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.