Land space is claimed by either snow or ice – water can be found around at times but has to go for a makeover often. It is like hiding under a mask so that the temperature doesn’t destroy its existence. The crystalline formations were profoundly mesmerizing and for the sliding little Santas (children) it acted as a playground.
Leh is not only mountainous, but boasts of colourful mountains, the shades of emerald green, pea green, rusty brown, light brown, stone red reflecting ice and submerging snow amalgamated to form cascades. Imagine the site where monks play football amidst freezing breeze with no worries of cold, where red cheeks are frivolous signs of cheerfulness, where bells are for absolutely anybody to ring, where colorful flags rest upon the shiny whiteness of serenity. This place is no less than a surreal, dreamy world, especially for city dwellers.
What started as a wish to walk on the ice, ended up in sliding and falling on ice. Chader, one of the most enticing treks on earth attracted my attention while going through a travel article. The thought of putting my foot on frozen water was adventurous and thrilling but at the same time when I was skeptical after watching the episodes of Man Vs Wild.
I then started searching for the most affordable ways to reach the Mecca of frozen water. Down Jacket, 4-5 layers of clothing for heat retention, water/snow proof shoes/gloves, plus paying for the travel operator – was totally out of reach for a struggling writer like me. So, I started looking for alternatives. After going through blogs/articles/reviews, I realized that the place is not a no man’s land, people have been living there for ages, and even I can survive. I opted to buy everything from the local market. I booked my flight tickets from Delhi, almost seven months in advance, and I started collecting trekking equipments, one by one. In addition to this, FINS as an organization, not only unleashed my desire to climb the mountains but was my support system. Physical fitness is one thing but quick tips and guidance were the two most important things that were gifted to me by the expert members of this organization.
I learned about altitude sickness and use of Dimox as a precaution, but I decided to give my body a chance to adapt to the strokes of the chilled waves by itself. I guess everything is a mind game; I didn’t face any breathing issues. The locals advised us to restrain ourselves from climbing too much on the first day. With unfettered wishes and myriad preparations I reached Leh, but unexpectedly, I came to know that Chader Trek had been cancelled by the government because of the sliding of loose soil. Okay! It was not a life threatening situation but I missed the thought of missing out on a ‘life threatening situation,’ if I would have headed towards one of the most desirable trek in the world. Alternatively, we were offered The Lamayuru- Zanskar trek. The fact that these names were completely unknown made me a ‘Super Woman’ who could take challenges on new routes.
The first day we drove to Lamayuru, where my degree of fascination elevated when I heard the word ‘Juleh’ (a friendly hello) , the locals greeted every visitor with this magical word that created tremors of laughter and smiles on every face in the vicinity. In fact the night was made special with a play by the Lamayuru residents on the situation of Leh before independence, which was organized at the community hall. The production value, costumes and detailing was quite comparable to any of the theatre performances in Delhi or Mumbai. The play was interrupted with Bollywood dances by children to break the monotony and to wrap the whole evening with music, dance and drama.
After 11pm the lights went off, but the spirit of Lamayuru rose high and then the whole village began dancing on random Bollywood numbers. So, such was my experience of an ice cold place with -25 degree Celsius with the warmth of hospitality and smiles.
The next day we headed towards Wan La. On my way, I found weird but eye catching structures of ice, as if every formation had white veins with several nodes; each structure claimed its own identity and had a dignified persona. I could see an oasis of whiteness till infinity. Walking under the sun made us take out the layers of clothing one by one and in the shadows, our fingers froze to numbness. The snow fall at Wanla, deepened the depth of the white vanilla to be scooped out by us. Children cycled immaculately on snow, their red cheeks flashed lightening of bliss. Amongst all this, we had the pleasure of having Çhai – Samosa’ in the snow fall. The softness of snow, the aroma of Chai and taste of Samosa, froze moments of pleasure in the mind that is often worried about the hedonistic world. Sleeping in the camps for this night was hilarious; water vapor from continuous breathings got collected on the inner ceiling of the camp and was frozen. Any movement while sleeping would make the thin layer of ice fall upon the face. This was something one couldn’t have thought; in spite of the scientific knowledge. Water bottle, torch and socks were kept inside the sleeping bag, to be found in a usable state in the morning. Otherwise, at -25degree Celsius, you can imagine the speed at which water would solidify, and the batteries would get drained.
With high levels of dopamine in the body, the journey continued for the next destination – Phanji la. It offered hospitality of a different kind. Blushing grandmothers knitted woolen clothes while they all sat together in rows under the sun. The village echoed the sound of playing children, who were at home for their winter vacations. Bulls, chickens and goats roamed around with friendly gestures, all these with one technological aid, i.e one – an abundantly hanging telephone, that people use for long distance conversation with family/friends.
Phatokshar was pretty much being at home only. 13 people in a cozy room with mattresses and quilts (not enough for all) but still enough for transgressing us into a comfort zone. And on top of everything, Chang (a local drink) made every evenings romantic.
Strolling on ice was suddenly a hectic trekking experience on the last day, when we climbed small mountainous structures to reach Shangrila Base Camp. We were made to wear crampons to improve our mobility on snow and ice. And thanks to this intelligent approach that I didn’t end up breaking any of my arms or legs. Our energy levels dropped consequently throughout the trek. With shortage of drinking water and energy supplies, the last 2 kms seemed impossible. But, yes, this is all a mind game and true spirits can take you through every rough way and that is what happened.
I discovered a world of my own on ice, it was difficult to leave everything and come back, but I guess there are myriad places to explore and I would keep on doing so, with ‘one step at a time’ towards my goal. Leh is surely beautiful in winters but don’t miss the opportunity to fall on ice. It is not only fun but an experience in itself.
by Anushree Ghosh.
How to get to the destination – Flights from Delhi to Leh and hire car from Leh to other places
Things to see and do there – Khardungla Pass, Pangong Lake