“Around the world the trip begins with a …. ” long drive and a night in Vegas, Greek House gyro off the highway in the desert of California, and a quick swim in the pacific. From LAX only 18.5 hours of flight time later we stepped off the Virgin Atlantic flight in India keen on finding our kayaks and duffles. A short night of rest in Delhi then a 5:30 am flight into Leh, a recreation hub, nestled deep between the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges in the great Himalayas.
Driving from the airport we soon found our friends wandering the streets of Leh… Before we could unpack our bags we were gearing up to go paddle. We managed to paddle a section of the Indus and the lower ‘commercial’ run of the Zanskar river the same day we arrived in Leh (alt. 3570 meters). Despite numerous warnings from hotel and restaurant owners about the importance of acclimatizing to the high altitude of Leh. Seemed hard for the locals to comprehend that we lived at a similar altitude, and despite the several days of travel we were not as affected by the altitude as most visitors.
Following our entry day kayaking extravaganza, we spent our second day paddling the day stretch of the lower Zanskar, and gearing up for a 3 day warmup self-support journey down the Upper Indus river.
3 days of fun whitewater. The continuous rapids of the Upper Indus were a great warm up for the Tsarap Chu / Zanskar our main objective.
The route to the Tsarap Chu would take us over TangLang La “second highest pass in the world” 5328m (17582ft). The long and bumpy jeep ride to the Tsarap provided endless mountain vistas as we passed over the Zanskar range. Arriving to the river just before dark we were greeted with cold wind and rain as we set up camp above 14,500′ feet of elevation at the edge of the river . The rain poured down through the night and we awoke to Himalayan peaks covered in a fresh blanket of snow. Launching on the river for our 7 day journey down the river we were grateful for clearing skies and stunning scenery.
After incredible scenery through the inner gorge of the Tsarap we emerged at the Phukthar Gompa. At first it was hard to know weather or not we would be welcome at this sacred monastery along the banks of the Tsarap. We decided it was far too spectacular of a place to pass by, leaving our kayaking gear by the river we hiked up the trail past the smiling faces of young and old monks. Before long we would run into a trekking group that informed us there had been a tragic accident in the group that had launched only days before us. With few details and having paddled with several members of that group back in Leh we could only guess the circumstances, and continue on as we had, one rapid at a time.
A voice filled the sacred cave we were examining in astonishment “He would like to show you something…” the younger monk hollered up to us. Glancing down I could see the elder monk waiving us to come his direction. Urging us to follow him as he gracefully navigated the steep, tight stairway etched into the cliffside. As he unlocked the door we would respectfully leave our cameras and our shoes outside the temple entrance.
Entering the dark temple built into the cave our eyes slowly adjusted to the dimly lit statues of Buddhist Deities, photos of the Dali Lama, and paintings on the walls thousands of years old.
Shortly after paddling away from the Gompa the gradient increased, and the “best whitewater on Tsarap Chu” presented its’ self. We had heard from several monks at the Pukthar Gompa how the river gets ‘rough and more dangerous’ as it descends toward Padum and the confluence of the Stod which creates the mighty Zanskar River
Working our way down one rapid at a time we arrived at the notorious Reru Falls portage. With a little help from a newly constructed road above the river we got our loaded kayaks past the treacherous rapid. We continued downstream until we reached the next long and violent rapid. The Tsarap was showing us its true colors and it was now apparent why the river would be unsuitable for rafts. Working our way through the long and complex rapid we were relieved to find a camp as the light painted the peaks towering some 8’000 feet above us.
Resupplying a few essentials in Padum, we paddled downstream past the confluence of two silty rivers with totally different hue’s and at last we were floating on the waters of the Zanskar. An immense canyon lay ahead.
Paddling through the Zanskar was like taking a journey through geologic time. The folding rock changing colors and compounds around every bend. An amazing display of tectonic pressure giving way to the power of the river. Feeling incredibly fortunate to have experienced such natural wonder and beauty we arrived at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar to a warm welcome and cold beer!