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The Markha Valley & Nomads Trek
'The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a
The Markha Valley, one of the great treks of the Himalaya, and beyond to the nomadic region of Kharnak where the nomads live as they have for centuries, herding their sheep, yaks and pashm goats. Whitewashed Markha villages, ripening barley fields, crumbling fortresses and ancient gompas contrast with the yak-haired tents, sheep and goats of the Kharnak nomads.
Following the meandering Markha River through groves of apricot, willow, popular & Himalayan oak trees, we gaze up at the cathedral-like structures perched on the cliffs which tower above us and look for the deer, blue sheep and ibex that graze in the valley. Tibetan Buddhism, along with remnants of an older, more animist Bon religion, infuses the region with powerful symbols: 'lhatoos' or offering chortens for the mountain deities scatter the hillsides, monasteries hold 'pujas' or prayer ceremonies in the mornings and evenings, prayer flags are strung up on high peaks, monks wander the trails and villagers bring offerings to the gompas.
After crossing the over-5000 meter Zalung Karpo La, we enter the nomadic region of Kharnak, where we will hear the shrill calls of Ladakhi nomads herding their Pashm goats, sheep and yaks. We'll finish the trek at a Tibetan nomadic settlement, and have salt-butter tea, fresh yogurt and dried apricots with the nomads, many of them old friends.
A wonderful journey through a piece of 'old Tibet'!
" ... I found my trek to be very well organized with Kim and her team very accommodating, in fact going out of their way to provide assistance when required. The tents were nice and roomy and there was a good variety of food ... "
Dennis Beveridge, Markha 2009
Note that although we try to follow the itinerary below, 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.
*The Markha Valley & Nomads trek will be with the Nomads & Caravans trek until Narbus, when the Markha Valley trek section finishes.
Arrival in India
Most flights into Delhi arrive late at night or very early in the morning; plan the date and time of your arrival carefully. Please email us your flight arrival details as soon as possible, and have our contact details with you when you arrive in Delhi. Kim will have her mobile with her, as will our drivers from Dhruv Travels, so don't hesitate to call.
Day 1 - Arrive Delhi
Kim or a representative from Dhruv Travels will meet your international flight at the New Delhi airport, so look for a yellow Project Himalaya sign as well as a sign with your name on it. We'll bring you to our wonderful Rajasthani-style hotel in Paharganj, the Jhoti Mahal.
Day 2 - Fly Leh 3500m
It's an early morning in steamy Delhi as we board the spectacular Jet Air flight, crossing the main Himalayan Barrier to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We will feel the elevation as it's a big jump from sea-level to 3500 meters, and it will take your body a few days to adjust to this altitude. It's very important to drink plenty of water, and to not over-exert yourself while wandering around Leh. Even walking up the stairs of the guest house will make you breathless for the first day or two. Note that we have planned plenty of acclimatization time into our itinerary.
Days 3, 4 - Leh
We have two more days to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of this little piece of old Tibet, King Tashi Namgyal's 15th century Himalayan capital. There is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town, and Kim knows it well; the fort and palace, colorful gompas, the mosque, a museum, back alleys with steaming Muslim bread and tiny antique shops tucked away, colorful bazaars and even a polo field ... And, of course, we'll show you the bakeries, cafes and tandoori restaurants with cold beer for our dinners together!
We'll spend part of one day visiting some of the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist gompas and ancient forts which make the Indus valley such a scenic and historic region.
Day 5 - Drive Chilling, trek Skiu 3360m
After breakfast, we jump into our jeeps and head for the start of the trek at Chilling, a two hour drive, where Nepali metalworkers settled years ago and have now become famous for their wares. Just outside of Leh, we pass Spitok Gompa on the left and Phyang Gompa on the right; look out the back windows for a spectacular panorama of the Ladakh range, which extends westward to meet the Karakorum range in the distance. We approach the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers far down below our cliff-side road, descend to the river and drive along the road on the left back of the Zanskar river to Chilling. Keep an eye out for blue sheep along the right bank of the Zanskar. This is a raftable river when it's not too high, and several Leh companies run rafting and kayaking trips if anyone is interested after the trek.
Now the trek really begins! The road ends just past at Chilling at the moment, but is being extended towards Markha as well as in the other direction towards Zanskar, to link with the road from Padum. Feel lucky to be trekking in this wonderful region while the road still hasn't progressed too far ...
Our second mode of transport is a very rickety cable car over the Zanskar to meet our horses and crew on the other side; hang on! We start the trek with a small pass, the Kuki La (3400 m), and continue through the village of Kaya before we reach Skiu, its entrance chortens and our campsite 3 1/2 hours later. Skiu is the other gateway to the Markha Valley, and houses one of the oldest gompas in the region on a hill at the intersection, worth a visit. Kim and Lhakpa will show you around camp, get you settled in your tents, and introduce you to camp life 'Kamzang style'.
(Note: don't cross the bridge over the Markha Valley to the right after Maya and before camp, stay on the left side trail).
Day 6 - Trek Markha 3780m
A wonderful, diverse day of trekking through willow and poplar groves, past small Ladakhi houses, up onto the cliff-side trail if the river-side trail isn't good and across the Markha river on a wonderful, old bridge before reaching Sara three hours later, a green, wet grazing area of the Markha people. We'll have an early lunch here, and continue on over rocky riverbeds, past briar patches of seabuckthorn, past the ruins of ancient 'dzongs' and monasteries built high up into the cliff sides and along the trail marked by old, crumbling Tibetan chortens. We'll stop for a break at an ancient 'lhatoo', or offering monument for the local mountain deities, where offerings of chang are served up in sheep horns; a powerful site. As we approach the intersection of the Markha valley with another small tributary, we'll pass a group of tri-colored chorten marking the valley, gaze up-valley at the cliff-dwelling built into the valley wall, and descend by the wolf trap to the river, where we often have a wide river crossing (sandals recommended). We'll see the ruin of the Markha fort ahead of us on a hillside before we arrive at the village about an hour later (and four hours from lunch). We camp at one of two wonderful, grassy campsites, and are visited by all the village kids before dinner ...
If we have time before dinner, we can head to the Markha Gompa, recently renovated, and take a walk through the village and its barley fields. Markha is a lively village, colorful and friendly, worth a visit!
Day 7 - Trek Hankar 4010m
Another classic Himalaya trekking day, but shorter than yesterday, starting with an old mill and a climb up on the cliff-side trail over the left river bank for amazing views back to the Ladakh Range. Soon, we approach the small hamlet of Umlung, and soon after the incredible Tertha Gompa, built at the top of a razor-sharp rock, and with views up and down the valley. We'll hike up for a look ...
Just before the gompa, we will have to cross the river two times, so have your sandals with you. At the monolith and 'lama's seat', where a local lama will give a yearly puja, look up the valley off to the right leading to the Ruberang La and the wild Jumlam trek. Ahead of us, the 6400m Kang Yatze looms dramatically, its peak a pure snow-cap. We have another hour or so to Hankar village, guarded by a centuries old fort way up on the top of a rock spire. We camp just before the fort, in another grassy campsite, and have time in the afternoon to visit the fort, the village or to relax with a book.
Day 8 - Hankar
A free day to acclimatize, and to explore the picturesque village of Hankar and the ancient fort, of which there is very little written history. Unbeatable views from the top, and many ancient mani stones, relics such as mortars and pestles, and clues to the past on the top. We'll see if we can visit some of the villagers to see a traditional Ladakhi house, perhaps barter for some local crafts, and have a cup of salt butter tea. Alternatively, the village of Doltokling makes a wonderful, short day trip, and there is the chance of spotting some blue sheep on the craggy hillsides nearby.
Day 9 - Trek Mani Chen 4550m
The villagers are out in the barley fields as we head through Hankar, over a small bridge away from the high pastures of Nimaling and up the Langthang Chu towards the base of the Zalung Karpo La (our first pass) this morning. Bring your sandals as we'll have a few river crossings throughout the day. We might see blue sheep in the nearby hillsides, so keep an eye out and your camera ready. We'll have lunch about half way up the valley near a boggy, green spring surrounded by rounded rocks and flowers; it's a lovely day of wilderness trekking! We should reach camp with plenty of sun to spare, and there are some great spots for a wash down by the river. The campsite, meaning 'place of mani stones', is an old stop on the nomadic route, a lovely plateau with early sun in the morning!
Day 10 - Sorra (over Zalung Karpo La) 4300m
A sunny breakfast in (or outside of) our dining tent, and an early start for our first pass, the Zalung Karpo La. It will take us three hours of rocky riverside walking to reach the access valley to the pass, so again, you'll probably want your sandals. Heading right up a side valley, we follow a small stream much of the way up the pass until the way opens up to a false summit, and finally about an hour later, the 5200 meter Zalung Karpo La itself. Ahead in the distance, both the Zanskar and the Himalayan ranges are visible, an impressive site.
If it's not too windy, we'll lunch at the cairn on top of the pass; the descent is steep and sandy, and the valley below can be scorching; we are now entering Kharnak, the high altitude grazing region of the Ladakhi nomads. After about 2 1/2 more hours of hiking and a few more possibly tricky river crossings, depending on the water lever, we'll cross our final river to reach our lovely campsite at the grazing region of Sorra. The rock formation ahead is actually a 15th century fort and the triangular peak beyond is sacred to the local people.
Day 11 - Trek Dat 4310m
A canyon day, starting again with easy river crossings, and continuing through a semi-permanent village with threshing fields and an old mill. The day continues with more superlatives springing to mind; we approach a fantastic, narrow and sculpted canyon of ankle deep water (why use the bridge?) and then a wider canyon of dramatic spires, tawny cliffs, willows and a gurgling river. Turning left at the wide intersection ahead, we head towards Kharnak, the pastureland leading to Dat. Another 2 1/2 hours later, after trekking through a hot (and often buggy) valley of willows and cliffs, following the start of the Kharnak Chu (river), we reach the fantastic Kharnak 'lhatoo' (called just Lhatoo on the map), where the nomads make offerings to their local deities every spring and beautifully carved mani stones are piles in extensive platforms. Shrines to the gods that live on the peaks all around line the trail all day, yaks bask in the sun as they graze and cool themselves in the low river and a cloud of dust could be a nomad on horseback.
Our campsite for the next two nights is a series of high altitude pastures next to the village of Dat, and we set up with the curious gaze of the marmots that share the campsite with us. Sunsets and sunrises are great from camp, so it might be worth a visit to the small 'teahouse' to pick up a beer for a 'sundowner' ...
Day 12 - Dat
The perfect, grassy campsite for a full day of total relaxation; or throw in some washing (the meandering side streams are warm), eating (rest days are made for this), reading (ditto) and sleeping (ditto). If you feel like a wander, head up the side valley in back of Dat village for an afternoon of wildlife spotting, and spend some time in the deserted village and gompa. There is also a (slightly difficult) hike up the plateau and peak next to Dat for amazing views down on the valley, but be ready for some scrambling.
The semi-permanent village of Dat is fascinating, and the gompa worth a visit if we can find the key-keeper, who often collects the camp charges. Wander through the empty passageways between the stone houses; the discarded rubbish gives a picture of what life is like during the inhabited periods.
Day 13 - Trek Lungmoche 4710m
Another pass day, starting with a three hour hike down valley parallel to the Zanskar Range, during which we often see the herd of kiang that live in the nearby valleys. The male often comes out to the main valley to scout for the herd. Himalayan hares also live in the valley, and dart in and out of site. Fill your bottles at the turnoff to the pass valley as there may not be any water until the other side of our pass, the 4850 meter Yar La. We have lunch at the intersection, and then head up towards the pass, a relatively easy climb of just over 2 hours from lunch. The pass itself has some beautiful carvings including the Kharnak mountain deity, a lovely mountain goddess, and the wall that crosses it is to help locals cross in winter snow. It's just half an hour down to our campsite at Lungmoche, another lovely pastureland, with a nearby stream for washing.
Day 14 - Spagmur 4610m
Heading down valley along the snaking riverbed, we pass the summer habitations of the Ladakhi nomads, now just rings of rocks for the yak-hair tents, wells and stone storage huts. Kiang also inhabit this valley; we've seen them racing across the valley to ward us off. Climbing a small pass, we descend through a fantastic canyon of sculpted rocks to the plateau of Sangtha village, and it's sparse settlement (another summer village). This village marks the end of Ladakhi nomadic region and the start of Tibetan one. After crossing the Zara Chu, which leads eventually to Zanskar, we stop for lunch at the chortens marking the entrance to Spagmur and the exit from Sangtha. Another few hours of trekking brings us to the Tibetan village of Spagmur, perhaps with a herd of yaks grazing nearby. Look back across the Zara Chu to see 'The Five Sisters', the dwelling of the five mountain goddesses that live in the distinctly shaped range.
Day 15 - Trek Narbus 4820m
We start right up the steep slope heading towards the 4950 meter Spogmur La, having to contour around several hillsides to reach the top two hours later; from here, we are treated to wide open mountain views and we can spot way below the canvas and yak-hair tents of the Tibetan nomadic settlement of Narbus, where we'll set up camp for the night. Some relatives of Lobsang's, one of our guides, camp here every summer, and we can take a look at the inside of a nomad tent or two in the afternoon. Be ready, as we will be offered salt tea and fresh curd (yogurt). Narbus is a good place to donate your supplies or extra clothes; last year we had a meeting of a the women from each tent, and distributed evenly much needed school supplies and extras ... a great time!
The evenings are a wonderful time of the day here; as the sun just begins to set, the nomads return to camp herding their hundreds of sheep and goats, and the yaks wander back to the tents, followed by the haunting yells of the Tibetans.
Day 16 - Drive Leh
The trek is finished, and we'll relax in our jeeps and enjoy the spectacular drive through Rupshu and the Indus Valley along the Manali - Leh highway; a continuation of our wonderful journey. Back at the Shaynam Guest House in Leh, hot showers and a clean change of clothes await, and tandoori food and cold beers are not far away at the Ibex or Summer Harvest ...
Day 17 - Fly Delhi. Depart
We are up early for our Jet Air flight back to Delhi; you'll have spectacular views of Ladakh, the many ranges of mountains and the Indus Valley on the way back. You'll be met at Delhi airport by our Delhi staff and taken to the hotel to store your bags for the afternoon, to the international airport for your departure, or where ever else you chose to go for the afternoon. You could fly out of Delhi later in this day; most flights are at night and you should be back in Delhi by mid-morning to noon.
If you have successive international flights that are not all part of the same ticket or following domestic flights we suggest planning more cautiously and departing tomorrow. Let us know if you need us to book an extra room for the night.