A little less than 500 km separate the flourishing region of Himachal Pradesh from the broader province of Jammu & Kashmir, crossways of culture throughout the centuries, and still a delicate ethnic mosaic. A proud fort of Tibetan Buddhism, the Ladakh takes up the eastern part, an arid lunar plateau framed by the imposing Himalayan glaciers.
The rivers and streams crossing the bottom of the valley are the lead players of Ladakh’s long, tormented geological history, deeply marking the valleys and drawing its unique profile.
The Indo, the most important in terms of length and capacity, is also the greatest water resource of the subcontinent. The more impetuous Zanskar gathers the waters of the basin by the same name, ending in a significant slope, forcing itself through a series of falls, rapids and continuous changes in flow.
Rafting through the Zanskar valley up to where the two rivers converge, provides one of the most evocative views of the immobile Himalayan power, in addition to the opportunity of facing the challenge of some of the world’s most unpredictable rapids under the silent gaze of the Buddhist gompa.
Weather conditions mean that rafting is only possible during the summer months, when the glaciers melt, swelling the basins. From October to May, Zanskar is a long frozen tongue that can be crossed on foot – the only communication route for the around ten thousand inhabitants of the Zanskar villages, who are otherwise isolated for much of the year.
Step 1: Getting ready for the journey
Going rafting in the Himalayan region basically means adapting to altitudes of more than 3500 metres for the entire duration of the journey. We thus need to go up gradually, giving ourselves time to acclimatise, and avoiding placing too many demands on ourselves for the first two or three days.
Leh-based travel agencies can supply all the equipment you need at costs starting from 500 euros. Packages include local expert guides who, however, tend to face the rapids very cautiously, avoiding the most outlying rocks and cutting the waves crossways. If you are used to a more daring guide, you will need to be your own expert, well-prepared leaders.
Step 2: Between canyon and rapids in the shade of the giant
Most rafting expeditions start off from Remala (3635 m.), which can be reached by car from Kargil – a transit point along the state road connecting Ladakh to Kashmir. The route unwinds between the canyon and mule tracks, in the shade of the Himalayan masses Nun (7135 m.) and Kun (7075 m.). There are places for overnight stay near Rangdum, where you can also enjoy a trip to the monastery by the same name. Here, you can face the river and the first four-hour stretch of average difficulty, taking you to Karsha (3700 m.). The class two rapids make this and the next stretch able to be covered even by the relatively inexperienced.
The next day, we go down to the picturesque village of Pidmu (3361 m.), where short hikes lead out towards the surrounding villages.
Rafting towards Nyerak (3286 m.) becomes decidedly more demanding, with a series of class 3 rapids through spectacular geological formations, defined as India’s Gran Canyon for reasons that become all too clear.
The last day is devoted to the most exciting part of the expedition. Medium rated rapids give way to more impetuous, class four rapids. The Zanskar compresses down into a four-metre gorge before opening out again onto an enormous waterfall near where the river converges with the Markha. The five-hour rafting experience is demanding, and there is nowhere to stop until Lamayuru (3190 m.). Well worth it though, for the most spectacular side of the Himalayas revealed here.
From Lamayuru, home to one of the region’s most evocative gompa, we can choose to continue on towards Nimmu and Saspol, or return to Leh over land. It is well worth taking a slight diversion to Alchi and Likkir to see the morning puja in the monastery consecrated to the ‘Historical Buddha’.
Step 3: The eco-compatible luggage
In the height of tourist season, the Ladakh’s delicate ecosystem is really put to the test, and energy resources may be lacking. One solution to limit consumption is to avoid buying water in plastic bottles, instead opting for the boiled water on sale in Leh, which also costs less.
In respect of local traditions, make sure you wear long skirts and trousers, and tops that cover your shoulders, particularly when visiting monasteries.
Although daytime temperatures are high in summer, the river water is always very cold. In addition to normal excursionist clothing, good quality rubber boots, sun protection and polarised glasses will also come in handy.
No specific vaccinations are necessary, apart from the standard recommendation for typhoid and hepatitis A immunisation. Take standard travel pharmaceuticals with broad spectrum antibiotics and a first aid kit.
by Naida Caira