The Leh Expedition – Incomplete Chadar and Sham Valley

Trip Date : 14th to 25th Jan 2015

The frozen river trek or the Chadar Trek or the Zanskar Trek was one of the top things on my radar when I moved to India. It seemed exhilarating, challenging, breathtakingly beautiful and a perfect introduction to the Ladakh region for someone who had never been there.

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. The Chadar trek is one way of accessing such remote places, 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.

Packed with a lot of enthusiasm, left over gear from previous rendezvous with nature, and some trips to decathlon; we boarded the flight to Leh. The flight from Delhi to Leh was very short( and made me wonder why I had never been there before having in Delhi for the Ist 18 years of my life) but breathtaking. The mountains were raw, barren but magnanimous to say the least. The maneuvers by the pilot in those valleys were nothing short of awe inspiring. The aerial view was just fascinating and gave a great start to the trip. Sleepy eyed and excited,  we landed in this miniature airport. I was freezing in my flimsy Bangalorean clothes and immediately decked up for the cold. We made our way to the hotel and Leh started revealing itself, beautiful landscapes and empty roads and I kept awing at everything.

Our hotel Mahey Resort was located around the center of the city(10 min walk to anything) and had a good view of the Stok Range which I feasted on during my stay. After about a day of rest to get acclimatized, we decided to start the Chadar journey. The roller-coaster ride took us along the Indus to the village of Nimu, where the Zanskar converges into Indus. There were quite a few heart stopping moments as the vehicle negotiates the steep hairpin bends over snow covered road. After about 4 hours of bus ride, we made it to the start of the trek. We walked down the cliff and saw the chadar in all its glory – it was around 4pm and the sun was almost about to disappear. The temperature started dropping and so did any feeling in my toes. Three layers of socks – and I had numb feet. The dread of frost bite about which we were cautioned started settling in my heart. We made camp by the chadar while still marveling over the fact that we were walking on frozen ice. Excited, we braved the cold, made small talk with the neighboring campers as we basked in their bon fire and called it a night around 8. Eight Freaking O Clock – can’t recall the last time I slept that early. Little did I know it will be a norm for the days to come. Now came the tricky part – the sleeping bags. The temperature drops to around -25C during night. We had a glacier tent and two sleeping bags to keep us warm along with all the gear we sleep in. The night passed away quick and a quick pee break in morning was what I woke up to. Another thing to dread during the trek – bathroom breaks are just stressful. We were woken up with bed tea – delicious black tea with spices which was then followed by breakfast- Chhole Bhature. All stuffed and ready to move – we started the first day of chadar. It was slippery, beautiful, cold but totally amazing. The people in our group were helpful, lending a hand whenever needed. We walked admiring our surroundings – daring to stop once in a while to take pictures(which involved the task of removing ones gloves). I mostly used my phone and had touch gloves:). Some fell, some slipped, some cracked the ice, but oh it was just pretty. Frozen waterfalls, ice in all its glory(crunchy ice, transparent ice, blue ice, slippery ice, glass ice). We walked- stopped – ate – and walked some more. After around 8 hrs of walking we made it to the campsite. We were all excited about what we had seen today and all that was about to come. As we sat there enjoying pakoras and some chai – we heard the news which we refused to believe at first. A messenger from Leh informed us that a dam upstream is blocked and can break any moment and hence we are all advised to turn back to Leh. Amidst a lot of disbelief and helplessness to either verify or discredit the news(we had no form of contact with outside world) – we decided to head back to Leh and figure the rest. The night passed uneventful and less chillier than the first day. We woke up to bed tea and breakfast and soon started walking back to Chilling. The beauty of the river still left me in awe and even though I had just walked it yesterday, it seemed totally different. We reached the camp site by 4 and camped up along one of the shores.

On arrival to Leh next day, we were offered to go for the Sham Valley Trek – which promised the traditional aroma of the Ladakh village life from the villages you come across on the way. We drove to Likir the next day while crossing ruins of Basgo Fort. After having lunch at the cosy home stay in Likir, we headed towards the Likir monastery. The views from up there were just breathtaking. Next day we start the walk which goes parallel to a motorable road that ascends to Phobe La Pass(3580m) From the pass we descended down to a gorge from where we could view Sumdo village with its handful houses. We crossed a stream on a wooden bridge and start climbing up to Chagatse La 3630m. On our downward descent we saw the Yangthang village. A short walk later we reach Hemis Shukpachen village cross Tsermangchan La 3720m on the way. The village was peaceful and looked deserted – almost like a ghost town. We saw snow leopard and wolf tracks along the way. Soon we were snuggled in one of the best home stays ever. Warm and comfortable, it was the most luxurious and entertaining stay. We had thukpa for dinner and as the night unfolded into story telling and sampling of the local brew Chang – it felt right at home. As we were about to retire for the night, it started to snow. I slept one snuggled in blankets and woke up to a winter wonderland, everything around was white – such serenity and beauty.

Reluctantly we bid goodbye to the comfort of the home stay and continued forward in the white backgrounds. We crossed Meptak La 3980m and reached the Ang village. The route was filled with wolf marks. We reached Tingmoszang shortly after. At our home stay we listened to some AIR stations, enjoyed the comfort of 4 falls and slept warm.

The next day we drove to Lamayurou to visit the monastery and witnessed one of the most beautiful landscapes on the way. The monastery was peaceful and the ambience just serene. Soon we head back to Leh and stop at the Alchi monastery on the way. As we are driving back, as our stars would have it, we were amazingly fortunate to spot a snow leopard walking up a mountain. The camouflage of that animal blowed me away, and even now I am surprised about the spotting, many did not even see it even after pointing to it.

As this unforgettable journey came full circle, we reached Leh and had a day to spare which we spent sightseeing, visiting some monasteries and walking around the market area.

I left leh having a newfound respect for the Zanskaries who brave all odds and survive with style in their beloved land. The mini chadar will be a cherished memory and I am almost certain I will return to enjoy its full glory.

Juley!

Our travel was organized by Rohit Khattar (https://himalayantramp.wordpress.com/).

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