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Cooling point

Sujoy Das | Updated on January 20, 2018
Hit the high spots: A long line of prayer flags greets trekkers approaching the top of the Kongmaru La, the last pass on the Markha Valley trek images. Photo: Sujoy Das

Hit the high spots: A long line of prayer flags greets trekkers approaching the top of the Kongmaru La, the last pass on the Markha Valley trek images. Photo: Sujoy Das

Lake placid: Camping below Kangyatse peak, Markha Valley

Lake placid: Camping below Kangyatse peak, Markha Valley

A Himalayan trek is always a rewarding escape from the scorching plains

There was no snow when I stepped on top of the Kongmaru La (5,100m), the last pass on the Markha Valley trek. Below me was the steep trail which I had just ascended, zigzagging across the hillside. The long line of prayer flags danced crazily in the breeze while to the southeast, the snowy dome of Kangyatse peak (6,400m) dominated the horizon. To the northwest was a long range of mountains — the Karakoram? Could K2, the second highest peak in the world be amongst them, I wondered? The silence at the pass was soon shattered by the shrill neighing of the ponies and the cries of men guiding their wards across this divide and down into the valley.

Six days ago, our team of six trekkers, accompanied by the indomitable Stanzin and his crew, had started out from Leh. The Markha Valley, wedged between the Stok Kangri range to the north and the Zanskar peaks to the south, is the most popular trek in Ladakh.

The drive along the Indus and then along the Zanskar river to Chilling took around two hours. The crossing of the river at Chilling is an experience, as there is no bridge! A trolley, which holds three people at the most, is run by a winch that drags the contraption across the frothing Zanskar.

Once across the river, our ponies were waiting and with Stanzin, our guide, cook and ‘Man Friday’ in the lead, we set off. The day’s walk to Skiu was mostly on level ground and in about three hours we arrived at a spectacular campsite on the banks of the Markha river. The hot sun had been beating down on us for most of the afternoon, so without much ado we plunged into the icy waters for instant bliss.

The next day’s walk from Skiu to Markha was the longest — we passed a small lodge at Pendse which sells handicrafts made by the Ladakh Women’s Alliance Group. Just before Markha we crested a small pass with a fantastic array of chortens and yak horns.

That night at Markha we were rewarded by one of the most wondrous night skies. With my camera on a tripod I waited for the stars. Sirius, the brightest star, shone like a beacon while higher up overhead was the Great Bear.

Fifteen minutes uphill from the Markha campsite lies the Markha gompa. The view from the monastery reveals a series of terraced fields in neat chequerboard patterns above the river. The villagers are able to grow one crop in summer and we saw ripened barley ready to be harvested.

The walk to Hankar the following morning took us past the impossibly high Tacha monastery clinging to a cliff. It seemed more like a mountaineering challenge than a walk — we decided not to attempt the climb.

Stanzin proposed that we camp the next day near a small lake rather than continue to Nimaling. The lake camp below Kangyatse peak is Markha Valley’s best-kept secret. Our tents were pitched on the shores of the lake, which is rich in birdlife. We spotted sandpipers, wagtails, redstarts, accentors, dippers and many other species. In the background, the peak of Kangyatse stands sentinel over this pristine location. The evening ended with a superlative Chinese dinner of hot-and-sour soup, fried rice and mushrooms with vegetables cooked single-handedly by Stanzin: this was possibly the most perfect campsite on the trail.

The walk to Nimaling is through meadows where we saw marmots and the Ladakh pica scurrying in and out of their burrows. The giant golden eagles were soaring with the thermals and we tried in vain to spot bharal (blue sheep) perched on seemingly inaccessible crags. A sharp wind blew across the pastureland and at this altitude of 4,500m we felt that we were finally above the clouds. Ridge after ridge of the Ladakh ranges were behind us now, the gnarled rocks lit up in extraordinary colours of red and russet.

A steady two-hour climb from Nimaling the next morning brought our group to the top of the pass. This was followed by a knee-cracking descent of more than a thousand metres to the campsite of Chukirmo!

The last day’s walk through a canyon followed the valley past neatly manicured villages, a school and, finally, to the roadhead at Shang Sumdo. A welcome tea tent served us a meal and chilled juice while we waited for transport back to Leh.

Sculpted canyons, fantastic rock formations, ancient villages, Buddhist gompas and, above all, the snowy mountains, the Markha Valley could well be the ideal short trek in the Himalayas.

Getting to Leh

Daily flights from Delhi to Leh are offered by Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com), Air India (www.airindia.in) and Go Air (www.goair.in). The more intrepid can also travel by road — Srinagar-Leh or Manali-Leh; both journeys take two days.

When to go

Late May to early October

Trek route

The Markha Valley trek can be done in two ways:

Spituk-Jingchan-Ganda La-Shingo-Skiu-Markha-Nimaling-Shang Sumdo (9-10 days)

Chilling to Shang Sumdo (6-7 days)

We did the second route, which is described below:

Itinerary

Day 1: Leh to Chilling by road (2 hours) and then walk to Skiu 3,400m (3-4 hours).

Cross the Zanskar river at Chilling and walk to Kaya village for lunch and then an hour to Skiu.

Day 2: Skiu to Markha (3,700m; 7-8 hours)

Walk on a flat trail to Pendse in two hours and then continue to Sera village for lunch. The valley then opens up and reaches a small pass, which is the entrance to Markha.

Day 3: Markha to Hankar (3,900m; 4 hours)

This day has a number of river crossings to the tea tent at Umlung. After this, meander up the river valley, arrival at Hankar for lunch.

Day 4: Hankar to Lake Camp (4,450m) below Nimaling (5 hours)

How to choose a trek

Days

Decide how many days you would like to trek — there are short treks of 3-5 days and long trips of two weeks and more.

What do you want to see?

Mountains, flowers, forests, rivers, snow, glaciers, birds, wildlife — many treks have a mix of all these.

Altitude

How high do you want to climb? Moderate altitude would be around 3,000-3,500m and treks crossing 4,500m would be high-altitude.

Camping or lodges?

Some treks are only possible using camping equipment. You need to carry your own tent and food, besides taking along a cook, ponies and helpers in the style of the old British expeditions. There are a few lodges on the way where you can get a meal and a bed for the night.

Popular summer treks

Kuari Pass and Curzon’s Trail, 6-8 days

Great Lakes of Kashmir, 8-9 days

Rupin Pass, 5-6 days

Pindari Glacier, 7 days

Gangotri to Tapoban, 5 days

Sandakphu & Singalila, 4-7 days

From Hankar, the trail climbs steadily to Tahungste and then crosses a series of mani walls to a small campsite near a lake.

Day 5: Lake Camp to Nimaling (4,720m; 2 hours)

This is a short walk past a number of chortens, climbing gently to the broad pastureland of Nimaling.

Day 6: Nimaling to Kongmaru La (5,100m, 2 hours); then to Chukirmo (4,050m; 5 hours)

The trail climbs to the Kongmaru La pass from where there are good views of the Zanskar mountains. From the pass the trail drops steeply through a rubbly track for about 1,000m to the settlement of Chukirmo.

Day 7: Chukirmo to Shang Sumdo (3,700m, 4 hours) and then drive to Leh two hours

Leaving Chukirmo, the trail enters Chogdo village and then follows the valley and, in about four hours, reaches the roadhead of Shang Sumdo.

Where to stay

If you are using the services of a trekking agency, they would provide the tents, ponies, guides, meals and so on. Alternatively, you can use the homestays during the peak season — June to mid-September — where lodging and meals are provided.

Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based photographer and founder of South Col Expeditions

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Published on April 29, 2016
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