A walk ‘on’ the River
“Juley!” He said with the cutest smile. His cheeks were red like freshly plucked apples and his eyes sparkled. And oh that smile! It was nothing but a warm sunshine in -30 degree Himalayan temperature.
“Juley” she replied.
That one greeting from the little monk in his ochre robe was enough to make her fall in love with him and with Ladakh!
Beautiful destinations are not always defined by its scenic views. Sometimes it is more about the people you meet, their hospitality and the lasting friendship and respect you develop for souls that inhabit the bodies. Of all the beautiful places that have been captured in my lens, Ladakh will stay captured in my heart for its beautiful people!
PS – I owe my life (no exaggeration) to their kindness and I sincerely thank Lotus Bhaiya, our cook for the trek for letting me stay in the kitchen tent, making separate meals for me when I fell sick and ensuring that I ate enough to survive the night.
I had been waiting for January 2017 since June 2016 when I decided to go for this trek and booked my tickets to Leh. Rather, I was waiting for this trip since 2013 when I first read about the walk on the frozen river – Chadar trek!
For those who do not know, Zanskar River in Ladhak region in Jammu and Kashmir (India) freezes in the sub-zero Himalayan temperature in the months of January and February each year. The frozen river forms a ‘chadar’ (sheet of ice) and the trek happens on the frozen river. The frozen river trail forms the only means of travel for the locals from Zanskar valley during the winters. A nearly 7 day trek of approx. 105 kilometers from Chilling till Nerak and back entails living in temperature that plummets to -30 degrees and is a pure test of mind and body.
I had read enough about the difficulty levels and hardships of the trek and my backpack was ready with the clothes and equipment sufficient to help me survive the days ahead.
Even lightest of the backpacks can feel like a burden when you have to walk for over 100 kilometers in insane cold weather. Keep your back pack weight under 4 to 5 kilograms. Instead of heavy woolens, wear layers of thermals and waterproof geese feather jacket.
My two week leaves from work were approved well in advance and I had prepared enough for the trek through a well-planned workout for over 6 months. My work out included ‘Surya Namaskar’ for stretching, daily 15 minute brisk walking and taking the stairs instead of elevator to my office at the 8th floor of the building to build the stamina.
The trek is tough even for the fittest of the lot so DO NOT venture un-prepared!
We took the early morning flight from Delhi and landed in Leh at -16 degrees which was actually a ‘warm’ sunny day for Leh standards!
My travel group comprised of 10 trekkers from across India. We checked into ‘Hotel Auspicious’ (one of the few hotels which are open for tourists in this weather) followed by an orientation session by the trek coordinator dictating a series of dos and don’ts for the days ahead.
The first two days in Leh were reserved for acclimatization – getting accustomed to the weather and 14,000 feet height where along with the temperature, the oxygen level also plummets.
On the first day of acclimatization, you need to rest and spend most of your time outdoors instead of sitting cozy in the hotel room so carry a book to read and cards to play to pass the time. You can later leave the additional luggage in the hotel itself when you leave for the trek.
Luckily, our hotel had a pet Labrador ‘Zee’ who gave us company and kept us entertained with enough activity on the first day. ☺
The day was slow and relaxed, however, I developed major headache by day end – sign of Acute Mountain Sickness (not a good sign considering the environment conditions).
Day 2 :
My headache had subsided but weather Gods were not too gracious and the temperature dropped further on the subsequent day to -21 degrees.
The forecast showed snowfall yet we had to venture out for shopping necessities for the trek and also for basic hiking workout.
You might be tempted to buy the trekking gear from fancy shops in Delhi (or wherever you stay), but buying it all from an army shop in Leh is an economical and wise decision as you will get it all at 1/5th the price. Plus, do not be tempted to buy the fancy shoes as the only shoes that can help you walk on a sheet of ice are gum boots (available in Leh at INR 380/-).
Ladhak is a desert so along with cold, the weather is intensely dry as well. You may not feel thirsty because of cold, but make sure you drink as much as 2 liters of water each day to prevent dehydration. Plus don’t forget to pack electoral packets in your medical kit.
After shopping for the necessities and a healthy lunch back at the hotel (Most restaurants and cafes in the region are closed for winters, so we had to go back to our hotel for lunch), we ventured out again to explore the nearby areas. The temperature had dropped further and it was -27 degrees now. We had merely taken a few steps away from the hotel when it started snowing. I had not experienced snowfall before so it was a super duper exciting time for me. ☺
Travel advice :
No matter how happy you get looking at the beautiful snowfall gradually turning the browns of landscape to white, do not start dancing as you will get breathless sooner due to shortage of oxygen! 😛
But of course, since we were preparing for the trek, snowfall (even snowstorm) could not have deterred us and we decided to walk up till the Leh Palace. The walk from Leh to the Palace is a gradual steep climb. The palace was abandoned in mid-19th century and now comprise of mere ruins. It was cold and snowing but 2 hour climb to the palace had generated enough heat in the body.
The palace stands at a height and one can see the entire town of Leh from the top. I stood at an extended platform of the palace roof which overlooked the town. The barren land now wore a white blanket of fresh snow and the colorful Ladakhi prayer flags at the monastery in the distance were the only colors on the black and white canvas. I wonder if it’s scenes like these that inspire poets into writing melancholic verses.
I was not left to my thoughts for long as a fellow trekker, now also my friend decided to break into a snow fight and pulled me back to reality. There was no sign of sun and the sky was turning darker with each passing hour so we walked back to the hotel but not before clicking enough pictures for memory.
The trek starts from Chilling, the last village accessible by road and also last point till where the vehicle can reach. The road till Chilling ain’t smooth either and is obstructed by occasional landslides. Keep your camera ready as you’d want to capture every inch of the road trip but do save up the battery for days ahead as there is no electricity to recharge.
With 5 kilograms on the back and five layers of clothes, I set my first foot on ice. Each step entails a risk of ice breaking and you plunging in the rapid flowing river underneath. Accidents and even deaths are not uncommon at the trek so do not risk not abiding by what your trek instructor tells you. The top layer of your clothes are supposed to be waterproof as getting wet can be fatal. In case the ice breaks and your feet get wet, dry your feet and change your (layers of) socks as quickly as you can.
You may consider giving away some weight of your bag by hiring a porter but do not give away entirely on your backpack. A backpack will prevent your back from breaking in case you slip on the ice.
Step by step we started our trek. The ice broke a few times but gum boots prevented any water from touching the clothes. We reached the base camp around late afternoon where a small tea and Maggi selling tent was set up by some locals on the bank of the rivers.
We rested a bit and walked further till Tilat Sumdo, where we were set to camp for the night. The river mostly being a gorge has very little sunlight. The ice cold wind gushes through the gorge and the sound of the wind along with the sound of mighty Zanskar river echoes against the walls of the mountains. At the areas where the river is not frozen, chunks of ice can be seen joining to form a chadar and breaking against the flow of the water. We sat on one of the rocks peeking out of the ice closer to the bank of the river sipping our hot tea which was quickly turning cold (and would have frozen in a few minutes).
The temperature was now -32 degrees and was expected to fall further at night.
The conditions in the valley played its part on my health and I developed intensive dehydration.
That first night in the camp was insanely difficult. And god save you if you need to go out of the tent to use the loo at night. I doubt if any one managed to sleep at all on the first night. The cold pinches you like needles right through your multiple layers of thermals and jackets and even a minute of sleep is a luxury.
Untreated dehydration had turned into full blown stomach infection by the next day. I had thrown up all that I had consumed in the last few days and was unable to eat even a morsel. We walked another 9 kilometers on ice till Shangri Koma – our next campsite. The ice was stronger on the route, thanks to dipping temperature. The day passed without any accidents and all bones intact (thankfully).
We had parked for the night and I eventually developed high fever. I was shivering in my tent when Lotus Bhaiya came looking for me. He made me sit in the kitchen tent in front of the stove fire and even prepared separate soup for me (no oil, less spices). I was still unable to eat so he kept me engaged in tales from his village stopping occasionally to instruct me take another bite. Despite having the medicines, my health kept getting worse and my fever shot up.
It snowed heavily that night and the weather went as low as -36 degrees. Sleeping outdoors in a tent in such weather and deteriorating body conditions was an excruciating experience.
As against the fears of my trek coordinator and fellow trekkers in the camp and much thanks to my fellow trekker friend for taking care of me like family and Lotus Bhaiya for making constant visits to my tent with hot water bottle to heat my feet, I survived the night! Thankfully, the next day was our last day. And, the hardest part of this trip was bidding good bye to those lovely souls whom I will probably never see again.
My trek had come to an end but my journey was not over yet. While my fellow trekkers continued with their journey, I walked back with another group which was completing their trek and returning back. This group comprised of 5 trekkers all above the age of 60 years who had taken up trekking as a retirement hobby. Interestingly, two of them were physicians who ensured my fitness levels were capable of getting me back to Delhi. Their awe-inspiring stories from the treks across the world has given me motivation boost.
Human relationships surprise me, they develop at the least expected places and at least expected times. Like most other, Lotus bhaiya could have stuck to his business and need not have prepared separate meals for me. But he did. My trekker friend could have rested like most others and let me be in pain. But he didn’t. And then maybe, just maybe my faith in magic would have been faded..but it isn’t! ☺
Travel isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts – physically and mentally. But then, it always manages to leave an impact on you. Actually, it is more than just an impact. It changes you. The memories of what you see and experience carve a permanent place in your heart and mind and that makes all the difference to your life!