front of Shey monastery, on the way.  Hemis monastery, re-established in 1672, is the largest and the wealthiest in Ladakh, occupied by 380 monks. Unfortunately, the monks were away in Stokpa as the King of Ladakh had died the previous day. We could meet two students and one old monk from whom, I couldn’t gather much information. We went to Thiksey monsatery after that. I could manage a few good landscape shots from the top of the monastery!!! Here also, we could meet only two monks as other had gone to Leh.

We returned to Leh. Had lunch in a restaurant. We had Rishtey, a special Kashmiri dish. Its a mutton ball with ghee inside, cooked in gravy.  After lunch, we returned to the guest house and took rest. We had an early dinner with veg dimsum (Momo), as we were supposed to star early next day – day 1 of the trek. We finished our packing.  In between I managed to take a few night shots from the roof of Shanti Guest House.  I added my name in the list of people having stomach trouble in the group!

Jan 19, 2011
After quick breakfast, we got ready to leave for Chilling. Tsering and his team were kind enough to pack our sleeping bags for us (throughout the trek)! We boarded a mini bus, hired by Tsering.  Two kitchen staff, one cook, Tsering and us; we started. 11 porters joined us in Leh town. The 2 hours drive to Chilling started. We were passing through the picturesque landscape. Crossed Patharsahib. We halted at the place of union of two rivers: Zangskar and Indus. I felt a thrill inside. In front of me was the great river which bred one of the best known civilization of the world – Indus Valley Civilization. The river which has witnessed the growth and decline. I failed to count the numerous legends it hid. Still flowing.  We continued. We reached the place soon, from where we started our trek.

First view of Chadar

First View of Chadar

The road in front was under construction. We got down through the rocks to the river. Tsering took his first step on the chadar. With his (magic!!!) stick, he poked on the ice. Satisfaction drew a smile on his face. He went and stood at the middle of the river and waited for us to reach near him.  He said that the ice was good here. The snow on it was also a couple of days old; so it had cohered to the ice well. So we would be getting good grip with our shoes. The walk would be comfortable. We started to walk. We followed Tsering, stopping occasionally to take snaps. The first day on the chadar!!! The 4 hour walk was quite good. We walked comfortably enjoying and observing the landscape. Only at one place we had to walk on loose rocks about a foot above the chadar, where it was a bit weak. The stretch was about 20 m. In this stretch, there were a few places where we had to walk on sand. This was a bit difficult for me as the sand is not stable and is goes down when you place foot on it and you have to quickly take another step to avoid going down further.

We reached Tilatsumdo. The tent was placed. We had a late lunch with noodles prepared with vegetables. We discovered that Tsering had brought the smaller tent by mistake!!! However, it was not a big issue and we could adjust in it. One major incident that took place was Mathur’s accident. I had gone for natures call. When I returned, I discovered that Mathur had slipped on ice and fell in the river into waist deep water. Pradeep sir and Rahul rescued him. Mathur rushed back to the camp to change. He is the only person who used the second pair of inner!!! The evening went by drying socks, shoes and other dresses over the fire.

Porters

Porters

The porters are the lifeline on Chadar. I remember we had started walking much earlier than the porters. And they reached the camp much before us! They camped in a cave a few metres away from our tent. I went to spend some time with them. Most of them are Zangskaris (People from Zangskar Valley). Amazing, these people are. Most of the time they eat only sattu (Powder of fried/boiled wheat) and tea. And the brisk movement by which they climb and walk on the rocks and their balance on ice is amazing. They not only carry the luggage, but also collect firewood while in camp. Its the fire that kept us warm in the evening and helps us dry the shoes and socks. Never did we find any of the porters ever annoyed when asked to do something. They execute their work very quickly and with a smile on their face. They are indeed the lifeline on Chadar.

We finished a quick dinner and went to sleep. Tsering’s cook continued to surprise us with his menu!!! He cooked impossible dishes in the wild at freezing temperature! The tent was overcrowded, but warm. Rahul woke up almost everyone at 1 am while asking for the headlamp. Every night, religiously, Rahul went for nature’s call at 1 am. And necessarily, he’d wake everyone up knowingly or unknowingly!!! All of us got rid of the stomach trouble by this day.

Jan 20, 2011  Deepyokma Tsomo Bao
We woke up very early in the morning. Tsering had instructed us the previous day to do so. We left the camp immediately after breakfast. We were the first ones to leave the camp. Unlike the previous day, the chadar started showing its wilder face; that too pretty early. The ice was very shiny. This meant that the probability of slipping over ice was more. In fact all of us fell down at least once. Rahul must have broken the world record for falling down while walking, maximum number of times. After about an hour’s work, we faced a hurdle. The chadar was not properly formed at one place. And we had to climb up about 15 metre. The sight of the hurdle made me forget that I should have taken a shot of the place.

I had never climbed rock in my life. And 15 metre on a dificult place, where one wrong step could have meant broken bones (if lucky) else, straight down the Zangskar; the body, never to be discovered again!!! One can imagine the situation. But at points like this, fear doesn’t help. I took a deep breathe and told to myself that there’s no other option!!! We’ll have to climb. If there’s something that we must do, then there’s no point in thinking anything about it. At the most difficult part of the climb, Tsering pulled us up by holding our hand from above. The rock was almost plain except for this small extension at one place. It was about 2 cm wide and 4 cm long. Tsering instructed me to keep my left foot on the extension and extend my right hand towards him who was also extending his hand towards me to hold me and pull me up. I remember taking a couple of deeeep breath before extending my hand to Tsering above and setting my foot on an extended portion. I kept my foot on the extension. I felt a good grip on the extension, just below the joint of my toe. This boosted my confidence. Tsering pulled my hand upwards and I tried to move myself upwards with the help of my foot. Then, when my elbows reached the surface of the rock, I climbed up with the help of my hands! I’m sure, I’m incapable to explain the whole thing exactly and how I felt after that. Before climbing up, I thought that probably, I won’t be able to climb up. When I did so, I became a person more confident.

We had to climb one more time. But the terrain was not as difficult as the first one. Then after about four hours of walk we stopped for lunch. All of us were exhausted! We had a superb lunch with tuna pasta!!! With every passing day, Tsering would surprise us more in terms of Food. “And chadar, will surprise you every hour, every time to pay a visit!!!”, Tsering would say.

After lunch, we continued our journey. Just after taking the first turn, we discovered that the chadar was weak. Again, we had to climb up. This was probably the longest span on the rocks on that day. The terrain wasn’t much difficult except for the place where we had to cross sand. By the time we climbed down, we had walked for four hours and climbed the rocks thrice. All of us were exhausted. Deepyokma was another three hours of walk. We became sure that we won’t able to reach there. Tsering decided to spend the night at Tsomo, another cave. Deepyokma was about two hours walk from the the place. We all agreed. It took us another two hours reach Tsomo.

Frozen Fall - Tsering - View at Tsomo

Frozen Fall - Tsering - View at Tsomo

Tsomo bao or Tsomo cave is named after a lake in Tibet.  Tsering shared the story with us:

The legend of Tsomo Bao
Years ago, in the remote village of Nyrak in Zangskar valley, there was a powerful astrologer. Nyrak has suffered from scarcity of water for irrigation since ages. The astrologer, in his effort help out the people of Nyrak, went to Tibet to meet the head Lama for help. This repeated a few good number of times till the they decided to help Tsomo out. They gave him a box and asked him to carry to Nyrak. They also warned him not to open the box till he reaches Nyrak. Happy with his success, the astrologer started for Nyrak. Now, the nearer he was going towards Nyrak, heavier the box was getting. And so was his curiosity regarding what was there inside the box. When he was hardly a couple of hours from Nyrak, his curiosity forced him to open the box. The moment he opened the box, two big fishes jumped out of the box. The two fishes hit at two separate places a few metres up in the rocks and penetrated the mountain. It is said that they penetrated the rock and made a tunnel till Tsomo lake, a large lake in Tibet. The fishes reached the lake and water started flowing through the tunnel.

The astrologer realized his mistake. Had he opened the box in Nyrak, the fishes would have made a tunnel from Nyrak to Tsomo. That would have solved the problem of water scarcity in Nyrak. The sad astrologer went back to Nyrak. He tried his best to divert the tunnel to Nyrak, in vain. In his effort, he had closed one of the tunnels.

One can find both perforations, after an hours walk from Tsomo. The falls created are in shape of human nose. Water continues to fall from one and the other one is dry!!!

After dinner, we spend the full moon night inside the cave, packed inside sleeping bags!!!

Jan 21, 2011 Nyrak Gyapos Skalpos
We woke up in the morning and witnessed snowfall. The snow was about two inches thick on the ground.We started a bit late as Nyrak was hardly three hours walk from Tsomo. The snowfall on the ice had made it difficult to walk. Its because, the snow suggested good grip. But, the snow was not old enough to have been adhered to the ice. So, what happened is, where we thought we will get a good grip like the first day, we discovered that the snow was loose and we slipped many a times. Rahul, as usual, broke his previous record. We decided that we’ll camp at the place from where people climb up  for Nyrak.  We’ll go up, visit the village and come back to the camp before it gets dark. We saw a frozen fall and the falls in the shape of human nose.

After about 30 mins of walk, I noticed that Tsering was worried about something. On being asked he said that by this time, we were supposed to meet people going to Leh, which we didn’t. This meant that there was some trouble on the way.  Chadar trek is called the wildest due to its uncertainity. Today at one particular place, you’ll find chadar, meters thick. Tomorrow, the chadar will vanish at the same place and you’ll have to climb up in the mountains to find a way through the rocks!!! Tsering shared many of his experiences. How he walked 17 hours a day to reach Leh quickly to arrange rescue of two Swiss media personality. How he avoided death from avalanche. How he has walked through waist deep water for miles. How he has guided people to climb up through vertical rocks with the help of ropes. Each trek had its memory.

I hoped that the memory won’t be a bad one in our case. I was hoping to meet people on their way to Leh. But there was no sign. We continued our walk till we reached Deepyokma. There was still no sign of any person going to Leh. This was a clear sign that there was some sort of trouble on the way. Trouble meant thin chadar as snowfall was not heavy enough to cause avalanche, which would have broken the chadar. Thin chadar or no chadar meant steep climb which. Nyrak is hardly 3 hours walk from Deepyokma.
And by 1 pm, there was no sign of anyone coming from that side. This meant that if we continued our journey, we won’t be able to reach on our scheduled time. Naturally, we won’t be able to return within scheduled time and will be missing the flight to New Delhi.

It was while we were discussing these things, we saw three people coming from the opposite side. The three exhausted guys confirmed what we had assumed. They had to climb thrice while coming from Nyrak to Deepyokma. So steep were the climbs that they had to use rope. They had started at 7 in the morning and reached Deepyokma at 1. 6 long hours, where it usually doesn’t take more than 3 hours. The three guys were local Zangskaris. If they have taken 6 hours, we would have taken, not less than 9 hours!!! The plan of going to Nyrak was immediately dropped. However we walked further towards Nyrak till we reached Gyapos Skalpos.  Our cook prepared our lunch in the middle of the river, on the ice!!! And we had our lunch while sitting on ice in the middle of the river. A few meters away was the cave Gyapos Skalpos Bao. Tsering shared the story of Gyapos Skalpos over lunch.

The legend of Gyapos Skalpos.
Years ago, the King of Ladakh name Gyapos, while crossing the chadar, decided to halt at a cave somewhere between Nyrak and Deepyokma. The King was travelling along with his courtiers and cook. Everything was fine. But unexpectedly, the next morning, to their surprise, they discovered that the chadar had vanished. The location of the cave was such, that there was no escape through the rocks and the mountain (unless off course they had modern day equipments!!!) So, they had to stay back for the day. But the next day also the situation was same. Things didn’t change for a few days and the stock of food got over. This became a cause of concern. Unable to find anything else, the cook decided to cook the skin bag, which they were carrying to store water. He cut the bag into pieces and cooked it for the King and others. This also continued for a couple of days, but the situation of chadar didn’t improve. One fine day, the cook declared that there were no further skin bags too and hence, they won’t have anything to eat. They will have to fill up their stomach with water only.

The worried courtiers and the King secretly had a meeting when the cook had gone to bring some water. They decided that if the situation doesn’t improve the next day, they will kill the cook for food. This the cook overheard. Worried and tensed, not knowing what to do cook went back to the river. He sat down at the bank. He kept his stick on the river, supporting it on a rock. Then prayed to God,” Lord, please improve the situation and let good chadar be formed. Else you know what will happen to me.” He then went back to the cave.  God listened to his prayer. The next morning, they discovered that a good chadar has formed and they continued their journey to Nyrak. They collected further food from the village!!!  Since then, no one stays at the cave.

We saw the cave from where we were having lunch. It was named after the King Gyapos. Skalpos is a Ladakhi word which means Skin. Gyapos Skalpos, hence means ‘Gyapos, the King who ate skin’.

After lunch we returned back to Deepyokma. By evening, many other people from both the directions came to the place to camp. Probably there were more than 150 people on that night, who had camped within a radius of 1 Km at various suitable locations.  The evening was spent gossiping while sitting beside fire.  My sleeping bag got wet by mistake. I had kept the water bottle inside the bag and the bottle was not tightened properly. It took us a long time to dry the bag.

Jan 22, 2011 Tsomo
We started off late as we had to walk till Tsomo only. The day was not very eventful.
After reaching Tsomo, Tsering noticed paw marks of snow leopard. I was quite excited to discover the marks. Snow Leopard, an endangered species is a moderately large cat having very long tails. They are found in the rocky mountains in the Himalayan Range. They feed on Himalayan Wild Goat, sheep etc. One unusual thing is that they feed on vegetation also. They are very swift, clever and shy too. They sometimes attack domestic livestock too. That’s the time when the local villagers can see them. Sometimes during their mating season also they can be seen. They cannot roar. Their paw marks are identified by the large width. They prefer following the trail of other animals. It is estimated that there are about 700 snow leopards left in Ladakh.
The day went by. We went inside our sleeping bags, preparing for the next. Little did we know what was kept for us the next day.

Snow Leopard paw marks

Snow Leopard paw marks

Jan 23, 2011   Tilatsumdo
We started off quite early. The chadar was good. After about 2 hours walk we had to climb up once in the rocky mountain to find our way. The chadar was weak there. The terrain was less difficult but tiring. We found more paw marks of Snow Leopard on the way. We stopped for lunch after we got down on chadar. After lunch, when we were about to start again, Tsering came across someone whom he knew. He was with another group who were coming from Leh. They were speaking in Ladakhi, but I noticed the changing expression on Tsering’s face. For a moment he was a bit worried. On being asked the reason he said that we may have to climb up in the mountains at couple of places. He said that in a very normal tone. After about 30 mins walk, we faced our first hurdle.

On the side way of the Zangskar, the chadar was about 3 feet wide. The ice was shiny. A large rock protruded itself over the chadar creating a gap of about 5 feet. Walking through it was too risky due to two reasons. Firstly, since the chadar was not very wide, a small slip would have taken us down the river. Secondly, the chadar was not very thick. Walking had its risk of breaking the chadar. Crawling was the best option. The weight of the body distributes on four points, so probability of the ice breaking due to body weight is less. Moreover, it reduces the probability to slip on the ice.We had to cross similar place once again just after a few meters of walk. This is probably the most risk prone activity on normal chadar. Of course, when there is too much snowfall and you have to walk through snow a few feet thick, it’s far more dangerous!!!

The next and probably the worst (for me) of the terrain came after another few meters of walk. It was a steep climb of about 30 meter. In the middle of the climb, I stopped. I couldn’t find the right rock to step on!!! I was looking at every rock nearby to find a proper one to step on to climb further. Tsering came to the rescue!!! He pulled me up once again like the second day. He started helping others while I started climbing further. At one point, there was again some sand. The span was big enough not to be covered in single step. I stopped again. Loose sand was the cause of worry for me always. I started looking for some other way, in vain. When my sight went to the roaring water of the Zangskar below, my heart probably started beating faster than Neil Armstrong’s heart just before stepping on the moon!!! But fear is of no help in situation like this. I got hold of a rock with my two hands. I took my first step. That was it, the loose sand below my foot started going down. It was looser than I was expecting. My left foot lost all support. I’d have gone directly inside the chilling river had I not held the rock with my hands!!! I stood there like that for about 15 seconds, standing on my right leg, supporting myself with the hands. Pradeep Sir and Praffula were shouting and asking me to continue and not stand. Halting on places like that is a disaster. The rock I was holding upon could break due to prolonged pressure. I continued. I tested the place I was going to step on by stamping the place very hard for a couple of times to make sure that it won’t fall down. I continued this till I reached safer place!!! We all sat down on the river bank after we got down to a safer place. All were silent. It was probably a self realization phase regarding the experience we all had. I described mine here. But all did face similar or more difficulty.  After taking some rest, we resumed our walk. Never did we speak about what we went through. I’m sure the experience has made us realize the importance of life, why we need to be thankful to be alive!!!

After couple of hours of walk, we reached Tilatsumdo. We reached quite early. We prepared for our last night on chadar.

Camping for the night at Tilatsumdo

Camping for the night at Tilatsumdo

Jan 24, 2011 Homestay at Chilling
We started early for Chilling. It was our last day on chadar and all of us wanted to stay more in spite of all the hardship and difficulty!!! We walked on chadar till we saw the road up in the mountain. We bade adieu to chadar and climbed up to walk on the road. On the way we stopped to have tea at a small shop. I noticed how dry vegetables were kept in different containers.
We continued walking till we reached Chilling. Our cook prepared our lunch. After having lunch, we went up in the village to find a place to stay. Tsering went to talk to the guys. One family agreed and we all moved into a comfortable, warm room!  Chilling is a very small village having about seven or eight families. Govt. has been kind enough to arrange solar power, running water line to every house in the village. The village also has a school. Govt. has also provided one telephone connection. We all used the phone one by one to convey the message of our safe completion of the trek!
The houses in Chilling (like other places in Ladakh) have a flat roof which is used to store fodder and firewood. Flat because, it doesn’t rain. Ladakh is actually a high altitude desert, which falls in the rain shadow area and receives almost no rain from monsoon. The houses are built with abode bricks and rammed earth. When inside the room, one can see the timbers running horizontally on the roof. These are left exposed and add some sort of beauty! These timbers support the bricks and the earth above. The windows are large having wooden frames wrapped around glass. All of it- the earth, wood, glass helps to retain warmth inside the house. The toilets are kept at a height, having hole on the floor. After you are done, you are supposed to cover you shit with sand, mud, yak dung which is also kept inside. Even a shovel is also kept!!! The hole is closed when the heap of the waste becomes high enough to reach near the floor. A new hole is then created at another place. Time to time, as per requirement, the organic waste is removed to be used as fertilizer.  Water is not at all wasted. The waste water goes directly to the field where cultivation is done. Ladakh is a wonderful example of how limited natural resource can be used to effectively survive in coldest of region!!!
We roamed around in the village. Chilling is famous for copper utensils. It was probably years ago, a coppersmith from Nepal, came down to Leh. He discovered some copper mines near Chilling. Being a coppersmith, he utilized the opportunity to start his business. He settled down in Chilling and started extracting copper and making various utensils. There was a time when almost all the supply of copper items to Leh was from Chilling only. Today, however, only a few traces of the tradition remain. We were lucky to meet a 74 years old coppersmith. Actually, we were staying at his place only. He was working in his workshop which was about a few meters away from his home.

Local beer -Ladakhi house Chilling - Utensils

Local beer -Ladakhi house Chilling - Utensils

Another characteristic feature of traditional Ladakhi house is the kitchen. It’s large in size, adjacent to and combined with the living/dining room. Numerous beautiful utensils are kept on display!  In the evening, before dinner, Chhaang was served. It’s a local beer made from barley. It was super smooth. Carlsberg or Corona is nothing when compared to Chhaang!

Jan 25, 2011
We left Chilling. The bus came late. We reached the guest house by noon. Gave the tips to the porters, which has become a custom. We went to the market to burn dvds of photos we all had shot.  It took us a long time! After returning back to the guest house, we packed our things and had dinner. The next morning, we had to wake up early.

Jan 26, 2011
We bade adieu to Tsering. The flight was on time.  We all reached New Delhi safely. I went to Debasish da’s place. I boarded the train for Patna the same evening along with Prafulla.
Next day, we reached Patna and resumed our normal life!

The memories of the trek will always remain. Chadar still calls me. I still dream of going there. I still see Tsering walking ahead of us chanting the tibetian mantra “Om Mani Padme Hoom”.

All photos Copyright of Asitav Sen or Rahul Varadarajan as stated on images and photo montages

Chhaang being served

Asitav SenThis account was first published in Asitav Sen’s blog, Barreled Phantasy, where you will find lots more photos of the Chadar Trek and tales of other travels.  Do take a look.

4 Comments
  1. Liza permalink

    am inspired : )

  2. Rupam permalink

    hmmm….inpired me too….

  3. richard Oliver permalink

    Wow…. An amazing journey and one that has inspired me. Can you kindly advise what level of fitness you require? Also how difficult the climbing aspect could be? Its the two things that worry me if I was to do this amazing trek.

    Many thanks in advance for your response.

    Kind Regards

    Rich

    • editor permalink

      Hi Rich,

      I passed your questions on to Asitav for first-hand feedback – this is his response:
      There is not much of climbing involved. Professional climbing experience is not required at all.
      For fitness, any person who is capable to do his/her daily activities independently can do this trek. I started running for an hour in the morning to prepare for the trek. I started running 3 months prior to the trek. My other friends didn’t even do that. Only problem they faced was pain in the leg as they were not habituated to walking.
      Hope this will help.

      Asitav Sen made the Chadar Trek with Shanti Tours and Travels who I’m sure would be happy to give you further advice.
      http://www.shantitours.com

      Hope you make the trek one day.
      Diane
      (Editor)

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