the zanskar river :: india

by Anupam Chandola

thumbnail of Anupam Chandola

Anupam Chandola (Arnie) is a native of India and has guided around the world including the Zanskar. Arnie really wants to go again so he wrote this up to entice you to join us in the summer for "a true journey of exploration and discovery". He can setup fully guided or semi-private trips where you kayak or row your own raft as I know that would appeal to many of our readers. Just contact us with questions.

Rafting in the Indian Himalayas

River running is virtually as old as civilization itself, but rafting and kayaking as recreational activities are relatively new, especially in the Indian Himalayas. A river journey in an exotic foreign country is one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to experience the rural areas, observing different ways of live, cultures and natural environments, and coming into contact with village people the conventional traveler rarely gets to meet. These pleasures are complimented by an even greater thrill: rafting through powerful, fast flowing rapids. The skills of our professional guides and the stability, sturdiness and buoyancy of modern self bailing rafts, enable us to safely challenge these exciting rivers. Nowhere are these voyages of exploration and adventure better experienced than in the Himalayas, where some of the finest white-water rivers in the world surge through spectacular land of dramatic contrast supporting an amazing variety of flora and fauna, interlaced with a myriad of centuries-old culture.

picture of Zanskar River
Zanskar River, India


Located in Northern India, Ladakh is a high altitude desert land abounding in awesome physical features, set in an enormous and spectacular environment. Bounded by two of the world's mightiest mountain ranges, the Karakoram in the north and the Great Himalaya in the south, it is traversed by two other parallel chains, the Ladakh Range and the Zanskar Range.

For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. The kingdom attained its greatest geographical extent and glory in the early 17th century under the famous king Singge Namgyal, whose domain extended across Spiti and western Tibet right up to the Mayum-la, beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.

During the British rule in India, Ladakh, together with the neighboring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the newly created state of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, as a result of which Baltistan became part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. Geographically, Culturally and Politically, Ladakh is completely different from Kashmir. The mighty Zanskar Range forms a natural barrier between the regions of Kashmir and Ladakh.

Today, with political stability, Ladakh is thriving as a Mecca for adventure travelers. Only recently opened by the Indian government to tourism, Ladakh is still relatively untouched by the excesses found in most developing countries.

In the ancient Kingdom of Ladakh the majestic Himalayan ranges, drawing adventure seeking travelers, shape an incredible variety of whitewater challenges for paddlers. A series of worlds most outstanding rivers journeys are found in the Himalayas and Ladakh is no exception. An uncanny blend of natural splendor, exotic cultures, warm weather and exciting whitewater makes river travel in Ladakh especially unique. Adventures in Ladakh are not limited to whitewater excitement. In this fairy tale land of temples, monasteries and medieval villages, a varied and complex culture has evolved rich with distinctive art forms, joyful ceremonies, and deep religious traditions of the ethnic groups that populate the land. Linked by a rich heritage, the people of the Ladakh have created a kaleidoscope of exotic customs and beliefs.

The history and culture of Ladakh only helps deepen the understanding of the land we raft by, realizing we are just very lucky to a be in very special and ancient place.

The Zanskar River Expedition

As many a traveler will say, a journey down the Zanskar River is a journey of a lifetime.

For a wholesome trip to this lunar landscape often referred to as "Little Tibet", our 14 days Zanskar expedition provides everything that you may be looking for in terms of a cultural experience and true adventure.

During the two days of acclimatization at the Lha Rimo Hotel, in Leh after the flight in from Delhi there is time to visit Buddhist monasteries and the old palaces as well as time to wander around the quaint old bazaar of Leh town. The three day drive from Leh to our put-in point at Padum in the Zanskar valley, is filled with natural wonders like hanging glaciers, a drive over the Pensila (pass) at 14500 ft, the Drung Durung glacier which feeds the Zanskar river, driving through green oasis like villages in the lunar landscape and orchards of apricots ripe with fruit.

picture of Zanskar River
Zanskar River, India

The 7 days river journey on the Zanskar takes you through the Zanskar gorge referred to as the "Grand Canyon" of Asia, through Grade III and Grade IV rapids which add a dimension of excitement and adventure. A fresh water spring that can be mistaken for a water fall is the lunch point on one of the days. Hikes to monasteries and villages which are otherwise inaccessible all add to the charm of this trip.

The only other way to cross the Zanskar river is in winter when it is frozen and the locals trek across it to cut down their travel time to Leh.

There is always a good chance to spot wild life as we travel along since the area is home to the ibex, mountain goat and snow leopard. The trip ends at Alchi, 60 km, downstream of Leh where our jeeps come to collect us and take us to the comfortable Lha Rimo Hotel in Leh. Two nights in Leh at the end of the trip give you time for last minute shopping in the bazaar and savour a few extra moments in this magical place.

Sample Itinerary

More Information

Best Time to Go

The best months for the Zanskar is August-September. The high mountain passes to get to the put-in are typically not open until July. To get to the Put-In you have to go over several 10,000+ foot mountain passes. Also in the peak of spring/early summer the water is too high to safely raft on the Zanskar. Every winter the Zanskar freezes over and local villagers use it as a walking path.

Other rivers and things to see

The Zanskar's main tributary, the Tsarp-Chu is a great expedition river, starting at an elevation of 16,000 feet. The first raft descent was done by a young group of rafters, which included myself. (in Riken bucket boats!!) Also located in the Ladakh region is the mighty Indus, which we will spend a day on during the Zanskar expedition. The Suru, Shyok, Nubra are all great rivers, on which certain sections are raftable. There are also a numbers of smaller creeks and drainages that can be kayaked. There are several rivers in the Ladakh region that are still open for first descents.

Ladakh is also knows as Little Tibet. Ladakh is a part of the Tibetian Plateau. There are monasteries tucked into cliffs and on high mountain passes. The small villages that dot the valleys, are like oasis of greens against the lunar landscape. Ladakh is a very spiritual place and one leaves only vowing to someday return.

Gear Rental

All newer equipment is available for hire. Although there is no "boat rental" like we have here in the US, outfitters will allow their boats and gear to be used selectively and for a fee. There are everything from 16 SB Hysides, to Mini-Me's. All the latest paddles, Cataract Oars etc all all available. Semi private trips can easily be organized, however no outfitter will allow their boats to be used on a fully private trip without deposits covering the replacement value on the equipment. Unlike Middle Fork trips, you cannot call out for help from in the middle of the Zanskar gorge!



Click on the markers from left to right to see the put-in, takout and city of Leh.


World Whitewater has a good write-up on the Zanskar. WW Nepal only has a short paragraph on the Zanskar but has lots of useful information for paddling in the Himalaya.

World Whitewater White Water Nepal
World Whitewater
by Cassady and Dunlap
White Water Nepal
by Peter Knowles