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The Chadar 2002: Fire and Ice

by Joel for Kim

SOME say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.

 Robert Frost

Joel raves about the Chadar, one of the craziest winter treks there is. Here is his diary.
We run this each year, check Our treks.

First, it was overcast, which meant the temperature rose evenly as the day progressed, in light or shadow, an even thaw; no silent gliding through the subterranean blue light at the bottom of the gorges and joyous shooting into the sun, instead, a layer of water over slick ice that could set you spinning like some crazed Pinocchio, arms and legs flailing foolishly. No pleasant snow crust to hold your feet in place but icy slush that soaked your boots and froze your toes. Then, we passed springs feeding into the Zanskar, but warmer, disturbing the ice, setting it creaking and groaning, normally safe ice could not be trusted-and this stretch narrowed and curved snake like, causing weird pressure bumps piles of clear icy plates at the edges, with powder snow covering brittle ice that dropped you a foot with a crack that echoed from wall to wall as the ice around you fractured.. not a good day.

Then, daydreaming of summer Zanskar, a slip, and I spun 180 degrees, desperately trying to move my pack to cushion my fall on the hard blue ice, nearly make it but as I hit my stick handle comes between my elbow and me and my whole weight goes on it, an effective kidney punch, and I kneel sobbing with pain on the ice as I fade in and out of consciousness, knowing from past experience I had cracked some ribs. And then the ice shelf we were following turned to mush and we were forced high above the Zanskar on awful black, slick rock, almost crying with frustration trying to force cramping limbs into non existent holds, chilled by a freezing wind which now starts. At last onto good ice, breathing slowly to try and ease the pain in my ribs-and then Punchok and Rinchen start to shout and they are running to the next bend, legs milling and sliding, sledges crashing behind them to the other porters who are throwing tsampa into the wind, "sho sho shaay" echoing from the gorge walls. The older porter, Sonam, puts a spring of juniper with a strip of prayer scarf around it in my hat, gripping my shoulder, and I look up to where he points, a string of prayer flags cracking in the wind across the gorge, and I point upstream and shout "Zanskar?" into the wind and they all shout, laughing, "Zanskar!"

I am laughing now too, making my ribs hurt more, tears of pain in my eyes mixing with windblown tsampa, and I crouch down on the ice to ease the pain and clear my eyes, no longer cursing the wind which freezes my tears, because it blows from Zanskar.


Now it was time to head back to T'chadar and I didn't want to go. I had jumped at Brian's request for an extra day in Karsha: unrealistic romantic that I was, I so much wanted to stay and wait for spring. The Himalayan barrier and the Zanskar range, the limits of the kingdom of Zangla, defined my world and were the only horizons I wanted: a warm stove, salt tea, and thick yeasty chang all I desired. But the horses Lobsang had picked to carry us to the ice were in the yard below and we were packed for an early start.

That last afternoon we climbed to the monastery, looking back every few steps to the blue white panorama unfolding behind us, and sat at the back of a puja, leaning against a wall worn smooth by centuries of worship. Here now 100 monks chanted softly, illuminated only by a single window framing snowy peaks, and as the puja progressed and our last afternoon became evening the sun marched across the room picking out images to speed us on our way, I look up and the sun is catching the face of a 10 year old in the back row, eyes round with concentration as he strains to hold up his brass gong, every ounce of his being focused on his part in the ritual. Light slanting through the steam rising from the monks' tea bowls, distributed to them, and me, by a grinning novice who trips, giggles, and is silenced by the tolerant smile of an elder, and as I sit warming my hands on my tea bowl, almost as if on cue to complete the scene, the entry curtain pulls aside and two sheepskin clad Zanskaris enter in a flurry of snow, prostrating themselves before settling next to me with hushed greetings.

All of this, ranks of monks wreathed in frosty breath as they chant, I have been here so many times, but its like I am seeing it for the first time; and more, some feeling I cannot quite place. Things exactly as they should be? Being exactly where I want to be; so many connections from end to end of my home the Himalaya, from the prayer beads I count off, a present from the Khumbu, to the kadar (kata: ceremonial white silk scarf) I drape around the maitreya, a present from Kim, this journey had given me such a feeling of continuity as I entered my 50th year. So many miles since I walked to Phaplu a year ago; so many wonderful moments with so many friends, here they say every breath is prayer, and as I rose and made my goodbyes, a simpler one then the ancient ones all around came to my lips. Let me come back.


"Downhill, easy days" Lobsang had said, and we must have only remembered the falls and the bad ice, we found we were at home on the frozen river, and with the wind behind us the Zanskar blessed us with clear skies, peaks reflected in smooth ice, moments when you glided along, forgetting the river beneath. Sublime moments, the bright turquoise Zanskar emerging roaring from the ice, gusts of wind scattering thousands of ice crystals across blue ice, tinkling in front of you magically, turning a corner to a flat sheet of green ice stretching to the next bend with the impossibly sheer faces of Zanskar peaks leaping straight out of it, Moments when you would lie and gaze down into the ice as the sun hit it, taking in all the shapes, colours and shades. And the Zanskaris, sometimes 100 or more in a day, joyously returning from Bodgaya, in single file with that crazy side to side seven dwarves gait we could never mimic, bundled in gonchas (traditional overcoat), kids sliding around them, "jullay" like gunshots crashing from wall to wall.

There always seemed to be a hand extended to me when I fell, always seemed to be hot tea appearing from somewhere, always seemed to be a place by the fire in the soot begrimed caves at the end of our days. And then the moment I had been dreading, turn the corner and the jeep sat high above the ice waiting. I stepped from white ice to blue, slid easily into the centre of the river and froze suspended over the Zanskar, looking down into the turquoise depths. Whorls and circles like the inside of a childhood marble, and stones and pebbles suspended in mid ice, perhaps ones I had thrown in over the years, wishes for things I never really needed or wanted, as I really had it all, and never even knew it.

A "thok" of a Zanskari pole sounding the ice echoing down the valley jerked me back to reality, and I looked up to see Lobsang grinning with delight at the sight of me day dreaming again. OK Lobsang, I'm coming.


The last few days in were a whirl of visiting gompas, some I had not seen for years, caught up as I always had been in treks, groups and careers; but on the Chadar every night by the fire I had waded in deep concentration through books I had not read for years and for some reason my normally cluttered head put in order all my understanding of Ladakhi history and its religion, and I found myself in Matho, Stok and Stakna able to make sense of it all. Every day the jeep would be waiting outside, and pausing only to pick up hot bread from Chang Gali we headed off.

On our last day in Ladakh, coming back from a weekend in Alchi and Lamayuru we climbed the steps to Basgo, Jamgyal Namgyal's ruined fort high above the Leh Srinagar highway. A huge convoy of army trucks roared past with ground shaking rumbles, but as we got higher another noise vied for our attention, and on the last corner as the fort came into sight the sound was identified, 10, 20, 30, nomads from Changthang, aprons over their gonchas, prostrating themselves as they circled the gompa, singing clearly, with a cadence that was common to all of Central Asia, from Kashgar to Kinnaur, rising and falling joyfully, a world way from the sonorous chanting of the puja, slowly drowning out the roar of the trucks until they faded away and only the singing remained.

I sat amazed at this ancient ritual (too amazed to even get out my camera!) watching them disappear into the gompa, then continued my climb, to the uppermost Maitreya chapel. I had forgotten what was special about this; unlike most gompas, skylights in the roof allowed enough daylight in to view the beautiful Maitreya clearly. I sat at its feet as Lobsang and our driver prostrated themselves and as I watched the harsh morning light brighten the serene features of the Maitreya, the word I had been looking for, what I had to hold onto in the next few months away from the only place in the world I really felt happy in, was there, what my winter in Ladakh had given me;


"This is the stream of Zanskar, my home; flowing impetuously, foaming and roaring. But my love, if you pass by, for you it will run gently and slow."

Zanskari song

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