India's most challenging winter expedition at -35 degrees, is also its most beautiful.
I first heard of the Chadar Expedition in September 2014 on my maiden trip to Leh. It’s an ancient route which serves as the only bridge to civilisation for remote villages in the Zanskar region of Ladakh, when traditional routes become inaccessible due to the region’s harsh winters.
The word ‘chadar' in its literal sense translates to a ‘bedcover’ in English. It’s origin comes from the bare interpretation of the Zanskar river freezing in winter to form a cover of ice on its surface. Or as the locals say, the river forms a ‘chadar’.
The frozen Zanskar river or ‘Chadar’
The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is carving a road and cutting through the barren mountains to connect these villages to the rest of Ladakh. The project is estimated to reach completion by 2019 and the construction of the road coupled with climate change guarantees that this route won’t last too long. The expedition gets its endangered status for this reason.
As an individual who romanticises adventure and is on a constant lookout for unorthodox travel destinations, I was drawn to the Chadar the moment I first heard of it. I wasn’t confident about my fitness levels, which is why I didn’t make it in the subsequent years which followed. However, after a lot of training and mental conditioning, I finally decided to take the plunge in 2017.
Welcoming smile from a Ladakhi vendor
Leh welcomes you with sub zero temperatures, -14 degrees celsius in my case. The fact that you’re almost 3,500 metres above sea level and at risk of developing altitude sickness doesn’t help. On my first night in Leh I fell ill and wanted to take the first flight back home. I had a crippling headache, and even with 5 layers of clothing and two blankets on top of me, I was freezing.
Camping near a cave
At that moment, I thought there was no way I could do this for nine more nights, inside a tent in temperatures much worse, when I could barely survive a hotel room on a bed. My body adjusted to the weather conditions as I got acclimatized on the second day. On the third morning, we left for our starting point; chilling.
Standing on the river
It’s a gorgeous three hour drive that offers scenic views of snow capped peaks that stand in contrast to the barren Himalayan desert landscape. The drive is an adventure in itself, as you pass through slippery roads which are mostly dust and manouevre through steep curves where the slightest miscalculation by the driver could result in a drop over a 100 feet.
The bus left us at a point where the road ended, and we had to walk on a dusty track for a little over two kilometres before we finally set foot on the Chadar. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I don’t think I can still fully comprehend the beauty of what I witnessed.
First view of the Chadar
There’s something almost poetic about the loneliness and isolation you feel surrounded by the broad Himalayan mountains. For the first time in my life I could feel the weight of how insignificant I was, and strangely enough I was undisturbed.
On top of the world
I slept like a child on my first night inside the tent, though the setup wasn’t ideal. Three of us fit into one tent, inside individual sleeping bags which had three layers and didn’t leave much space for body movement. Imagine being tied around your body by a giant rope which stretched from your neck to your legs, and you would know what it felt like sleeping inside this bag. Fatigue caught up with me, and I passed out within minutes of tucking myself in.
I could see the Milky Way every night
In the days that followed, I walked 12 hours on an average, which gave me a lot of time to introspect. You don’t have a lot of choice when you find yourself so disconnected from the life you’ve built for yourself. I walked long stretches on my own and thought of all the other more habitable places I could have gone to, and was it just the sheer beauty of the Chadar which drew me to it, or was it also the social validation I’d get from doing such an expedition that made it more attractive? A significant number of people I saw on the trek wanted to have their pictures taken every fifteen minutes; which makes me believe the latter was more important to them. My primary motivation to do the trek was to document this dreamy region of Ladakh through my photography, which I got interested in about three years ago. I try to travel to new places every month, and document all the new things I experience. Since my phone camera doesn’t do justice to these experiences, I have picked up an entry level DSLR and jumped into the world of professional photography.
Porters stop to make tea
And here I am, braving extreme weather conditions in one of the most scarcely populated regions of the world, on what I described to myself as my first photography expedition.
A frozen waterfall
I don’t think my photos do justice to the landscapes I saw as I walked on the Chadar, but they come close. The days I spent there and the isolation they brought have left a profound impact on my identity, the way I look at the world, and the role photography is going to play in my life as I move forward.
Water reflects the landscapes like a giant mirror
If beautiful mountains and extreme adventure are your thing, I would recommend you make it to the Chadar before it’s too late.
Last view of the Chadar
1. Get to Leh at least two days before your trek to acclimatise.
2. Buy gum boots & trekking gear from the Leh Market.
3. Even 4 Layers of Clothing won't keep you warm. Be mentally prepared to be uncomfortable!
4. Carry extra batteries for your camera, as they last only 40% of their normal capacity.
5. Be respectful of your surroundings and always listen to your trek leaders, don't venture out on your own.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Kshitij Rihal
Photographs by Kshitij Rihal