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Paddling on Mars – The Zanskar.

The Grand Canyon of Asia

Our journey starts in Leh, the capital of the mountain kingdom of Ladakh, High in the Himalaya.  We have flown in from Delhi to the highest commercial airport in the world at around 3000m, our flight delayed by one day due to low cloud in Leh on the Sunday morning, the pilots need to be able to see the runway here, if not, they can’t land.  Collected by a fleet of jeeps and taken to our hotel, the Mogol for the first of many cups of tea and bottles of water as we work to stay hydrated in this dry arid world.

This is the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the Karakoram mountains to the north and the Himalayas to the south.

The now empty Palace, standing above Leh since the seventeenth century.

The bus ride to the Zanskar valley starts the following day and is soon broken by a portage of all our kit across a stream at Uletokpo, floods earlier in the week took out the road and we have to swap buses, a bit of a blessing really the first bus has no rear window the dust and fumes are unbearable.  There’s three days of driving ahead, through Mulbeck to Kargil for our first overnight in a small hotel, then on to Rangdum the following day before finishing the journey at Remala and the start of the rafting on the Stod River.

The drive is long but spectacular, high passes, huge views and photo opportunities at every turn in the road.

The view up the Suru valley as we near the head of the valley and  Panikhar before we cross over to Rangdum, Nun and Kun peaks ahead, both over 23,000ft

Lamayuru Monastrey, possibly the oldest in Ladakh, officially called Yung dung Tharpa Ling, or place of freedom

Fotula Top at 13,479ft on the Leh Srinagar road

The colours of the flags symbolize the five elements, blue-wind, white-water, red-fire, green-space and yellow-earth and carry the prayer  Om Mani, Padme Hum and the blessings of Buddha across the globe as they blow in the wind.

Stupa’s are spiritual monuments containing Buddhist relics and are found all over the region

This old dear approached us asking for painkillers, toothache being the problem

We drive by roadside glaciers that create and add to the flow of mountain streams that become the lifeblood rivers of the region

one of the monks from the Rangdum Gompa approached us for a lift to the office

monklets in training

A Tata wagon on the road from Rangdum

Rangdum Gompa at 12,000ft

Daz communicating with the locals

Prayer wheels, are for spreading spiritual blessings and well being, they contain copies of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and when spun clockwise invoke the blessings of Chenrezig, the emodiment of compassion, the more blessings, the more the benefit.

The view of the Drung Durung glacier, the largest in Ladakh from the Pensi La pass at a shade under 14,440ft and source of the Stod river

The first morning on the Stod, rafts loaded with people and supplies for the next 6 days, the water is fast and cold, only 5 miles from its source, downstream we meet the Tsarap Chu after its long journey from the flanks of the Baralacha La near Manali and the two become the Zanskar as it twists and turns north eastwards through the Zanskar mountain range to meet the Indus.

The first day on the river, wide open valleys, choice of channels, huge views.

Karsha Gompa near Padum, the largest in Zanskar

We are not sure who is more amused here, us or the locals

Sumtimes it’s difficult to keep away from the rafts, swirls can slow them down and speed you up and you soon find yourself heading for trouble.

A local from the nearby village of Nyerak, powered by the local brew, Chang.

By 2012 a road will occupy one of these river banks, it will reduce the journey into the heart of the region from three to one day.  It’s construction has caused much debate amongst those wanting to protect the environment and unique culture of this remote land.

The Zanskar Gorge is referred to as the Grand Canyon of Asia and there is no doubt that the inaccesibility of the area has preserved the lifestyle and culture of the people who live in one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet, with winter temperatures dropping to minus 30.

It is the remoteness that attracts many people, trekking is popular and of course kayakers and rafters alike.  A host of companies offer Jo Tourist different options of entering and exploring the region, some of these companies are the ones who have fought against the road.

We, however only exist as tourists here.  The local population live her 24/7, 365 days a year, the new road will bring many benefits to them, education,healthcare, food, what we take to be be the givens of life.  The children from the village of Nyerak go to school in Leh, 4 days walk away, they rarely see their parents, often staying in Leh for weeks at a time.  While we are there two of the older villagers walk to Leh in two days, starting in the early hours and continuing past dark, they buy a generator which they pass onto the Aquaterra raftes guides asking them to carry it back into their village on their rafts on their next trip.  This is the is the way it works.  The region is cut off by road for six months a year, the only way in for supplies in winter is by walking up the frozen Zanskar river, with the waters still flowing below the surface ice, a dangerous game.

Small caves line the gorge walls many of these have had rock walls built across their entrances to create sheltered havens for the load laden porters taking in the winter supplies

The rest day at Nyerak provides ample opportunities for picture taking

Greenery does exist, if only will in a few feet of any water course.

The only crossing in the gorge as the river narrows nelow Nyerak

The new road will of course greatly increase the traffic into the region and it is inevitable that some of the heritage preserved in the area will suffer, hopefully appropriate steps will be taken to minimise this impact and maintain the remoteness that makes the region attractive to outsiders.  It’s certainly a difficult call, protect this natural wonder or build a road and deal with all that brings, either way it seems any arguments have been lost, its happening.

The road being blown out of the side of the mountain at Lamguru

Snorey about to get swirled

Swirly stuff, totally unpredictable and very, very funky!

The constriction, the river narrows to this and is one of the few sections requiring inspection, swirly stuff abounds, the raft in the foreground was some way in front of the other until it was stopped dead in its tracks, up the inside and make sure you don’t get taken out by those oars.

The Palace at Leh provides hours of photo opportunities

We have two days paddling on the Indus to finish off, I had rafted the Nimu to Alchi section in 2000 before I started kayaking, I remembered the first rapid was huge, I wondered if my perceptions would be the same this time round.

Getting on the Indus within sight of Leh to head down to Nimu.

This is the first big rapid at Nimu, the longest on this section..  As we round a bend in the river just after a the put on we eddy out river right to have a look, it still looked pretty big.  An obvious line down the left, a good ferry would be needed to avoid the mid stream maelstrom.

Eddying out a third of the way down we plot our route down the remaining rapid, left, centre, heading right and it’s huge.

As we progress downstream we have to paddle more as the flow slows and the rapids diminish, the reason becomes all to clear as we round a bend and are confronted with a concrete wall.

Seven kayakers paddle into concrete wall, Dam! Our last day of paddling on the Indus from Nimu to Alchi was rudely interupted by this dam, early in the building process it will be the end of the rapids above we have already paddled.  Ninety percent of the river is blocked by a low dam wall, protecting the workings behind.  The flow now constricted to the remaining man made channel, river left, runnable, but with scary consequences if off line, with metal protruding from the workings.

We portage through the dam construction, up and down the banks covered in sh1t, past the dead horse and back onto the water, watched by the dam workers, all work on the project has now ceased, if the build overuns, we could be a small part of the reason.  The pace of the river picks up once clear of the huge recirculating eddy created by the project.

A little further downstreaam we are met by our shuttle bunnies and our Indian paddling experience is over…….for now!

Thanks to Ben at Adventure X, Aaron at Robinhood Watersports and river guru, Daz Clarkson.