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Markha Valley - an introductory trek
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"There is something fine in the dash of a torrent and the
wildness of a mountain desert"
Ladakh in spring is as near Himalayan heaven as you can get; after a brutally cold winter with passes and valleys hushed by heavy snow, spring is alive with running water everywhere as the snow that cloaked the sacred summits irrigates the barley fields and brings life to the oasis like villages.
This trek encapsulates all we love about this stunning Buddhist Kingdom in the Sky, packed into a short trek, ideally suited to first timers both in India and the Himalaya. Beautiful hilltop monasteries where ochre clad monks follow a way of life unchanged for centuries; villages where daily life is totally in time with the cycle of the seasons; beautiful campsites in remote locations, and above all, the warmth of the welcome of the Ladakhi people.
After time exploring the old monastic sites and hilltop forts of the Indus valley from our comfortable hotel in Leh, we head down to our second base, the lovely village of Alchi, sitting on a plateau on a bend of the Indus. Here we have a night in a heavenly guesthouse - the Zhimskang, with wide windows looking out onto the ripening barley fields. Alchi is known as the site of one of the oldest monasteries on our planet, but few of the day trippers from Leh get to experience its tranquil calm as evening descends on the Indus and we dine under apricot and walnut trees in the garden of our hotel.
And so to the hills - we cross the Zanskar river via a cable car, and trek in easy stages on the traditional Markha valley route to the high plateau of Nimaling, under the snowy ramparts of 6400m Kang Yaze , from where we climb to the trek high point, the 5200m Kongmaru La pass, take in the incredible Himalayan panorama, then descend in easy stages to the Indus valley and Leh.
This is an ideal introductory to Himalayan trekking, with excellent acclimatization - the best of Ladakh with the best and most experienced guides and staff, food, and gear.
The trek was truly an experience of a lifetime, I really do not believe it could have gone any better, everything worked out perfectly. Your knowledge of the culture and the area is amazing and very inspiring. Furthermore the respect you show for your employees was gratifying and made everything very harmonious. A heartfelt thanks from all of us!
Per Gullestrup, Arne & families, India 2007
Note that although we try to follow the itinerary here, at times local trail, river or weather conditions may make a deviation necessary; rivers may be impassible, snow blocks passes, and landslides wipe out trails. The trekking itinerary and campsites may also vary slightly depending on our trekkers' acclimatization rates.
Day 1- arrive Delhi
One of our drivers will be at the airport to meet you, look for the Project-Himalaya sign. Then a drive to our hotel in Pahar Ganj, the main bazaar of Delhi, and over dinner, discuss gear and our adventure.
Day 2 - Fly Leh 3550m
Up early and away in the muggy pre dawn heat to the airport, and then our spectacular flight across the great Himalayan barrier to Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the legendary destination of travelers from 16th century Jesuit missionaries to 20th century backpackers. The cool high altitude air is an incredible relief after Delhi's pollution. We have a short drive to our pleasant guest house and our second breakfast. You will feel the altitude; a little dizziness, perhaps out of breath climbing the stairs of our guest house. After we have settled in, Joel will take you for a walk around the bazaars and backstreets of Leh - he enters his third decade of visiting Leh in 2009, knows some of its most fascinating corners, and will illuminate the Leh of the present with insights on Leh and Ladakh in past times. From crispy bread in the Muslim quarter to digging out old artifacts in antique shops, he is an encyclopedic and enthusiastic source of information. After perhaps a nap and a shower, we dine in the Tibetan kitchen, an excellent restaurant where we talk over the next few days of our adventure.
Day 3 - Leh 3550m
We have a whole day to explore the monastic sites in the Indus valley, some of the most revered in the Buddhist world. We drive along the Poplar shaded roads to Tikse, a functioning and thriving monastic community with a bustling school that contrasts wonderfully with hushed 500 year old prayer halls...and climb (slowly) to the roof for panoramic views along the Indus-fed barley fields below us in their summer greens, with beyond, the snow capped Stok range that waters them. Then on along the valley over a prayer flag bedecked bridge that has seen better days to an outpost of distant Bhutan, the 17th century Drukpa Stangnag monastery with its recently restored Dukhang (prayer hall) and views back to Tikse. There is more, and what we see depends on our energy levels as we acclimatize to life here on the roof of the world.
Day 4 - Alchi 3300m
After breakfast in the cafe of our choice, we grab some pastries from the bakery and head along the Indus the other way, on the road that follows the old trade route to Srinagar, past Spitok monastery, climbing away to a viewpoint where we can look back to Leh nestling at the foot of the Ladakh range - a welcome view to ancient traders on the long trail from India. Then we descend to the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus, blue meeting green, before driving through the lovely oasis like small towns of Nimu and Basgo; we take it easy, with plenty of stops for pictures. Over to the left as we drive you can still pick out the crumbling chortens and piles of stones carved with 'o Mani padme om' the Buddhist prayer, that marked the original caravan route. After 3 hours driving we cross the Indus, and then we are in Alchi, site of the famous 1000 year old monastery but also a peaceful functioning village. We are based in this pretty village for a night, visiting the beautiful monastic sites in this part of the Indus valley as we acclimatize. Despite the tourists that arrive through the short summer, it is still a place with many tranquil corners among its barley fields and poplar groves. We are staying in the Zhimskang, with simple and clean rooms, and its own restaurant under walnut trees. After tea we will take a walk around the old monastery, taking our torches to illuminate the incredible murals on the walls. Alchi is one of the few monasteries surviving from the 'first spreading' of Buddhism from the south of India to Tibet, and the paintings are totally unique. The Gompa setting alone is worth wandering through - a million miles from the noise of Delhi we have so recently left. Over dinner in the garden restaurant, we talk over the first days of our trek.
Day 5 - Drive Chilling and trek Skiu 3300m
On the trail at last - we have a two hour drive to our roadhead at Chilling, where we cross the Zanskar river by cable car - our horses are waiting on the other side for us - and then we have a three hour walk to our first camp at Kiu. The sun can be quite hot on this stage, so be sure to cover up and drink lots of water. We are walking towards the junction of the Markha valley with the Zanskar gorge, climbing high above the river to a small pass at 3400m, the Kuki La, then descending to turn into the valley proper. We will have our picnic lunch - crisp fresh salad, cheese, fresh baked bread and fruit - in one of the many 'parachute cafes' set up by a local woman's co op; they take an old army parachute, and use it as an awning, selling soft drinks and local produce - try some of the 'yos', barleycorns that have been stir fried, great snack food. After two hours we reach Kiu; Kiu and Skiu were once separate villages, but they have more or less become one now. In August it is very pretty, fresh water sparkling everywhere, and magpies and hoopoes darting from shade to bright sun against the lush green barley fields. After arriving in the village centre it takes time to locate our camp - there are many scattered around, changing yearly. Once in camp, we introduce you to your personal tent, and to our group home, the dining tent, kitted out with a constant supply of hot water for drinks, comfy camp chairs, a compact Himalayan library and a solar charging system for your camera batteries, which Joel will normally set up shortly after arrival. We also have a gravity feed water purifying system, which provides us with safe drinking water. This is your home, the only rule is no shoes. Kick back and relax!
Day 6 - Trek Sara 3450m
Making elevation gently today, we follow the Markha river through groves of willow and poplar trees, crossing small side streams and moving through little hamlets; the winter snow is in full melt, and running water is everywhere; few trekkers come through this early in the season, and we will be greeted by "Jullay!" the traditional Ladakhi greeting, as we move up valley. After just four hours walking, we come to the few houses and camp ground of Sara, where we know the family well; tents up and relax...
Day 7 - Trek Markha 3780m
Now we are in the camp routine, breaking camp and moving off by 9, or earlier, with the sun catching the sand colored hillsides all around us...we pass chortens filled with Tzazas (small clay offerings pressed with moulds) and long walls of mani stones; on the hillsides all around us are the remains of ancient forts, and prayer flags flutter from hilltops; it really is a landscape that seems to blend with the religion. We cross wide escarpments, at one point, known to locals as 'Lhatoo' there is a temple for offerings to bring more snowmelt down, so essential for good harvests. Some three hours into our day, we have to ford the Markha river where it is braided, with Lobsang and Stanzin scouting the best point to cross. From the river crossing it takes an hour to Markha, with the village spread out on either side of the old fort, and the Monastery high above. We camp near the school and have the afternoon to explore the surroundings.
Day 8 - Trek Hankar 4110m
More river crossings today, just half an hour from camp, staying on the valley bottom all the time; high to the left you can see the old trail that unwary trekkers still take - half an hour up, it ends in a sheer drop; we cross the river, then a smaller one just below Umlung Gompa. A trail to the left leads to a staircase which we can climb in half an hour to look around the small monastery and take in the views. Then on through Umlung village, climbing high above the river to spectacular views of 6400m kang Yaze. An hour from here we come to Hankar, where again, the villagers know us of old. A huge part of the village was wiped out by floods in 2006, and there is some work going on higher up valley to restore the houses wiped out. After we have set up camp, we can wander up valley to more of the old village, or simply practice the Himalayan art of doing nothing. Towards sunset, keep an eye on the hillsides over the river, as the local herd of Bharal, commonly known as blue sheep, come down to the river on some incredibly steep 'trails' to drink.
Day 9 - Hankar 4110m
A rest day to acclimatize before we hit the high places, it can be spent relaxing with a book in the sun, or perhaps a climb to Hankar's 500 year old fort above the village; a bit of a scramble, but well worth it for the views. It takes steady footing to scramble up, and once in, there are a lot of unstable rocks, but the sense of antiquity is really palpable.
Day 10 - Trek Nimaling 4700m
Heading towards the high point of our trek now, moving gently through morning-fresh Hankar to start the climb towards Nimaling, looking back to beautiful views of the fort above the village. Long ago invaders from what is now Pakistan coveted the high grazing and livestock of Nimaling, thus the Markha valley was at one time heavily fortified. We move slowly up through some campsites that will in six weeks be thronged with trekkers, taking some four hours to reach a small lake where we lunch to great views that get even better as we climb higher then descend to Nimaling, or 'Plain of Gold' and our camp near the sparkling clear river...to one side the trail climbing to our pass, the Kongmaru la, to the other the impressive bulk of Kang Yaze. It is one of the loveliest (but coldest) campsites in central Asia, with stunning sunsets.
Day 11 - Trek Chumik Nakpo 3980m via Kongmaru la
Up! And up and up. Nearly 500 meters, depending on whose altimeter you believe, to the pass, which really can be seen from camp. As we ascend, the views of Kang Yaze are just beautiful in the morning light, and three hours at the most sees us on top, stringing our prayer flags among those already cracking sharply in the morning breeze. Then a descent to the pastures below, another three hours of zig zagging down, keeping your eyes peeled for Blue sheep and perhaps snow leopard - our crew saw some here in 2003.
Day 12 - Trek Shang Sumdo 3600m
This valley is always a last surprise, as the trail goes into pretty canyons with rocks and pebbles in all sorts of pastel shades, mainly pink and blue. Our camp is among willows and poplars, and we have a last night with our faithful horsemen, giving out tips, and beers and rum from the local shop.
Day 13 - Spare trek Day
For all those things we cannot predict!
Day 14 - Drive Leh
We have come to know the Indus well now; wind down the windows and breathe in the scents of this beautiful kingdom on the roof of the world. Three hours driving brings us to Leh, our quiet guest house, and a goodbye dinner with our staff.
Day 15 - Friday 29 May - fly Delhi & Depart
We generally try to get to Delhi in time for the Raj style breakfast buffet at the Imperial Hotel - goodbye for now!