The Chadar Trek has been in the spotlight amongst trekking enthusiasts for a while now. But have you ever wondered how the route was discovered, where it stands today and if it will be there at all tomorrow?
Young children make their way across Chadar, navigating the frozen river and covering a distance of 100 km by foot to reach a school from their home village which remains nestled in the Zanskar region, cut-off from the rest of the world. These villages have remained isolated deep within the mountains for centuries and represent ancient Tibetan and Buddhist culture while also showcasing their agility to adapt to the environmental conditions around them. In 1979, a single road was paved to connect this region to Kargil. Prior to this, trekking through high and treacherous mountain passes was the only way out of the valley.
Come winters and this road also proved to be inaccessible with snowfall making it impossible for vehicles to pass through. Did this mean that the locals had no way out during the winters? The mountain people are more clever than that and they forged an unthinkable path out of the valley. Walking on a 100 km long frozen river.
The Zanskar river cuts through the monstrous Himalayan canyons, adding a shade of vibrant turquoise to the otherwise barren landscape. In winters, extreme climatic conditions freeze the top layers of the river. This forms a thick sheet of ice on the river, commonly referred to as Chadar. Chadar has allowed people in the region to access the nearest road even during winters, making it the only way out. Now walking on Chadar is not as easy as it might sound. Over the years, locals have developed their technique of treading on something as fragile as ice. It is now almost second nature to them and they move with grace and consistent speed over the frozen river, completing the distance in two to four days. The route is treacherous to say the least and only someone with complete knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem can safely navigate around it.
Caves are common in the canyons that surround the river and have provided shelter to the Zanskari who were traversing the Chadar for centuries. Black layers of soot on the cave ceilings are testament to the many fires that kept people warm over the years.
Trekkers on Chadar
For centuries, Chadar was solely a trade route for the locals in the Zanskar region before trekkers discovered the trail. Almost forty years ago, Olivier Follmi, a photographer from Europe visited the Zanskar region and his photographs along with the writings played a major role in the advent of tourism in the region. While the 80s saw a handful of foreigners trek the Chadar, now trekkers from everywhere throng the route between January to March, when the river is frozen to the optimal level. With a number of trekking organisations offering the Chadar Trek, it is no longer as inaccessible as it once was. Anyone with a high level of fitness and endurance can attempt the trek and experience the feeling of walking on a frozen river. The activity no longer remains something that is known only to the Zanskaris and every winter, the valley sees more trekkers than the previous one.
With the new road to the Zanskar region rapidly progressing, a lot is at stake. While this means better access to emergency medical care, resources and infrastructure, it could also bring other changes in the region. The indigenous people of Zanskar hold a rich and ancient cultural heritage which has remained isolated from the fast paced developments everywhere else in the world. While the road to Kargil in 1979 and tourism brought in elements of globalisation to the region, their traditional practice and culture remain intact even as of today. What makes the region and its people unique is their well preserved civilisation and customs which stand at a risk in the face of the new road. The road will inevitably accelerate the rate of interaction with outsiders and bring rapid changes, which is a cause of concern to the Zanskaris.
However, there is a bigger concern at hand. Global warming, climate change, degradation of the ecosystem and depletion of resources pose a far greater threat to the region currently. With the rapid rise in temperatures across the world, the river is not freezing like it used to before. For it to be walked and trekked upon, it needs to be frozen to the optimal level which makes it a solid base. Additionally, unmindful trekking practices have been adding to this environmental burden. Tourism and trekking have, no doubt, brought in some much needed livelihood to the locals. But, it has been observed that improper waste disposal mechanisms by many trekking groups have been leaving behind a trail of trash, largely consisting of plastic. So, if you are trekking to the Chadar anytime soon, please ensure you do so mindfully. Collect any plastic waste you generate in your backpacks and dispose them once you return to the base.
Sustainable trekking and tourism practices play a key role in preserving such ecosystems which are pristine and hold cultural heritage that could be lost very soon if not acted upon. As interesting as Chadar’s route and history may be, it is more important to ensure that these places are not subject to degradation and rapid depletion of resources which is adversely affecting the lives of the locals and the ecosystem as a whole.