Practical Guide to Chadar Trek
July 15, 2011
Chadar Trek is arguably one of the wildest trek in the world. Walking on ice is an ultimate experience for an adventure lover.
Chadar means layer. Chadar in Chadar Trek refers to the layer of ice formed over Zangskar river during extreme winter.
Chadar Trek route since ages has been the only way in and out of Zangskar valley during winter when all other ways remain blocked due to snow. It is also the trade route for Zangskaries (people from Zangskar Valley). One can find some of the caves on the route named after ancient monks.
The Zangskar trek is actually, over Zangskar river from Chilling to Padum. While Chilling is about 60 Km (westward )from Leh, Padum is about 240 K from (Eastward) Kargil. Zangskar connects the two places.
Chadar Trek route has been the lifeline for the people of Zangskar during winter, since ages. All the roads connecting to Zangskar remain blocked in winter due to heavy snowfall at high passes. Since ages, it has been the only connection for Zangskaris to Leh.
Chadar Trek is a trek over frozen Zangskar River. It is arguably the wildest in the world due to following reasons:
1. Unpredictability : Be it the snowfall, be it the temperature or be it the chadar (ice layer). a little bit of change in any of these can change a lot in the route.
Snowfall, if heavy, can cause avalanche and break the chadar, which means, one has to climb up the rocks to cover distance. But due to snowfall, the rocks also become very dangerous as you may slip while walking!
A little bit of increase in temperature can melt the chadar or make it thin enough make walking over it dangerous. If one fails to identify the places, one can surely go down the Zangskar river, never to be discovered again. The better way is to climb up the rocks. Climbing is a tough and risky affair in itself.
Chadar itself will never show you the same face on any two given days. There are places where, it becomes impossible to climb, unless you have special training and equipments. If the chadar is weak or not formed in any of these places, one can get stuck for good amount of time.
2. Isolation: The valley and the route is completely isolated. So, if one gets stuck somewhere, no help can be expected. One can carry satellite phone. But rescue helicopters are very costly and there are no medics on the way. One needs to carry the food stock for the trek. At a couple of places in the route there are villages where one can top up. But these villages are also about 1-3 hrs of climb from the actual route.
3. Extreme weather: 25 to 30 degree Celsius below freezing point is not an easy affair. Frostbites are common affair in case proper care is not taken.
4. Walking through water: At places one may have to walk through the water. The flowing water carries chips of ice which are sharper than the best knives we have ever used. Bruises and cuts becomes regular affair in that case.
Cultural and Historical Importance
The route was opened to public in early 90s. Before that, only the localites and the army had the permission to use this route. So, naturally, the exposure to outside world is less for the Zangskaris. This is the reason why you can discover the unadulterated, rather less adulterated Tibetian culture. About ten thousand of the Zangskaris have preserved the almost forgotten culture.
The Buddhist influence in the region had started from 200 BC. It was in 7th century that Tibetian imposed Bon in the area. Then again in 8th century when Tibet accepted Buddhism, the influence was regained. Since 15th century, Zangskar was more or less independent. In 1822, it was invaded by a coalition. In mid-20th century, due to border conflicts between India, Pakistan and China, it was closed to public.
Ladakh lost about two thirds of it’s territory to Pakistan (Baltistan) and China (Aksai Chin). Ladakh and Zanskar, despite a disruptive history of internal wars and external aggressions, have never lost their cultural and religious heritage since the 8th century. Thanks to its adherence to the Indian Union, this is also one of the rare regions in the Himalaya where traditional Tibetan culture, society, and buildings survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Importance of the trek remains in the fact that even today, the valley is among the remotest of place inhabited by human.
Wildlife: Snow leopard, one of the endangered species dwells in the region. If can find pug marks on the way and if lucky enough can sight one of the huge cats at night!
The trek is gradually losing it’s importance. A road is under construction, from Chilling to Padum. Last January, the road had reached a couple of Kms beyond Chilling towards Padum. Similarly, this road is also under construction from the other end, i.e. from Padum, towards Chilling. It is not yet clear how much will it take. Once the road is made, it’ll surely make the life of Zangskaris easier. And tourist flow will be higher.
But it also threatens the existence of the rich heritage and culture. It threatens the importance of chadar. In years to come, chadar trek will no longer remain the wildest trek in the world, Zangskar valley will no more be able to retain it’s freshnes. Probably that is the reason, a lot of tourists are comin for the trek in 2012. The trek was mostly done by foreigners. But now, Indians are also doing it. And in 2012, The number of Indians will exceed the number foriegners going for the trek. This data is very much verified from my contacts in Ladakh, where they say, bookings are huge.
Planning the Trek.
The complete Chadar trek i.e. Chilling-Padum-Chilling will take about a months time (21-22 days). But a shorter version of the trek i.e. Chilling-Nyrak-Chilling will take about 7 days. I’ll suggest this. It is so because, it is actually very difficult to sustain the environment. When I went along with my friends, I could easily see the tiredness in their eyes. Esp. while returning. And for people working, it is difficult to manage a leave so long. Moreover, one can taste the Chadar in the shorter version itself. Be it the landscape, culture, people..except for few known places like Lingshed Monastry. Lingshed Monastry popularised by Martin A. Mills, anthropologist, can be visited during summer. In fact the best time to visit Lingshed is when you can see the greenery of the village.
The trek is possible only during extreme winter when the Zangskar remains frozen. So, January end to Early March is a good time for the trek.
First 36 to 48 hours has to be spent for acclimatization. This is must. Since the density of air is low at that altitude, obviously the amount of oxygen available is low. Our body needs to adjust to this. Diamox can enhance the process of acclimatization. One can start taking Diamox from 2 – 3 days before reaching Leh and continue taking it for next 2-3 days (when you reach Ladakh).
Day 1 and Day 2: Acclimatization, roaming around the town or local sightseeing if interested. The best thing is to take rest and sleep. It helps in acclimatization.
Day 2: In the morning, start for Chilling. It’s about 60 Km from Leh on road. Takes about 2-3 hours by bus. On the way there are three places which are of tourist importance. Union of Zangskar and Indus, Guru Pathar Sahib and Magnetic Point.
Just after crossing Chilling village, the actual trek starts. You have to get down on the Zangskar and place your first step on the chadar!
A 3 hours walk will take you to Tilatsumdo, where you stay for the night.
Day 3: Start from Tilatsumdo for Deepyokma very early in the morning. If you are fast enough and if the route is smooth, you will be able to reach Deepyokma. Else, you’ll have to halt at Tsomo.
Day 4: From Tsomo or Deepyokma you can go up to Nyrak. To reach Nyrak you will have to climb up in the valley. You can plan a homestay there. Yowill discover a lot about the culture and people there.
Day 5: Climb down and return back through the same route.
It is possible to have a home stay in Chilling on the way.
In case one has more time, they can continue further to Zangla valley and return back. It’ll take at least 22 days time for the trek. If the routes are not smooth, it may take longer. You may contact me for details. Or read this chadar trek travelogue.
What to take for the trek?
Thermal Inners : 2 sets
T Shirts: 2
Normal Jackets: 1
Hollow Fill Jacket/ Fleece Jacket : 1
Skull Cap: 1
Sun Glass (100% UV protection): 1
Track Pant: 1
Wind Stopper Pant: 1
Gaiters: 1 set
Socks: Nylon, Cotton Towel, Wool: a few sets
Shoes: I recommend North Face ones, with thinsulation and goretex membrane. Smuggle it from Nepal. It’s not available in India. Keep another extra pair of normal shoes.
Sunscreen Lotion: >40 SPF
Moisturizer: Vaseline body lotion will do. My good friend Vikram explains how Vaseline moisturizer had helped him during the trek, in the below mentioned video.
Toilet Roll: Keep some extra rolls
Torch: LED Torch with extra batteries, head lamps preffered.
Duffle bag: As your luggage bag
Day Pack: A back pack
Waist Pack: for essentials like med and toileteries.
Mouth Wash: More important than toothpaste
Camera: If you are in a group, keep a mix of normal point and shoot and DSLRs. Keep extra batteries.
Here’s another video shot during the trek. Notice the equipments wore by us.
This budget is to estimate probable expenses apart from the actual trek budget. Actual trek budget will vary depending on the following:
1. No. of days of Trek
2. No. of Person in the group
3. Type of food you want during the trek. It is advisable to leave the choice to the organizer.
4. Place of stay in Leh
5. Time of trek. If one plans the trek in later half of winter, porters will charge more as they will have to work harder for firewood.
6. Good old demand and supply theory. For eg. in 2012, the demand is higher than 2011. So, the cost will obviously increase. It is advisable to hire good guide and ensure that he arranges a good crew which includes cook, helper and porters. Moreover, rates of homestay will also increase as the villages are very small.
1. Jacket: A tailored, polyfilled jacket will cost 1700 to 1900 INR. Feather Jacket will cost far higher. At times people sell chicken feather jackets in the name of goose feather jacket. You’ll become chicken if you use those in Chadar Trek. Jackets can be hired in Leh also.
2. Waterproof trouser with Goretex membrane will cost 700-900 INR. Trousers can also be hired from Leh.
3. Shoes: North Face will cost around 6000 INR if bought from Kathmandu showroom. I’m not sure how much will it cost in Leh. One can hire shoes from IMF, New Delhi also.
4. Back Pack should not cost more than 300-400. Person manufacturing jacket can make the backpack too.
5. Waistpouch can be bought. Won’t cost more than 500. Available on rent from IMF, New Delhi.
6. Very good quality woolen socks are available in Leh. Budget 300 INR.
7. Thermal Innerwears: standard ones will do.
8. Track pants: standard, quick dry. 1500 INR.
9. Medicines: 500 INR
10. Toileteries: 1000 – 1500 INR
11. Duffle Bag: 2000 INR
12. Sun glasses: 1500-6000 INR
13. Gloves and Liners: BUY from Leh. DO NOT buy from planes. They fooled us. Sold us at three times the cost at which it was available in Leh. In fact we did not, rather could not use gloves properly as it’s difficult to use it. Liners were enough.
14. Balaclava/muffler and skull cap: BUY from Leh. DO NOT buy from planes. They fooled us again. It is very much necessary.
15. Tents and Sleeping bags are usually supplied by the organisers. Ensure good quality sleeping bags are provided. Else you’ll sleep forever.
16. Headlamp: 500 INR
17. Gaiters: Available on rent from IMF, New Delhi.
18. Clamp ons: usually provided by the organiser.
19. Water Bottle: Good quality water bottles. We used swiss ones. Tsering allowed us to use his ones for the trek! So, I do not know the price.
1. Most important is to hire a good and experienced guide. Look for guides who have done this trek more than 50 times at least. DO NOT fall prey of fake guides from planes promising they have done this trek many a times. They hire cheap guides, which can be a dangerous. A good guide not only ensures safety, but also provides you information which is otherwise not available. They will keep the team entertained and motivated all the time.
2. DO NOT buy special items like balaclava, gloves, shoes from shops in Planes. They sell it at minimum three times the actual price. Everything is available in Ladakh. For shoes, you can purchase it from North Face shop in Kathmandu. For Jackets, you can get them tailored from professional mountaineers and equipment suppliers of whom some are in Kolkata.
3. If you do not work out regularly, make sure you start running an hour everyday, at least a month before the trek.
4. Medicines you should keep: Diamox, loperamide, first aid kits, paracetamol, pain killers.
5. Keep the camera batteries close to your body when not in use. They run down real fast in sub zero. Using a DSLR itself is an art in sub zero.
6. Keep some energy bars in your back pack.
7. Drink a lot of water.
8. Do not consume alcohol till the trek is over. But make sure you taste chaang, the local beer at least once, after you finish the trek.
9. For things not covered, use your common sense.
🙂 Keep chadar pollution free 🙂