• Adventure
  • 21 November, 2019

Trekking in India’s Markha Valley, Ladakh

Trekking in India’s Markha Valley, Ladakh
Photo: Elen Turner

My lungs and legs had never burned so much. Then again, I had never hiked at such a high altitude. Just a hundred meters away, fluttering prayer flags marked the top of Ganda La pass. My partner and I made one final push, eager to reach the top and begin the descent into Ladakh’s popular Markha Valley. We finally slumped down atop Ganda La and caught our breath beside piles of mani prayer stones, each one engraved with the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum. Below us lay a sea of snow-capped peaks and a breathtaking view of the Markha Valley, a 100-kilometre trail through a wild and untouched part of India visited only by local villagers and seasonal trekkers.

Flying to Ladakh. Photo: Trixie Pacis

The Markha Valley offers a 4-8 day trek and the challenge of summitting two high passes: Ganda La (4,800 m) and Kongmaru La (5,150 m). These high passes, which must be traversed on foot, lend to the valley’s secluded nature and well-preserved culture.

There are two places to start the Markha Valley trek: in Spituk, which involves hiking up the Ganda La pass and down to the Markha River, or at Chilling, which is located on the Markha River itself. This route shortens the hike by 2-3 days.

We had started in Spituk the day before, reaching it by taxi from the Ladakhi capital of Leh. The first day of our hike involved a gradual ascent through rocky terrain, past herds of Bharal sheep. We also kept an eye out for the rarely sighted snow leopard, to no avail. The trodden footpath and cairns adorned with sheep skulls were the only signs of human life until reaching the small farming villages of Zingchen and Rumbak. We pushed a little further and pitched our tent at a stunning campsite between Yurutse and the Ganda La pass, where the snowy tip of Stok Kangri (6,100 m) was visible through our open tent door.

Trekking in India's Markha Valley, Ladakh
Photo: Elen Turner

On the second morning we trudged up the steep Ganda La pass. We set our bags down by the mani prayer stones and drank hot tea beneath a rainbow of prayer flags, before covering the downward-sloping terrain to the Markha Valley. The rock shifted from green and purple hues to pinks and reds. We passed roaming yaks with shaggy coats, and met their owner in Shingo. She greeted us with a “Juley” (meaning hello, goodbye, and a variety of other things in Ladakhi), and was happy to hear her yaks were nearby.

We reached Skyu, the gateway village to the Markha Valley, just in time to pitch our tents without headlamps. We stumbled into a cozy homestay, where we ate steaming hot dal, rice, and potatoes with cabbage while seated on floor cushions at a hand-painted table—exhausted but happy that we had finally reached the Markha Valley.

After Skyu, there are nine more villages along the Markha Valley trail. Each village offers homestays and/or campsites, making the trail one of India’s most famous treks. The larger villages are decorated with monasteries and chortens (Buddhist monuments), while others are simply small clusters of homes surrounded by fields.

On our third day, we hiked a relatively flat stretch past Narding, then Sara, and slept at a wild campsite along the river. On our fourth day, we explored Markha, a striking village with verdant fields, white square houses, and a hilltop monastery. We ate lunch inside the monastery to the comforting sounds of pans clinking and monks chanting through peeling walls. Then we trekked on to Umlung, where we pitched our tent on a farmer’s field. The farmer’s name was Tundup. We ate dinner at his homestay and sampled his homemade barley beer sprinkled with tsampa (ground barley). We watched the sunset from atop a ridge as Tundup’s neighbor sang to his oxen, coaxing them to plough the field.

Trekking in India's Markha Valley, Ladakh
Photo: Elen Turner

The fifth day led us out of the Markha Valley to Nimaling, a high plain just below Kongmaru La. We passed through Hankar before leaving the valley, finding a crumbling hilltop monastery built into the cliffs.

The rocky red landscape quickly changed after Tachungtse. The trail veered away from the Markha River and rose upwards, gaining all the elevation we had lost in our descent from Ganda La days earlier. Lichen-covered rocks replaced the valley’s trees and shrubs, and it began to snow. We trudged through the whiteout until strong winds blew the clouds away. Suddenly, Kang Yatse appeared. The majestic 6,400-metre peak was visible for the rest of the walk to Nimaling, a high plain where shepherds have turned animals to pasture for centuries. We pitched our tent one last time and borrowed thick blankets from shepherds occupying two makeshift shelters on the Nimaling plain.

The highlight of our sixth and final day was reaching the top of the Kongmaru La. It wasn’t just the sharp incline and altitude that made the final push difficult: I was reluctant to leave the valley. I enjoyed the solitude and the scenery, genuinely warm interactions with locals, and the sense of mystery that drew us further and further along the trail. Most of all, I was grateful for a glimpse into a traditional way of life that is in balance with nature and remains preserved within the Markha Valley.

By the time we had descended nearly 2,000 meters to Shang Sumdo, we set foot once again on paved roads. Suddenly there were power lines and telephones. We had tea at a guesthouse before a taxi brought us back to Leh, bringing our adventure full-circle. Leh seemed to be teeming with people after a week in remote villages. Many Ladakhis are also being drawn away from their villages to work in growing cities such as Leh. As the town bustle greeted us—car horns, crowds, ring tones—I longed to be back in the Markha Valley.

Article by Trixie Pacis

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