A Walk to Remember
By Natascha Shah
I had read about it online, sitting in my warm bed, at home, in Delhi. Seen numerous pictures of people posing in front of a frozen waterfall and pulled my blanket over my head every time I read, Freezing in minus 20 degrees, but the Frozen River Trek had been calling my name since a long time mostly in the form of my closest friend Prerna, who repeatedly insisted it is going to be legendary, and so it was.
The Zanskar region in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir is home to the Zanskar river, which freezes in winter, into a beautiful route, which is used as a trail by locals to reach remote villages such as Naerak, Lingshed and further. What is a way of life for locals, becomes an adventure sport for tourists in the form of a 8 Nights/9 Days trek starting from Leh, covering Chilling, Sumdo, Tibb, Shingra, Naerak and back.
Walking on thin ice
When we began our journey, we were a group of strangers, unsure of being able to complete the trek, as the chadar (sheet of ice) had not been forming well due to the warm weather and many groups had returned half-way. We did not know what walking on ice felt like or how many times we might slip-hoping to return back in one piece, hating our gumboots, unable to breathe in the multiple layers of warm clothes, missing fresh water and warm beds-but as soon as we set foot on ice, our worries melted away and all we thought of was not falling! Everyone literally lived in the movement, focusing hard on that single, most important thing- balance.
We set out each day, early in the morning, after numerous cups of hot tea and a heavy breakfast (Pancakes, eggs, chapati, porridge, veggies- quiet a spread!). The group would break after a while each walking at their own pace and meet up for lunch, mid-way, which mostly was macaroni or soupy noodles and then walk again. And when after six to seven hours of struggling (the first day is all about the struggle) we reached the campsite and saw the tents, we had to refrain from breaking into a dance! The second day is easier and from the third day onwards one gets used to it and forgets all about the ice. This is when we actually started soaking in the surrounding views and could not stop admiring the gorgeous beauty of nature! Miles and miles of white, surrounded by stark brown gorges with shades of black and grey. The ice that we walked on changed shades many times, depending upon its consistency- grey, white, light blue, transparent. The Chadar had broken in parts and sometimes we walked beside sparkling blue water, the sound of it gushing like that in the absolute barren landscape was exhilarating.
Naerak and the locals
On day four we reached Naerak, which was to be our point of return. The base camp was a few miles from a beautiful, magnanimous frozen waterfall. We also had the option of visiting the village, which was a one hour climb and also offered a satellite phone. Although it was a long trek and the climb to the village was a steep one, we did not want to miss it. By now we had befriended most of the porters and one of them lived up there, besides making a call home was also important. That HAD to be the most challenging climb of my life, Ladakh with its high altitude and dry climate is not really the best place to climb mountains. It was well worth it though. Naerak is breathtaking. There were exactly two houses, one telephone room and some animals. Motup, our porter took us inside his house, introduced us to his family and offered us some fresh chang - a local drink made of fermented rice, wheat or barley water. The one we had was made of Barley. It did not smell too appetising but tasted great. We also saw the yaks and came back before sunset.
The locals are the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever come across. By the time we reached Naerak we had spent four days with our guides and porters and they had now become like family. They would give us warm water and tea whenever we asked, coffee in bed, delicious hot meals, they carried our luggage and held our hands when we crossed a particularly nasty patch, reached the camps before us and set up our tents and sleeping bags, climbed unbelievably steep gorges to gather firewood. They shared stories with us besides a bon fire. It is a hard life for them. Most of them belong to Lingshed which is further ahead of Naerak. It is the remotest village in Asia- landlocked for most of the winter season. The porters do as many treks as they can in the three months that the Zanskar is frozen. They earn a mere INR 650 a day for all the hardwork. Their wives and children stay in the village and look after the house and the cattle. The villages don't even have the basic amenities like electricity and water. If someone falls seriously ill, the nearest big hospital is in Leh. But when they talk to you, they are all smiles their spirits do not reveal their hardships, the only reminder is the lines on their faces.
A Wellness Journey
The return journey was easier and just like that eight days came to an end and it was time to go back. As I try to summarise the experience, I find myself at loss of words. It was a wonderful experience! Not for the adventure or the the travelling, or the numerous Instagram moments! I feel that everyone should go for a trek at least once in their lives for the mental and emotional journey it takes you through. It truly is the best form of meditation. Trekking teaches you some important lessons in life. It makes you fall in love with small simple things, with nature. It makes you believe in the goodness of people, in love, in life. It teaches you how to adapt to your surroundings, how to adjust to changes. You might miss your bathroom on the first day but by the end of it you will be a pro at doing it in the open. The tent will soon feel warm and comfortable and washing your own dishes will no longer feel like a task. You will wake up and sleep on time for at least a month after you are back, you will want to eat healthy and walk everyday. It is some form of sorcery, but I am not complaining. I came back feeling fresh and healthy.
It was a wellness journey that not only worked on my physical fitness, but also on my mind and ultimately my soul. It was all about determination, strength, focus, learning and self discovery. I knew I could walk long distances without feeling tired, but i did not know how to walk on slippery surfaces. For I am someone who slips easily. I knew what to wear when it snows but I had no idea what minus temperature felt like. Being someone who does not like to talk or interact much, I did not know how to survive with a group of 15 people without coming across as uptight or rude. I missed my bed.
But I forgot all this and noticed only the beauty around me. The freshness in the air that gently brushed against my cheeks and pinched my nose, the stillness that surrounded, revealing myths, secrets and prayers in it's silent whispers. The stars, each with a distinct sparkle, form and fragrance. I was in a sacred place where heaven existing beyond every horizon.
I was also living in the moment, happy and free from thoughts like a child, watching the sky, the clouds transforming into a turtle and then a scorpion. Uninhibited, calm, alive. Making friends with strangers, those with the kindest eyes and biggest smiles. Singing, dancing, sharing stories or simply watching the stars shoot across the sky.
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PLAN YOUR TRIP
You can book it online through Adventure Nation: www.adventurenation.com
It will cost INR 20,000 approx (does not include air fair). Easy booking, friendly team, great guides and value for money!
Decathlon (www.decathlon.in) and Columbia have stores in all major Indian cities and stock some great gear for extreme temperatures. These can be bought at much lower prices from stores in Leh itself.
All the preparations need to be to cope up with the cold, the walking bit is comparatively easy.
Gum Boots are the best for this trek and the smartest thing is to buy them from a hardware store in Leh itself. We bought it from Leh for INR 350.
The best time to do it is in January and February.