Ladakh Fact File - Paddling in Northern India

These notes are from a '98 trip to Ladakh, India's most northern area. There is more info on later trips to India at this spot.

How and When: All the worlds' cheapest and tackiest airlines fly to Delhi. Getting to Ladakh from Delhi, you have the choice of at least four days bus travel or a cheap internal flight. They carried my boat on the return leg, but weight is often a serious consideration. Ladakh rivers are paddleable between June and October with peak flows usually in mid-summer from glacier melt (the rivers freeze up in winter). Rivers can be very cold and are generally in sparsely populated valleys. Leh is at 3500m and everything else is higher, so take it easy on arrival. Everything is cheap except Jeep/ Taxi hire and carpets.

Tsarap: c.90 miles to Padum town. Put in where the Tsarap leaves the Leh-Manali road. There are numerous grade 4 gorges early on (including long one which resembles a blind run of Chateau Queyras in high water, great 'fun' in loaded boats before you are acclimatised to the altitude), as well as a big portage a few hundred metres below Satok village...portage left. The Zara Chu joins from the right after several more small gorge rapids. Grade 3 water leads down to Phuktal Monastery, an unmissable place where you can eat and stay (quote by Darryl: "This rice mings mercilessly"). The thirty miles down to Padum is harder. There is a major portage left at Reru Falls. Below is usually continuous grade 3 - 4+. In high water conditions, we found this committing, scary and BIG grade 4 and 5. Padum is a relaxing place in a beautiful valley, but don't expect food; we ate it all. Below Padum, the river widens and joins the Doda River, becoming the....

Typical Zanskar the paddler...

Zanskar: This descends into quite fabulous sheer gorges as it cuts straight through the Zanskar range. Beaches are few and far between in it's 90 mile course. In high water there were huge waves and stoppers, with rapids more or less continually. None were technically very hard, grades 3 and 4. However, eddylines and boils became things of terror; we saw enormous whirlpools form. We ran this in 1 and a 1/2 days, it was in a hurry. There are three 'constrictions' where the entire river squeezes through gaps as narrow as 10m. Take out where the river joins the Indus and the road at Nimu, or continue down the Indus.

These two rivers form an incredible trip, deserving of it's 'world classic' status. Were the riverbed dry it would still be worth walking the journey for the unique experiences and scenery.

Getting out to stretch is rarely an option...

Mahe Bridge to Upshi: c.70 miles. I spent two days solo on this, big volume grade 4 (5) at a high level. Perhaps it wasn't really an appropriate solo trip, but the road was always close by and I took an awful lot of chicken chutes! It's near the Chinese (Tibet) border so a Permit is needed to visit the region, easily available in Leh. Note that military bases line the river on some stretches.
Upshi to Leh: c.40 miles. Early on there are grade 3+ and 4 rapids. There is a weir near Karu, a definite portage when I was there. Then grade 1-2 with beautiful views of high peaks and various Monasteries.
Leh to Nimu: c.15 miles. Grade 3, a popular raft trip in a barren gorge. Better at higher levels.
Nimu to Khalsi: c. 40 miles. Apparently this has grade 4 rapids.
Khalsi to Pakistan border: Who knows? All the local rafters know about this long stretch is that it descends into deep gorges...?? Permit needed.

The Upper Indus valley from space! Courtesy of NASA...

Doda River: Apparently hard in it's upper reaches. Flat for some distance before joining the Tsarap.

Dras River: According to Pete Knowles, a great difficult 3 day paddle near the border. Unfortunately Pakistan was busy shelling it when we were there.

Shyok and Nubra Rivers: Easy, but in an apparently beautiful valley north of Leh and over the world's highest and scariest road pass (18,300 ft). Permit needed to visit it. My attempt to paddle them failed as I forgot my passport (Doh!) and a heavily armed soldier turned me back over the pass; trucking it twice in one day was a bit much.

Mark Rainsley.

See also...Tourists in Ladakh.