I believe that nature has a lot to tell us all. It gives us different ways to see life. A photographer's eye always puts things in perspective as never seen before. And the wedding photographer that I am always see the colors and candidness of life in an artistic way. Nature presents the best candidness available in life with a lot of surprises hidden in it.
The Chadar Trek
Getting to Chadar was one such accidental surprise. Even though I have been for a couple of treks in India, I had never thought I would go for a trek to a place with temperatures of -25 to -30 degrees. I had seen the beauty of Tons Valley and the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, and experienced the silence and splendor of Pangarchulla in Uttaranchal before treading on the frozen river paths of the Zanzkar Valley in Ladakh, famously known as the Chadar Trek.
It was planned for a small group of 10 people, but ended up with 16 people in the Trek. The majestic views of the icy Himalayan peaks from the flight from Bombay to Leh was a sight to behold. If you ever travel to Leh, make sure to book a window seat which is on your left hand side. I got goose bumps at the nostalgic thought that these mountains were going to be my home again for the next 10 days and the temperature was going to be minus all the time through all the days of my stay.
Flying Into Leh
We were welcomed at the Leh airport by the spectacular sight of mountains all around us. We made sure our jackets were handy and got them out as soon as we landed in Leh.
We caught glimpses of the city of Leh on our way to the hotel. Two days of stay at Leh had been planned before the Trek started so that we could acclimatize to the temperature and the thin air (only 50% oxygen content). The acclimatization at Leh forms an essential part of the itinerary to able to complete the trek at Chadar successfully.
After getting some rest, we went to the market to try some local food. As we got out, we realised that most of the shops, homes and other places in the city were shut. We were told that people locked their houses and migrated to warmer villages for the winters.
A visit to the Theksey Palace in Leh was planned for the morning of the next day. Peace and serenity was all that one felt at this place. Standing at a considerable height, this monastic palace gives lots of opportunities for stunning photographs of parts of the city of Leh. We drove around to other parts of Leh to capture scenic photographs of the streams, river, mountains, trees and the golden mud homes of the people of this region.
At the end of the day, the entire group sat together to discuss a few important things about the trek, which was to commence the next day. We were briefed about the day to day schedule of the entire trek, and given some updates on the weather conditions by the organizer.
The First Day
We were ready by 7am the next day, pumped up and energetic, to achieve a goal that seemed as great as traveling to space. We were to drive to Chilling, which was the starting point of the Trek, in a mini-van. On the 3 1/2 hour journey, we halted at the spot where the Zanskar river and Indus River meet. The colors of the two rivers were distinctly different and as they merged, they turned into a third colour which was as fresh as the original ones. Further along the way we stopped again as there was a landslide on the narrow mountain road we were traveling on.
Our trek finally began with a minor delay of an hour. We were dropped off at the end of the motor-able part of the road along the mountain face. We climbed down the slope, walking on narrow ledges and rocky surfaces and finally made our first step on the frozen river in the valley.
We adapted slowly to walking on ice, trying to avoid a fall. The view of the frozen river was splendid. The ice sheet was about 4ft to 6ft in depth.
Our porters name was Tsanzin, as was the case with most porters there. One shout of the name and there will be 10 Tsanzins standing in front of you. The name is very common for porters in Leh. Our Tsanzin lead the trail and we would follow him in a line.
One of the trek members fell in the icy water while he was deviating to take another path. The dare-devil that he was, he enjoyed the fall and jumped into the icy river water again on the last day of the trek, even though it is highly discouraged. Some friends posed lying down completely on ice for photographs, while others were content taking normal pictures.
Since it was our first day on Chadar, we walked just about 3 kilometres. We already had traveled from Leh to Chilling by car so we cut it short for that day. Our kitchen staff had prepared some snacks and Kahwa tea for us, which is the speciality of Leh. The day was spent getting to know each other in the group and discussing the possible difficulties in the trek ahead.
Sleeping in tents in -25 degrees on the first night in Chadar is an experience that cannot be expressed in words. I was shivering like hell most of the night, tucked inside two sleeping bags. Don’t know if it was a dream or reality, but got some rest to start up for the next day.
Even as day time temperatures are comfortable enough with the sun and all the body heat generated through the walk keeping you comfortable, the night chill gets into your bones, no matter how many layers you wear.
The next day we woke up at 5.30 am with the morning tea served in our tents. The next struggle was going in the open for defecating. I am not a person who usually cribs, but in the cold I was, as they say, shitting in my pants.
In the entire duration of the trek, our hands and feet were to be covered all the time to avoid any chances of frostbite. The extreme conditions are not hard to beat. With multiple layers and sensible trekking, the Chadar trek is not very difficult to complete. It requires mental preparation and a strong will. What sets it apart is its unique experience.
A Geographic Splendor
We caught our sticks to get to our next destination and started to walk after some good breakfast. There were meandering frozen paths and few broken ice paths. Walking step by step, you realize different meanings of silence. The sky there is perpetually bright blue in colour and the mountains form different textures at every turn.
Next, we came across a frozen waterfall. It was the first time I ever witnessed such a phenomenon and was hoping to see to bigger version of it ahead. I got some photographs of this art created by nature.
By now we had gotten used to the cold during the day. In the afternoon we would get our lunch, which was mostly packaged food items like Maggi noodles and pasta accompanied by snacks and sweets we carried from home. We caught some rest and got back on our feet again, ready to march on. Once we reached the site for camping for the day we got to our tents that the porters had set up for us. At night, the porters lit a bonfire for the group, which seemed a necessity rather than a celebration.
I would like to mention that the sincerity and dedication of the porter community on Chadar was absolutely astounding. Every time you pass them they will greet by saying ‘juh ley’ which means ‘hello’. They helped the trekkers, irrespective of which group they belonged to.
The night was a contrast black sheet of sky. The stars glittered and gleamed in heavy clusters. We gazed around the sky to catch a few shooting stars. The galaxy was before us in its flawless avatar. I set up my equipment to shoot star trails and got some splendid shots.
Wrapping Up The Trek
We covered up quite a few kilometers in the subsequent days, our schedule remaining similar. The frozen river and the magnificent gorges got more stunning in views, the deeper we trekked on Chadar. Ice crystals, frozen waterfalls, purple, green and yellow stones seen under clear sheets of the frozen river, extravagant mountain faces, and many natural wonders made up for most of the sights.
As a candid wedding photographer I thought to myself for this place to be just perfect for a pre-wedding shoot. I could imagine the portraits of a couple that could be shot here. The adrenaline they would be feeling combined with the natural beauty would produce the most amazing expressions.
On the 6th day of the trek we realized that the Chadar was broken. There was no way to go further till the Nerak village, which marked the last site on our itinerary. We were greatly disheartened by our luck, as we were not ready to let go of the idea of not completing our trek. But nature follows its own rules and we were forced to camp on a site much before Nerak. It was very disappointing, but we had to turn backwards for our return journey the next morning. That night we had a great time with our fellow trekkers around a raging bonfire and a few drinks, dances and stories.
Everything about the Chadar Trek is unique – the sights, temperature, environment, the frozen river, sledges, unusual camp sites, caves and the ever changing Chadar. So unique that it has to be experienced. Even though we never made it to Nerak, we ended up making some good friends and some great memories. But as grass is greener on the other side, I would surely make another trip and cross Nerak.