Its been two weeks since we last walked on ice, and two weeks since we all have been reminiscing those 9 days of walking on ice and grit. I say 'we;, because going by the occasional but daily FB likes on one or the other pic by someone from the group, pretty much tells me that all of us are in the same boat. The walk is over, the memories will be always be us.
That is a sign of a good trek by the way, you finish the trek, and then remember it forever. You think about the walk to fall asleep and dream about the vistas once asleep. Incidents, steps (or missteps), jumps and falls, crossings and breaks, all stay fresh in your mind, and even as they fade in your memory, when you do see a pic or meet a group mate and recall an incident, you relive the entire experience.
And this was one such trek. And a trek it was, no doubts about it. It might be counted as one of the top ten treks in the world as per National Geographic, but at the core of it, Chadar is a trek, like any other, the only difference being that it was cold extremely cold, and you were walking on ice. But otherwise pretty much like any other trek.
Or so I thought for the first two days of walking...
But then, in most treks you can't see your reflection as if your are walking on a mirror, in most treks you don't walk on a surface as smooth as glass, or on waves frozen in time, or ice like freckles on a pretty face or on torsion cracks or crunchy swishy melting ice-cream like ice, or besides (and sometimes over) a pristine river, or along small and big icebergs, or on crackling ice, or on steep razor sharp rocks or on melting frozen snow or on frozen waterfalls and streams and tributaries. Most treks, you don't chase sunlight like your life depends on it, slide under rocky outcrops, walk on your tiptoes on the frozen margin of a river, or wade through icy cold pools of clear water (with your trousers folded up to you knees mind you), or on the side of landslide prone disintegrating debris mountains, or through tunnels formed by rivers running through landslide blockages. Most treks you don't have to rush on breaking ice with a calm urgency, and hear the cracking groans of the ice under your feet, or have your leg suddenly pierce through what seems like solid snow and then hanging ankle deep in the rushing freezing river below. Most treks you don't walk along a winding river which has cut through majestic mountains, most treks you don't lose yourself in a maze, not knowing where you are in the big picture, but always knowing where to go next. Most treks you become confident of your footing in an hour or so, here you have to watch every step, right up to the last one. Most treks you don't do disco every few steps to stop yourself from falling, most treks you don't fall in the double digits and still remain unhurt. Most treks you don't meet ladhakis who take care of you and all your needs, who safe guard you, who play the perfect hosts, and entertain you. Most treks, the terrain doesn't change every few meters, and is surely not completely different, even though you are coming back by the same route.
Most treks are not Chadar.
Am not sure how to write about Chadar, or what to write really. There is no way to express how you feel when you walk on ice along the flowing river, the serenity of the experience, its almost therapeutic. The 9 days I spent their, I didn't think of anything else...nothing. Every day was just about the routine, get up - do your morning stuff - pack your bag - eat breakfast - walk - lunch - walk - reach the campsite - dump luggage into tent - tea and snacks - dry your socks & shoes - dinner - some talk - setup sleeping bag - roll around in the tent trying to sleep - sleep - repeat. Seems a lot, but compared to our city lives, these things are just the basic essentials for survival. You kind of learn how to scrape out all the unnecessary crap we do in our days here, you think before everything, do I really want to do this. This is a place which teaches you the value of small joys of life. Like finding a private spot to do your morning thing, finding clean socks to wear, washing your face, hot water from the flask, cream biscuits, a spot in the sun, a cave with a fire...the last is more of a 'today's my lucky day' moment actually!
I might want to tell you how to prep for the trek or what to carry, but then there is nothing which has not been said already, and frankly, there will always be something left out. If you go, you will have a personal experience, if lucky, profound personal experience and you should vie for one Inspite of all the prep, there will be things that you would have forgotten (or shouldn't have carried). You will feel cold, and you will feel tired, doesn't mean don't prep, but be prepared for the struggle inspite of all your prep. And please ignore all the advice you get on timing your trip, Chadar has a mind of its own, it will change and there will be stretches which are not frozen...and frankly that is the beauty of it. If you don't find those stretches, unlucky you. Only advice I can give is don't start or finish during long weekends, because there will be many who will, and getting stuck in a traffic jam on a mountain slope where the only spots you can safely place your feet are where your feet are already placed, is not a very nice feeling
some learnings though...long treks are better than short treks, for the only reason that you make friends. Like on this one, most of us were struggling with names and faces on the first day, on the last day were all joking around like college buddies. And you get to know personalities in longer treks, how people react, what people enjoy. If you are into that kind of a thing that is...
Pack your bag well, carry the essentials that everyone has talked about, have options and adapt. Believe me, forgetting the smallest of things becomes an everyday irritation, its like that small 'kankar' in your shoe, niggling little thing! Options in clothes is good, layers are what matter, but don't carry two of everything, instead mix and match. Buy stuff from Leh market, army stuff is cheap and good quality. Thermos (750ML) and hot water bag is essential. Give yourself time to acclimatize, try not to take diamox.
It will be cold, does't matter how ever well prepared you are or how ever many layers you are wearing. Make your peace with the cold, try to ignore it and enjoy the views. Don't just walk and go through the motions, enjoy the trek. Like most other treks, Chadar tends to overwhelm you in the first few days, get a handle on it, and then take time out to open the zipper of your tent and watch the sunset (or the moonrise). Or like flat on the rocks when the sun's out midway through the day's walk, and just watch the blue skies. Because thats what its about...the walk is to clear your head, forget everything, the breaks are to enjoy that clarity, experience nothingness.
Keep some small treats for your self during the trek. And leave a bottle of brandy, clean undies and socks at Leh, you thank me...small pleasures remember.
And lastly, and most importantly, do not get swayed by the marketing guys who sell you the trip on the internet. Guys like Rohit Khattar, who have absolutely no control over what happens once you hit Chadar. They don't even own the tents or utensils or anything else. All they do is book the clients, make false promises and charge a premium for it. All arrangements are made by the porter association in Leh, they own all the assets, assign the porters and guides. I read about this on the net, didn't believe it, paid a premium for the false promises, and that was the only disappointment of the trip. And Khattar was not even present when we got back for us to complaint, neither did he reply back to a mail that I sent post the trek. For the premium we paid, we were promised a smaller group of 10 - 12, with a 1-1 porter ration, the group actually was 18 people with a staff of just 13. That meant less number of tents, no bonfires at campsites and rationed food everyday. We were promised a day at Lingshead, but were never told about the risks. We were not even told that a day in lingshead would mean we would have to complete the way back in 3 days instead of the usual 4. Just a lot of marketing talk and false promises.
So my advice, and pay attention, contact the porters association or a Ladhaki guide directly, they will be cheaper, more honest and will take care of you. The only reason Rohit Khattar couldn't ruin our trip was of the porters and the guides. Our guide was Tenzing, trustworthy, helpful, he will get you out of situations and will keep you safe. Highly recommended, can be contacted @ +91 9469393192. (He might be on a trek and so unreachable, so give it a couple of trys. Also give 'Kitao' group's reference.)
thats it, Kitao
PS: I will keep on updating the blog as I remember things, as I said, these kinda treks stay with you forever. And secondly, if you don't about Chadar, below is a short primer.
Chadar is a 9 or 11 or 15 day trek on the river Zanskar in winters when it turns into a river of ice. Ironically, this trek is undertaken by Zanskaris to get to Leh in the winters, to get their kids to school or to get supplies for the remaining summer months. Ironic, because most places are connected in summers and cut off in winters, but the opposites true for Zanskar region. You don't gain a lot of altitude in the trek, usually walking about 5 - 8 hours a day, covering anywhere between 6 to 15 kms. There are many many places to pitch a tent and call it a day, but usually you do Leh -- drive 3 hour -- Daar -- Walk 6 hrs / 9 km -- Singdha -- Walk 8 hrs / 12 km -- Tibb -- Walk 9 hrs 15 km -- Narek -- Walk 7 hrs -- Lingshead and back. Day temperature around -10, night -20 and below. And these are not just numbers, it is cold out there. A lot of blogs will tell you its just a walk on ice, believe me its not. This is am much of a trek as any, there is climbing involved, there are risks. And this is so much more...I guarantee, you shall not forget this one easily!
And lastly Kitao is a war cry that Zanskaris use to motivate each other on steep climbs or when carrying 40 kgs of load on their backs, and which became our group name