Imagine walking across frozen sheets of ice, with mountains enveloped by snow on one side and a stream, slowly freezing or melting right on the other, as you walk alongside it. And while that seems fascinating, look up, ahead and around; to witness surreal beauty for as far as you can see. This is the Chadar Trek , the Frozen River Trek, only multiplied a hundred-fold.
The Chadar Trek or The Frozen River Expedition is one of the most unique and challenging treks in India. The 6 day chadar trek across the frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh takes place during the latter part of January till end of February or sometimes even in the first week of March, depending on the weather.
The locals or Zanskaris as they are popularly known, usually take a road from to the Zanskar to Nerak and further for work which mostly consists of trading goods in the summers. During winters, the road is blocked and dangerous to travel so the locals tread along the Zanskar river which is frozen at this time. The thick blanket of ice that the Zanskar river forms resemblances a white blanket which in the local language is called ‘Chadar’. Hence the trek along the frozen Zanskar River is known as the Chadar Trek.
Though, it seems a challenging trek, it isn’t the most difficult; as it basically is a flat walk along the Chadar with minimal amounts of climbing. If you can walk for a couple of hours without much strain, you are good to go.
Short Itinerary for the Chadar Trek
|Day 1||Arrive at Leh|
|Day 2||Drive to Chilling. Trek to Tilat Sumdo Camp|
|Day 3||Trek to Tsomo Paldar|
|Day 4||Trek to Dibb|
|Day 5||Trek to Naerak Pullu|
|Day 6||Trek from Naerak to Dibb|
|Day 7||Trek to Shingra Koma|
|Day 8||Trek to Chilling and drive back to Leh|
|Day 9||Departure from Leh|
Arriving at Leh
Leh at this time is almost completely covered in snow. Hence, the only way to reach Leh is through flight. The temperature during the day is around -10 degrees and after sunset easily plummets to -15 to -17 or more. Your acclimatization starts here and if you can survive this cold, the trek would become a lot easier for you. Leh city is partly closed during this time and only shops pertaining to essential items are opened.
It is advisable to get everything you need before arriving at Leh, though you do get excellent woolen warmers and gears, in case you missed out any. It is necessary to spend a day or two in Leh before starting the frozen river trek, to let your body get completely acclimatized. Walk around the city a little to get used to the cold. Be careful of slipping on the roads which may be be coated with thin sheets of ice.
Chilling – Tilat Do: Starting Point of Chadar Trek
The starting point of your chadar Trek for the Base Camp is Chilling. Drive along the Leh-Srinagar Highway to reach Zanskar, a little ahead of Zanskar lies Chilling. The end of Chilling road is where the Chadar trek starts. Take small steps on the Chadar to get a feel of the ice beneath. The surface can be many things – hard ice, freshly fallen snow, newly formed ice or something in between. Observe the locals and your guides over the initial two days, imitate their strides and don’t digress on your own. Eventually, you’ll understand the surface below your feet.
Tilat do is an hour’s trek from Chilling, this will be your first camp site and a camp fire will be thoroughly welcome. There are a few caves alongside that the locals use to spend the night. You would ideally be carrying your sleeping bags to keep you warm all night.
Tilat Do – Shingra Koma
Mornings at the chadar trek are quite cold because you just step out of your sleeping bags, after a warm cozy night’s sleep. Though the sun is up by 7am, it’ll be noon till you get any direct sunlight. A quick cup of hot tea, start your journey to the next campsite – Shingra Koma. It is 10kms away from Tilat –do. Shingra – Koma gets its name from the abundance of a plant called Shingra that grows around the campsite.
It takes roughly 6-7 hours from Tilat – do. As you trek along, observe the sounds of the ice underneath you. With a little attention and practice you’ll understand the thickness of the ice sheet and differentiate when it’s a few days old and when it’s just freshly formed. Midway, you can stop for lunch near one of the cave like formations you would come across. Carrying packed food is futile; the cold will freeze everything up. Hot meals are your way to go. Maggi is a favorite option and it’s the easiest to make. Sometimes, you’ll find locals carrying pots of hot soup, the most delicious thing you could ask for on the chadar trek. Don’t forget to thank them!
Shingra Koma is a beautiful camp site, you’ll reach early evening to watch the sunset over the mountains. The Zanskar river takes a sharp turn on the gorge, allowing you the view of the peaks in the horizon.
Shingra Koma – Tibb – Nerak
Shingra Koma to Tibb, the next stop is at a distance of 15 kms, which can be covered in roughly 7-8 hours. It’s one of the longest days of the Chadar trek and also most beautiful. You’ll come across several instances of little waterfalls frozen into dangling icicles. Midway through the day, you’ll come across a big waterfall which is not entirely frozen and small prayer flags on the trees around mark this place.
It is said that Nerak once ran out of water and a holy man went to Kailash to pray for water for his people. On his way back he was carrying a pot of water with two fishes with the instructions of not keeping it down anywhere along the way. But he happened to put it at this spot and two fishes jumped right out to create this large waterfall. Legend has it, that this waterfall traces its origin back to Kailash. A couple of hours more and you arrive at the campsite. Tibb is a large camping area with caves alongside large enough to fit 7-9 people.
From Tibb to Nerak, there is a walk of 7 hours covering about 12 kms. This is the day you’ll reach Nerak’s gorgeous frozen waterfall. The chadar route here is quite beautiful too, with deep gorges and cliffs. By this time, you would be completely accustomed to the chadar trek and able to thoroughly enjoy the brilliant scenery. A little ahead from the massive waterfall is the Nerak pull or bridge. It’s an old wooden bridge that can hold atleast 4 people at a time. You get a better view of the waterfall from here.
About 20mins ahead, you’ll reach the Nerak campsite. The Nerak village is 2000ft higher, while the camping site is 200 ft higher than the river bed. Nerak is known for its cold nights and shivering winds. This would be your coldest night on the frozen river trek, with temperatures possibly dropping to -25 or even lower.
The Walk Back to Chilling – End of Chadar Trek
Nerak is your final point of the chadar trek and you start your return journey from here. Though it may seem that you’ll be retracing your steps back to where you started. But the whole dynamics of the Chadar would have changed altogether. This is one of the uniqueness of this frozen river trek, old chadar breaks, there are snowfalls and new chadar forms constantly. It changes its form so often that you can’t point a place you’ve just been, the day before. The Chadar trek is absolutely as unique as it sounds, but it is a far more fascinating and enriching experience that you can imagine.
The Government has sanctioned a project to build a road connecting Zanskar to it’s neighbours for better commuting and connectivity. The road will be built right above the Zanskar river. Which means chadar trek will only be possible for a few more years. So, you know what to do!
Just imagine being a part of this transcendental journey. Those pics will make for great conversations and stories back home. For Chadar Trek and many more…
You can also go through this travelogue to know more about Ladakh in Winter.