Our first steps on the frozen Zanskar river were inevitably tentative – after all, my mother had taught me never to walk on thin ice. Struggling to adapt to the thin, high-altitude air, we tottered around like Bambi before gradually getting used to the slippery surface. In the coming days, we would be walking on little else.
Our destination was Padum, the largest village in the isolated ancient kingdom of Zanskar, high in the Indian Himalayas. In winter, the only way of getting there is to walk, along the frozen Zanskar river, which lies at the bottom of a dramatic gorge deeper in places than the Grand Canyon. Known as the Chadar, the trek has been used as a winter trade route for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. With the high passes that are the only other routes into Zanskar closed from October to May due to snowfall and avalanche risk, the freezing of the Zanskar river in January and February is essential to maintaining a permanent population in the kingdom. For generations, traders, pilgrims and even schoolchildren have made the journey to neighbouring Ladakh out of necessity. Now, a few hardy tourists are coming each winter to walk it as an adventure.
As dawn broke on our first morning and we emerged from our cold riverside campsite (temperatures can be as low as -30C) it was hard not to doubt the wisdom of voluntarily undertaking such a challenge.
Ahead lay another 80 miles through the gorge, whose precipitous walls in places narrow to leave a gap only 15ft apart. There are no helicopter landing pads, hotels or mountain rescue outposts waiting to help in the event of an emergency. We would be camping and carrying our own food. It was up to us now.
The difficulties began almost immediately. Within half a mile of leaving camp, the pressure created by a rocky promontory had left half the river unfrozen and the other half an impenetrable maze of tortured ice. The only way past was to scale the shale-clad cliffs overhead, with each dislodged stone an uncomfortable reminder of the consequences of a misplaced step. Compared to this unreliable surface, stepping back on to the ice was like a return to terra firma.
This confidence in the reliability of the frozen river did not last long. Shortly after passing a group of returning porters, a commotion broke out. Some animated pointing and several raised Zanskari voices later it became clear what was happening. A tennis court-sized sheet of ice, complete with fresh footprints, had become detached just behind us and was slowly disappearing downstream.
The remaining porters hastened after it. The problem was not negotiating where the ice had been – a thin rim of ice remained between river and canyon wall. It was downstream that the trouble would occur, when the mini iceberg had come to rest and created a dam, temporarily raising the water levels behind it. Nobody, not even tough-as-old-boots Zanskaris, wants to wade waist-deep through icy water if they don’t have to.
After this rather hectic introduction to the realities of the Chadar, the rest of the day passed without incident. We camped on the outside of a broad bend in the river, where the gorge sides momentarily receded. The open aspect meant the wind howled mournfully around us but we were rewarded by tantalising views of the surrounding mountains towering above. The moon wore a corona, a portent of even colder weather to come. Never have I felt so remote.
For the next three days, we walked on the ice. At times, we felt growing satisfaction at our confidence even when walking on ice as smooth and polished as a mirror. There was the excitement of seeing fresh snow-leopard prints (though the animal itself proved elusive). In places the ice was rotten and you would break through the crust and wait, seemingly endlessly, for your feet to come to rest on a solid layer beneath.
And that’s if you were lucky. Sometimes the rotten ice gave way to a watery void, as one of our guides discovered when he disappeared up to his midriff before being hastily pulled clear. Even the traditional Zanskari skill of sounding questionable ice with wooden poles was clearly not infallible.
Eventually, with nothing worse to report than wet feet and the ignominy of having been bodily pushed up a small, frozen waterfall that I simply could not negotiate alone, we arrived at the far end of the gorge.
Here, on the cusp of Zanskar proper, many tourist groups turn round and head back. Yet Zanskar is the Chadar’s raison d’être, and the rewards for persevering are immediate. Once out of the gorge, the austerity of its vertiginous sides gave way to the majesty of the upper Zanskar valley. A pure-white central plain emphasised the grandeur of the surrounding mountains. In between, all was silent, all glitteringly clear.
On the face of it, all was also much as it had been for the past thousand years: a kingdom made up of isolated villages cut off from each other almost as much as from the outside world, with thousand-year-old monasteries still prominent on the mountainsides above.
Yet the scale and extent of change in a kingdom whose traditions have been described by the Dalai Lama as central to the survival of Tibetan Buddhism should not be underestimated. Our route to Padum, Zanskar’s largest village, was along the half-constructed road that will one day be blasted through the gorge we had just walked along. By avoiding the nearby high passes, it will provide Zanskar with a year-round connection to the outside world for the first time. It will also signal the end of the Chadar as an essential trading route,and change Zanskari life for ever.
To western tourists, this often seems a terrible shame. To the locals, it’s simply about time. The practical problems associated with their current isolation are exacerbated by financial and political difficulties, which the new road may help to resolve.
On our return journey down the Chadar, the silence was broken not by the noise of engines but the excited chatter of a group of Zanskaris taking their children to school in Ladakh. The age-old tradition of seeking an education elsewhere persists. For now, so does the Chadar.
The writer was a guest of British Airways (www.ba.com), which flies from Heathrow to Delhi twice daily, from £580 return. Direct flights from New Delhi to Leh are available from around £60. Mindruk Trek (www.mindruktrek.com), based in Leh but run by Zanskaris, offers 12-day guided treks along the Chadar from €1,100.