WORDS: SHOURYA JAIN
THERE’S PLENTY AND MORE TO SEE AND DO AROUND LEH. ANY TRAVEL MAG WILL TELL YOU THAT BUT NO VISIT TO LADAKH IS COMPLETE WITHOUT RAFTING AT THE INDUS-ZANSKAR CONFLUENCE
GOOGLE LEH AND ALL YOU get are the pictures of wide open desert like plains or barren snow-capped mountains. You get a whole bunch of bikers for whom Khardung La, officially the world’s highest motorable road, is the Holy Grail of all bike tours in India. And of course, you get plenty of Buddhist monks in their maroon and yellow robes and the lakes and the passes. You might even chance upon a few of Gesmo, the brilliant and absolutely one-of-a-kind German bakery located in the heart of one of the narrow lanes of Leh.
In fact, there’s so much of it floating around on the now three decades old worldwide web that you start asking if there’s anything left of Ladakh’s ability to overwhelm the senses anymore. What’s so great anyway about what has been done to death? At least that’s what my shopaholic sister was telling me after I had finished telling her the story of my epic trip to this lunar region. On most days I might even agree with the point of view that even though as spectacular as it ever was, Ladakh no longer offers the adventuring spirit with any fresh frontier. Not today. For today I will tell you about one of Ladakh’s most under-exposed attraction. River rafting at the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers.
The moment you hear that word like that, you want to sing it in the tune of the brand’s TV commercial, don’t you? Not if you’re actually in the middle of a flimsy rubber raft that’s heading straight for a whirlpool. By the time you’ve gotten past it, you feel drained because tackling a fast spinning whirlpool will suck the energy out of everyone on the raft. But you also get this huge sense of accomplishment.
Although few people talk about it, rafting in the waters of either Indus or Zanskar is pretty popular and you’ll find plenty of sites. You could try any of them and be happy. Or, you could go to the confluence of these two great rivers for this is where you’ll get the experience of a lifetime. It’s nothing like what you might have experienced in Rishikesh or Kolad. This is a whole different ballgame.
First and foremost, there’s the whole visual aspect of it. On one side you have the green Indus with water so clear that you’ll be able to see right down to the river bed. On the other, you have the grey of the sediment laden Zanskar. Both cut through deep rocky gorges and meet at a point where the basin can be as wide as half a kilometre. Breathtaking stuff, if you ask me! The fact that the rapidly flowing glacial waters will be freezing is nothing more than a fleeting thought as you begin to drive down a dirt track to the jump off.
Before you actually get into the waters however, you’ll need to wear a wet suit, which the rafting organisers will happily provide for a fee, and you’ll need to know the basics of rafting and safety in the water. Those done and pushed out of the way, you become part of a team – rafting isn’t a solo sport – and venture into the water. From here on, it is just a case of pure adrenaline rush as you bounce along the river stupidly fast, desperately trying to stay on course. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and resilience because you’re also constantly getting drenched in those freezing waters.
IT IS JUST A CASE OF PURE ADRENALINE RUSH AS YOU BOUNCE ALONG THE RIVER STUPIDLY FAST, DESPERATELY TRYING TO STAY ON COURSE
Towards the end you’ll still be reeling from the after effects of that head rush as the waters slow down and gives the people in the raft the time to look around. The best way to clear your head is to jump into the river. Think I’m crazy? That’s exactly what our instructor told us to do. The shock of the body hitting the frigid waters is near numbing but utterly refreshing. What an experience!
LAND OF PLENTY
Well, obviously I’m still talking about experiences because Ladakh is a pretty barren part of the world. But for the intrepid traveller, boy, oh boy, this is a kaleidoscope. From the sights to the sounds to even the shopping, everything here is overwhelming.
We were descending towards Leh from Tanglang La. A storm had left fresh powdery snow on the slopes which was in striking contrast to the clear blue above. It will definitely be part of the top ten most dramatic spectacles of my life. The rough winding road cuts down the rocky mountain and all of a sudden you burst into this valley full of vegetation. For all you care this could be an oasis in the middle of a desert. Except, we’re still at well over 10,000 feet. As you head closer to Leh, the occasional Buddhist stupa and prayer flags give way to signs of modernity that crawl their way back into the fray, starting with patchy cell phone connectivity at Rumtse. At Upshi, which is a massive Army base, you find superbly paved roads, which continue all the way through to the Ladakhi capital.
The desire to do the unusual still strong in our hearts we headed to Chuchot Shama instead, for a night of camping. Chuchot Shama is one of the most idyllic places I’ve been to, with its small clear stream and high mountains all around. It was almost right out of Johanna Spyri’s classic, Heidi. The caretaker at the camp site rustled up a hearty meal, following which we explored the village. The following morning, our guide Stenzin took us to the Likir and Alchi monasteries via the magnetic hill. Intrigued by that name, are we? Well, it’s a spot where when you park you car and leave it in neutral it appears that the car rolls against gravity and heads uphill. It’s fascinating until someone tells you that it’s an optical illusion really. In my case, dad!
In Leh the decision was unanimous. So off we went to the local markets on our raiding mission. In spite of the huge amount of tourists coming to Leh, we found prices to be super reasonable and naturally wanted to buy everything we laid our eyes on. Of course we also did the usual touristy stuff like a visit to the Shey Palace and the Shanti Stupa.
TSO NEAR, YET SO FAR
Three of India’s highest lakes can be found around these parts but the one that most people go to is Pangong Tso, famous for its cameo in the Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots. You scythe through the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary with all its yak and horses and, if you’re lucky enough to see one, marmots. You drive through the Chang La, one of the three highest motorable roads in the world. And only then do you get to Pangong. Technically, at 150km from Leh, the distance is only as much as Pune to Mumbai but in these parts, 150km could be a light year.
The mostly frigid Chang La, the narrow road without barriers are the least of your worries on this stretch. What you really need to watch out for is black ice. Slipperier than oil on water, thin layers of sleet can result in instant, and lethal, loss of traction. We even saw a truck or two that may have gone off the edge, deep down in the ravine. The lake itself isn’t as badly commercialised as many travel blogs and mags would have you believe actually, and you can still spend some quiet time on the shores before catching a quick lunch and heading back.
THE MOSTLY FRIGID CHANG LA, THE NARROW ROAD WITHOUT BARRIERS ARE THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES ON THIS STRETCH
CAN DO, CANDID
No trip to Ladakh is over till you’ve got that posed candid atop Khardung La. At 18,383 feet above mean sea level, this is officially the world’s highest motorable road. The road to Khardung La isn’t difficult per se, because it is a tarmac road for the most part. If you’re interested in a bit of history, like I am, you’ll also get excited about the fact that there are bits that run on ancient trade routes. At least the boards along the roads say so. Khardung La opens on to the magnificent Nubra Valley and it is there that we wanted to spend the night. A landslide earlier in the day however meant the Army simply refused to let us pass. So Leh it would have to be, before we headed off towards troubled but beautiful Kashmir that lay beyond the war-scarred heights of Zoji La, Drass and Kargil.