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

Monday, March 31, 2014

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.

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45 comments

  1. Extremely well written and what an adventure! You must be really brave!

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    1. Thank you, and I'm not that brave actually. I scare easy but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. :)

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  2. Magnificent experience, Neelima. Hope the Chadar stays on for many more years. Even though colours would have been more attractive, the monochrome looked no less beautiful. Gives a completely different perspective.

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    1. Chadar might stay for few more years until global warming takes its toll but the walk might not be same once the road is completed. And thanks about the pictures. :)

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    2. The upcoming new Manali Leh road via Dacha, Padum and Nimmo will change everything. Go quickly if you really wanna enjoy the frozen Zanskar !

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  3. Thank you Neelima for sharing such an wonderful experience.
    regards
    Arun

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  4. What an amazing experience that must have been, Neelima! was waiting to read about it and the black and white pics are absolutely stunning!!!!! looking forward to the colour ones now.

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    1. Definitely one of the most unique treks I've ever done! Thanks Anu. :)

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  5. lovely pics, Neelima. look forward to the colour ones also. and what an awesome experience this must have been!

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    1. Thanks Charu, one experience that will surely stay for long with me.

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  6. It is so wonderful reading this post on Chadar. It is adventurous to the core. I wish I get here one day. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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    1. Thanks Sana, sounds very adventurous but it isn't that much except for the cold part, which you get used to soon!

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  7. Truly amazing ! Gotta add this to the bucket list :)

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  8. What can one say.....sounds and looks Divine!!!!

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  9. That is an awesome experience altogether! We just came back from Northern Norway walking in the snow and ice that were at -24 degrees. But nothing can beat the divinity and serenity that the Himalayas can offer! Very well written!

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    1. Wow, Norway's on my list. I hope I get to experience cold from Arctic soon too. :)

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  10. Thanks Neelima for the great photos and narrative! Well done!
    Cheers Sujoy
    http://www.sujoyrdas.blogspot.com

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  11. Good stuff - but what's with black and white suddenly? :)

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    1. Don't know, always been fond of B&W but sometimes it comes out like this. :)

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  12. Well documented. beautifully written and wonderful photographs that give us the glimpses of your journey. Your blog is one of my favourites. Keep up the good work.

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  13. And not to forget, the B&W actually adds a dimension. Colour is intrinsically attractive, especially in breathtaking locales like himalayas. It is B&W that adds some depth, in terms of getting the viewer to observe the composition and the elements in the photograph. Lovely B&W photographs.

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    1. Exactly my thoughts, if you remove striking colors, only the landscape and its features are left to observe.

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  14. Not many things which are harsh and cold look beautiful like this :). Wonderful pictures.

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  15. Beautiful photos.... Is these photos are shot in gray scale mode...

    thanks

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    1. Nope, shot them in color. Processed them to B&W later.

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  16. What an adventure!! Will the landscape turn green with flowing waters during summer?

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    1. No Aarthy, there's very less greenery in this part of the world. It's a high altitude desert. The water will reflect the blue skies but the earth will be barren and brown in summers.

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  17. Went through beautiful, stunning, bizarre and just mind numbing while reading through this. Great post and pictures. Colour ones will look nicer I feel, but the B&W add to the intensity of the experience. Hope the Chadar sustains through this global warming era.

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    1. Thank you! I hope the same, Chadar is a unique experience and it will be a pity if we lose it.

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  18. I am so glad I came accross your blog.... It was a truly amazing virtual trip. An adventurous one as well :)
    and great pictures as well.... The pics are speaking louder than the words ... Kudos!!

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    1. Welcome to my blog Khushi, lots of adventures to be found here. Thank you! :)

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  19. Wow, your trips are so awesome Neelima. I have been to Ladakh recently. Since it was a short trip, I never got a chance to visit this river. Thank you for sharing the whole experience with us. I love reading your posts as they are really inspirational.

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    1. Glad you find my journeys and stories interesting! Ladakh warrants several hundred visits, so much see there. :)

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  20. yaar just Want to SAY..... this is what, we called "Zindagi Jeena" .... Hats off to YOU, You are Blessed and Be BLESSED :)

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  21. Thanks for the information., Based on your information, we are joining rohit in jan 2015. Thanks.

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  22. Hi Neelima, your blog inspires me a lot to face a new adventure in my life. I have been following your blog for a long time and I never been in the Himalayas which I love so much. I wish one day I'll surely go through it.

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  23. good work


    http://photographers.canvera.com/top-wedding-photographers-in-kolkata

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