BACK TO THE FUTURE
Paddling in the Indian Himalayas, Easter 2006
First published in 'Paddles' magazine
India isnt so much a country as a planet, and attempting to quantify its wildly diverse peoples, landscapes and culture would be the road to madness. Suffice to say that the worlds largest democracy is a land of mixed messages. One moment youll be entranced by astonishing ethereal beauty; a womans glittering sari, the detail of a Hindu devotional painting, or a distant ice field glimpsed floating above green terraces. The next moment, youll recoil at staggering squalor and poverty; a family living in a pavement shack, the lingering stench of untreated sewage, or the grime of a restaurant kitchen. Those of us - myself included - who had paddled in India previously, knew what to expect. What we mainly expected, was confusion. Nothing in India runs to plan or on time, and randomness is the only certainty. Despite - or possibly because of - the reasons outlined above, we absolutely love India. It was exciting to be back.
In past trips we had endured local bus travel, which involves countless hours of being shaken senseless on unsurfaced roads with random livestock perched on your lap, whilst poorly taped Bollywood tunes screech at ear-bleeding volume. This time, we had unanimously decided to cheat at Delhi airport we were met by a luxury minibus and personal driver. To emphasise our softness, the word TOURIST was emblazoned across the windscreen in humiliatingly large text. We didnt carewe had speed, comfort, and - most importantly - the flexibility to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Our plan was to follow successive Himalayan valleys north from Delhi, having chosen to seek out areas we knew little about; what could go wrong? Well, for starters, there was almost no roofrack on the bus. Oops. We bodged a quick-fix which left seven creek boats perched unconvincingly across the bus, not actually connected to anything solid and overhanging both sides. We kept meaning to think up a better solution, but never did get around to it.
Bodged boat tying
India veterans and virgins alike were glued to the bus windows in Shock and Awe, gaping at the wondrous cornucopia of transport which we squeezed past on our way to the hills. Honking Tata trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycles carrying whole families, elephants; all regularly braking sharply to give way to the mangy cows which grazed indifferently in the centre of the fast lane. In time, heat and jetlag overcame culture shock, and we dozed.
The next morning saw us awaking high above the plains in the hilltop station of Mussourie. The British built such places (in the image of the Home Counties) to administer their Empire from a cool climate. Mussouries Mall bore a disconcerting resemblance to Georgian Brighton, albeit with more monkeys and less seafront. We hunted down Indias only functioning cash machine (tip: whichever amount you withdraw, it will be too much), we joined Indian kayakers Shalabh and Neema, whose acquaintance we had made online. Email is never the most reliable means to judge a total strangers character and boating chutzpah, but we were delighted to find that both were solid paddlers and much more importantly, splendid company.
Pre-trip research had involved staring at a pile of inadequate and contradictory map sources, trying to correlate the damned lies of one with the blatant misinformation of the other. We had been unable even to confirm whether river valleys were populated and had road access. Even the wonder that is Google Earth wasnt sure. Now, driving up the Yamuna River, it was instantly obvious that there were roads and people everywhere you looked, and that this would apply equally for all valleys. With 1.2 billion locals, there is no such thing as wilderness in India. The gleaming newness and scale of some of these roads was suspicious, and we were eventually to grasp the reason for this
Every river paddled was a First Descent. That is a total lie, most werentbut they had might as well have been. We had no solid beta about any of them and half the fun (and stress) of our trip was peering out of the bus windows, trying to guesstimate the grade and gradient of the river far below. We were shockingly bad at thiswe would confidently dismiss rivers as too flat, low or easy. Thirty minutes later, we would invariably be getting beatdown in a huge stopper which had looked like a ripple from the road, or clinging for dear life to micro-eddies on ridiculously steep gnarl. This happened time after time. We are not good learners.
The Yamuna River drainage is one of Indias holiest, washing away the sins of those who bathe in it. Andy Mc noted that hed need to paddle it more than once to wash clear his backlog, so we devoted plenty of time to these valleys, paddling the Yamuna, Tons, Rupin and Pabbar. The Tons is a tributary of the Yamuna, but is actually a much larger ditch with hefty tribs of its own. The Yamuna wowed us with wonderful blue water steep creeking, as, rather boringly, did everything else. We were wary (read: scared) of the upper Tons. We couldnt see it from the road, nobody appeared to have been daft enough to paddle up that high up the valley, and the gradient profile suggested nasty gnarl. Ignorance is bliss, so a few of us paid farmers to carry our boats down into the steep valley. Reaching river level, our faces blanched and our eyes were on stalks; the Tons was full-blown Grade 6! With our few rupees left, should we pay the locals to carry our boats back uphill, or downstream? Mindless optimism won the day, and to our nervous relief, we discovered that the river became paddleable just around the next corner. Even so, wibbly wobbly routes taken down the first rapids betrayed our edginess! Some fantastic read-run action, a short portage along a beach (bloody Nora, are those tiger footprints?) a night under the tarp and to our astonishment, we rejoined the road early the next morning. Could the day get any better? Oh yes! Reunited, the team jeeped up the Rupin valleys brand new road. Despite the usual misjudgements (Has it got enough water?) the Rupin offered up five exceptional flat-out hours, yet was unusually forgiving for a tricky ditch. Once you wussed, the road was on hand. As the day wore on and the Rupin steepened, the group shrank and it began to feel like Custers Last Stand! The very final drop boofed direct into the Tons. Kevin was so fried out that he boofed, broke out into the takeout eddy, capsized, forgot how to roll and swam. Oh, the shame.
Locals at the Rupin river
We were genuinely sad to leave behind the wonderful free-flowing rivers of the Yamuna system. Even so, we did not fully appreciate just how privileged we had been to paddle there until we reached the Sutlej River. Here, we were forcibly transported into the future, and it was not an appealing future. Over millennia, the Sutlej has driven a monstrous cleft right through the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau to the Indian plains. This is obviously something special. We had hoped to spend a full week paddling the Sutlej. Driving up the gorges, our faces progressively registered eagerness (its the Sutlej!), then fear (are the stoppers meant to be that big?), then incomprehension (whats with all this concrete?) and finally despair (theyre devastating the entire valley!). What exactly had we seen? The Sutlej was brown and heaving, too high for mortal paddlers like us. Whatever, the real jolt was uncovering the state of the valley. Indias largest and deepest gorge has been tamed by concrete and dynamite into one vast engineering works and labour camp. The first completed dam has already left 40 kilometres of the river empty. Similarly scaled projects are well underway along the length of the river. Sadly, our abiding memory will be of thousands of construction trucks, churning dust as they endeavoured to complete the destruction of the Sutlej. Why was this a vision of the future? As Indias urban population and foreign exports rapidly expand, so too does the insatiable demand for electricity. In the Himalayan states of Utteranchal and Himachal Pradesh, this thirst is being quenched by largely unchecked and unregulated plans for hydroelectric power schemes. Multiple dams are being built or imminently slated for every single river. The future of Indias mountain rivers is dams, diversions and dry beds. Now we grasped why the roads were so good in the Yamuna watershed, and we felt physically sick.
Rekong Peo, Sutlej valley
After paddling the Baspa, a (dammed) Sutlej tributary, we moved on. We crossed the 10000 foot Jalora Pass and after melting the buses brakes on the descent, fetched up in the Kullu Valley. We worked our way around the regions rather varied rivers and successively found ourselves faced by every possible eventuality - except boredom. Raging through the popular Honeymoon destination of Manali is the hefty Beas River. It is indeed rather thrilling, but keep your noseclip in place and your mouth tight shut. The Tirthan certainly had its moments, but is most memorable for the wretched stinking town which was visibly collapsing into the river as we paddled through. The Sainj had enough steepness to satisfy, but we had to time our descent in-between rock blasting sessions for the new dam. The Malana looked interesting, right up to the point where the Indian Army politely but firmly escorted us out of the valley, for our own safety. Because of, rather than despite these quirks, we relished all of these rivers.
Without question, Kullus trump card was the Parvati. Rapids of every hue and colour adequately entertained us for two full days. Treading gingerly among the turds at the Beas confluence, we agreed that the Parvati might just be the best medium volume Grade 4 river that weve ever paddled. Either way, it certainly has the hottest curry, delicious but unquenchable even by copious amounts of Extra Strong Indian beer. This is to be located and enjoyed in Manikaran, a wonderfully glitzy Hindu and Sikh temple complex which straddles the evil gorge above the Parvati put-in. We usually allow ourselves one short controlled dose of culture on each trip, and a stay in Manikaran filled that quota perfectly. Embarrassingly and possibly dangerously, our attempt at cultural immersion degenerated into cultural misunderstanding when Neil and I took a wrong turn and found ourselves inextricably participating in a Sikh ceremony. Neils lack of beard was a dead giveaway, not to mention that we were the only men not brandishing sharp jewelled knives
With a single paddling day left, we woke beside a completely dry riverbed, 80 kilometres west of Kullu. Wed headed here on a whim to find the Uhl River, with no more info than a blue line on a sketched tourist map. Lucky Dip boating! Harsh words were muttered when the river proved to be empty, and we faced the prospect of a distinctly downbeat finish to our fortnight-long Grand Tour. Reverting to mindless optimism once more, we drove up the river on the off-chance. We quickly located the culprit, another dam. Above that was a free-flowing river, and a notably steep and chunky one at thatour gamble had paid off! At the road head, our arrival stopped the village dead in its tracks. All work and play was suspended as the entire population came to watch the ridiculously clothed Westerners do incomprehensible things with large plastic toys. One particular toddler almost keeled over in awe as Kevin strode past, attired in full creeking get-up. The footbridge and banks at the put-in were crowded with villagers trying to get the best view as we broke out and peeled off downstream, one by one. I cant speak for the others, but personally, seeing my parting wave being returned enthusiastically by a hundred smiling strangers fulfilled the trip in an instant. And as for the river itself? Well, the Uhl is a story in itself