Himalayan Ice Highway
The winter journey to the Zanskar Valley along the Chadar
The blistering cold Himalayan winter cuts the region off from most of the world. Temperatures in the region where people live can drop below minus 35 degrees Celsius. It becomes a whitewashed frozen landscape, a far cry from the green Summer pastures of farmland.
The Zanskar Valley averages around 3200 meters above sea level is a remote valley in the India Himalaya. In winter, Zanskar remains cut off from the outside world with all roads being closed due to heavy ice and snow covering the 4500+ meter passes that the road carves over. The closest large settlement, with an airport, is Leh in Ladakh, a town that was once part of the ancient Silk Road trading route.
As of 2020, there is still no road directly connecting Zanskar and Leh. Instead, the Zanskari people use the centuries-old way path of the frozen Zanskar River, a tributary of the Indus River, as a pathway to Leh. In the local tongue, this is known as the "Chadar", literally translating into "frozen river".
In times past, this was where the Zanskari's would carry famous Zanskar butter to trade or sell in Leh. However, with the butter trade long dead, the majority of locals using the Chadar are now working as porters for low-land Indian tourists searching for an "adventure of a lifetime". Most tourists sleep in tents and only walk two-days and one-night from where the last part of a road from Leh begins to Tibb Cave and back. Zanskari's still use the overnight caves scattered along the banks of the river as overnight shelters. Each covered in black soot from fires burning over centuries to keep them warm.
Today, the Chadar is changing. Warmer temperatures from climate change have not only shortened the winter season but are leading to unstable ice conditions. This makes the already unpredictable journey more treacherous than it already is. Zanskari's continue to wait for a road to be built that will give them easier access to the outside world during winter. For those seeking medical attention, this is especially relevant, as unreliable and expensive helicopter services to Leh are currently the only way to receive treatment during winter. As politics, money and short construction seasons slow the road building process, Zanskari's, for now, have to continue to use the Chadar.
In January 2020, I travelled to the Zanskar Valley to continue a story I had been working on for four years. The Chadar was the only choice and the following is the journey to the first prominent village of Zangla.