In February 2003 I went with a couple of friends to Ladakh, in the far north of India, to trek the Chadar, or Ice Path. When the roads are impassable with winter snow, the locals use the frozen Zanskar River for access, to trade, to visit family or to attend the many festivals held during the long winter months.
Confluence of the Indus and Zanskar
We had to spend a week acclimatising to the altitude in the main town of Ladakh, Leh, at 3,500 metres elevation - it's the only flight I've been on where they decompress the plane before landing, and they do it pretty quickly.
Then by jeep and bus (we had a guide, a cook and ten porters!) to our starting point at the appropriately named village of Chiling.
Travellers in the gorge
After a quick lunch of tea, noodle soup and chapattis we made our first steps onto the river. The porters were too polite to laugh at our attempts to remain upright on the slick surface, but we got the hang of it soon enough - the trick is to use a strange skating sort of step. Of course the locals just stride nonchalantly along in their oversized "long water shoes" - Indian Army surplus white gumboots.
Over the next few days we penetrated further into the gorge, steep bluffs towering hundreds of metres above us so we only saw the sun fleetingly as it passed across the narrow opening. Every turn in the river yielded a new marvel - great folds and swirls in the multicoloured cliffs; ice so clear we could see the pebbles on the river bed; rapids in turquoise blue; cascades frozen in mid fall; thundering maelstroms of white water disappearing down giant sink holes; great blocks of ice two metres thick jumbled together as if snapped off and discarded by the river; and here and there the prints of a snow leopard or fox.
Farm at Rinam
After some days the gorge ended, opening into a broad alluvial valley, with villages dotting the gravel fans, fields tilled and waiting for the coming of the all too short spring and summer. Now we ditched our tent in favour of more "comfortable" accommodation in the villages - rooms ranged in size from the broom closet (or maybe it was the dried yak dung store) to the summer room (pretty cold in winter with big draughty windows). Every household has a solar panel and fluorescent light. In most places the light switch was two pieces of wire you twist together. I learned to look for the inverter to see if I was twisting 12 or 230 volts.
Westerners are few and far between, so as soon as the word was out we had people popping in to sit around the fire and talk with us (some only know a few words of English and we only knew a few words of Ladakhi), look through our gear or pose for the Polaroid. Of course there were endless cups of salt yak butter tea (etiquette says the host must fill your cup at least five times), lentil curry and even a party with copious quantities of tchang, the local brew (well, I did have to follow etiquette), served from old chemical barrels.
And so up to Phuktal Gompa, the turning point of our journey. Seems like all Buddhist monasteries are built in the most inaccessible places, and Phuktal is no exception. The buildings cling to the cliff, clustered around a cave with an eternal spring. From the river, it's about 100 metres up the steep trail, and at 4,000 metres above sea level that's quite a hike. Before we arrived that morning, a party of tourists had come and gone by helicopter, leaving a bundle of Hard Rock Café t-shirts and Lakers jackets - useful stuff in the cold draughty halls of a monastery in winter?
After lunch for us, in return for taking an endless round of Polaroids, the monks got back to their philosophy lessons and practicing their debating skills. It was a joy to hear the young monks chanting philosophy with such breathtaking scenery around us, and most amusing to watch the animated debating with over-the-top clapping of hands and stamping of feet in order to make a point. I was restrained and only shot a half-dozen rolls of film.
Snowstorm on the Chadar
From Phuktal we retraced our steps. The weather turned foul and we trudged for days in a snowstorm, with drifts up to our waists. When we hit the gorge again in clear weather, the going was easier with compacted snow covering the ice. After some 350km and 21 days in the same clothes without a wash, we were glad to be back in Leh.