A Himalayan Highway, but Only in Winter
from The New York Times Travel Section - November 23, 2011
We had been walking on the slick, frozen surface of the Zanskar River for 20 minutes when Urgain Dorjay, our lead guide, motioned for us to halt. He squinted up at the rock face, uncharacteristically tense as a voice called out from above.
“Move back!” Urgain shouted.
We quickly dropped our packs and retreated about a hundred yards, turning around in time to watch several tons of rock explode down the cliff, coating the ice just ahead. A wave of dust billowed through the canyon.
“They are blasting,” Urgain said with a laugh, wiping the grit from his face. “Oh ho, very dangerous.”
Leaving the laborers above to the work of hacking a road into the mountainside, we picked our way through the fresh boulder field. It was early February and we were walking into Zanskar, a remote Himalayan valley adjoining the Ladakh region of northern India, on a path of ice.
Such manufactured hazards are only the latest additions to the long list of surprises awaiting those who travel the ancient Chadar route into Zanskar. Chadar means bed sheet or blanket in Hindi, and it is an apt name for a 40-mile journey mostly spent walking on the frozen, sometimes disconcertingly thin surface of the Zanskar River, a major tributary of the Indus.
For those willing to brave a week of single-digit temperatures, the occasional avalanche and the ever-present risk of a hypothermic dunk in the roiling waters hidden underfoot, the river becomes a highway connecting Zanskar’s few dozen villages to the rest of the world during a two-month window in the heart of the Himalayan winter. Once the preferred path for carrying rich Zanskari butter to trade in Leh, Ladakh’s main town and an old hub on a spur trail of the Silk Route, the Chadar still carries a steady traffic of Zanskaris in search of work, goods or an education at distant schools. (Most of the region’s high mountain footpaths, and the lone jeep road heading west to the border town of Kargil, are blocked by heavy snows from November until May. For centuries, walking the ice has offered Zanskaris the most reliable winter route in or out of their valley.)
In recent years, the route’s reputation as one of the most rewarding treks in the Himalayas has increasingly attracted foreign adventure-seekers. (Also alluring is its high-wire-act flavor: If something goes wrong, you’re on your own, at least until the weather clears and the Indian military can send a helicopter to your rescue.) The Chadar offers experiences few other journeys can match: spectacular rock formations appear suddenly, framed by the canyon’s sharp edges; nights are spent in dusty riverside caves whose walls are etched with symbols and the names of generations of travelers; and the route itself is always changing underfoot, sometimes dramatically, from day to day and moment to moment.
But for Zanskaris and trekkers alike, the window for safe travel is narrow. The ice becomes strong and continuous enough for walking in early January, and is usually dangerously thin or broken up by March. (Locals blame a recent trend of warmer winter temperatures for curtailing the season, which used to be almost two months longer.)
That ticking clock imparted a sense of urgency to our high-spirited team of 11 — six Zanskaris, two Ladakhis and three lumbering chigyalpa (foreigners, or literally, “ones from outside the kingdom”) — as we walked, shuffled, slipped, climbed, grunted, waded and belly-crawled our way into Zanskar.
Our first night in camp, after cruising through a sun-drenched afternoon on ice worthy of a hockey rink, we shared jokes and stories of past Chadar journeys over steaming bowls of spicy masala noodles mixed with canned tuna and dried yak meat. One of the porters produced a bottle of Old Monk rum (or sleep medicine, as our Ladakhi friend Choszang slyly labeled it). As we passed the rum around, someone wondered aloud what the next day’s conditions might hold. Urgain gave an eloquent shrug.
“Chadar is always changing,” he said. There were quiet murmurs of assent before we abandoned the driftwood fire and crawled into our sleeping bags.
Before leaving the crowded camp that morning, we walked a few minutes along the riverbank to a cluster of orange tents to visit with Mahmood Ahmad Shah, the deputy director of tourism for the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Tasked with promoting the region’s scenic bounty, he had come to see one of his district’s legendary attractions for himself.
“It’s the dream of a lifetime to be on Chadar,” he said. But after just one day on the ice and with rough weather in the forecast, he told us he and his aides would be returning to Leh. A few hours later we encountered two middle-aged Indian men in fresh-looking Gore-Tex coming in our direction; they too were turning back to Leh sooner than planned. “We bit off more than we could chew,” one said, citing frigid temperatures in the shadow-filled gorge and fatigue brought on by hours of tentative stepping across the ever-changing ice.
Though mental, physical and logistical preparations for the Chadar’s demanding conditions are essential, a successful journey is just as much a matter of luck or, more precisely, timing. Some in our group had firsthand experience of this. On a previous Chadar trek, my friend Ben Stephenson, a geologist and veteran of 11 trips to Zanskar, and his companions were forced into a cave by a blizzard. The snow made it difficult to know whether water or ice was underfoot, making the next day’s progress painfully slow; after a close call with an avalanche they turned back. On my first Chadar trip, in 2009, after a snowstorm had concealed weak spots in the ice, I fell into swift-moving water up to my chest. Such heavy snowfalls often render the Chadar impassable, by triggering avalanches that block the water’s flow until it finally builds up, bursts through and blasts the ice apart.
This can all happen in the space of a few hours, so when our sunny first day turned to a cloudy, threatening second one, our pace quickened. The porters charged out ahead, displaying their uncanny gift for finding solid footing as they pulled homemade sleds loaded with food, kerosene, sleeping bags and assorted gear. Following their tracks, the rest of us moved efficiently through stretches that seemed dicey to untrained eyes. In the course of a few hours, we navigated hollow, rock-candy crusts hiding foot-deep air pockets, waist-high triangular ice slabs heaved up at 45-degree angles, pools of cerulean slush over cloudy ice shelves, and slick stretches of transparent ice.
Late in the day, the Zanskaris paused at an invisible line on the river. “We say this marks the beginning of Zanskar and end of Ladakh,” Urgain explained.
The river was in good shape the next day, and the snows predicted by Mahmood held off. Gregg Smith, one of the first-timers but a veteran outdoorsman, marveled as we watched the Zanskaris smoothly and calmly negotiate a 50-yard stretch of thigh-deep, open water; within minutes they had tea boiling over a roaring driftwood fire.
A few hours later we stepped off the ice and climbed uphill to the southern terminus of the road slowly being carved from Zanskar to Leh. We cheered thanks to the gods, shook hands and took photos next to the soot-stained excavating machine that marked the end of the Chadar. All told, our seasoned crew had made the journey, which normally takes most foreign groups up to a week, in just three days.
A mile’s hike up the road brought us to the tin huts of the army road-building camp, where we dried our boots over an engineer’s barrel stove and waited for the jeeps we had arranged to bring us the last 15 miles to Padum, Zanskar’s main town. Home to about 1,500 farmers, shopkeepers and government workers, Padum is rich in history and, by Zanskari standards, diversity: a restored Buddhist temple perched atop the glacial-formed hill at the town’s ancient heart is just a few minutes’ walk from the large mosque serving the local Sunni Muslims .
We reached town well past midnight, after a few cold hours spent pushing our vehicles out of snowdrifts, inching through what had become a full-on blizzard, and loudly congratulating ourselves on getting off the river in the nick of time. We trudged past the darkened windows of mud-brick homes up a long hill to Urgain’s house, where we collapsed in a sweaty, exhausted, grinning heap on his kitchen floor.
As we strolled Padum’s sleepy main market the next day, everyone wanted to know about conditions on the Chadar. Many Zanskaris were preparing to hike out soon, to meet up with foreign groups in need of porters in Leh, or to bring children back to boarding schools after their winter holiday.
“How is the Wama?” one woman asked, referring to one notorious, narrow stretch of river that can turn from ice to water and back again with alarming quickness.
“The Wama is good,” we assured her.
But we eyed the falling snow warily. The return journey to Leh in 10 days’ time loomed large in our minds. And the Chadar is always changing.
IF YOU GO
The Chadar trek starts just past the village of Chiling, about 37 miles west of Leh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The route follows the river until the beginning of the road near the Zanskari village of Hanumil. It is essential to hire local guides and porters, as they know the shortcuts, where to cross to safer banks, the distance between rest points and the best caves and herders’ huts for sleeping.
Several trekking agencies in Leh can arrange guided Chadar treks, at varying price, length and comfort levels. It’s best to find an agency with Zanskari porters and guides, as they know the route better than most Ladakhi guides. An experienced guide hired directly will cost at least $20 a day, and a porter around $10 a day. Most tour operators will quote a package price that includes food, equipment rental, fuel, transport to and from the river and other incidentals. Urgain Dorjay, a veteran Chadar guide and expedition organizer, runs Zanskar Mountain Tour and Travel. He can be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by phone at (91) 946 9734 861.
Most itineraries budget five or six days walking each way. Allow at least two and a half weeks for the whole trip, including a few days for altitude acclimatization in Leh on the front end, and a few days more if you want to linger in Padum or visit monasteries in Zanskar.
The Chadar season typically runs from early January until March. Several airlines run daily flights from Delhi to Leh (one way from $75 to $100). Topographic maps of the region, from the Ladakh Zanskar Trekking Map Series by Editions Olizane, can be ordered from Stanfords (stanfords.co.uk).