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Zanskar: an icy exploration of an ancient Himalayan kingdom

  • Written by  Felicity Aston
  • Published in Explorers
Zanskar: an icy exploration of an ancient Himalayan kingdom
06 Sep
Felicity Aston follows ‘ice pilots’ along a frozen river gorge to an ancient kingdom hidden deep in the Himalaya to find a very 21st century negotiation of modern adventure tourism, local development and ecology protection

Worse than the sound like shattering glass was the dull creak of splintering. A downward glance would reveal fractures radiating alarmingly outwards through the ice from under my boot. The fast-flowing water, clearly visible moving swiftly beneath the frozen surface of the river, would seep through the cracks in a heartbeat. Before the water pooled too deeply in my bootprint, I’d move on gingerly, scanning the ice ahead for safer ground.

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We learned quickly how to spot the thicker, safer ice that tended to be clear and rippled; and how to avoid more problematic stretches that were often opaque and invitingly smooth. Even so, we followed the directions of our local guides minutely. Referring to each other as ‘ice pilots’ they had been negotiating the treacherous surface of this frozen river their entire lives and were seemingly able to detect the best way forward with something akin to Jedi powers. Often we would follow them obediently onto stretches of flooded ice that appeared to omen certain disaster, or over delicate bridges of ice between roaring rapids that one would otherwise assume only the foolhardy would risk. On either side of the river sheer walls of rock rise to the sky, offering no shoreline or obvious point of refuge should the ice fail.

The Zanskar river is fast flowingThe Zanskar river is fast flowing and varied, from roaring rapids and narrow gorges to broad stretches of aquamarine water

This is the Chadar; a local word meaning ‘blanket’ or ‘covering’ that refers to the frozen skin that forms over the top of the Zanskar river for a few months each winter. This narrow river carves its way from the isolated region of the same name, through the Himalaya of northern Ladakh until it finally spills into the Indus Valley. The Zanskar is a rapid river of cataracts, pushing vast volumes of water through gorges just a few meters wide in places.

The fact that the Chadar forms at all on such a river is an indication of just how low wintertime temperatures must fall in the valleys and gorges submerged deep between these Himalayan peaks. Yet this fragile happenstance of nature has been a lifeline for the people of Zanskar region for centuries. The ancient kingdom of Zanskar, now an autonomous administrative region of northern India, is formed of just three valleys hidden in the folds of the Himalaya. The perfectly pointed peaks encircling Zanskar are so rarely visited that the majority are not even named.

During the winter the routes used to cross these mountains become impassable either by foot or by vehicle, leaving Zanskar region and its population completely cut off from the rest of the world; except for the Chadar. The frozen river becomes an icy highway providing the only route in or out of Zanskar region. Locals visiting relatives or going about business, children going to school, those seeking non-emergency medical care; all, without exception, must trek the Chadar.

WEB12Porters drying out their socks after a day on the Chadar

It is around 70km from the outskirts of Zanskar to the trailhead where the river meets the edge of the national road network. Smudges of jet-black soot from countless campfires are visible on the cliffs above caves in the river gorge betraying the favoured resting places and overnight stops of locals making the trek, often dragging sledges of provisions and possessions behind them over the ice.

The isolation of Zanskar in the winter is very real. There is an emergency helicopter service operated by the military that flies between Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and Zanskar region every week but the service is heavily over-subscribed and the waiting list is a long one. The Chadar is still the only option for the majority. For decades the people of Zanskar have been promised by successive politicians a road that would provide a year-round link. Construction is ongoing along the route of the Chadar, the opposing trailheads reaching towards each other like outstretched tendrils.

• Distance travelled: approx. 200 km
• Time taken: 17 days
• Transportation: Walking
• Starting point: Chilling
• End point: Zangla
• Team size: 9 trekkers + 2 guides + 16 porters

Essential item: Arctic Muck Boots with knee-high neoprene tops and robust rubber around the foot kept my feet warm and dry. Comfortable as a walking boot while providing grip on the ice.

Surprising moment: A Golden Eagle soared between the cliffs of the gorge so low that I swear I could see it eyeing each of our group in turn as it flew past.

We walked the stretch of road extending from the outlying villages of Zanskar region and couldn’t help but be impressed. It is a breath-taking effort of engineering by the Border Roads Organisation to carve a precarious ledge out of the solid cliffs that line the Zanskar river. Given the challenges, the current rate of construction of 1km per year on average, seems an incredible achievement. However, with more than 40km separating the trailheads, the Chadar is likely to remain the only reliable link to Zaskar for many years to come. Many express concerns about the changes a permanent link to the outside world might bring to the culture and way of life in Zanskar but for those who live there, these concerns are vastly outweighed by the benefits of an easier, quicker and safer connection to the outside.

Tibetan Buddhism temple in the Zanskar region of the HimalayaThe Zanskar region is a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism with several monasteries that date back to the Middle Ages

Western travellers first started coming to trek the Chadar in the late 1980s and early 1990s; attracted as much by the uniqueness of spending multiple days walking on a frozen river as by the prospect of witnessing the secluded Himalayan culture of Zanskar. Guiding groups of foreign tourists along the Chadar and working as porters for trekking groups has gradually become an important form of income for local people, especially during the meagre winter months.

Throughout the last decade significant resources have been placed into promoting the Chadar as an adventure trek, with ambitions that it should rank alongside the most famous in the world, such as the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu and the routes to the summit of Kilimanjaro. These efforts have had conspicuous success, particularly amongst the domestic Indian market. The local authorities do not make the number of visitors undertaking the Chadar Trek available but the wider Ladakh region has experienced a reported 30 per cent annual growth rate in visitor numbers since 2010 with domestic tourists representing a massive 80 per cent of all visitors. Correspondingly, the Chadar Trek has experienced a similarly dramatic rise, not only in the number of trekkers but also in the number of companies from outside the region (often Delhi) facilitating the treks.

WEB09Guiding visitors on the Chadar and working as porters has become an important form of income for local Zanskaris during the winter months

The popularity of the Chadar Trek has caused inevitable problems. As what was once a local curiosity develops into a globally recognised attraction, the response of the local authorities to the wide-ranging issues is an interesting case study in 21st century approaches to managing adventure tourism. We arrived in Leh to find there were brand new regulations in place requiring a compulsory three-day acclimatisation period in the immediate area followed by a medical examination at the high-altitude medical centre newly established in Leh specifically for the purpose. If the assessment of oxygen saturation levels and blood pressure determines the trekker fit to undertake the Chadar, they are issued a medical insurance card that grants access to paramedics and emergency oxygen at three rescue posts that have been set up along the river just for the Chadar season. These measures were driven by a steadily climbing number of reported injuries and deaths on the Chadar Trek in recent years. Many blame this on unscrupulous operators from outside the region bringing inexperienced and ill-prepared tourists on the trek, pushing up visitor numbers and pushing down prices.

It is a two-hour drive from Leh to the end of the road a few kilometres beyond the hamlet of Chilling. Taking our first steps onto the ice, it was immediately obvious that we were not to be alone. There are only a handful of places where the sheer sides of the river gorge relent slightly into a shore and these are now used as obligatory campsites for trekkers. Arriving at our first campsite positioned above a sweeping bend in the river we found a broad sandy plateau beneath a dramatic craggy bluff with views across to the peaks on the opposite bank.

The Zanskar river gorge widens out to reveal the broad valleys of the Zanskar region beyondThe Zanskar river gorge widens out to reveal the broad valleys of the Zanskar region beyond

The plateau was scattered with clusters of tents belonging to numerous groups, lending it the look and atmosphere of a music festival. The threat to the fragile local ecology, not least from erosion, the demand for firewood and disturbance to wildlife was evident – but there were also reasons for optimism that the Chadar might not become an all too familiar tale of mismanaged tourism. Our guides had been required to obtain a wildlife permit for our trek from the local department which restricts numbers on the Chadar and maintains a list of approved agencies allowed to operate on the route. The waste produced by each group was carefully collected and was inspected at a checkpoint when returning to Leh, its combined weight tallied to the supplies declared by the guide on the way in to ensure nothing had been dumped. The guides were obliged to provide each trekker with a survey to complete which was then handed back to the authorities. The survey asked for our observations on waste management on the Chadar, the use of resources, safety measures implemented or absent, ecological disturbance, local employment and the employment of locals by operators, and a record of any wildlife observed. The holistic focus of the survey felt forward-thinking and encouraging.

Most encouraging of all, it transpired that the Chadar Trek being marketed is a truncated version of the route into Zanskar. Some 30km from the roadhead at Chilling is an impressive frozen waterfall where most of the groups turn back. Only very small numbers continue on past this point and we were delighted to find that we had the Chadar to ourselves for the rest of our journey. As the narrow walls of the Chadar widened to reveal an expansive view into the broad valleys of Zanskar, it felt as euphoric as a new discovery. Our ultimate reward – and perhaps proof that there is still plenty of magic on the Chadar – was the sight of clear snow leopard tracks trailing across the ice in freshly fallen snow.

Felicity Aston has led international teams of women on expeditions to remote places around the world, including both the North and South Poles. As a devotee of the cold she has trekked frozen lakes, traversed ice-covered seas, explored glacial terrain and driven winter highways to the Pole of Cold. www.felicityaston.com

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