The temperature was below zero when I landed in Leh in that February. The river lay frozen like a long rug. A week's trek through the river--known widely as Chader trek--looked very inviting.
It was 9.30 in the morning when I arrived in Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport in Leh after a 1.30-hour-long flight from New Delhi. Leh was under a thick blanket of snow. You should be careful not to slip on the ice. I hurried into the vehicle waiting for me. The chilling cold seeped into the thick fleece, coat, and cap. I sat in the vehicle, covering my entire body except the nostrils to escape the freezing cold.
Our destination was Chilling, sixty km from there. Guide Bikram led us to a granny's shop to have some food. The old lady served us hot soup and noodles, which I felt very tasty in that cold weather. Passing by grey hills, snow-topped plains, and valleys, we reached Chilling after a 3.30-hour journey. Once the vehicle stopped, I followed Bikram into the Zanskar River which lay frozen.
Into the frozen river
There are no currents. The river which used to flow through Ladakh is now like a long stretch of road of thick ice. Now I am on a slab of solid ice. It was slippery. "Take short steps by raising your legs very little," Bikram said. Leaning on the trekking pole, I lifted one of my legs very low and stepped ahead. Slippery still. Giving all my weight to the pole, I tried the next step. Many in the team lost the balance and fell down. I also couldn't help slipping down. As I fell on my back, the backpack saved me from getting hurt. It took a few steps to learn the trick of walking on the ice. Though I had crawled up snow-capped mountains before, I hadn't found it as difficult as it is now. It is as if a rollerskater has been fitted to my legs. The surface was very smooth and plain. Somehow, I'll have to find a balance.
For the whole of the week, I'll have to walk on this frozen river. The temperature is at sub-zero level. In the nights, it can dip to -25, Bikram said. Let's see what will happen to me. The first day's trek is to Tilath Sumdo, two kilometres away. The fleece over the tee shirt and the thick down jacket are good enough to fight the cold; the balaclava that covered my head, face, and neck is not. Through the gaps, the cold seeps in and bites my face.
Just half an hour into the trek, the nature of the ice changed. There are some fresh ice--not the thick, fully frozen one. It is powdery and the walk over it is very nice. We increased our pace. We could see the river still flowing in the middle in some areas. However, the water close to the banks was still frozen. Ice blocks were floating in the crystal-clear water. Not very far, a small stream merged with the river Zanskar.
At Tilit Sumdo
A little upstream, the river is completely frozen and it is very difficult to walk on the smooth surface. After a few steps, we walked out of the river. There, on a vast plain, Bikram and his friends started setting up the tents. Tired after the ice-walk, many of my teammates lay on the ground, keeping the backpacks as pillows.
I decided to take a walk. Climbed up a small hill little upstream through the banks. Hills and streams everywhere. Some of the hills are topped with snow. A few patches of shrubs, wilted in snowfall, could be seen around. Snowflakes fly in the wind. The sunlight dimmed and darkness descended on the mountains. Only the wind moved. Everything else--the mountains, the river, the plains--lay silent and still. Had there been no wind and snowflakes, the entire area would have looked dead still.
I walked towards the camp. Tents were ready. Everybody else huddled inside the tents except Bikram and his friend who were busy preparing food. I joined them. The warmth from the hearth was a great respite from the chilling cold. Bikram's friend was rolling Chappati. I helped Bikram to bake it in the fire. Once the dinner was ready, Bikram sent out a whistle. Everybody came out of the tents. Cappati, pasta, potato stew, soup, papad, and pickle--a sumptuous dinner. After having food, all of us crawled back into the tents. In the comfort of the sleeping bag, dreams accompanied my sleep.
The trek resumed at nine the next morning. The plan was to reach Shingra Coma, ten kilometres upstream. Walking was quite tough in the slippery ice. At some parts of the river, the ice was thin. There, one might get a feeling that the river was still flowing under the layer of ice. Nearly three kilometres ahead, the river was still not fully frozen. Water was still flowing, making its way through the ice blocks. Somewhere else, the river gushes into small gorges frothing. And further up, the river is flowing in full might, touching both the banks. The water is icy cold. In those areas, we climbed onto the banks and walked on. Sharp rocks and cobbles made our trek even more difficult. I looked back. The frozen river meanders down like a silver anklet. Again into the river from the hillock. Walking on the ice slabs is easier, I felt.
As we moved forward, the banks of the river stood over us, like a hanging promontory. The banks were dry and in between, the river lay as if it had forgotten to flow. We took a quick snack break. Cooked noodles and green tea before proceeding. After eight hours of trek, we reached Shingra Koma. Quickly assembled the tent, had dinner and slipped into the sleeping bags. I couldn't sleep though. I stepped out of the tent. It was really cold outside. But thousands of stars were sprayed across the skyscape. Seeing them, I couldn't go back to the tent. It was really cold and I was hesitant to go far from the tent as well. I took the torch and walked to the bank and I sat on a rock. From there in the dim light, I could still see the ice anklet of river Zanskar. I sat there, soaking in the beauty of that rare sight.
The way up the river in the past two days was very beautiful. It was like a trek through a marvelous painting on the canvas of nature in black and white, speckled with a few patches of yellow or brown here and there.
I enjoyed every moment, each breath. At every turn of the river, on the hanging rocks, nature had deftly etched stunning works of art. The eternal flow of the river, wind, falling snow, and rain have sculpted figures in the rocks.
An avalanche or a landslide up in the mountains could suddenly turn the placid ice river into a violent flow of ice and water. We might get swept away even before we could take the next step. Or, the ice under our feet could just give way, taking us down in into the depths of the chilling water. At every step, one should keep in mind that the ice under the feet could break. Otherwise, as Bikram said, you might just slip down into -25-degree cold water and become a ices culture, frozen dead. Or, death might prowl at you in the form of a snow leopard waiting to prey on you, aiming at the neck. Though the trek is wrought with dangers, you will forget about all those as you sink in the sheer beauty and elegance of nature.
It is an experience beyond words to walk along a river while it's still sleeping--the river isn't dry, it's not dead. The young and luscious river is asleep as if intoxicated by strong wild honey. We are walking by her, watching her dream. It is a mesmerizing sight, a feeling that transcends the worldliness--moments when your cells brim with joy beyond words. In that rush of happiness, everything else in this world become irrelevant--moments so unique that one cannot translate into any language.
All of us were silent for long as if we were all taken over by the unspeakable emotions we went through. Forgetting that we were in a group, each of us climbed up in a reverie, leaving behind the worries of the bustling combative world which is abuzz with war cries. Cut loose from the strings of the scurrying world, we let ourselves free in the infinite vastness of the world of joy--Aananda, soaring high like a kite in that joyous moments, undeterred by the world behind.
No worries, no pangs of living; all wafted away in the pure feeling of bliss. I felt light. My heart had emptied off all the burdens of thoughts--of life and death. This is eternal bliss, I felt. In whatever terms you call it, it is the bliss of infinite calmness. It can be Sivam, Krishnam, Brahmam, Allah or Jesus. Maybe just 'Prakruthi' (a concept in Indian philosophy). Call it by any name, this is the moment when you realise that all of them are one.
Why did tears roll down my cheeks? In the chilling cold of Zanskar, only the tears don't freeze. In this cold, even the blood will clot if you don't wear warm clothes. But that don't stop tears from trickling down. Maybe all the pains must have surged out of my heart, washing down all the dirt inside. With each drop of tear, my heart becomes more clear. Each breath I take fills life inside. And I can feel that. A mesmerizing calm envelops you. Your breath and heartbeat slow down and follow the same beat. As I sat under the gaze of thousands of stars in that freezing night with my eyes still flooding, I look back and realise the losses incurred in the rat race in the years gone by. I now recall the days and nights that I failed to recognize the peace within. Now, I know that surrendering is sweeter than conquering--what is more rewarding than getting subdued by this charming night?
It is getting colder now. I walked back into the tent and slipped into the comforting warmth of my sleeping bag.
Today, our aim is to walk until Tibb 15 km away. In the morning we tanked up on noodles, soup, and biscuits. As usual, the walk was through the frozen river. It was as if you have stepped into a freezer just after you woke up.
Now, the narrow river has completely transformed into hard ice. The river looked like a trench with vertical walls of rock towering over us on both sides. Through the opening above us, only the sky could be visible. The ice is so thick and walking on it is even more difficult. Soon, we came out of the 'trench'. Two tiny waterfalls could be seen at a distance. After an 11-hour walk, we reached Tibb.
In the tent, I removed the shoes and started massaging my feet. My legs were aching. After a while, I put on the shoes and came out. It was getting dark. Bikram had managed to collect some dry wood. In the middle of a small open space on the banks, we lit a fire. The frozen wood refused to catch the fire. We poured a good amount of kerosene to make the fire. We sat for dinner around it. The warmth of the fire lit up our spirits too. Jokes, laughter and funny pranks changed the atmosphere. We celebrated our friendship.
The ability to smile, even in the midst of the worst crisis, is the main thing that sets humans apart from other beings, I thought. No help is greater than the hope that a better day is around the corner. Maybe that is exactly why Deb, a young man from Pune, joined us on the trek, despite suffering from cirrhosis which is gnawing on his liver. Deb revealed his condition just a night before. Bikram insisted that Deb better go back because the trek involved a lot of risks. But the Punekar refused to budge. The pain he tried to conceal with his charming smile came as a shocker to us all. But when we realised that his smile was genuine and that the warmth he spread was his belief in life, it boosted our hopes too.
On that beautiful night, Deb sang a poignant melody.
Toote huve dilon ki
Dua mere sath hai
Toote huve doilon ki
Dua mere sath hai
Dunia teri taraf hai
Dunia teri taraf hai
Huda mere sath hai
Huda mere sath hai
My eyes welled up, hearing those sad lines. Songs and jokes filled the air again, till the fire faded.
All went back to their tents. The friendships on treks have a special warmth and zeal. Perhaps the roughness of the paths and the imminent dangers we face together nurture a special bond between us. In just a matter of 3-4 days, they develop a friendship of many years. I slipped into sleep with the sweet memories of those friends.
The next destination is Nerak, 12 km up the river. The most attractive scenes of the trek are awaiting on us en route--the sights that reveal the full charm of the Zanskar Valley. Though we were still walking on the hard ice, at some points we could see ice sheets floating on. You will be tempted to lie down on those ice blocks and float. I tried to step on to the floating ice several times, but they would just slide away. And it is dangerous too. You might just fall flat on the ice blocks and get hurt. So, I controlled myself and walked past the floating temptations. The terrain changes every now and then. Some times we are walking through the 'trenches' with rock formations on either side and within minutes we are out in the vast openness. You can see huge brown hills far away, with white ice gathering on the valleys. We continued our trek.
We take regular breaks, climb up the banks and sit there for a while. By the time you wipe the face after removing the gloves, the fingers would have gone numb. Again, the hands would slip into the gloves, and balaclava covers the face. Bikram would pour hot green tea from the flask. Sitting there and sipping green tea is a nice feeling. After the small break, we resume the trek.
The river takes a sharp curve in front of us. You can't see what's beyond the curve. Vikram whistled and stopped us. He said: " Buddies, the most beautiful sight of this trek awaits us just after the curve--a sight you would never have witnessed in life. I am happy that I could take you all here to see that. I thank god for that. To experience it in the fullest, please pass the corner one by one."
We followed his instructions. I was the first one in the line. I couldn't believe my eyes as I crossed the curve and saw it. My heart missed a few beats. It is beyond words.
We were at a place surrounded by mountains. There, we stood on the frozen river. The breathtaking view of a frozen waterfall confronted us. It falls from nearly 60 feet above and is more than 40 feet in width and all frozen as if in a photograph. It was hard to believe that such a thing is in the real world--a piece of heaven fallen down from the skies. I moved aside, allowing my fellow trekkers to watch the mystery. It looked like a massive installation in ice. I couldn't take my eyes off the sight. Everybody stood in utter disbelief. We walked forward and reached below the ice sculpture and touched it to ascertain that it is indeed real.
There was a wooden bridge across the river Samskar at a distance. We climbed on to it to get a different view of the frozen waterfall. Still climbing up, we found a plain patch of land where we set up our tents. The chill in the air was very harsh. There the temperature would dip to minus 25 degrees. Smoke coming out of Nerak village could be seen at a distance. Soup, pasta, and noodles were ready by then. Soon after supper, we hit the hay. But I couldn't sleep. I came out of the tent to enjoy the cold, snow and Nerak waterfall lit by the moon. I took a walk. It was unbearably cold and I was cautious. I wore two tee shirts, two fleece and a down jacket over it. Muffler, cap, and balaclava covered the head and face.
The moon was shining brightly. I walked slowly till the wooden bridge. The Nerak waterfall was bathing in the moonlight in full glory. It looked like frozen milk hung vertically from a hill. No drop is dripping down. Not even a sound. I walked down, my eyes still glued to the most beautiful scene. I stood there, touching the sculpture made by nature. You may not get another chance to touch a piece of heaven.
As I stood there, I thought of the great sculptor who made it and bowed. Standing there, I felt how small I am in the universe. As I stood there, realising that I am just a negligible molecule in the world, all my ego evaporated. I felt light inside, after off-loading the burden of my ego. A humble and clear calmness filled my heart. Nothing but the sheer beauty of nature around. I could experience it deeper inside. I don't know how much time I spent there. The moon began to fade and snow started falling. I walked back to my tent unwillingly. That night, I had the most beautiful sleep, the one that I never had had in my life.
No trekking had been scheduled for the day next. It was a day of rest before the return trek in the next morning. I took a walk to Yul Chung, a village nearby. There were a few small houses and humble villagers. We used to walk to Leh through the frozen river, they said.
After spending a good time with the villagers, I strolled back by noon. On the way back, once again I spent some time watching the waterfall. That night, we again lit a campfire and rejoiced. After that, I took all of them to watch the waterfall in the moonlight. It was clear that they would keep that sight close to their chest forever. But what surprised me was that Bikram, despite guiding several groups of trekkers this route, had never seen the frozen wonder in the moonlight before!
The great experiences will be awaiting you outside the rule books. If you restrict yourselves within the boundaries of the two-line, you might miss them.
After a riveting trek, we started walking back the next morning.
My heart was still there at the waterfalls. We bid goodbye to the wonder and started walking downstream.
(Translated by Madhuvan Geeth)