The Chadar – Frozen Zanskar

A broken wrist & long walk over a rock hard, crystal white, slippery floor made out of river water, subzero temperature, water flowing under broken ice bergs, near death experiences, no nearby habilitation and night camping under billions of stars while temperature falls to -40°C………..Now that’s what I can declare an experience of Life Time. 

Chadar Trek is a very popular high altitude 62-65 kms trek over frozen Zanskar river in North of India. Best time to do this trek is December & January in extreme winter season of this barren land. It’s around 65 Kms trek over the frozen Zanskar river water surrounded by very high vertical cliffs on both sides of river. Trek starts from Shingra Koma village; approx. 3-4 hours scenic drive from Leh-Ladakh. Couple of tourist spots like magnetic hill, confluence of Zanskar & Indus rivers are on the route.  

I did a lot trekking in the past, but this was unequivocally something very different for many reasons. For example, this trek has its own funny way to make you realise & punish at the same time for smallest mistake you make while walking. When I started the trek on first day, I expected a lot of challenges, beautiful ice structures, exquisite landscapes, river tempo under thick/thin ice giving birth to fear in heart & mind; however what I didn’t think about is when you hit a hard surface while falling under a frozen river you break some of your bones and that near death experience make you think again what all you left unfinished. 

Well! every day had some adventure & memories but real adventure for me started on Day 4 while coming back from Naerak – The summit of Chadar Trek. I was little faster than the group and way ahead of them, walking lonely on the river bed, watching peaks on both sides and nothing but white sheet on the ground & blue sky over head. I crossed hardly 2 kms when a sudden and abrupt crack opened in the river causing my left leg going inside of river. With quick reflexes, I managed to regain my balance using my left hand on the floor of river and ultimately breaking my wrist but saving my life by going inside of furiously flowing river. I felt excruciating pain so lied down there for some time before I could think again of moving. I tried to see in hope if anyone around to help but then realised I am doing Chadar Trek. 🙂 I walked around 3 kms to base with my left wrist on right hand and even a slightest fumble was taking my life away in pain. Once I reached base, tried some lotion and crepe bandage. Now the real challenge was to walk with that broken hand for 3 more days to reach Leh city, somehow that was done successfully with painkillers and of course, without my rucksack. A long hot bath followed by chilled brew were the last milestones.

A plaster for wrist & hand was the return gift of Chadar Trek. And above all the unforgettable terrain, frozen waterfalls, deserted landscapes, Ladakhi’s hardship, local’s generosity and an unpromised return journey were few of many reasons for a lifetime encounter.

The last Buddhist Kingdom

The last Buddhist Kingdom of world that came up with philosophy of Gross National Happiness instead measuring it’s growth only with economy, is very peaceful, picturesque, kind, culturally rich and greenest environment territory. With less than even 1 million population, this very small country situated in the lap of the great Himalayas will amaze you with its cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes, Himalayan views, ancient monasteries and unpretentious people living a simple nature loving life. In my 10 days solo backpacking and sleeping in monasteries or roadside hotels/dhabas I never felt unsafe even for a second and the Welcome I got everywhere was heavenly.

My entry to this country was quite dramatic from starting and ended the same way with a truck ride. Being an Indian I had the privilege to enter the country without a visa (just a permit needed at border) and by road…. literally saying I just walked from India to Bhutan like walking in my courtyard and crossing the gate. I took a flight from Delhi-Bagdogra then got a shared taxi to Bhutan’s border village Phuensholing around 170 kms and there I was… walking in Bhutan. When I say my entry was dramatic it’s because after reaching there for my unplanned trip they told me I can’t get permit on weekends to continue my journey and would have to stay in Phuensholing for 2 nights, which would ultimately impact my budget and plan to explore more in less time. When I enquired more only to comprehend that they don’t give permits on weekends because Indians (from the border states) take unwelcomed road trips in weekends and create a havoc and trash so they are putting such measures to keep their environment safe. I might have felt bad as an Indian but as a traveler I had a huge smirk knowing this fact.

With no other option I took a small hotel, went for dinner and while having some dialogues with owner about my trip & Bhutan, he asked me to wait and called someone. By the time I finished my dinner, I was sitting in front of a permit officer who ultimately arranged me permit for capital city of Thimphu and gave me more information that how will I get rest of the permits on Monday from Thimphu… BINGO a Lottery it was.

Next morning, I took a shared cab and reached Thimphu in 4 Hrs. I think this is the only modern city which can give you a city like feeling. For a country which introduced television in 1999 (the last country on earth doing so), this city gives you everything hotels, malls, bars, nightclubs combined with historical official buildings, The king residence and many prominent monasteries with ancient buddha architecture. Some of these monasteries are also used official & administrative buildings of government of Nepal, like Tashichhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) as Ministry of Home affairs & Finanace. You can also visit National Post Office which is also famous among stamp collectors and where I got district permits to visit rest of the Bhutan. There are national libraries, museums and handcrafts as well in Thimphu with a small & cute cinema hall, in case you stay long and have ample time to explore it all.

You can travel within Bhutan only by road, there is no railway or metros. That gives you actually better chance to explore the culture closely and see more natural beauty as you are always on the road in open….. my favorite way to travel really. 80 to 85 kms from Thimphu was my next stop Punakha- A small hamlet in valley near the confluence of famous rivers Mo (female river) & Pho (male river). In between the rivers, there is countries second largest & oldest Punakha Dzong after Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu valley. The construction & architecture of traditional Dzongs are said to be never planned and built on the base of higher callings or spiritual inspirations. You can read more about Dzongs in many Tibetan literatures.

On the halfway to Punakha, I took a morning breakfast stop at mountain pass of  Dochu La. At 3100 mtr. height, this pass gives you view of highest mountain of Bhutan Gangkar Puensum and exquisite view of whole valley. Dochu la pass also welcomes you with 108 stupas structure built in a circle in the middle of mountain pass. All these chortens or stupas are painted with sacred hymns, gods images & prayer bells. There is more to it which taxi driver told me but I couldn’t catch or remember all of it. So after a lip-smacking breakfast with taxi guy in the only restaurant of mountain pass headed towards Punakha.

After reaching Punakha, first thing I did is taking a dip in that placid river and feeling the chilled water on my face, then got a hotel room in this old capital of Bhutan where everyone was as calm as the river water I just dipped into. Punakha Dzong was like 5-6 kms walk from my hotel and road to Dzong was parallel to river. I loved this second oldest Dzong more because of the perfect location and habitats around it and wooden bridge crossing over the Mo river makes it more mesmerizing with each step you take on that wooden carved bridge. After spending some time here I went back to village and rested after lunch. Then there is this place like 12 kms uphill trek to Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, it’s a nice, long & lonesome walk to this Buddhist nunnery & on top, you get full view of Punakaha valley from its huge courtyard. It was built by Queen of Bhutan and taken care by Royal Family only. The main sanctum of this place has 14 ft bronze statue of Avalokitesvara with many other deities statues surrounding with wonderful Buddhist architecture. Another wonderful spot of Punakha is Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten crossing though throbbing & famous suspension bridge of Punakha.

Now from Punakha I decided to visit Haa valley first before I go to Paro, which are on the same way by crossing Thimphu. Via Thimphu- Paro highway, there is a diversion after crossing Paru chcu (river) for Haa valley  which is just next to Bondey bridge and that’s where shared taxi dropped me at 4 PM. Now it’s almost 3 hrs drive and no conveyance available at this time and couple of small food shops. I had some food and started asking for lifts so I can reach before it gets dark in mountains. Now from all the possibilities I got a lift at 7PM in a small tempo filled with walnuts and driver didn’t stop talking until he dropped me safe in only hotel which I might have guessed another Buddhist temple from outside. This smallest & least visited district of Bhutan is situated on the banks of Haa Chhu. You can imagine how deserted this place would be when you reach at 10 PM in winters. When I entered the hotel a huge & overweight (like 65 kg) Labrador was slouching on reception sofa and didn’t move even an inch when I entered or finished all formalities. I saw my next 8 hours in him and gave him many pats… still no movement just some eye blinking…. lol. The Haa valley is also military base of Indian Army and bordered with Tibet, China. Next morning I boarded a small car with a family to visit main place I came Haa for – The Chele La (pass), Highest motorable road of Bhutan at 13083 ft and made by none other but Indian Army BRO. Haa to Chele La is around 30 kms and then from there it’s again 35 something for Paro. This narrow, steep and spiral road journey to Chele la was delightful. On the pass you get 360 view of great Himalayas & Bhutan and area is covered with Buddhist prayer flags. Wind was too strong and freezing at the top where you can hike and get a better view. Basically, this is a picnic spot for Haa & Paro visitors. With couple of more hours I reached Paro by 3 PM.

Paro is like another modern city and which welcomes you with most luxurious hotels of country and only international airport of Bhutan. It’s also one of the most difficult airport of world because of location and runway length of only 1980 mtrs. You can imagine the difficulty that only 8-12 pilots are licensed to fly here. Paro is most famous for its proximity to Taktsang Monastery. A 16 kms trek to Taktsang Monastery also called as Tiger’s nest temple is what I came Bhutan for. Because of huge rush of tourists every year for the same, Paro is like center of eye for Bhutan and economical hub. Paro city market gives you many options to take it’s culture, heritage and life style with you when you leave.

After spending leisure evening in city, I started very early next morning for main purpose of Bhutan visit – The Taktsang. It’s a very lively 2-3 hrs trek, depending on stamina, passing through lovely scenery of city, jungles, valley, gorgeous kinds of birds & a sense of nothingness if you walk alone and early. There is one snacks place in between where you can have unlimited coffee or tea with limited money and one of the best coffees by far in mountains. On the way you will see the monastery just to be astonished that how can they build this huge structure on the cliff of a mountain in 1692. Well if you don’t get amazed with the beauty of the place on the way then wait to reach there because that made me realize the wisdom of that era and unrealistic architecture built in 8 caves over a mountain cliff. Not just that but this place is extreme peaceful & unworldly. All four sides of monastery had four different colors and walls are smeared with religious symbols, hymens and gods. Meditating in these caves kills the demons as they say so I tried to do it for some time, not sure what I killed but certainly it moved something inside. Well, I spent like 5-6 hrs here to explore every corner of the monastery and talking to every Lama I could. Their simplicity always shook my pride, if I ever had any & twisted the reality I always envisioned. I took a leave after & cherished the experience on the way back & ever.

I spent couple of days more in Paro and enjoyed the leisure time chatting, drinking and reading. God bless the “Druk Yul” , “The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Country of Vikings & Fjords I (Oslo)

The miraculous phenomenon of Northern Lights or Arora Borealis was the only reason I chose to go to Norway but was certain to find more than what we expected out of this most expensive (cost) and rich (experience) travel I ever had. Even after planning and arranging everything on my own it costed us a lot.

Me and my girlfriend started our trip from New Delhi IGI airport and landed in Oslo on 11th Feb morning; As per plan spent 2 days here exploring the city. Capital of Norway & most populous city of Norway welcomed us with -3’C temperature. We explored the city by every means possible i.e. Bus, Metro, Trams, trains and local taxis. It’s beautiful country covered with Snow in February with a great history of Norwegian Vikings and mostly famous for it’s damn awesome natural fjords. There was a lot to cover in every step with countless museums, historical architecture, Viking history attractions and many other. Take a walk in front of Parliament of Norway, and don’t forget to visit Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. Oslo central Station and it’s surroundings are most happening places in Oslo and also a place to start your little shopping of local stuff. City’s hop on/off buses are best way to cover most of these.

History of Vikings
History

What you shouldn’t miss in Oslo-

Viking Ship Museum – Located in Bygdoy, museum provides historic ships made by vikings in year of 850 and you can have a nice view from the balconies they have made for proper look.

The Vigeland Museum- Awesome art in form of painting, woodcuts and sculptures made by famous artist of Gustav Vigeland. I feel his whole life can be viewed from this museum and it’s more than 15000 artifacts.

Oslo Opera House – National Opera & Ballet House of Norway. We didn’t go inside of it but really admired the beautiful architecture from outside & had a long walk.

Royal Place- This huge monument reminded me of President house in India but of course the snow covered around building and that cold weather made it memorable.

City Hall and Parliament of Norway would definitely come in the list with Fram museum with that triangle architecture. Take a bicycle on rent or do a walking tour around Oslo central station – you will really enjoy doing and seeing things on your own then taking a guide. Though if you like more detailed info on everything then take a guide. There are many different packages once you visit Oslo tourist information center and yes in any city of Norway take a city pass, it saves a lot of money and comes very handy and all kind of visits and transportation ………

After Oslo, we took a train to Bergen —— follow for Bergen Rail and many other adventures in Country of Vikings & Fjords II (Bergen)

Mysterious North East India

North East- Just a direction I chose to travel after my soul craving for another solo backpack trip. Nothing planned, just 20 days in hand with one return ticket from Delhi to Guwahati. What I had in mind is to cover as many places as I could in seven states of North East. For a deep and detailed tour of North East, 20 days are just not enough so my plan was to get an idea about these places, transport, food, roads, languages and culture a little so I can come back again to feed my hunger of wandered soul. But I guess it fuelled the spark and now I badly want to go again to finish what I couldn’t.

One thing for sure is that we have actually neglected the ample opportunities of tourism based acknowledgement of these 7 states, specially Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. I backpacked the seven states, covered around 3500 Kms., 13-15 places and what I found is extraordinary. Variety of tribes, people who have uncorrupted brain, heart and souls; most wet and greenest mountains; running to frozen water bodies, Living root bridges, giant Rhinos, ancient temples and forts, rocks and scary caves, cleanest village of Asia, second largest Monastery in Asia, borders of neighbour countries, soothing tribal music, dance, costumes, culture, food and what not…. Amazed seeing a family of 140 people living under same roof, shocked seeing a woman of 95 years old not having water for ages because she doesn’t like the taste, women running family businesses, tribes fighting for their existence, where sports like Soccer comes before Cricket and above all where girls walk freely without moral policing unlike our metros. 😛

In my short visit I had to cover all 7 states and as first time visitor, I did leave many places because of time, transportation issues and political disturbances…. And my budget of course. Nagaland and Manipur were under curfew due to ongoing agitation so had to cut short my visit and left many places without visiting. Public transports give very limited options and others are expensive for a solo trip. Private taxis are expensive and no night service commute are available in most of the places which results into day wasting travelling, until you get lucky and find some JUGAAD.

My short trip started from Guwahati and travelled a full circle of North East- Guwahati, Umiam Lake, Shillong, Cherrapunjee, Mawlynnong, Dawki, Jowai, Silchar, Agartala, Aizawl, Lunglie, Imphal, Mao, Kohima, Dimapur, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Kaziranga, Tezpur, Dirang, Bomdila, Sela Pass, Tawang, Guwahati, Mawsynram and back to Delhi.

Tips:-

• National News channels do not cover news of most of places so be aware where and when you are going. Best way to find out is local newspapers and channels.

• If you are dependent on public transport, then don’t plan it. Just go with the flow. Until you have enough money or group to hire taxis.

• Nothing to be afraid of in North East but avoid sensitive places/arguments, also night travel to Nagaland and Manipur.

• Spend more time in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Nothing much to see in Tripura. For me it was waste of money, time and energy because of short trip time.

• Budget hotels are from INR 500 to 1000. Explore more to get good deals. Don’t be dependent on internet for these places.

• Don’t forget to get Inner Land Permit before planning for Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. You can get Online and from state borders. Be aware of Holidays and Sunday.

• Mizoram and Meghalaya are most peaceful places. Just Loved it. Arunachal is Himalayas of North East.

Now you have read all this, believe me you don’t want to read about North East India……Just go and experience it…… Keep travelling.

Valley of Cedar- Banjar & Jibhi

Cedar trees have captured this valley from every part & you will find green powder of Cedar tree leaves all over you, if you are stoned for some time. This place has a dense forest with abundance of variety of flowers & of course harmful insects.

It’s situated at more than 4500FT above sea level & lies around 35 Kms off route to Mandi – Kullu highway. From a small town Aut, you get direct buses to Banjar Valley & Jibhi. A peaceful & less crowded place with very high literacy rate. If you are travelling by local buses after Aut; you will certainly have a chance to meet & talk to students travelling to achieve their academic dreams & talking about a different Himachal culture unlike other cities- Shimla & Manali. Kind & helpful locals will give you a life perspective which is far outlandish to materialistic world.

There is a small waterfall in Jibhi & reaching on top of this will give you very fast pumping heart as a steep ascent is waiting for you. Coming down is easier if you choose to do water rappelling arranged by a local facilitator (Lalit-Leena’s Palace) here. This is one of the reason, I visited this place but believe me there was more to explore & be a part of, in this valley. Biking, Cycling, Fishing & Jungle treks are some other options worth trying in this place.

Jalori Pass-Himalayn range & an old temple inside fort which is only left with stone walls now. A small water tank in centre of fort with full of flower bouquets gives this places an aromatic touch. Though with stormy waves at this place, you might not feel it much. If you are lucky, you can experience clouds touching your feet & sunlight closing your eyes at the same time. Sarehul Lake, Chiri fort & Chaini village are some other important places to visit around Jibhi & forest trek make these places little adventurous. I guess winters could make these places more beautiful with snow, which I surely missed this time. Don’t forget to eat Siddu (a local dish of Himachal) here which definitely has a different taste from other parts of Himachal.

Nice and relaxing place for solo or family travel. Have a good one…

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