I walked on the frozen Zanskar river, along with 9 others, for 7 days covering more than 70 kilometres. Armed with the best in branded trekking gear, I expected this to be a smooth sail, even at temperatures as low as — 25 degree Celsius. But with little or no survival skills and an alien ground beneath my feet, no matter how many layers of clothing I donned or what I carried, nature always got the best of me.
These photos and notes are my tribute to a once-in-a-lifetime experience of the journey from Chiling to Nerak.
The view from the aircraft of the mighty Himalayas; every wanderer’s dream. Stretched over hundreds of kilometres and covered in white, this beautiful expanse is inviting. The Leh airport, surrounded by mountains is a welcome sight, especially having taken off from the overcrowded, concrete jungle that is Mumbai.
After a day’s rest at the hotel, I am out for a stroll. The streets of Leh are deserted, and most of the doors are locked. Turns out that villagers at times migrate to warmer regions in the winter.
Next day, we leave for Chiling to start our trek. With mountains on either side of the road and snow-covered peaks popping out every once in a while the drive is a scenic one. The diesel in the tank freezes and brings our journey to a sudden halt. We use the time to wander around and admire the landscape.
A little ahead, we witness the confluence of Indus and Zanskar; rivers that stay frozen through most of the winter.
The dramatic Zanskar gorge greets us as we get off the bus. This is to be our path for the next seven days.
Our porters, Jimit and Tsanzing, rush past us to secure a campsite while we slip, slide and fall on ice. The Chadar trail is a whole new world, and we are learning to walk again.
The river water below our feet has frozen to form a 6-feet thick block of ice. It looks as if the river has drawn a blanket or Chadar on itself.
Post our lunch, while we rest, the porters indulge in a game of ice hockey using trekking poles for hockey sticks.
Gyatso, our guide, leads the way. He keeps checking for sections with thin ice to ensure our safety.
Despite the bitter weather conditions and hardships, the porters always find it in themselves to smile warmly at us and wave a jue ley or a hello. They are always ready to help in case someone slips or falls.
The porters travel swiftly on the unfriendly surface, sliding and gliding, slipping and falling yet never stopping for a breather. Thanks to them, hot cups of kahwa or tea await us when we reach the campsite.
The porters transfer our camping gear with each of them carrying almost 20 kilogrammes of weight. They set up tents, cut firewood, and light campfires.
The Himalayan gorge is surreal — the beauty of these mountains that artists long to capture, that writers wish to put into words and mountaineers target to scale, is not anyone’s to own.
My campsite is between these two giant rocks; rocks that stop the march of the cold winds as I capture this starry scene.
I sit awestruck amidst the stars. Barring the wind and a few murmurs coming from our tent, there is complete silence.
Thin sheets of ice float on the river, like leaves in a lotus pond. These will eventually join to form a sheet or Chadar.
Gyatso, our guide, shares stories about the caves and frozen waterfalls along the way.
Jimit waits for us to catch up. He and Gyatso help us cross the tricky patch that lies ahead.
Our walk to Nerak is an adventurous one — one of my friends gets caught in the snow, another one almost gets swept off by the river when he steps on a crack in the ice bed. And yours truly struggles to find a foothold on a rocky patch.
The roads are hard; the days are long. They trudge along like us. Slowly but surely we are moving ahead.
Some campers find respite for the night in these caves.
We gather around the bonfire to share our day’s account. The clouds in the sky promise less wind and more warmth tonight. Of course, the temperature still reads -15 degree Celsius.
On our way to Nerak, our final destination, we are forced to climb a steep hill as there is no Chadar of ice on the route ahead. With the influx of branded adventure sports gear, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of Indian campers in the past five years. Add this to the problem of global warming, and the Chadar is becoming weaker with every passing winter. I often hear the porters complain about the harm all this does to their Chadar.
Gyatso strikes a pose as we approach Nerak. Born in Ladakh, he is a mountaineer by heart. He first started treading the Chadar as a cook, then as a porter, and is now a tour guide.
The bridge over Zanskar that we will eventually use to cross over to Nerak.
The famous waterfall at Nerak; now frozen over.
The sky is brightly lit up with the full moon just two nights away, and the stars add to the drama.
As we rest under the blanket of stars at Nerak, I am lucky to capture a comet and its tail in this photograph.
With each passing day, these mountains teach me to respect nature. Every fall I take restores my lost humility. I thought I set out to conquer the trail but in reality, the journey defeated the ego in me.
The group smiles for the camera as we reach the last leg of the trek.
On our way back, as we wait for the pickup bus, we spot this freshly made paw-print of a snow leopard. We follow the prints in the hope of spotting this rare animal (and secretly pray that he doesn’t spot us first).
With the trek behind us, we climb on the rooftop of the bus and enjoy the scenery.
The sight I see as I wave goodbye to the mighty Himalayas.