Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Twelve. Rafting the Indus and the Zanskar

We get kitted out on the banks of the Indus the next morning, taking very great care not to get too close to the river - the water's icy cold and extra freezing in contrast to the bright sun.

Once we're off, it's a constant attrition. Lathered with sunscreen that keeps sliding off with the copious amount of sweat we generate while rowing, versus sudden freezing gusts of wind and splashes of water that again are replaced by blistering UV on exposed skin...

There are long stretches of flat, calm water interspersed with sudden, dramatic rapids. We float down 24 km of a dream, through hot sun and cold splashes, between gigantic mountain ranges on either side. It's dead silent, no traffic, just our breathing on the raft and the occasional rapid. Not much conversation happens - we're too out of breath. It's killer, this kind of exercise in the thin air. The wind, at specific places along the gorges, finds acoustic perfection and moans eerily.
We also stop for a bit on sandbanks, take the occasional break, search for likely loo spots, but mostly sit and gasp for air before we're off again. But don't get me wrong - it's an amazing experience. We've travelled Ladakh by road, by bike, by foot, even by camel for a bit. But doing it by the river is an experience apart. More than ever, I want to do a river expedition. The rapids are - good, between a grade 2 to 3+ in places; but Tons was more fun. This is a very relaxing activity, really - lots of opportunities to sit back, soak up some sun, feel the breeze, and watch the ravine unroll past on the river's shimmering surface.

After a long time, we reach a point almost at the end of the journey - the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. Just before the joining, there's a large, flat calm area, the perfect opportunity to go overboard and swim around for a bit, chilling, cooling off after the long paddle. We leap off, almost shrieking with the shock of cold water on sunwarmed skin, before the acclimatization kicks in and we're floating in bliss. The guide tells us not to get too far from the raft - and we're soon about to find out why.

The Indus is a decent, well-behaved river, fairly mature by now, and fairly cool after a long trip through the warm sun. The Zanskar is an exuberant, brand-new roaring rush, straight from the snow-melt and shady gorges.

The confluence is the point where the comparatively sedate Indus river meets this foaming high-speed monster, and there are strong currents and near-vertical temperature gradients. Ns and Rc decide to warm up by swimming, and splash straight outwards. The guide notices, and yells - but they're quite a bit away now, and in the chill, are finding the return tough going. Also, it's not just tiredness - the current is picking up, and swimming against the current only exhausts you and carries you out even further. It's touch and go for ten minutes, with us rowing frantically and them splashing back equally desperately, before we haul them bodily aboard - and in the next two minutes, the raft sweeps into the Zanskar and all hell breaks loose, rapid-wise.

Twenty minutes later, we clear the worst of it and look back - at a scene of potential disaster. We, in the first raft, had been lucky in getting all our people back aboard before hitting the Zanskar. The second raft... hadn't. Rp had gotten swept in, and was fished out after nearly five minutes of desperate rowing, blue, rigid, near-hypothermic. The good thing was she didn't panic, and floated, instead of struggling; that's why she just had to deal with the cold only, and not drowning as well.
It's not just a question of going from cold water to colder water. The shock of transition is as great as the one you get when, after sitting in the sun for 2 hours, you jump overboard in the Indus (which, remember, is still a mountain river 11,000 feet above sea level). I stuck my hand into the Zanskar, and the water's chill had knives in it.

Finally, on the beach, we stood and shivered for a while, then baked, then ate a packed lunch and headed home.

Magnetic Hill is another interesting landmark. There's a point along the road where the road appears to be heading downhill away from a large hill. Legend has it that the hill has such large deposits of magnetic ore that it can haul a car against the slope towards itself, if it's kept parked in neutral on the road. It's a hoax - it's an optical illusion that makes the road look sloping away from the hill, whereas actually, it's sloping towards it.

When we reached there, someone was testing his 4-WD on the slopes - and we had the shock of our lives when we saw the 'magnetic' hill apparently hauling an SUV, tyres screaming, dust and rubble churning, up a sixty-degree gradient.
There was a super wind, though, which can easily knock you ass-backwards and blow you away, rolling through the dusty plateau like something out of a cartoon western.

This point in the post also marks the debut of The Professor with his quote of the day - if someone ever calls him during a class (he runs a coaching institute), his standard excuse for not talking - 'Baat nahin kar sakta, abhi mera period chalu hai.'

When we reached the hotel, our arms and legs were solidly aching. And after a superb late lunch of mix veg, yak cheese, mushroom, broccoli, spinach, and soup, our jaws were aching as well.

In the evening, we paid a brief visit to the War Museum. It's a small building, Army-run, housing a small collection of items from the Kargil and earlier wars - Mostly captured enemy weaponry, equipment and documents, and some of the kind of equipment we use.
There were AK-47's, UMGs, small-arm pistols, a pair of rocket launchers, mortars... and a whole selection of Pakistani Army documents, id cards, ration books, and letters. Protestations and diplomatic talk can fly thick and fast, but the truth sits here, quietly but leaving no room for arguments - the insurgents that occupied Tiger Hill, Drass, Kargil, and the rest, were Pak Army regulars. They carried army documentation, and army weaponry. Photos not allowed; you'll have to imagine it.
There was a look on the face of the officer who was showing us around - a bitterness, but also a kind of humour. The look of someone who has seen the arguments and debates, who knows what the truth is, who knows it may not be publicly acknowledged - but also, the look of someone who knows that whatever the public may choose to believe, makes no difference at all to the life he will lead here. He knows what he has to do, what his duty is; he's not looking for approval or acknowledgement. He will do what he has to. The Great Indian Public can think whatever it wants.

Another cultural programme was scheduled, so watched that for a bit, then headed back to the hotel - where, for the third time in our visit, the same group was presenting the same programme, this time to some new arrivals over there. There's a limit to how much culture we can take... help!
Accepted a packing challenge from Rc, and packed up all my stuff - for a eighteen-day holiday and trek - in ten minutes flat. Rc's jaw, hit the floor, and stayed there for a while. I amaze myself, sometimes.

This trip... is becoming interesting. It's cabin fever. Take a group of people out of their lives, put them in close proximity with each other, in stressful conditions, with no chance for escape, for a long time. You can hear the pressure cookers starting to whistle. And the next few days will be a trek - no diversions whatsoever. You could seriously make a movie out of this, a novel, a TV show.
Rocking script it'll be, too.

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