Born in an absolute flat country, I turned out to be a mountain freak roaming around the great Himalaya. Very logically I ended up in Ladakh to experience the freezing but ecstatic walk on the frozen Zanskar river, nicknamed Chadar during its winter metamorphose.
Since ages, Zanskarpas have been using this natural icy trail to reach Ladakh when the only motorable road is closed due to massive snowflakes bombardment. At such times all the trekking paths have totally vanished under a tricky confederation of dangerous inches of snow. Sure enough, during the harsh and long Himalayan winter passes are unreachable with avalanches becoming a serious bet after snowfalls or any weather’s change.
If Zanskarpas and Ladakhpas are used to walk on the frozen surface of the turbulent Zanskar waters, it was only about a decade ago that some westerners adventurers started to venture on the blue path as well, following the steps of the local pioneers. Pretty soon after that this very unusual way became a challenging winter adventure for the enthusiasts of the extreme.
So, in January 2010 I found myself highly thrilled to put my footprints on that pristine and unspoilt way. The beauty of the experience was so intense that I actually started dating the Zanskar River, being back the four following winters for that strange icy flirt.
However, this Febuary 2014, a whole new Chadar experience awaited me. In between the Bollywood Industry had screened a huge hit under Amir Khan’s performance: “Three Idiots” revealed to the massive Indian bollywood audience this amazing area of India called Ladakh and settled in the far north of the country. Suddenly, this geographic exhuberance of 44000 Sq.Kms saw its touristic season stretching from mid-April to the far end of October, including Indian vacationers who actually start the season a rough two months earlier than the foreign tourists who mostly come for the more classic touristic months of June-July-August. Thanks to the social networks, the e-medias and Discovery Chanel, the Chadar Expedition was unveiled as the new adrenaline kick for those ready to confront themselves to the freaking mercury which has an average of minus 29°C to 31°C but seems to take a fancy for regular and scandalous plunges well below the dramatic 4O° Celcius.
Great for all: Indians getting aware of such a geographical wonderer that is part of their Bharat Mata, and Ladakhpas seeing their income growing up proportionally to the significant increase of newcomers and national visitors extending the season.
However, I am far more cautious and definitely less enthusiastic regarding the ‘side effects’ of this sudden massive invasion of huge groups approaching the frozen waters down the deep gorges of Ladakh and Zanskar with what appears an absolute lack of any environmental cousciousness.I had done my previous Chadar expeditions “ Zanskarpa Style “: a local guide, a porter with a sledge and a happy myself loaded with my own backpack. We used to progress with constant wonderment, sleeping in the caves and warming up with the wood found nearby. Burying pieces of yak meat and tsampa wrapped in goat skin bags on some strategic points that we marked with stones or branches for our return trip, sleeping under a zillion stars or a galaxy of dancing snowflakes, sharing the cave and the fire with the local travelers, singing songs and telling jokes, hearing stories, and confronting my fun approach of the trip with the villagers on their ways to bring back their kids to boarding schools after the winter vacation in order to assure them a better life and a brighter future was the Chadar atmosphere of those times. And meeting Zanskarpas carrying a sick family member on a sledge to bring him to the hospital for a scheduled operation did put some strong new perspectives to my own journey on the ice.
But this Febuary 2014 was a complete different story and I was definitely not prepared for it. I witnessed an invasion of Indian tourists groups, hiking prudently on the ice and guided by what appeared to be very professional trekking agencies…. if opinion is exclusively based on the contingent of sleeping tents, kitchen tent, the army of cooks, porters and helpers that were escorting those groups leaded by knowledgeable guides. As I pop up my hidden head out of my sleeping bag in the early morning, my eyes went through high trauma staring in total disbelief in a Hiroshima of garbage. Empty bottles of Whisky, chocolate bars papers, empty cans were all over the place: a chaotic and ugly leftovers of rubbish. Those groups were profanely littering the Chadar. It was a vicious torture of nature. The impermanent shapes of the nature metamorphosing with the seasons were suffocating under piles of permanent human trash creations. As we started walking, I picked up empty cigarettes packets, hand warmer wrappers, chewing-gums and Kit-Kat papers. Wrappers made of plastic, cellophane, cardboard, aluminium. Packaging of all sorts, tins and cans were covering the ice and giving the place a look of garbage dump. An offense for the eyes. An insult for the nature. And a huge disrespect for the water that maintains all lives, ours included.
Plastic takes about 450 years to vanish. An aluminium tin will stay around for about 200 years before decomposing completely, while cigarette filters will disappear after 50 years… Yet, visitors embarking on a 5 to 19 days of Chadar Expedition leave behind those imprints for centuries and many generations to come. On the long run, the impact of this careless tourism would be plainly dramatic.
While Ladakhi authorities are putting great efforts to rise the collective environmental consciousness through ad-campaigns in dual languages, some trekking agencies don’t seem concerned about the impact of trek-trash management. A lack of awareness shared by a majority of their clients. While the Himalayan panorama is being gradually blurred by garbage, environmental issues are being taught in schools, notice boards put in strategic city point for the approval eyes of the ecologist oriented minds, both locals and foreign, while being totally unnoticed by a vast majority. Who then, could turn out uncaring habits into eco-friendly automatisms?
The next generation who is being environmentally educated by the present institutions?
“You do not inherit the earth from your ancestors: you borrow it from your children” said Antoine de Saint Exupery. My friend, Tsetan Namgyal, who is a native from the remote Trans Shenge-la area and only 11 years old is obviously wise enough to understand this, even if he is still just a kid: his illustration of trekkers passing through his village and the impact it has on the villagers strongly cleared out the recently trashed Himalayan panorama. With his sensitive drawing Tsetan brought his young perspective and perception of his environment with such respectful maturity that my hope rise as high as the high mountains passes.
The text is written by Charlotte Bochkoltz (Brussels, Belgium) and Illustrated by Tsetan Namgyal (Nieraks –Khumbu-, Trans-Shenge-La area, Ladakh)