She’s the only star I know: a yellowish-red spark in the sky that I look out for on my travels. Tonight, however, my cosmic friend has too much company. Every inch of the inky canvas above my head is clustered with stars. Some are like silver freckles, others delicate crystals, and still more like million-dollar solitaires. Their light reflects off the snow on the mountains, the ice on the ground, the sandy bank. As I bathe in the silvery glow, something a friend from the hills said many years ago comes back to me: It’s only people from the city who think the night is dark.
It’s 3 a.m., and I am sitting alone, a few feet from my tent on a slender bank of the Zanskar. There is no rustle of leaves. The river is frozen solid. Even the wind seems to be holding its breath. Only the plumes of condensation at my nostrils break the immaculate stillness. I exhale deeply into my gloves, hoping to generate some warmth. It is -20°C, and I can feel the cold creeping into my jacket. But I stay outside for a few more minutes—to soak in this exquisite silence, to memorise the night sky, but mainly, to convince myself that I am really here.
Until five days ago when I landed at Leh airport, I had seen neither snow nor high mountains before. My first glimpse of the Himalayas was from the plane, crouched over the stranger to my left who had the window seat. And now, here I am—on my first long-distance trek, my first trip into the mountains, and my first solo vacation—on the Chadar trek, a nine-day walk on the mostly frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. It seems like the perfect way to meet the mountains, and a great beginning after a year that had been rife with change.
Friendships forged on travels have a certain potency. Behind the mask of anonymity, we share our stories with less inhibition, and listen free of judgement, secure in the knowledge that our new confidants live in a world far from our own. Within hours of settling into our room in Leh, I find myself swapping confidences with Mayuri, a bubbly 38-year-old mum from Pune, and Sunaina, a business analyst from Delhi, my room-mates for three days in Leh.
Mayuri has been plotting Chadar for four years, ever since she met our group leader, Milan Moudgill, on a rafting trip in Rishikesh. Like me, she too was drawn to the region’s surreal landscapes but life kept getting in the way. Between her career and family, there was always a good reason to skip the trek. This year, she tells me as we sip on sweet chai, she decided to put everything else aside and just do this. “For my own sanity,” she says waving her arms about in emphasis. “I had to.”
We shed layers with ease. I talk about a long relationship that ended a few months ago, about how I felt like I had lost sight of myself, and forgotten what solitude felt like. Sunaina, who grew up in Shimla but recently moved to Pune, shares her own tale of heartbreak and speaks of the trepidation she feels in a new city, so far from the one she grew up in. Mayuri talks of her young son, and her tussle between wanting time for herself, and yet pining at the thought of being away from him.
I didn’t have to tell them anything, and yet, I felt like I could tell them anything. We spent the day huddled under blankets giggling, tearing up, and staring at the stark, frostbitten poplar trees outside our window. In the distance, the Himalayas, those snow-swathed hulks, stood unmoving.
“I like you baby, but you’re going too fast,” 30-year-old Nitin from Delhi says wiggling his eyebrows. A medley of squeals erupts in response. He’s reading out funny road signs on the drive from Leh to the village of Chilling, two hours away. Outside the bus window, army posts ringed with barbed wire whiz by, groups of preppy teenagers play ice hockey on frozen ponds.
The mighty Zanskar is more popular as a white-water rafting haven: a swirling, eddying, roaring beast of a river that swells between July and September. At the peak of winter however, the temperature drops to -20°C turning the river into a chadar, a sheet of snow and ice. Tsering an ex-army sepoy and our guide for the trek, tells us that the Border Roads Organisation has been slowly extending the road from Leh to Zanskar. In five years, he wagers, the length of the Chadar will have a tarred motorway running alongside it.
We stop at Nimu, the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar, to take pictures and soak in the magnificent view. The Indus’s bluegreen waters seem gentle and inviting; the Zanskar is frozen to an opaque, ruthless white. My mind reels with questions: What if the ice breaks when I am walking on it? How many minutes do I have until hypothermia sets in? Could I really lose a toe to frostbite? For what seems like the hundredth time, I wonder whether I have bitten off more than I can chew. A string of Tibetan flags on the far side flutter in the breeze and I say a silent prayer.
The Chadar is harsh, but it’s so stupendously beautiful, that it mutes the most anxious of minds. Around me mountains rise like granite spires piercing impossibly blue skies. Beneath my feet, the ice is a slab of glass so clear, I can see the pebbles on the riverbed: brown, lilac, moss green, yellow. It is cold but the sun is out warming the tip of my nose, the only part of my body exposed to the elements. “You are all very, very lucky. The weather isn’t usually this good,” says Milan, as we take our first tentative steps on the slippery ice, willing it not to give way. He assures us that in most places, the Chadar is at least six feet thick, but the only part of that statement that loops in my head is the word “most”.
As if to taunt us, the river creaks ominously, overshadowing our guide’s encouraging sentiments. Still, it is a day replete with superlatives. We see frozen waterfalls hundreds of feet tall, stick our noses into deep ice crevasses, and gawk at snow leopard prints on our walk to camp at Bakula Bao. Four hours later, we’re hugging each other and sipping hot chai. We have survived our first day.
On the Chadar, everything freezes but tears: toothpaste, sunscreen, contact lens solution, shoelaces, even the zipper of my double-layered -40°C-rated sleeping bag refuses to budge in the morning. Outside the tent, I huddle close to the campfire, hoping the frozen sausages attached to my palm will thaw out to reveal fingers. Meanwhile, pahadis like Sunaina and Nitin remain unperturbed by the cold. I have three layers on (and I’d gladly throw on three more), but Nitin is wearing a single fleece. He’s on the Chadar with his friend, Aleeya, to mark his 31st birthday and prove to himself that he isn’t turning into an old fogey. Aleeya and Nitin are both drawn to Chadar’s remoteness, the fact that it is so utterly inaccessible. We tuck into omelettes, salami, porridge, and blueberry jam with unsurpassed breakfast views.
Our trail takes us from Tilit Sumdo in the district of Leh to Lingshed, a village in the far reaches of Kargil. Then we will loop back following the same route on the return, covering a little under 100 kilometres in a little over nine days. We walk at our own pace, breaking off into twos and threes, sometimes alone for hours. Only two of our group of eight has trekking experience: Anand, a real-estate developer from Jaipur with a penchant for Kishore Kumar songs, and Shiv, a luxury tour operator from Delhi with a love for fast bikes. They are more experienced than us, but just as entranced by the Great White. I am struck by how easily the whole group gets along, despite being worlds and ages apart.
The Zanskar is a temperamental beast. Sometimes its turquoise waters glide peacefully mirroring the zen-like surroundings. On other occasions the river gushes wildly over rocks, as if in defiance of the calm around. Photo: Milan Moudgill
Freezing is a fine art on the Chadar, but the mountains offer a master class in geology. We walk past walls of sand and pebbles tightly packed together, then striated rock faces where the elements have fused, and Gaudi-esque boulders sculpted by the water of the Zanskar. When the river isn’t frozen solid and too deep to wade across, we climb stony canyons, finding footing in their ridges.
The days are long—we walk between six and eight hours, breaking briefly for lunch—and even though I am tired when we arrive at camp, I am never exhausted in the way I imagined I would be. Mayuri and I talk about this, laughing at the anxious chatter we shared in Leh.
The ice has a deep elegance to it. It takes on myriad forms, often moulding itself into evocative sculptures. On the mountainsides, it sits lightly like a generous sprinkling of icing sugar. Under my insulated boots it is crunchy and brittle, or slushy, or smooth as a mirror. The frost floating on the river looks like perfectly formed lily pads.
One night, we board with Phuntsok Bulu, a man who looks as old as the mountains. He lives alone in Nyerak, in a small stone room cluttered with utensils, jerrycans, and sacks of basic supplies. Occupying pride of place in his haven is a large aluminium kettle, permanently on the boil. He warms his spindly fingers for hours on end, an old pair of aviator sunglasses perched on his nose, and a Russian-looking fur cap on his head. I want to say hello, but something about his room demands silence. So I gently nod in Phuntsok’s direction and sit cross-legged a few inches from him, untying my laces to allow my feet to breathe. He passes me a mug of hot water and, in a strange companionable silence, we both stare at the kettle.
Phuntsok’s sheep live in the room next door. Tonight however, the flock has been cleared for us. The rest of the group potters about, discussing the dinner menu (chowmein and chicken curry) with Kishore Kumar songs playing softly in the background. The only opening in the room is a notebook-sized window in the ceiling.
Another night, we unfurl our sleeping bags in the belly of a cave. Huthung Bao (bao is Ladakhi for cave) is perched 50 feet above the ground and affords sweeping views of the Chadar snaking down the gorge. But the cave’s roof, a foot above my head when I lie down, makes me a little claustrophobic. That night, I toss and turn more than usual. Fed up, I decide to brave the cold for some fresh air. This time, my dose of nocturnal solitude is enhanced by a teasing breeze and the reassuring gush of the Zanskar flowing below.
On day three, just when I had begun to feel confident about walking on ice, I trip, landing ass first, my legs splayed in a manner most undignified. A gaping hole appears in the crotch of my pants. Worse, I realise, I have fractured my wrist—and I still have an entire week of trekking left.
Suddenly, I am trailing an hour behind the group. With my arm securely bound in a sling, the injury isn’t too painful, but the rock climbing bits are more tedious. I manage thanks to Sonam, a quiet Zanskari man with a heart of gold, who is accompanying our group as a porter. Since the fall, Sonam has become my saviour. When the path is tricky, he holds my good hand for support, or points to where I should place my foot. When the path disappears, he makes one, hacking away at the snow with an ice axe until there’s enough for a footing. But mostly he walks a metre ahead of me, quietly humming Buddhist chants under his breath.
On day four, we walk to Lingshed, a six-hour trek from Phuntsok’s home in Nyerak and the only stop on the trek that isn’t on the Chadar. For the first time since we have started walking, we leave the Zanskar, choosing a barely visible trail up the mountain instead. Lingshed is spiffy compared to where we’ve been for the previous few nights. The village has solar panels, yaks, hot water, bathrooms, even a satellite telephone an hour’s trek away. We’re staying in a glass-panelled room, with a local family whose young sons stop by to say hello. Their almond eyes light up when Aleeya shows them her iPhone. Soon, they are swiping away with glee, their rosy cheeks reddening with every successive giggle. Almost everybody braves the cold for a hot shower. I give it a skip on account of my wrist, making friends with the fringe-haired donkeys and yaks instead. Tomorrow signals the beginning of the end of our journey.
Before we know it, it is our last night on the Chadar. It’s snowing gently outside—yet another magical first for me—and we’re snuggled in our sleeping bags recounting the trip’s highs and lows. Everyone seems relaxed, unwound. The finish line is near, and we’re all in surprisingly good shape. Filthy of course—hair dishevelled, skin cracked, lips chapped—but happier, and healthier than we’ve felt in a while. Over bowls of beans, rice, and chicken fry, we laugh about the brutal Chadar tales we heard back home.
The truth is, it wasn’t really that hard. You don’t have to be an athlete or a mountaineer to enjoy this trek. Walking on ice does take some getting used to, but the route is mostly flat, and less tiring than an uphill climb. The weather is a battle, but with time, the bracing, nosebleed inducing cold, becomes an intimate companion, one that offers clarity and perspective. Your extremities might feel frozen but your mind will thaw out. I sneak out of the tent to feel snowflakes on my nose, and for my last dose of starry solitude.
It had been a great trip: I tried something new, and loved it. I tested my mettle, and came out tops. I could finally take snow off my bucket list. And yet, I can’t shake off the feeling that something is missing. I hadn’t had my “aha” moment, that instant when everything falls into place. Where is my epiphany? I ask the mountains.
I spend the last day walking with Milan, who has developed a blister the size of a tennis ball on his left foot. We talk about Ladakh, travel, and eventually about meditation—a recent development in my world. We share notes about what techniques work for us, and how meditation has changed our lives. “Why do you do it?” he asks, catching me off-guard. I’d never asked myself that question. Patient as ever, Milan breaks it down, “I mean do you meditate for focus, for control, to open your third eye? Why do you do it?
“To be in the moment,” I say.
That’s when the penny drops.
Since I set foot on the Chadar, I realise, my mind has been a blissfully blank slate. I hadn’t worried about friends, family, or bank accounts, hadn’t mulled over could-haves and has-beens. I saw only what was in front of me, felt only the sting of the cold, the warmth of camaraderie. The continuous tailspin of thoughts had halted. Somehow, the stillness of the mountains had seeped into me. For these nine days, I had existed only in the moment.
Orientation Chadar refers to the mostly frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. It is a north-flowing tributary of the Indus, which winds through the Zanskar valley towards and into the Kargil district. The Himalayan passes connecting Ladakh to the plains are snowed in during winter, so flying in is the only option. The closest airport is in Leh. There are flights to Delhi on most days of the week.
Maximum altitude 12,300 feet
Grade Moderate to challenging; prior trekking experience not necessary.
Cost ₹60,000 per person from Leh to Leh (prices vary).
Season Mid-January to mid-February, when the temperatures are at their lowest and most of the river is frozen. The season sometimes extends until March depending on the weather.
What to expect The trek begins north of Chilling (2.5 hours from Leh) where the road ends, continues until Lingshed in the Kargil district, and then loops back to the starting point (around 100 km). The terrain is mostly flat and icy, except for the detour to Lingshed, which has a gentle incline. There is a little rock climbing involved but prior experience is not needed. Depending on weather conditions (anywhere between -10 and -20°C), you could be walking for 4-8 hours a day.
Gear Gearing up is the most crucial part of preparation for the Chadar trek. The better kitted out you are, the more you are likely to enjoy the trip. Clothing apart, ensure you have insulated trekking boots, -25°C socks, and snow-weather gloves. Ask your operators what grade of sleeping bags they are likely to use (ideally, they should be two-layered and have a -25°C comfort rating). The last thing you want is to be shivering at night. If you are more susceptible to cold than most, carry an additional fleece liner for your sleeping bag.
Fitness Moderate fitness levels are required. Getting a health and dental check-up (toothaches tend to act up at higher altitudes) is highly recommended. In addition, it is advisable to work on strengthening leg muscles and building cardiovascular endurance for at least a month before the trek. Ideally, you should be able to brisk-walk for ten kilometres at a stretch.
Plan your trek You need to set aside three days for acclimatisation in Leh. Spend the first day doing nothing, the second taking short strolls around the market, and the third doing a short hike to prepare yourself for the Chadar trek.
Milan Moudgill is a warm, patient, and experienced guide who takes one small group to Chadar every year. Ours was accompanied by General Tsering and almost a dozen smiling Zanskaris, a mix of porters and kitchen staff who made all the difference to the trip. A fountain of knowledge on Ladakhi legends, Milan specialises in introducing first-time trekkers to the Chadar. His trip lasts 12 days, including three days of acclimatisation in Leh (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Aquaterra Adventures is a Delhi-based adventure outfit that organises the Chadar journey over 12 days (www.aquaterra.in); it follows the same route as the one listed above.
Rimo Expeditions is among the oldest adventure operators in Ladakh, started by husband and wife team Chewang Motup and Yangdu Gombu. Their Chadar trip is the longest, lasting 19 days in all, and includes 15 days of trekking (rimoexpeditions.com).
Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “The Great White”.