Seven days alongside the Mighty Zanskar: My experience and memories of Chadar Trek
Being once in love and once to the mountains
Either you’ll be a poet or a wanderer.
– Jasgeet Marwah, January 2017
THE UNFULFILLED DREAM TAKES A LIVE FORM
For seven long years Ladakh had been an unfulfilled dream, a part of my brain was always overcrowded with thoughts of Ladakh. The red cheeks, the snowy peaks, the road trip pictures had all enthralled me since a very long time. But Chadar trek was something unheard of, and when my brother, one day, casually told me to take this trek, I agreed. Even I knew not the seriousness of my own answer. And hence began my search for all those companies which were organizing this trek and I put a query everywhere (One particular company also denied me to take this trek for I had never trekked before). Fortunately, I got a call from Visharad from Crazy Peaks and it was the feeling of assurance and certitude that conversation gave me that I decided to do the frozen river trek with Crazy Peaks. I’ll ever be blessed and thankful for that one phone call. Precisely, that one phone call happened to change the way I’ll be dealing with my life for the rest of my life.
THE INDELIBLE LEAP INTO THE MOUNTAINS
I’m a mountain lover but only from far away. There’s something in the mountains that gets into my head and plays with my stomach. But there was something in the travel stories I had read and listened to about Ladakh that pulled me towards it. So I booked myself with Crazy Peaks for the batch of February 3-11. The flight from Delhi to Leh is one that can’t be missed out. The views from up above from the flight were awe strucking. It seemed as if God had employed nature in covering the mountains with that heavenly snow. The moment I stepped out of the plane, I realized that in just an hour I had reached from twelve degrees above to twelve degrees below zero. With acclimatization and briefing about the trek done, a chit chat with the fellow trekkers and dinner thereafter, we took that one last plunge into our well furnished wooden beds with comfortable mattresses and cozy quilts. This was something all of us were going to miss for the next seven days.
ADIEU CIVILIZATION; WILDERNESS WELCOME ABOARD
The morning of the trek was agog in itself, everyone was fully packed up, trying to get used to the cumbersome feel of gum boots. After the breakfast, we quickly posed for that ‘before the trek begins’ group picture. Everyone settled in the van, a few victory slogans were chanted out and off we set to our journey. The journey away from civilization. Into the quintessence solitude of nature. A journey to no network with the world but a high connectivity with our own self. A brief halt at Sri Pathar Sahib Gurudwara on the way and from thereon till Chilling from where we were to begin the trek. The moment we stepped on the mighty, the ever beautiful and mesmerizing Zanskar river, the experience began. The very feeling that there was somewhere down us a river flowing, and we were somehow able to walk on it made us proud and scared of at the same time. The trek began, with all of us getting acquainted with the river, all of us walking, falling and walking again. On reaching our first camp site at Tilat Sumdo we were served with that delicious Kahwa, which we were to relish every day for our rest of the trek too. Around 6:30 we would have our soup served in our cozy dining tent, followed by chit chats and some lyrical moments. This was going to be our ritual for another six days. After having that gratifying feel-like-home food, we would go into our tents and really long nights would await us.
The next day we witnessed Zanskar in its notorious form, frail and frangible, challenging everyone to cross it. Just a few meters from our base camp had we walked that Nawaang, our trek guide, went further to check the Chadar formation and came back with the news of its being broken for a few kilometers. That meant we would have to climb up a mountain and then descend. This climb which we named as the “Hillary Step’’ was indeed deadly. A step on the wrong place and off we would have gone down in the freezing river. But thanks to Nawaang, Mukul our trek leader and some really helpful trek mates, who made sure that everyone crossed that patch safely. Had it not been for them, this would not have been possible. I still remember Nawaang continuously saying that we need not worry, for he is with us. And it was truly such words which would give that hope and faith of doing the trek successfully. We reached Tsomo Paldar around evening. We would always be welcomed by Mukul, who would cheer us up and congratulate us the moment we would reach the camp site. It was these, along with so many other gestures of kindness, which brought the difficulty level of Chadar a lot down for all of us. Tilat Sumdo had some beautiful views to offer, accompanied with a visit to the nearby age old caves.
Our next stop was Dibb. The trek was plain and beautiful till Dibb. Also, Dibb happened to be the biggest camp site of the whole trek. The sun shone so brightly that we had to remove three layers of clothes and this was the only day we could dry anything that had touched water. The next morning, we left for our final destination Naerak. This trek route was a bit difficult because Chadar had not formed properly, one step at a time was all we could do. On reaching the camp site we came to know that the way till the frozen waterfall was not a way anymore. Chadar had completely broken. But again, it was our trek leader’s call who made sure that we see what we have come to see. So off we went to ascend and descend the highest mountain (of this trek). If there’s one thing that would make me forget all the times I fell, all the times I felt I wouldn’t be able to make it, all the nights of bone numbing chill, the excruciating pain of having been exposed to cold, the moments of ebbs and aches, it was this sight of the frozen waterfall at Naerak. Had Wordsworth ever been to this place, we would have had a whole section of his poetry dedicated to the sublime yet alluring beauty of the magnificent waterfall. It seemed as if time took a pause for that one piece of nature, as if God stopped creating anything after this one beautiful sight was created. The waterfall, in all its majesty and grandiose, in all its colors and stature, was right there in front of us. One would surely have second thoughts of whether to capture the sight or just stand there and adore it and get frozen in the beauty of it. It had ceased to be in its liquid form but there it stood, alive and frozen. The colossal beauty canonized, draped in the suede of virgin snow.
The next morning, we started our trek back to the way we came from. Chadar had started to go liquid on our way back, making the trek more difficult. Nature did everything to show us all the possible forms the river could take. We had the chance to see it in its purely frozen form, for stretches it would be covered with snow, at points it was just one thin layer of ice, stepping on which we could hear it breaking beneath our feet, a few times it had shed its camouflage, and we would have to go knee deep in the river to cross it.
Next day we moved on to Shingra Koma. With lots of music and a bonfire arranged for us, this was to going be our last night of the trek. A blend of wistfulness and pensive feeling that night was. We slept knowing that this trek would end the next day. The euphonious music of the river and the departing lyrics of the flowing wind would be heard to us long after the trek would be over. The afterglow of the sunset, the unsurpassable beauty of the sun rising from behind the cover of snow covered mountains, the frozen beauty of the waterfalls that stood anchored to the pinnacle of the mountains, the warm humility of the people of Zanskar, not to forget the ever cheerful and jolly “JULLEY” from all the porters and helpers we would meet on the way; all of this was going to come to an end.
The next morning, we started our trek to reach Tilad Sumdo and that included climbing the “Hillary step” again. But before that, we had to put our feet in ice floating Zanskar because Chadar was completely broken. Reaching the final site, we had our lunch, clicked the group photos, took selfies, some crazier ones took a dip in the ice cold water. We bid adieu to the Zanskar. It was as if a good book was coming to an end, you’re happy that you’ve completed it but sad that it’s over, like finding a lost love, you don’t know whether to rejoice or to cry. From thereon we reached the final point from where our van would take us to our guest houses, halting at Gurudwara Sri Pathar Sahib on the way. The next morning most of the trekkers left back to their cities. Three of us had two days more in Leh so we, along with Mukul, Visharad and Nawaang did the local sightseeing. The beauty of this place lies not only in its landscapes but more in its people and all they have to offer to the people visiting their place.
THE NOSTALGIA CONTINUES
The trek has still not ended for me for I’m at peace with myself but the commotion continues. More than simply being a trek, it was like that long lost love, the fulfilment of which causes the heart to rejoice for the rest of life. If you’ve been on Chadar, remember, a part of you is still there. You’ll feel complete yet your heart stays with the river, and the mountains that embrace her, the snow that adorns her. I have come back home with an experience of a lifetime, a rucksack full of unforgettable memories and some friends I’m sure are going to stay forever. No denying the fact that the difficulty level is really high, the wilderness and unpredictable nature of the beautiful Zanskar adding to it, but if it weren’t for our trek leader and our guide, this trek would have been a rare possibility. We met a lot of groups on our way, who could not reach Naerak because their trek leaders had denied taking the risk. The fact being, risk engulfs us the moment we step on Chadar, but it is this risk because of which our team has been to heaven and back. Had it not been for both of these venturous yet ultra careful guys, this trek would have been a dream unfulfilled for me. These two guys took us forward, picked us up when we slipped, showed us the way, taught us how to walk on Chadar. Apart from just leading, they accompanied us, took care of us, waited for us to course, they were the ones we would always turn to for stories and myths about Zanskar. Suffice to say, it was one crazy trek with one crazy team.
THE JOURNEY THROUGH PICTURES
Ice floating in the river, snowfall all around, a welcoming treat of course it was.
On first stepping on Chadar. Picture Courtesy: Harpreet.
Waking up to the sight of a serene river in front of us.
Mukul and Nawaang giving a helping hand to a fellow trekker.
Porters having their cozy times in a warm cave.
And then there was this… nature in its naïve yet mature form.
Someone was carrying the flag all the way till here. Sure we were a patriotic yet crazy team. Picture Courtesy: Dava the Porter.
The kitchen being set up during lunch time. Picture Courtesy: Jayant Sir.
A trek leader looking down at the traffic on the infamous “Hillary step”.
Wooden bridge leading up to Naerak village.
Yeahhh…. We did it. Picture Courtesy: Visharad.
Do not go by my expression. It was the best Maggi we had tasted. Picture Courtesy: Baljit.
To walk but not to yield. Picture Courtesy: Jayant Sir.
Was the sun playing PEEK-A-BOO with the mountains?
A porter having a ride on his sledge.
Nawaang helping the trekkers.
The river less traveled.
And the mountains echoed…
Mukul and Nawaang on a rescue operation. 😀
“Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”-Pico Iyer