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Nov 26, 2015

Chadar Trek: 100 miles on Zanskar’s blanket of ice

A tough winter journey on foot into the region of Zanskar, in Northern India, provides insight into the world of the  Tibetan people living closely with their environment.

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The Outdoor Journal

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A journalist writes her personal account of the journey.

Mary McIntyre did the frozen river Chadar trek last winter in 2014, just before a landslide on a tributary of the Zanskar river caused the trek to be banned by administrative authorities.

The last horizon of the world, the land of white copper, Zanskar is the Grand Canyon of Asia
The last horizon of the world, the land of white copper, Zanskar is the Grand Canyon of Asia

A small Zanskari woman in maroon woolen robes takes my hand to guide me into her clay brick home. Stanzin’s hand is dry and cracked, rough against my palm. Smells of hay and animals linger in the air, but I can’t tell where these musky scents originate – the immediate darkness of the interior is a blinding contrast to the bright snow outside. Stooping to fit through doorways, I step over one knee-high threshold, then another, groping the clay wall to find my way through the small openings. I tighten my grip as we get farther into the house in utter blackness. Finally dim daylight filters through an opening. Stanzin tugs my hand, but something soft at my knees blocks my progress. There’s movement in the shadows, then a solid, curving horn brushes under my outstretched palm. Goats? Stanzin tosses the small animals out of my path, and at last I stumble into the light. Five surprised faces turn at the commotion of my entry. It’s teatime.

Almost four decades ago, Franco-Swiss photographer Olivier Follmi first visited and became fascinated by the ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Zanskar.  His photographs and writings are a significant reason that tourism began in this isolated northwest corner of the Tibetan Plateau in the 1980s. The Buddhist enclave of Zanskar forms part of India’s northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir, which is bound by heavily patrolled and contentious borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tibet. The valley of Zanskar is connected to the outside world by a single gravel road built in the 1980s. The road follows a circuitous route through mountain passes and deep gorges and is impassable 7 months of the year due to snowfall. However, in the winter months, another passageway opens up on the frozen Zanskar River: an ancient trade route known as the Chadar – the “Ice Blanket”.

In the last three decades, this centuries-old trade route walked solely by locals has transitioned into an international winter-trekking destination. In the 1980s, only a handful of foreigners had visited Zanskar. Now, hundreds of tourists walk the Chadar from mid-January through mid-March. The influx of foreigners has changed the character of the Chadar, and will also likely alter the Zanskari’s traditional way of life. Change is coming in other forms as well. The Indian government is blasting a road through the Zanskar River gorge to give the military year-round access. Additionally, global climate change is decreasing the period of time when the river ice is safe to walk on, while resource consumption is deteriorating the environment that the Zanskari people have depended on for centuries. After a thousand years, the Chadar may be nearing its end.

Ladakh, or "Little Tibet", lies in the rain shadow of the great Himalaya. Located in the most sparsely populated region in Jammu and Kashmir and situated on the Tibetan plateau, it's full of snow capped mountains, gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and colourful people
Ladakh, or “Little Tibet”, lies in the rain shadow of the great Himalaya. Located in the most sparsely populated region in Jammu and Kashmir and situated on the Tibetan plateau, it’s full of snow capped mountains, gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and colourful people

The collective enthusiasm in our bus buzzes as we drive up from the confluence with the Indus, each bend revealing another stretch of gleaming white ice, bright blue water, and towering red canyon walls. We reach the starting point of our trek after a heart-stopping hour careening up a road dynamited out of the cliffs above the Zanskar River. I’m eager to get started, but there’s no walking today, just camping on a gravel bar alongside four other tour groups. The boisterous trekking groups sport matching tents, knee-length parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, and rain boots with inch-long spiky crampons lashed on the bottom. This isn’t exactly the solitary mountain experience I was expecting.

“Bed Tea?” The tent rustles as someone unzips the outer door. I peer bleary-eyed from my 40-below sleeping bag at two smiling faces. The cook boys hold out metal teacups and offer huge kettles. “Masala Chai or milk tea?” So this is how they coax us out of bed when it’s -15 F and the inside of the tent sparkles with ice crystals. We pack our gear with frozen fingers; jam toes into icy boots, and then our group of ten starts out on the river. At first everyone moves cautiously, unsure of how to hike on the sheet of ice that is our pathway. A few people immediately take spills; luckily our bodies are protected by many layers of long underwear and down jackets. Ace Kvale, a close friend who instigated our trek, helpfully demonstrates the ‘penguin walk.’  The shuffling movement makes us surprisingly agile. It’s not long before our porters glide past us in the same manner, pulling sleds loaded with gear and food.

After getting comfortable walking on the ice, I turn my attention to the river itself. It is endlessly interesting; every bend reveling a new and different scene. The river appears flash-frozen, as if a sudden chill stopped the moving water in its tracks. Waves are frozen caps curving skywards; eddy lines are ripples of wrinkled ice ringing the edge of bulging blue protrusions. The surface cracks and pops as the turquoise torrent beneath tries to escape.  At times, I look down to see moving water six inches below my feet. One of the first things I learn about the Chadar: the ice is always changing.

Chadar-goers have died in the past, falling through the ice and being swept under, unable to come back up through the frozen surface
Chadar-goers have died in the past, falling through the ice and being swept under, unable to come back up through the frozen surface

Our group follows closely behind our ‘ice pilot,’ a cheerful Zanskari man of 43. His browned face is deeply creased with smile lines. Talhi believes he has done the Chadar around 250 times, starting at age 13. He hikes in rubber boots, thick woolen pants, a well-worn coat, and red plastic sunglasses that are taped back together in the middle. Talhi never went to school but he speaks decent English and “un petit poo de Français” as a result of his guide work. He envisions a different future for his children. His eldest son attends school in a nearby village and plans to join the military, while the youngest son is in his second year of a nine-year stay at a monastery in southern India. His wife grows food and raises livestock to support the family’s other needs. Talhi works as a guide both summer and winter, spending most of the year away from home to earn enough to pay for his sons’ schooling.

Talhi has spent a lot of time on this river, and he instinctively tells stories as we walk, making me feel connected to the history of this ancient route. Examining a large soot-blackened cave facing us from across the water, he explains, “Many many year ago, monks stuck here when ice break. They stay in cave and wait for river to freeze. After many many day, no more food. They so hungry, they eat sheepskin blanket.” Luckily the river re-froze soon after, or they would have been cold and hungry!

Talhi strides confidently ahead on the ice, no hesitation in finding the best path. “Follow, follow!” he yells to encourage us. Although he is significantly shorter than everyone in our group, his gait easily doubles my normal walking speed. When a member of our team starts falling behind, Talhi hoists his pack atop his own. The double load doesn’t slow him down a bit. We pause for a snack of cashews, raisins, and a thermos of tea. After some of the ragged breathing abates, he gives everyone a huge smile. “Now we go!”

At the end of the day, after dropping our gear, the porters disperse to caves along the canyon walls. As night falls, their fires glow from the hillside, a primeval scene of shadows playing on the cliffs as they cook dinner. After watching some porters make traditional dumpling-like momos, I try my hand at making one. Everyone around the fire gets a kick out of how terrible my dumpling turns out. Not even edible apparently – one of the men takes it apart and re-forms a proper one. They boil salty butter tea and relax as the evening light glows against the canyon wall. Their army surplus sleeping bags are spread out as they prepare for a night in this cave that has been used by their predecessors for centuries.

At times walking is easy and the river is frozen as far as the eyes can see. But more often than not, our route follows the ice at water's edge, occassionally on a thin shelf just inches from the rushing blue water
At times walking is easy and the river is frozen as far as the eyes can see. But more often than not, our route follows the ice at water’s edge, occassionally on a thin shelf just inches from the rushing blue water

When I ask Talhi about how the new road up the Zanskar River gorge will affect his family, he explains, “No winter job, no school for children.” Although Talhi leads treks summer and winter, his family of six barely makes ends meet. Travelling to Zanskar from Leh, the capital of the region, currently takes two days by car and brings travelers through Kargil, the site of recent India/Pakistan fighting. The road passes over 14,000-foot Penzi-la, and is closed due to snow 7 months of the year.

Although the new road will bring better medical care and infrastructure to the Zanskaris, it will also dramatically impact their way of life and speed up cultural change. The Zanskaris are an indigenous, Tibetan-related people with a rich culture that has remained isolated from the outside world until the last several decades. The region was originally considered part of Tibet, and until 1974 the Indian government closed Zanskar to the outside world. The road from Kargil and tourism have already introduced globalization to the area, but as of now, the traditional culture remains largely intact.

In towns with electricity, Zanskari children watch Hindi television and movies accompanied by westernized commercials that seem alien in their isolated mountain valley. The region’s public schools are also contributing to cultural change: Zanskari students are taught Hindi, English, and Urdu, but never their mother tongue. Until now, the remoteness of this ancient civilization has protected it from cultural loss and extinction. However, the new road will accelerate cultural interaction and change, which worries Zanskaris and visitors alike.

In a fire-lit cave a few nights later, I ask the ice pilot of a neighboring group about the future of the Chadar. “In five years, we’ll be out of firewood. In twenty years, maybe the road will go through,” he says. I’d thought of the road as the terminator of the trek, but environmental degradation is actually the more pressing concern. The campsites are trampled by hundreds of people everyday for two months, and deforestation is a serious problem resulting from over-use.  The porters resort to ripping out the roots of what were once juniper trees to light fires for cooking. Locals acknowledge that the resources are deteriorating since there is no system to limit the number of travelers, but it’s the way things have worked for centuries, and there are currently no alternatives.

Zanskar is situated in the eastern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in the Kargil district with the Zanskar Range separating it from Ladakh
Zanskar is situated in the eastern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in the Kargil district with the Zanskar Range separating it from Ladakh

The many groups of tourists and porters generate an incredible amount of waste. Walking twenty feet from my tent at the busy campsites is akin to walking into a toilet. Human feces litter the ground. We dub one of our campsites ‘Trash Camp.’ The ground is carpeted with snack wrappers, food waste, and toilet paper. Trekking in these mountains is spectacular, but what about these negative impacts that trekking groups like ours are having on this place?

After five days of walking, we reach Talhi’s village of Pidmo. His wife and children welcome us into their home, happy to have their ice pilot home after a month of work. In the cave-like basement, the family room floor is thick with rugs and warmed by a dung-fed stove in the center. Talhi offers us Chang, a milky, greenish barley homebrew. It tastes great, especially after the day’s 15 kilometers of walking. We pass one teacup from person to person, taking a sip or two before Talhi’s son insists on refilling it. Tradition dictates that the host refill the cup after every sip. I try to drink slowly because of the altitude and strange taste, but his son gestures to drink up; I’m taking too long! Talhi’s wife encourages us to try her cheese-like homemade yogurt, and spoons the watery, chunky substance straight into our hands. Regardless of the tough subsistence lifestyle the Zanskari people lead, they are among the happiest people I have ever met. Their laughs are infectious, their easy smiles and kindness hard to forget.

 In winters, the roads to Zanskar close down due to heavy snowfall. The river freezes and walking along it becomes the only overland route to Padum. The frozen river is known as Chadar (a white sheet) and has become a popular trekking route for adventurers.
In winters, the roads to Zanskar close down due to heavy snowfall. The river freezes and walking along it becomes the only overland route to Padum. The frozen river is known as Chadar (a white sheet) and has become a popular trekking route for adventurers.

I quickly grow accustomed to being greeted with my Zanskari name, “Julley, Angmo!” from women as they gather hay from piles on their rooftops. Ace, a renowned photographer on his seventh visit to Zanskar, captures my sentiments perfectly. “People ask me why I keep coming back, why it’s worth the time, trouble, and money,” he says, “and it’s impossible to explain without having been here. It’s just such a rich experience spending time among these people. It’s worth it.”  Ace lives in a small town in Southern Utah. He points out that the ancestors of the Zanskari people inhabited these same villages, living this same lifestyle, when the Anasazi roamed the U.S. southwest years ago **. The Anasazi disappeared, but the Zanskari remain, gardening, praying, living. We’re hopeful that some of their ancient traditions will live on despite modernization. I’m sad to leave, but it’s time to get back to the river.

The Zanskari-internet, a network of conversation between travelling porters and ice pilots, informs us of the river conditions. As we approach groups heading up-river, Talhi recognizes friends and they greet as if they are casually running into one another in town.  A simple handshake and “Julley” suffice on the frozen river with 17,000-foot peaks casting shadows across the gorge. As we scramble between boulders to avoid thin ice on the river, a passing monk warns us that “many many danger” lie ahead. We haven’t seen any tourists coming up-river for days, a sure sign of an obstacle. After cautious walks through slushy water, more climbs around broken ice, and piggybacks from Talhi across open water, we reach the danger. Warm weather has melted the ice rounding the next bend in the river. It is our last day, and the sun glints invitingly off the water. Talhi grins as the porters begin to strip down to their underwear. “Now we cross the water!” he gleefully tells us. No more piggybacks like yesterday. Several hundred feet of open water lie between us and the ice shelf on the other side. The river reaches mid-thigh on the porters wading ahead of me. I pull off my long-underwear, skin immediately turning to gooseflesh, and step in behind them.

After 15 days out in these mountains, I feel a strong connection with the Zanskari people and wonder about the region’s future. Will environmental deterioration worsen as it becomes a stronghold of the Indian military or an ever more popular trekking destination? Despite these threats to their world, the Zanskari people who call this place home will certainly benefit from maintaining the area’s historic monasteries, reinforcing the culture’s traditional ties with the Buddhist religion, and also finding a way to provide free, culturally relevant education for their
children.

The Zanskaris live closely with their environment, as they have done for centuries, which makes the region a stunning place to visit for those of us accustomed to westernized lifestyles and values. Author Arno Kopecky writes that we stand to lose native people’s “visceral knowledge of natural rhythms” because of modernization and cultural extinction. The road will change the lifestyle of the Zanskari people, but if the Indian government and visitors show these people how much the outside world values their traditional culture and way of life, perhaps some of it will remain.

At teatime with Stanzin’s family, I met three generations. In the winter, the whole family moves into one room at the center of the house with the livestock in the outer rooms acting as living, breathing insulation. With one dung-stove for heat, the Zanskaris live comfortably. I slurped dainty teacups of salty butter-tea mixed with tsampa, a roasted barley flour that the locals mix with tea to form porridge. Stanzin’s family invited me to stay the night in the cozy womb of their house, and I was tempted not to return to my cold tent. I regretfully declined their offer and headed off through blowing snow, down the steep hillside to the river, but I will be back, and hopefully next time I will stay.

Story and Images: Mary McIntyre

About the author: Mary McIntyre is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer. She travels the world to gain an understanding of the relationship between people and their environment. She recently published a book about the ties between food and culture. She collaborated on a National Geographic Adventure Expedition in Baja, Mexico.

This story was featured in issue 09 of The Outdoor Journal Autumn 2015 edition.