Every winter, the Indian district of Zanskar is almost entirely cut off from its parent state of Jammu and Kashmir, effectively leaving its inhabitants stranded. Zanskar is practically surrounded by towering ridges and formidable peaks, with one high mountain pass providing the main line of communication throughout the year, but as the winter snows arrive, this vital line of contact is severed. This leaves residents of the Zanskar Valley with only one way in and out, the frozen Zanskar River. For centuries this seasonal highway, traditionally known as the Chadar, has been used by locals as a vital trade route, and to this day it still is.
Residents often brave the sub zero temperatures (which are known to reach a lowly 35C) and challenging terrain to reach towns and cities further afield, such as nearby Leh. In recent years however, it has been discovered by the outdoor community, growing more and more popular with people searching for beautiful hiking routes away from the normal trekking scene. And thus the Chadar Trek was born. The trek is approximately 65 miles long (one way) and it is certainly not one you should rush into. While it may not be the longest, the conditions you travel in and the terrain you cover makes it a serious undertaking. Temperatures are known to drop as far as 35C at night and it is not uncommon for a freezing wind to blow across the valley, so you’ll need to be prepared.
The trek can be extremely tough going and due to the unpredictability of the conditions and the remoteness of the area, it is a genuine adventure. Typically, if you’re taking on the Chadar Trek you will use Leh as a base, from where you will travel by car to Chilling, the route’s aptly named trailhead. From here, you trace the river as it flows deeper into the valley. Along the way, you’ll pass a handful of towns including Pishu, Pidmo, Stongde and Zangla, giving you an opportunity to explore impressive gompas (a Tibetan monestary or temple) and forts. These stops also give you the chance to gain an insight into the di verse culture and way of life for those that live in Zanskar.
In recent years, the area has also been known to be home to the elusive but magnificent snow leopard, with paw prints being found in the snow at various points along the route. If the culture, landmarks and wildlife aren’t enough to get your heart racing, the scenery certainly will. The Zanskar River is flanked on both sides by near vertical walls reaching up to 600m high. Beyond them you will see the majestic snow capped peaks of the Ladakh Range, the Greater Himalayas and the Karakoram Range. Having said that, it’s below your feet where the real magic exists, and you are unlikely to have seen anything quite as remarkable as this frozen river stretching far away out of sight. The Chadar Trek may not have the same glitz and glamour as other hikes in the area, but it’s certainly one you’ll be able to brag about for years once you’ve returned home.