ZANSKAR, THE GRAND CANYON OF ASIA

by Mark Rainsley

Overview

I have paddled worldwide and some fine times have indeed been had on countless fine rivers. I don't really know why it is, but one river above others has stuck with me. Only one river keeps appearing in my dreams and only one river I find myself lost for adjectives when asked about. The Zanskar is the river; I have paddled it twice, but the mark it has left upon my consciousness is out of all proportion to the days spent on the water.

Here's the bare bones. A 180 mile trip descending the successive Tsarap and Zanskar Rivers. A small braided stream which exponentially grows in size until it meets the mighty Indus River - and dwarves it. Endless grade 4+ rapids among scenery that defies belief or description.
Intrigued?

Now, a bit of context. The bus journey to the river is an epic in itself. The start point is at 14500 feet and almost the whole trip is in gorges, cutting directly through the Himalayas. The surrounding region is a jagged high altitude desert with an ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture. The commitment is absolute. There is only one point on the trip where you can leave by road, and this involves journeying through a war zone. Trekking out on foot could take days. The gorges are walled in, portages are murderous and the water is cold. And you cannot, must not, will not, ever swim.
Still intrigued?

The following notes have been put together over time in response to numerous enquiries about paddling in the Ladakh region of India. They are based upon two trips, one in high water and one in high high water. The usual disclaimers apply. These notes reflect the conditions we encountered, my failing memory and our own prejudices and ignorance. Treat everything you read with contempt and allow for the possibility that I have fabricated all of this.

The Group

You are completely solid grade 4 paddlers, with experience of big water and self-supported trips. Perhaps you've paddled some of the classics in Nepal and are now looking for something with more edge. You have 2-3 weeks holiday spare and are looking for a cheap destination. You are fit and motivated to take on one of the world's most incredible - and strenuous - river trips. To give some context, top expedition paddlers like Allan Ellard, Pete Knowles and Gerry Moffat have cut their teeth here.

The Season

This is one of the few world classic trips which runs in mid-summer. I've been there through August both times, and encountered glacial high water. Heading into early September, the river drops off quickly (no bad thing) but it becomes hard to leave the area once snow arrives on the passes. June and July reputedly tend to have high water also. Through winter the river is completely frozen, and forms the main route in and out of the Zanskar region; a harsh and dangerous trek along the river surface.

The Gear

We have paddled this in river-running play boats both times; Whiplashes and Method Airs. However, the boats were loaded at their absolute limit and this didn't make life easy in big boils and whirlpools! Consider something which can carry lots of gear and still float. Dry trousers are recommended, although they become a mobile sauna as soon as you step away from the cold river. The highest factor sun block possible is needed, but your lips will still crack and turn black in the high altitude and burning sun. You will need all the usual self-support paraphernalia, including cooking gear; although it is just about possible to scavenge scrub for a fire. It has been known to rain, so take a tarp.

The Journey

First, fly to Delhi. Next, leave Delhi. Fast. Okay, perhaps you might enjoy one of the world's most crowded and filthy cities in the monsoon heat. But assuming you are in a hurry to leave towntake a taxi from the airport to Paharganj, the tourist hotel centre. Any hotel will help you book a bus to Manali; these leave early evening and you may be able to avoid an overnight stay in Paharganj.

The bus to Manali takes 18-20 hours and is brutal. All the thrills and spills of Nepali buses, with the added factor of heavy traffic and breathtaking speed. It runs overnight and has an evil series of downhill hairpins in the night. I think it has gone off the road here both times I've taken it. Last time they drove us to a dark rough suburb of Delhi and we had an hour-long stand-off about paying for the boats. The bouncy back seats must be avoided like the plague.

Okay, the hot crowded Indian plains are now behind you, and life becomes much mellower. Manali is a really cool laidback place to recover for a day or three. There are various paddling possibilities close by on the Beas River and its tributaries, ranging from grade 4-5+. The water level is really variable depending on the monsoon; I have been there in August when the Beas is nicely low and blue, and also when it is a heinous brown mess.

Now for the mother of all journeysyou need to book a place on the Manali to Leh bus. This takes you from the Himalayan foothills onto the Tibetan Plateau! You'll be on the bus for two long days with an overnight camp at around 15000 feet. There is obviously no chance of acclimatising properly, watch each other closely for signs of altitude sickness. You cross several massive passes (up to 17500 feet) and the scenery is past belief. Riding on the roof is discouraged - and is frankly, stupid. Remember to duck under overhanging cliffs.

Choice. You can carry on to Leh (capital of the region) to acclimatise for a few days, before bussing back here. Alternatively, you can launch on the second morning of the bus journey, as long as you have all of your food and gear ready; this is where an non-paddling friend is useful to carry your extra baggage on to Leh and wait for you. The road drops down and parallels the river for a few hourswhich look flat, braided and hot. Wait until the road comes close to the river and suddenly zigzags up the hill away from the valley floorthis is a great launch spot. The river is the Tsarap, which is a 90 mile long tributary of the Zanskar. Note that there is no real way of judging the level before you commit yourself; however if the river is clearly in spate at the put-in, get back on the bus!

Gear for the Tsarap expedition.

The Tsarap

The Tsarap will take between three and seven days depending upon water level. There are many beautiful camping beaches. You are launching onto a river higher up than the summit of the Matterhorn! Take things easy, even packing the boats will leave you breathless and long rapids make your lungs scream. Miles of flat water follow the put-in. Eventually, the gorge walls close in around a grade 4 rapid, and the river's character in this upper section is revealed; many short grade 4 gorges interspersed by easy water. Some notable landmarks:

*A very long narrow grade 4+ gorge that can't be fully inspected, with a dodgy undercut startone group including Andy Watt had a horror here, with multiple swims and a long cold night in the open.
*The 'village' of Satok - a cluster of shacks on river right.
*An evil waterfall several hundred yards downstream of the village. Portage on river left.
*More short tight gorges, one of which leads directly to the confluence of the Zara Chu river on river right. We have reached this in one long day in high water.

Downstream of the Zara Chu, the river is grade 3 at best, and you can guarantee that the wind will blow upstream! After several hours of this easy water, you will see Phugtal monastery glued tenuously to the cliffs high above on river right. It is highly recommended that you slog up the hill and visit the monks, this really is one of the wonders of the world. Sensitive and polite paddlers are welcome to stay the night; this is an experience you will never forget, but politely refuse the rancid Yak ghee (butter) if you value your guts.

Phugtal Monastery.

The next target is the town of Padum c.25 miles downstream, which marks the halfway point of your expedition. The hardest paddling is in this section. Between Phugtal and Padum the central Himalayan watershed is directly up the hill on river left - thus the Tsarap acquires a massive increase in volume from glacial torrents, often more water than you particularly desire.

Directly downstream of Phugtal, the river regains its edge and has a series of big grade 4+ rapidswatch out for horizon lines, both Magic Tom Hughes and I got simultaneously drilled in one stopper!

Eventually you reach Reru Falls - you won't miss it, 500 metres of grade 6. This will be an agonising portage on river left unless the river is dog low and your name is Gerry Moffat. A vertical cliff on river right and a massive (mobile) rockslide on river left make for some terrifying gnarl. Some groups have slogged up to the main trekking route above for the portage, but it can be done at water level with plenty of sweat and grunt.

Mark playboating on the Tsarap at 12500 feet!

Simon on the Tsarap.

The heinous portage of Reru Falls.

Below Reru are plenty of big grade 4+ pool drop rapids, some reaching grade 5 in high water. The main trekking route is now close to the river and we've found that mule trains freak out and scatter at the sight of kayaks!

Next 'event' is a mega-grade 5 rapid where the river bends to the right. The best portage/ inspection point is accessed from the last-gasp eddy directly above the main horizon line on river right. Both times I've been there it's been a pretty frightening ferry glide across the river to this eddy, consider settling for the left bank! The rapid is certainly quite runnable, although I've wussed both times.

From below this the Tsarap rocks, fantastic continuous big water grade 4+ which in high water consists mainly of crossing from bank to bank and running away crying from big holes.

When the valley opens out and the grade eases, it's just a few miles down to Padumthis is marked by a big footbridge. Carrying out up the valley side on river left and up to the town completely sucks. Think of the cold beer waiting...

NOTE apparently in recent years a final Grade 4 rapid has appeared above Padum, caused by a landslide.

There is actually no beer in Padum, as it is a partly Muslim town. But there are 'hotels' and warm food, heaven! This is an awesome place, looking over the ineffable Zanskar plain with mountains rising all around. Well worth a rest/ walking day. Finishing the trip is possible here, if you can handle a three day bus journey to Leh via the wartorn Pakistani border. I met some trekkers who had the pleasure of being shelled during one overnight stop on this route. In 1999 Pakistan actually invaded the area and in 2000 a German tourist and a load of Buddhist monks were totalled by Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas at Rangdum Monastery, the first overnight stop. Best stick with the river, then

The Zanskar

The paddling below Padum is technically easier but more committingmuch more walled in for long distances, with no paths alongside for most of the way. The distance is around 90 miles to the Indus confluence, but this has only taken two days on both of my trips. Taking your time and hiking the side canyons is a recommended option. The difficulty is hard to pin down; I would have described my trips as huge volume silty grey grade 4, but I know of friends who have encountered grade 3 blue water, in low conditions. What we all agree on is that this is probably the most awesome canyon on earth.

Padum, end of the Tsarap River and start of the Zanskar trip.

The start of the Zanskar, below Padum.



Waves on the Zanskar below Padum.

The unbelievable Zanskar Gorges.

Waterfall beach in the gorges.

Downstream of Padum, the Tsarap braids together with the Doda River and becomes the Zanskar. Several hours of wide easy water wind across open desert. Behind you are the main Himalayan range, in front is the Zanskar range. After about a week (well, it feels that way) you reach the Zanskar mountains and the gorges close in pretty quickly.

When you're in you're in. For about 50 miles the river is in box canyons. The only respite is side valleys joining the river (at least one has been trekked up and paddled by Pete Knowles and others) which form camp spots on the raised stone beaches. The rapids are big wave trains and surprisingly powerful boils and whirlpools. There shouldn't be any big holes, but Si Wiles did remind me of that observation after we dodged a few monsters in super-high wateron this occasion all of the sandy beaches were all well underwater.

Several constrictions stick in our mindsthe river doesn't drop but compresses down and makes really dodgy boily narrows, complete with undercuts and whirlpools. Really bad things could happen here. Some boil lines can take several attempts to cross.

A good landmark is a footbridge where a trekking route crosses. Below is more open valley and a sandy beach on river rightwe've camped an hour or two below this both times.

There are also two major tributaries coming in from river right to look out forboth paddleable apparently. There is a cable and box across the river when the gorge begins to open up a bit. You've now reached the track to the Indus valley (river left) but you still have several hours left.

As you pass the village of Chilling, there is a monster wavetrain - straightforward but BIG, although apparently it's grade 5 in lower levels - and it's mostly easy down to the Indus confluence. Last time there, we had real problems getting past boils flowing in the wrong direction though!

The confluence with the Indus is memorable; the river which gives India its name is usually smaller than the Zanskar! Follow the Indus down about a mile to a beach on river right from where it's a nasty long carry up to the highway. Hitching is slow. Leh is about an hour up the Indus valley.

There is apparently a long grade 4 rapid, a mile downstream on the Indus; but both times we've been more preoccupied with the notion of cold beer in Leh.

Si cools off at the takeout.

The Aftermath

Well, if all has gone to plan, you should have time left for some rr around Leh. You're on the Tibetan Plateau and it is quite an interesting place. There are monasteries to visit, treks to trek and visually appealing backpacker hippy types to fraternise with. There are also plenty of other paddling possibilities, not least on the Indus. If you can sort out logistics for a permit and jeep to Mahe Bridge (70 miles upstream of the main road near the Chinese border) - and you don't mind meeting lots of soldiers with big guns - you've reached the start point of a great grade 4 blast.

Back Again

There is of course the bus, but for comfort and speed, consider flying. Instead of four days back to Delhi, it takes three hours. The catch is that these trans-Himalayan flights regularly get bumped due to bad weather. Whatever you do, try to book as early as possible - before leaving the UK if possible - as the Leh Indian Airlines Office is the nth circle of Hell. Are you a big fan of queues? Another possibility is hiring your own taxi, expensive but faster than the bus. Both times I've done this, we've broken down at c.16500 feet - hilarious.

Conclusion

When I first went to paddle in Ladakh, Pete Knowles gave me some solid advice. He said that the Tsarap/ Zanskar is a world class trip, but that the dividing line between a great trip and an epic is very thin indeed. My experience is that this is very sound advice indeed, but I'd add my own postscript. Like no other river before or since, the Grand Canyon of Asia inspired, fatigued, awed, excited and scared me. I don't want to go back, but I want to go back. Hope that helps.

Further Info

Trekking maps can be purchased in the area but are very unreliable; the best shows trekking routes superimposed over a satellite map. Serious explorer types will want to order the relevant TPC (US Airforce chart) from www.stanfords.co.uk.
Lonely Planet Indian Himalayas - good overview of the area.
Trekking in Ladakh - helpful guidebook for understanding the conditions you'll experience out on your own.
Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia - background on the culture and geography of the region.

Mark Rainsley