Chadar, India: The end of the Ice Road – in pictures | Travel

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Michał and myself began our Before its Gone project at the start of 2017, with the aim of identifying, visiting and documenting locations and communities that are experiencing rapid (and irreversible) changes. The idea is to notice these changes so they can be remembered – and learned from.

Our first expedition was along the frozen Zanskar river that links Ladakh and Zanskar in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. When the temperature drops to -30C and mountain passes get covered with metres of snow, the Zanskar region becomes inaccessible for the winter, and the frozen river the only route connecting the region with the rest of the world. Villagers across the mountains use Zanskar to get to school, work or to see a doctor. It has been that way for hundreds of years: locals using Chadar (the ice road trek), but that will change soon, as the Indian government plans to build a new road here. However, as our translator Stanzin Tundup told us, the road may not be the biggest engine for change.

Chadar, Ice Road map.

“When I did Chadar for the first time, 20 years ago, our main problem was access to drinking water, as the ice sheet was so thick. Now, due to mild winters, the ice sheet is thinner each year. Conditions on Chadar are becoming harder to predict. It won’t be the new road that will end Chadar — it will be climate change.”



Mateusz Waligóra in Leh.

After delays in Delhi, we finally got to the start of our expedition in Leh – a town in the middle of the Indian Himalayas. There was one more obstacle in our way, though: to trek Chadar a permit is needed.

Panorama from the palace window, Leh.



Panorama from the palace window, Leh

Due to heavy snowfall permits were not being issued and Chadar remained closed for five days. In places, the ice had been destroyed by the avalanches.

Due to heavy snowfall permits were not being issued and Chadar remained closed for five days. In places, the ice had been destroyed by the avalanches. In Leh, a few days earlier, a local had tried to convince us that it never snows in the town. They were wrong.



View of a snowy Leh

A local chanting silent prayers after turning prayer wheels.



A local chanting silent prayers after turning prayer wheels

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Ladakh became a refuge for some Tibetans and Leh itself became the Buddishm centre of India.

A lone figure walks in front of a Buddhist temple in Leh.



Buddhist temple in Leh

While in Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh, we are told that in the Hemis monastery (40km away) we can try and meet His Holiness XII Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Drukpa lineage was founded in 1206. The annual Hemis festival honoring Padmasambhava is held here in early June.

In Choglamsar we are told that in the nearby Hemis monastery we can try and meet His Holiness XII Gyalwang Drukpa



Walking near Choglamsar

On the road we find that we have company, two Buddhist nuns. Jigmet Rangun, one of seven siblings, was the first person I talked to about the potential changes and developments that the building of the new road might bring.

Mateusz talks to Jigmet Rangun



Mateusz talks to Jigmet Rangun

The monks at Hemis turn out to be very hospitable and we are invited for a common meal in the canteen.

Monk at Hemis monastery.



Monk at Hemis monastery

After days of waiting we are granted a Chadar permit and head towards a place where the river Zanskar meets the river Indus. The latter – due to the current being much stronger – freezes much less

En route for the ice road trek.



En route for the ice road trek

There are bridges that allow us to cross the river on the first few miles of the rather boastfully named Zanksar Highway – which is, in fact, a narrow, rock-hewn tarmac-covered path.

There are bridges that allow us to cross the river on the first few miles of the rather boastfully named Zanksar Highway – which is, in fact, a narrow, rock-hewn tarmac covered path.



Bridge on the Zanksar Highway

The construction workers on the road are mainly from Nepal, as well as from the poorest regions of India. For many of these workers these gruelling conditions will also be their first encounter with cold and snow.

The road construction workers are mainly from Nepal and from the poorest regions of India. For many of these workers it is the first encounter with cold and snow – while working in these gruelling conditions



Construction workers at the roadside

The river can change rapidly. It can be an ice block-dotted slow-moving body of water or it can be narrow and extremely fast wild. Scary in both cases, especially when you realise how thin the ice can be.

The river can change rapidly. It can be an ice blocks dotted slow moving body of water or it can be a narrow and extremely fast wild rapids. Scary in both cases, especially when you realize how thin the ice can be



By the river Zanskar


Vibration together with the hum of the river flowing beneath you is a sensation that cannot be described and has to experienced

Ice camping the by Zanskar river.



Ice camping by the Zanskar river

For many locals the Chadar trek is their main source of income during the winter. Often, their main role is that of porter for Indian tourists, many from Mumbai and Delhi – and the numbers have been increasing every year.

Porters carrying packs.



Porters carrying packs

The ongoing construction of the Zanskar Highway will, ultimately, allow the people across the region to have improved access to education and health services. However, it isn’t all positive, as the new road will also usher in new ways of doing things and this “modern” civilisation will, as a result, push tradition, heritage and culture to the fringes – and the risk is that these precious things are then forgotten.

The porters take a break to cook food over an open fire.



The porters take a break

Construction workers take a break to pose for the camera.



Porters pose for the camera

Many of the locals, such as Tashi, pictured below, still wear traditional, woollen coats, called gontshe.

Local man Tashi poses for the camera.



Tashi

Ladakhi women often wear colourful clothes, which matches the prayer flags seen with such frequency here, and also adds vibrancy to what is a harsh landscape.

Ladakhi women are as colorful as it gets - which matches the prayer flags and adds vibrance to the harsh landscape. Here, two women sit by the streetside with their dog, in the sunshine.



Ladakhi women

A short, wooden bridge near the village of Nierak marked the location where, after many cloud-filled days, we first got a proper glimspe of the sun during our expedition.

029 A short, wooden bridge near Nierak marks the location where we first encountered Sun during our expedition



Wooden bridge near Nierak



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