A classic trek in Ladakh

July 2013

Himalayan marmot, in between Yurutse and Ganda La, Hemis National Park, Stok Mountain Range, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India

I’m back from a great trek through the Markha Valley in Ladakh, Northwest India.

Being in between guiding two trips in India and having 12 days off, I had to decide what to do. (Of course I much prefer to do guided trips back to back, making money instead of spending it while waiting for fresh groups to arrive.) As a lover of nature, wildlife and hiking, staying in Delhi wasn’t much of an option. Moreover, most of India’s lowland national parks are closed because of the monsoon season. Due to this I had to postpone another chance to spot a Bengal tiger (my attempts to do so in Nepal failed several times). I decided to go trekking somewhere on the Trans-Himalayan Tibetan plateau, where heat or rain aren’t factors to be reckoned with.

Prior to arriving in India I had been looking for an interesting trek. Two persons were very helpful, Charles Halberstadt (owner of the Dutch Himalaya Trekking Wandelreizen) and Pierre Bulck, a colleague of mine from the Bever outdoor store in Amsterdam. Both had been travelling extensively in South Asia both as a tour guide and privately. Pierre said the Markha Valley trekking did pleasantly surprise him in its beauty and tranquility. This together with the facts that this trekking is easy accessible, can be done inexpensively (without local guides or crew/porters) and has easy routefinding made me choose this hike.

The Markha Valley is one of South Asia’s classic treks. It’s located in the northwest of India near the city of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. It can be compared with – a short version of - the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Because of this, I was a little apprehensive about the crowds on the trails. As it turned out, there were never many people. In fact, at various times I was hiking alone for hours. Maybe I was just lucky in my timing, setting out on this trek after the Indian holiday season and just before most Europeans would arrive. Anyway, I was good to be away from the noisy of Indian cities where honking the horn seems to be the favorite national passtime.

There are several ways to do the Markha Valley trek. The easier way is to start from the village of Chilling. Chilling lies on the Zanskar River and was known in the past for its Nepali blacksmiths – who actually were gold- and coppersmiths. If Chilling is your trailhead, your trek is one day shorter and you don’t have to cross a high pass at the beginning. Another option - the normal route - starts near the monastery of Spituk and takes 8 days. As the first day isn’t the most interesting, I began in the first hamlet on the trek, in Zanchen, a place that can be reached by car. (There is an interesting story to the road. As the road was built, plans were to extend it the next village. However, this would mean that there would be more roads in Hemis National Park and park authorities forbade it. So the road ends at Zanchen. Trekking in the Markha Valley also means hiking through Hemis National Park.) By starting in Zanchen I skipped the first day. I did day 7 and 8 of the trek in one day, making the total days of trekking 6.

The trek can roughly be divided in three parts: day 1 and 2 go over the first pass, day 3 and 4 through the Markha Valley itself, and the last two days crossing the second pass. The first day going up was relatively easy. My 20 to 25 kgs backpack didn’t feel too heavy and in half a day I reached the next one-house hamlet. Thoughout the trek, I paced myself by hiking one hour each time straight on, with a short break in between to drink. I began fit, well-rested and acclimatized on this venture and this seemed to pay off. The trail went through a beautiful canyon, past another hamlet and continued along purple- and orche-coloured mountains. In my backpack I carried everything except a stove, fuel and cooking utensils. As it turned out, I didn’t use my bivytent at all and got most of my breakfasts and dinners at the homestays I slept. The place I stayed, Yurutse, is known to be a spot to see a lot of wildlife, but the only animal I encountered was a trophy/head of an Argali sheep (the world’s largest wild sheep) on the roof of the house I stayed in.

The second day was a lot harder. While ascending the first pass at almost 5,000 m. I developed a blister on my heel. This was surprising as my shoes were broken-in very well. In fact, two weeks before I had hiked a five-day trek (with a daypack only) on the same shoes without any problems. Apparently, the weight you carry makes all the difference. On the way up I saw a woolly hare. While descending I got two other blisters - less surprising as the descent was 1400 vertical meters. The blister on my heel kept waking me up the nights after when I was lying in bed on my back and thus on my heel. The sun also exhausted me that day. As I walked all day I was too dump to cover my head. There’s hardly any shade on the entire trek, so when I arrived at the next village I was dazed and stayed indoors as much as possible, away from the sun. The route was beautiful again: a view of snow-covered Stok Kangri (a well-known 6.000 m peak), through another spectacular canyon and bypassing many stupas (I have never seen so many stupas, mani walls, darchen and lathos as in Ladakh).

The next two days through the valley itself were nice too. The good weather stayed with me, this time I covered my head. There are several centuries-old small villages in the valley, but I was amazed how much of the original vegetation is still left: willows, poplars, seabuckthorn, wild roses, and various other shrubs, flowers and weeds. The valley itself is narrow and long, much narrower than average valley in the Alps. The Markha River runs through it. You have to wade through it three times. The rocks have different colors, some in fantastic hues. Along the entire trek there are tea tents, which they call parachute tents. They in fact old parachutes, which the Indian Army had used in border conflicts with Pakistan and China.

The last two days were again walking over a pass, this one slightly over 5,000 m. On day 4 I met a few people and we spend a lot of time together until the end of the trek. Towards the end I got to see more wildlife. I didn’t see the big birds such as eagles or vultures. The snowleopard for which Hemis NP is famous eluded me too, just as the lynx, argali sheep or ibex, but I did spot blue sheep, Himalayan marmots, cute rodents called Ladakh pikas, my first voles (another type of mouse, the favorite food of red foxes), many butterflies, chukor (a kind of pheasant) and a hoopoo. Amazing that hoopoos can be found at altitudes well over 4.500 meters. During my last night animals of another kind came to me: fleas, whose home were the blankets in the tent of the last homestay* (*the last homestay is in fact a tented camp as there are no villages at this height (4,700m)). The pass itself wasn’t too hard. It was followed by another beautiful canyon and pink and purple mountains. Two Belgian boys and me could share a ride back to Leh with a French woman who had arranged a private taxi.

Stupa in the Markha Valley near Markha, Hemis National Park, Stok Mountain Range, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India