With Gerry on the ice highway CHADAR
For a very long time I and my friend Gerasim Velichkov–whom everybody calls Gerry–had been making plans for one of the Himalayas’ challenges known as Chadar. We had been several times before in the former Tibetan principalities of Ladakh and Zanskar which nowadays belong to the Indian state Jammu and Kashmir. To visit them in winter though, when the tourists have left this fascinating land to its indigenous population, is something quite different. We wanted to live at least two to three months in this savage world looking for an answer to the question: What keeps the local people in a region with the severest conditions one can imagine?
Being much more a polar expedition than a mountain trekking, this adventure had been agitating our imagination for more than three decades, so it was high time we realised it. Chadar is a winter road connecting Ladakh and Zanskar–at the modern-day northern end of India–since the Middle Ages. The road bed runs on the ice of the frozen Kashmir River, Zanskad, and is the only thoroughfare for the stern highlanders when the cold, the snow and the avalanches make the high mountain passes inaccessible.
The night temperature at the time of our passage on the icy Himalayan highway often drops to minus thirty degrees Celsius. We overnight in caves, as the local people call the cavities in the bank hollowed out by the river. Walking here is tiring, difficult and dangerous, especially in the melted sections of the river when you have to go around by scaling the faces of the walls of the canyon. Otherwise you walk all the time on ice that is like glass and not always thick enough. You run a serious risk of falling in a melted section of the river and being engulfed by the stormy current beneath the ice. Because of our pace and the frequent change of the terrain from ice to snow, rocks or sand, it is impossible to use ropes and crampons, as it would take a lot of time and would make the passage interminable. We were supposed to cover a total distance of 300 kilometers (both directions) from the place where the Zanskar flows into the Indus to the small town of Padum. We expected to do it in 15-20 days, depending on the benevolence of the local climate defined as one of the most erratic on earth.
Of course we were also looking for some romance in the adventure, which could bring us back–even for a short time–to the wonderful world of a Tibetan civilization that the Chinese Red Guards had totally destroyed.
While the 20th century has slightly touched Ladakh, one can say that Zanskar lives still in the 19th century. Because of the inaccessibility of their mother land, the ten thousand Zanskarians live rather outside of our time. They don’t care what happens in the rest of the world. Here the global technical revolution is reduced to a stove that burns without smoke, a wind-resistant lantern and a primitive radio with batteries. Only in the once glorious ancient capital, Padum–today a small town with no more than a thousand inhabitants–and in the nearby Karsha, situated at the base of a monastery built into the rocks, there are electric generators. However, they only function 2-3 hours in the evening and actually not every evening. And then–amidst noise and smell of naphtha–the flickering bulb lights up the room as if with a squeak, and the world comes to life. When the electricity stops everybody knows that it is a signal to go to bed.
Zanskar is two rivers and three valleys situated in the remotest corner of a particularly cold region. To the east and to the west of this place–isolated behind high passes–austere minor mountain ridges connect the Zanskar chain with the main Himalayan ridge, making it to look like a hanging garden. Besides The Land of the White Cauldron, they also call it Home of the Black Wolves and Ice Tundra…
Quite logically, I chose Gerry as my companion for several reasons. The first one was that he knew well this part of the world where he had done several wonderful journeys before. Apparently he had set his mind to filming all places in the world with similar charm and beauty. Besides he was a very healthy and intelligent person. The last thing shouldn’t be ignored, especially bearing in mind how the human nervous system gets exhausted through privation and hardships and what unsuspected changes can happen then to one’s character.
Gerry was one of the most travelled Bulgarians. He was either roaming, or “between two trips”. Everything else in his life was subordinate to this goal. He had wandered many times in the Andes; he had sailed in a yacht around Cape Horn; he had toured the island of Borneo and the Spitsbergen archipelago; he had been almost everywhere, but for him this was a trifle on the way to the next destination. There is no other Bulgarian knowing the Himalayas and Tibet as well as Gerry. With some friends he had trekked in the Zanskar Himalaya range as far back as in the 1980s. Many times, with bated breath, I have listened to the story about the snowstorm that came up that summer. Everything became paralysed, and some twenty trekkers managed to find refuge in a small cave, where they spent more than a week. Unfortunately, one of the guides died along with most of the horses…
And so, at 19:45 on January 4, 2007, the two of us, with a mountain of luggage, flew off for India. Without exaggerating, Gerry and I knew for sure that we would be the first Bulgarians to walk on Chadar.