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Ladakh can be a difficult place to travel. The mountains are steep and in the winter snowfall closes many of the mountain passes and makes the few roads treacherous. Some villages become completely inaccessible between November and March. One method of accessing snow-bound villages during the winter is trekking on top of the ice of frozen rivers. The Chadar trek is one such route, connecting villages in the Zanskar valley (deep in the mountains) with Chilling (on the road to Leh) along the frozen Zanskar River. This route has been used for centuries for trade and transportation, and is most reliable in February when the ice is most stable.
Now, We should make it clear that the Zanskar river is big and fast-flowing. For most of its length between Chilling and the Zanskar valley the river is confined within a steep canyon. If the idea of walking over frozen river ice with a large pack on your back and very cold rushing water a few inches below your feet is terrifying, then you are not alone. People sometimes die on the Chadar trek, usually local porters who carry goods on the river for their livelihood and can’t afford to be conservative. The hike from Chilling to the Zanskar valley takes more than a week, and at night porters usually sleep in caves in the canyon walls.
This trek is considered as one of the most exciting and unique treks – a very special and an extraordinary trek on shiny ice on the bank of Tsarap River. You will be dropped by a vehicle at Chilling Sumdo (crossed road) then yourtrek leads in a narrow valley filled with breath-taking views of ice-peaks and unexpected hanging icicles that will attract your gaze for some time. You will spend the night at cave camps with the help of a born fire that will keep you warm and relaxed.
Our daily trek begins at around 9:00am and by then the sun’s up and blue skies bring cheer despite the cold temperatures. The trek goes along the Tsarap River in the region of Nyerag, constitutes to Zanskar!
Needless to say, having a good guide is critical on the Chadar trek. Trekking on the ice was intimidating. A covering of snow made it difficult to assess its thickness. At times we had to walk along a narrow margin of ice, constrained by the canyon wall on one side and deep rushing water on the other. Slipping in or falling through would not just be cold; it could be fatal. The water was deep and fast, and you would likely be swept under the ice in seconds.
For better or worse, the Chadar trek is an endangered activity and within 5 years will cease to exist in it’s current form. A road is currently being blasted out of the rock face above the river. When completed, winter access to the Zanskar valley villages in the interior will be relatively straight-forward. The road will certainly be safe and more convenient than the river, but its completion will mark the end of an ancient local practice.
The ‘Chadar’ is a perfect example of this resourcefulness of the Ladakhis and their indomitable spirit, in the face of such daunting odds. The term ‘Chadar’ means blanket in the local language, thereby giving an indication to the nature of this whole experience. Large sections of the river Zanskar, which is one of the mightiest rivers in Ladakh, freeze over in the dead of winter and are covered by a thick blanket of ice. This frozen blanket or ‘Chadar’ is the only way in and out for Zanskaris in winter, when the road and various other caravan routes are closed due to heavy The icy wonderland of the ‘Chadar trek’ snowfall blocking the high passes. It has been their traditional trade route in winter for Centuries. The seven to eight days walk from chilling to Padum is both challenging as well as an incomparably exiting experience. The landscape aquires a pristine grandeur in winter as the trail enters into the gorge of the Zanskar, where temperatures sometimes drop to –30 to – 35 Degree Celsius.