Tundup Wangail still remembers the first time he set foot on the frozen Zanskar river 40 winters ago, as a five-year-old. He remembers shivering in sub-zero temperatures and the way his father, before open fires in yawning caves, taught him that the cold was their ally. How the frozen river offered them a lifeline to reach Leh to sell goatskin, cheese and butter, and return with stocks for survival even when snow closed all land routes.
He recalls stories of the monk who angered the spirits by soiling the ice, of the cook who, nudged by a dream, saved his king by placing branches on the thawed river at night, and by morning found them encrusted with ice, sturdy enough to be used as a bridge.
Such tales, and the morals they came wrapped in, have stood generations of Zanskaris in good stead on this frozen highway, where the temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius, resources are scarce, death lurks at every step, and teamwork is crucial.
When I first walked the Chadar—a moniker for the thick layer of ice that covers the Zanskar river in winter—in 2003, the route was still one of faith and endurance. In 2007, I shared the cave (where trekkers shelter while travelling through the gorge) with Wangail and, on the surface of it, all still seemed well on the Chadar. We still sat in front of an open fire; the snow had swamped the passes; and Zanskaris still walked 90 miles on the frozen river to reach Leh. It was no surprise, though, that they now went to Leh not for trade but to take their children to school, or visit relatives.
But that wasn’t the only change. “In the four decades in between, or even since you walked this route for the first time,” Wangail says, “much more has changed than meets your eye.”
The Zanskaris’ unique winter lifestyle, the subject of several documentaries, has built and cemented this route’s position as the ultimate adventure destination. Guidebooks were quick to label this trek, which takes 10 days one way, as one of the “wildest” in the world. After all, there aren’t too many walks that pass through a dramatic gorge with frozen waterfalls, or where the route is on ice that turns mirror for sky and bouncing sunlight. The ever-present sense of danger of the ice giving way, and the primal thrill of sleeping in caves hewn by gushing water over centuries, does make it an eminently “do before you die” journey. Which is how it almost turned out for me that year.
In 2007, with the weather warmer than usual, the river remained liquid in many stretches and, more than halfway through the journey, we faced an unusually large patch of thaw. Progress meant a climb up the gorge walls.
“Duck-walking” on ice for days meant my legs were wobbly on solid ground. And they chose to give way 60ft above the river. I tumbled all the way down, my fall breaking the flimsy crust of ice on the river. Luckily, the padding in my camera bag kept me afloat.
Luckier still, Wangail was able to fish me out with the staff he was carrying. He built a fire to keep hypothermia and death at bay, stripped me and waited for my clothes to freeze, then battered them against rocks to get the ice off and make them wearable again.
He also congratulated me. According to him, the restless spirits of the mountains try to kill Chadar walkers once. “Now that you’ve survived,” he said, “the spirits of Ladakh will always watch over you.” I agreed with him then, as I do even today.
Wangail and other old-timers like him, though, could be the last generation to know the Chadar, its legends and secrets. “My children won’t need to walk once the all-weather road from Padum (the sub-divisional headquarters of Zanskar) reaches Leh,” he predicts.
Even today, the younger generation’s ears are more attuned to the boom of dynamite ripping through the gorge than the hollow knock of staff striking solid ice.
Once the road is completed, the Zanskaris can finally hang up their woollen socks and yak-hide-soled boots. The project, begun with national security in mind, will bring many changes. The road, which will bypass the string of passes on the Manali-Leh highway, will also cut the distance to Leh by more than 100km. The only high pass on the route, the 16,700ft Shinkun-la, will be traversed by a tunnel.
While the new road will almost certainly induce Zanskaris to abandon the traditional route, it is likely to draw large numbers of tourists not too keen on hazarding the Chadar for a peek into the snowy expanses of the Zanskar Valley.
Abdul Quayoom, who runs a travel agency in Leh, says bookings have shot up in the past three years. Ever-larger numbers of tourists have answered the call in recent years, armed with crampons, ice axes and energy bars as they march over the frozen ice in their quest for adventure and bragging rights. “The going is extremely good,” he says, “but I don’t know how much the river can take. And it’s going to be crazier once the road opens.”
Already, the problems of crowding show in the gorge. Skirmishes between porters for sleeping rights in caves are becoming common, as are traces of litter at traditional camping spaces. Makeshift stalls run by villagers from Lingshed and Nerak offer pit stops, with tea and Maggi.
Wangail also worries about the tourists. But his despair lies elsewhere.
“When bragging rights replace respect, bad things happen,” he says. “For now, only our legends are dying. When children complain about the cold, we ask them to zip their jackets up. And none of them know how to judge the trustiness of ice by its colour or the tap-tap of sticks on it.” Not many today believe that rolling empty bitumen barrels into the river will anger the spirits. And some porters and tourists think little before littering the ice, or even relieving themselves on it.
I was in Ladakh in December 2014 when a landslide on the Chadar forced travel agencies to call off all trips for fear of a catastrophe. Yet even as the science behind the phenomenon was discussed, some people spoke in hushed tones about the gods being angry.
The Chadar may have become a money-spinner for many, but one story seems to have survived even in the face of modern development: the legend of benevolent spirits being driven away by the actions of inconsiderate men.
When the Chadar’s spirits depart, the story goes, they’ll take the freeze with them.