While trekking past the frozen river through the Zanskar Valley and unraveling the mysteries of the Himalayas, trekkers have often felt like they’re entering into a whole new world. It captivates tourists with its breathtaking sceneries, guaranteed to leave you speechless.
During the summers, the mountains and vales are extremely sought out by the tourists for water sports like river rafting. But when the winter graces the region, the entire Zanskar River freezes and the trekking fanatics gather here to enjoy the Zanskar trek. The entire frozen river looks like a blanket of ice, locally called a ‘Chadar'. This is why the Zanskar Trek is colloquially referred to as the Chadar Trek.
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As the road to the Zanskar Valley becomes non-commutable due to heavy snowfall in the winter, the frozen river is the only route to reach the valley. The local people of the region still use the route of frozen rivers for their trade and transportation to nearby villages, where they sell goatskin, copper utensils and yak butter. This has been a practice even since before the tourists started flocking here each year, and continues to be so.
Unlike many other treks, the camping conditions are rough and the trek itself is a test of your physical and mental strength. The arduous task is repaid in full and more with the mesmerizing beauty and secrets hidden in the snow-clad Himalayas that are revealed in front of your eyes.
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The months of January and February are recommended as the best months to start this expedition. More specifically, visit from mid-January to the end of February. Sometimes even the first week of March is ideal depending on the weather conditions. The river freezes into an astounding ice sheet and the untarnished snow simply invite everyone to embark on this enthralling journey. More importantly, don’t forget to keep a tab on the weather conditions of this region regularly.
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The Zanskar Trek or the Chadar Trek is said to be one of the most demanding yet unique treks in India. You’ll be walking on the frozen river for 5 to 6 hours everyday to complete your trek. You need a moderate level of physical fitness to be able to attempt this, since you'll be covering an average of 15 to 17 kms each day in this challenging terrain. Trekkers who have done Himalayan treks can take part in this.
There are about 3 routes you can choose from to go on the Chadar trek, each longer and more pristine than the other. The route taken by most companies is the Chilling-Nerak route, taking 5 to 6 days. The overall duration of the trek is a little over 25 hours. The Chilling-Lingshed route, which is about 6 kms away from Nerak, takes up to 8 days of trekking. The longest trail of the Zanskar Trek goes up to the capital of the Zanskar region, Padum. The trek is over 12 days and around 105 kms. It’s about 16 hours on foot from Lingshed and then a small commute via taxi from Karsha village to Padum.
The Zanskar Trek or the Chadar Trek in the magnificent Ladakh is regarded to be one of the most difficult yet unique treks in the country. You should be prepared to face the harsh camping conditions and the unsettling temperatures. But unlike other Himalayan Treks, the Zanskar Trek does not have any ascending or descending terrains. Nonetheless, it isn’t to be underestimated.
The trek takes place at an altitude of 10,000 ft to 11,000 ft above mean sea level. During the day, the temperature ranges from 15°C to 20°C, and during the night time, it drops up to -25°C to -30°C. While most part of the trek involves walking, you may have to manage climbing icy rocks and boulders on the way.
There are mainly three trails to the Zanskar Valley Trek: the Chilling-Nerak route, the Chilling-Lingshed route and the Chilling-Padum route. The most chosen route is the smallest among the three, the Chilling-Nerak trail. The duration of the entire trek varies for each and every organization or company that you choose to go with. Generally, the trek lasts for about five to six days. Reporting for this trip is generally at Leh (this can also vary for different companies, but you almost always need to start from Leh no matter where you report). From Leh, you then head to Chilling where the adventure truly begins.
The trail starts from Chilling. However, in recent years, the organizers drive approximately 2 hours ahead to the first base camp which lies at the end of Chilling road, at Tilat Sumdo (10,390 ft). 'Sumdo' translates to 'the confluence', named for the meeting of a small stream with the Zanskar river at this point. After trekking for about 8 to 10 kms you reach the next prominent region, Shingra Koma, a scenic spot of rustic beauty. It's the next campsite where you get to spend the night under the open sky with the shelter of tents.
Early in the morning, you set out to the next prime region of the trek, the Tibb Cave (10,800 ft). It's around 15 kms away and one of the longest days of this journey. While trekking, you'll notice the tranquil natural caves, blankets of ice and frozen waterfalls along the way. There'll be several instances where you can spot dangling icicles made from frozen waterfalls. The big waterfall, however, is not completely frozen and has several prayer flags on the trees around it.
There’s also the frozen Nerak waterfall, gorgeous to behold and with legends that surround it. According to the myth, a holy man went to Kailash to pray for water for his people when the Nerak once dried up. He carried a pot of water with two fishes on his way back, and was instructed to not to keep it down anywhere along the way. Yet, he eventually got tired and happened to place it down at this spot. The two fishes jumped out and created this huge waterfall, and legend says that this waterfall originates back to Kailash.
This is where you get to spend your night, amidst legends and mysteries.
The next day your trail continues to the base of Nerak village (10,760 ft) which is about 12.5kms far away. Once again, you can enjoy the gorgeous frozen waterfalls, cliffs, gorges, and a gripping sunset too. Nerak is also known for its cold nights and chilling winds, so stay warm. The Bailey bridge here is the final and turning point of your trek. From here we go back to where we started, nevertheless, with the ever-changing state of natural beauty, it never feels like you're retracing your steps.
Day 4 has you going back to Tibb Cave and continuing onward to reach Gyalpo (10,550 ft). This is another enchanting campsite situated at the turn of the Zanskar River. This region is filled with walls and rock faces that look quite man-made. It is flanked by imposing peaks. And by the time the night sets in, you'll likely feel a tinge of sadness as a reminder that there's only a day left to relish this surrealistic view.
The last and the final day of the taxing yet gorgeous trek comes to an end with the final march towards Tilat Do via Shingra Koma from Gyalpo. The mystical trek ends here. And when you finally come back to where you started, you are graced with the ice melting. As a customary practice, most trekkers like to sign off by taking a dip into the cold, melted waters of the Zanskar River.
For getting a permit before embarking on this journey, it is a necessity to have medical insurance, for both Indians and foreigners. It is also mandatory that before the trek begins, every tourist must get a pre-medical checkup.
There are certain procedures that need to be followed prior to the trek. On the first day of your arrival at Leh, the entire day must be spent resting. The second day is allotted for acclimatization. This is a compulsory step in order for all tourists to get used to the change in altitude. On the third day at Leh, you can go to the SNM Hospital to get a medical checkup between 2 to 4 pm. Then, you'll be issued your permit at the Wild Life Department Office, Leh. Finally, on the fourth day, with your permit, you're allowed to begin your trekking.
The Zanskar Trek provides you with an opportunity to witness the surreal beauty of mother nature in her winter avatar. On one side, Himalayan mountains are covered with snow, and on the other side, a stream slowly freezing or melting while you trek alongside it. It's nothing short of a spell-binding panoramic view.
The Zanskar Trek is the gateway to exploring the deep-rooted culture of Zanskar. It is a blend of both Indian and Tibetan cultures. Additionally, you can also encounter exotic wildlife species like the ibex, snow leopard, and blue sheep that are found in the frozen environment.
The Zanskar Trek is one of the reasons why the course of trekking dramatically changed. It brought about better innovations and safer guidelines that are followed to date. When the trek in the frozen river was accomplished for the first time ever, it opened up a window to winter trekking, a concept that was only possible in fairytales up until then.
Dishearteningly, for numerous reasons including environmental factors like receding glaciers and global warming, the Zanskar Trek is turning out to be an endangered activity. In a few years' time, when proper roads are built and the life of the Zanskaris are more convenient during winter, the Zanskar River Trek will turn into an ancient local ritual that once used to flair up with years of activity unless it is protected and cherished now.
Is The Chadar Trek Dangerous?
Yes, the Chadar or Zanskar Trek can be dangerous. Two of the main dangers involve suffering from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) or altitude sickness, and catching hypothermia. Additionally, the changing nature of the river brings the risk of slipping on the ice, navigating through slush, or falling in ice-cold water. This is why it’s important to follow instructions and go with trained organizers.
Is The Chadar Trek For Beginners?
No, beginners shouldn’t be attempting the Chadar or Zanskar trek. The trek brings a challenging terrain to navigate, and difficult weather conditions as well. Apart from just being physically fit and mentally capable, you need to have done at least one Himalayan trek before attempting this trek.
Is The Chadar Trek Closing?
Yes, due to climate change, global warming and too much human activity in the region, the Chadar Trek could end for good. It was already suspended in early February in 2021 since the river had completely thawed out. The river’s changes are becoming unpredictable and dangerous to navigate.
What Is The Cost Of Chadar Trek?
The Chadar Trek will cost you a minimum of INR 17,000 for the 8-9 days of trekking and travel.
Is Zanskar Worth Visiting?
Oh, absolutely! Zanskar is a tiny town with a valley in its wake, and all of it is at the height of 17,900 feet!
What Is The Best Time To Do The Chadar Trek?
The best time to undertake the Chadar Trek is between mid-January and February.
How Do I Get To Zanskar?
The only way to get to Zanskar is by road. If you're starting from Delhi, you will have to get to Srinagar, then to Kargil, and continue on to the Padun-Kargil road for 250 kms.
What Language Do They speak In Zanskar?
The local language of Zanskar is 'Zanskari', which is a tibetic language that is slowly fading out of existence as lesser and lesser people speak it.