Embarking on a journey sets us on a fixed goal. Whether it is to climb a mighty peak or to simply reach a destination, the end is what keeps us going. Each step thereafter guides and motivates us towards our aim. How does it feel though, when a journey remains unfinished?
It may leave us with a void, a sinking feeling, a hunger to come back. Sometimes though, the journey itself can be a greater experience than what the destination has to offer.
I had been planning to go for the Chadar trek for the last three years. But finally, my stars aligned and here I was. I can describe the experience in one word- Surreal, but the trek was rich with elements of its own. It wasn’t just the mesmerising landscape, mind numbing temperature, or the thrilling walk that made it so phenomenal, but the simplicity of Zanskari people and their adaptability and acceptance of the harsh challenges is what captivated me the most. Looking back at the inhuman level of cold we lived through and the risks we took everyday, the trek did make me question my love for the mountains.
The journey began way before we took-off for Leh. It's a mental escapade to prepare for this extraordinary adventure. Every time I visited the Decathlon store to buy gear, my imagination took me further to virtually envision the challenges that Chadar would throw. Though I prepared well but the unpredictability of this trek is what makes it so special.
As far as the route history is concerned, the formation of thick ice during winters on the Zanskar river facilitates the inhabitants to use it as a bridge to connect to the other side and gather supplies for the coming months.As the story goes, trekking through Chadar was so risky and unpredictable back in the days that every villager would make sure to clear his debts and dues before starting the trek, just in case the river swallows them during the journey.
For me, Chadar was a long awaited dream. Although I had obsessively imagined the trek many times over, but the actual feeling of walking on shimmering white ice with water gushing a few inches below my feet was incomparable.
Having particularly chosen the early dates for the trek, we hoped to experience Chadar in its virgin glory before it would be trampled by thousands of eager explorers.
There was a downside to our brilliant planning though, something that I didn't see coming. On the first day itself as we arrived at the road head for Chadar in Chilling Sumdo, our trek leader who we fondly called Tashi Aacho ( big brother Tashi) informed us that the river might not be completely frozen and we will have to test our luck on how far we can make it. The rising global temperature and excessive construction work in the valley showed us it’s dirty face now- dark and bare.
This information was further confirmed by the returning trek groups who couldn’t even make it beyond the second camp. While I had initially planned to explore further to the far flung villages of Zanskar valley, this news was extremely heartbreaking. All that I hoped for now was at least a rigid Chadar formation.
Henceforth, every day came with a question of how far would we make it but the river conditions only diminished my hopes further. The ice paths were unstable and at some places virtually non existent. We had to detour through intimidating landscapes of massive canyon walls, climbing on scarily narrow routes to get across. All of this along with our heavily laden backpacks and rubber boots. The prematureness of Chadar was not just visible but could be felt with each passing step as we held onto our life dear!
After our third day into the trek, we reached Dibb campsite from where we were the first batch of trekkers for the season. The difficulty levels of the trek peaked now but our will to push further and more importantly the trust built by our guide kept us in high spirits. We yearned to see how far this journey would take us.
As our hopes of finishing the trek seemed thinner, I realised how everyday could be my last on this paradise. I remembered a very profound quote by an anonymous writer- What if after you die god asks you:”So, how was heaven?”
And heaven it was, right there as I took a quick look of where I stood at that moment. The mountains towered around me and the river stayed frozen, as if wanting me to tread further, as far as my courage could take, welcoming me in its unknown land. I realised that my anxiousness of reaching the “destination” had gone and I started admiring every moment even more. The untouched beauty of Chadar was a reward in itself and I marvelled at how gifted I was.
Not sure of what the future holds, from there on, I decided to absorb each and every sight and make the risks of the terrain absolutely worthwhile.It was time to capture the overwhelming beauty with my camera
As we gained momentum into the trek, the route became more challenging, however under the expert guidance and thorough know how of our trek guide, we were able to maneuver our way safely. Tashi Acho had covered Chadar over 500 times and gave us just the right amount of motivation to sail through the tough ground. We reached the Day 4 campsite safely and being the first batch of trekkers to have come this far, we were filled with immense exhilaration.
Day 5,finally brought us up close to our dream of witnessing the famous Nerak waterfall live.We couldn't be grateful enough for this moment. As we trekked the last few strenuous kilometres,everything I had imagined for the last three years about the trek flashed in front of my eyes . How eagerly I had waited to see this waterfall and have my own moment of glory there, just like the umpteen photographs I saw of people posing around it and couldn’t wait for one of my own.
We trekked closer to the fall, the view grew more enchanting and my moist eyes thanked me a thousand times for this splendid beauty.Finally, we were there. The magnificence of the waterfall struck me as I recalled the dangers we passed through to be finally blessed with this amazing hidden secret of the Zanskar mountains.Our Chadar trek completed here.
We had plans to go further to Lingshed village and experience the lifestyle of local Zanskari community.Next day, we woke up to heavy snowfall but were determined to trek ahead. As we cautiously made our way along the narrow ice paths, we noticed Tashi Acho with a grim expression.It didn’t take me long to understand the situation.The river bed ahead had a huge gap in its formation and the only way to cross it was to step in frigid waters and risk hypothermia.
Chadar had finally closed its doors for us. It had to be the end of our journey.
This frozen river, unintentionally taught me the wisest lesson of my life so far. Travel and adventure are not things that can be enjoyed at our will, but experiences which require our complete focus in the moment.It is imperative that we live each and every day to the fullest, knowing and acknowledging the unpredictability of life in such extreme situations.
This trek made me understand the intensity of knowing how a journey is far greater than the destination itself. While traveling puts us into a state of being open to what the world can offer, the movement to a different environment allows us a unique perspective of what lies around us and our own nature within.Besides most importantly, I learned to respect nature itself and how not to pin my own aspirations upon the will of the mountains.
I now believe that travelling is not just for “pleasure” or to mark our conquests of destinations covered on this planet. It is an experience we give ourselves to make a journey inwards and realise our truest selves.