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Thread: The Frozen River Trek [Zanskar Chadar Trek] and some glimpses of Leh in Winter

  1. #1

    The Frozen River Trek [Zanskar Chadar Trek] and some glimpses of Leh in Winter

    A Royal Enfield Bullet ride, a Flight and a sub-zero Ice Trek!! -> a lifetime travel experience from January 25 to February 6, 2012
    The region that we know as Zanskar is situated towards the south-west of Leh and is surrounded by the Himalayan, Zanskar ranges and mountains that border the Zanskar and Kashmir valley.

    Zanskar is like no place in India - it remains cut off from almost beginning of November till around June beginning [around 7-8 months in a year]; as of now it gets vehicular access only when the Pensi La opens up thus making the road journey from Padum and nearby places to Kargil possible and beyond then to Leh or Srinagar.

    As such this region having an altitude of around 12,000 to 13,000 feet and covering an areas of 7000 sq km remain totally cut off. Zanskar river which takes it form onwards Padum after merging with its different tributaries flows in a north-easterly direction through the dramatic Zanskar gorge and merging with Indus river; the confluence being at Nimmu, just on the outskirts of Leh on the Leh-Kargil road.

    As bitter winter comes up in the desolate valley, temperatures plummet and with the river mostly being in a gorge and thus having very little of direct sunlight mostly freezes over during the coldest months of mid January to mid February. Zanskaris since time immemorial, cut off during the winter months, have trekked on this river ice surface to reach Leh for their emergency supplies, education and also for the different winter religious festivals that take place in Leh.

    "CHADAR" refers to the blanket or sheet as the Zanskar river transforms itself from a rapid river into a white blanket of ice during winter, a frozen spectacle awaits the trekker to be experienced of glass ice ranging from a bluish tinge to golden yellow that is seen during the few hours that sunlight reaches directly into the gorge to the milky whitish on a moonlit night - as said a trek journey like no other!

    So without further ado lets get some introductory pics up in this post, as I go into much more details of this trek, on it came about, the myths and the realities and of course a lot of winter images. Nothing better than to see some real cold winter pics as we all head into a scorching summer!!

    Spectacular River Zanskar at the Tsomopaldar camp, make sure you spend a moonlit night over here!
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    And of course will be detailing about the Bullet ride of 1500 km, from Kolkata to Delhi, before the flight to Leh!!

    2004 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra - the last of the cast-iron with left side brake and neutral finder.

    On Kolkata - Delhi [NH2] highway

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    The stupendous travel ended with some winter pics of Leh

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    So, from next post onwards more about this travel, but first let me detail the myths and the realities as experienced by me as a trekker.


  2. #2

    Chadar Trek - Myth vs Reality! and why "Tenacity" is more important than "Difficulty"

    Just a very brief intro as to how this trek became a reality >> Chadar trek had been on my radar for the last couple of years and but looking at costs and holidays/days off required, it has always been postponed. But as luck would have it, with less work projected from the last week of Jan to 1st week of Feb, I began searching about just to fit a half Chadar trek. Thus began a search on the net and soon one of my good friend, Jay, told me of IndiaHikes through whom he had gone for one trek; was organising such a trek. Found out that they had a group slot starting on 29th January, 2012 and the date suited me the best. But what I liked much at the very first was the basic and straightforward articles written by Arjun Mazumdar, the co-founder of India Hikes, a fantastic trekker and gentleman. Plus this being a half Chadar trek [thus till Nerak Pullu], the cost of the trip was within reach.

    The Chadar Zanskar winter trek done by the different travel operators and agents can be classified into two categories, The Full Chadar trek and the Half/Mini Chadar trek.

    Both versions of the Chadar trek [Full and Half/Mini] starts from just beyond Chilling, around 70 km from Leh. Chilling at 3190 m or 10400 feet, is at a lower altitude than Leh [3524 m/11562 feet] and travellers will recall is also the starting/end point of many a beautiful trek or rafting during the summer tourist months.

    A full Chadar trek continues along the Zanskar river from near Chilling to Padum [3669 m/12,037 ft] - thus the trek goes up a slight incline as one walks along the river Zanskar. This takes approx 7 days from Chiling/Leh to Padum or around 15-17 days for the complete trek [ Leh/Chilling - Padum - Leh].

    The Mini or Half Chadar trek however continues till around Nerak Pullu camp [3330 m/10,900 ft] or up till the Lingshed village - again if one sees by altitude gain it is not at all that significant from Chilling altitude start point [10,400 feet]. This half trek takes around 3 days [another couple of days extra if going up to village Lingshed] and thus a total of 6-8 days for the to and fro journey.

    Now let us get to some of the observations based on my thoughts and experiences of the trek:

    1. Chadar trek is "Difficult". And why "Tenacity" should be used concurrently to grade any travel or trek

    While going for trek details, we all look how it has been graded and that mostly range from easy to challenging or difficult and the most obvious reason being the terrain. But what one overlooks is that there is another component that is included in that grading, that is "tenacity" i.e., perseverance or determination. Zanskar Chadar trek is one classic trek where major percentage of the grading that is stated as "Difficult to Challenging" has more of the "Tenacity" part.

    And tenacity is one big underlying basic for any travel. Tenacity is what has pulled us through as a family in our treks like that of Bangus and Kun base camp, or even our experience of being stuck in ice and snow at Zojila Pass for 48 hours or even our recent October 2011 journey to some most unknown places of the Kashmir Valley be it Gurez or Warwan valley.

    For a start, no better article than this one from Arjun Mazumdar of IndiaHikes.

    Arjun talks about why the Chadar frozen river trek is not as difficult as it looks. He also talks about why the expense of the Chadar trek makes it out of reach of most Indians.

    Arjun Majumdar talks about why the Chadar frozen river trek is not as difficult as it looks. He also talks about why the expense of the Chadar trek makes it out of reach of most Indians.

    The frozen river trek in Zanskar Ladakh in winter is supposed to be one of the toughest treks in the world. It is easy to see why.

    It is a 7 day trek in inhospitable conditions. It is a winter trek over a frozen river in Ladakh. Average mean temperature during the day is minus 15. In the night temperatures fall to minus 25 and 30. The desolate trek is over the ever changing Chadar frozen river. Ice forms, breaks and changes colour on the river every few hours. At places the Chadar (or ice) does not form over the river. Trekkers have to forge a new trail climbing over snow covered steep rocky banks of the river to again descend to a spot on the river where the ice is more stable.

    Travel magazines worldwide show incredible pictures of Buddhist monks walking bare feet on the frozen river. The Discovery and the National Geographic channels have both made films on the Chadar trek. Suddenly, Chadar is a difficult but a glamorous trek to do.

    Anyone who gets back from the Chadar trek adds to the aura around it by talking about the conditions in a revering way.

    The truth is that the conditions on the Chadar trek are something that is not difficult to beat. Temperatures in minus feel cold when you are not protected from the elements. This can be countered with multi-layered clothing and a very fit body. Five layers of clothing still feel cold but not colder than Delhi in winter. A fit body copes with intense cold lot more than an untrained body. A flexible body can tackle some of the rough terrain that comes in the way.

    If you take away the cold and the harshness of the terrain, Chadar is not a difficult trek terrain wise. It is an almost flat walk with some ups and downs. The terrain rarely makes you go breathless.

    As seen from the altitude figures from the first para, the walk is indeed almost flat, whether be it the 7-day half Chadar or the full trek for 16 days approx. What that article points out cutting down the hype is that if you have the fitness of a trekker you can do comfortably be on this trek. This is absolutely true and I tell from my experience - It is not difficult in that it tests your "tenacity" as a trekker pile up the days in that desolate, cold wild terrain.

    Zanskar trek is a walk in arctic conditions - through a gorge on a frozen river and conditions vary from to place to place. Because, all the coldness, the surface - from ice to rock to frozen and to sludge, the flowing river, and the falls or wading through one has to do, to the night bathroom runs to the all enveloping icy and cold gorge, tenacity gets tested by day 2 itself. And do remember, conditions are changing all the time and even though we follow the same route while going back, experiences, sights and sounds will still be different from what seen while going in.

    Soon enough if you are just looking down and just trying to get from one camp to another camp - by day 2 or 3 one is going to say to yourself "it is just a freaking trek by a same ice spectacle." And that is brought on by if one does not look out for the various unique things that going around all the time surrounding that frozen river - The different forms of blue tinge that ice has over here, the sound of ice slabs grounding each other as one by one sheets are formed, the brief time when the sun is directly overhead and the ice gorge takes a golden hue, the way the mountain changes from a frozen mud gorge to a more rocky kind as you progress more towards Nerak, etc., etc. - what my point is that if you don't see around you would get this feeling by the end of the 2nd/3rd day - it is the same! Why not return quickly and spend a day in Leh?

    Now I am meaning that if one thinks like this then it makes someone more or less of a trekker. No!

    What I say is that one has to judge for himself/herself like - Do I need a full or half trek to get that Chadar experience - which is of course unique. And based upon that decision, do make a choice. May be even a smaller trek would be better, like till the fantastic Tsomopaldhar [The first intro picture in the beginning], camp till there and come back to Leh. Believe me, you will still have the Chadar trek experience that may be enough for you!

    So, I would suggest to a traveller/trekker as to really think out for a minute before going out there : Which one do I go for -> The Full [16 days], or the Half [7 days], or may be even a shorter one for 4-5 days. Again, as said, it does not make one more or less of a trekker whether it is full, half, or mini but the whatever days that you spend out there on the Chadar; you must be able to to differentiate and feel something different from the previous day and thus the enjoyment and fulfillment would be the maximum - otherwise you are just going to think by the 2nd day, what a "freaking ice walk" and move yourself somewhat monotonously between camp to camp; soon or later you would be asking yourself if I can just "walk fast" and spend a day in Leh! Believe me, this thoughts do come!

    And walking fast will not help you to skip days if you are getting "bored" You just cannot stop anywhere and have a camp. Campsites are just not randomly chosen along the trek. With very minimal vegetation, firewood collection for cooking as well as for warmth is still a long tread for the porters. Sites are based upon where sunlight reaches the max, at least some minimal open ground, availability of natural caves where porters can stay and also where at least some dry wood is available for the night.

    So again, if you want sightseeing of Leh do keep a separate day in your initial plan itself. It may not be possible to take a day out from Chadar trek itself due to the varied conditions of ice and weather.

    Again these are my own personal observations so do take it like that way!

    2. Is it super cold - of course it is but it is not like that it is unbearable as is talked about!

    " Temperatures in minus feel cold when you are not protected from the elements. This can be countered with multi-layered clothing and a very fit body. Five layers of clothing still feel cold but not colder than Delhi in winter. A fit body copes with intense cold lot more than an untrained body. A flexible body can tackle some of the rough terrain that comes in the way."

    The first day one does feel cold since the first day itself per most trek schedules is just a bus ride to Chilling and then a short trek to the first camp. However walking along with that backpack is a great physical exercise and by next day noon/lunch camp one realizes that all this walking wonderfully gives great warmth to body, at least some of the layers of clothing is removed as the body gets heated. This is why layer dressing is very useful in this cold trek.

    Never allow yourself to have sweat, do stop to take out the layers as needed. By the last time of a days trek, I would be in just a simple track suit and a jacket or sweater and a Tshirt. However, once reached a base camp for the day, layers do become necessary as activities for the day as ended. Normally around 2-3 layers of clothing is enough during the night. Of course, this takes into account that you have/or have been provided with an adequate sleeping bag.

    3. And why are the costs high, i.e., why is it expensive?

    Continuing the IndiaHikes article

    Why Chadar is an expensive trek

    First, I found labor is expensive. Porter rates more than double in winter. And for a winter expedition you need more than the usual number of porters – just to carry the winter gears. Next, sourcing equipment is expensive in winter. Even mattresses cost Rs 100 a day to rent. But the biggest killer is food and fuel. Every food item has to be flown to Ladakh in winter. The government subsidizes food to an extent that is unbelievable. Even after the subsidy, food costs more than treble in winter. Fuel, like kerosene is frightfully expensive and worse, you need them in ample quantity just to stay warm. In the extreme cold cooking takes three times longer and naturally the fuel consumed is high. Another hidden killer I discovered is the stay in Leh. Hotels are mostly shut. Those that are open cost abnormally high – with central heating. A two-day stay in Leh is 25% of the trek cost. Finally, considering the icy conditions a trek team to Chadar cannot be big to spread the costs. A team of 10-12 trekkers is considered very large. The inability to spread the cost of the trek over a larger number of trekkers increases the overall cost of the trek too.
    Expense thus depends primarily upon these 4 points:

    1. The no. of days spent in Chadar.

    2. No of trekkers in your group.

    3. Travel operator/agent's facilities. The more "luxury" your needs [i.e. food, equipment, etc.] are during the trek, more the costs. This also includes your choice of hotel and extra days spent in Leh. Few hotels are open, the basic will have a portable LPG room heater [around Rs 1000 a day] to the mid range and luxury ones having proper heated rooms [Rs 2000 and up].

    4. Travel operator itself. A travel operator based in Leh/Zanskar would generally be cheaper than if you go through an operator based in other city and passing that on to an operator in Leh. Of course there will be some exceptions to this point.

    The average basic price as of 2012 is around Rs 2800-3000 per day per person including Leh hotel tariff.

    Enough of introductory observations, for next post onwards the travel and trek story and a whole lot of pics!


  3. #3

    The ride, the flight and the trek

    So how does a born "Bulleteer" head off towards Leh from Kolkata for the Zanskar Chadar trek?

    By a Royal Enfield Bullet of course!

    Now why a "born Bulleteer", if there is a term like that!

    Getting back to few reminisces>>> In my school days I used to stay at Durgapur since both my parents were working out there at the Steel Plant. My father had a Royal Enfield which he bought second hand, in 1968, all gleaming and with real good chrome rims written "Made in England". It had the original Amal carburetor and so by eight I was riding it up and it was a big thing for someone at that age; it has to be - riding a Bullet at class eight.

    This one is still there with us and still an everyday ride for father and also for me - as and when I need that undiluted old style beat! Seen here my father with the Royal Enfield, 1968
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    As it is said, a Bullet is Bullet and there nothing like that and so never ever gave a thought to the car and it was much that feeling for long. The car experience, in early years, was our Ambassador Mark II.

    But those were school days, class 11 and 12, though the car and sometimes a friend's jeep left an impression, - nothing came close to a Bullet for getting that rebel grind. Just loved the way some parents used to cringe when I took their wards for a ride and hear them quietly say - this bugger, no parent discipline and making our child go with the wrong tide.

    Well then after 12, 1991, moved out to other places for studies and thus there came up one big hiatus for my 2 wheeler and 4 wheeler rides to back again in around 1990 when I returned back to Calcutta to start my Bullet rides again, sometimes solo, and of course the four-wheel drives came up in a big way as Safari VTT was bought in October 2007.

    Haven't even had to try out any other motorcycle till now! It has been a Royal Enfield always from class 8 and it still is now that I am almost 40 years old.
    Though at first I had train tickets for the journey to Delhi, but suddenly on having a talk with my good friend, Jawed, who incidentally is also a member of the Eastern Bulls, come to know that there is a Rider Mania meet going on in Delhi around the exact time I need to be in Delhi for the Leh flight.

    Everything was decided fast soon enough. No Duranto train to Delhi, the Royal Enfield Electra had been not used enough for long rides, and so I hook up with the Eastern Bull riders for Delhi and what a fabulous ride it had been.

    We parted out just before Gurgaon on Friday night, when I headed off towards a budget hotel [Bharat Homes -> 0124 - 4214332/33] at Sector 45. Booked the bike in Gati for its return journey to Kolkata [courier company] - again thanks much to Jawed for all the help and making this ride possible!

    So let the travel pics start now!!

    An open road and the legendary thump - nothing ever comes to close to this!!
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    Stopping for fresh cane juice somewhere in Jharkhand.

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    Some 400 km done and 1100 km to go
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    With Jawed, somewhere near Dehri-on-Sone where we stopped for the night.

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    Republic Day Jan 26, 2012 near Allahabad

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    And a second sunset near Kanpur, the 2nd stop in the trip

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    With the Eastern Bulls at Firozabad, a great lunch invitation was there courtesy a great gentleman rider of the group
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    And thats me in inset
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    Wikipedia --> Rider Mania (RM) is an event hosted by Royal Enfield Member clubs in India every year. The event was initiated in 2003 to commemorate the spirit of motorcycling. Riders and biking clubs across the country gather for the 2 day fest. Came across riders from Jamshedpur as they headed towards Maneswar for Rider Mania 2012
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    As Jawed and other Eastern Bulls headed towards Maneswar for RM 2012, I head of in search of the hotel in sector 45 in Gurgaon. The hotel's guard and manager took a couple of minutes to understand that at 10 pm in the night, someone is checking in from Kolkata riding a motorcycle.

    The next day was just rest and shopped around for a 65 L trek bag in Gurgaon itself

    Bike dispatched via Gati and a flight from Delhi early morning of Jan 29, 2012, to Leh. At the wonderful T3 terminal

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    Mountain ranges as one approaches Leh
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    Met up with Mr Qayoom again, we got acquainted by chance at the Nubra guest house at Hunder during our October 2010 self-drive Ladakh and Changthang travel.

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    Some good conversation with all of his family and some great help from him. He himself gave his fantastic goose down sleeping bag, a pair of real yak woolen socks, and a fantastic jacket too. Insisted that I take those just in case if I needed. Also thanks much to him for insisting that I buy gumboots. As seen later on during our return trek, gumboots were indispensable.
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    A clear early morning on the trek day, the best of weather that one can get
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    From Leh a 2-hour bus ride towards Chilling, the start point of the trek. The most spectacular point during the bus transit is the confluence of Zanskar and Indus near Nimu.
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    The trek begins from just beyond Chilling [what an appropriate name!], as far as the track goes. Road is being constructed from both ends, i.e, from Leh side as well as from Padum side. Being cut off for 7-8 months of a year, it would be a big relief for the Zanskaris - Chadar trek would then at the most be an enthusiast's trek as the road gets completed in some 4-5 years from now.
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    The first day is a short one and that is the day cold hits the hardest , but as said one does gets accustomed to it!
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  4. #4
    Taking photographs on the Chadar frozen river trek is somewhat challenging. And again no better way to put it than this very lucid post, again from IndiaHikes. IndiaHikes text is in quotes and some of my observations as addendum.

    One, the temperature is always in minus. Mean day temperature runs at minus ten degrees. In the night the temperature drops to around minus twenty. In these circumstances, an avid photographer needs an inhuman amount of mental grit to compose a photograph. If composing a photograph is not enough, he/she must also adjust light, aperture settings to suit the conditions – all the time keeping their fingers exposed to the cold.

    Two, There are no open views of mountains or any other scenery. Capturing the ever changing nature of the canyons (which change by the minute and hour) is a test of the photographer’s skill.

    , the ambient light is less on the Chadar trek. The sun is fleeting and almost overhead when it touches the canyons. This presents a problem of lighting for most photographers who prefer the early morning or late evening sun.
    And if you are carrying a DSLR, had Canon 60D with me with 2 lenses, one is lugging another 2 kg of camera equipment. My DSLR was hanging down from neck and with a trek bag weight of 8-10 kg, it did take a day to get myself come around to operating the camera efficiently. With both hands on the heavy DSLR camera but standing on slippery hard ice, a spectacular fall sometimes is inevitable. I fell down a couple of times taking pictures, trying to bend to take the whole of mountain side along with the ice, but somehow managed to keep the camera up!

    As in any trek, an enthusiast small camera like Canon G series may be better considering all options - and nowadays even most point-and-shoots have some individual user control options.

    Night photography is quite an ordeal, I did not carry a tripod and do regret it, but definitely remember its again an added weight. As said a moonlit night in Zanskar is something beyond belief!

    For DSLR cameras with somewhat minimal video usage, batteries will last for 2 days - of course remove the cells from camera and have them inside pockets while in sleeping bag.

    For pencil batteries [AA and AAA] it is better always to buy Sanyo Eneloop ones, they retain most of the charge even at -20 C !

    Automatic in-camera metering may not work out majority of situations with white to bluish ice, shadowy mountains and gorge and then the momentary periods of bright sunlight. But of course all said and done, as in any travel taking pics and going through them later on do bring back great memories and experiences; and then suddenly you do realize that it was worth all the trouble and awkwardness!

    Anyway enough of gyan, and so let the pics of Chadar start now! All images are not in day-wise sequence and thus random.

    Immediately the grandeur of Chadar leaves a trekker awestruck.

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    And when sunlight comes through, its an amalgamation of colours and reflection

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    Our trek guide and leader, Namgyal-ji along with porter Mutup-ji - fantastic persons to say the least. Seen also in middle is fellow trekker
    Deepak from Mumbai
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    Stark landscape but determination beyond imagination - porters carrying the maximum weight move along the Chadar
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    "Tarlok" - this is term that local Zanskaris use for the periodic process of old ice going down and flipping and new ice forming on top. Once this happens, the Chadar formed is the strongest.
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    Lotus shaped ice patches flow down River Zanskar, amazing sight!

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    And of course the frozen waterfalls are there a plenty!

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    And definitely that is a customary photo for any trekker, and thus a must for me too!
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    And of course one on the Chadar
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    Ice and mountain landscape at its best!
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    And the support people, the porters, who make all this possible for us
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    And in all this hustle and bustle, the porters do stop to catch up with some old friend moving along the Zanskar Chadar.

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    Last edited by adc; 29th February 2012 at 04:25 PM.

  5. #5

    In Zanskar Chadar artic conditions, sunlight is much valued. Trekkers and porters alike catch up with last of sunlight as moonrise is seen in background

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    Campsites are just not randomly chosen along the trek. With very minimal vegetation, firewood collection for cooking as well as warmth is still a long tread for the porters. Sites are based upon where sunlight reaches the max, at least some minimal open ground, natural caves where porters stay and also where at least some dry wood is available for the night.

    A porter returns late evening gathering firewood. Sometimes they have to go up to even 2 hours from camp sites to get some dry wood!
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    And as night falls, the caves and tents light up as porters and trekkers gather for heat and comfort from the biting cold

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    Do spend a time enjoying with the support people before retiring to your tent - the ever cheerfulness and free spirit among all the hardships and responsibilities is another experience in itself!

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    And one will gaze in wonderment as moonlight swathes the Zankar gorge, river and the Chadar.

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    The camp fire glow and the moonlit milky white surroundings of stars, clouds, river and ice

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