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Walking on broken glass: Trekking on the frozen Zanskar river

Mar 3, 2013 13:06 IST

#Trekking   #WanderingI   #Zanskar river  

By Binaifer Bharucha

Am I insane to do this? This singular thought bounced around in my head as the aeroplane circled low, preparing to land at Leh airport. I pressed my nose to the window, looking at the mountains shrouded in snow. Three years of dreaming about walking on (frozen) water was now staring me in the face, waiting to become an overwhelming reality. The Zanskar river, home to river rafting in the summer, transforms into a frozen ice sheet in the winter called Chadar (meaning sheet in Hindi), providing an alternate route for the Zanskaris when all the high passes are blocked by snow.

Here I was, a speck in a surreal winter wonderland, walking on a seemingly endless sheet of white. The ice was fractured by islands of dazzling blue green water, a constant reminder that the river was flowing thick and fast a few feet below me. Boulders as big as buses lay embedded in the ice. An orchestra of glass played beneath my boots. Sharp splintered sounds as crampons dug into the ice, changing into dull slushy thuds as my boots hit watery patches. Like looming towers of dark chocolate with creamy icing, the sides of the gorge soared above us, brown and black rock laced with snow. Ever so often we had to clamber up the sides of the gorge like monkeys, when coming across patches of brittle ice.

Nothing like gripping snow-covered rock with bare hands while trying desperately hard not to glance downward to get the adrenalin pumping. Almost at the edge, totally aware and immersed in that moment, is when I felt intensely alive.

Image credit: Milan Moudgill

The Zanskar river. Image credit: Milan Moudgill

Walking on the river for five to six hours, in temperatures ranging from minus fifteen to minus twenty five, was easy. It was the mornings that were brutal. Emerging from the cocoon of warm, down sleeping bags was a huge effort, everyone stumbling over each other to put on their various layers of clothing (we changed our clothes only once during the trek). The only bows to both my vanity and cleanliness were wet wipes and cold cream for my face, powder for my feet and a borrowed mirror to comb my matted hair.

Gumboots, bought in Leh, were hurriedly put on as people tumbled out of tents trying to stake claim to lone rocky outcrops, clutching wet wipes and hand sanitizer with numb fingers. Let's just say that the view while doing one's business was incredible.

Frost-stiffened boots were thawed in front of the morning campfire. And then commenced the epic struggle of trying to jam one's feet into semi frozen boots. The reward was a five star breakfast buffet, sumptuously laid out on 2 small steel trunks covered with a bright red checkered tablecloth. Pancakes, porridge, muesli, omelettes, cheese, cold cuts, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, green tea, peanut butter, jam and chapattis were consumed with great relish. Hot orange Tang (weird to comprehend but delicious to sip), accompanied by tea and biscuits, awaited us at camp each evening. Dinner was mostly a lavish four course affair in the mess tent.

Our cook Wangtuk's culinary brilliance peaked on the evening he cooked in a cave. We were served soup, vegetable fried rice, chow mein (spaghetti with vegetables), a mixed vegetable dish and a chicken dish. We always ate like kings. The other necessity of life, sleeping, was done in tents, animal shelters, a cave and a Ladakhi home. The homestay with a Ladakhi family, in a village called Lingshed, was our first taste of luxury in four days. Rooms with woodburner stoves, carpets and mattresses were a welcome change from frosty tents and damp, claustrophobic animal pens. The piece de resistance was the attached bathroom, a hole in the ground surrounded by four mud walls. But at least one didn't have to venture off to a secluded place to do one's business.

After four days of hard walking, we finally had the chance to change our clothes. Three brave souls actually had baths. I was not one of them. Sitting on warm carpets, snug in our jackets, laughing, gossiping, eating and drinking endless cups of tea felt like a little slice of heaven.

My most magical day was the walk back from Lingshed to the river. The world was white, stripped down to an abstraction. Tiny blades of grass and leaves delicately peeked through a thick blanket of snow. I felt suspended, dreamlike, as if walking through a Japanese haiku. But the last day turned out to be sensational. We had miraculously escaped getting seriously wet for seven days. Walking at a fast pace, we were all eager to get back to civilization.

Suddenly everyone ground to a screeching halt. We had hit a large patch of brittle ice. This time the sides of the gorge were unscalable. The whole group had to wade knee deep through ice-cold water for about a minute to reach hard ice again. With frozen hands, I struggled out of my boots and into my gumboots. I could barely breathe as the icy water gushed into my gumboots. On reaching hard ice again, a porter helped peel off my soaking socks, dried my feet, put a dry pair of socks on me and then helped me shove my leaden feet back into my boots. After this trauma, everyone walked feverishly fast, pounding the ice to get the circulation going. We had finally reached the pinnacle of the Chadar experience, emerging half frozen yet victorious. The irony of the incident didn't escape me when we all reached our pickup point just half an hour later.

Laughing and crying with happiness and relief, there was much hugging and backslapping as we congratulated each other on completing the trek. We could now relax and bask in the sun and our shared glory. After joyously posing for many a photograph, it slowly dawned on us that the bus was late. And so we walked yet again, simply because we didn't want our limbs to freeze. A collective whoop was let loose when we saw a bus trundling slowly towards us. Packed tight like sardines in a can, trekkers and porters sat in the bus, precariously balancing on small seats and mounds of luggage.

Pounding Bollywood music played in the background, while the bus slowly inched its way to Leh on a road that was only about six feet wide in most places, with a sheer drop to the river on one side. I'm not a fan of Bollywood, let alone its music. But that crazy rhythm got me as my head bobbed to the beat. Half an hour later, we stiffly hobbled off the porters' bus into our bus. The morning had turned out to be an intensely surreal and unforgettable experience.

It was a hard trip, brutal in some places, yet there was no anger, no impatience, no aggression. The bonding and camaraderie between group members on trips like this is indescribable. Trekkers passing each other always stopped to say julay (hello in Ladakhi), bound by similar experiences of utter joy and immense struggle in this stunning and remote wonderland. Finally, none of us could have managed this trip without Tsering and his porters. Wickedly strong, always smiling and willing to help, they were supermen. Physical strength aside, only sheer dogged willpower and mental strength finally saw me through.

I owe this life-changing adventure to my good friend and captain of the trek, Milan Moudgill, an adventure buff and a great believer that nothing could be more fun than persuading a motley group of strangers to rough it out in the spectacular lap of nature. This trip is an epic undertaking, perfectly summed up by a poster I found on the Internet - "Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you"

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