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How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar


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Halfway across a trolley bridge, bound by a rope, right above the raging Zanskar River, I was alone and wondering why I took this step.

I hadn’t seen anybody on this route since I started in the morning and I had lost all hope that anyone would come. As much as I tried to look away from the drop below into the river, it looked as if the river was eagerly waiting to swallow me. The shore was still some meters away which looked like a mile from my end. One last effort was needed, but I wasn’t ready to see the end of this story yet.

Photos of How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar 1/5 by Jai Pandya
Eternal Peace: I observe the constant flow of water in the Zanskar river

Four days back, upon my arrival in Leh, I was sipping a cup of warm butter tea at Shanti guest house when I met Ben. After ascending Ganda La Pass, the 65 year-old German mountaineer was unable to attempt an ascent of Stok Kangri with his friends. When I told him my intentions to do the Markha Valley trek, his first reaction in broken English was, “Trolley? Whoosh whoosh?” He made some hand gestures as he said this, but I had no clue what he was talking about.

After a couple of restful days, I started out from Leh. The city was nearly empty as it was approaching the end of the tourist season. I hitchhiked in five different vehicles to reach Sumda Dho village and later the next day I reached Chilling. At every point, I was reminded of the upcoming trolley crossing. When I set out from Chilling, Tchering — my homestay owner told me what was ahead. After about an hour of walking from Chilling, I had to cross the Zanskar river to reach Sku-Kaya village, which was another couple of hours away from the river crossing. A bridge was in the making for about seven years but after only six months of its completion, a flash flood washed away pretty much anything in its way. The bridge was swept away.

Photos of How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar 2/5 by Jai Pandya
The Zanskar river as seen from Chilling village

Now there was only a trolley supported by a couple of ropes which could be used to cross the river. I was assured that in the in-season there were a couple of temporary tents pitched on the opposite side where I could find some people to help me. So I wasn’t worried about it. After having a sumptuous breakfast, when the sun was out in the open, I set out from my homestay. I walked alongside the Markha river while the higher Ladakhi ranges accompanied me on both the sides. After a couple of breaks on the way, enjoying a slow walk, I reached the broken bridge that Tchering had earlier mentioned. All this while, I was hoping to meet someone along the way who could be my buddy in the river crossing.

As I continued walking, further away from the broken bridge, the ropeway revealed itself. At first glance, I stood emotionless. This was the thing that everybody had been talking to me about. In my mind, it was easy. I would reach the ropeway and call the guy on the other side. He would give me some instructions. I would sit in the trolley and then he would pull me across.

As I walked closer to the ropeway, I started feeling the magnitude of the act involved. It was an iron rope, hinged on a couple of pillars, one on each side. The trolley was freely hanging in the middle of the ropeway, right above the river. The trolley, which was supposed to carry me to the other side of the river, was merely a wooden pallet box, square and hollow on two sides.

Photos of How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar 3/5 by Jai Pandya
The sun was right above my head when I reached the trolley bridge. Zanskar looked beautiful as it pa

I could see a couple of tents pitched on the other side of the river, but nobody was visible. In my limited vocabulary of Ladakhi, I shouted a couple of times, ‘Julley!’ There was still no activity there. I tried screaming for help, but no one came out. I walked back some meters to where I had seen a room built, but the door was locked from outside. I decided to wait for someone to come and rescue me, but even after 45 minutes there were no signs of anyone coming. There was no option of using my cell phone either. The last time I had seen a network signal was three days ago.

This was the time when I had to make a decision. I could either trace my path back and return to the village I’d come from or cross the river by myself. If I wanted to reach the next village, I knew this was the time I needed to cross the bridge. It was getting late and I wanted to make it to Sku-Kaya in safe time. I made my decision.

I started pulling the wooden trolley box towards my end. Contrary to how it looked from a distance, it was actually heavy and I had to apply all my strength. Once it reached my side, I wrapped the supporting rope around the pillar to keep the trolley in place. It wanted to slide back towards the river, so it took some effort to keep it from going again. I put my rucksack inside the wooden pallet box, then my camera bag. The moment I set my foot in the box, it started swinging. The rope held tight to the pillar, so the box didn’t move towards the river, but even the sideways motion was enough to give me a near heart attack.

I climbed down instantly. I weighed my options again, but I only had one option. Like a movie, I played all the steps in my mind again. I gathered some courage and I stepped inside the box. I managed to find my balance this time. I searched for a place to sit as my rucksack and camera bag took up most of the space.

Photos of How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar 4/5 by Jai Pandya
The trolley bridge, as it looked from the other side. Approximately 100m distance, which looked like

While standing in the trolley, somehow keeping my balance, I reached out to the pillar and started untying the knot. The moment the rope lost contact with the pillar, the trolley moved towards the river. There was no time to think; I got hold of whatever I could and pushed myself inside the trolley. All of this happened in a few seconds and by the time I could realize anything, I was right above the river, hanging in the middle of nowhere.

I was alone and wondering why I took this step.

It took me some time to catch my breath as I replayed what had just happened over and over in my head. Now there was no turning back. I picked up the secondary rope hanging in the air and started pulling the trolley up towards the pillar on the other side of the river. While maintaining my balance, I stood up and extended my arm to reach out to the pillar and fastened the rope around it. When I was sure the trolley wouldn’t go anywhere, I decided to get down. To my surprise again, there was no platform. I had to jump directly on the incline.

I kept one hand on the pillar and with its support I jumped down. The next moment, both my feet met solid ground. My legs were shaking frantically, but they were affixed firmly to the ground. I could feel my heart doing overtime pumping blood in my body. It was beating so hard it could have broken out of my ribcage. I picked up my rucksack and camera bag from the trolley and walked up the road. I breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed in happiness when I found a place to sit. For the next fifteen minutes I kept looking at the trolley wondering what had just happened.

On the way to the next village, I saw a Japanese girl who was also travelling solo from the opposite direction. I told her about the trolley bridge that she would have to cross on the way. She asked me if it was fun. Oh sure as hell it was! With my newfound knowledge from the experience, I also told her how to cross it.

Later that night while I was having dinner at my homestay, a local guest in the house told me that he and some others met the same girl at around 4pm when they had gone to the trolley bridge to receive someone. She’d been stuck for two hours trying to get on the trolley and after three unsuccessful attempts she was sitting there hopeless. These guys helped her cross it. I surely was lucky! I was happy to have survived it. I thanked my stars again.

Would the experience be similar if I was with a guide? Probably not. The life comes bursting out with colors at the most unexpected times. When this happens, there are these defining moments which reinforce your belief in life. This memory and what it gave me will go with me forever.

On a brighter and lighter note, this is how the night sky looked from Sku-Kaya village.

Photos of How I survived a death defying river crossing over the Zanskar 5/5 by Jai Pandya
The camera perfectly timed a satellite crossing the milky way and a shooting star at the same time.


Originally published on Medium.

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