Note that the trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on trail and weather conditions. In rare conditions the Chadar may be impassable, or very dangerous, requiring a change of itinerary.
We begin all our Ladakh treks in Leh so it is your responsibility to get your ticket to Leh, see our Delhi-Leh travel advice.
Day 0 - Arrive Delhi
You should arrive in Delhi on Saturday OR very early morning Sunday (before 3am), with at least 4 hours between arrival in Delhi and departure to Leh, to allow for some delays; flight-disrupting winter fog in Delhi is common. Bring a magazine or book and some patience.
Day 1 - Arrive Leh 3500m
The cold air will take your breath away, and you will definitely feel the altitude. We meet you at the airport and head to a comfortable centrally heated hotel. After a late breakfast, we take a slow stroll around Leh, with its old palace dominating the old bazaar. We sort out boots and other gear today and tomorrow.
Day 2 - Leh 3500m
This is our second day to explore the alleyways of historic Leh, and the striking Indus valley with its snowy backdrop that surrounds it, visiting some of the ancient forts and gompas of the Tibetan Buddhist world. It is a piece of central Asian history, the fort and palace, colorful gompas, the mosque, back alleys with steaming Muslim bread and tiny antique shops tucked away, colorful fruit and vegetable bazaars, polo fields ... and of course, the 11 am ice hockey match!
Day 3 - Drive to Chilling and trek to Tilad Do camp 3100m
Mornings in Leh in any season are special, with the harsh high Himalayan light softened by the dust in the air. In winter, the call to prayer from the mosque wakes you gently. We also move gently, with plenty of time today for what we need to achieve.
Breakfast is a final touch of civilization then we move, driving through the suburbs of Leh, then along the Indus valley. The road climbs slowly past Spitok Monastery, and bus loads of Ladakhi kids heading for where the Indus has been diverted into shallow pools for skating. We reach about 3700m where we normally stop to stretch our legs and take in the view behind. Leh nestles at the foot of the Ladakh range, its location dictated by the high route to China behind. From here you can really see how geography dictates history.
We drive on, stopping at historic Alchi or Basgo then returning to to the Indus again to its confluence with the Zanskar. A dirt road from here takes us to a little beyond Chilling, as far as the jeep can go. Then it is on the ice and time to find your ice gait. If arriving early then you can explore up the side valley where the firewood comes from, but be aware the ice is rather different from the main Chadar (yes, Jamie has broken through a number of times!).
The camp is on a sandy plateau to one side of the Zanskar, where on this first day our tent will have been erected for us. We will introduce you to camp routines and our warm and cozy dining tent, followed by dinner, soup and a good, varied vegetarian meal. Evenings in the dining tent, which is big enough to stretch your legs but small enough to be easily warmed, are comfortable.
Day 4 - Trek to Gyalpo camp 3170m
Waking, a shock? We hope not too much! The morning cold is eased by the heater firing up in our communal tent, and soon hot washing water. Breakfast call is 7.30 - breakfast is as much hot coffee or tea as you can drink, eggs to order (fresh while they last, then powdered) fresh baked bread, jam and honey. Departure time is normally around nine, and the days soon assume a familiar pattern. The local guide goes ahead with the trekkers, followed by our porter team. It is essential always to stay with our guides. This is the only trek in the world where the trail, literally, vanishes beneath your feet.
The way - for there is no trail - is always interesting and we must stick together, and at times the guide will have to scout the best route meaning waiting around and so you must have plenty of warm layers to throw on, and of course, spare socks. The ice conditions are too varied (and beautiful) to list, but there are one or two things to bear in mind. You will find yourself rapidly relaxing as you walk, enjoying the views; watching for wildlife. Look out particularly for snow leopard prints, Ibex on the gorge walls, and the crazy 'Dipper' birds that dive from the ice into the river, turning over pebbles looking for edibles. You will(/might) develop a sense of the safe and unsafe ice, and learn to catch yourself if you slip. Be sure to use your poles if you want to sound the ice. Your feet are unclean, and although the gods who inhabit the ice will allow you to walk, to stamp with your foot is not acceptable to them (thus of course you never use the ice as a toilet).
We lunch on pilaf, or Zanskari Kiu (dumpling stew) bread, cheese, jam, biscuits. Some days we can only have hot tea and an uncooked lunch. The ice conditions change quickly and what takes an hour at noon can take three hours by 3pm. We do not rush; but we do not dawdle. If you hear Zanskaris calling down the valley, particularly at the corners, don't worry; they are screaming to scare away the demons who lurk in the ice.
By 3-4pm we should be in camp on a plateau above the river. Today we start putting up our own tents, the porters gather firewood, and soon the tea is ready.
Day 5 - Trek to Dib Gufa 3225m
This is a stunning day as the river starts to curve and you can see the uphill slope of the ice as we ascend the river into Zanskar. We pass incredible waterfalls on our left, normally frozen into aquamarine ice cliffs. The waterfalls were said to have come from a river given to local people who visited Tibet centuries ago to plead for water for their barren land. They were given a box which they were told they must open only on their return home. The curious Zanskaris were nearly home when one of them opened it; out jumped a tiny fish, and the river sprung from the ground high above here. Also today we will probably have to climb briefly above the river - on the sharp bends the swiftness of the current breaks up the ice.
Lunch is on a natural stone bench by the river, and camp is near one of the many caves that are blackened by centuries of use by the fires of locals. Our porters use these caves to cook and sleep in. We opt to use tents because of the dust and smoke in the caves; tents are cooler, but cleaner.
Day 6 - Trek to Neraks camp-teahouse 3390m
Another spectacular day which is our biggest one yet. Crags seem to leap up from the frozen river surface, and ibex can usually be seen defying gravity far above. After lunch we pass the 'incense tree', so called because the locals use its branches to burn in their morning rituals, and the prayer flag draped tree marks the entrance to Zanskar proper. The porters will normally take a few twigs from the tree, then tear a small piece of prayer flag to wrap it in, and present it to you. Welcome to Zanskar!
Twenty minutes later we turn a corner, and there, high above the river, is the bridge that links Zanskar with Ladakh, and Neraks village with Lingshed Monastery - in summer. Then the valley gorge opens up, and we see the small huts that mark some of the summer grazing of the Neraks villagers. The village is far above. A trail is normally beaten through the snow to these huts, where we camp. And rum is possible!
Day 7 - Trek to Scarak Tow 3400m
We leave early today as this stretch of river is, well, 'interesting'. Steep walls and narrow stretches make for some challenging conditions. By days end, though, we will be camped betond the Oma Chu, the 'Milk river' that joins up with our summer Zanskar trek route high above. The spires of rock above us have to be seen to be believed.
Day 8 - Trek to Pidmo 3500m
Another amazing day on the ice, and a long one, but we have a warm Zanskari kitchen to look forward to tonight. The Zanskar climbs and curves out of the gorge today, onto the start of the plains around Padum. Early in the morning here, what the early Arctic explorers call 'frost smoke' rises gently. Soon on our right we can see the summer route climbing away to the Parfi La. The last hour or so can be a true ice puzzle, as we need to skirt the road-building and cross the river at a wide and flat place. Once home, though, we stay with villagers that have made us welcome; summer, winter, fall and spring, for many years.
Day 9 - Trek to Zangla
Not a hard day if there is a trail, but in fresh snow, it may be. We descend and cross the Zanskar then slowly climb and traverse the wide plateau - that Gibraltar-like rock pinnacle in the distance is the fort above Zangla. Soon the main Himalayan barrier appears on the horizon, and you can make out Pishu over on the right. Then Zangla proper comes into view, sprawling below avalanche strewn slopes.
Zangla has hordes of children, they seem to be everywhere; running, skiing, sledging on shovels. We also will try and visit the 15th century fort with its ancient prayer rooms, where the Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma de Koros spent the winter of 1823 studying Tibetan. We might visit the thriving village nunnery for the morning ceremony.
Day 10 - drive to Padum
Taking a jeep, if the road allows, we drive to Padum and explore some of the gompas nearby in the huge, open valley. We may stay in Padum but will probably return to Zangla.
Day 12 - Zangla
We explore further around Zangla.
Day 13-17 - Trek to Tilad Do and drive to Leh
The same way back? Well, technically. In fact the Chadar changes by the minute, and the colors and perspectives all change, and yes, it is slightly quicker downhill. We camp in different places, and hope to visit another ancient monastery, if conditions allow. We do know that the Chadar will be as challenging on the return trip. At least we have plenty of time for those problems, and we do know that Angchuk and his jeeps will be waiting for us when we climb stiffly off the ice, the Chadar, one of the great adventures completed!
Day 18 - spare day
For all those imponderables but if everything has gone well we expect to be in Leh.
Day 19 - depart
We take you to the Leh airport, goodbye to this kingdom in the sky.