Zanskar – a remote valley in Ladakh is the fabled “Land of White Copper” – is a land of glaciers and extreme cold, snow leopards and the ibex, black wolves and the rare Himalayan blue poppy, and of spirits and monks. At an average altitude of over 13,000 feet, the strange aspect of this valley is that it has no entrance. The two rivers that flow in it meet to carve a gorge so long and deep that one cannot travel down it to enter or exit the region. The only way out is crossing the Zanskar range of mountains, through high passes that are closed eight months out of the year.
This gorge of the Zanskar, therefore, remains un-trekkable during the summer when the melting snow sends the river raging, but forms a corridor of ice in winter that serves as the only, albeit dangerous, way out of the Zanskar valley. During the summer, however, the only mode of traveling down this gorge is by a well-planned raft trip, completely self-contained, with top quality gear and experienced river guides.
The Zanskar rafting expedition trip is a trip of a lifetime and having had seen the valley on a previous trekking trip, this was a chance to take the next logical extension, a trip down the canyon itself. Our trip began after an inspiring early-morning flight over the Great Himalayan Range with the sun reaching out to hit the mountaintops. An hour later, one is nearly skimming Spituk Gompa on one of the toughest landings in the country. Brown and barren at 11,500 feet above sea level, Leh makes you feel lightheaded and tired. It takes about a day to acclimatize with adequate rest and, maybe, a pill to fight altitude sickness.
Leh is the capital of Ladakh, the highest and largest district in the country. Strategically placed, Ladakh has often been, until recently, the stage for border tension, unrest and border scuffles. Time has moved slowly since the first Buddhist kingdom was established nearly 10 centuries ago. Ladakh lies in the eastern half of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the far north of India. It shares it’s much disputed north-western border with Pakistan, while to the north lies the Chinese province of Sinkiang, and to the east, Chinese-occupied Tibet.
Covering an area of approximately 60,000 square kilometers and ranging from 2,600 meters to 7,670 meters in elevation, Ladakh is sandwiched between two mountain systems – the Karakorams to the north and the Himalayas in the south. Ladakh can basically be divided into five geographical regions – Central Ladakh (the heartland of the Indus valley), Nubra (lying to the north of the Ladakh range), Rupshu (a dry, high-altitude plateau lying in the south-east of Ladakh), Zanskar (one of the highest inhabited regions in the world), and western Ladakh or Lower Ladakh (around Kargil).
The mountains here are a constantly changing theatre, with massifs changing colors with the sun – orange, green, rust, turquoise and blue are only some of the shades one witnesses each day. Zanskar has India’s lowest population density – only one-third of one Zanskari is found per square kilometer, which means you need to cover 10 square kilometers to see three people.
The gorge of the Zanskar is about 150 kilometers long and slices right through the Zanskar range of mountains. The three-day ride from Leh to the put-in point on the Doda River traverses miles of valleys, prehistoric glaciers, the villages of Lamayuru and Kargil, and the 14,000-foot-high Fotu La pass. A large part of the drive is along the “Lion river” – the Indus – from which our country gets its name.
Only a handful of villages, with houses made of mud-walls, dry grass, and sticks for insulation, are seen. The valley-broad meadows are normally covered with snow eight months of the year. In summer, these form marshy grazing grounds. Barley is a bumper crop yielded in the Zanskar valley around Padum, and the local brew, “chang,” is a virtual treat in this part of the world. Seven of us have signed up for this trip – there is a travel writer, two couples from Arizona, a merchant shipping officer on leave and an adventure travel buff.
We started the trip at Remala with the sun shining – Vikram, JD, Arvind and Anvesh, who accompanied us from Leh, helped us pack the gear into three rafts and proceeded to give us a comprehensive safety briefing. JD would be on the kayak, which added to the safety component of the entire trip. They say you could get sunburnt and frostbitten nearly simultaneously. We were wearing wetsuits, lifejackets, paddling jackets, helmets and a new-found feeling of being extremely alive. The first plough through the Doda’s icy-cold waves was terrific – the experience of traveling through some fantastic piece of real estate will stay with you for the rest of your days.
We paddled down gentle Class II rapids of the Doda until the river joined the Tsarapchu to form the Zanskar River near Karsha, a monastery that stretches up 600 vertical feet of mountain face and is the largest in the land. Karsha belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of the Gelugpas, and is a strenuous walk up from the river where we had stopped. The effort is well rewarded upon walking up to the roof of the gompa – a birds-eye view of central Zanskar can exhilarate beyond belief.
We drive into Leh by late afternoon for a good shower and a walk into town – the evening is well-spent at an outdoor restaurant/ bar with tales of other trips and rivers and planning future adventures. After the handshakes, we bid goodbye to each other, amidst memories of Zanskar, the last truly lost horizon of our shrinking planet.
Traveling down the river with the mountains gleaming in the clean, thin air, with the sun burning our faces and the cold water on the floor of the rafts freezing the toes, is an experience to savor. We got used to the cold, and to the hot sun – the expedition food was good and ample, with a range of variety, from Indian meals for the main meal at the end of the day to pasta and other easy-to-prepare meals like cold cuts, eggs, and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. We slept in waterproof tents on karrimats, waking up to bed-tea each morning, a great way to start a new day in the mountains. We washed in streams running to join the river, and toilets were the outdoors – toilet paper was thoughtfully burnt.
On our third day on the river, we enter the Zanskar gorge, where the river, in an awesome display of force, has cut its way between sheer cliffs towering 2,500 to 3,000 feet above the water. By now, we have learned the jargon of reading the river – eddies, holes, hydraulics, boils, and pour-overs – from our guides, a team which has run all major Himalayan rivers in the country. Eddy-lines and boils can work together can flip a raft in seconds. We learn high side commands to deal with such situations and feel pretty smug with our new-found skills. Our guides take us for a hike into a nearby village, where we get to see a day in the life of a Zanskari household.
We pass Chilling, where they are trying to build a road into the Zanskar gorge. If ever completed, it will be a major feat of engineering. Chilling is famous for its copper work, and we pick up a few souvenirs. After crossing our last major rapid on the Zanskar near Chilling, we head onto the confluence at Nimu, where we bob into the mighty Indus River. Although the Indus is already over 500 kilometers long and away from its source near Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet, the Zanskar is its first main tributary.
We raft on past a huge rapid onto Saspul, where the rafts beach and the gear are unloaded. Truly, the trip of a lifetime is over. Rafts and gear are packed and dried over some lunch – and loaded into waiting vehicles.
Ganga rafting: Some 15 outfitters have semi-permanent tent camps on the Ganges, India’s holiest river and the most popular rafting site for New Delhi residents. However, only five are regularly functional with standard equipment and services provided. Speak with your guides before you go.
The camps are about 250 kilometers north of the Indian capital above the town of Rishikesh, where the river flows into the Gangetic Plain. Most camps are open throughout the season, from September to May, but three-day weekends are the most popular choice.
Rafting trips and expedition costs range from 2,000 Rupees to 25,000 Rupees (depending on trip and duration), including tents, camp cots with bedding (not on expeditions – smaller tents are used instead), showers, dry toilets, food, and transportation by jeep to the camp from the closest rail stop at Haridwar, a one-hour drive. Train fare from New Delhi to Haridwar is about 500 Rupees. Longer expedition trips are arranged on the Kali, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, and Ganga rivers as well.
Trekking: Trekking is popular all over northern India, and can be done independently or through an outfitter. Treks can be done on many levels, from backpacking to a fully-equipped mule train with a guide, cook, porters and tents, and for a wide range of prices. Trekking in the Zanskar and Leh regions is only available from June to September.
About the Author – Vaibhav Kala is one of the most experienced outdoors people in India, having climbed and rafted extensively in his 12 years of experience. He has been part of major mountain attempts and some classic first descents of wild remote rivers in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. He now runs a successful outdoor outfit that provides safe, offbeat trips for the discerning traveler.