Standing on the cliff edge on a beautiful summer afternoon, I remember watching the dramatic confluence of two great rivers: the clear and green Indus, and the raging and muddy Zanskar. Surrounded by the indomitable mountains in Ladakh, the sound of the flowing water was reverberating through the valley. The meandering Zanskar looked every bit like the wild river that it is known to be. It is a river so furious that there is no stillness in its wake. The currents and rapids are so forceful that they carved out a deep gorge through the mighty Himalayas. I wouldn’t have imagined in a million years that this river could ever fall silent.
A few years later, I was standing at the very place, overlooking the same confluence. The sun was shining but the wind was freezing. It was winter and a strange silence had fallen upon this place. The river had frozen over. A blanket of ice, locally called “Chadar”, covered the Zanskar. This frozen river has played an integral part in the lives of Zanskaris for more than 1,000 years.
Ringed by high mountains of the Great Himalayan and Zanskar ranges, the Zanskar valley stayed isolated and inaccessible for years. In the process, it preserved its traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture and evolved a rare harmony with the unforgiving environment. Arduous treks across high passes in summers were the only way out, until in 1980, when the first road through Suru valley (open only for two-three months in a year) was laid. However, till then, an unusual access route was used by the Zanskaris to reach the outside world during the winter — the frozen Zanskar river. Braving sub-zero temperatures, for centuries, the people of Zanskar have walked on this river through the deep gorges to reach the rest of the world.
I, too, set out to walk on the Chadar to experience a slice of the Zanskari way of life. After getting down the steep scree-covered slope near Tilath Sumdo, the first campsite along the Zanskar, I felt strangely exhilarated as I took my first step over the frozen river. Beneath the glossy sheets of ice, the river ran deep. A few feet from where I stood, the Chadar was broken and the water surfaced, beautifully transparent pieces of ice floated on the river. A fall into the freezing waters would be catastrophic and it was a very real possibility on the trek. Having lived in a tropical environment for most of my life, walking on thin ice with freezing waters below felt every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds. I was apprehensive of each step I took and every cracking noise made my heart skip a beat. My body was struggling to adjust to the sub-zero temperatures ranging from -5 degree Celsius to -30 degree Celsius. We set up camp by the riverside for the evening and spent our time huddled around the campfire.
The next morning, we set out to walk on the river, just like the Zanskaris who have been doing this for years. It wasn’t easy. But several lessons learnt over the course of the day helped me adjust and enjoy the hike. The first lesson on the Chadar was the inevitable fall — slipping and tumbling on the glossy ice. There was no escaping it. Everyone fell — trekkers and locals alike — it’s a quintessential Chadar experience. The second was a lesson in walking over the ice, we would drag our feet, the motion quite similar to skating. Within a few hours, we were quite comfortable walking on the glossy sheets and we even managed to avoid several falls. The third was a lesson in controlling the mind and body. After surviving a freezing night and day on the Chadar, the body’s quick adaptation to the extreme cold amazed as well as comforted me. I realised that feeling cold was just a state of mind.
During the trek, I noticed bubbles trapped within the stones in the river and cracks beneath several layers of ice. The wonderfully narrow gorges carved by the ferocious river ran deep through the mountains and the meandering route threw up pleasant surprises quite often, such as waterfalls frozen in their tracks, or a hot water spring whose waters were lukewarm at best, but a welcome relief in minus temperatures. I noticed several soot-covered caves along the riverbanks where Zanskaris have taken shelter for hundreds of years while traversing the river. Our group of trekkers were walking with fancy tents and sleeping bags in tow but, for a Zanskari, the caves, a yak wool blanket and a warm fire is all that is needed. Even today, the locals use the caves.
On the fourth day, we woke up to to a whitewashed campsite. The blue skies went missing while a pale gray mist enveloped the mountaintops. It snowed incessantly. Harbouring fears of a broken Chadar, under an overcast sky, we set out towards a small mountainside village called Nerak. On our way, a few locals handed me a sacred silk cloth with some branches of juniper tied to it and prayed for our safe passage. On a treacherous route like this one, it is imperative to have the weather gods on your side. The Chadar is ever changing — it breaks, it flips, it melts and it forms again. On a bad day, one has to walk waist-deep in freezing waters, where the ice isn’t fully formed. On a worse day, the ice breaks and one falls into the river.
We didn’t have to face any of the harsh realities of the trek; all along, it was a pleasant walk for us. One of our detours took us to a remote and beautiful village called Lingshed. No roads led there and we walked along snow-covered mountain slopes till we reached the picturesque village nestled between tall mountains. Our host, Stanzin, who went to school in Leh district, returned to Lingshed after completing his education. He says there is peace in his village that he hasn’t found elsewhere. Zanskaris have always been mostly self-sufficient, except in the areas of education and healthcare. For everything else, the river has showed them the way.
Rivers are life-giving forces, no doubt. They provide us water and fertile lands. But a wild river offering a safe passage through the impossible mountains is something I had never imagined. I returned to Bangalore filled with awe and reverence for the ways of the mountains and its people.
However, the winds of change are fast blowing in — a new road is under construction, from the confluence of the rivers, Nimmoo, to Padum, in the heart of Zanskar. Once the all-weather road is complete, it will render the ancient and spectacular walk on the frozen river obsolete. Meanwhile, the length of the Chadar has been on a continuous decline. A decade ago, the river was frozen solid from the confluence but today the trek starts 40 kilometres after the confluence, partly due to the newly-built road and partly due to the incomplete Chadar formation. Zanskar, one of the last original Tibetan Buddhist societies with little cultural assimilation, will be faced with sudden cultural and economic infusion. Only time will tell if it will survive the onslaught of development, but at least the children won’t have to walk on frozen rivers to reach their schools anymore. One only hopes that a unique way of life is not lost forever.
Neelima Vallangi is a Bangalore-based travel writer and photographer