Freeze!! (Chadar, Zanskar Valley, J&K)

Chadar……Each Himalayan trek has a flavor of its own and a certain difficulty level. An unproven hypothesis about these treks is that, the more difficult the trek is, the more beautiful it would be. While the difficulty of most Himalayan treks can be attributed to either the terrain or the altitude or both, the Chadar trek has something very unique which drives up the adrenaline levels: the cold. With temperatures dropping to as low as -30 degree Celsius, it does get freezing all the way through the route. The terrain and the altitude will not bother you much. But we reiterate, the cold changes everything.

The best piece of advice we got before the trek was that “No matter how many layers you wear, you are still going to feel cold. So the best bet is to make peace with the climate.” Although, I had seven layers all through the trek, the advice really helped. Once the mind is in tune with the frequency of the Zanskar, I can assure you that this walk, over a frozen river, in a desolated valley will make you smile like never before. During my trek, it snowed from the third day onward, which gave the Chadar and the surrounding mountains a different feel. 

We start with the river Zanskar, because it is what the trek is all about. The river is beautiful and powerful and is one of the tributaries of Indus. We heard somewhere from the locals that the river’s spirit is very kind, although it shall test you first. It will make you fall and hurt you but if you stay unperturbed and carry on with dignity, the river’s spirit will accept you and it will become your guardian for life. Believe this is very much possible for we have never tasted water which was sweeter than what flows through the mighty Zanskar.  By the end of the trek, we can guarantee that you will find a friend in the Zanskar and you will miss its presence by the time you are back home.

Zanskar after a night of heavy snowfall

Why you should visit: There are a number of reasons why you can think about doing the trek. First, besides the cold, its easy for beginners and experienced trekkers equally. Second, unlike other mountain treks where the beauty is out in the open and you can mostly see the horizon, on the Chadar, you walk through mountains. Following a river’s trail gives you an experience of some unique landscapes. All through, you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains. Third, once you experience the cold in Chadar, you will be more comfortable with almost anything in life. Fourth, the trek gives you the opportunity to witness Ladakh in core winters. Trust us, during these months, Ladakh is world’s apart from how it normally is in the summers.

Best time to visit: The trek requires the Zanskar to freeze to a certain degree for it to commence. Hence, the trek is only open in January and February. However, dont be disheartened if sudden changes in weather do not allow you to complete the full trek. However, the weather might be, the region’s beauty is unparalleled. And yes, dont be disheartened if a couple of your return flights get cancelled. They normally cancel flights when it is just not possible to fly. So screaming at the authorities wont really help in any way.

A typical day

Accessible from: The trek starts from Chiling in Zanskar and you can get there by car from Leh. Since the trek happens only in the winters, all roads to get to Leh are closed. The only way to get to Leh is to fly in and you can get really cheap tickets if you book a couple of months in advance. The short-version of the trek which is to Naerak and back can be completed in 8 days (excluding a day for acclimatization in Leh)

We would like to issue a small warning here. Contrary to your expectations, you will find that the route is exceptionally crowded. We normally would not go to a trek if its got a lot of people on it. And this ihigh number of visitors is the reason why the Chadar is dying, a little every season. Unlike many other treks, you cannot go to Chadar without permissions or guides or a whole team of cooks and porters. Given this, most people we know prefer to go though trek operators who are easily accessible sitting in bigger cities. Something which was earlier sacred is now very commercial. Hence, to do your bit to preserve the sacredness, try avoiding Trek operators from cities to take you there. Contact a local guide directly and go with him. It not only benefits him but also the entire Zanskar economy. Life can difficult for the locals in such extreme weather.

A porter walks by
The homemade sled

Preparing for the trek: While people may advice a month of exercise before the trek, most of our friends just went there without any preparation and managed very well. However, one thing you need to prepare for is the cold. Your gear has to be in place and the most important thing is layers. We cannot stress enough on the fact that a Down Jacket and a water proof layer are exceptionally important. A very indicative list of things you should carry include:

  • 2 pairs of trekking pants;
  • 2 tee shirts;
  • Fleece inners;
  • 2 thermal inners;
  • Something to cover your head: balaclava or even a full-power monkey cap (dont compromise on buying a good quality one);
  • Woolen socks;
  • Gum boots: Apparently, gum boots which do not fit properly make you slip. You would want to avoid this and maybe pick them before you get to Leh;
  • Hot water bag: Not compulsory and I didnt have one, but my friends who had it really enjoyed the heat during bed time;
  • A muffler;
  • Two layers of gloves (including fleece);
  • Trekking poles.
The illusive Tibb Cave
Riders on the Storm

Something for Photographers: You will be amazed at the rate your battery will die. Whether it be the phone or the camera, if you want to take photographs carry extra batteries or power banks. The more you carry the better it is, but in case of cameras, 3 was the sweet number for me. All 8 days sorted. Its very important to keep the batteries warm. I would even advise buying an extra pair of woolen socks just to keep your batteries in.

Night at Shnigra Koma
The walk back

Words and Photographs Shreejit Borthakur

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