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River Deep, Mountain High | Rafting on the Zanskar

Cara posted on 29th August

By Cara Tejpal

Veteran adventurer and director of Ibex Expeditions, Mandip Singh Soin has rafted down the Zanskar an impressive four times. Even so, his track record pales in comparison to our lead river guide. The ever-smiling Rana may resemble a benign laughing Buddha but on the river, he’s a formidable force. With 13 years of rafting behind him, Rana has run the Zanskar over 40 times. Along with him are a cricket teams worth of safety kayakers and guides. I am clearly in competent company.

In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the churning, chocolate waters of the Zanskar course through dramatic gorges and canyons before embracing the Indus river to flow in to Pakistan. While the fast flowing river is rafted in the summer months, in the winter, an icy silence descends as the waters freeze over. For half the year, the frozen Zanskar transforms in to the Chadar – a blanket of ice that is walked by the more intrepid trekkers… and isolated villagers. For what is adventure for one, is necessity for the other. Soon, a road will cut through the mountains allowing these desolate Zanskari villages access to civilization even in the long winter months.

It is through this gorge that we embark on a two-week expedition. Two days of acclimatization, three days of bus travel and a week on the river. The Zanskar expedition offers rapids and vistas like none other. Yet, the dynamite stick has been lit, the road is being paved, and with its completion will end an era of adventure on the Zanskar. If that’s not enough to send you rushing to book your expedition, here are 5 reasons this is a trip you need to make!

The Views |

Drop the camera and clutch your head, heart and handkerchief, because what you see is going to move you to tears. Your friends who went to Leh may have shown you pictures of azure skies and fluttering prayer flags, but the Zanskar Valley is next level. View snow frosted mountaintops even as you fly in to Leh. Look out over the ivory glacier of Drang Drung when you stop for lunch. Drive past sunbathing marmots whose caramel hued bellies face the sky. Camp in the shade of a monastery carved in to the rock face at Karsha. Bathe under a waterfall that appears as if by magic and then braids itself down in to the river. Turn around as you raft to see the Red Mountain fill your view. Cast your eyes to the heavens and wonder how the canvas of the night can fit so many stars.


The Monasteries |

Thikse, Hemis, Lamayuru and Karsha – these are the monasteries you’re sure to visit, and each is exceptional in its own right. Perched on the spurs of various mountains, overlooking valleys and rivers, the monasteries of Ladakh hold the history of its people. Under the bright sunshine, prayer flags and prayer wheels adorn the balconies and verandahs, while inside, the dim, cool rooms harbor religious artifacts and instruments. The aroma of incense infiltrates your nostrils as you remove your shoes and duck in to the prayer rooms. Here, the discarded saffron cloaks of the monks wait like a second skin on low daises, and sacred texts line the walls in neat rows. Pay your respects or simply admire the intricate carvings and statues of Buddha and his disciples. The delicate tankhas will leave you gaping and the steep steps will render you breathless. Gain a moment of perspective as you wave goodbye to the rosy-cheeked baby monks.

DSC_0113 {Image courtesy: Himraj Singh Soin}

1237155_10151762684478632_528979984_n{Image courtesy: Mary McIntyre}

The Team |

The men leading our group are akin to river otters. They merge gracefully with kayak or raft and cut through the water with nonchalant expertize. Their professional skills can be admired, but it’s their personalities that made them a hit with us. Like a well-oiled machine, they move in tandem to ensure tents are pegged in properly, lifejackets are secured tightly, dinner is cooked to perfection and that a band of amateur adventurers manage to pack-up camp on time. Their humor veers towards the wicked, and years of leading rafting expeditions mean they have an endless stream of stories to share.  Are you a good chef? Their cooks will rustle up a better meal… and with fewer ingredients. Consider yourself a yoga master? Most of them can run circles around you… on their hands. In the evenings, laugh till your sides hurt and then sleep in peace knowing that your safety is on the top of their priority list.

The Rapids |

The Zanskar is a wily river; on the first two days it lulls you in to complacency before unleashing a torrent of grade V rapids upon you. The frigid water contorts in to eddies, boils and pour overs through which you must battle, and ominous names like ‘Constrictor’ and ‘18 down’ are fair warning for what’s up ahead. The adrenalin will not stop pumping, your hands will blister, jets of icy water will slap you in the face and your shoulders will burn.  There will be heart stopping moments when the kayakers in front of you disappear below giant waves only to reappear grinning impishly, and your blood will run cold when the raft tips precariously, promising to deposit you to the riverbed. This is what you travelled so far for and it’s worth it.

Oh! And there’s an entire bevy of unnamed grade V rapids on the river that are just waiting for some river rat to christen them.


1234019_10151762685698632_1437316915_n{Image courtesy: Mary McIntyre} 

The Solitude |

No roads, no electricity, and no connectivity – the Zanskar Rafting Expedition allows nay forces you to unplug from city life. Wake with the sun, sleep in true darkness, listen only to the song of the river and bathe in glacier fed water. The expansive and stark landscape of the valley reminds you of how small you actually are in the grand scheme of things.

1239664_10151762685608632_257730315_n{Image courtesy: Mary McIntyre}

You can’t Instagram how surreally beautiful your campsite is, you can only savour it.

By the time you head back to Leh, you’ll be craving a hot shower, a real bed and cold cream for your burnt nose, but I can bet that you’ll also be planning your next river run.

About the author | Cara is a wildlife conservationist, bibliophile and compulsive traveller based out of Delhi. She can be reached at

Find out more about Ibex Expeditions trips here.