A frozen waterfall on Chadar trek. Pictures courtesy: Jammu and Kashmir tourism department
Srinagar, Jan. 18: Authorities in Ladakh have closed the famed 150km Chadar trek, a hauntingly beautiful journey on the icy surface of a frozen Zanskar river, after a landslide blocked a tributary and created a 5km-long artificial lake upstream.
Skalzang Wangyal, executive councillor (tourism) in the Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council, said the landslide had created a 200ft-high barrier and blocked the Phuktal-Lungnak from draining into the Zanskar under its frozen surface.
"We had never before heard of a landslide of this magnitude hitting the region. It has almost completely blocked the fast-flowing tributary, which passes through a narrow gorge," Wangyal said.
Zanskar subdivisional magistrate Rajesh Basotra said the lake had formed 52km north of Padam, the headquarters of the Zanskar sub-region of Kargil, but Wangyal said it was around 90km from Padam.
Wangyal said the lake was expanding and emerging as a threat to the people living in nearby low-lying areas. It would have endangered the hundreds of adventure tourists who arrive every year from the rest of India and abroad for the trek to Leh.
"We have sounded a high alert in the area and closed the Chadar trek to civilians and tourists. Residents of a few villages have been asked to evacuate because of fears of flooding," he said.
Sparsely populated Zanskar, which spreads over 7,000sqkm, can be reached through a 450km road from Leh via Kargil. But Zanskar remains cut off from the outside world for several months during the winter because of heavy snowfall in and around the Panzila Pass, which connects it with Kargil.
Tourism department officials walk on the frozen Zanskar
During this time, the trek over the frozen Zanskar, which flows into the Indus, is the only way local people can travel to Leh. With roads coming up along the river, however, the people now need to trek only about 70km on the river's surface, which takes them less than two days. They cover the remaining 80km by bus.
Adventure sport buffs, however, tend to make the entire 150km trek, which takes them about a week.
Officials said the trek is famous for its breathtaking beauty. The Zanskar snakes its way through a deep gorge, its flow punctuated by several waterfalls that too freeze in the winter. There are many natural caves around that are used as camping sites.
Wangyal said the trek is opened by early January and operates until March. "This is the peak season but we had to close it for the safety of local people and tourists," he said.
Government figures show that the Phuktal-Lungnak discharged 50 cusecs of water into the Zanskar on December 17. Officials said the landslide had blocked 97 per cent of the flow.
An official said there was now road connectivity only up to 40km from Padam.
"We have undertaken an aerial survey of the area. We have also held meetings with the army, the Border Roads Organisation and mechanical engineers and formed a committee to assess the unfolding situation," he said. "We are also inviting experts to find out what caused the landslide."