Following the Zanskaris in the Millennium old trade route
Accompanied by Vishwanath, www.summiters.net
Year sometime 1000AD. Location Zanskar River. Season: Winter
The people around Zanskar area found that the frozen Zanskar river can be used to transport the goods such as food and other essentials to the upper regions of Zanskar and trade there. The river was frozen to the level that it could bear tons of weight on it. This continued for centuries and Zanskaris used the frozen river as their main trade route.
Fast forward to 2011: Today the same route though still used by Zanskaris for trade and other purposes, it is much occupied by the trekkers. Following is an epilogue of this incredible journey that Zanskaris are taking every winter since many centuries from a trekker’s perspective.
It was almost 2 years for me after attempting the Pin-Parvati trek. Work , study and personal life had made me to stay away from Himalayas. But I could not hold back more after seeing the pics of Chadar trek in one of the forums. So I decided to make this happen in this season and I had not done any winter treks earlier. This was an opportunity. As usual, my trek partner Charan said yes. The idea was to form a group of 8 people to make it economical but that never happens as in other treks. We ended up having only 5 people for the trek. I came in contact with Vishwanath, who is a veteran in trekking in Himalayas and also Madhu who had done treks with Charan earlier. Along with us, a Thailand national, Supovit also joined.
We started our preparations as we had the information that the day temperature would be around -10 degree C and night temperature could touch -30 degree C. The day came. 20th Jan, as decided, I, Charan and Madhu left Bangalore. Vishwanath had already left to Delhi by train. He had to go to IMF to collect the sleeping bags, jackets and crampons. He had reached Delhi by 18th and he had taken flight to Leh on 19th. He was quite lucky as the weather was clear.
Day 1: 20th January 2011
Charan was still busy in his work. I got a call from Charan that he will come by 5PM to my place. He was taking his car to the airport. He had hired a driver. I had mats, tents and the ration that Vishwanath had given to carry to Leh. The flight time was 8:25PM. Charan came at 5:30PM but we made it to the airport by 6:45PM. Madhu was already in the airport waiting for us. We had to distribute the luggage between ourselves in order to be within the weight limit in the airline for the luggage. Madhu had booked in different flight. So, we first had his luggage checked in. Then I and Charan tried to check-in the remaining luggage but there was an excess weight of almost 15 KG. The ground staff was kind enough to allow only 3kg extra and we had to pay for extra/excess12kgs. No other go. So we paid and got the baggage checked in. Madhu’s flight was at around 7:45PM. So we went through the security check and went inside. After having taken some pictures and some chat, Madhu left for boarding.
Deepak, Charan and Madhu at Bangalore airport
Since it was around 7:45PM, I and Charan thought of having some light dinner. So went to have some food but the line was big. At last we got our food. The funny thing was that we had forgotten that our flight was at 8:25PM and we had to board the flight. We were having nice dinner and then came the announcement from the airline for two of us. The call had gone to my mobile which I had left with my wife and I was carrying another mobile. So I got the call from my wife and she was curious to know where we were as she had received the call from the airline. It was very funny. At last we rushed and boarded the flight. The flight reached at around 11PM and there Madhu was already waiting for us. We learnt that our onward flight to Leh was from T3 and we had landed in T1. But we were hungry and so we had some food outside the T1. There was free shuttle service between the terminals. We loaded all our bags in to the shuttle and settled in the bus. We reached the T3.
Wow.The terminal was really good and swanky.
A long shot inside terminal 3 at New Delhi IGI airport
It was maintained neatly too. We loaded the luggage to the trolleys and took some pictures. Then we went inside the terminal. It was very spacious compared to T1.
Madhu having a sound sleep on the chairs in T3 at IGI airport
The seating arrangements were very good. We settled in some corner waiting for the next day’s onward journey to Leh.
Day2: January 21st:
But all this time, Charan was busy providing the support over the phone for some important issue related to work. At around 2AM, we had got settled and Madhu was already in deep sleep. I tried to sleep but could not. Charan somewhat slept for some time. At around 4AM, I got ready. Washed my face and brushed the teeth in the Airport washrooms. The next flight was at 6:30AM. By 5AM, Charan and Madhu also got ready. We went to the Air India counter and we had the surprise. The ground staff told that the flight is delayed and the new ETD was 9AM. Anyways we got our boarding passes and moved on to the security check. After the security check, Charan was interested in exploring some books and he bought couple of books too. We then went for our breakfast. We specially wanted to have South Indian breakfast thinking that for the next 15 days we cannot have any of our regular food. So we had Idlis and then followed up with Coffee and tea.
Breakfast time in T3 at IGT Airport
By this time, it was around 7:30AM and we still had time. So, we again settled in some corner where there was ample space for three of us to spread our legs and sleep.
We waited and waited but there was no mention of ETD on the TV screen. We were thinking that the flight may have been delayed again. After much waiting our fears came true. The flight was cancelled due to bad weather. We were advised to go to the baggage claim to collect our luggage. We were really unhappy as AI told that the next flight was only on Monday. But we were also in touch with Vishwanath who had already reached Leh. The weather was clear but didn’t know why AI was not ready to fly to Leh. There was one gentleman in the crowd, an elderly Sardarji who took the matter and took the opinions of the fellow passengers that we should ask AI to fly to Leh today itself as we all had planned for the fly on 21st and not on any other day. And there was no other alternative too as the roads were closed in winter. There was another group of trekkers who were also heading for Chadar trek and this group’s members were up against the AI staff. After much heated arguments with AI staff, AI agreed to provide us the accommodation and food for that day and if weather permits, to fly to Leh tomorrow.
Passengers were up against the AI staff after AI cancelled the flight
With this promise from AI, all went to Centaur hotel, a sister organization of AI for hospitality business. There were no words from AI till evening. All had their lunch and dinner at Centaur and went to bed hoping that all can fly to Leh tomorrow.
Madhu at Centaur hotel lobby
Day 3 January 22nd:
Everybody got ready by 4AM and came to Centaur lobby. The hotel reception or staff were not yet informed of flight timings or scheduled departure. After the group insisted that they would proceed to Airport, the hotel staff talked to the AI and arranged the bus for the group. So by 5:30AM all were in the airport. There was good news at this time. The AI ground staff told us that the flight was scheduled at 9AM and everybody would be issued boarding passes. After we got the boarding passes, we went through the security check and then to the gate. We also went and sat in the flight. The flight was only half full (half empty?). Until the flight took off, we were not sure that we would reach Leh. As the fears came true, there was announcement from the flight Captain that the flight was delayed due to snow fall in the Leh airport. Again, we waited for an hour inside the flight and finally the flight took off. Everybody was so happy. It was celebrated with huge applaud. We were served food inside the flight after half an hour. But the view from the flight was awesome. I was busy in taking pictures till the flight was landed in Leh without any issues.
Run-way at Leh airport – all the other areas were covered with snow
It was announced in the flight that the outside temperature was -10degrees C. Oops. We did not have gloves or any warm clothes in our handbag except the jacket that we were wearing. As we took the trolleys for collecting our luggage, we experienced the chill. We were not able to hold the trolleys. It was so cold. First thing was to open our luggage and wear the gloves. We took some snaps and came out. The vehicle was waiting for us outside. We loaded our luggage and sat inside the Sumo. After half an hour drive, we reached the Shanti Guest house. Vishwanath was waiting for us outside. We unloaded our luggage and went inside the room. First thing to do was to turn on the gas heater. By this time I and Charan had the symptoms of altitude sickness in the form of headache. We took some rest and in the evening we went out for sight-seeing, by walk. It was really cold outside and since it had snowed in the previous days, the snow had become hard on the road and was slippery. We purchased some woolen materials from the army shop (such as gloves, balaclava, neck cover). Stanzin, the guide and Vishwanath later joined us in the shopping. We also purchased some items required for the trek such as rubber boots, rope etc. Stanzin also showed the place where last year’s cloud burst had caused much damage.
Cloud burst had destroyed much of the houses here
After having shopped around, we came back to guest house. By this time, Charan had recovered from altitude sickness but I still continued to suffer from headache. We had dinner at Shanti guest house, the local soup. It is called Tukpa. A different taste. We vowed not to eat/drink that again. The altitude sickness coupled with Tukpa had reaction inside me. By 12AM I vomited all the things that I had for dinner and the next morning we had to get readied for the trek. We had lost one day due to flight cancellation and hence lost the day for acclimatization. So we went to bed but Pinky, the black pet cat followed us and remained with us in the night as it was quite warmer in the room. The cat was giving trouble by seeping along with us on our blankets but somehow we were able to sleep. But Charan was having trouble. He was feeling very cold even with two blankets (rasai). At last he was given one more blanket and somehow slept.
Shanti Guest house
Day4: January 23rd:
We had the breakfast at Shanti Guest house. The plan was to leave the guest house at around 11AM towards Chiling which is 70kms from Leh. It takes almost 3 hours to reach Chiling. So accordingly we got ready by 10:30AM and the vehicle was ready. I did not want to take any chances with my altitude sickness. So I took the Diamox tablet which helps to reduce the altitude sickness and helps the blood circulation to the brain from Vishwanath. By this time Stanzin also had come to the guest house. We loaded the luggage to the vehicle. Somehow all 5 people (I, Charan, Madhu, Vishwa and Supovit) plus Stanzin adjusted in the same vehicle (sumo). On the way, there was another vehicle carrying the porters and the ration related items. Since it was very crowded in our vehicle, Vishwanath and Supovit, the Thai national and our trek member moved to other vehicle with the porters. We enjoyed the scene throughout the route which was awesome. The road goes along the rivers Sindhu and Zanskar. At Nimmu Sindhu and Zanskar meet and flow towards Pakistan.
Confluence of rivers Sindhu (which is muddy) (Induz) and Zanskar (which is blue)
Sindhu is muddy in color where as Zanskar is very clear. By around 3 or 3:30PM we were in Chiling (actually a little bit further Chiling) from where our epic journey started. We descended to the Zanskar valley. Most of the water in the river was already frozen. It was very good experience when we first walked on the frozen river. The water was flowing beneath the thick ice sheet. We walked for around 20 minutes and reached the first camp place called Tilat Sumdo. We pitched in our tent. The kitchen tent was also erected and the cooks were busy in making tea. While cooks were busy in preparing food, we were busy in taking pictures, particularly Vishwanath. We had tea and some chat after that. There was another group of 5 people coming back completing the chadar trek. They also pitched in their tents nearby our tents. They shared some of their experiences on chadar and cautioned us not to take it easy. By evening 6PM, cooks gave us the soup and papad. After having the soup, we had dinner. The temperature was falling and we could feel the cold. We were wearing the goose-down jacket and were inside the sleeping bag but still that was not enough to ward off the cold. Slowly we were taken over by the tiredness and slept.
Photography session by Vishwanath
Day5: January 24th:
By 7AM, we got up with the call of the cook. He came to our tents with the tea. We were never used to have bed tea (without brushing our teeth!!) but here we were getting used to as the morning temperature was below 0 degree C and was in –ve. We needed something warm to make our body to feel the warmth. We finished our morning works (nature’s call, brush etc) and by that time our breakfast was ready which was bread, butter and jam. Hmm. In that cold, the bread was very hard to break but still managed to eat some with butter and jam along with some tea. By around 10:30AM, we left the camp at Tilat Sumdo towards Barsosa Shoppa. The trek was for around 15 KMs. The valley was very beautiful. The first hurdle was to cross a narrow chadar which was only around 2 feet wide. It was just under a rock. So we could not cross that by walking. Everybody had to bend to their knees and then cross. I went a step further. I lied down on my belly and crawled to the other side. From the other side, Stanzin pulled me and finally I was out of that narrow chadar.
Rest of the walk on the chadar was great. But I had already fallen once on the slippery chadar. My gloves were torn when I fell down though I did not suffer any injury. By 1PM we had stopped for lunch. Maggy was the lunch for which Charan had some allergy. Except Charan, everybody had lunch, tea and biscuits.
We started off again and walked till around 3PM. On the way the valley was very beautiful. Everybody was busy in taking pictures and videos all along the way. And we saw a frozen water fall (might be called ice fall). The fall was completely frozen all along its length. It was very beautiful but it was very slippery also. Stanzin tried to climb but at last settled on the hard ice mass. We should really appreciate his body balance even on those slippery ice sheets. The Zanskaris walk so easily even without any crampon or rope but still manage to walk faster than people wearing the crampon and manage not to fall too.
We reached the camp site Barsosa Shuppa. The campsite was good. There were no stones or pebbles. It was complete sand. So we had good site to sleep without any stones or pebbles giving us free acupuncture treatment. The river near the campsite was complete frozen and smooth like glass. One can easily slide over that. I and Madhu tried to play hockey with our trekking poles but it resulted in Madhu falling down on the ice. With that we ended our game. We had covered almost 15 kms today. We were tired also. By evening 6PM, cook brought us the soup and the papads. By night the temperature had really fallen down. Nobody had the will to go out of the tents. So we remained inside our tents and went to sleep waiting for the surprises on next day.
Day 6 January 25th:
Yesterday we had left late. So we decided to leave a little bit early so that we can reach the camp site by noon. We had our breakfast and tea and left the camp along with the guide Stanzin. Today we did not wait for the porters as porters though they start late they were always ahead of us. We left the camp at around 9:30AM. The chadar was quite great. There were not much slippery stream and not much slippery ice sheets. The walk was quite smooth on the frozen river. Since yesterday I had fallen once, today I was extra cautious. I was wearing the knee guards today to protect my knees from injuries of any fall on the ice. I was very sure that on the slippery ice, I was not very confident. My shoes did not give enough grip on the ice or I did not know the trick to walk on the slippery ice without falling. All others were walking on the ice without falling. I was very slow whenever I encountered the slippery ice sheets. But somewhat today I managed to walk with good pace without falling. For most of the route, chadar was great and we saw water flow very minimum. There was again a narrow chadar which had to be navigated carefully. At one place the chadar was completely broken and we had to climb the rocks and descend on the other side to continue our journey.
So today it passed without any major mishaps. I managed to walk without a single fall though I was slow. By 3PM, we had walked another 15kms and we were all exhausted. We camped at the site called Tib Bao. The site was full of stones and pebbles. We did not have any other options. We pitched in our tents on these small stones and pebbles. It was free acupuncture treatment for everybody. Somehow we managed to get settled in the tent. The temperature in the evening was plummeting. We had to go to kitchen tent for dinner. Somehow we managed to go in that cold. Today it was puliyogare. Vishwanath had given special attention to prepare this. After having an exhausted day, we had really a good dinner. Along with that we had one kerosene stove to make us feel warm. We had the dinner and went to sleep.
Day 7 January 26th:
We were informed earlier yesterday that the next camp site is Neyrak and we would have to walk for longer. So, as usual we got up when the cook came to our tents with morning bed tea. After having our works done, we had the breakfast. We did not wait for anybody today and with the guide, we set out by 8:45AM. The chadar was good and there were some fresh snow because of which we could walk much freely compared to walking on the slippery ice sheet. There were numerous ice falls on the way. But one ice fall got everybody’s attention. It was huge and massive. We stopped there to get some photos.
Near the ice fall, the ice was very slippery. But still we, especially I managed to go near the ice fall and took some photos. During summer, we even cannot imagine to stand near the water fall. The light passing through the ice had given different colors to the fall. We had enough photos at this place and we started moving now.
Half an hour from here was our next camp. There was man-made bridge just after this ice fall. So we were sure that there should be some human habitation. We walked through the valley and we could see the tents pitched in by other teams above. I, Madhu and Charan were walking ahead of Stanzin who was coming with Supovit. Vishwanath had already reached the campsite with the cooks and porters. There was a slippery ice stream over which we had to walk. The stream was joining the Zanskar river. There was nothing to block if something slides over this stream. I was in the front and I had already bad experience in walking on the slippery ice. But still I tried to walk along with my two trekking poles. Luckily there was almost 10 feet distance from the running water. I managed to walk till the middle of the slippery icy stream but my worst fear came true. I fell and started to slide towards the water. I could not fix the trekking poles against the ice in panic. Madhu and Charan who were behind me tried to stop me from sliding with their trekking poles. God’s grace, somehow I stopped sliding. Now I tried to get up but it was too slippery. So I sat and tried to crawl. But it was worst. I again started sliding down. I decided not to try anything until Stanzin came to my rescue. Stanzin held my hand and tried to pull me. But I resisted and told that I would just slide as I was not able to stand on the ice and it was just too slippery for my shoes. I did slide for some distance but Stanzin insisted me to stand and walk. Ok. I tried and stood and holding his hand I tried to walk. Hmm. It was not possible for me. I again fell down holding his hands. Stanzin tried hard to get me out of that icy stream and I was very thankful to him. I am not sure if he were not there, what I would have done. Anyways, after this incident, my confidence level was completely down. Even for every small icy stream, I became extra conscious and I was utterly slow in walking on the icy streams, sometimes just stopping to get help from either porters or from Stanzin. For each step I used to put on the icy stream, I was literally praying so that I would not fall down again. Somehow I climbed to the camp site crossing many more icy streams with fear. Vishwanath and the rest of the groups were already waiting there. Cooks had already pitched in their tents and they were preparing the evening tea and night dinner. The camp site at Neyrak was managed by an old man. Even for pitching the tent, we have to pay him. He had also built some rooms for the trekkers with the traditional heating system called Bukhari. We opted to stay inside the room as the past three days we were in tents and wanted to have some warmth. All the five people got inside a room. There was bukhari too. There were wood and kerosene to burn to make the room warm. But it was too smoky. Supovit had reluctantly agreed to sleep in that room. We had the dinner in the room. After the dinner we got settled in our sleeping bags. But by mid night, Supovit could not endure the smoky environment any further. So he went out and had his tent pitched in for him. The temperature was below 0 degrees and I believe it was in the vicinity of -20degrees C. Though Charan had the thermometer which can measure up to -40 degrees C, nobody had the will to go out and measure the temperature in that freezing cold. We spent the night in the room which was relatively warmer than that in outside.
Vishwanath, Charan and Madhu getting the warmth from bukhari
Day 8 January 27th:
With the usual call of the cook, we all got up to have the bed tea. After having brushed our teeth, we had our breakfast and tea. We got ready to leave Neyrak and by 9AM we started off from the camp. Stanzin joined us in guiding. Getting down to the valley was another big task for me now after yesterday’s incident. I was terribly slow as the place was covered with ice fall and we had to cross that. Somehow I got down without falling again. We were all convinced that after today’s trek, we will get vehicle in Kilimo, the next camp site from there we can go to Zangla and Padum by vehicle and no more walk on the chadar because all most everybody got bored of the monotonous stretch of the valley by this time. The landscape was not changing that much with the same ice sheets, same mountains on either side except that here and there chadar was broken and there were some ice sheets which have come one above the other due to the pressure from the flowing water beneath them. With that optimism, everybody was walking. The chadar was really worst compared to all the way we had walked till Neyrak. All along the patch, the ice sheets had overlapped on each other and slippery. Added to this was their angle. The ice sheets were in slope and we had to walk on these ice sheets. Again, I had fallen once today. We came across a place where the locals had fixed the iron rods into the rock. Stanzin explained that they were used to cross the river when chadar breaks. He also demonstrated this to us.
Stanzin demonstrating the walk on the iron rods that were fixed to the rocks
He has tremendous balance over his body. With the back pack and without any crampons, he walks easily on the slippery ice sheets. On these iron rods, he was running. Ok. We crossed this and came against another hurdle. There was narrow chadar which we had to cross. I took the help of Stanzin to cross this. Now, I was the slowest trekker in this team. Since I was walking slowly, Stanzin and Vishwanath were giving me the company. Supovit, Madhu and Charan were way ahead of us. We took rest at around 1PM and were waiting for the porters to turn up where the ration was with for lunch. We waited for almost half an hour but nobody turned up. We smelt something wrong as they used to overcome us by lunch time though they leave the camp after us. After another 15min, the porters started appearing one by one. Then was the shocking story from them. One of the porters, oldest among them who also used to carry much weight, had fallen in to the river. He fell along with our sleeping bags and the jackets. Luckily the other porters who were coming behind him swung in to action and rescued him. If any one of us were in his position, I doubt I or he would have come back alive.
Supovit on a narrow chadar – the porter had slipped into the waters near one of these
Now there was no chance to set up the camp anywhere near Kilimo or Zangla as all our sleeping bags and jackets were wet and were not in a condition to be used in the night.
We had tea and lunch and sat for some more time taking rest.
Now we are heading towards kilimo. As usual, I was coming at the end along with Vishwanath and Stanzin. Madhu and Charan were already ahead of us. But then came a place where it really tested our patience and endurance. The chadar was completely broken and we had to climb the rocks where there was icy stream too. When I and Vishwanath reached that place, we saw Charan and Madhu were already climbing the rocks. Actually they were climbing using the iron rods that were fixed. The cook had taken them through that route to cross the river. It was really a scary sight. Both Madhu and Charan were exhausted as it was a near death experience for them.
Madhu and Charan walking over the scary slope
Luckily for me and Vishwanath, Stanzin guided through another route to climb the rock. We gave our back pack, camera bag and trekking poles to the porters who were already on the top of the rocks. Stanzin helped especially me to climb the rock without any issues. We all climbed and got down on the other side where the chadar was good. Our jackets, gloves and pants were muddy after climbing and getting down the rocks. We got down and collected our backpacks, cameras and the trekking poles. There was good news. Stanzin told that we were near Kilimo and soon would be reaching the under construction road. With this optimism, we started to walk faster and even the chadar gave support as there were no slippery icy sheets. At last we came to a place where the BRO had stopped the road work. A dynamite explosion had caused huge land slide (infact its rocks slide!!) and a road worker had died just last week. The boulders had fallen on the chadar and there was no room to walk on the chadar as the rest of the place was the river. So we climbed the boulders and crossed that place. A further walk for another 15 minutes, we were on the under construction road.
We reached the place called Nelema at around 5:30PM. By this time we had covered almost 22 kms from Neyrak. There were bunkers set up by the BRO for the people working to construct the road. Earlier we had told Stanzin to go early and book a vehicle for us to go to Zangla. But when we reached Nelema, we were told that the tyre got punctured and the qualis vehicle was not in a position to carry us. We were not happy. There was no room for us now to stay back in Nelema as the bunkers were all occupied. Secondly all our jackets and sleeping bags were wet. We were in dilemma. Stanzin and the driver worked out to fix the puncture by filling in clothes!! What ever, by 8PM, the vehicle was ready and we just sat inside the vehicle. The next destination was Zangla which was around 30kms from Nelema. Everybody was exhausted and nobody was in a position to see how the road was and how the driver was driving in that dark valley. At last we reached Zangla at around 9:15PM. The plan was to stay in Stanzin’s relative’s house. After dropping us, the vehicle went back to Nelema to bring the porters and other luggage. We walked from the road till the house. It was around 5 minutes walk. The house was locked and Stanzin told us to wait there. He went to get the key and also his sister-in-law. And this was our night mare. It was 9:30PM and we were standing outside the house the field where there was nothing but open field. Secondly it was complete dark and nothing was visible. Our pain started here. The temperature was (I strongly believe) below -20 degrees C. Stanzin did not turn even after 10 minutes. By this time, we were growing impatient. The cold had taken a toll on us. Our fingers (both hand and feet) were numb by this time even though we were wearing gloves and shoes. There was no respite. I started rubbing my hands and tapping my foot but still there was no use. Charan was furious. His condition was worst. Supovit was standing silent. Madhu’s condition was also worst and even Vishwanath’s. At one time, we wanted to break the lock and go inside the house. But did not do that and waited for Stanzin. At last he came after well around 20 minutes. The first thing he did after going inside was to start the fire in the bukhari. We all sat in front of the bukhari. Slowly (might after around some 15 to 20 minutes) we started to feel our fingers again. But there was no respite for Charan. Stanzin helped him and after some time, Charan was feeling good of his hands and feet. We had our dinner in that house. Since the sleeping bags and jackets were wet, we were given thick rasai by Stanzin. The blankets were as good as a small bed and we had them over us to protect from cold. All the five people slept in the room and the heating system was good. There was not much smoke coming out of that. Even Supovit slept in the same room peacefully.
PS: Charan was much amused by the three holes on the terrace for the open toilet. He still could not get the answer and so we on why there were three holes side by side that too in open terrace toilet.
Human waste is not wasted here. Each house has big pit down the holes made. The ash formed from burning the wood and cow dung are then poured over the human excreta and left for several days to turn that into manure. These people then use that as manure.
The house at Zangla
Day 9 January 28th:
All was well in the house. We got up by 7AM. After having tea we were in discussion to go to the gonpa, a 2 hour walk from the house where we were staying. But later Stanzin came back to say that the gonpa was closed for that day as there was no priest today. Not sure how much true it was as we understood by his body language that he was eager to go to Karsha, his village. So our luggages were loaded on to the vehicle. Now there were two vehicles. One vehicle was for us (5 people) and Stanzin and other vehicle was for the porters and cooks. The plan was first to go to Padum where we especially Charan, Madhu and I had the plans to call home as we had heard that the STD facilities at Padum. From Zangla to Padum the distance was around 30km. From Padum, the plan was to go to Karsha and stay in Stanzin’s house. The distance from Padum to Karsha is around 8 kms. With this plan, we left Zangla and headed towards Padum. As noted earlier, almost all were already got bored of the same terrain and landscape. So we three were searching for means to go back to Leh by road or air. We reached Padum. It was quite a big town relatively. We wanted to roam around in Padum. So we got down of the vehicle. Much to our disappointment, most of the shops were closed as in winter the vendors wont come to Padum due to less tourists. Even there was not even a single STD booth that was operational. We roamed in the main street of Padum to see if we could get hold of any STD booth but there was none. We were then curious to know whether there were any vehicles to Leh. Again we had disappointment. An army truck driver told that the road was closed and the only way to return to Leh was through Chadar. But still there was a remote chance of getting to Leh by air. Some people had told that service helicopters could be used to go back to Leh but the frequency of flying of these service helicopters was limited. Also we were told by the army truck driver that if we wanted to go by helicopter, then we needed to take the permission from the District Collector at Kargil. There was no chance for that. There was tourist bunglow and Stanzin told us that we could talk to the Director of that. We went inside. That guy cleared all our doubts that we could not fly by helicopter unless there was medical emergency. So our other options were closed now. We had to go back to Leh only by trekking on Chadar back on the same route.
By this time we still were trying to find ways to give messages to our families. There was a post office nearby. Charan and Madhu thought of sending telegram but came to know that the STD line itself was down since yesterday and we could not do telegram also.
It was noon by this time. We were hungry. So Stanzin took us to a restaurant. We ordered Chowmein but Charan had a condition that for him there should not be any garlic. We all had Chowmein and tea and left Padum by 2PM.
But all along the way to Padum and Karsha, the Himalayas are very beautiful. We took many pictures on the way to Padum and Karsha.
Karsha village was on a hill. The view while coming from Padum to Karsha was awesome. The pockets of houses were built on the hill. At the top was the Karsha gonpa.
We reached Stanzin’s house. We got our back packs etc shifted to a room. Stanzin’s family had a yak. So the place was smelly because of the dung. The room for us was on the first floor. Stanzin’s father welcomed us and put the fire in the bukhari to warm the room. The fuel was only the dung. Later we discovered that a whole room was filled with cow dung for this purpose. We got settled in the room. Then came the traditional salty tea with butter mixed. The taste was so bad for us that we could not drink the tea but for courtesy we had to drink. So we left the tea to get cold and once it was cold we drank the tea at one gulp except Charan who did not drink the tea at all.
By this time, Supovit had taken a private vehicle to roam around the village and near-by places. But we did not have the courage to go out in that cold. So we got settled in the room. The plan was to stay back today and to take rest. Tomorrow the plan was to go to the Karsha gonpa and one more day stay at Karha. A day after tomorrow was our plan to leave Karsha.
By this time, Charan’s ankle pain got worse. So he decided to take a vehicle to go to Padum for treatment. He told us that he would not join for gonpa.
By evening Vishwanath had instructed the cook to prepare potato, pepper and Onion bhajjis. He also showed them to prepare the bhajjis. But still the cooks did not prepare the bhajjis up to the mark but after many days, it was a taste changer for us. All had good amount of bhajjis but we were also skeptical about the health of our stomach after eating the bhajjis. Anyways nobody had any stomach upsets. We had good dinner too that day. Stanzin provided us the thick rasai’s. All 5 were able to have good sleep that day.
Day 10 January 29th:
We got up with good news today. The BSNL mobile connection was available. The signal would be available only for couple of hours and that too only post paid connections work here. We used Stanzin’s father’s mobile to call our family. We were so happy that at last we could talk to our family members and give the news of our health and whereabouts.
By 11AM, we were getting ready to go to Karsha gonpa. Charan had already left for Padum for his ankle treatment. I, Madhu and Vishwanath left for gonpa along with Stanzin.
We had to climb the mountain but through the foot path already made. It was an arduous climb. We reached the gonpa and offered prayers to Lord Buddha. We saw the lamas (young and old) and took pictures. The scene of the Himalayas was beautiful from the top. Vishwanath had the lamas to pose different postures for his camera. I took the advantage of this to take couple of pictures of a Lama (who is the younger brother of Stanzin).
It was noon by this time and lamas had their lunch time. They had hard bread and meat soup as their lunch!!. We went inside the prayer room and took some pictures there too. After sometime we left the gonpa. Vishwanath had already left. So I, Madhu and Stanzin started off. Stanzin’s brother, who is the lama, invited us to his room for a cup of tea. We visited his room and had tea (luckily milk powder tea not the salty tea). His room was full of photos of lama, buddha and books.
We then left the lama’s room and reached our place of resting. We took some rest and by this time Charan returned. It was amusing to know that Charan had paid only Rs2 for his treatment along with the medicine but he had paid Rs500 to a return trip to Padum (the driver was asking for Rs1200 though). It had become a topic of fun between us. Anyways, by noon, Stanzin and his sister were ready in the traditional dresses for a photo session by Vishwanath. I also went to the terrace where the photo session was going on. I took couple of pictures of Stanzin and his sister in their traditional dresses.
By this time all our wet sleeping bags and jackets had dried and were ready to be used again. We settled again in our rooms as the temperature was dipping. All this time, Supovit was out of sight roaming alone. We had dinner that day and slowly slipped into the sleep. Tomorrow we had to start our trek again back to Leh.
Day 11 January 30th:
We had to leave for Nelema today to start our trek. So we got up early. We had asked the cooks to prepare Chapatis and carry to Nelema as we could not eat at that early. By 7AM we left Karsha and headed towards Nelema. It was around 2 hours drive to Nelema. We unloaded all our luggages and had our breakfast in the bunkers of the BRO people. There were uneasy moments. The porters were not ready to carry the bag of Charan who had the ankle pain. After some heated arguments, Stanzin took Charan’s bag along with his own bag. But it was supposed to be carried by the porters as the rations had reduced after all these days’ consumption and they had less weight with them. After getting down to the valley, we had again some heated arguments with the porters and at last the porters agreed to carry the back pack of Charan. With that, we started towards Neyrak. Again the Chadar was quite slippery. I fell here once again till we reached the half way. We had decided that we had to cover the distance as early as possible and we need to go to Chiling as early as possible. With that in mind, we were walking briskly. Since I had fallen again, I wanted to use the cramp on but it did not fit my shoes. But Vishwanath had his own cramp on and he wore the cramp on. Definitely it made a difference. I could see Vishwanath was walking easily on the slippery ice with the cramp on. Anyways I was slow in walking on the ice and hence Vishwanath gave me the company.
After the half way through, the Chadar was not that good but still managed to reach Neyrak before 5PM. We had walked for a long distance today and we were completely exhausted. We got the room here in Neyrak and we had fire in the bukhari also to make the room warm. Vishwanath had the cooks prepared Puliyogare today. It tasted well and we had good dinner. Later we went to sleep in our sleeping bags. But I was very skeptical for next day’s journey because I had fallen twice on the icy stream before reaching Neyrak during our onward trek. So I had to walk on the same icy stream again in my return trek!!.
Day12 January 31st:
With the skepticism of going back in the same route, I got up. We were ready to go back in the same route. The icy stream at a distant from the camp was looking scarier for me. But the urge to go back to Leh drove me to ignore the challenges. Luckily the icy stream had some sand on it. Probably other trekkers had put sand on the ice to make it coarse so that it doesn’t offer a slippery surface. I was able to cross that nightmare stream without much fear. Then there was no looking back. We came across the same huge ice fall again. Since we had already taken pictures, we did not stop now to take any pictures. The landscape was same and hence did not offer any incentive for us to take new pictures. But there were some tough climbs as the chadar was completely broken in some places. We had to climb the rocks and walk on the slope for almost 200mts . It was really tough but we had no choice. I was completely exhausted and did not have the courage to walk freely on the mountain’s slopes. I walked very slowly but at last I got to the other end where Chadar was good. It was a sigh of relief for me.
By evening we reached the camp site at Tib bao. It was crowded at Tib bao. There were at least two other trek groups that had camped on the site. We had to settle at a not so comfortable site where there were many pebbles and stones.
At night during our dinner we came to know that Supovit was suffering from fever. He got frightened while walking on the mountain’s slopes and had developed fever because of that. We offered him the medicines but he had taken his medicines already. After dinner we went to our tents for sleep. We wanted to cover the large distance tomorrow so that we can reach Chiling tomorrow itself but non availability of the vehicle at Chiling (since we had not informed the organizer to send the vehicle tomorrow) made us to think some alternatives and none of them were feasible. So we went to sleep as we could not do anything.
Day 13 Feb 1st:
We knew that we could not go back to Leh today but still we wanted to try. So we left early. There were other trek groups on the camp too. We also wanted to make sure that if we had to camp today at least we had to be faster than other trek groups so that we could get good camping place. With this thought in mind, we left early. Supovit had recovered from his fever.
Most of the chadar was good today. There was some fresh snow on the route. So it was easier to walk on the chadar as it provided the necessary grip to our shoes, especially to me. Today I was quite faster compared to other days. We really walked fast today and reached the camp site by 12:30PM. We had covered more than 15 kms in just 3.5 hours.
Since there was another 3 to 4 hours left in the day for trekking we started discussing about the possibility of extending the walk to Tilat Sumdo. First Supovit approached us and he wanted to go today itself. Clearly he was frustrated, tired and eager to go back. But since we did not have informed, vehicle’s availability was uncertain. So we did not pursue the matter further. But Supovit was adamant that he would go by today itself and wanted to reschedule his flights to Bankok to earlier dates. With lot of discussions, at last Vishwanth agreed to send Supovit alone along with a single porter. He had to walk another 15 to 17kms in 3 to 4 hours but he was quite confident that he could reach Chiling and can get some vehicle. So he left along with a porter.
We did not have any other things to do in Barsosa shuppa. So we were in playing mood now. I tried to use the porters’ pulling cart as skiing pad but it was quite hard to move forward as I did not have any supporting tools. So I tried Vishwanth’s ice axe but there was only one ice axe and I could not steer the cart properly. Then I tried using two trekking poles and some what I was successful. Stanzin then came to entertain and he pulled the cart on which I was sitting. It was quite fun filled game. Even Madhu tried that. Sliding over the ice sheets sitting on the cart was very good and our childish nature in us came out in this game. We enjoyed a lot playing.
Even porters had joined us. After playing for half an hour, we went to pitch in our tents. It was still around 2 or 2:30PM and it was sunny too. We already had upma as our lunch. Surprisingly the temperature was warm and comfortable. Vishwanath, Madhu and Charan were chatting outside the tent while I went inside the tent and started reading the books that Charan had brought for the purpose of reading during the trek. I spent almost 2 hours on reading and then Charan also joined me. It was not that much cold today. So we were comfortable without our jackets. Later in the evening we had soup. Since today was supposed to be the last day of the trek we decided to prepare kheer. Vishwanth went to kitchen tent and instructed the cooks to prepare the kheer. After many days we had some sweet. Even porters joined us to have the kheer and everybody enjoyed the sweet. After dinner we thought to spend some time outside the tent. For the first time in the whole trek we were standing outside our tents after dinner. The weather was pleasant and it was not so cold or we had got used to sub zero temperature by now. We spent time watching the stars, discussing about films, songs etc. I tried to take some pictures in that night too.
Then we went to our tents and there was a good feeling in everybody that it would be the last day to stay in tents and that tomorrow would be the last day of our trek. With that optimism we went inside our sleeping bags.
Day 14 Feb 2nd:
We got up early and we had very good feeling today. Today would be the last day and we could reach Leh and call our families and talk to them. Also we could have good food also. Already we had enquired Stanzin about the possibility of getting some south Indian food in Leh. We were all eager to eat Idli and Dosas. We left our camps early along with Stanzin. Today too the chadar was good and we were able to walk quite faster. Today I lead along with Stanzin. We also came across a dead mountain goat which was half eaten probably by Snow leopard. We met a lot of people starting the Chadar trek today. But we were very happy that we were returning as the temperature in Feb would be high and most of the chadar would be broken. So they might have to walk into the waters. We were so lucky that nowhere along the chadar route till Nelema, we did not have to get into the waters, which otherwise would have made our trek treacherous.
Just before Tilat Sumdo the chadar was broken. So we had to climb the rocks and walk on the rubbles. We managed this easily and for some distance the chadar was slippery. The eagerness to complete the trek made me to walk quite briskly ignoring the slippery ice sheets. When we reached Tilat Sumdo camp, the camp site was not the same which was 10 days before. The road work had progressed till the camp site and there were lot of boulders that had fallen on the chadar. The whole chadar was quite muddy in color due to the dust that got settled on chadar after the dynamite blast for laying the road. We had to walk for another half an hour from here as opposed to 10 minutes walk that we had earlier when we came Tilat Sumdo on the first day. I noticed that the chadar was still quite slippery. Already Vishwanath, Stanzin were way ahead of me and Charan was just behind these guys. I was walking with Madhu though he was somewhat ahead of me. At this time I took the decision that I would climb over the rubbles of the blast and walk on the raw road instead of walking on the chadar which was quite slippery. It would have made sense for me as I was not so comfortable in walking over the chadar though I had spent all these days on walking on chadar. So I left Madhu and climbed the rubbles to reach the road. I could see many people walking on the chadar today. There were at least three trekking groups that had started the chadar trek today. I started walking on the road while rest of the people was walking on the chadar. At around 1 to 1.5 kms, I noticed the vehicles waiting for us. Vishwanath and Stanzin had reached the vehicle already. Later Charan also reached the vehicle. Though he had walked on the chadar, he was quite faster than me that was walking on the plain road. At last I reached the vehicle and there was a sigh of achievement that I completed the difficult chadar trek. Later Madhu also reached the vehicle. It was the time for a group photo with all the trek members including the porters but we were missing Supovit and the porter who left with Supovit. Later we learnt that Supovit did not get vehicle yesterday and that he was staying at a house in Chiling. He left to Leh only today.
We left Chiling and after half an hour drive, we stopped at a place to have some tea and then proceeded further. We had not paid much attention while coming to Chiling but the scenic beauty was awesome. Zanskar region’s mountains are known for different colored rocks (minerals which give the color). While inside the vehicle, I tried to click some photos. The road was leading to the valley as if it were the end of the road. It was very beautiful. At last we reached Leh and our guest house at around 3PM. For 10 days we had not taken bath and hence we asked the guest house lady to provide us hot water for bath. We took bath at around 5PM and decided to go out for having some good food. It was cold and we, especially I, did not have a spare jacket to wear as the jacket used in the trek was quite dirty. We wanted to do some shopping, reschedule our flights and take cash from ATM. We left at around 5:30PM. We went to one of the travel booking houses to book the tickets. We booked the tickets from Leh to Delhi on Friday 4th Feb and decided to book the ticket Bangalore from Delhi later. By this time it was around 7:30PM and it was already very cold. We entered into a small hotel where Dosa was available. It was run by a Punjabi. When we entered the hotel, we met Supovit there. We ordered Dosa for everybody and also ordered the last remaining two vadas. It tasted very well to our tasteless tastebuds after 10 days. After having dosa and vada, we tried to withdraw cash but none of the ATMs were working (there are couples of ATMs in whole Leh and all the ATMs would be crowded all the time). So we decided to take out the money tomorrow and we had to withdraw tomorrow at any cost as we had to give money to the travel agent and to the trek agent. We went back to guest house and had dinner again there (roti, alu and tea) and went to bed.
Day 15 Feb 3rd:
We got up late as we did not have any work to do. We had the breakfast at around 9AM and then decided to go for shopping and to withdraw the money. We set off towards the market only to come to know that today there were protests by the locals against the arrest of a prominent Lama in Delhi. All the shops were closed. We had the plans to eat south Indian food today but the shop was closed. The ATMs were not working (SBI, J&K Bank and Punjab Bank). At last at one ATM at J&K bank the cash was being filled to service. We stood in the queue for more than an hour to withdraw the cash. After the cash withdrawl, we went to the travel agent. The shop was closed and we gave him a call after which he came and we paid him the money. We also settled the money for the trek. By this time we were hungry and it was around 1PM. All the shops were closed. We asked the travel agent, who was a Punjabi, about restaurants. He told us to go to Moti market where a Punjabi dhaba would be opened for sure. So we left for Moti market and luckily the dhaba was opened. We had good lunch there and then returned to guest house. We wanted to take bath again only to hear from the guest house lady that why we want to take bath everyday!!! Anyways we asked her to provide hot water and we took bath and got settled in our room listening to music from our mobiles. Later in the evening we had dinner and went to sleep. A last night in Leh.
Day 16 Feb 4th:
The day was not good. We got up to see a bad morning. It was snowing in Leh. Bad luck. We have got our flight today but it was snowing but not heavily. We still were optimistic that we could fly today. So we got ready by 9AM and our flight was at 11:45AM. We left for airport at around 10AM and reached the airport. It was still snowing but very lightly but we could clearly see that the mountain peaks were receiving heavy snow fall. We were just praying that the snow fall stop so that we could fly today. We cannot carry any hand bags on the flight originating from Leh except Cameras and Laptops. So we left all our luggages for check-in and kept only the camera bag. But the flight was delayed by almost one hour. We were still skeptical but at last by 1PM the flight took off. It was cloudy and we could not take any pictures. The flight was almost full. We had good food inside the flight. After an hour of flight we landed in Delhi T3 at around 2:15PM. We collected our baggage. Since we had the overweight issue, we gave all the tents to Vishwanath who was supposed to go by train. We then had our baggage and the mats with us. The next flight to Bangalore was at 8:30PM and it was from T1. By 3PM we left to T1 by airport shuttle. We still had almost 6 hours to the flight. We went inside the airport and got settled where a row of seats was empty. We then had some snacks. The south Indian eateries were inside and we could go only after the security check. But we could not get the boarding passes before 3 hours to the departure and unlucky we were. The flight got delayed by one hour. So we were waiting in the airport lobby. By 6PM we got the boarding passes and then entered into the eatery area. Charan had his mind on the books and he purchased a book too here. Later we went to have our light meal i.e dosa and idlis. It was 7PM and we still had 2.5 hours left for the flight. So we settled in the waiting area watching TV. Even by 9PM there was no announcement from the airline for boarding. So again we were worried that the flight may be further delayed or cancelled. We went to the gate and were waiting for the announcement. It was 9:30PM , the supposed scheduled time of departure but still no announcement from the airline. But at last around 9:45PM, the airline let the passengers for boarding. We got settled in our seats and the flight took off at around 10PM or so. We ordered the food on board as we were hungry. Later I tried to sleep but I could not. At last the flight landed in Bangalore at around 1AM. We proceeded for collecting our luggage and we collected our luggage also but one of my trek poles was missing. So we asked the airline ground staff to find that for us. After around 15 minutes I got my trek pole. We left the airport by 1:15PM. Madhu took the cab alone and I and Charan took another cab.
Thus with this we had completed our epic journey of “trek in the millennium old trade route”. There were lot of learnings from this trek and lot of memories. I am still recalling these memories with family and friends with a question “What’s next? Which place?” for which I am still thinking.