The Penguin Walk


Explore out Discover within!!

By: Monica Shah (Corporate HR, Learning & Development)

Bear the freeze, hear the sound of the waves, carry the pain of the rucksack, walk with a pole stick, play golf on an ice sheet, fall on your bump, ooch…be careful, yet keep walking slowly…

Today, I pen down my travel experience, which narrates the story of a river.

In the winter, the rivers of the Himalayas freeze. One among them is now a narrow, serpentine road of ice. Beneath the ice, a river trickles, flows, gushes, but the surface is hard and the people from the mountains have learnt to walk on it.  Sometimes they burst into a run even though they have time for everything, just for the fun of it. They carry enormous items on their back or in a Sledge on which sit their children among utensils and vegetables. The key to walk on this road is to perform   the ‘Penguin walk’.

After lots of planning , one fine day , I along with my friend decided to take this penguin walk on the frozen stretch of the Zanskar River in Ladakh, popularly known by the name of ‘Chadar’ Trek.  ‘Chadar’ is blanket in Hindi.

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The challenge of the trip started right from when I made the proposal to my friends  . With everyone excited , upbeat and ready-to-go , I booked the ‘Altitude Adventures’ package . However, the day I booked the tickets, I realized only 3 of us were sure to make  the trip. Eventually me along with  a couple of other friends convinced the other members and totally 7 of us finally made it for the trip.  The seven members were Priyanka, Akanksha, Gaurav, Pradeep, Paras, Kush & myself… Monica

It was a great feeling to see the whole Ladakh valley from the air. It was as if the whole aircraft was entering a snow capped dreamland. Huge valleys white-washed with snow and frozen rivers cutting through them. As we landed at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport at Leh ,  the captain announced it is -7 Degrees outside. Looking out of the window, a cold shudder ran through me and our journey began in the cold desert of the Ladakh valley.

We only had one day to acclimatize ourselves to the high altitude and luckily none of us had any problems. We just ensured we did nothing but  rest at our hotel and take a few small walks, play with kids, watch ice hockey live and end our day with last minute shopping from the local market and pack our rucksack.

Next morning , We had our breakfast, anxiously listened to the stories of few travelers who could not make it to the Nyerak waterfalls due to harsh climatic conditions and got ourselves mentally prepared .  A Tempo Traveler arrived  and picked 7 of us from our hotel and transported us to the starting point of our trek called Chilling. There began our much awaited journey on ‘Chadar’- the frozen Zanskar river.

It was a good 3 to 4 hour journey where the inky, dark road snakes through the wide, white mountains . We got out of our vehicle to take in the first sight of ‘Chadar’ and did a photo-shoot at Nimmu, a confluence of the rivers – Indus and Zanskar. Culturally and geo- politically, both these mighty rivers are extremely important to the vast region of Asia.

From Nimmu  we bid adieu to Indus following the mesmerizing beautiful trail  of Zanskar. With a nice bumpy ride filled with scenic view, humming a few songs, photo-shooting , we reached Chilling.

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The jeep dropped us few kilometers ahead of Chilling. At that point we had to make a 45 degree steep descent into the valley for the first steps on the frozen Zanskar and make a Penguin walk. While each one of us were slowly trying to cross the steep rocky canyon with our gumboots and fully geared attire, I  happened to slip  and landed on the frozen Zanskar like a boulder in a landslide and rolled down and landed on the ‘Chadar’.  I was alive and relieved. The porter of our group asked me where I needed to be stitched upto which I replied , ” Chacha, Bhagwan ki duwa ki hum theek hai aur zindaa hai” , all he did was pat on my back and whispered in my ears, ” aap farishta ho” .

As we were running late, our guide  Stanzing  , informed us that we have to trek for an hour to our first camping point Tilat Do. We geared ourselves up  , took our rucksack and followed our guide.  He taught us the trick to walk on ‘Chadar’. Take baby steps and do not lift your legs, this was his mantra. Keeping this trick in mind, we all were consciously trying our best to emulate a penguin. As we were walking, Stanzing also mentioned to us to be careful of the thick and thin sheet of ice and how to make our moves in those sheets. While we were learning the tricks , our friend Kush had a misfortune to step into a thin sheet of ice and experience the chilling cold water on his feet. This dip in cold water is dangerous as one may immediately catch a  cold and high fever. Hence, Stanzing immediately called all of us and asked us to provide Kush with fresh pair of socks. He helped Kush to come out of this shock. Finally, after overcoming some more challenges, we reached our camp site ‘Tilat Do’ safely.  In the evening, we were in the groove with a few dance moves , sang a few songs and finally gazed at the stars. Although our cook kept on reminding us to have food, all we did was to ask him and the entire team of porters to join us in our madness of dance and music. After star gazing, we went to our tents, slipped into our sleeping bags and tried catching up on our sleep.

The day started early. With difficulty we came out of our sleeping bags, freshened up and had breakfast.

In a few minutes, we all got ready for our next journey to Shingra Koma.

Shingra Koma was  a 10 km long trek. It was a very tricky walk for all of us because the ‘Chadar’ was not formed well at all the places. We had to take detours on the rocky walls and manage to find a better ‘Chadar’. Our trek guide from Zanskar – Stanzing was at his best , guiding all of us all along the way. On the way, as we took a detour to cross a rough patch, our friend Paras slipped. Luckily, he could balance himself on one hand. However, his entire body weight came in his right hand with 11 kgs of rucksack weight. He was badly injured- our fifth challenge. He could not  carry his own rucksack and we had to request our porters to help us out. As per our guides experience, it seemed to be a fracture. Hence, he tied up a scarf around his neck.  Post lunch, we started walking and now after so many challenges our group started a walk with a prayer. As we were walking, we were mind-blown , seeing so many frozen waterfalls. The ‘Chadar’ surface can be of various kinds – a coating of fresh powder snow, hard and shiny ice, a freshly formed ‘Chadar’ (sheet of ice), a ‘Chadar’ that is weak and breaking or another new texture. Doing a penguin kind of walk on such a surface without lifting one’s feet too much off the ground is the key. While we learned to walk on the thick slippery sheet of ice, most of us kept falling while walking. It was funny but it was unavoidable.  We managed to reach the Shingra Koma campsite in about 7 hours’ time from Tilat Sumdo. Throughout the walk, we enjoyed the scenic view of ‘Chadar’, met other mountaineers (Zule), and enquired whether they could make it to Nyerak waterfalls  .

The campsite was set up dramatically under the huge stone walls where Zanskar makes a near U turn. It is believed that Shingra Koma gets its name from a medicinal plant called ‘Shingra’ which is abundantly available in that particular valley. We took small walks around the camp site and  met people from other camps. Our guide Stanzing found a physiotherapist from another group and asked him to visit our tent for Paras. We saw that all other groups were  enjoying the chilly cold weather with fire camps. In the meanwhile , our group was having fun in the tent  watching one of the most funny and epic movies of all time-  ANDAZ AAPNA AAPNA. With this, we went to our sleeping bags and called it a day.

Our group was bit lazy to start early, we took our sweet time for everything  and believed in living in the moment. We saw beautiful golden rays on the mountains and its reflection on the water made the sight mesmerizing. With this view in the background, we had our morning breakfast, wound up in our tents & bags and started our journey to Tibb

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Our journey from Shingra Koma to Tibb was a long one. We had to trek almost 17 kms on this day and at places we had to manage ourselves crawling below the narrow cliffs or climb tough terrain mountains where ‘Chadar’ was formed only on the corners of Zanskar. This  was one of the most beautiful days of our trek where we could experience and learn about ‘Chadar’ better. The beautiful sounds it makes while forming and the hollow sounds it creates while walking. We were better accustomed by then to identify how hollow the ice was just by the sound it makes while walking.

There were many frozen waterfalls all along the way and also caves on the walls of the gorge. The surprising sight of the day was when we reached a place where we could see a live waterfall to our left. History says that one year Nyerak ran dry and a holy man went to Kailash to pray for water. He came back with a pot full of water and 2 fishes. The condition was that he does not place the pot anywhere. On the journey back, it so happened that he placed the pot and two fishes jumped off creating this massive waterfall. The rocks behind seem to have two nostrils. One which is full of water and the other dry. According to a legend, this waterfall has its source at Kailash in Tibet (source: Indiahikes). One more interesting sighting of the day was that of the Zanskar River , which passes through narrow gorges where the width of the river can be covered by 4 people holding hands. The narrow gorge hardly gets any sunlight and the river looks as if it is nonexistent. After a good  9 hours trek and crossing the narrowest strip of ‘Chadar’, we reached our third campsite Tibb.

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When we woke up in the morning, we were delighted to experience snowfall. It was like a dream come true for many of us as we were wishing to see the snowfall. It was  just sublime.  It also made our trek on Chadar very easy. When I came out of my tent, it was a beautiful sight to see  white cover everywhere

Trek from Tibb to Nyerak was about 12 kms and all along the way we saw many frozen waterfalls. We also were very lucky that ‘Chadar’ had formed very well and we did not have to take as many detours as we did in the initial few days. About 800m before the Nyerak campsite, we got to witness the much awaited frozen waterfall of the trek;  an ice fall and a breathtakingly beautiful sight for all the trekkers after a hard day of walk close to 12 kms.

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Nyerak was our last campsite. It is a beautiful setting with Nyerak village at 2000ft higher than the Zanskar river bed and requires a 45 minute steep climb. There is a lone shelter at Nyerak campsite which serves as a Rafting point in the summer months. During winters, it serves as a shelter for the Chadar trekkers. We were fortunate to get into the shelter and get some warmth. We had  good interactions with the locals and got to learn a lot from them on their lifestyle and culture.

Nyerak is known for its notoriously cold nights and winds. The temperature can dip as low as -25 or lower. This was the coldest point of our trek. Day temperature read -18C. Although the village is 2000 ft above the river bed, the beauty of the village can be seen witnessed from the base itself. The blue sky, blue waters of Zanskar, and the frozen waterfall turn the whole surroundings into blue, and a Grand Canyon kind of feel emerges .

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Surprisingly it was a complete change of ‘Chadar’ status during our return. Due to 2 days of snowfall, the ‘Chadar’ was covered with fresh snow that made it a lot easier for us to walk. And due to sudden dip in the temperatures, the Chadar formation was so quick that many patches of the  Zanskar River that was flowing during our latter half journey was completely covered by ‘Chadar’. For us it was difficult to even trace back the same route and that’s the beauty of the ‘Chadar’. It changes overnight and gives a new look altogether the next day. While we returned to Tibb, the ‘Chadar’ was completely different.

Shingra Koma was one of the beautiful campsites in the whole trail. Wider walls of the gorge , and the artistically formed cliffs with many layers clearly carved on them by some natural artist , invites every person to drool over them. When the sun shines , the thick sheet of ‘Chadar’ that is formed reflects its elegance and shines all the way for us to experience bliss. During our onward journey to Nyerak, Zanskar could still be seen, heard and felt,  but when we returned back to Shingra Koma, there was no sign of any sounds except the hollowness felt on the ice and a feeling that we always carried that we are walking on the river. We had gotten so used to walking on Chadar that on the last few days, we could even manage to run on Chadar. Slipping and falling with both the legs going up was a common sight for all of us.

On the last day of our trek, we returned to Tilat Sumdo almost effortlessly and the boys decided to take a dip in Zanskar.

Subzero temperatures in the Himalayan winter is something I experienced for the first time.. The idea is to be dressed in layers . On Chadar, it used to be alright while walking, but when I took a break to rest for a while, my legs used to go numb and start cramping. I had a tough time taking photographs with my gloves on and every time I clicked a picture, I used to take my gloves off and that became torturous. At campsites, most of us used to get into the dining tent which used to be the warmest because all of us could fit into one tent easily. To come out of our tents in the night to attend to natures call used to be nightmarish. Now when I look back and think, it was fun!

Coming back to my journey itself, it was absolutely beautiful. I always look forward to such spiritual journeys that allows me to connect  with nature and learn from it in retrospect. It also makes me push beyond my limits both physically and mentally to overcome challenges and take risks. I like making new friends and this trip allowed me to connect with many interesting people who share similar interests. During this journey, I could spend a lot of time with myself, walking, realizing and feeling tiny in front of the huge gorges and valleys.

Once I was back in Mumbai, I had to make the following adjustments :

Getting acclimatized to Mumbai…
Transition  from -25 degrees to + 25 degrees;
No network to full network range;
Slow & peaceful life to the hustle bustle ;
Warm hearted people to hypocrites;
Listening soothing flowing water sound to honking on roads;

Penguin walk to Parade!
Let me know if you want to know more about this trek & if this piece drew any inclination towards taking one yourself .

14 thoughts on “The Penguin Walk

  1. Beautiful Monica. Well written. Wishing you many more such treks. You are nearest to God, when you are nearest to nature. All the very best,

  2. Hey Monica, amazing experience sharing! Loved the pictures too!
    This trek is on my list for upcoming treks. Is it possible for you to share more details about it since I am planning to go this February?

    1. Hey Bhagyesh,
      Thanks for your kind words.
      Since we had long chat, I will just say, go for it and all the very best!

      Regards,
      Monica Shah

  3. HI Monica,
    It takes lot of courage to even think about Chadar trek…and u and your friends have done that. hats off!!

  4. Hi Monica,
    Really enjoyed reading your travelogue!
    Can share when did you exactly went for the trek; the duration and the cost of the trek?

    1. Hey Gaurav, Thanks for your kind words.
      I had been there in the month of Feb for ten days. I did 75kms trek in seven days . Two days were buffer and one day for acclimatization.
      The cost of only trek was Rs. 18500/-
      Regards,
      Monica Shah

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