WHEN I WAS ASKED to present a TV documentary on the Zanskar river I jumped at the chance imagining we would go in at the Baralacha and catch the headwaters of the system then follow the Lingti-Tsarap chu to Phugtal and thereafter accompany the Lunak to Padum where the Zanskar river takes its name before entering the gorge. But Mandip Singh Soin who arranged the logistics was apparently aware of my horror of getting my feet wet and convinced the film director Gayatri Singh that we would get more memorable footage by rafting through the gorge thus enabling me to overcome my phobia. When Mandy was told I couldn't swim he brushed the objection aside as academic. The Zanskar was so furious a river that being able to swim hardly made any difference to your destiny.
The day before I left Delhi for Leh (the FRGS after Mandy's name had convinced the director that the Zanskar started in Padum) I had a letter from one Gary Weare the editor of a Lonely Planet trekking guide who wanted to quote from my book on Nanda Devi. He said he would pay with a bottle of Glenfiddich. So I set off in anticipatory spirits only to come up hard against the bloodymindedness of Kargil's taxi union. The day we set off Leh had become administratively autonomous so we drove out in two Buddhist-driven Suzuki Gypsies. Next morning when everything was tied on the roof racks the local Muslim drivers refused to let us through. One had to concede they had a point. Leh boasted a flourishing tourist turnout while Kargil remained what it has always been a scruffy backwater where tourists (were there any from Kashmir's troubled valley) were forced to stay from necessity not choice. We transhipped to a pair of battered Jeeps that looked much more authentic to me but which gave the cameraman a nightmare since they neither matched each other nor the earlier vehicles. But to redress the bullying of the Kargil monotheists the Buddha caused it to snow heavily in Padum so the taxi drivers couldn't get back over the Pensi la.
More local political upheavals threatened the launching of the rafts at the Buddhist end of Padum. Agitation to be included in the new Ladakh administration caused the Zanskar Buddhists to borrow the kidnapping-of-tourists ploy from the Kashmir terrorists. Once again logic was on their side. Almost all the foreign trekking parties were self-contained and passed through Zanskar without spending anything locally. As our party appeared to belong to the same bloated capitalist philosophy we took care not to camp in Padum but to use the local hotels and buy supplies from the bazaar. Meanwhile the snow was destroying the entire barley crop which had been cut and was now rotting on the roofs. Altogether our presence seemed inauspicious and tourists were plainly a sore point.
On the other hand the appalling cold and grey weather enabled us to pump up the rafts without any local opposition. (People obviously concluded we were daft). So on a filthy afternoon wearing several layers of clothes over our wet suits we cast off in blue life jackets with matching life jackets-looking much more shipshape than we felt. Luckily Mandy had arranged two reassuringly large rafts and our admiral Jigme Dorje was the perfect pro. We headed towards the meeting of the two streams below Karsha where the river takes its name. Kabir stood in the bow ahead of me seeking to film the birth of the Zanskar. At the exact conjunction the turbulence of the waves caused Kabir to lose his balance. Inexplicably he appeared to prefer the horizontal mode to film from. When he began to disappear over the bow I was impressed by his dedication but then a restraining rope round his thigh snagged round my ankle and like a magnet pulling a coin I was drawn in after the cameraman. I must say I went in with enormous dignity. It would have yielded excellent footage, my slow motion embracing of the cruel sea. Alas the cameramen had his own problems and so too had a crewman industriously seeking to stall the raft. My flailing legs in a dramatic finale to my otherwise elegant flip caught the oarsman amidships and added his bobbing presence to make a hat trick of men overboard. The admiral had us out within minutes with the minimum fuss. For me it was a moment of enlightenment. The river was now a fast friend and furthermore I had answered my query. When life is dangerous enough as it is, why do some people make a career out of white water running? I had been initiated. Thereafter I revelled in every minute of the action. And to show the gods had relented the weather opened up from the leaden cold of shivering layers of cloud to the brilliant ultra-blue of Zanskar's booming skies.
That change in temperature saved us. We had few dry clothes to change into after piling on the layers at the launch. We camped opposite Zangla and didn't attract too many villagers. Apparently another expedition was one day ahead of us. They suffered even more passing through the sheersided gorge during the snowy spell. a Only Yousuf Zaheer (the leader whom we met later in Leh) with an insatiable appetite for adventure would have been able to extract virtue from the mauling the bad weather gave.
We now had the problem of supplementing our damp filming equipment and a crash programme would have to be resorted to. Next morning we entered the gorge and were swept along by its towering beauty. By 1 p.m. we were high and dry on the narrow beach at Nirag where the half-way bridge stands spanning but a dozen yards of the enclosed river. The village was to high for us to reach though we tried. Then next morning we had to condense a two-day run into one. We would try and reach Chiling in the early afternoon where a motor road was under construction that in theory led to Leh. Our target was to be in Leh late the following night to phone Delhi to send some dry equipment by the next morning's flight.
The beauty of the ever changing colours of the rocks-some of them intensely loud - was noted in subdued key since we couldn't film any it. In a particularly tangled section JD pulled in and tying up the raft climbed ashore. These were the most dangerous rapids that assaulted the boats as they emerged from two jagged rocks only eight feet apart. With the snow melt the river was rising and therefore the jaggedness was concealed. As I didn't want to add to what my imagination was quite capable of conjuring up I sat on the bank and idly played ricket by throwing white pebbles. As I glanced down I saw what must be an illusion, a line of big white stones that formed I gulped .... an H. Shit! This was the famous helipad that several beleaguered expeditions had been forped to build to escape. Getting through those narrow rocks was like playing Russian roulette. JD was unfazed. 'When I say "paddle hard" I meant it' was all the advice he gave us but the look that went with it suggested that if we didn't paddle as if our lives depended on it there would be need for that helicopter. We flashed through brilliantly but the following raft snapped one of its unbreakable reinforced oars. No problem. We were carrying spares.
The beauty of the scene was spell binding and sadly we had to miss the most magical camping site at a weirdly wonderful waterfall that sprayed out in white tresses at the base of a fawn canyon wall. This incredible natural freak came before the magnificent union with the Kurna river. What a terrific sangam that was with a rust and purple peak soaring up to make every cameraman rejoice. But Kabir was paddling for all he was worth. We must reach Chiling in time to take the gorge road to Leh. By 2 p.m. Gayatri, Kabir and I set off legging it to Nyoma leaving the team to dry out in the pleasant company of Chiling's friendly villagers whose ancestors had come from Nepal as metal craftsmen.
Our optimism at finding a bus, jeep or donkey dwindled by the kilometre. We did meet a German motor-cyclist but he refused point blank to ride back with us along the flinty newly blasted road. (The others thought he was mean but as a motorcyclist I could appreciate his real concern.) We covered the 30 kilometres to Nyoma - on the main road to Leh-by 11 p.m. and by 1 in the morning we were delivered in a crammed cab of a Tata truck. A rest day followed and early next morning we were back in business when the morning flight brought in the spares. A jeep bumped us along the gorge until it became impossible than we walked the last* 10 kilometres.
Then on the horizon appeared a lonely trekker with a pony. Appropriately he identified himself as a Lonely Planet guide editor! Not since Stanley presumed to meet Dr. Livingstone were there so many great expectations? Gary Weare? Yes. Glenfiddich? "Sorry mate, I finished it last week." The gorge ceased to be gorgeous.
Rather than backtrack we decided to film the village life in the remaining section. Metal craft is still beautifully wrought and the copper pots in the kitchens glowed magically each evening when we joined in the family change drinking ceremonies. No doubt the chang heightened the magic.
After Chiling the gorge opens out somewhat but this has the advantage of spotting herds of wild blue sheep. But plans to look out for these went wildly agley when we had to outrun several very nasty rapids. Now that we were filming hard action JD conspired with the director to catch Bill taking a toss. Luckily the weather clamped down again and my spectacular fate was averted. Kabir was dead keen to see me hit the waves but the director reminded him that I was needed to write the script. So we beached at Nyoma thanked the crew and deflated the boats. It had been a closely run race with weather, river and local politics adding their oars. What really made the trip memorable was the fact that our two crews were from different Himalayan regions. JD was a Darjeeling Sherpa, Bist the second captain hailed from Garhwal, Arivind was from Himachal and Nimo and Tashi were from Leh. In other words tourist advantage was going to the hill people and this is what all Himalayan expeditions should aim at.
A trip to Zanskar.