trekking in The Markha Valley


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i spent several days in Leh, exploring the town, visiting near by monasteries, acclimatizing to the altitude,  and pretty much getting used to the fact that i could no longer benefit from taking a deep breath.  then one day i packed a small bag and embarked on a seven day walkabout that would take me deep into the Markha Valley and back.

Markha is a barren holy valley carved by the Markha River that runs parallel to the Himalayan range and is located south of Leh and east of the Zanskar River.

Day 1 – Leh Airport to Yurutse ~21km

i left my guest house at dawn and walked down to the bus station in hopes to catch a local bus south to the neighboring town of Spituk (A.K.A. the trail head) but somehow i ended up at the airport instead.  giant military cargo jets flew overhead as i walked the remaining few kilometers to Spituk.

from there the road crossed the Indus River and followed it west for about 12 kilometers before heading south again up a canyon that followed the Jingchan River.  the true trail started here or at least the road became so unrecognizable that we might as well call it a trail.  the road here is in-progress and i came upon several excavators clearing freshly blown boulders from the path.  one excavator i had to negotiate my way around.  this led me straight down a slope of loose rocky debris.  this was not easy to do in flip-flops.  yup, i have not got around to putting my shoes on yet.  with all these river crossings, it just makes sense.  i’ll get around to it eventually.

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as i climbed, the valley became more pronounced and started to curve west as the rocks turned a deep red color.  i arrived at the hillside settlement of Yurutse well before sunset and was warmly greeted by a kind Ladakhi woman who offered me ginger tea, a hearty meal of dal and rice and a tent for the night.  in these parts, a no-bullshit approach is taken toward food and lodging.  for a fixed 800 Rupees (13 USD), a traveler gets accommodation, dinner, breakfast and a pack lunch.  get em in, get em out, make it simple.  a far cry from anything Indian.

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from the rooftop of the only building in town, the other guests and i enjoyed a meteor shower and a very clear view of the rest of our galaxy.

Day 2 – Yurutse to Shingo ~12km

my newfound trekking companions – Charlie, Chloe, Eva and i set out early the next day to conquer Ganda La Pass at 4980 meters.  we followed the stream bed west through the valley for several hours when i decided to turn on my GPS to assure the others that we were still on the right track.  not only were we not on the right track but we had been walking in the wrong direction ever since we left Yurutse (hey man, these things happen).  the good news was that we were only 800 meters off our mark so it was not completely necessary to backtrack.  the bad news was that this was 800 meters according to a satellite that couldn’t care less about the fucking mountain that sat between us and the true trail.

it takes a unique kind of person not to freak out in a situation like this.  when it came right down to it we had three options: (1) take the safe approach and turn back, (2) take the risky approach and head straight up the mountain into the unknown, or (3) freak out needlessly for a while and then end up going with either option 1 or 2.  Eva and Chloe were mostly un-phased by our dilemma and Charlie was even starting to get a bit excited by the fact that things were not going according to plan.  yup, these are my kind of people.

we ended up going with option 2 of course, mostly because it was the option that aroused Charlie the most.  it was a long tough climb up to the top of the ridge.  i had to go most of the way barefoot because the steep incline was causing my sweaty feet to slip out of my flip-flops (yup, i’m still wearing the flip-flops).  once we got to the ridge we could finally see the true trail.  it was located at the bottom of a thousand meter drop directly below us.  we indulged on cookies and apricots and stared awkwardly at the other trekkers below who were happily trodding along (the one’s that sprung for guides of course).

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“well, that certainly was a fun exercise… isn’t that right guys?”  one that was anything but worthless, especially once we turned our heads east to the hoards of high mountains that filled the horizon.

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we continued further west along the ridge-top until Grand La Pass was in clear view.  we surmised that the trail below had to come up to meet it at some point.  so rather than turning around, we continued along the ridge in hopes to intercept the trail.  sadly, the ridge did not connect with the pass as seamlessly as we had hoped, but at least our path did not end abruptly at a cliff.  instead it brought us to a steep yet negotiable slope that we scrambled down to meet the trail.  from there it was another ascent up to the pass where we were greeted by prayer flags and stone tablets.

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we took rest that night in the settlement of Shingo in a small guest house tucked away by the meander of a stream.

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Day 3 – Shingo to Chilling ~17km

today was a pleasant stroll 7 kilometers down the canyon to a confluence and then another 10 off my originally planned course back to the hints of civilization.  Charlie, Chloe and Eva were all headed on a different path further west to the town of Chilling where they would spend the night and wake early to embark on a rafting adventure down the Zanskar River.  i decided to follow them knowing i would have to backtrack the next day and they didn’t seem to mind.  trail turned to dirt road, then to paved road at a large bridge-in-progress that crossed the impressive Zanskar River.  from there the paved road hugged the river bank for several kilometers until we reached the one-building town of Chilling.  luckily they had a vacancy in the room above the restaurant which they shoved us all into.  once we got settled we drank beer and engaged in inappropriate conversation until sleep overtook us.

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Day 4 – Chilling to Sara ~20km

coffee and an omelet followed by a ‘see ya later’ and i am back on the road flying solo once again.  after backtracking the 10 kilometers and beyond i noticed the landscape gradually turn into a different beast.  the trail began to weave its way along a wide river bed with high red desert cliffs that towered above on either side.  i had finally entered the Markha Valley.

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i was moving fast for no good reason and enjoying the challenge of covering as much ground as i could.  every once in a while i would get pushed off the trail by a tourist caravan coming the opposite way.  it starts with a group of about 7 Europeans all marching in single file and sporting all the latest equipment – water bladders, trekking poles, actual shoes, the works.  then comes the procession of 20 ponies all packed to the brim with tents, food, propane, kitchenware and everything else one may need to get comfortable in the wilderness, not to mention the Ladakhi guides to facilitate it all.  it’s quite the production to see and quite the contrast to the approach i decided to take.  i also couldn’t help but wonder what the encounter was like for them.  here is a man with an unkempt beard, wearing flip-flops of which are barely held together with super-glue and straps.  “this man has certainly been away from the office for a while”, or perhaps “this man has lost all touch with reality”.  either will suit me i suppose.

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further down the trail a light rain started to fall and aroused a fresh desert scent.  i pushed forward and ate as i walked.  lunch is always the same – a hard boiled egg, basic unleavened bread they call Chapati, one individually wrapped slice of cheese, a chocolate bar and a juice box.

i arrived to the tiny settlement of Sara in the early afternoon and procured my no-bullshit food and accommodation.  i got to sleep in my very own room this time and decided to pamper myself with a hot shower –  or rather a bucket of hot water and a ladle to pour it over my head.  i have become a master at cleaning myself in this fashion and i even tend to prefer it to the good ole western shower.  i have also grown to prefer what i have come to call the “Ladakhi Longdrop” – an above-ground two-story outhouse built out of solid stone with the second story often open to the sky for intimate stargazing.  the most important thing that distinguishes the Ladakhi Longdrop from just any longdrop is of course the sizable pile of horse manure that chills out next to you while you go about your business.  once the job is done, just sweep the manure down the hole so the sight and smell gets masked for the next person.  fresh, basic and thoughtful.  welcome to Ladakh.

Day 5 – Sara to Hankar ~20km

i have made friends once again – with an Indian man from Bangalore named Sarej, an Israeli girl named Amit and a girl from the Czech Republic named Tereza.  Sarej and i headed out early and hit the trail.  soon after crossing the river we encountered a pony carcass in the process of decay.

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i just hope that poor tourist got their money back. (sarcasm)

we were caught up with a short time later by the girls who had been truckin’ all morning.  it was mostly Tereza who had the need for speed.  her name was Tereza but we would eventually give her other names like “Czechers”, “Czech Mate” and “Trailblazer”.  the most we saw of her was from behind as she darted off into the distance until she was a dot on the horizon.  then a few hours later we would find her perched on a rock with an accomplished smile on her face.

there were two noteworthy river crossings today.  the water only came up to just above my kneecaps but the current was strong and the stones underneath were smooth.  Amit took the first plunge and herself took a plunge as the water consumed her entirely for just a moment.  she got drenched but her resolve seemed to maintain her good spirits as if it was nothing a few good laughs and some sunshine couldn’t fix.

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the deeper we went into the Markha the more magical it all became.  the river bed intersected with crossing valleys causing the the high cliffs to break up and take on various unique shapes including the occasional peak topped with a monastery or ruined structure.  villages and patches of fertile farmland cropped up along the river’s edges.  one village called Hankar became our home for the night.  Hankar consisted of multiple buildings this time, spread out on the banks of the Markha River.  it was the largest village i had seen since i left Leh.

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Day 6 – Hankar to Nimaling ~10km

toward the end of the Markha Valley we were greeted by the 6400 meter tall snow-capped mountain of Kang Yatze.  we then left the Markha River and began to climb.  not up that mountain but up and over a ridge just north of it to a tent camp called Nimaling which was situated at 4700 meters on a grassy plane at the base of Kongmaru La Pass.  we spent the afternoon relaxing while watching the shepherds heard their goats and sheep from one place to another.

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as soon as the sun went down the temperature started to drop dramatically.  first we huddled in the mess tent and ate our dinner then it was off to our respective tents to try not to freeze to death.  unfortunately, all the tents were full that night so there were no extra blankets.  i swaddled myself in everything i had and tried my best to endure a long uncomfortable and sleepless night.

Day 7 – Nimaling to Shang Sumdo ~18km

i decided to put my shoes on today.  the six consecutive days of the direct dry desert exposure on my feet had finally taken its toll.  the almost year and a half of calluses that had by now formed on my feet were being eaten away at an alarming rate.  the dryness had penetrated them layer by layer until my virgin skin was exposed and starting to crack, causing me considerable pain.  i carefully rinsed my feet in an ice cold stream, dowsed them with neosporin, covered them in all the bandages i had, put on my wool socks and shoes and then chalked the whole experience up to that of considerable stupidity.

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we got an early start and headed straight up the steep trail to Kongmaru La Pass at 5200 meters.  the combination of the high altitude, physical exertion and sleep depravity gave me an endorphin rush unparalleled by any i had experienced before.  my body and lungs were pushing their limits but my head was floating blissfully down endorphin river, bringing tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face.  once we reached the top, we dropped our packs and scrambled an additional 200 meters up to a nearby ridge that overlooked a most diverse scene.  an endless russet mountain range to the west, a carved gaping valley to the north and the monolithic Kang Yatse Peak to the south.

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from there, it was a smooth yet confusing descent.  once we reached the river that formed the valley, the trail seemed to diverge and either zigzag through the middle of it or along side it sending us up a cliff at times.  we followed the river the best we could until we reached the town of Shang Sumdo and then got a taxi back to Leh.

the hour was late when we finally arrived back to Leh.  we were dirty, exhausted and starving.  rather than check into a guest house right away, we headed straight to our comfort zone – the Nirvana Cafe on Changspa Road.  there, we choked down some veggie burgers and napped on the floor with some warm blankets.  i am sure we would have been more than welcome to stay the night there but the thought of a warm shower followed by a soft bed was just a little too appealing.  it was a group effort but we finally managed to emerge from our blankets and achieve a standing position.  then we wandered back to our respective guest houses and surrendered to at least two days of hard earned recuperation time.

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