The Ice Highway
For centuries, ever since the first inhabitants of the Zanskar Valley, India have had one-way in and one-way out during the bone-chilling Himalayan winter. A walk along the frozen Zanskar River, a tributary of the Indus River that runs across Northern India and down through Pakistan before it reaches the Arabian Sea.
In times past, the route was used as a trade link during winter to sell Zanskari butter to traders on the silk road in the town of Leh, Ladakh. Today, the two-month window of frozen waters is still used, as the Summer road from the town of Kargil is cut off by heavy snows. However, with the butter trade long dead the majority of locals are in search of work as porters for Indian tourists looking for an “adventure of a lifetime.” Most tourists sleep in tents and only walk two-days from where the modern road begins at the village of Chilling to the camp of Tibb Cave. The locals still use the centuries-old caves that are scattered along the river banks.
But the Chadar (literally meaning ‘frozen river’) is changing. Warmer temperatures from climate change have not only shortened the season but created unstable ice conditions, making the already precarious journey more treacherous than it already is. Additionally, the winter road from Zanskar to Leh is nearing completion, which will give people a way off the ice for safer and quicker passage. However, road construction has been slow or remained idle for decades, as politics, money, and short construction seasons have stalled progress.
In January 2020 I travelled to Zanskar to continue a story I had been working on for three-years and the Chadar was the only way in. The following is the journey up until the first major village of Zangla in the Zanskar Valley.