If, in life, I were a divinely chosen spiritual revelator, I would consider a life of teaching and leave behind words of enlightened guidance. Like the Buddha and the Mahayana sutras, the philosophical advice offered to Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, and the scriptures from Muhammad related in the Quran. However, I am not a revelator, and I don’t speak Arabic, and I definitely can’t read or write in Sanskrit. Instead, in this life, I am just a kayaker. And for this part, I’ve chosen to float through a vivid and rich culture in some northern regions of India, tucked in the Great Himalayan Range among the clouds, nestled in jungle valleys of the holy Ganges River, in search of waves, friendship, and a better understanding of the Indian people and the wild rivers in this ancient corner of the world. This is what I saw.
I arrive in the Delhi International Airport and collect my packaged creek boat from the luggage carrousel. The weight of this package, totaling nearly 100lbs, includes all the kayaking and camping gear required for our proposed itinerary: three weeks exploring rivers divided between two regions in northern India, Ladakh “land of high passes” and Uttarakhand “land of the Gods.” Delhi’s humidity and heat smother me as I’m warmly greeted by my sister, Christie Glissmeyer Eastman, who arrived several hours earlier. She guides me with my boat through a modern, busy Indian terminal to meet two other team members, Susan Hollingsworth and Adam Mills Elliott who have come equipped, in addition to kayaks and gear, with photography and video equipment. The four of us together with four kayaks not only cause heads to turn but also prompt curious inquiries from most bystanders. I can’t help but marvel as to how we all made it halfway around the world with all our gear unscathed. It’s 4:00 a.m. as we gather ourselves and our kayaks and wander together towards the next leg of our journey, one more hour-long flight on an Indian regional airliner to Leh, in Ladakh.
As our plane descends from the clouds during our decent into Leh, I peer out of the window and watch the large wing shiver in turbulence in the sliver of space between us and a massive, snowy crag and rock landscape thrusting up and around us in most directions. It dwarfs us, even at our present altitude of 22,000ft. With the entirety of the globe now separating me from my wife and our daughter, I start to cope with the pangs of terror, love, and sacrifice shooting through my heart as we continue to trace 45-degree banks, contouring the stacked canyon walls following a rumbling valley drainage below as we cascade from the heights of the Himalayas. The pilots commit our approach down into the hills for a high-performance landing downwind and downhill. Our aircraft touches down at one of the highest airports in the world, approximately 11,000ft in elevation, before screeching to a stop towards the end of the short, 7,000ft runway.
Flight operations at Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport must be completed early in the morning before winds and temperatures increase. As we hustle to disembark across the ramp, we are greeted by a swarm of heavily armed soldiers and stern military direction prohibiting any photography. Our proximity to Pakistan, Nepal, and China is accompanied by various religious and cultural frictions and requires, from India, the largest military presence per capita in the world. Eyebrows often rise at the line crew wrestling four brightly colored kayaks from the aircraft into the shuffle of tourists, monks, officers, and taxi drivers. The green, orange, blue, and white of our boats contrast the high desert landscape and military garb and resemble the Buddhist prayer flags lining the hillside behind.
We lash our kayaks onto the roofs of two minivans and climb inside before hurtling through hectic, narrow streets between hurried motorists, mutts, and pedestrians with blaring horn blasts establishing the right-of-way. We arrive at the Oriental Guest House where the rest of the team members, Ty Bequette, Monica Gokey, and Ben West, arrived days earlier and secured marvelous hotel accommodations for all of us. It is here we will stage our launch into the wilderness of the Zanskar River Gorge after a quick decompression fueled by masala chai tea and a day of training on the Indus River.
Wandering the crowded streets of Leh on foot in search of locals’ orientation of the rivers as well as food supplies, I’m bombarded by the thousand new smells, vendors selling delicious spices, impoverished begging for coinage, chanting of meditative mantras, and calls to prayer. A local commercial whitewater rafting company, Splash Adventures, helps us obtain river and weather forecasts and arranges our transportation.
We start the next morning with a shuttle to the put-in. Our entourage is comprised of nine kayaks loaded into a small truck and an SUV containing our seven team members plus two local kayakers wanting to join us for a Class III day trip on a middle section of the Indus River, which is flowing at approximately 5000cfs. Farms, military stations, and monasteries blur by me through the window as we cruise out of the city into the country. We stop on a lonely bridge crossing the Indus River. It is completely painted shore to shore with colorful prayer flags waving in the warm morning breeze. A few women washing clothing on the bank continue their work but take notice of our presence with smiles and waves. Their children curiously investigate and creep forward to see the crazy outfits we’re donning: drysuits, sprayskirts, PFDs, helmets, carbon fiber paddles, and wonderful, colorful boats.
They see us off with excited waves among the flags floating and flapping from the bridge overhead as we drift downstream. The scenery now washes by at a pace I am capable of absorbing. Ancient, giant monasteries in excellent repair grow up from the valley floor and crawl up the steep hillsides springing above our horizons. While gasping for air here at altitude, I observe the numerous Stupas, small to large white religious statues, dotting our periphery. They provide a constant reminder of where I am, and remind me also to breathe.
The morning is spent dialing eddy turns, surfing mellow waves, sharing my amazement, and learning about life here from our new kayaking friends. As the afternoon progresses, the valley banks begin to rise into rocky canyon walls and the river starts to take on a new quality as well. A few steep drops around corners provide splashes and laughs. We are ready for more as we near the end of the day. We take-out at the confluence of the Indus with 30,000cfs pouring out from the Zanskar Mountains. This glimpse up the Zanskar River Gorge provides us with some foresight for our next trip, an awesome journey around, up and over, then down and into the Zanskar Valley on a self-supported multi-day trip through the heart of this impressive range paralleling the Himalayan mountains.
After spending one day in Leh in preparation, we’re packed for camping and stocked with provisions. At 5:00 a.m. we again load gear, boats, and ourselves into the truck/SUV combo. We start our two-day journey of more than 250km over mostly dirt roads in disrepair towards our put-in. This deteriorated path is attended by crews of construction workers using shovels and picks in a laborious process that uses only immediate, local resources to provide the necessary maintenance. Our crew zig-zags up and down several mountain passes over 13,000ft. Progress is complicated by the convoys of intricately and colorfully decorated delivery trucks and the frequent mass of sheep or goat herds with shepherds covering the road. Our driver, with assistance from several packs of cigarettes and Indian herbs, remains steadfast and in positive spirits despite the 13-hour drive. Enormous Class V+ rapids engulf the Suru River snaking beside and below us and flood my intentions to return someday with a brave and ready crew to attempt a first descent … maybe. In the back rows of the vehicle the beer flows among the team members and we are jolly, except for Ben. He is barfing out the windows and shitting out the door every chance he gets while the rest of us celebrate over not sharing whatever it was he ate. However, he will not be the last to fall.
We wake early the next morning after lying down in a sheep pasture to sleep. The smell of manure is refreshing after a long day of traveling and breathing diesel exhaust. After repeating the routine of packing and loading boats, we move down the road to the next village hoping to procure breakfast. We find a pleasant outdoor patio with views and plates of fried eggs, noodles, and chapattis. When I inquire about use of restroom facilities I am directed to the stream behind the residence/restaurant. Moving on, the eight hours of road ahead commands my attention as it climbs up and over a 14,500ft pass before our final descent to the town of Padam where we’ll finally get to put our loaded boats in the water. The traffic has become less congested, but the grade and occasional bus barreling down on us keeps me aware.
At the crest of the pass, we’re offered exhilarating views of vast, towering mountain peaks, enormous glaciers, dry, sunny weather, and all around us, massive piles of manure. As we descend, I witness a sophisticated process where hand tools, yak-drawn carts, and the power of the sun are used to transport and transform manure from the lower-lying pastures into a fuel the size and shape of a Frisbee used for heating residences during what I can only imagine is an impossibly harsh winter. We stop, hoping to procure beverages for the evening, retrieving from our truck a Nalgene bottle and plastic water bottle to collect chhaang, literally translated, “nectar of the gods.” We indulge. I am not totally sure of the distilling process, but I gathered, during a drunken conversation almost completely lost in translation, that it involves fermenting barley. The drinks suppress my restlessness and eager anticipation of the approaching river and follow us all the way to the Zanskar.