Situated in spectacularly jagged, arid mountains of Ladakh is India’s coldest river Zanskar. And come the winters, this incredible body of water transforms itself into a carpet of thick ice, locally referred to as Chadar.
Over the years, this frozen wonder has been attracting countless adventure-seeking enthusiasts for what we now know as the Chadar Trek. Named in Lonely Planet’s list of the world’s top 10 treks, it is one of the most thrilling experiences in the Himalayas. To complete this trek means to be able to claim to have walked for over 150 kilometres in temperatures dipping 35 below 0.
The only way to reach here is by air, followed by a 4-hour journey from the city of Leh. Once you are at the starting point, a small village called Chilling, you are on your own to brave nature’s amazing and extreme form. Not for the faint-hearted, it is a full-scale winter expedition that will test you at all twists and turns and the occasional thin sheet of ice. Never having walked on ice before, the first couple of days will ensure you develop a strong resistance to falling with a loud thud. And when finally you get used to walking, you can start appreciating the impressive white landscape all around you. It is something you will have never seen before.
The full-scale trek is 15 days long and will make you stop at three villages over the entire journey. Each village is different from the other, and the warmth of the people is in stark contrast to the weather you will face every day. You will bunk at village guesthouses, at caves, tents where the luxury of a cave is not available and learn to admire the things often forgotten with the fast-paced metro life. Never will you get a chance to see so many stars amidst the sweet music of a flowing river and crackling bonfire.
The guide and the helpers are all excellent cooks, so be ready to enjoy a sumptuous hot meal every day. With their piping hot black tea to the sour and warm butter tea and the quintessential Maggi, you are always left asking for more. Those get even better at guesthouses, where you meet other trekkers and share stories of your life and times. The villages on the way are Nrerak, Lingshed and Padum. Each has its own monastery situated on the hills above. The Karsha monastery, a couple hours away from the village of Padum, which is the last stop of the trek before you start the journey back, is one of the biggest monasteries in the Zanskar valley.
Not only the monasteries, but the spectacles of huge frozen waterfalls greet you at every other turn. You can only look in amazement as to how something so utterly majestic is waiting to welcome you.
Along the way, you will encounter really thin sheets of ice, and that is where the experience of your guide will be a making or a breaking factor. There are certain parts where there is no ice at all, and you have to negotiate such a sector going around the mountains.
Be it the snow-clad hills on your way to Lingshed, or having warm lugdi (local alcohol) to keep you from freezing, every day has something new to offer and you are left wondering as to how this simple frozen carpet of ice finds something different every day to fascinate you.
You can call your loved ones from the village of Padum, but by the time you reach there, this surreal path has you enchanted enough that you forget about the world you left behind. And by the time you are back, having walked more than what you manage in a city in 6 months, you cannot help but have become so fond of the place that saying goodbye brings tears to your eyes.
For anyone who is trying to find something that will give them a sense of fulfilment, a huge adrenaline rush, and a chance to experience winter like you never have before, your search ends, and the Chadar Trek begins.
Words by Nisarg Malde
Photos by Bharat Baswani
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