Tag Archives: Chadar trek

Le Freezer- A winter in Leh

Here’s a story of when the ‘Plan A’ went kaput and we were stranded in an alien land without a ‘Plan B’. No mobile phones working and no internet connectivity to reschedule our return tickets, here’s a snippet from our first trip farthest from home. This post is written by Lahar Ganapathi, my brother and my favorite co-traveller on most trips. This is a throwback post to the winter of 2015, When we were among the earliest few Indian travellers: Doing the Chadar trek.

Day 1:

So, it’s the peak of winter in the north of India. Chadar trek was finally happening which was planned a few months in advance. With all the built up excitement, we left Bangalore for Leh. Delhi was where we met a few others doing the same trek, however they had bad news for us. That was of the Zanskar River being blocked due to a landslide upstream and all activities downstream indefinitely banned, or rather a section 144 was imposed. We were not the ones to be disheartened by the news and continued to Leh, onward from Delhi after a night’s sleepover at the Indira Gandhi International airport. So, after an uncomfortable sleep in the waiting lounge of the airport and a few hours of delay later in morning, we finally took off for Leh.

The view from above the Himalayas was breathtaking from the point where the Gangetic plains raised up to the mountains. There was stark difference as we saw a plain flat ground rising drastically, forming the snow-clad mountains in a matter of minutes. A flight to Leh in peak winter provided a beautiful view of the mountains in full glory, as if they were majestically looking down towards flatter lands at the bounty they provided. So, after all the aahs and oohs we finally took notice of the changing landscape as we reached Leh, white snowy terrain giving way to brown rocky terrain. In a moment we were already over Leh airstrip and we landed without any bumps. The announcement stated the temperature as 6 below 0.

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You are flying over the Himalayas…

Being from the temperate part of India and never having experienced such a low temperature, excitement took over my sensibility and I got off the plane wearing only a normal woolen sweater (good enough to push through winter in Ooty or any other hill station down south). Yeah, such a jerk I was to do that. At first, the cold did not feel much different from other places. But, trust me it was -6 at 12:30 in the afternoon, with overhead sun. 10 minutes was all it took to knock the heat out of me. As it got unbearably cold, I scrambled for my warmest layer. It took three layers to feel warm enough. We caught a taxi to the hotel where we were scheduled to meet the other trekkers and the organizer. By this time, barely half an hour after laying foot in Leh, the cold had already F*&%$# up my toes to the extent to not feel anything for the next few days. The first news we got from the organizer was what we had heard in Delhi. ‘Zanskar is blocked and the government has banned activities downstream’.

Okay, enough for the first day. We huddled up near a gas heater in the hotel, while sipping on some hot yak milk tea. We were provided with a room for the night at a nearby accommodation. All done, we gathered in the room to discuss plan B for the next few days in Leh. Good night.

Day 2:

We woke up and immediately I noticed the frost on the window glass. The moisture in the room had frozen on the windows. First for everything, I was immediately mesmerized by the intricate pattern ice tended to have. Okay, so after a warm comfortable sleep we were ready to beat the cold. Once outside, we could notice that our body had “somewhat” acclimatized to cold. No tap water in Leh in winter; so don’t expect luxury of running water. You’ll be provided with a bucket of ‘hot’ water, which is normal water ‘feeling’ hot. We were then off to the hotel to meet the organizer, he had his own Plan-B for the situation. He claimed to take us to Nubra valley and Hemis national park, home of the rare Himalayan snow leopards. Our calculations were that, it would be a waste of money to do only two things for the cost of the whole trek. So, we opted out of his itinerary and took refund. We also made friends who liked our approach to the situation, a couple from Hyderabad who incidentally became best of friends over next the few days. So, now we are left in the streets with enough cash, more than enough cold and no idea as to what next.

Our immediate requirement was clear, to find shelter for the next few days. By then it was around 11.00 in the morning and we headed out hunting for a room. Since it was the season when Leh has the least footfall, it was kind of difficult to get a room as most of the hoteliers had shut shop for the season and the remainder were booked. Finally, we did manage to find an accommodation. We stayed with a family who rented out their son’s room to us. So accommodation set, what next?

We set out on a walk to the main market. We made a few enquiries around with the locals, about places of interest in and around Leh. We were immediately made aware of the ongoing Gustor festival at Spituk monastery. We immediately set out for the festival. Hired a cab and off we went. This monastery happens to be right across the Leh airport and has a commanding view of the runway. Looked like the whole of Leh had descended to the monastery. The road leading to the monastery was blocked a mile away due to the surge of vehicles and people coming to the festival. Chill, we ain’t scared to walk a few hundred yards. We passed through various stalls that were selling festive items and tents that served hot tea and lunch. The locals, all had a peculiar warmth in their sun burnt faces: so welcoming and refreshing.

As we walked, an air force plane flew past us to the runway. All ration to Leh is carried out by air in the winter as the roads are closed due to snowfall. The festival was one of a kind experience, something we probably had watched only on TV: Horns, colorful masks, bells, buddhist monks and their humming of prayers. Nice, we sat among the devotees and enjoyed the festivities happening in the courtyard. After it was done, we headed back to the parking. But this time, we stopped for lunch in one of the many tents. Ah, scrumptious, we filled our belly and topped it off with a hot tea. We were set for the next few hours. We headed straight to the main market since we had no other plans yet. Walking around the place, there were quite a few small stupas scattered around the main market area. We stepped into a few shops for the sake of buying souvenirs. At no time did we feel as being outsiders in Leh, pretty easy to mingle among the residents.

Okay done for the day. We walked back to our homestay and settled down. At dinner, it was decided that we eat something what the locals prefer. Not knowing what it was, we just told the landlady to serve us ‘whatever the locals eat’. Yeah, that’s it. In came a bowl of steaming hot thukpa for each of us. More like a thick soup mixed with chunks of meat and lots of vegetables. So much, for not knowing what the locals eat. Blah, it certainly did not satisfy my hunger and I ended up eating my sister’s share, as well as a serving of rice. Okay done for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a good day.

Day 3:

We had done a little socializing in the town last evening and ended up getting a car guy to take us to places around Leh. His was a comfortable Tata Aria. We left to Pangong Tso, A bloody massive lake situated across India and China. We were told by the car guy that it was the lake or place where the last scene of the movie 3-Idiots was shot. Oh okay! We didn’t know that, didn’t care either. Enroute to pangong we passed through the school where the Phunsuk Wangdu from that movie resided. Also, we passed through lakes converted into ice hockey rinks. Ice hockey seemed to have a good following there. But as the driver noted, not much was done to develop the sport.

It was quite a long journey, we took a pee stop at some barren place. Tanks emptied, and what we saw was a vast barren stretch of land. So off we were back in the Aria. We could see snow filled peaks in the distance getting nearer with every passing kilometer. And after a while we were at Chang La, a pass situated at 17688 ft or 5360mts above sea level. Another pit stop, this time it was because of the snow. We stopped just to feel snow, because Why not! Okay my sister barely stepped out of the vehicle only to get back in. It seems she felt a jolt of extreme cold ride in her spine. Ha, rightfully the lostlander, who lost her senses in the cold. Kid me not, every breath there took an effort, the altitude made us tired for every step we took.

Okay Chang La conquered, next stop was Pangong tso. Maybe an hour or so from changla, we reached Pangong. So much excitement to get on a frozen lake.. So we spent a while there clicking pictures, admiring the beauty of the place. It has been the closest I have been to China. So long to Pangong, we headed back to civilization.

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A milestone at the Pangong tso

We were dropped off at Shanti Stupa, a major tourist attraction in leh. Thank god, it was winter and no tourist to crowd the place. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was around 5:30.p.m., so we walked back from there to our home, through the desolate streets of Leh. Not a single soul was seen loitering in the evening. It was getting insane cold as the darkness loomed over…

Oh, I forgot to tell about the magnetic hills of ladakh. Our Aria-man took us to this place called as the magnetic hills where cars and others wheelers defy gravity. Stop your car on the slope and watch it slowly roll up the slope defying all known logic of gravity. After this, we were taken to our beloved river which gave haath at the last minute, Zanskar. Or it was rather the confluence of Indus and Zanskar. We did actually go down to river bank when a police van appeared out of nowhere asking us to leave the spot because of the section 144 or curfew imposed in the area (remember the landslide that made us change our plans? That one!).

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The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

Okay lucky enough not to end up in a police station I guess. The road enroute to this place is somewhat good, vast stretches of dry land with snow filled peaks in the distance. Our Aria-man was kind enough to tell us that these vast stretches served as testing grounds for Mahindra vehicles in high altitudes and that they have tested almost all their vehicles there. This was quite a day actually, we’ve been driving the whole day. For lunch we stopped at this particular town which looked dreamy, with shops lining both sides of the road the entire town’s length.

To be continued…

You can also read my version of the same trip. Click here to read.

A mind numbing winter experience in Ladakh

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!