Chadar Trek – A Walk on the Frozen River ‘Zanskar’

Chadar Trek – A Walk on the Frozen River ‘Zanskar’

Participants:

Warren Menezes, Sushant Gaikwad, Mark Garrett, Deva Kumar, Kajal Patel, Harsimran Singh Sangha, Biju Moothedath, Simarpreet Singh, Pawan Vashisht and Vishal Jhanji

Trek Leader: Hardik 

Trek Guide: Tashi

Adventure company: Trek The Himalayas

From: 05th February to 13th February 2016

About Me – Vishal Jhanji

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Vishal Jhanji Email: vvjhanji@gmail.com

I hail from Pune. Settled here since eighties. Though a Punjabi but now Pune is my hometown. I am a naturalist. Love the nature and its habitat.

Mountains are like my natural home. I get attracted to them like no other place, especially Himalayas. I am sure about my past lives home being a mountain habitat.

I keep coming back to Himalayas again and again, whenever I save enough. I have been to tropical and sub-tropical forest but Himalayas remain my first love.

Chadar trek was my first ever winter adventure in the Himalayas. I came to know about it in 2012 and was trying to do it ever since. Any trekker would know how thrilling it is to plan about a trek as splendid as Chadar trek.

About ‘Chadar Trek

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‘Chadar’ (sheet) name is given to the frozen surface of the ‘Zanskar’ river which looks like a White sheet after being frozen. ‘Zanskar’ river is the lifeline of the people of Ladakh region. The river starts freezing in the month of December and by the mid January it is completely frozen. As the Zanskar River freezes into a sheet of ice, it remains the only route to access the Zanskar Valley during the winters. All mountain passes are shut down due to snow fall, leaving the Chadar or the frozen Zanskar River as the only route for passage. The ideal or best time for this trek is in the months of January and February as the swift river is harnessed in the bounds of blocks of ice and the surroundings are all covered in the pristine white beauty of snow. The temperatures are incredibly low during the day time and plummet to uncomfortably freezing temperatures during the night time.

Temperature : -15 deg Celsius to -35 deg Celsius

Grade : Difficult

Trekking distance : 75 kilometres (Tilad –Narek-Tilad)

Accommodation : Tents in the open

Food provided : Vegetarian +Eggs

Preparation for the Trek

Preparing for the Chadar trek was little different than the other treks. I knew that the elements of the Nature would be major hurdle in taking the trek. Though the altitude was within 12000 feet but it was the terrain and the extremely low temperatures I had to live through. Night temperature generally fell below -30 deg centigrade’s.

I practiced by running for 5 kilometres, 4 times a week.

And Weight training on the other two days of the week.

My daily workout was like this:

Running : Mon, Tue, Thu, Friday

Weight training (Squats & Lunges) : Wed & Saturday

Rest : Sunday

After every Run I would do this (only on running days):

60 push-ups, 250 kicks and 500 rope jumps (skipping) to get into the shape for the trek. Because of the time constraint I did this routine for five weeks only before the commencement of the trek.

Day- One

I decided to go to airport much earlier the previous evening at around 11.30pm. It was safer for me as I lived almost 2 hours away from the airport and there was no metro after 11.30pm. I reached airport around 12.30am. My Air India flight from New Delhi to Leh was rescheduled to 5.55am. There was lot of hustle and bustle at the airport. It did not felt like late in the night. International travellers were all around the place at the lounge and eateries were crowded with people. I went to the check-in counter at around 2am to deposit my check-in bag, they would not accept it before 2am as it could get mixed-up along the baggage meant for the international flights.

Check-in was allowed for the domestic flights only after 2am. So, I roamed around the airport lobby for almost an hour before I started feeling too drowsy. It was extremely challenging to keep myself awake in the dead of the night. Bright lights of the airport tried to confuse my brain as if it was daytime but with the time ticking away my body gave away as I sunk myself into the chair. It was too noisy to get any quality sleep.

After checking-in, I felt relaxed and headed towards the security check. While in a hurry I left my jacket at the security counter but realized soon enough to fetch it back. I almost galloped towards my boarding gate to dump myself into one of the resting chairs. I sunk myself into one of the comfortable benches for the next 3 hours. In no time I was asleep. Noise from the fellow passengers woke me up around 5am. I went to the washroom & splashed cold water on my face to come back into my senses. My eyes were still burning from the sleep deprivation. I managed to keep them open and saw that almost 70 percent of the co-passengers were trekkers or explorers. Trekkers were mostly for the ‘Chadar Trek’.

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Karakoram range of mountains! Clicked from the sky.

Flight took 90 minutes to transport me from 400 feet to 11500 feet. I landed at the Leh airport at around 7.30am. The outside temperature was 15 degrees below zero. In Delhi the temperature was plus 15 degrees, a variation of 30 degrees celcius. It was first time for me to experience such a variation. The chill in the air was bearable for the first five minutes and then I started feeling the numbness in my feet and hands. I collected my bagpack from the luggage belt and went out to hunt for a taxi to goto my hotel ‘Dolma Guest House’,

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Old Fort Road, Leh.

It was seriously cold inside the hotel and I was almost shivering inside out. Hotel Manager saw my condition and suggested me to relax in their restaurant for a while till they prepare my room. It was warm and cozy inside the restaurant. During my two hours of waiting I met very friendly guys Biju and Pawan, incidentally they were my trek mates for the ‘Chadar’ trek. After sometime Harry and Simar came and we exchanged greetings! I was definitely delighted to see guys from my homeland – Punjab.

I finally got into my room and within thirty minutes I was joined by an Australian named Mark Garret. We connected well at the first instance. Mark was first time in India and Chader trek was the main reason he was here. He had very poor knowledge about India and its stupendous culture. Ofcourse, over the next seven days he would be bombarded with lots of info about India 😉

Trek briefing by Sandeep Rawat, our Base Camp Manager, was at 12 noon. Briefing went on till 1:30pm. Lots of experiences were shared by all the trek members. Few were first timers for the trek and rest had done at least couple of treks. Sandeep shared the past trekking groups experiences and how some groups were not able to complete the trek because of non formation of the ‘Ice’ or Chadar. Do’s and Don’ts for the trek were shared, temperature information and food information was shared with us. Kind of ‘Gum’ boots and clothing list required was revisited. ‘Hardik Patel’ was the name of our Trek Leader, he was from Mumbai and he would be along with us for rest of the trek.

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Interesting Sign Board in Leh bazaar

I had bought the Gum boots online via ebay, so I was relaxed whereas some of them had to purchase from the Leh bazzar. I accompanied three trek mates for the Gum boots shopping. It was a old narrow lane bazzar, a very traditional one indeed. It had lots of options for the Gum boots and infact it had most of the trekking gear, used and new one. There were lots of eateries too. Leh has two bazzar, new and modern one and an old one. You can get very good deal at the old one, heavy bargaining is the formula.

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Old Bazaar, Leh

After the shopping my colleagues went for a sightseeing whereas it was my very first day and I was awake since the previous night I decided not to join them. I had chole bhature at one of the restaurants at the main bazaar. I also met one local Ladakhi family eating at a restaurant. Ladakhi’s are generally very warm and friendly. They permitted me to click their picture too.

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Ladakhi Kids

Then I roamed around the local bazaar for some more time. I bought a thermos for storing the hot water, it is very important to have one because the cold water is undrinkable, it almost hurts while drinking. I suggest that one should buy it from other than Leh as the prices are more than double. After shopping I went to my room to doze off.

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New Leh Bazaar. No vehicles are allowed on this pathway

Mark, my room mate was out and came back around 6pm and then we both went for a dinner. It was extremely cold outside, around -18 deg Celsius. We quickly finished our dinner and came back to the cosy environment of our hotel room. It was a long day for me, so went to sleep by 10pm.

Day- Second

I woke up at around 7am and it took me almost 30 minutes before I could climb down from my bed. All the taps in the bathroom were sealed, so no running water. The water in the bucket was torturously cold. There was no water heater, so I had to request the hotel staff to provide one bucket full of hot water. In 30 minutes the hot steamy water bucket was provided but still taking bath was a challenge, the bathroom had good ventilation and I could feel the cold breeze kissing my bare body all the while, while bathing. In normal conditions I take around 15 mins to finish my bathroom chores but here it took me almost 45 minutes.

I reported at the hotel lobby at the stipulated time of 9am. Hardik greeted us and we went for a quick breakfast at the most cosiest place in the hotel i.e. the dining hall. After the breakfast we had some quick photo session.

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(L to R; Vishal, Mark, Harry, Simar, Hardik and Warren)

We checked out of the hotel around 10am and boarded the mini bus waiting outside the hotel room. Our luggage was loaded on the bus roof top. ‘Tashi’ our Trek guide and other support staffs were picked up from the outskirts of Leh.

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Vast stretches of the cold dessert, on the way to Tilad

After picking up people and ration for the trek we left for a four hour drive to the trek starting point ‘Tilad’. The journey was smooth for the first two hours and treacherous for the next two hours. The roads were missing at many places and extremely dusty and bumpy ride. Though, it was picturesque all the way till the destination. We stopped briefly at the Gurudwara ‘Pathar Saheb’ for the blessings and then continued our journey.

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Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, along with the head cook

Temperature was around -15 deg Celsius and it was horrible experience clicking a picture from the running bus window. Wind felt like a blade on the face and taking my hands out of the window was further adding to the wretchedness. Journey had breathtaking views of the valleys, snow capped mountains, and frozen river was also travelling along the road we were travelling. I wanted to click lots of pictures but weather kept me in check.

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Blue waters of Zanskar river
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Zanskar river frozen in places. Clicked from the moving bus!

Roller coaster would be put to shame, it was so bumpy. Though the drive was bumpy and rough but it was worth every penny.

We reached the destination at around 3.30pm. This was supposed to be our first camping site as well as the starting point for the trek. We had to get down the dusty mountain almost 200 feet, then cross the frozen river (Chadar) and reach to the other side for the campsite. This place was called ‘Tilad’.

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Deva (in front), Harry & Simar crossing the frozen river bed

In about one hour our tents were pegged and ready for moving-in. The staff of ‘Trek the Himalayas’ was very enthusiastic and entertaining despite the harsh and extreme conditions. It was ‘Ice’ and frozen river all around and temperature and was around -16 degrees Celsius with occasional icy breeze.

I explored the area a bit along with my team members, Harry, Mark and Simar. I clicked few pics on the icy river. It was our first day and energy was full for the activities. I shared few videos and pics with my team members Harry and Simar. Both of them carried a huge battery bank for the trek.

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Mark, Harry, Simar & Vishal (L to R)
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Simar & Harry, testing the cold water

After a quick dinner it was time to get into our sleeping bags and get cosy for the night. I must admit that it was not less than a nightmare sleeping next to the icy riverbed. I had a freezing experience in my sleeping bag, though we were three people in the tent but it did not help much as night temperature was around -20 degrees Celsius. Altitude did not bother much as it was my second night in Ladakh but the chilling temperature did not let me sleep for almost another 45 minutes before my limbs got warm enough to go into the sleeping mode.

Day – Three

It was around 5 am in the morning when I felt the urge to answer the call of nature. It took me 15 minutes to decide and leave the cosiness of my sleeping bag and go out my tent. It was pitch dark and offcourse as cold as Antarctica. After some introspection I wore my head light and ventured out in the dark. My tent was pegged around 20 feet away from the frozen riverbed. I sat on the rock just outside my tent and gazed at the sky. It was as clear as possible and millions of heavenly bodies floated and jostled for the space. It was a beautiful experience. I tried clicking some pictures of the sky. I gazed at eternity for almost 30 minutes before felt the chill again. All the tents around me were quite and peaceful.

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Glittering stars
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Campsite, early morning

Some noise came from the kitchen tent and the kitchen staffs were the first one to come out. They had a job at hand of making tea for everyone. It may sound easy and simple but it is a herculean task in such an extreme weather conditions.

We had a time to get ready till 9.30am. I finished my morning rituals, rolled-up my sleeping bag and was all set to go for the breakfast in the kitchen tent. We left ‘Tilad’ around 9.45am. I wore my gum boots for the first time and it was a disaster. Roughly 5 minutes on the frozen riverbed and I landed on my bumps with a thud. OMG! It was a fall to remember. 12 kilos of my bag pack saved me of some impact. Back on my feet it was like walking on the butter. My gumboots were no good for the icy surface. My colleagues had bought the gumboots from the Leh local market and they were much better quality and cheaper price too. Their grip on the icy surface was better.

I had total of four falls on the very first day. One fall less than Deva, who had five falls. After trekking for 15 kilometres on the first day I knew that my shoes were no good for a tension free trek. I told this to my trek leader ‘Hardik’ and asked him for the crampons. Hardik told that crampons were banned by some NGO so that the chader did not get spoiled by the hard blades. I told him that I better worry about my life than the chader which would melt completely in another 40 days and will form fresh by the next winters. I insisted for the crampons to be worn at my own risk. Hardik told me to ask ‘Tashi’, our trek guide for the crampons. Tashi was a local from Ladakh and indeed very helpful and enterprising.

We reached ‘Gyalpo’ around 3.30pm. Our campsite was on a hillock and from there the view of the frozen river was amazing. Infact we were on the foothill of a huge mountain. We saw a herd of mountain goats. One of the porters fondly called as ‘Tulku’ got the firewood and we enjoyed the much needed bon fire. The temperature was dropping every hour and any warmth was welcomed.

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‘Gyalpo’ campsite, view from the tent

Dinner was ready by 8 pm and it dal and rice with some papad. After dinner we had a game of cards with the staff. They were very sporty and enterprising. By 10pm I dozed of to sleep in my sleeping bag.

Day – Four

Tashi arranged for the crampons by the next morning and my feet got a fresh lease of life and energy. Crampons were too good and my grip on the icy surface was awesome. Now my speed became super and I could walk my natural pace without the danger of falling and slipping.

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Biju, Vishal & Pawan

It was on the way to Tibb cave that we faced an uphill task of climbing a steep mountain as the Chadar was not formed or it was too flimsy on the surface. We had to climb an absolutely steep mountain to cross over to the other side. I had to remove my crampons temporary as they would slip badly on the rocks. It was challenge for me to crossover with my 12 kilos of bag pack.

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Crossing over the rocks

We trekked for almost 15 kms on the day and reached our destination ‘Tibb cave’ by 4 pm.

Our tents were pegged right below the Tibb cave. I climbed up to the Tibb cave and it was a small cave where maximum six people could be accommodated. But accounting for the weather conditions this cave was very significant in its own way.

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‘Tibb’ Cave campsite

I felt some butterflies in my stomach and upon asking Hardik I came to know that I was not the only one with the stomach issue. Most of the campers had their stomach upset. It is very common ailment in the higher mountains. I took couple of ‘Pudin Hara’ (Mint) capsules and I felt better in next one hour.

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Halt for the lunch on the way to Narek

Other group members were playing the cards at the Tibb cave. Some of them had burned the bon fire to generate some heat. The smoke had made the cave black in color. There was no cross ventilation at the cave therefore it felt good warmth while at the cave. I spent some time there and then returned back to my campsite. Had some evening snacks provided by ‘Trek the Himalaya’s. Dinner was as usual at around 8pm and I ate it by 8.30pm.

Day – Five

Today was supposed to be very exciting day because we were trekking to ‘Narek’. We had a quick breakfast and left our campsite around 9am. We wanted to reach the frozen waterfall as early as possible.

We had to cross over on the mountains couple of times as chader was not formed well in couple of places.

One of rock climbing to cross over was so challenging that almost four porters had to be employed to see everyone through. Two ports were on the height to help the trekkers and two of them on the ground to catch the trekker in case of a fall. It was quite challenging for me too, carrying almost 12 kilos of bag pack and climbing such narrow mountain pass was definitely challenging.

Once we crossed the hurdle it was a smooth journey forward. Only in few places it was difficult but not too bad walking on the thin Chadar along the foot hill.

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Ice breaking because of rise in temperature
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Drifting Iceberg

I was eagerly waiting for the celebrated waterfall to be sighted but there was almost another hour of trek left to have a divine sight. Slowly the width of the river got wider and grandeur and I could see some small waterfalls. I was delighted and almost smelt the bigger water fall in the vicinity. And there it was on the extreme right side, falling from the height of 50 feet or more in height. It was indeed a splendid view to be seen in live. I instantly fell in love with it and got at least 20 clicks and couple of videos made.

 

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Splendid Waterfall in sight

It was truly majestic and grand. The complete picture of the waterfall could only be taken from a distance because of its height. We spent almost one hour at the site clicking pictures and making videos. Just thirty meters away from the waterfall was a fascinating wooden bridge for the locals and sheep’s. Harry and Simar could not hold up their excitement and climbed up till the bridge but could not collect enough courage to cross the narrow bridge.

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Harry & Simar at the edge of the wooden bridge

Narek was another 20 minutes of trek from the waterfall. It was a beautiful campsite. Five to six huts scattered around the place. These were permanent huts pre-booked by ‘Trek the Himalayas’ for us. Ofcourse, there was a nominal extra charge for it. It costed us three hundred rupees per head. Total three thousand for three rooms for a night. Night temperature would fall There was a heating chimney in the rooms which made our lives very comfortable. Now I inquired for the phone with Hardik. It was my birthday and I had to call up my family & friends. Hardik told me that the phone was 2 hours of uphill trek from the campsite. I was perplexed hearing it. It was already 4.15pm and my energy was low after trekking 15 kilometres and now climbing 1500 feet of mountain made me go weak in my legs! Temperature was -20 deg C already.

I thought of let it go. But then I had promised my wife that I will call her on my birthday where ever I was. I had to keep that promise; she must be waiting for my phone call. This thought gave me some strength and I told Tashi that we leave in 15 minutes. I had some water and snacks to eat and packed some stuff for the uphill journey. Hardik asked me pack my head torch as it would be late by the time we return. Last group took almost 3 hours to climb and come down.

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Simar, Vishal, Harry on the hard Ice

Harry and Simar also accompanied me for the first ten minutes of the climb and then vanished. I could see them from a height waving at me. Then I met Mark, who was already up there and clicking pictures. He showed interest in coming along with me and now we were group of three people. Tashi was our path finder and a group leader. It was challenging climb but I had an advantage from my past climbing experience which helped. We reached the destination in 32 minutes. It felt like an unending climb in extreme climatic conditions.

It was a small hamlet of around twenty houses. There was one community centre building which housed‘BSNL’ wireless telephone equipment. It was managed & operated by one local lady from the nearby village. ‘Mark’ requested me for a picture as I called up my wife. He was flabbergasted that I climbed up all the way up 1500 feet to call up my wife! I was already exhausted after trekking 17 kilometres in the extreme climatic conditions and then decided to climb this cold mountain. He clicked couple of my pictures with the phone to show his friends back in Australia. It doesn’t happen there! Though I am yet to hear any such incident in India too 😉

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Ladakhi child of the telephone operator!

After paying up the bill of hundred rupees and clicking some pictures we were on our way back to the campsite. Tashi offered to take us to another monastery around hundred feet higher from the place we stood. We decided not to go any further because it would be dark in next 40 mins. We were in our campsite in around sixteen minutes. That was fastest by any visiting trekkers according to Tashi. Ofcourse! For the locals it is a cakewalk.

Temperature dipped to around minus 30 degrees Celsius during the night. Permanent huts were like a blessing in disguise. There was a chimney inside the hut which made life very comfortable and we all played some card game and had lots of fun.

I was almost asleep when all the team members, porters and kitchen staff barged into my hut and starting singing ‘Happy Birthday to Vishal’. There was cake with candles and some snacks for everyone.

Wow! I was surprised that how could they get the cake in there?

Thanks to the kitchen staff and specially the Head Cook who was instrumental in making the delicious cake in this cold frozen dessert. Thanks to everyone for their wishes and efforts. They made my day! Thank God for making my Birthday a memorable one! Others clicked my pictures and I am yet to get them.

Day – Six

Last night was very comfortable thanks to the heating system and huts. After the breakfast we were all buckled up for the return journey. We were suppose to re-assemble at the Tibb cave and then decide to go further down to one campsite.

By now we were all well versed with the ice walking and our bodies were well acclimatize to the extreme cold conditions. We walked fast and quick like the locals. I reached Tibb cave and waited for the team to come. Then I saw some of our porters and some kitchen staff. They halted for the tea and snacks. Porters have the toughest job to pull the trekkers bags and kitchen stuff for six days. On an average a porter pulls and often has to lift forty to sixty kilos of weight on his back. That’s really tough given the conditions and the constant risk of life.

I asked the head cook about the next halt and he told me to continue the journey as they will catch-up with me. I continued for another thirty minutes and then I was kind of a lost in the wilderness. Though it was a straight path but chader was softer in some parts and I had to take either the left or right side path for the journey. No groups were coming from the opposite direction as the season was ending and very few trekkers were venturing as experience of the previous groups was not very encouraging. This year because of global warming the temperatures were high and chader was either too thin or not formed at all at many places. Generally the temperatures would be around -20 degrees during the day and night temperature could reach -40 degrees. But this year the day temperature was around -15 deg and night was -25 degrees. This was not helping the ice formation of the river in many places. Though such low temperatures are enough to freeze the water but the river was flowing and was rough in many places. So the fast pace of the river created enough friction to break the chader (ice) in many places.

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Iceberg floating on the river

I waited for almost forty minutes before I saw someone coming. I thought it was safer to wait than to venture into the unknown territory. I clicked some picture and self portraits. One porter ‘Tensing’ was coming my way and I joined him for the further journey. He told me that the next destination was still one hour away. So I continued the journey with him and halted at the campsite which was occupied by our porters and kitchen tents were getting pegged. Rest of the team came in another 30 minutes and Hardik was almost shouting at the porters for missing the last campsite which was five kilometres behind. Some of the fellow trekkers had a hard time covering the distance. Well, we trekked 24 kilometres that day.

Harry had a good time tying turban to a porter ‘Stanzin’. Who looked like a complete sardar with a turban. Harry was popular with everyone for his humorous and jolly nature. Yes he was also popular for his multiple colours of turban, which was different everyday!

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Harry with Stanzin wearing a turban!

Day – Seven

Today’s trek was the last as per the trek schedule. We were trekking to ‘Tilad’ which was our last campsite and was also our first when we started the trek.

We were all very relaxed and peaceful as this was our final campsite. Three hours into the trek we halted for the lunch at a sunny location. Hardik started playing the music on his ‘JBL’ speaker. We decided to dance on a popular number. Mark agreed to shoot the dance video for us. We danced our hearts out and felt good after expanding the energy in a different way, other than trekking 

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L to R: Vishal, Mark, Pawan, Harry & Simar

We reached ‘Tilad’ around 4pm.

We were all chatting and discussing about this trek and future treks. We heard some loud laughing and talking from the adjoining group who were camping right next to us. They had also completed their trek successfully and now celebrating the success.

Our camp got into the competition of maximum push-ups on the frozen river. Seeing us competing the other group also joined us. Biju, Pawan, Mark, C and myself were competing when one doctor from the other camp came and overtook us by doing 35 push-ups. This was more than any of us could manage to do. Then I decided to give it a try and break doctor’s record. Though I was tired after doing 16 kms of trek but then it was question of manhood and dignity for our camp. I did 40 push-ups and broke his record. No one tried to surpass it as we all were thoroughly tired.

Day – Eight

We packed up our stuff and after breakfast we were all ready to give a final thrust to our legs for the climb to reach the road where the bus would be waiting for us. Our bus was supposed to reach by 10am at a pre-decided location. The location was around two kilometres from our campsite. The bus was already there waiting for us. We loaded our stuff on the rooftop. Clicked the group picture and was ready to leave for Leh.

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Standing ( L to R): Vishal, Tashi, Pawan, Biju, Simar, Harry, Deva & Mark. Sitting (L to R): Sushant, Hardik, Kajal & Warren

It took us three and a half hours to reach Leh. On the way back we halted at the Gurudwara, Shri Pathar Sahib for the blessings.

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Gurudwara Shri Pathar Sahib

We reached our hotel at Leh around 2.30pm. The journey back was awesome as snow fall had happened over the past two days.

After freshening up, me and my roommate Mark went for the lunch at the local restaurant. Mark wanted to roam around so we climbed up one monastery. There was not much to see at the monastery but the view from the top was awesome. Panoramic view of Leh was visible from the top.

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City of Leh from Monastery

Mark did shopping and bought a gift for his mother, a ‘Pashmina’ shawl. Pashmina is made from the special wool from the sheep of the same name ‘Pashmina’. It is highly priced and sought after.

In the evening while we had a local delicacy ‘Vegetable Tupka’, we decided to visit ‘Pangong’ lake the very next day. It was a one day trip from Leh and my return flight was one day later. Harry, Simar, Hardik and I were going to go for it.

Day – Nine

It was cold like hell, -18 degrees centigrade. Changing clothes was a tough job. I could barely wash my face with the warm water. Dressing was like three layers on the top and two layers on the lower body. Mark left hotel at around 4.30 am. He awaked me to say goodbye! Though I remained in the bed but could not get the sound sleep. We left our hotel early at 6am while it was still dark outside. Everything looked cold and lifeless only for few

We had breakfast at a local roadside dhaba.

Inside the car it was very comfortable and cosy with the heater working full blast. In around three hours we reached ‘Chang La’ pass at the altitude of 17000 feet. It was snow all around and everything was covered in a white cover. Temperature was around -25 degrees centigrade.

Our young car driver ‘Daikin’ and ‘Tashi’, his helper decided to put chain on the rear tires. He took out the chains and started to put them on. Tashi was struggling with one chain. It was not getting on to the tire. Daikin found out that the chain had shrunken in size because of the extreme cold and could not be used for this purpose. The second chain was still ok. I saw that my Daikin and Tashi had lost lots of energy in trying to put the first chain and their hands were turning blue because of the cold. I offered help and tried to put the chain with my hand gloves on. I put in all my strength to pull up the chain and it paid off. I almost bruised my hands. Extreme temperature was taking its toll. My face, hands and feet had become numb and there was no feeling of nose at all. We were out of the car for almost forty minutes. The chain was firmly in place and we were finally on our way to Pangong lake.

It took my limbs around ten minutes to start feeling normal. I was in the front seat and heater was blowing full blast into my face. Heater was like a blessing in such weather.

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Fun time at the ‘Chang La’ pass!

We saw frozen lakes and streams on our way to Pangong lake. In some places fresh snowfall had fallen.

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Snow clearing by the local workers

Pangong lake is at 14000 feet, so it was way down for us from Chang la pass. Lake was absolutely frozen with no soft corners. Pangong is a lake with still waters and Zanskar river has a fast flowing water stream which does not allow the river to freeze in many places. Many people attribute this soft chader at Zanskar to the weather being not so cold this year. Pangong surface was hard like a steel and we had fun jumping on it. It was quite windy with temperature hovering between -20 to -25 degrees centigrade.

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Jumping on the frozen Pangong Lake
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Another view of the Pangong lake

After spending around 45 minutes at the lake we decided to have lunch at the close by village. It was a traditional Ladakhi dhaba. We had Thali consisting of daal and rice. It was quite filling. We spent almost one hour at the eating place. It was almost 4 o’clock and Leh was good four hours away.

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Snow covered road on the way to ‘Chang La’ pass

Snow fall was happening all around and I was getting tense but our cab driver ‘Daikin’ assured me that everything is fine. Such weathers are everyday affairs.

One hour into the way when we hit a wall. There was a steep uphill climb to manoeuvre; Daikin pressed his feet into the accelerator but the car started to skid backwards, he pushed himself further with all his might but the slipping was more evident than before and the tires lost the entire grip. Car came down like a melting butter! Thank God it stopped in its track before I decided to jump out of the car. Good Lord! The car stopped just five meters from the gorge. Daikin looked nervy but he knew the solution to the crisis. Chains had to be put on to the tires. While coming from Leh we had chained just one tire but this time both the tires needed the chains because the snowfall was deep.

Daikin and Tashi took out the chains from the boot. This time the chains were put close to the blowing hot wind of the car, so chains did not shrink in size. But the real challenge was now to put on the chain on both the tires. It was very windy with heavy snowfall.

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Daikin trying to put the chain on the tyre

I got out the car momentarily and then got back inside the cosiness of the car, it was too cold outside. Car’s ignition was on initially but then after ten minutes Daikin put it off. We all got busy in putting up the chains. It took us almost forty minutes of struggle to put everything in place. We were all set to scale the upward journey which must have got tougher with more deep snow falling in the last forty minutes.

Daikin had a faint smile as he put on the car ignition and it pushed the car forward. His smile was short lived as car could not scale up the altitude and engine started to die. I got wild at him and told him to race it up well before pushing the accelerator. Poor boy tried

everything but car did not have enough power to race up. Now we were struck again. Jesus! I need to get back to my hotel. There was an early morning flight to catch.

Another car driver told Daikin that fuel was not reaching the engine. Diesel was freezing because of the cold. It had to be warmed up before we could go anywhere. He suggested to go to the Army garrison for the help. There was an army camp just five minute’s drive from where we stood. It was easy to reach on the downhill.

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Snow all the way to ‘Chang La’ pass

Nobody was seen outside the army garrison. Offcourse, it was cold, windy and temperature around -28 degrees. Harry and Hardik went inside the right side camp and came back in five minutes. They asked me and Simar to join them. The camp was warm and cosy inside. There was a huge stove on which the water was heating for some purpose. Three soldiers were sitting close by. We inquired for the required help and they sent for someone. Harry looked delighted. He found one Sardarji who was second in command of the camp. He took me to the left side camp where I met Major Singh. He was very warm and welcoming. He was a Punjabi from a place near ‘Amritsar’. He was thrilled to meet people from his land –Punjab. It was a sophisticated dormitory for the army personnel. We sat near a huge heater. It was a blessing to get such a large heater in adverse conditions. We were treated very well and fed too. Major ordered his team to repair our car in one hour time and they did not disappoint him. It was almost seven in the evening. Major spoke about some of his high altitude adventures. In my mind it was a big adventure in itself living here in such adverse climate. In this place temperatures sometimes drop to -45 degrees centigrade. Major offered us the shelter for the night but I told him about my morning flight.

As we came out of the barracks I saw Daikin with a large grin. Our car was back to normal. We thanked Major and his team for the help and hospitability. Any amount of gratitude is less for our army for their work and humanity. I salute all the defence personnel, Jai Hind.

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Road to Leh

We were on our way to Leh and thank God our car did not trouble us any more. The return journey was totally on the snow white path. Almost a foot of snowfall had happened in the last four hours.

We reached Leh at around 9.30pm. We were all very tired and out. I badly wanted to get into the thick blankets. Before that we all had some basic food from the hotel kitchen. I said goodbye to everyone whoever was awake and then went to sleep.

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Karakoram mountains from the sky!

Cab picked me up on time and I was at the airport by 5.30am. My ‘Air India’ flight was on time at 7.30am. Flight time was one hour twenty minutes over the ‘Karakoram’ range of mountains. Breathtaking views of the mountains. Felt like I belong here and that’s the reason that I will keep coming back here again and again.

It was a heavenly experience every time I visit the Himalayas. I thank God for taking care of me all the while!

 

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