If you are a trekking enthusiast, we bet you know at least one trekker friend who’s been on the Chadar trek and raved endlessly about it. Has it ever crossed your mind why it is one of the most sought-after treks in India? What makes it so special and so very different from all the other Himalayan treks? We are here to tell you just that!
The unpredictable nature of this trail brings each day with a horde of new surprises forcing you to adapt to its changing demands. Some things that do remain constant though are the fleeting presence of the sun reflecting off the thick sheet of Chadar, the piercing cold which reaches all the way to your bones, and the slippery ground which does little to hold you. Is it a wonder, then, that this trek is considered one of the most challenging in India? We can’t think of many trails in the Indian Himalayas where the challenges of the trail are also its highlights. What makes Chadar special is that it pushes you to your limits and leaves you feeling good about yourself at the end of it.
Chadar which literally translates to ‘blanket’ refers to the sheet of ice that covers the blue waters of the Zanskar River in winter, in the cold, dry landscape of Ladakh. Although Himalayan trails offer a multitude of experiences, how often do you get to say you walked on a frozen river? What the trek lacks in altitude, going up to a maximum elevation of 3,400M, it makes up for in extreme temperatures which dip down to minus 30 degrees even during day time.
We have been on this trek hundreds of times but it still does not fail to amaze us. The list of what makes Chadar special is a long one, but we have painstakingly picked out some of our very favourite highlights of the trek for you. If you aren’t already, we can guarantee that after reading this list you will be as mind-blown by this trek as we are.
Highlight 1: An Experience Reserved Only For a Few
If you are entertaining the thought of going on the Chadar trek, you can already start to pat yourself on the back because it is no easy feat. Even the thought of its extreme temperatures and difficult weather can freeze people in their tracks. The trail for this magnificent trek takes you on the slippery snow and ice of the surface of the Zanskar River. Things start to look interesting as soon as you step out of the car at Bakula, which is the trailhead for this trek. From here on out, it is one small step at a time as you master the art of walking all over again in your high rubber gumboots. Walking on the transparent sheet of ice with the bright blue river flowing at a great speed below needs one to adopt new walking techniques like the penguin walk. It’s a skid, fall, get up to try again routine on an endless loop - the constantly plummeting temperatures along with the fierce winds do little to help the process. Being on the trail of Chadar is like walking inside a massive refrigerator. The physical effort and the extreme cold make even the simplest of everyday tasks like washing hands and answering nature’s call, acts of real courage!
If these hardships do not deter you but excite you instead, you definitely need to get yourself here!
Highlight 2: Drive to Bakula
The trailhead of the Chadar trek is Bakula, around 70 kilometres away from Leh. The road trip offers magnificent views of the valley and the gigantic mountains that surround you in all directions, even before beginning the trek! We drive past the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers at Nimmu Valley, and this is a sight to behold. The emerald green waters of the Indus meet with the sparkling blue waters of the Zanskar and make for an impressive spectacle. The sharp hairpin bends make the car wind along their curves, so hold on tight and don’t fall off! As we inch closer to Bakula, the frozen Zanskar River appears and marks the beginning of this nerve-racking yet thrilling trek.
Highlight 3: Learning to Walk
The uniqueness of the Chadar trail shines in the fact that you get to learn a whole new art of walking. You learn to use a special walking technique called the ‘Chadar Shuffle’, in which you need to waddle along by mimicking cute penguins. Take a step, slip, fall, pick yourself up, and get right back to the action. It is easy to get mesmerized by the sparkling blue Zanskar River, but it’s crucial to avoid getting too charmed and dragged into its cold depths!
Rather than racking your brains about the constantly changing terrain, it’s best to be armed with the knowledge of the trail. Soft, powdery snow is the safest as boots or shoes do not slip and maintain a solid grip on the ground. White ice, formed by frozen snow, has air pockets and is prone to cracks. Grey ice has water in it which reduces its density and hence raises its weakness as well. Further, walking through slush is also not safe, as it is a sign of melting ice.
All this knowledge can be applied by using your ears - tap the frozen layer with trekking poles and listen to measure its form and thickness. It is only a matter of practice - before long you would be a master at the art of telling one form of ice from another.
Highlight 4: Time Travel
The trekking route through the Zanskar River is dotted with numerous caves. In these ancient caves, you travel back in time to the prehistoric ages when cave dwellers roamed the earth. Sitting by the soft glow of the slow-burning fire inside the dark caves offers relief against the howling winds and the harsh weather outside. The caves lull you to sleep as we watch the night sky glittering with stars, and then as dawn comes, they send you off on our arduous yet exciting journey.
The Tibb cave, which is the second campsite for the trek, offers shelter inside its yawning mouth with walls blackened by the soot of campfires. A gigantic cave appears on the way to Nerak waterfall, which serves as a lunch point for weary trekkers. These half-open shelters make for the perfect rest stops, where you get to relax and contemplate complex questions about the passage of time. We chance upon many such caves on our entire trail. What better way to dim the urban human inside us and ignite the more primal parts of ourselves than living this cave experience?
Highlight 5: Nerak Waterfall
The 5th day of the trek brings into view the Nerak waterfall. This beautiful icy spectacle will almost sweep you off your feet with its dazzling looks! The water sliding down from the rocky cliff above is frozen and gives the feeling that time has stopped. Only the blue swirls in some parts of the icefall show that the water is flowing beneath the frozen layer. You are almost illuminated by a gigantic crystal chandelier glittering in the daylight! The Nerak waterfall is a jewel on the crown of the Chadar trek, one whose brilliance is sure to restore all the lost energy in your limbs after trekking for 5 days.
The waterfall is also shrouded in mystery regarding its origin, giving you goosebumps as you try to figure out how it was formed. According to local legend, once it ran dry, and a sage travelled to Kailash to pray for water. He was instructed to carry back a pot full of water with two fish swimming inside. He placed down this pot at the location, and the fish jumped off and created this massive waterfall. In relation to this legend, the waterfall is said to have its source at Mount Kailash in Tibet. Who doesn’t love a mystical legend backing a spectacular frozen waterfall?!
Highlight 6: Geographical Wonders
The Zanskar Valley is no less than a natural art gallery with striking showpieces along its way. They are nothing less than the masterpieces we see in art exhibitions, and what’s more, they have been created by Mother Nature herself! Besides the Nerak waterfall, other frozen waterfalls also greet you along the trail, adding to the exhibition of icy artefacts. You keep getting surprised as the Zanskar River sheds one outfit and dons another! You get to see frozen air bubbles below the ice sheet, and rapidly changing geometric patterns of the melting, moving, and solidifying ice shards. The icy gorge is also flanked by mountains on either side, with rugged rocks laced with white layers of snow or ice. As you navigate the gorge, the towering mountains guide the way like ancient sages leading you to your spiritual goals. The sapphire blue colour of the Zanskar River proves to be a sight for sore eyes, and doesn’t fail to inspire These pretty sights are sure to inject you with a fresh dose of adrenaline and leave you wanting for more.
Highlight 7: Wildlife in the Area
On the Chadar trail, you get to see the inhabitants of the region who have been thriving there since historical times. When they appear, the desolate landscape becomes more lively, adding drama to the scene ! If you are lucky, you get to see the ghost of the mountains, or the snow leopard, which keeps prowling about in the shadows, yet cleverly evading the eyesight of humans. Noticing that white furry feline is sure to make your day as people travel far and wide for just a glimpse of this high altitude beauty. Mountain goats and ibex can also be spotted traversing the rock formations on either side of the frozen river and sprinting on steep paths with considerable ease. These animals are some of the wildest and most elusive creatures, and thus wary of human presence. If you can manage to capture an image of them on your camera, you can consider it to be the rarest of the rare things to happen!
Highlight 8: Local Culture
Given the difficult conditions, the local people endure immense difficulties, particularly in the winter months. During this time, when other road routes get blocked due to heavy snowfall, the local people fall back on the last resort to reach civilization- navigating the frozen Zanskar River. Ages of association with the Chadar trail have created a strong cultural rapport between humans and the harsh environment of Zanskar. Similarly, the caves make for an integral part of their lives as they offer shelter, and are termed as ‘bau’ in the local tongue.
Their impeccable fashion sense is admirable to say the least; they don traditional woollen robes called ‘Goncha’ with necklaces of colourful beads strung around their necks. It is wonderful how they tackle harsh weather but at the same time dress up like they are going to a party! On the trek, warm your heart with local hospitality which is crucial to the Zanskari culture, a blend of Indian and Tibetan cultures. When you wake up in the morning to brave the brutal cold of the trail, the local guides will offer you steaming hot butter tea to restore the colour of your cheeks.
These are only some of the highlights that lend to the Chadar trek’s popularity. We still maintain that the trek and all its wonders are best experienced first hand! Take a loot at 15 Most Glorious Pictures of Chadar Trek and decide for yourself.
So, When are you coming?