The Zanskar valley lies in remotest Ladakh. This is a region so remote that it takes three days of driving from Leh just to get there — a drive through a convoluted land of tortured rock and deep gorges. The journey takes you through western Ladakh, at first along the Indus and then the Suru and Stod rivers, before reaching Padum, the capital of the district. This is the ‘land of white copper’ (Zang is the word for copper here), and the feisty torrent of the same name originates here on the northern flanks of the Great Himalayan Range. The river then carves a dramatic route north through the Zanskar range before flowing into the Indus.
In the winter months, the roads are snowed in and the frozen surface of the Zanskar river is the only ‘road’ leading in and out of the region. In summer, the ice-melt facilitates a very different kind of passage through the canyon system — on inflatable rafts and kayaks. It’s an adrenaline-pumping six-day white water run through surreal, constantly shifting landscape. The high point is the gorge itself — near-vertical rock faces hem in the violent torrent rushing thousands of feet below. An ambitious road project might soon encroach upon this region. Before the road renders it less remote and more pedestrian, committed adventure enthusiasts might want to journey into the heart of a river that’s never less than spectacular.
Rough and ready
The first two days are easy floating on the Stod, offering stunning views and walks to the surrounding gompas and villages. Most of the rapids here are Grade II with some approaching Grade III. The Stod joins up with the Tsarap Chu to form the Zanskar. The waters get trickier further downstream, lashing the front paddlers with rapid frequency.
The river unerringly throws up a gem or two from its vast array of rock formations on each day of the river run: the giant pyramid of red rock is one such. While nothing can quite beat kayaking on a river, it takes considerable training to garner the finesse required to manoeuvre a kayak. Safety kayakers lead the river run each day, keeping a sharp look out for MOB (man overboard).
Trick or treat
Day three onwards, the river hurtles into a dramatic copper-coloured gorge, snaking through narrow walls of striated granite with 2,000-foot-high cliffs looming above. The pristine silence of this traverse is broken only by the violent rapids that now get bigger, louder and trickier. The biggest hurdle in this section is the ‘Constriction’, where the river is squeezed into a narrow gap about eighteen feet wide. The river responds with furious eddy lines and boils, which constantly threaten to flip a raft in the blink of an eye.
While the rafting remains the highlight of this trip, the three-day drive leading into Zanskar throws up its own set of natural wonders. The lush green bowl of the Suru valley with its distinctively Islamic culture transforms into a windswept desert near the Gelukpa monastery of Rangdum. Massive glaciers overhang the road. The vast Durung Drung glacier is the largest in Ladakh after Siachen and it gives rise to the Stod river, one of the main tributaries of the Zanskar.
It’s a short and scenic flight from Delhi to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Go Air, Jet Airways, Jet Konnect and Air India all offer flights from Delhi to Leh, with round-trip fares starting from Rs 7,000, depending on when you travel. It’s been said before but bears saying again: set aside two days to acclimatise to this higher altitude and rarefied atmosphere, take adequate rest and drink plenty of fluids.
It is a popular misconception that river rafting, especially an expedition-style run like this one, is an exclusive adventure that requires past experience. As long as you love the outdoors and are reasonably fit, a river expedition of this sort is less strenuous than trekking in this region. It takes less than an hour to learn the paddling commands and rescue techniques from the very adept guides. You don’t even need to know how to swim. However, this activity is off-limits for pregnant women, those with heart or lung problems and children below sixteen.
The 12-day trip typically includes two days of acclimatising and local sightseeing in Leh, a three-day drive to the Zanskar valley and six days on the river itself. You spend four nights at hotels while the other eight are spent in beautiful campsites equipped with toilet tents and dining tarps. The rafting agency will provide you with wet suits, booties, helmets and life jackets. A detailed packing list is also provided to all participants.
The Zanskar river is frigid at 6-7°C though you’ll find reasonably warm streams at some of the camp sites. You need a well-fed stomach to tackle each day’s sections, so the meals provided are wholesome and rate highly both for variety and quality. You are expected to pitch in while breaking camp, cleaning the campsite and packing dry bags and loading up rafts. An exercise session further warms you up for the day. Almost every camp along the course offers great walks to nearby villages or monasteries. Nyerak village in the middle of the gorge section is a great place to interact with Zanskaris.
Aquaterra, the agency I used, charges Rs 65,000 per person (airfare excluded). Delhi-Leh flights are expensive in peak season so it’s best to book ahead and get a good deal if you can. For the more luxury-inclined adventure buff, Aquaterra is also launching the ‘Bespoke Adventure Series’, which focuses on personalised and comfortable adventure travel. The inaugural price will be Rs 98,000 per person plus airfare. For enquiries, write to email@example.com or see aquaterra.in.