Magic Mountains and a river runs through IT...
The first time I crossed a high pass and walked into the Zanskar Valley, 'Magic Mountains' was my instant thought. That thought has not changed despite the many times I have explored that valley since.
The only way to see that whole gorge is to trek through it either on very precarious paths clinging to sheer cliffs, or walking the frozen Chadar in winter. But easily the best way to experience the absolute magic of the Zanskar mountains and the mighty gorge of this magical river is to float through it; you will be spellbound, awed and enchanted.
In 2012 I was on the Zanskar with the epic team of Richard Bangs, George Wendt and John Yost (pioneers of river running in the world, check out the book River Gods).
This is an extract from Richard Bangs write-up of the Zanskar rafting trip in the Huffington Post:
The Zanskar, a river deeper and more stunning than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, cracks the Himalayas like an egg. It is Shangri-La manifested, a wild river of Buddhist temples, monasteries, ibex and snow leopards.
For me this is the last Shangri La - anyone who has an adventure bucket list, needs to put this at the top.
Sometime in the near future the army will bulldoze a road through this fascinating spot of the earth. They carry even poop out of the Grand Canyon to preserve the natural heritage. We are cutting a road through ours - come experience the magic before it is lost.
If I say every nuance of this trip is other worldly, it is not an exaggeration.
This is a trip that starts from a houseboat floating amid waterlilies on the fabled Dal lake of Kashmir. You sit on the verandah and gaze at the romance of shikaras plain and caparisoned paddling by - some are selling all the beautiful produce of this land - from intricately embroidered shawls to custom made suits. Some are ordinarily going about their business. Take an early morning ride into the floating vegetable and flower market, your camera does not stop clicking - you meet a charming rogue of a flower seller who sells you beautiful blossoms you have no use for just with his smile and banter. A hot cookie shikara guy offers you a morning snack for the early rumble in your tummy.
The enchantment continues - with the drive out of green Kashmir, across the Zojila Pass, where an intrepid army officer planted tanks at 11,500 ft in 1965 much to the chagrin of the Pakistanis.We are now in the high Himalaya - Draas, said to be the coldest inhabited part of the world and Kargil, areas that resound with the memories of battles and bravery.
Uncannily we turn south to even higher mountains - crossing the 14,600 ft Pensi La pass we see the towering twin peaks; Nun and Kun, 23,000 ft, and drive past the spectacular Dorong Durung Glacier to camp at the monastery of Rangdum. Set on a hillock amidst a vast high plain, with the early Doda river, spreading in glistening rivulets around it,yet another imposing site. We go visit the monks and turn the prayer wheels, I think most are praying for a successful trip. The next day we drive further down to meet with our rafts on the Doda river at almost 12000 ft.
It’s the start of our river trip - an introductory float trip with rippling rapids gets us to the confluence of the Doda with the Zanskar and our first campsite below the Karsha Gompa, which as all such monasteries do, crawls up the hillside in gravity defying layers. We have a chance to visit the capital town of Zanskar, Padum, which lies across the river and is our last connection to the outside world with it’s erratic wifi and phone connectivity.
The next day our rafts are loaded with all the gear, including chickens in a basket, perched at the top of the gear boat. We enter the colourful, swirling, heaving, textured rock formations of the awesome Zanskar Gorge. Our guides are superb and only occasionally ask for paddling help - so you have lots of time to stop and stare - believe me that’s what you do. Hanging rope bridges leading to and from paths that are scratches on the cliffs, leave you wondering where they may lead? Do people actually live somewhere up there?
The next few days are about traversing this gorge, walking around the ‘jackhammer rapid’ and watching the boats line through, very glad that you are not in them.
The campsites along this river; spots that carry your soul away. Isolated beaches - some pitch tents, I always try and find an overhang or an open spot where I can sleep under the stars and talk to the moon. At Nyerak where we have a rest day - there is a grove of willows - I lie listening to the wind through the branches, watch the moonlight climb up and down those sheer rock faces, illuminating strange formations till it silvers the river and starts its climb up the other side. It is hard to close one’s eyes. Wake to the sun repeating the moon’s journey only the colours now go from gold to pink to orange. Do you now know why I call them magic mountains?
Nyerak is a village that you climb up and up and up to reach and finally come out onto a flat spot, with fields and the homes of a few families. Tashi Dorje is the headman and we have been visiting him for years, his family traditionally wove rugs and he still sells them. The proceeds of all the rafters have allowed him to send his children to school in Leh. We sit in his home while his wife offers ladakhi tea and the quotidian ‘gur gur chai’ or yak butter tea, that most gag on, but I love with the tsampa and satu. Almost everyone buys a rug, which are packed into a special box on the raft. (Every expedition needs this).
The rest day is followed by the continuing fascination of the river and gorge - Floating on through the narrowest part of the gorge with it’s swirling eddies and wondering how the raft will come through. It does. This is probably the most hair raising part of the river, but it is followed by the amazing sight of a huge waterfall cascading down the side of the gorge out of a hole in the wall. It makes for a perfect lunch stop, to catch bated breath and exchange high pitched, survival laughter, before carrying on to the next isolated camp.
It’s a sensory surfeit till you reach the confluence with the Indus, where going south is not an option as it flows into Pakistan, so we pull out the rafts and head to Leh for hot showers and un-tented accommodation, shopping, visiting the epic monasteries, turning the prayer wheels in thanks and heading home.
The magic of the Zanskar stays with me always and I plug in to relive those moments like a meditation.
- Pavane Mann, Director, Unique Explorations, MHE
Mercury Himalayan Explorations is running the Zanskar Rafting trip from August 14th, 2015 to August 24th, 2015. Check here for more details.
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