Melting in the Markha Valley (84km, 3 and a bit days)

Markha regularly comes up in search lists of the worlds greatest hikes, and has long been a popular commercial route. Skirting Kanda La Pass at 4900m at the beginning of the trek and then meandering up the Markha valley before heading over the Gong Maru La pass at 5350m at the end (altitude map below borrowed from Ju-leh adventures). Most hikers take 7-8 days to do the longer version of the trek, although shorter options are available if you start at Chilling. The Ju-leh adventure website (and to some extent the very out of data Cicerone guide to Ladakh’s treks) were helpful in planning. There has been a lot of development in the valley, so it is no longer the remote adventure it once was, and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t recommend it. I did 86km of the longer trek, avoiding the road sections at the beginning and end, and it was an easy 3.5 days. I arranged drop offs and pick ups with Rezin, who is both a guide and an entrepreneurial taxi drive. He can be reached on +919622996469

Day 1 Zingchen to Shingo

Garmin says 21k walking, 1408m ascent, 6.5 hours walking; Cicerone guide says 18k walking, c. 1600 ascent, 13 hours of walking 

Rezin picked me up at 5.30am and we drove from Leh to Spituk and then up the dirt road to Zingchen where most trekkers start. It turns out the road is under construction much further up the valley, but it was a nice gentle place to start strolling as it was cool and the gradient wasn’t steep. I passed by a work crew at 6.30am who were camped by the side of the road in parachute tents (literally everyone in Ladakh has a tent made from an old military parachute – it is the ultimate in recycling), and their wives were making roti and tea over open fires.

I passed the entry to Rumbak valley after about an hour and lost the trail. I knew where I was supposed to go and could roughly see a trail up the river, but there were a couple of barbed wire fences between me and the trail. A lovely farmer confirmed I was going the right way when I headed back to check. Oh well…., I found holes big enough in both of them to squeish through, got on the trail and promptly lost it again as it disappeared in the river. There may have been a bridge somewhere, but I didn’t see it, so I had a nice bracing calf bath in freezing fast flowing water as I forded the Maseko Topko.

I scrambled up to the road on the other side of the river and passed two men and one of the ubiquitous JCBs who were having a cigarette. The hiking ‘trail’ was alongside the road, so I climbed up to it and eventually ended up 20m above the road when the trail ran out. Oh well, I guess it is just the road now. So it was a dusty walk up a dirt road (no cars at all) to the solitary house at Yurutse. I can’t imagine road building is cheap, so am not entirely sure the economic rationale of putting in a 4wd road for a few km up an eroding river valley to serve one house, but am sure there is a reason.

From the lovely house in Yurutse, I headed up to the Kanda La pass. Fortunately I had kept an eye on the stream and noticed it was running dry so stopped at about 4400m to filter from a low trickle. I then continued to 4600m where I found a spring, so I stopped there at 10am for coffee and a substantial brunch. The pass was 400m above the breakfast stop, which I took slow and steady. Slow enough that I didn’t even disturb the 20 or so energetic marmots who were amusing themselves on the hillside. I got to the pass around 12.15 and met three young sunburnt tired slovakians. They were surprised to see me by myself. We had energetic conversation about the merits of various lightweight tents, and they were enormously impressed by the breadth of my tent portfolio (I assured them that when they were 49 as opposed to 22, they could also have more than one tent). I left them sitting in the shade with instructions on the next water source and started descending down the valley to Shingo where I could see the heat rising in the air. It was baking hot.

I arrived at Shingo campsite at 2.30pm to find two Czechs passed out under the parachute tent. They had trekked from Stok over the past few days, but had expected to find places to buy food, but hadn’t been successful. SO they had been eating their granola bars and the instant noodles that were available in the tea tents. They had only come from my brunch spot this morning (9km), so they decided to continue on in the heat of the afternoon to Skyu to a homestay rather than camp in Shingo – when I met them the next day they confirmed that was not their wisest choice. I decided that I had walked enough for the day, and it would be better for acclimatisation to sleep in Shingo (4100m) than Skyu (3400m) given I would be going over Kong Maru La (5300m) in a few days. I chatted to the lovely Namgyal who was the owner, and then pitched my tent (he came and watched, and was most impressed with the tent, and also the pump sack on my thermarest), and then lay under a tree drinking tea until the sun went down. Bliss!


Day 2 Shingo to Markha

Cicerone guidebook says 28k walking, 12 hours, c400 ascent.  Garmin says 30.6k walking, 6.3 hours, 596m ascent 

It was light around 4.30 and I slowly roused myself around 5.30am for my habitual litre of coffee to start my day, and I was packed and walking by 6.15am. I surprised Namgyal and his Mum about 20 minutes in the morning, as they were also heading down to Skyu in the cool of the morning. It was a stunning walk down a canyon criss crossing the Shingo river about 15 times, which kept my feet feeling nice and fresh. I arrived in Skyu after about 90 minutes, and was delighted to see the Gompa and the mighty Markha river, but was less delighted by the road, the two cars who drive by me, and the powerlines running up the valley. The road and the power now goes the full length of the valley to Hangkar, which is great for the villagers, but not good for the trekkers.

It was easy hiking, but already hot as hell by 8.30am. I stopped in Pentse after about 13km at around 9am to stick my feet in the water and make some more coffee. The Czechs were up river swimming off their grime in their underpants (which I contemplated but there were locals around so I decided against it). I kept marching up the road in the heat until I got to Chalak where I stopped for lunch under a tree next to the river. The Czechs caught up with me and did confirm they managed to get some food in Skyu, but they thought the portions were pretty meagre. (FYI Homestay here has a pretty good value fixed price set by the government at 1500 rupees including bed, dinner, breakfast and lunch, and each village rotates the tourists around so everyone gets a fair share of the income, the tourists don’t pick where they stay – it is all quite fair and equitable and means no-one undercuts each other in the very short tourist season).

I resumed my march up the dirt road, arriving on the outskirts of Markha around 2pm. Entry required getting over a thigh deep but short river ford. The first (recommended) campsite was busy and had a pack of horses (which are super noisy at night as they have bells on them). The second campsite looked dire and was deserted. The third campsite was situated in the river according to my maps. By this time I had walked 30km, was pretty hot, but I wasn’t keen to go backwards to the first campsite or stay in the homestay. SO I kept going for another km until I found an acceptable pitch site next to a river around 2.30pm. The ground was rock hard, so staking was a challenge. And the pitch was surrounded by thorny bush, so I was taking a gamble that I hadn’t pitched on a thorn which would pierce my air mattress in the middle of the night. The thorns did provide shade, and there was a slight breeze coming down the valley. I had a quick dunk in the river and then read my book (I always end up reading complicated science fiction when hiking, as don’t have enough attention span to read these books in normal life with all the internet distractions – so am re-reading Neal Stephenson’s novels – Anathem, Diamond age, and the new Dodo novels). I had dinner at five, and read until 8.30 – a late night for a hiker

Day 3 Markha to Nimaling 

Cicerone guidebook says 20.5k, 12.5 hours, c1100m ascent.  Garmin says 21.7k, 5.4 hours of walking, 1127m ascent 

I packed up and headed out at 6.15am, delighted to have made it through the night with my mattress intact. About 30 minutes in to the morning there was significant river section to ford. I am lucky that I have a lot of experience fording rivers in NZ, but fording the Markha in this season is no light undertaking, as there is so much sediment in the water it is impossible to see how deep it is. If in doubt, always ford where the 4wd tracks are – which is what I did, but I did end up high thigh deep in very very cold very fast moving water. Trekking poles are indispensable. Fording first thing in the morning is also sensible as rivers rise (with snow melt) throughout the day. I would have been fine up to waist level as have forded many a river, but I do wonder how other trekkers do this solo (I later saw some groups had saddles on mules to carry trekkers over the river). I kept walking, mildly worried about the second ford that was coming up, so was very delighted to see a bridge had been put across this ford – just as well, as I wouldn’t have crossed it given how fast the river was flowing. The scenery between Markha and Hangkar was spectacular with wonderful distant views of Kang Yatse, and some amazing towering monasteries hanging perilously from the jagged peaks alongside the valley (you can see them if you look closely at the photos).

By this time in my Markha journey I had only met the two Czech trekkers and had seen noone else hiking. I had seen people in the Markha campsite, but they might have just driven up to camp. I began to wonder if there was still snow on the pass and it wasn’t traversable and that was why there were no people. I also noticed with my (not really) eagle hiker eyes that most of the mule tracks were heading down river versus up. Hmmmmm. I decided to stop at Hangkar at 8.20 am (11km into the day and the last village before the pass to see if there were trekkers on the trail ahead. I wasn’t worried about having to back track from the pass and walk the 40km out of the valley, but there was no signal in the valley and I had promised a call home by the next day, so I wanted to be sure I could make the call (India being unhelpful in not allowing trekkers to carry a garmin in reach for emergency contact). The lady at the Hangkar guesthouse was most bemused as she served me my chapati, eggs and tea and told me there were lots of groups on the trail, but they were staying in homes so perhaps I hadn’t seen them (they clearly weren’t walking early or far each day – so far i had done 5 stages a group would do in 2.5 short days).

Reassured, I made my way up the valley and stopped at Thachingtse for a 45 minute brunch, waving to some young aussie boys who passed by with tiny packs who were staying in the homestays. Heading off again I passed a series of relatively breathless Singaporeans, Koreans and Indians, none of whom were carrying more than a 10litre day pack. One of the young Indian guys asked why I didn’t have enough money to pay for mules to carry my stuff, and I responded in kind asking him why he didn’t have the strength to carry his own gear. (I am a very bad human as I am always delighted to pass young guys less than half my age whilst walking up hill with a heavy pack – it is not my finest attribute)

I met Pete from England via Cambodia and Hang Tsu from South Korea at Lake Chhiu which entirely dry. From there it was a breezy easy 30 minutes up to the Nimaling valley campsite – which had at least 30 tents in it (including toilet tents, dining tents etc etc for the groups). The rain started as we arrived so I made haste to get my tent up in a ‘quiet’ spot next to the river where the water would block out the noise of the grazing animals. I was hopeful for some local shepherds cheese and chapatis so went to the tent tea house to enquire about food. Um, nope, sadly they only did dinner and breakfast. I had hoped for a warm inviting fire and some comfy chairs, but it was freezing cold in the tea house, drafty and the floor was wet mud. I had a brief chat to Pete and Tsu and then beat a retreat to my warm dry tent and drank hot chocolate all afternoon reading as the rain torrented down, the donkeys brayed and the odd passing cow farted. Fingers crossed for clearer day tomorrow  

Day 4 – Over the Kong Maru La and out…

Cicerone guidebook says 11.5k, 7 hour.  My Garmin says 11.6k, 4 hours of walking,

I slept in to 6am and then roused myself for coffee. Sleep at 4850m is never particularly restful and I had popped a diamox and an ibuprofen in the middle of the night. I was packed and headed out at 6.45am while the rest of the trekkers were still waiting for their breakfast to be cooked. I meandered up the easy trail to the pass, only mildly difficult because of the altitude. The views back over camp were nice but the mighty Kang Yatse was shrouded in cloud, and when I reached the pass after 90 minutes the view to the other side was entirely misted out – oh well.

The trail down was a rocky, bouncy, scree joyride. First up some fun scree to traverse with decent drop offs. I was reassured by the sight of mule shit – I always think that if a mule walk a trail (without looking at their feet) then I should be able do it. After the scree came a trail down a challenging narrow canyon. The trail alternated between precarious paths traversing the slopes above the river, and bouncing over the rocks with feet continually in the water in the valley.  It was weirdly quite fun after the dusty 4wd walk two days ago. I was on track to be several hours ahead of my pick up time, and the lovely Rezin had told me I would have signal at the pass, so I had texted to say I was running three hours early so he was there when I arrived at Chogdo singing at 10.45am. The guide had said this whole section would take 7 hours, and it took me 4 hours – the first time it had taken more than half the suggested time. it did feel like the first proper trail of the whole outing

…. Day 4 (cont’d) – some bonus tourism

I had finished so early that I had most of the day to play with. And Rezin, who had picked me up, had been our guide the week before, so we decided to do some tourism on the way back to Leh. First up though – food. We went to kharu for breakfast – milky tea, paneer paratha and curd.  Then we went to Matho – a lesser visited, but lovely multi coloured gompa, with some excellent buddha carvings. We also popped by Stok to see the palace where the royal family live, an impressive buddha and another lovely Gompa. And to round out the tourism we went to the Dalai Lama’s 88th birthday party though we largely missed the festivities.

I got back to Leh to my home away from home at the Chospa, delighted to have a shower. And I was delighted to take all of my clothes bar the semi clean outfit I now have on to the Dzomsa laundry (350 rupees for 3kg of washing and 20 items, which at the hotel would have cost 2000 rupees). And then I headed to the Tibetan kitchen for Ladakhi Bagleb chicken pie and tea. And back to the hotel for a long sleep….

Rest day in Leh

I woke up at 4am starving, and eventually got up at 6am to start sorting out my gear for the next hike (which largely involves packing food in ziplock bags so i can fit it in my backpack. Nothing opens early here, but I headed out at 9am for a wonderful Israeli breakfast at Lamayuru restaurant – Shakshuka, hummus, eggs, pita, salad, curd and tea. The Israelis are not the most popular tourist group here, but I am personally delighted that they have seeded Shakshuka on tourist menus all over India.

I decided to be a good tourist and go and see the Shanti Stupa (including walking up the 500 steps to the entrance, versus the other tourists who took a cab up). I then wandered to the lovely quiet Gomang Stupa. A side trip to the Lala art cafe for a lime soda and I was tourist replete for the day.

Time to try and redistribute some money around the local Ladakhi owned enterprises (versus the numerous Kashmiri shops in the market selling Chinese factory made shawls). Unfortunately the Ladakhi Women’s alliance was closed, but the excellent Nomadic woollen mills sold me a lovely pashmina. The Looms of Ladakh had some nice clothes and I had already spent a small fortune at Jigmat couture. I did buy some Yak cheese for £10, and some yogurt and apples at the dragon mart (the poshest and really only supermarket in Leh) it was very shiny with lots of guards. My very favourite shop of the day was Leh Vallee – a wonderful business run by Kunzes and her sister with locally made pashminas, bags and homewares. Kunzes is fantastic and the product is amazing quality, beautiful and excellent value for money (so I left with a bag, two cushion covers, a blanket, a shawl and a scarf, and I am pretty sure I will go back again before I leave – Kunzes and I below_.

Final stop of the day – Gesmo for Yak cheese pizza, pick up my laundry, then bed

Next stop Tso moriri for another adventure

Leh July 7, 2023

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