Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude


It was a pitch dark night. I pulled the curtains aside and took a quick glance through the transparent square frame window. All black, no white.

'Thank God' I murmured. The heavy snowfall in Leh since the last three days had us stranded in the city. No flights took off due to poor visibility and our stay had got extended.

I sat on the cushioned wooden chair in my room with the diary on my lap. The heater upfront was doing little justice to keep my palms and fingers warm, which were now out of the comfort of the woollen gloves. I had not written a single word, not a scribble. I sipped some water from the thermo flask, staring at the snow that lay on the ground outside. I tried rewinding the series of event that had led me here...

When Parag, our group leader had posted about Chadar trek somewhere in the month of July, an impulsive me jumped to feet and declared to world, 'I am going!'

Reason? Simple. The trip was to begin on the eve of my birthday.

As months drew closer I realized that just being enthusiastic would do no good and that I must prepare myself. I took control of my health and made my mind- cometh hail or storm, I am doing this. With all bags packed we were set to fly to the land of Lamas.

We landed in Leh on January 20 th. The flight from Delhi to Leh had our eyes treated to picturesque Lahaul Spiti range. In anticipation, as we stepped our feet on the air stair at Leh airport, a chilly breeze flew past us. It was 11am and the sunshine glorified the sand mountains. The deep blue sky welcomed us to its land.

We checked out of the Leh airport and boarded the cabs that took us to our hotel- Mahey Retreat. The weather demanded us to wear our hand gloves and mufflers to heat up the now numbed hands. After what seemed like a 15 minute drive we checked into our hotel.

The rest of the day was spent shopping the required gear in buzzing Leh market and relaxing in the comfort of the hotel. It was my birthday and I was celebrating it with 12 other wandering souls and the mighty Himalayan snow desert. Picture Perfect gift!

Photo of Zanskar by Gargi Patil

We stepped out to explore places around Leh visiting Thiksey Monastery, Shei Palace and Hall of Fame. Since January is a non tourist season, there were not many wanderers. One could absorb in the serenity at Thiksey as the hands turned the prayer wheels.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

The 23 ft tall statue of the future Buddha- Maitreya was alluring. As his holiness Dalai Lama quoted, you could look and look and still feel that you've bot seen enough of it. The structure of the Shei Palace left me thinking what the palace would be in its full glory. As we drove across from one place to another our eyes were treated to colourfully and intricately crafted infrastructures. For us behind the lenses, they were a perfect concoction of colours, for our three brilliant architects - Brijesh, Mugdha and Ruta - a platter full of delight.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

The rucksacks, gumboots and walking sticks were now brought out. After a scrumptious breakfast at the hotel, we wore our down jackets and alighted the tempo-traveller which drove us to a little ahead of chilling village. En route we witnessed the confluence of the River Zanskar and River Indus, both of which were now frozen. The beauty of the confluence cannot be described, it but has to be witnessed by the naked eye and absorbed by the eternal soul- to know why two dots connect.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

A vast landscape of mountains greeted us as we stepped down. We let our behinds rest and the shutters do their work as we waited for our guides and potters to arrive. Once they did, we descended a tiny rocky patch. What our eyes saw next? The mighty Zanskar. It was time to explore the raw

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

The left portion of the river was seamlessly making its way south, while the right was frozen into thick sheet of ice. I wanted to act like the penguin from the movie happy feet alive! I stepped my feet slowly onto the ice bed and walked with the help of my walking stick. Yayy! - I didn't fall.

Cherishing the first feel of ice we marched to our first camp - Shingra Yogma. As the sun bid good bye to the mountains the stars filled the sky. If I could, I would have slept on the rocks near the river bed and star gaze all night, but the minus temperatures refrained me from doing so.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

I perhaps came to a conclusion that there is a reason we named it nature's call. It the middle of the night, after strenuous efforts of getting out of the sleeping bag, finding the right gum boot, when we did respond to it, the dark beauty cast a spell. Dimly lit with twinkling stars, sometimes hidden by clouds of snow. It was surreal.

Day 2 Trek- Camp two- Tsomo - That 'Yayy, I didn't fall' was jinxed.

If there is one thing I could learn from the local's who served us hot meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner was how they could manage to cook a delicious meal in a short span of time. Once we were done feasting on the scrambled eggs and bread, we stepped our gum boot feet on the thick sheets of ice.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

Since the Chadar ahead was bleak we had to ascend a rock patch. As I stopped to catch my breath, I watched in bewilderment as the potters took down several kilograms of weight effortlessly.

Tip- Carry the basic required stuff only. It is but a futile effort to have our luxuries loaded on their back.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

Once descended, a fascinating gorge welcomed us. The wind eroded valleys seem to build a wall protective and nurturing to protect the pristine Zanskar. The ice shone brightly as the sun travelled across. All the hours of physical training keyed in, all mental assurances of 'you can do it' since months had led us to this exuberance and this was just the beginning.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

I lost the number of counts I fell and slid on the ice bed. Venu uncle, who accompanied me at patches during the trek, finally exclaimed,' I can now only see you falling'. I laughed at the metaphor. I realized all though falling was essential; too much of it could break your bones. On Chadar, you lose focus and you fall, just like life.

On our way to Tsomo caves, Parag asked all of us to wait back as he narrated a story. In front of us was the only waterfall on the river Zanskar that did not freeze in the chilly winter. The folklore has it that once when Nerak went dry, a holy man went up to Kailash where his wish would be fulfilled. He was given a box with the only condition being that he wouldn't keep it down until he reached his village, unfortunately series of event led to him keeping the box on the ground. The box opened and two gold fishes flew from it. They entered into the cavity of the hill and water started gushing out. In anxiety the man, threw his shoe in one hole and the water stopped flowing

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

Striding across Chadar we witnessed her various forms. At some places the entire breadth of the river was frozen. When we reached our 2 nd Camp- Tsomo, I could see the entire river disappearing into the ice rock.

Remembers those by-the-lake-side camps, textbook drawings we fantasized of? Camp Tsomo was just like it. In fact, a better version.

.As we sipped our Kahwa (Kashmiri tea) in the misty morning, I felt something touch my nose. It was tingling, as I turned my back towards the valley, I saw a white curtain filling gap between two hills. The sky was showering tiny feather like elements. Amazed, I asked,'what is it?'

'Snow' they exclaimed. My cheekbones strained and I was instantaneously euphoric. As we set foot on the Chadar again towards our third camp 'Tibb Caves', the snowfall intensified. Nature was now covering the bare valley with its soft white blanket. I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. But given the layer of clothing, I bent down, lay my head on the walking pole and witnessed the magic of the wind, river and the snow. The currents here were stronger so the right side of the river was flowing. Snowflakes kissed as I Swayed my head in the direction of the wind. I closed my eyes to absorb in the moment. Utterly fascinating and gracefully soul pleasing. The valley had blessed us. Was I in the Disney movie, frozen? Could be.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

Reaching Tibb we cheered to our first snowfall experience. Our tents were set on the rocks that rose a few feet above the river bed which was now snow drenched.

Given the intensity of snowfall and the route ahead, a decision was made to turn back instead of marching ahead to Nerak-our final destination of the trek.

Sigh! I was going to miss the world famous frozen waterfall. When Vishakha said that the journey was more important than the destination and that the trek so far had been blissful, the exploring me took a note. Later that night, in our tent, we laughed, we debated and we spoke endlessly on topics. Insights from art, finance, music, architecture filled the tent. We then moved to scariest storytelling and I quietly escaped under my sleeping bag.

The snow fall hadn't stopped. Right from our gum boots to the hills everything was covered in a blanket of snow. As I stepped out to for the morning rituals, I struggled to clear the snow out my gum boot. It was chilly and snowy.

Photo of Chadar Trek - Of Ice and Solitude by Gargi Patil

So much of snow and no fight? The notorious of the gentle personalities had stepped out, as we threw heaps of snow at each other. All of us were bathed in snow. Pure unadulterated happiness!

It was January 26 th. We stood in attention for the national anthem as we waived the flag. The colours of orange, white and green filled the atmosphere with pride. I realized the efforts of our soldiers at Siachen and in the Himalayan border range and was humbled.

Our guides decided to camp at Hotong the next day, which was barely a few kilometres away from Tibb. Another, quaint lakeside camp. Slurping the maggi and sipping Kahwa in the dense snowfall was an absolutely different experience for a foodie who loves the Mumbai rains and enjoys it with hot tea and Bhajiya. It was now snowing heavily. It could match the density of the rains in Sahyadri.

We headed back to our first camp on the January 27 th. The chadar had changed its formations drastically and we could barely recognize the Tsomo camp. The continuous snowfall had changed the geography of the river and the hills and made our walk a little easy

We reached Bakula Baav (Bakula Cave) where a Rinpoche once meditated. It was considered a holy place. Here our guide and the porter team tied a twig from the coniferous tree of Juniper or the holy plant of shukpa.

'Ki Ki so so Lhargyalo', they recited in unison. 'Victory to the Gods' it meant as they wished for our good health and we smiled in humility.

Striding in the snow had our stomachs growling.Our team served us lunch at Shingra Korma- the same place where we had lunch on the 2 nd day of the trek. I reminisced this as place of sturdy rocks by the river bed; it now had more than 3ft snow covered.

As we reached our first camp- Shingra Yogma at 5 pm in the evening realization dawned upon us. It was our last day on the pristine chadar.

Every person in the tent had an altogether different perspective of the tent. Welcomed by bright sunlight we walked by the river, with hills and valleys crafted by the ever flowing breeze. Slipping and sliding we saw the ice opaque and transparent. The deadly temperature which made survival a task for any living being , the ravens had mastered the code who soared high above the sky. Every element in the nature was modest and still stood out its individual characteristic.

That evening, I went uphill and sat gazing. I saw wide stretch of the gorge, comforting and welcoming every snowflake that fell. The vast fuzzy sky that overlooked the valley seemed to be meditating in its wildest form. Nature wasn't calm, but in its extremist form was stunning. She hugged me with all delight.

While we were all set to leave an impromptu Brijesh decided to take a plunge in the river. Sameer and Pranjal followed. The men swam heroically all the way wide.

When Ruta convinced Brijesh, telling him it was once in a lifetime, I succumbed to temptations. Without taking the effort to go back to the tent and change, I took off the layers, placed it on my rucksack and took a plunge in the river!

STRIKINGLY cold mineral water. Every inch of my body shivered. Once out my, feet fell numb. I waited a minute before I could go back to the tent and change. Parag and Ruta, now tempted, were getting ready for the world's most natural spa.

We set our foot back on the road. After ascending the same patch, our never ending walk began. A landslide on the road made us walk an extended 15 kilometre, which we had covered in the bus Warm at first and cold late, tiring and enticing at the same time. I remember meeting a babbler on the way. She accompanied me half a kilometre jolly well singing. I sang along.

As we turned our stride with the valley each walking at its pace, the witty nature scheduled a meeting with ourselves. We met a different person that day. The sight of the bus was an indication that the trek was now officially over. The picturesque view on the way back made every note of music echo. We hummed along.

.. As my roommates walked in, reality struck. I was back in the room,The magical tour was over, but the spell wasn't.

The silences that day conveyed that it was but for the strategy of this spell bounding snow dessert to have me stay back. The genie did exist, my wish was granted.

As we boarded our flight in bright daylight on the 1 st of Feb, to return to the pandemonium of the metropolitan, mixed emotions bottled up. The journey mattered, not the destination ????

And if these souls didn't accompany, the journey for sure would have been incomplete. Leading Parag dada, Humble Ruta, and Joyous Mughdha, Smiling Shashi and Happy Rahul, Supportive Jyoti and Guruji -Sameer,Inspiring Vishu and Notorious Pranjal, Creative Brijesh and the one who because of whom I love travelling- the congenial Mario sir .


This post was originally published on Miss Explorer.

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