Category Archives: Ladakh

Walking on broken glass

No, this has nothing to do with Annie Lenox. I am talking about Chadar. Chadar ? Yeah, Chadar…

Chadar, in Hindi or Urdu language, means “blanket”. And I am referring to the blanket of ice that covers the roaring Zanskar river, for few weeks every year. During the harsh winter season, as the temperature dips to -20 or -30 degrees Celsius, the raging Zanskar river is tamed (I wouldn’t dare say tamed, maybe subdued is a better adjective) and a layer of ice starts to form on the banks of the river, in some places couple of feet thick and in others, couple of inches. In some places, the entire width of the river is covered by this blanket of ice, even as the river continues to flow below. This layer of ice can be walked upon in places where its formed well or waded through, where its knee deep.

With Zanskar being cutoff by several feet of snow on all the high passes, that otherwise offer an entry and exit, the only option for Zanskaris to be in contact with the outside world, is by walking on this sheet of ice. They walk for several days from villages like Padum or Lingshed to reach Leh, sleeping in caves along the way, and cooking simple meals on the meagre firewood that would be available. Little children would be fetched from their schools in Leh and taken back to Zanskar, while making the treacherous walk on the Chadar.

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The first time I had heard of Chadar was probably a decade or more ago, when I stumbled upon one of only two copies of the book “Where heaven and mountains meet. Zanskar and the Himalayas” by Olivier Follmi, in the Singapore National Library. Chadar had firmly stamped its presence, in the depths of my consciousness. When an opportunity presented itself this year (2016) to experience it first hand, I jumped at it. And what an experience it has been. I have played back the memories of the 8 days that I spent on the Chadar, an infinite times in the last few days.

So, what’s the Chadar like ? I believe that its an intimate experience that is unique for every one, unique every time you set foot on it. Firstly, its the sheer unpredictability. Ice is formed now, it can break the next moment. Where there is no ice now, overnight the temperature could dip a few notches, and a perfect layer of ice fit to walk upon, would be formed. Secondly, its about emptying one’s mind and living every moment in its totality. When I was walking on the Chadar, I was so immersed in that experience, that all my senseless thoughts would often recede. And finally, the people with whom I went on the Chadar, and the support group of Zanskaris have left an indelible impression in my mind. The attention, care and support in such difficult conditions, has touched me in a way that I have never been touched before.

This year, temperatures didn’t dip too much (and yeah, I still felt numbing cold) and so the Chadar wasn’t so well formed in places. This posed several challenges, as we had to switch from our insulated boots to gumboots, to wade in water. At times, when the water level would rise, and icy cold water would rush into our gumboots, there was a kind of pain/sensation that I had never experienced before (I was like “@#^$^&#$&!#$%@. What just hit me ?”). In places where there was no possibility to wade, we had to take off our crampons and scramble on the side of the cliffs, precariously holding on for dear life. Sleeping in a communal tent, packing/unpacking, sharing of goodies and life stories, freshly cooked meals by the kitchen team, even in such basic conditions – the memories are countless. I had the experience of sleeping in a cave, while the others slept in a goat pen in Nerak.

The local Zanskaris, who double up as porters (I hate to use that word, so I will use “Support Crew” instead) on the Chadar, are its lifeline. They carry loads of 50-60kgs on their makeshift sledges, which they drag behind them using ropes, where the Chadar is well formed. And in places where the Chadar is not well formed, they load these sledges as backpacks and scramble over the walls of the gorge…They climb high cliffs, as if its a walk in the park, to collect firewood and carry on their backs and on sledges. Real Herculean characters !!!

Coolest crew in the world. On Ice.

I didn’t indulge much in photography, as the emphasis was more on survival. With just one camera body and lens, and keeping myself safe by walking only on the well formed Chadar, I doubt if I ever stretched my vision. Photography would invariably slow me down, and it would be a constant catch-up with the rest of the group who would have forged ahead. I also realised that Chadar is not just about photography, but an overall experience of all the senses.

One has to be either stupid (which I am) or brave, to go on the Chadar. But one has to be really insane to go on it more than once. And I think I am ready for that insanity. I can’t wait for next year.

PS : I went on this adventure, with a group organised by Milan Moudgill. Milan has been going on the Chadar almost every year, leading small groups and introducing them to the wonders of the Chadar. Words are not enough to describe Milan. He is one of the most caring and responsible guys that I have ever come across. His attention to detail, even as he prepared us individually before we embarked on this adventure, and the amount of information he shared, and the care and support that he provided to each of us while on the Chadar…Even though all of us had our grumpy moments from time to time, Milan’s perpetual cheer always lifted all of us up. I am indebted to him for life, and blessed that I had the good fortune to cross paths with him in life.

PPS : Three of the members from the group – Harsha, Nino and Richa – are working on a nobel initiative that Harsha started in 2010 in Leh, called “New Lives, New Beginnings…” It involves sponsoring education and care, for underprivileged Zanskari kids, in a good school in Leh. I will write a separate note on the amazing work that is being done. Please drop me a note if you are interested in knowing more, and I will connect you with Harsha.

Memories of Chadar

I have often wondered, that in this fast paced digital age and in the era of instant gratification, we are losing out on the fine art of seeing. I am often guilty of “shoot first, and review later” syndrome that seems to have plagued most photographers in the digital world. And when I am back home, when faced with the daunting task of selecting keepers from the hundreds or thousands of images that I would have made, I sigh with resignation. Emotions play an overriding role over aesthetics.

This time around, I forced myself to select 36 exposures from the entire lot of images that I made. Its not entirely similar to a situation where one would have had only one roll of film for the entire trek. I wonder how I would have reacted to that situation. Would I have returned with mediocre images that I would have made as “reserve”, in the bag OR would I have come back with none, as I might have been afraid that I would have encountered a grand moment, and not have the film to make an exposure (and thus miss out on the grand moments, because I would forever be waiting for a grander moment). Or I might have captured whatever opportunities I would have been provided to make 36 exposures, and then spent the rest of the trek in contentment ? I don’t know how my mind would have reacted. Either which way, I suppose I would have been forced to see, rather than look.

For once, I enjoyed the ruthless experience of trashing or downgrading the images that, in my opinion, didn’t qualify to be in these 36 exposures. A bit of detachment is good in life.

Anyways, the Chadar gallery is up…



Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 6

The campsite at Skarchen was amongst bushes, so there was no point in getting out at night to make any images.

Morning came, I packed up, and the camp was broken. Had breakfast, and setoff. We had to walk couple of hours to a pickup point from where a mini-bus would pick us up.

Fairly uneventful walk. The sun had come up and it was getting scorching hot.

After couple of hours, we reached the end of the trail. The plan was to load our bags into the bus, and then go to Sumer sand dunes, where we would spend our last night. In between, we would visit a monastery (I forget the name now).

The bus came, our bags were loaded, we said our goodbyes to the pony man, and we went to see the Hundar sand dunes. I had no interest, so I stayed back at the cafe. By then, everyone seemed to have all sorts of cravings. Coke, Sprite, Limca, fried noodles etc were ordered and devoured. We saw an army canteen that was serving idli and dosas, and we gorged on those and filter coffee as well. So good to be back in civilisation.

We went to the monastery, and the huge statue of Avalokiteshwara. Didn’t interest me much.

Sumer sand dunes were next, and they were a big disappointment too. Never trust the brochures.

Dinner was in the dining hall of the place next to the sand dunes. People shared their experience of the trek, and as alcohol took its effect, people let go some of their stress and there were a lot of laughs around. Our cook appeared with a cake, how he had managed to bake it, nobody knows…

When we retired to our respective tents, I decided to make one last image of the Milky Way, and then packed up.

The next day, we would go over the Khardung La, which was really a circus, and back to Leh.

Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 5

The night was again, restless. Camping treks are never easy, that too when going in a group with varied interests.

The campsite was down in a valley, just before the village of Hundar Dok. Made some images in the morning, but nothing very spectacular.

Set off after breakfast. It was downhill all the way to Hundar Dok. Stopped at the village to make some images, as the light was getting better. The group had surged ahead and I didn’t know which way to go. So, I kept going round and round in the village, until Pasang came out of nowhere and called me. Good man, Pasang.

It was then uphill after crossing the river. By then Tenzin had appeared out of nowhere too. There was a medical post and Tenzin suggested that we get my knee checked by the doctor there, and he went off in search of the doctor.

A young lady doctor came with him. I showed her the state of my knee and the medicines that I had, painkillers essentially, and the Volini spray. She said that she didn’t have anything better than that… Half an hour wasted.

Pasang, Kanika, Sri and I were bringing up the rear. The ponies overtook us somewhere after the village. I could see Sujoy and the rest of the folks on a flat path on the opposite side of the mountain.

After we descended down to the river, and crossed a rickety wooden bridge, it was uphill all the way, and then the path flattened out. Something happened to my knee at that time. I think as I started walking on flat terrain, the knee “adjusted” itself. I didn’t feel any pain at all. So, I just surged ahead, refusing to take any breaks, lest the pain would come back. I must have walked at least an hour or more, when I caught sight of the rest of the group, having lunch by the riverside. I decided that I wouldn’t stop. Tenzin caught up with me, and said that the campsite was just a short distance away. I made it to the campsite even as they were pitching the tents. I sat in the kitchen tent, had something to eat, and contemplated over the day that had gone by.

The campsite was at the crappiest location, but I just didn’t care. I wanted to finish the trek and go home. I had had enough.

There was a dirt road where the vehicle could possible come to pick us up. I  wondered if it would.

The rest of the group had reached the campsite by then, and I went for a wash by the stream and checked into camp.

Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 4

The night was cold. Bitterly cold. And windy. And my frustration levels at the state of the tent, soared. I stepped out into the cold air of the night. I wanted my mind to settle down, but it was very restless. I saw a thick cloud cover and soon it started to snow. I enjoyed the snowflakes for a bit, but I didn’t fancy getting wet.

Spent the rest of the night, tossing and turning in my tent. The symphony next to me didn’t help matters much.

I got out of the tent in the morning, and was greeted with the sight of a white blanket that had covered the entire landscape. It was magical.

After a hurried breakfast, we set off once again. Nobody knew how long this day would be. All we knew is that we would camp at a place called Hundar Dok.

The terrain was relatively flat, but my right knee started to bother me. I suppose I had hurt it the previous evening when stepping over some rocks just before reaching our campsite.

Pasang, my man Friday, came to my rescue. He took over my daypack, even as I hobbled along the way. Sri, Pasang and I were bringing up the rear today. I have no idea how long we walked, but by the time we reached the campsite, it was close to darkness. Obviously, someone had made an error in judgement when planning this trek. The distances and timings were completely off.

My knee was hurting very badly and all I wanted to do was to end the trek and go back home. There wasn’t any energy left for photography…

Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 3

This would be the big day, when we would go over the Lasermo La. We were already at an elevation of 4600m. The air was thin, and I had yet another restless night. To top it off, there was a bit of snow in the morning, and we pushed back plans of an early start, by 30 minutes. The question was – would be get snowed out on top of Lasermo La ?

We set off at a decent pace, and very soon reached the glacial moraine over which we would have to gain elevation and reach the pass. Everyone split up at this point, and Sujoy surged ahead with Karuna. Chetan and Vivek were behind them. Nara and Lakshmi brought up the mid-pack. Sanjoy, Rajesh, Bharati, I and Kanika brought up the rear. Sri had opted to ride a pony to the top of Lasermo La.

The going got tough, even though the views were spectacular. Every step demanded a huge expense of energy, and with the air being so thin, there was very little oxygen as well. My lungs started screaming, and I decided to set my own pace. Counting steps, counting breaths, just like in all my other treks.

We reached Lasermo La almost two hours behind Sujoy and Karuna. After the customary photos were taken, we started our descent to the North camp of Lasermo.

Patience was low, as everyone was exhausted. Not knowing where the tents were pitched added to the frustration. I could feel gentle sounds of displeasure.

After what felt like eternity, we caught sight of the tents. It would take us at least an hour to get there. The sun had gone down behind the mountains, and it was sheer willpower that brought me to camp. By that time everyone had picked the better tents, and Sanjoy and I were left with the tent whose zips wouldn’t work. I prepared myself mentally for the long cold night ahead.

That night, at the dinner table, there was a huge ruckus about the super long day that we had had. Tenzin was summoned. Poor chap. What could he do ?

Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 2

We set off after breakfast, and we entered into the valley… Nobody wanted to do the river crossing in the morning, so we opted to find a route all by ourselves. There was no clear direction, as everyone seemed to be going off on their own trail.

Poor Tenzin, he was running up and down, back and forth, between the front of the group and the rear. I was in the mid-pack with a few others. Around 1230PM or so, we decided to stop for lunch and a bit of rest. The ones at the front were nowhere to be seen.

Looking back towards the route that we came, it was really spectacular. Somewhere around this time, the ponies had overtaken us. We kept going after lunch, and around 4PM or so, we saw one of the kitchen staff and Tenzin coming down a slope with a kettle of tea and biscuits. God bless them.

After a cup of tea, we rushed to the campsite, even as the sun was making its way down. I setup the GoPro to shoot a time-lapse during sunset and checked into my tent.

Dinner was devoured, and I made some images of the Milky Way again. It was cold and I was extremely tired. I doubted if I would have the energy to indulge in any form of night photography…

Phyang to Hundar Valley Trek – Day 1

After spending couple of days in Leh to acclimatise, I went off to Tso Kar and Tso Moriri. It had been amazing. Spending the night at the shores of Tso Moriri had been great, as was the star trail that I made from there.

The rest of the group had arrived in Leh, even as I was away at Tso Moriri…

After a hearty breakfast at Omasila, we were all packed off into the minibus that would take us to Phyang monastery. It was a pleasant day, as we spent some time exploring the monastery.

The plan had been to drive as far inside as possible, till the road would end and then we would start the trek. But for some inane reason, it was decided that we should start the trek from Phyang monastery itself. We spent the next 2 hours walking on the road. There was a place where the road had swept away during the rains. So, we got off the road and scrambled down to the river and back up again.

It was getting hot, even as we broke for lunch at a small village enroute.

It was meant to be a short day of trekking, but we walked for almost 6-7 hours because of the earlier decision to start the trek from Phyang monastery itself.

Around 4PM or so, I could see the camp being setup on the other side of the river. We still had one river crossing to do. Took off my boots, wore the sandals and stepped into the icy cold water. It wasn’t all that bad, but it was a relief to make it to the camp and settle into our tents that were being pitched.

This would be a recurring theme throughout the trek. Since nobody seemed to know the trek route, the pony man would decide where to setup camp for the day. And thus, all we could do was walk and walk and hope that at some time we would catch sight of the camp.

There were many good things on the trek too. First and foremost were the kitchen staff. They would be last to leave camp, and be the first to arrive at the camp for the night. They would always be ready with hot water, ginger tea, snacks, and yummy food. We had a dining tent and it would always be a buzzing affair there.

After dinner that night, I made some images of the Milky Way over the Stok Kangri range. I came to realise that trekking and photography aren’t all that compatible. It would be exhausting to trek during the day, and still conserve energy to photograph (especially at night).

Nevertheless, I was pleased with the day.

Phyang to Hundar valley trek – Planning and Preparation

Sujoy had sent a whole load of information about preparation for the trek. The one that concerned me most was the 10kg limit per person. It meant that I would be restricting myself to just one camera body and couple of lenses. And only one tripod.

I had booked Jet Airways all through out, and it was a good deal.

Having suffered a knee infection during a recent scuba dive, I didn’t get much time to work on my fitness. I hoped that with a bit of luck, I would survive the trek…

My first trek in Ladakh, over the Lasermo La

Having completed my first trek in Ladakh, here are some thoughts.

1. The landscape is spectacular and so are the people of Ladakh.

2. Leh has absolutely no character, the best thing to do is just to rest in the hotel, acclimatise and get out of Leh as soon as you can.

3. Camping treks are not easy affairs. Make sure that you get a reliable and responsible operator, along with a knowledgeable guide who knows the trek route fairly well. I went with Sujoy Das, who is quite well known for his treks and organization skills. Yet, some things went wrong.

4. Be prepared for drastic weather changes. I encountered snow at the Lasermo South camp, as well as the North camp. And this was in September.

5. Ladakh is a paradise for landscape photography, but do your research so that you are not swamped with day tripper tourists.