Monday, March 31, 2014

When I went walking on a Frozen River - A Photo Story

Zanskar river, in Ladakh, is a river so furious that there is no stillness in its wake. The currents and rapids are so forceful, they carved out a deep gorge through the indomitable mountains. Even the mighty Himalayas had to give in to this force creating gorgeous yet inaccessible canyons. The roar of the river reverberates in the valleys and even in the vast open spaces. However, come winter, a strange silence falls upon this place. There are few birds and fewer trees, there is no noise except for the occasional swooshing of wind passing by your ears. 

The river freezes.

Chadar - The Frozen Zanskar River
Ladakh

But it is this very same stillness that mends a connection once a year, every year. The frozen river becomes the only road that connects the remote mountain villages of Zanskar to the rest of the world during the harsh winter months. There are no roads to many of these villages. During summers, they stay disconnected and cocooned in their own world. For centuries, walking on the frozen river to get out was the preferred route. The only other suicidal alternative was to climb over several high altitude passes over several days. From month long expeditions to week long hikes, the Chadar as it is known, has been shrinking and the road is nearing completion. In the next few years, there might not be a frozen river in Zanskar. But for now, the ice forms and we walk on it in minus temperatures. (Wondering how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures? - Read this)

Here's my story and of the river's, as we trudged in subzero temperatures over the ever-changing Chadar for 11 days.

[P.S - All those of you who were kind enough to answer my B&W or Color question on Twitter and Facebook, I am not ignoring your response. Color pictures coming soon in a new album. :) Thought B&W binds the story better here.]

The confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers, the one on the left is Indus. Till a decade from now, Chadar used to form till here. Expeditions to Zanskar valley were at least a 30 day affair, a far cry from today's one week short walks. The road you see to the left didn't exist. Today, even the Chadar doesn't fully form. 
Clear nights are a good sign.  It means the Chadar won't possibly break and will remain intact. The starry skies look splendid but it is hard to admire the celestial opulence when every inch of your body is struggling to stay warm in the minus temperatures. We don't hang around outside much unless there's a fire going on. There are limited dried up juniper trees next to the river side, they provide the much needed warmth.  

This is the Chadar, meaning blanket in Hindi - A blanket of ice. Beneath these volatile sheets, flow waters that run deep.  The ice forms during the winters, in January/February to be precise. This is what we walked upon for over a week.  The ice is ever-changing, it breaks, moves, flips, forms and breaks again. There's never the same sight to be seen again. In a day, the Chadar can change completely. 

The Chadar breaks often, in such cases we try to cross over the banks as seen here. If not, we wade through the bone-chilling waters to get to solid frozen section of the river. Luckily we had very few ankle deep water crossings. Rest of the time clambering up the rocky and rickety slopes got us through. 
It is bad news when it snows. It might seem counterintuitive but it gets warm when it snows. This warmth causes the Chadar to melt, break and water to flow over the Chadar. However, the snow makes the walking very easy. The normally glossy sheets of ice, when covered in snow provide much needed friction. This arrests the otherwise inevitable multiple slips and falls.

This takes some getting used to, walking on thin ice ledges with deep waters running right next to you. One can never tell when it'll break. I saw a Thai hiker fall knee deep through the ice sheet on a ledge like this right in front of me. My heart skipped a beat. So must have his. He got up and started walking and so did I. Well, what can I say? It's all part of the Chadar experience. 

The famous frozen waterfall of Nerak and the old bridge used during the summers in the distance. It was snowing relentlessly that day and we walked with the powdery snow hitting our faces ever so gently. The skies were gray and the mountain tops were covered in a white mist. It was strange mix of raw nature and gentle beauty. Things could've gone wrong, bad weather in the mountains is no joke. But as long as they don't, it is only beautiful, extremely. 

From Nerak, we took an extended deviation to the remote village of Lingshed. We left the river and followed the trail of a small stream flowing through narrow gorges. The gorges were as narrow as just under a meter wide at places. After the monotonous walk on the river, this route brought as an exciting change in scenery. I was initially much disinterested but as spectacular views opened up, I quite enjoyed the walk. We climbed over huge rocks, narrow ledges alongside deep slopes and it was all covered in white except for the blue sky above. But in the end, all I remember is the cold and the white snow. 

Lingshed village is one of the many remote yet beautiful villages hidden in the valleys of Himalayas. With a handful of houses and a monastery, Lingshed is remoteness personified. Surrounded by snow covered mountains on all sides, living in a place like this, even for a day, puts things into perspective. It takes 2 days for them to reach out to civilization, by walking over the frozen river. Otherwise, during summers they trek over high passes. 

On the third day when it was snowing incessantly, we thought it'd be a good idea to climb up to Nerak village on a steep snow-ridden trail late evening. It wasn't a good idea, it was a bad idea but the effort was worth it. The pretty village was completely snow ridden, the evening was very cold and we were shivering. But a helpful villager offered us shelter and warmth. On our way back, we slid, got stuck on steep slopes, had our hearts in our mouths several times but made it back in one piece. Some adventures are to be had. 

My gumboots and one of the many forms of Chadar, the frozen bubbles are seen through the glossy ice here. It feels wonderfully weird to walk on ice where we can see beneath our feet, the stones, the bubbles and the cracks. There's never a dull moment on the Chadar, despite the monotonicity of the idea of walking on a river for weeks. The Chadar keeps you on your feet and leaves you only with a lifetime of memories. One of the most interesting treks I have ever come across, I'm glad to have experienced this truly unique adventure.
So how did you enjoy this virtual adventure through of the frozen territories of Ladakh? Tell me in the comments. :)

Note : I went for this trek on invitation in January 2014. The trek was made possible by founder of Himalayan Explorers Club, Rohit Khattar(+91-7602865245/ khattarrohit@yahoo.com). Rohit is a former corporate employee who fell for the mountains and now organizes small group treks to Chadar.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wild Beauty of Dandeli - A Photo Essay

It's amazing how close we are to places of incredible natural beauty despite the ongoing destruction. It is nothing but a joy and a rare privilege that we are able to whisk away to somewhere exotic overnight. One such incredibly exotic place is Dandeli, a densely forested area hiding rich treasures. I started 2014 with a rather nice visit to Dandeli where brilliant views await. Here's a glimpse of what I saw.

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
A small hike to the hilltop behind the Old Magazine House in Ganeshgudi brought us to this breathtaking view. Four rivers meet here forming a huge reservoir where the layered mountains lie on fringes. The sun sets between the hills, the water shimmers and the sky is painted in all shades of red as the wind whispers sweet nothings. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
In my experience, magical moments are ephemeral. Partly the reason why those stolen moments seem magical could be its transience.  While we waited to the sky to turn red, the water shined bright under the spell of the setting sun. Needless to say, we were left spellbound too. Soon after, the sky turned red. 


Beautiful sights of the wilderness surrounding Dandeli. Tall trees, colorful flowers and dense canopy make the forest look so wonderful, no wonder the hornbills made it their home. Hornbills live where the forests thrive. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Even without the prominent casque, the Malabar Grey Hornbill looked pretty basking in the sun by the Kali River. We spotted this beautiful bird on our evening Coracle Ride over the river. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
And here's the big beautiful bird that has made Dandeli its home. Lots of Malabar Pied Hornbills can be found in the forests surrounding Dandeli. One evening, rowing up and down a small stretch of Kali River, we spotted these graceful birds, flying across the river from one side to the other. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Ganeshgudi is apparently a hotspot for birdwatchers, a place where endemic species come flying to you. And how do I know this? Because that day I saw a motley group of birding enthusiasts congregate near a small bird bath with one thing in common - a love of birds. But what grabbed my attention was the fact that this motley group's collective worth of the camera gear would easily run into millions! But hey, the pretty little birds are Oriental White-Eyes. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Crocodiles and us, side by side, lounging on the river. Kali River. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Thousands of birds were flying back home and it was such a magical yet simple thing that I miss so much living in the city. From a treetop, I watched the white moon and the bird, through the twigs. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Malabar Pied Hornbill again! Saw so many of these beautiful birds in Dandeli. Love. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Early morning walks, late evening hikes,  Dandeli is all about falling in love with the forests all over again! 
Dandeli Wildlife Forest
Say hello to this cute little Malabar Giant Squirrel having its breakfast!

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
A small pond in the Anshi National Park, seen on an evening Safari. After all the activity in the forests of Kanha, Bandhavgarh & Kabini, Anshi felt unusually silent. Dandeli isn't known for big mammal sightings but for lot of endemic bird species. We did see a lot of birds and squirrels in the forests. 

Dandeli Wildlife Forest
The meandering trail through the forest. Even without the big mammals, the forests of Dandeli are a pleasure to be in. It is a place where the wild is truly wild and enchanting still.


Dandeli is a small town in Uttara Kannada district of north Karnataka. The closest railhead is at quaint village called Alnavar Jn, which is 40kms away from Dandeli. Adjoining the town are the dense forests of Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and Anshi Tiger Reserve. Already known among adventure enthusiasts for rafting on the rapids of Kali River, Dandeli has many things to offer to the birding and nature enthusiasts as well. 

Note : I traveled to Dandeli on-invitation from www.dandeli.com. They can organize your trip to Dandeli starting from travel and hotel bookings to customizing your itinerary as per your interests. 

So have you been to Dandeli? What do you like most about this forest?

Recommended Reading:
Dandeli - Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

Top 13 Things to do in Dandeli, Karnataka from Sankara's Blog.
Wild Things of Kanha & Bandhavgarh National Park - A Photo Essay

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Traveller's Review of the movie Highway

"Jahan se tum mujhe laye ho, mein wahan wapas nahi jaana chahti.
 Jahan bhi le ja rahe ho, wahan pahunchna nahi chahti.
 Par yeh raasta, yeh bahut accha hai.
 Mein chahti hoon ki yeh raasta kabhi khatam na ho."



These lines summed up the movie for me. Imtiaz Ali had to and did bring the movie to a logical end but this movie wasn’t about the story or the destination, it was just about the journey. There were so many times, sitting by the window seat, I prayed that the bus/car/train during my own journeys never stopped. I didn’t want to reach anywhere, I just wanted to keep looking outside and enjoy the ride. I have never posted a movie review here but Highway spoke to me and am so glad Bollywood is heading in this direction. So here I am, writing a review. 

I kept smiling as Alia’s Veera delivered scene after scene that was so familiar - lying down on the desert as storm clouds passed by, running in the vast salt pans only to realise the futility of the exercise trying to overpower nature, hearing the call of the mountains, gazing at the stars or simply cry watching a pristine glacial stream. Looking at a small gaddi house in Kashmir when she screams this is her dream house and runs to cooks maggi - that could very well be me! These are very simple experiences in the lap of nature but strong enough to change you as a person. Imtiaz Ali must be a true traveller at heart to recognise these small details that make travel so enriching and an adept director to even attempt to bring that emotion to the screen.

Which traveler wouldn’t want a house out of which you could just walk into meadows surrounded by high mountains and gushing streams? Who doesn’t want a house in the hills and who doesn’t want to run away from the hypocrisies of our society? Who doesn’t want the luxury of having nothing on your mind and just introspect, like when Veera talks to herself and wonders why she is doing all this? Ali explores the charm of unplanned journeys to unknown destinations and the awareness such journeys can bring. I loved it when Veera talks out aloud questioning why do they go to hotels and stay inside when they go on a vacation and when she wonders out loud “Kaise kaise jagah hain is country mein”?

Meetings on the road are so fleeting, just like Randeep’s brooding Mahabir and Veera’s. When you are on the road, you become friends with anyone who let’s you be. With people you’d never talk to, or even give a second look normally, you’d become best friends during the journey, which is why I didn’t question their relationship much. I really wished they had met in different circumstances though. But I can ignore the sketchy outline of that relationship for everything else that Ali has brought to the film. I can even forgive him for taking the protagonists from Spiti to Kashmir in just a day’s walk. I accept Highway because, as a traveler, I know all journeys might not take you to the elusive happy place but it may be a step in the right direction. Ali has consistently delivered on the road-movie theme and each new movie of his is getting better, darker and more real. Can’t wait for the next time he takes us on a ride.

The movie was far beyond the social message, the locations and Stockholm Syndrome. To me, it was not a love story between Mahabir and Veera. It was about freedom that travel can introduce you to. It was about two vagabonds who have got the time and freedom for the first time to slow down and take stock of things. While Veera relishes her newfound deliverance, Mahabir is trying to beat the demons of his past.

The movie falters because the theme of emancipation & self discovery through travel isn’t fully realised but you will relate to it if that’s how you feel already. Most of the reviews talk about the locations or the loopholes in the plot or the inappropriateness of Stockholm Syndrome in the context of this movie, but to me it was all about the freedom! The travellers out there, you’ll recognise this spirit immediately.

The movie left me wanting for more but I’m glad for this movie much more than the false romanticisation of other travel-themed movies like ZNMD or YJHD. Highway has successfully captured the essence of liberating journeys - journeys into self and to destinations we don’t know of yet. There are few dialogues, long silences and quiet introspections throughout the movie, because that’s how journeys are usually. The long silences are full of ambient sounds, giving a true sense of being in the scene without the distractions of a melodious score, just like in real life. Both, Veera and Mahabir fighting their past and future, find solace in the present, on the road. I imagine, so many of us initially travelled to escape the din of daily life but strangely found ourselves on the road too.

When Alia’s Veera ultimately finds comfort in the lap of mountains, my beloved Himalayas, how can I not love it? The movie left me with a sense of poignancy and a lump in my throat. I could relate to that familiar yearning for freedom, to live a simple life somewhere far in the mountains. Forget the story, just go on the ride! After all, for a traveler, journey is THE destination!

So have you watched the movie yet? What did you think about it?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dandeli - Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

[Stalking the Flying Squirrel]

Stars moving over the forests of Dandeli
Here is a GIF loading, please be patient! :)
This is what the stars were doing while we were busy finding the flying squirrel in the tree you see lighting up here. 

In the hinterlands, even 10PM seems like the dead of the night. It was pitch dark and three of us were out in the open in potential Black Panther teritorry.There was an eerie glow to the jungle path in front of us as parts of it were illuminated from the ambient light escaping from the camp next to us. Then came the heart-stopping noise that startled us, and had us running towards the camp gate - the sound of rustling leaves as if something big was lurking behind those trees in the dark. We flashed our torchlights but nothing comforted the paranoid mind. We stopped and I continued shooting the stars. Again, the same noise. Meanwhile another loud rustle came from the huge tree next to us, something was surely creating a ruckus above there. The local boy who accompanied me and my friend quickly, and thankfully identified it as the Giant Flying Squirrel! In the excitement that ensued we comfortably forgot about the noises from the other side. Giant Flying Squirrel is a nocturnal rodent and it’s eyes glow in a brilliant orange under the flashlight. It moved around the branches and we moved under the tree trying to spot the orange glow. The camera was busy capturing the stars moving and we were busy stalking the squirrel - a perfect night in the jungles of Dandeli, where wild things are!

***
[Running after Jackals]

Enchanting forests of Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary

One morning we were walking in the forests of buffer zone adjoining Anshi National Park. The trail was wide and passed through dense forest. The early morning sunshine was painting the forest in a bright light. The vines were hanging from the tall trees and the fresh green leaves glowed while shafts of light pierced through the high canopy painting a magical scene. The loud machine-gun sputter that reverberated in the forest stopped us in our tracks. Later that morning I learned that it was the call of a Giant Malabar Squirrel. On our way back, we joined the joined the jeep track that leads to the forest and our guide who had gone a little bit ahead of us came back running to ask if we were up for a chase. We said yes! He had just seen three jackals [or could be foxes or dholes, we couldn’t identify] crossing the path and we went after them into the forest through the bushes. While they skillfully evaded us, we only could see them whizzing past in the bushes - just the ears or the bushy tail or a quick glimpse or a fleeting eyecontact was all we got but it was exhilarating to be in wild with its wild inhabitants. 

***
[Black Panther is just a Leopard]

One evening, after the joyride in the Dandeli WLS, on our way back through the beautiful countryside of Dandeli, we stopped for a while to see the setting sun paint the sky red. Discussing about Black Panther sightings, our very experienced forest guide told us they were nothing but Leopards! I had no idea, I always imagined the elusive Black Panther to be some exotic species but turns out it is just a leopard. But it is a melanistic Leopard, meaning it has excess of melanin that makes the Black Panther look black. If you look closely, you can spot the rosettes(rings like markings on the fur) too. This was a revelation to me. Later, talking to an expert naturalist, Karthikeyan Srinivasan, I learn that the very dense and dark forests of Dandeli might have caused the evolution of Black Panther as a camouflage mechanism. I was even suprised when I found out that Black Panthers and normal leopards mate as well and depending on the dominant gene, the offsprings are either melanic or normal. The forests of Dandeli and Anshi are one of the few areas in India that are home to these fascinating creatures! Someday I hope I spot a Black Panther.

***
[Breakfast with Malabar Giant Squirrel]

Malabar Giant Squirrel, Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary

I woke up to the hushed tone of Anuradha(fellow travel blogger) calling out to her son to see something. I looked out of the window to see a Malabar Giant Squirrel having its breakfast on a Acacia tree right oppsite our rooms at Dandeli Jungle Camp. I woke up in a frenzy, grabbed my camera and ran out of the room. Turns out I didn’t have to rush because the squirrel was in no hurry to leave. Covered in a bright rusty red coat and with its long bushy tail, the large squirrel looked very beautiful in the morning light. It moved through the branches and was busy eating for more than an hour. I had seen these shy animals before but it was always just a quick glimpse before they disappeared. In Dandeli, however, they are abundant and not easily disturbed. I guess they live peacefully in harmony with the humans in these forests. Over three days we spotted these squirrels many times and every single time, they were a treat to observe - playful and irresistibly cute. 

***
[A date with the gorgeous Hornbills]

Malabar Pied Hornbill, Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary

I was told by our forest guide that the presence of Hornbills indicate the presence of dense and healthy forests. Considering they are so huge, their nests are even bigger and they need a lot of food which is why it is a good sign if you see hornbills in your forest. One afternoon we were kayaking over River Kali surrounded by dense forest, I was alone as I went upstream away from the resort. The water was calm, it was a clear sunny day with blue skies and the only noise was that of the jungle. When I turned back I saw Malabar Pied Hornbills fly over the river from one side to the other. It was a zen moment, being all by myself in the middle of the river and seeing those huge graceful birds glide towards the tall trees, if I had to keep only one memory from the trip, this would be it. Later that evening in our camp, many hornbills would stop by at the trees but surprisingly, the crows would manage to chase them away. On the last evening, boating over River Kali for one last time, we saw crocodiles and hornbills, both Malabar Pied and Malabar Grey, amble by the river, eat fruit and fly from one side to the other. Our necks were strained tracking their movements but what beatiful birds and when they fly, it is pure wondrous magic! I was very glad Dandeli had so many hornbills, our forests are healthy and safe, at least for now. 

***

I’ve always felt we are in a sad state that forests are not public property anymore, not so that they could be pillaged but so that everyone could have had easy and free access to this magical world.  Today they have to be protected and the only way you can have a wild encounter is from the restricted confines of a jeep during a safari. But being able to experience the wilderness in such close quarters is what makes Dandeli truly special. It is indeed a wild place where the wild things are free to roam, including you and me. 

Dandeli is a small town in Uttara Kannada district of north Karnataka. The closest railhead is at quaint village called Alnavar Jn, which is 40kms away from Dandeli. Adjoining the town are the dense forests of Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and Anshi Tiger Reserve. Already known among adventure enthusiasts for rafting on the rapids of Kali River, Dandeli has many things to offer to the birding and nature enthusiasts as well. 

Note : I traveled to Dandeli on-invitation from www.dandeli.com. They can organize your trip to Dandeli starting from travel and hotel bookings to customizing your itinerary as per your interests. I stayed at Dandeli Jungle Camp, which is a very basic place but I loved it for the location, right in the middle of the jungle. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Chadar Trek - How to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

For the longest time I shied away from this trek thinking of the extreme weather conditions. As much as I’d like to call Himalayas home, I am a plain-dwelling, sunshine-loving mere mortal after all. Extreme cold is not my thing and that’s exactly what Chadar trek is all about – crazy subzero temperatures day & night! Think temperatures ranging from -1ºC to -20ºC.

Frozen Zanskar River, Chadar Trek, Ladakh

Chadar means a blanket, a blanket of ice that forms over the Zanskar River during winters. Zanskar is a wild river flowing through the gorgeous ravines and inaccessible canyons of Ladakh. In winters, specifically during January and February, the river freezes and calms down. She lets the locals trapped in the remote Zanskar valley to walk over her and reach civilization in case of any emergencies.

Of course the fad these days is trekkers like you and me who go there to walk on the frozen river for exclusive bragging rights and a unique experience to last a lifetime! And even though we aren’t prepared to handle the extreme cold, with some preparation, as I find out, we can very well trek and enjoy it as well. So here are my top tips that might help you endure and enjoy Chadar better.

Frozen Zanskar River

Cold is just a state of mind
The day I landed in Leh, the temperature outside was below zero and it was biting cold. I couldn’t last outside for more than few minutes before I scrambled back to the heated room. The next day was no better and neither was the third day. But meanwhile, as we started walking and camping, the body was slowly adjusting to the subzero temperatures and by the end of the trek, it wasn’t that cold anymore. Cold is surely a state of mind, keep saying this to yourself. Prepare mentally more than physically for this trek and you are good to go!

Too cold? Fret not, hand & body warmers will be your saviors
I am someone whose hands and feet get very cold, even with ample protection. So you cannot imagine my joy when I was given these nifty little things that kept me so warm and safe to say, sane. These warmers are small one-time use exothermic pouches that release heat using up oxygen and last up to 10hours or more. They go comfortably into your gloves, socks or jacket and keep you incredibly warm. They are apparently used all over the cold weather countries but I had never heard or seen them until this trek. And from now on, I’m never going anywhere cold without these. This is what they look like - http://www.amazon.com/HotHands-Body-Super-Warmer-count/dp/B0007ZF4Q8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389717306&sr=8-1&keywords=body+warmers. In India, you can find these in Delhi apparently. I got these from two very helpful fellow American trekkers.

Update - Tracked the whereabouts! Pricey, but yay! :) Adventure 18 store in Delhi sells handwarmers and footwarmers. If anyone has used them, please leave a comment below on how well they work.
Also here's a handy list of all adventure equipment selling stores in India, check with these places as well, they might have stock too - Camping and Trekking Equipment in India

Gumboots rule the day, not your fancy hiking shoes
Gumboots cost 350Rs and they are hands down the best thing you can buy for Chadar trek. They have good grip, they keep you warm and dry and they work like a charm on the Chadar. Your normal hiking shoes will be comfortably tucked into your backpack while these magic boots do all the hard work. Take my advice, leave your bulky shoes home and thank me later. If you don’t have hiking shoes, don’t buy them only for Chadar, carry your running shoes and walk in the gumboots. I did the entire trek in these knee length boots and have no complains!

Sleeping Bag keeps everything warm. Carry an extra one
It gets very cold and windy by night, two sleeping bags or a liner + sleeping bag is a must. If your trek agency isn’t providing you two bags, carry your own sleeping bag. You need good sleep and you don’t want to be cold in the night. And tuck your water bottle, socks, gloves and whatever it is that you want to stay warm in the morning inside your sleeping bag. Anything left outside will be frozen and super cold.

When in Rome, act like Roman i.e. do what the locals do
The locals walk on the Chadar as if it is a piece of cake! They walk fast and take strides like a penguin on the slippery ice. They knock the ice sheet when in doubt and sometimes they just keep their feet through the broken ice. They know what they are doing. At least on the first few days, observe them and shadow them. Do not cross and go on your own until you can gauge the Chadar. After 2-3 days you will be an expert too but until then, watch and learn. Trust me, falling into the icy cold water is no fun. No, I didn’t fall but I can imagine the horror.

If you fall, rise and shine.
This is a fact you have to make peace with. You will slip and fall, yes, there is no escaping. At least on the initial days you will. There is nothing wrong in falling down, we are not used to walking on glossy shiny frozen sheets of uneven ice. When you fall down, roll over on your knees and get up slowly and resume the walk. If luck is on your side, fresh snow will cover the glossy ice sheets making it easy to walk otherwise be prepared to fall down and get up a lot. Don’t worry, everybody falls, even the locals. It is just a part of the experience!

Keep your electronics close to your heart
Cold drains out charge out of electronics very fast. Extreme cold drains the charge even faster. Keep all the batteries safely tucked in your jacket pockets. If the battery is blinking low, warm it enough and you can use it for some more time. I carried 3 batteries and stored them in gloves and jacket pockets when not in use. Had enough charge to shoot 64GB!

Extra pair of socks will keep you warm in campsites
The only downside of walking in gumboots is that the sweat collects in your shoes and dampens the socks. Yes, you will sweat while you walk but you won’t feel it until you rest at the campsite. While you are walking, your feet will still feel very warm in gumboots. Keep a spare pair of socks for when you reach campsite, changing into fresh pair of warm socks will feel so good I can’t even tell you. It is something you have to experience yourself.

Leh Market has the best stock to deal with the cold
The Tibetan Markets in Leh have the best stuff to protect you from the cold. Ranging from insulated snow-proof pants to warm woolen socks, you can get all the gear you need for Chadar in these markets. In fact I would suggest you to buy woolens in Leh rather than some fancy city shops. Spend an afternoon wandering in the market to pick up a lot of useful and handy stuff. Worked well for me.

You can carry your metal Quechua bottle without the fear of frostbite
When I think subzero temperatures, I think frozen water. But at times during the trek, neither the river freezes entirely nor the water in your bottle. And neither does the metal bottle give you frostbite. You are always given hot water and gloves are almost always on, so no frostbite. And with the metal bottle, you can use it to warm your hands and keep it inside your sleeping bag as well for warmth. So don’t hesitate to carry those metals bottles and flasks if you want to.

Pick up the chocolate wrappers please?
This is not a tip but a request. I collected so many centerfresh and other candy wrappers thrown on the pristine Chadar that it makes me sad. We go to these places and litter like it’s nobody’s business. Please pick up those wrappers and take them with you. I would like to ask people to stop throwing the candy covers but if they are not listening, I hope one of you will pick up the wrappers at least, whatever keeps Chadar clean.

So now, who all are ready for the Chadar Trek?

Note : I went for this trek on invitation. The trek was made possible by founder of Himalayan Explorers Club, Rohit Khattar(+91-7602865245/ khattarrohit@yahoo.com). Rohit is a former corporate employee who fell for the mountains and now organizes small group treks to Chadar.

I just got back from Chadar Trek 2 days ago and these are my top tips to enjoy the very unique frozen river trek. Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 : Reflecting on a year as a Travel Writer!

I’ve said this before and I say it again, that I do not consider myself a writer at all. I consider myself an explorer and a decent photographer. And I started my blog with the sole aim of documenting my travels, not to become a better writer but as it turns out bigger things were planned for me.

Taking notes in my little hut and sipping hot tea as it rains heavily.
Somewhere in the jungles of Meghalaya. 

It’s been exactly a year since I started writing for National Geographic Traveller India. My first article appeared last year, this month - an article about my trek in the Thar Desert. When I saw the words “Text & Photographs by Neelima Vallangi”, I almost cried. It had been my dream for the longest time to work for NatGeo, I had no idea in what capacity though. I always associated NatGeo with exotic places, beautiful photographs and lots of wonderful stories and I wanted in on that.

Sometime in September 2012, I decided I’d try my luck, by chance. In July 2012, I saw a lot of my photographer friends’ photographs being published in NatGeo Traveller’s first Indian Edition. I thought I should try getting my photos published too and I did get in touch with Ashima, the photo editor at that time. She liked my work and used some photographs for two stories on Western Ghats and Ladakh.

I was getting photo requirement mails from few photo editors at different publications but the trouble was I never had photos from those places. They were mostly requests for photographs showing culture, heritage or images of well-known places, which were not part of my repertoire. It dawned on me that this way I’ll never have my photographs published. The kind of places I go to, no one will write about them. That’s when I decided I should probably try writing too and I sent my first pitch.

Prior to this I had no fair idea on what I wanted to do in the travel space, I was sure I did not want to plan trips or do workshops. I might do workshops later on the side but only when I have established myself as a well-published writer or photographer. Somewhere between researching, pitching and writing those stories I realized that’s what I loved the most - story telling! I should’ve realized, often friends had told me I narrated the incidents in an interesting way. After coming back from a trip, there’s no stopping. I talk so much about a trip - how it made me feel, what I learned, what was amusing and everything else about it. My friends were the ones to face the wrath of my enthusiasm but I never thought much about why I enjoyed it so. No wonder I started a blog! I can’t do top-10 lists or hotel reviews or information pieces but I want to take people with me to some place outlandish.

Lesson Learnt – Try to analyze why you are doing what you are doing. Once you find that answer, you’ll find a way too! ☺

I was terrified to hit send on that first pitch and I assured myself the worst thing that could happen was only that I might not get a reply back from the editor. But I got a reply. I was shocked when my pitch was accepted; in fact I was shocked that I mustered up enough courage to send the first pitch at all with no previous publication credits to speak of. But that set the ball rolling. Working over the weekends, I’ve done 8 stories, big and small for NatGeo so far. Suddenly narratives, editing, hooks made sense to me. It was a whole new world and a big adventure learning all these new things. Later, I got requests to write for Greenpeace, Discover India, The New Indian Express etc and I wrote for them as well.

Lesson learnt – It’s okay to dream big. In fact it is good to dream big. Like they say, even if we miss the stars, we’ll reach the moon!

But writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I struggle and struggle. Half the times I stare at the blank screen, the other half of time is spent scouring the Internet for useless things in the name of research. But finally when I get the words out, in a weird way I feel ecstatic, that I created something! Of course the shock came at the end of the year when a company wrote to me saying I should write a book and they’ll help me publish it. Now that’s an idea, I had never considered writing a book and never considered myself to be that good but few people out there seem to think I can write. It’s comforting to know that I have come to this stage, this means I have grown. It was a long painful path but I certainly can see the change. I have not arrived as a writer and far from arriving but I do intend to keep at it.

Lesson learnt – In the beginning, I kept falling off the narrow bridge in Temple Run but not anymore. Practice surely makes a woman perfect! ;)

So that was my very interesting 2013! I traveled very less. I went on quite a few sponsored trips as a travel blogger but 2013 will be remembered as the year that gave a direction to my wanderlust. I started from scratch and am happy with where I am today. In 2014, I want to write more, read even more but most of all, I want to tell lots of good stories – visually and literally!

How was your year? Have you written your year-end posts? Leave a link below in the comments section, I love to read those. ☺

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