Friday, February 14, 2014

Chadar: Trek on the frozen Zanskar

I guess it all began when I watched an amazing documentary about this very famous trek called Chadar on the National Geographic Channel. Since then I was longing to do it and was in constant discussion with my friends about the same. After a couple of futile inquires over a few years, finally this year we made it happen. It all got finalized within a few hours and we had our tickets booked in no time. I had never experienced the mighty Himalayas in winter and that made it all the more exciting and preparations were in full swing till seven of us boarded our flight on a moon lit evening from Bangalore to Delhi. Although we were concerned about flights schedule from Delhi to Leh, luckily our flights were more or less on time and we got ourselves transported into the subzero temperatures of Leh. It was a great feeling to see the whole Ladakh valley up from the flight. It was as if the whole aircraft was entering a snow capped dreamland. Huge valleys white-washed with snow and frozen rivers cutting through them. As we landed at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport at Leh, there began our journey in the cold desert of the Ladakh valley.
Panorama of Leh town from hotel Auspicious
We had two full good days to acclimatize ourselves to the higher altitude and luckily none of us got into any problems. We just ensured we did nothing but to rest at our hotel and take a few small walks. While we got used to the subzero temperatures and higher altitude, we also got in touch with the other team members who had registered for the trek through Indiahikes. On a Sunday morning, a Tempo Traveler came and picked 23 of us from Leh and transported us to the starting point of our trek called Tilat Sumdo. There began our much awaited journey on Chadar- the frozen Zanskar river.
Panoramic valleys around Leh looking through the poplar trees
It was a good 5 hour journey from Leh to Tilat Sumdo that descends into the Zanskar valley and reaches a point where Zanskar meets river Indus at a place called Nimmu. The Zanskar River is a north-flowing tributary of the Indus. In its upper reaches, the Zanskar has two main branches - Doda and Kargyag. These two rivers unite below the village of Purne to form the Lungnak river (also known as the Lingti or Tsarap). The Lungnak river then flows north-westwards along a narrow gorge towards Zanskar's central valley (known locally as gzhung khor), where it unites with the Doda river to form the main Zanskar river. This river then takes a north-eastern course through the dramatic Zanskar Gorge until it joins the Indus near Nimmu in Ladakh. (source wikipedia). Since Nimmu was the lowest point (~2800m) in the whole Zanskar Valley, our trail climbs up to reach the highest point of our trek up to Nerak (~3400m). One thing that I was excited about is the documentation work planned by our trek lead Saranbir. Until the briefing happened on the day before we left for our trek, I was not aware that Indiahikes is a trekking community that is predominantly into documentation. Instantly I got interested in the activity and volunteered to document the altitude and temperatures at all the important landmarks in our trail. That was something that I was eagerly looking forward to during our journey.

Confluence of Zanskar and Indus at Nimmu
Tilat Sumdo - Sumdo means confluence where local tributary joins the Zanskar from our left. Camping spot is on an elevated level field at the junction of the confluence. On the opposite side are a few caves that are good enough for people to stay. Mostly the locals who join us tend to stay in the caves as most of us will have our tents to sleep. We had to make a 45 degree steep descent into the valley to lay our first steps on the frozen Zanskar and started walking like penguins. We took small walks around the camp site and were excited to see different forms of chadar. We got a good kick of walking on the thick sheet of ice that was slippery enough to turn us into penguins. And the huge rocky mountains around added a feel of an isolated place in the coldest desert valley. Usually I carry my tripod to every place I go and I hardly use it. So to break my record, I dared myself to take some shots in the night when the temperature reading in the thermometer showed -15 C. It was a beautiful night with a gorgeous sight of milky way right above our tents and some of us started spotting constellations in the night sky with sheer joy. After clicking a few photographs, feeling good about carrying my tripod, I went back into our tent and slowly slipped in to my two good sleeping bags provided to protect ourselves from dying cold.
First camping site - Tilat Sumdo
 (Chadar formation at Tilat Sumdo)

Caves at Tilat Sumdo where locals sleep in the night. 
Chadar at Tilat sumdo 
Night sky of stars and milky way at Tilat Sumdo
Tilat Sumdo to our second campsite Shingra Koma is a 10 km long trek. It was a very tricky walk for all of us because the chadar was not formed well at all the places. We had to take detours on the rocky walls and manage to find better chadar. Our trek guide from Zanskar - Stanzing was in his best form to guide all of us by testing the chadar all along the way. We were astonished to see many frozen waterfalls and were all super excited to see pug marks of snow leopard as well. The chadar surface can be of various kinds - a coating of fresh powder snow, hard and shiny ice, a freshly formed chadar (sheet of ice), chadar that is weak and breaking or another new texture. Doing a penguin kind of walk on such a surface without lifting feet too much off the ground is the key. While we learned to walk on the thick slippery sheet of ice, most of us kept falling while walking. It was funny but it was unavoidable. On the way, we came across a small cave called as Bakula Bawo. It is believed that the first Bakula Rinpoche of Ladakh spent a week meditating in this cave. A juniper tree above the cave is considered holy to the locals who traverse this gorge. We did some good video documentation all along the way and had good fun while doing the same;  because of that, we Bangalore boys got noted for being slowest of all. We managed to reach Shingra Koma campsite in about 7 hours time from Tilat Sumdo. The campsite was set up dramatically under the huge stone walls where Zanskar makes a near U turn. It is believed that Shingra Koma gets its name from a  medicinal plant called 'Shingra' which is abundantly available in that particular valley.
Chadar formation on the way to Shingra Koma

Patches where Zanskar flows and chadar formation at the corners
Sedimentary rocks all along the way.
Narrow paths where chadar formation exists only on the extreme corners. 
One of many frozen waterfalls
Rock art on the walls of the gorge
Dramatic set up of Chadar formed completely and huge gorges on either side. 
The beautiful Shingra Koma campsite
It was a great feeling since the time I spotted pug marks of snow leopard and it was even more ecstatic to know and be in its territory. I may not have sighted the gorgeous camouflaged creature, but I know, I was in its territory for a few days and I am sure it would've spotted us from its den and laughing at us slipping and sliding on the ice. It still is a great feeling for sure. Our journey from Shingra Koma to Tibb was a long one. We had to trek almost 17 kms on this day and at places we had to manage ourselves crawling below the narrow cliffs where chadar was formed only on the real corners of Zanskar. This surely was one of the beautiful days during our trek where we could experience and learn about chadar better. The beautiful sounds it makes while forming and the hollow sounds it creates while walking. We were better off by then to identify how hollow the ice was just by the sound it makes while walking. We were better off in walking on the slippery surface as well.

Frozen waterfalls and Zanskar river
(Some art forms of chadar)
There were many frozen waterfalls all along the way and also many caves on the walls of the gorge. Surprising sight of the day was when we reached a place where we could see the only live waterfall to our left. Legend goes that, one year Nerak ran dry and a holy man went to Kailash to pray for water. He came back with a pot full of water and 2 fishes. The condition was that he does not place the pot anywhere. On the journey back, it so happened that he placed the pot and this spot and two fishes jumped off creating this massive waterfall. The rocks behind seem to have two nostrils. One which is full of water and the other dry. According to legend, this waterfalls has its source at Kailash in Tibet. (source: Indiahikes). One more interesting sighting of the day was that the Zanskar river passes through narrow gorges where the width of the river can be covered by 4 people holding hands. The narrow gorge hardly gets any sunlight and the river looks as if it is non existent. Many times I wondered whether Zanskar exists at all at these places. It looked like desert of ice and I almost forgot the fact that I was walking on the river itself. After a good 9 hours trek and crossing the narrowest strip of chadar, we reached our third campsite Tibb. Tibb means Shade in Ladhaki language; because the campsite is always under the shade of the huge stone wall.
The only live waterfall on the way to Tibb

A narrow strip of chadar that was risky enough to reach us to the third campsite Tibb
When we woke up in the morning, we were delighted to experience snowfall. It was like a dream come true for many of us as we were wishing to see the snowfall. It was not just beautiful, it also made our trek on chadar very easy. When I came out of my tent, it was a beautiful sight to see the white cover everywhere. Trek from Tibb to Nerak was about 12 kms and all along the way we saw many frozen waterfalls. We also were very lucky that chadar had formed very well and we did not have to take as many detours as we used to in the initial few days. It snowed all through the day and we enjoyed our easy walk on the fresh white cover. On the way we got to encounter hot springs where some of our batch mates did dare to take a dip. At Nerak, may be 800m before the Nerak campsite, we got to witness the much awaited frozen waterfall of the trek. It is an ice fall and breathtakingly beautiful sight for all the trekkers after a hard day of walk close to 12 kms. It is an absolute wonder that one can keep looking at the waterfall and think how on earth such things exist or happen! it was a moving sight for sure. Nerak is a very dramatic set up with the frozen waterfall a lot of juniper trees surrounding the same. Locals greeted all of us by giving us a small twig of the juniper tree. It is their cultural practice to welcome visitors by giving them flowers; because we were there during winter, they had to manage with juniper twigs.
Early morning snowfall at Tibb
Snow covered walls and the chadar
Resting at the hot springs on the way to Nerak
Bridge 800 m before the Nerak village
Nerak was our last campsite. It is a beautiful setting where Nerak village is based at 2000 ft higher elevation from the zanskar river bed and requires a 45 minute steep climb. Many of us tried going to the village but because of bad weather, we could not. There is a lone shelter at Nerak campsite which serves as a Rafting point in the summer months. During winters, it serves as a shelter for the chadar trekkers. We were fortunate to get into the shelter and get some warmth. We had some good interactions with the locals and got to learn a lot from them on their lifestyle and culture.

We witnessed beautiful snowfall all through the day and by the morning, we could see a clear blue sky. Some yaks were moving around the campsite which made it even more dramatic to the the views from our campsite. Nerak is notorious for its really cold nights and winds. The temperature can dip as low as -25 or lower. This was the coldest point of our trek. Day temperature read -18C. Although the village is 2000 ft above the river bed, the beauty of the village can be seen witnessed from the base itself. The blue sky, blue waters of zanskar, and the frozen watefall turns the whole surroundings in to blue and ice like colors. One can only say, we were lucky to be there to witness the nature wonder.

Our return route was the same as our onward route. Surprisingly it was a complete change of chadar status during our return. Because of 2 day snowfall, the chadar was covered with fresh snow that made it a lot more easy for us to walk. And due to sudden dip in the temperatures, chadar formation was so quick that many patches where Zanskar river was still flowing during our onward journey was completely covered by chadar. For us it was difficult to even trace back the same route and that's the beauty of chadar. It changes overnight and gives a new look altogether the next day. While we returned to Tibb, the chadar was completely different. There was no sign of the river flow and everywhere we could see thick sheet of ice. Because of fresh snow, it was a very quick walk up to Tibb. At the same time, we were absolutely in the good company of blue sky all the time. Photo bugs never ceased to click pictures on this day.


Shingra Koma is one of the beautiful campsites in the whole trail. Wider walls of the gorge and the artistically formed cliffs with many layers clearly carved on them by some natural artist invites every person to drool over them. When the sun shines the thick sheet of chadar that has formed reflects its elegance and shines all the way for us to experience bliss. During our onward journey to Nerak, Zanskar could still be seen, heard and felt; but when we returned back to Shingra Koma, there was no sign of any sounds except the hollowness felt on the ice and a feeling that we always carried that we are walking on the river.

Various forms of chadar formation
A slab of chadar flipping itself
Shingra Koma where chadar makes a U turn
Night stars and Shingra Koma
We got so much used to walking on chadar that on the last few days, we could even manage to run on chadar. Slipping and falling with both the legs going up was a common sight for all of us. But the way locals walk on chadar looked very effortless. They carry goods (mostly camping stuff and food) on the sledges made by themselves that can hold up to 100 kilos of stuff. On chadar, they just pull the sledge, but at the places where we encounter watery and rocky patches, they carry them on their shoulders like backpacks. Most of the locals depend on tourism for their living. During winter, most of them will be free with almost no business or jobs and hence chadar trekkers provide them with enough work for winter. It was interesting to learn about our own trek guide who works as a school teacher in Zanskar and during winter he works with trekking communities to guide them on chadar.

Locals carrying loads on their sledge

Chadar formation along the edges of the river

On the last day of our trek, we returned to Tilat Sumdo almost effortlessly and continued our journey back to Leh from there. It was a great feeling to complete one of the life-worthy treks I have done. I was very happy to have associated myself with Indiahikes and I thought they are a very responsible trekking community I have ever come across. Over a period of time I started avoiding organized treks because of too much crowd and many other factors. But after participating in this trek for the first time with Indiahikes, I changed my views. I absolutely loved the way the trek was organized and at the same time, I did not feel that I was with a wrong/crowded group. The thing I liked the most was the objective with which they run the show, namely, documentation and responsible trekking. They also give extended support for trekkers who would like to trek independently using the documentation that has been created. I was absolutely thrilled to learn about the same and was very glad to be part of the documentation team throughout our journey.

Singh Saranbir - Trek lead with his team of locals
The two other points that I want to mention is the - green/clean bag to pick up the litter and collectively dump in an appropriate place and the biodegradable corn-straw-made green cover to be used for our daily morning nature calls. The green-bag-in-orange-color helped us not only just to dump all our plastic waste, it also made us pick up litter all through the way. We all did our best to clean up the trail and hopefully this will carry on for a long time so that we can keep nature clean. The bio-degradable-green-cover is a great Idea. I think Izzat Ansari from the green trails management team has done a great job in bringing out this idea and it worked flawlessly. Both the initiatives are very inspiring and a brave attempt to keep our own nature safe and clean. Both the ideas worked out very well and our lead Saran made sure that all of us followed them without fail and even made sure the system doesn't break in any camp site.  

(Before and after photographs of burying the biodegradable green covers) 

Talking about subzero temperatures in the Himalayan winter, it is something I experienced for the first time. I must say, it is very hard and very frustrating to adjust initially. But over a few days, one will get to know how to manage it well. The idea is to be dressed in layers and more the number of layers, much warmer one will be. On chadar, it used to be alright while walking, but when I took a break to rest for a while, my legs used to go numb and start freezing. I had a tough time taking photographs with my gloves on and every time I click a picture, I used to take my gloves off and that became very torturous. Well, the cold even made me so numb that I did a foolish act of taking a long exposure picture with my lens cap ON. At campsites, most of us used to get into the dining tent which used to be the warmest because all of us could fit into one tent easily. To come out of our tents in the night to attend to nature calls used to be nightmarish for sure. Now I look back and think, it is fun for sure!

Coming back to my journey itself, it was absolutely beautiful for me. I always look forward to such spiritual journeys that allows me to connect myself with nature and learn from it in retrospective. It also makes me push beyond my limits both physically and mentally to overcome challenges and take risks. I always make new friends and this trip allowed me to connect with many interesting people who share similar interests. During this journey, I could spend a lot of time with myself, walking, realizing and feeling very small in front of the huge gorges and valleys. I felt absolutely inspired that I was in the territory of big cats for a few days. I felt really awesome walking on the frozen river. I felt great having experienced the subzero conditions. I felt really cool about everything and was happier throughout the time I was there in those frozen valleys of Zanskar.  

(C) Srikanth Parthasarathy
(Please click on the photographs to enlarge them)

Here is a  link to all the video documentation we did during the journey on many aspects of chadar.



Sangeetha said...

wow! Srik! your photographs are so stunningly awesome! & your excitement reflects through your words... *Zanskar* & to experience the himalayas during winter has been on my mind too... hopefully soon sometime :) Nice read. Thanks !

Narasim said...

A terrific adventure trek story well told and captured brilliantly in photographs. Bravo!

The cave at Tilat Sumdo made me think of how our ancestors lived without technology driven warm clothing and shelter.

The night photograph at Tilat Sumdo is superb. Milky Way stars and the camping tents lit by camp light appear magical.

Beige-golden hills at Shigra Koma camp are welcoming with their eerie beauty.

You have captured the sounds of chadar formation and the visual icons of chadar very well.

It is not a legend. Even holy women and men are mammals who have to take care of bodily functions. The holy man stopped without covering the pot and the two fish escaped from their prison. I don't blame them.

The photograph of resting at hot springs is very reminiscent of the picture window of Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden.
The view is just as spectacular.

Immense scale is best captured in the pic that is the second pic above the chadar that flipped itself.

Very proud that all of you picked up refuse and garbage left by some irresponsible trekkers. It is a puzzle why such people even bother to visit such pristine places.

It is good that you took a photograph of the team of trek guides. It shows genuine thanks for their invaluable assistance.

Delighted that you volunteered to document altitude and temperature at landmarks for Indiahikes. The record is likely to help future trekkers. Public service in the Himalayas is a good way to "time-pass".

Great text and accompanying photographs.

Zia said...

Here comes, Srikanth the story teller!! It is another journey wonderfully written. Your story made me feel that the trek we did together was just yesterday.
The stunning phographs have added another dimension and vividity to the write-up. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Great Sri....We envy you:)

Unknown said...

That was a great summary of events and your experience on the Chadar. As your co-trekker on this trek I would agree with every bit of your experince walking on the frozen river. Your information about the rivers and their tributaries, brief legends about the places and culture has given depth to your trek and made the reading interesting.
I loved the long walks on th chadar and few intriguing conversations that we had alongside on various subjects, and few walks in silence. Pretty deep experiences to capture in writing and photos, but I should say that you have done good job on that.
Needless to say about your expertise that you have developed on panaroma clicks. Amazing ones of Leh and the Zanskar river. Kudos!
Hoping to do have more treks in future together.


Debsri said...

Amazing pics-After reading your experience i feel that nature is so beautiful.

Unknown said...

Looks like this one gonna be a test of my abilities. Very much excited about it.
I cant wait to see this place by myself.If anybody wants to join me for the trip feel free to contact me.
After an exhaustive online research i found this best package. check it out

Jitendra Meghrajani said...

What is orange thing around waist every one is wearing

Unknown said...

can you please tell which camera and lenses you used for this trek?? are really very good

Unknown said...

Too good, felt like in some other planet altogether. Keen to travel soon. Keep sharing great things like this

Unknown said...

The white snow dessert also reminds me of the great Rann of Kutch and the wonderful stay at #rannutsavonline

Unknown said...

Wanted to add that this year event Rann Utsav starts from 1st November 2016 and more details can be accessed from official website

raaj said...

hey shrikath thank u so much for taking the effort of writing your experience in so much detail helps me a lot as im doing this trek next month in jan with my daughter n was a little jittery as ive not trekked beyond the sahyadris..liked ur photographs too planning to take my camera, tripod n a wide anle lens too :)...any tips?

Unknown said...

Awesome images has been posted! Chadar Trek, this trek needs no introduction! Taking place only during the month of Jan-Feb, it is known to be the most enthralling treks in India. It involves trekking over the Frozen Zanskar River in Leh - Ladakh. Leh - Ladakh one of the popular destination of Himachal Pradesh. Experiencing the view of hill stations surrounding in Ladakh is a marvelous experience one can have. The splendid nature, locations, heritage monasteries and beauty of the landscape here is beyond words.

Unknown said...

Hi Sri

We are a group of 6 who will be traveling to the Chadar Trek later this month. I wanted to speak to you about some queries that we have . Can I get your number or email id



Srik said...

Hey sorry for the late response. Sure we can talk. Give me your number

imseoservices said...

nice post
share some picture
of the k2 base camp trek or gondogoro la trek.thanx for sharing this amazing pictures

Shivam said...

Great Blog on trekking.
Check Top 5 trekking places in Himachal Pradesh