Chadar Trek: A lifeline or a leisure sport?

One cold winter morning, I stepped onto a footpath in Skalzangling. I saw five men with heavy rucksacks and wooden sleds standing by the roadside. I asked, “Where are you all heading?” They replied without hesitation, “To the Chadar.”

Three words were enough to help understand the context of their journey. They were waiting for a taxi to reach the famous Chadar Trek. The trail head is a 60-km drive from Leh. The start of the trek has been moving deeper into the gorge as the motorable road progresses further. In the winter of 2019-20, the trail head was approximately 11 kms after Chilling village.

The men were of different ages and all of them hailed from Zangskar. I wondered if they were heading home or working with trekking groups. Trekking in Ladakh during the summer entails walking along high mountain trails and crossing passes. In winter, it entails walking on the frozen Zangskar river i.e. the Chadar. The trekking season for Chadar generally lasts around 45 days and is limited to the peak winter months of January and February.

The popularity of Chadar

Chadar is an Urdu word that means a ‘sheet or broad piece of cloth’. In the context of the trek, it refers to the sheet of ice on the frozen Zangskar river that is thick enough to allow a person to walk over it. In Ladakhi, the word is ‘tar’. Though Ladakh has several rivers such as the Indus, Zangskar and Shayok along with numerous streams, the term ‘Chadar’ is generally used for Zangskar river after it freezes in the winter.

As I spoke with Zangskari trekkers I heard many stories, legends and myths about the Chadar. According to one legend, the Chadar was used as a sacred pathway by female deities who travelled through this gorge over the frozen river. Some believe that one of the spots along the Chadar called Tsomo is connected with the Ganges.

They also narrated a folk-story about King Kyaltsey who was travelling along with some companions and a cook. All of them were stranded in a cave for a few days after the ice on the river started to break. They remained stuck for many days and they started running out of food supplies. The king and his companions started eating their leather bags. As they exhausted its supply of leather, they started to make plans to eat the cook. The cook feared for his life and prayed to the gods to save him. At night, he took his waistcloth and a stick and put them in the icy water. Within a few hours, the water froze to create a rock-solid path. The cook was able to leave the cave using this path and managed to survive. There are some people who claim that it was this story that led to people calling the tar as Chadar as the cook had used a piece of cloth.

Historically, this route has been used by the residents of Zangskar valley and neighbouring villages such as Lingshed, Chilling, Nyerags, etc during the winters. This route provides the only physical connectivity with the outside world for these areas in the winter.

Historian Janet Rizvi mentions this winter trail in her book, Trans-Himalayan Caravans: Merchants, Princes and Peasant Traders of Ladakh. She writes “This route [Chadar] must have been in occasional use from time immemorial; but according to Sonam Stobdan, it is only relatively recently that Zanskar butter has been so sought-after in Leh as to make it worth the time and effort of a few Zanskaris to undertake the Chadar trek regularly.”

James Crowden, who trekked this route in February, 1977, has written about the hardship that he and Zangskaris endured during their journey in his paper titled Butter trading down the Zangskar gorge: The winter journey (1994). Similarly, Olivier Föllmi (1981) has documented the Chadar through his photography, which has been published in his book, Where Heaven and Mountains Meet: Zanskar and the Himalayas (1999).

Some of the more experienced Zangskari trekkers say that the route has become popular with tourists fairly recently. This popularity is fuelled by a craze for taking selfies. The popularity of the trek has led to negative impacts and necessitated regulation.

The duration of the trek varies from five to seven days depending on the intended destination. Many tourists prefer to return from the Nyerags waterfall (about five days) while others prefer to travel all the way to Zangskar (seven days or more).

Interestingly, the people from Zangskar do not regard the Chadar as a fancy adventurous trek but as a necessary journey to be undertaken to travel in and out of the valley in the winter. I managed to reach Tundup Dorjay, a 29-year-old man from Lungnak village in Zangskar, over the phone. He mentioned that there are many songs about Chadar. He mentioned a song that was sung during his grandfather’s time, then sung by his father and now by him. The first line of the song goes, “Chadar road po dub na, tey sang skitpoi Zangskar” (If the Chadar road is made, what a blessing it will be for Zangskar!). This route is an essential pathway for the people of Zangskar valley.

Twenty eight-year-old Stanzin tells me that local men and women from Zangskar walk on the tar for 10 hours each day to reach their respective villages within five days. Their stamina and endurance is incomparable and they are an essential component of the commercial Chadar treks.

Chadar and Zangskar

Zangskari trekkers in their 50s still remember walking on the Zangskar river till its confluence with the Indus. This is no longer the case. The trek now ends and starts from a point called Dar, which is approximately 11 kms from Chilling village. This is the point till which the motorable road constructed by the Border Road Organisation (BRO) has reached so far.

The main stopping points on the trek are Bakula Cave, Shingra Yogma, Bukta, Shingra Gongma, Tsomo, Tibb, Nyerags and several small pullus (human-made stone shelters). In 2020, bad weather limited the number of camps and the days for trekking. The main camps in 2020 were Shingra Gongma, Tibb and Nyerags along with caves and smaller camps used by local trekkers. The main camps had basic facilities such as medical facilities with a doctor, garbage bins, toilets, satellite phones, and a rescue team deployed by District Magistrate, Leh. The rescue team was manned by members of Ladakh Mountain Guides Association (LMGA) and functioning under the aegis of All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA) and State Disaster Response Force Component (SDRF). The Indian Army was initially stationed at the starting point in Dar. After 14 January, they were deployed to other camps too as weather conditions became rather unpredictable.

Prior to the starting of the 2020 trekking season, District Magistrate, Leh released the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the trek through order no. JC/169 (P) 2018 (903) dated 22/10/2019. The main objective of the SOP was to ensure safety during the Chadar trek. The SOP made it mandatory for all trekkers to buy a medical Insurance and undergo a medical check before being allowed to undertake the trek. The insurance covered hospitalisation expenses for injuries and illness, repatriation of mortal remains, medical evacuation, personal accidents, trip cancellation and interruption, etc.

The SOP also made it mandatory for trekkers to rest for two days after arriving in Ladakh to allow their bodies to acclimatise to the altitude. All the checks and necessary paperwork was centralised at the Tourist Information Centre in Leh.

The SOP also included safety instructions for the trek and stated that the trek can only be carried out through registered travel companies. ALTOA was given the responsibility of carrying out daily checks and implementing safety procedures. ALTOA created register of porters and guides and issued them with identity cards. It was also given the responsibility of providing communication facilities at each camp. In case of an emergency, every group was instructed to contact the nearest Camp Director of the Mountain Rescue Team (MRT).The Department of Wildlife Protection, Leh was given the responsibility of providing each group with garbage bags and collecting the bags when the group returned.

When asked about this system, President of ALTOA, Tsetan Angchuk explained, “The Wildlife Department and ALTOA initiated a system in 2019. It was mandatory for trekking guides to provide the lists of all items being taken on Chadar, especially food, along with a security deposit of INR 500 at the check post near Phyang village. The deposit would be returned when all the non-biodegradable items and waste were handed over at the check post on their return. This system was very effective and successful. It helped reduce trash at different sites on the Chadar.”

This system was implemented again in 2020. Leh-based travel agent, Tsering Angchuk (Serthi Paeyok) explained, “Most travel agencies followed the zero-waste policy, which translated to minimum waste be it shopping for non-packaged products for the trek, reuse of items and recycling and minimal use of plastic. We still had to make sure that we bring back all the waste generated during the trek as part of our social responsibility towards the environment.”

I collected data for the number of trekkers from the Department of Wildlife Protection, Leh and ALTOA. According to Department of Wildlife Protection data in 2020, the Chadar trek season lasted from 6 January to 10 February. A total of 2,287 trekkers participated in the trek of which 2,160 were domestic trekkers and 127 were international trekkers. ALTOA provided the data for the previous years, which showed a marked increase: 3,144 (2019) , 2,529 (2018), 1,735 (2017), 1,545 (2016) and 1,043 (2015).

However, these numbers do not include the support staff members that accompany each group. On an average each group includes a guide, a cook and a helper along with two porters for each person in the group. In addition, each camp also has officials posted there by the administration. Thus, the actual footfall on Chadar is probably twice to thrice the number of registered trekkers.

The political economy of Chadar

Based on my conversations and observations about Chadar, I found that porters who work on the trek work under the most unfair conditions. In 2019, the daily wage for a porter on the Chadar was approximately INR 1,200. In 2020, this figure reduced to an average wage of INR 800. When asked why the rate had reduced, some porters claimed that the first few porters who worked this season opted for lower wages, which then became fixed as the minimum wage for all porters till the end of the season. I checked this with travel agents who claimed that the wages sometimes vary depending on factors such as average market rate that the porters fix for a season. It is surprising that local porters did not have a representative body to negotiate crucial issues such as wages.

In addition to getting registered with ALTOA, each porter was also supposed to buy an insurance premium of INR 50. However, many of them were not aware of their entitlements under the insurance scheme.

Furthermore, the porters have the toughest jobs on the trek. They have to carry or pull all essential camping materials from kitchen supplies to bedding for their clients for the duration of the trek. These loads generally weigh 40 kgs or more. For most part, the porters pull the load on sleds. At times, they have to physically haul the load over rocky outcrops and through the freezing water. There is constant danger of falling into the river and other grave risks. Despite these challenges, these men work their way back and forth on the frozen river for the whole season year after year, They also earn the least of all the people who are involved with the Chadar trek. However, ALTOA does provide training to porters and other support staff on life skills to survive such treks.

Lobzang Odzer, a guide from Zangskar, mentioned the Chadar has become much safer nowadays. “We have been walking the Chadar for several generations. These days we have rescue teams and medical facilities. In my opinion, Chadar has become safer since the government started regulating the trek.”

The guide is the leader of the group and is responsible for everyone in it. They generally have vast experience, have to tackle every challenge, and make decisions to ensure that the group remains safe. They earn anywhere between INR 1,300 and INR 1,800 per day but the rates are known to vary based on various factors.

Only about 40 travel agents in Leh, i.e. about 10% of the total, operate in the winter and offer Chadar trek. The main challenge they faced is the cut-throat pricing prevalent in the sector. For instance, there are agencies outside Ladakh that are selling Chadar trek packages for INR 16,999 per person, while others are selling it for over INR 24,500 per person. These prices include food, accommodation, local transportation and the actual trek. Travel agents in Leh explained that these rates depend on the number of people in each group, which incentivises larger groups. Furthermore, this sort of pricing has a detrimental impact on local businesses that provide logistical support and relevant services in Ladakh with minimal earnings.

On the Chadar I met several trekkers. One trekker I met was being pulled on a sled by a young porter on their way back from Nyerags. The trekker said that for the amount they paid for the package, they should be provided with central-heating facilities in hotels. When I mentioned this to some travel agents, they countered that if trekkers do not acclimatise and learn to endure the cold, they would have a tough time adjusting to the conditions on the trek. One of them said, “What is the use of coming all the way to Ladakh if one wants to sit comfortably in a centrally-heated room?”

Four first-time trekkers I met on the Chadar, Druv Pariwal (20 years ), Gaurav Pariwal (31 years), Ashutosh Pariwal (34 years) and Dr. Jitendra (33 years) from Jaipur were very positive about the trek. They said, “Everything was very systematic. We did find the cold nights very challenging but food was very nutritious. The trek was comfortable except the few times we had to go off route where the ice had broken. The camps were generally clean with medical and toilet facilities.”

I also met 25-year-old adventure enthusiast, Kartik Kolipaka from Hyderabad. We met at Nimmoling as they were preparing to leave for the trek. He explained that they were forced to change their schedule due to the weather but that he was looking forward to the challenge of the trek and hoped to reach the last camp. “I have been training for this trek for the last five years. I look forward to enjoying nature. The trek is more about being mentally fit to endure hardships in such conditions,” he added.

Managing Chadar

In 2020, the office of District Magistrate reports that Chadar trek was officially suspended only for two days (13 and 14 January). The decision to re-open the trek was taken after field assessment. However, bad weather and the lack of ice formation led to the trek remaining suspended for seven to 10 days. The bad weather also forced the District Magistrate and the Administration of the Union Territory of Ladakh to request Indian Air Force for support to airlift 70 porters and one rescue personnel from Nyerags. This was done through order no DCL/PS/Airlift/2020 dated 17/01/2020. The rescue operation became necessary after two groups of trekkers, which included 41 people, were stuck between Tibb and Nyerags camps after water started to flow over the ice. They were rescued and temporarily accommodated at Nyerags village, where the villagers took care of them.

When asked about the management of Chadar, President of ALTOA, Tsetan Angchuk stated that most regulations were implemented in 2018-19 by the then District Magistrate, Leh, Avny Lavasa, IAS, to regulate the trek and manage its ecological impact. As part of this, the number of trekkers allowed per day was capped at 100. “All other measures such as medical insurance, communication infrastructure, rescue teams, mandatory medical checks etc. were implemented at the same time. This has improved the trek and the biggest accomplishment of 2020 is that we did not have a single casualty,” he added.

In an effort to promote winter tourism, Chang Chub Stan and Strung Junu Tsogspa Nyerags in collaboration with Ladakh Tourism Department and ALTOA organised a Chadar Festival at Nyerags Ice Fall on 6 and 7 February, 2020. The festival was called ‘The Grand Canyon of Himalaya’. The 8-9 ft-tall frozen waterfall is one of the main attractions for many trekkers and marks the point where many groups turn around. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet any of the trekkers who participated in this festival to understand their experience. President of ALTOA, Tsetan Angchuk said that around 50 to 60 tourists had participated in the festival. This festival was also a way to exploring potential trekking and rafting routes around Nyerags and neighbouring villages in the summer. Assistant Director of Tourism, Leh, Tsering Angmo added “The festival was an initiative to focus on better livelihood options in the tourism sector for local communities.”

Looking forward

Tsering Angchuk (Serthi Paeyok) said, “While we all focus on the ecological impact of the Chadar trek, we also need to consider how road building affects the Chadar. The road being built by BRO will cover the Chadar and soon there will be no Chadar trek. This will impact the livelihoods of local communities. At the same time, the road is necessary to provide all-weather connectivity to Zangskar and address many of its problems.” When asked about this, President of ALTOA, Tsetan Angchuk said that alternate options for winter sports needs to be explored. “We can explore places like Wanla river and other places in Sham and Drass that freeze in the winter.”

I was curious to know how local residents of Zangskar viewed the Chadar trek and the impact of the road on their lives. Zangskar resident Tundup Dorjay asserted the need for an all-weather road to connect Zangskar with the outside world. He added, “Padum, the main headquarter of Zangskar, is 230 kms from the district headquarter of Kargil while the Nyemo-Padum will barely be 150 kms.”

According to the 2011 Census, Zangskar is home to around 12,000 people and connectivity remains the main challenge for the area. There are numerous stories of people from Zangskar using the Chadar to access better healthcare facilities as the whole valley has one Community Health Centre in Padum with one or two doctors, one Men Tse Khang (traditional Tibetan medicine), and Medical Aid Centres in each village. Tundup Dorjay explained that this is far from sufficient and the Nyemo-Padum road will help people access better healthcare facilities more easily.

He further added that it will probably take another five to six years for the road to be completed. “In the meantime, the government could make alternative routes such as pony trails, especially in places where one has to climb the rocky cliffs. This will ensure that when people from Zangskar walk the Chadar, they do not get trapped anywhere for several days. This would be a big relief for local Zangskaris who are otherwise at the mercy of the weather and the frozen river.”

When asked how the road would impact the livelihoods of the people of Zangskar, Tundup Dorjey was pragmatic. He explained, “The road will actually provide more livelihood opportunities for the people of Zangskar, especially in the tourism sector. However, it will have a negative impact on the social lifestyle of the people of Zangskar. I hope that the transition period is gradual and planned. This will help Zangskar develop in a sustainable way.”

By Rigzin Chodon

Photograph by Jigmat Lundup

Rigzin Chodon is Research Associate at Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO), Leh

Jigmat Lundup is an avid photographer based in Leh.