The Route

The journey begins near Leh at Spitok Gompa, a wonderful, high route backed by snow-peaks into the green Markha Valley, where we have plenty of time to explore the many traditional Ladakhi villages, crumbling forts and Buddhist gompas of the valley. The meandering Markha River is our guide; we follow it through groves of apricot, willow and popular, along craggy cliff-side trails where we look back on the Himalayan ranges and look out for grazing blue sheep and gaze up at the cathedral-like structures perched on the cliffs which tower above us.

This year we make a side-trip to the dramatic high grazing pastures of Nyimaling, where nomads from the Markha Valley graze their pashmina goats during the summer season and live their timeless existence. A more stunning setting for our campsite is hard to imagine! And we contour around majestic Kang Yatze to arrive in the approach valley for the next pass.

After crossing the 5200 meter Zalung Karpo La, with snow-clad Kang Yatze behind us, we enter the Ladakhi nomadic region of Kharnak. We camp in our own Tibetan-style festival tent near the Kharnak-pa nomadic settlements and semi-permanent villages, their flocks of sheep and goats herded into camp in the late afternoon by the shrill cries of the nomad inhabitants. Their yak-hair tents, which they move caravan-style every few months, are the same as they have been for centuries, worth a visit for a cup of salt-butter tea, fresh yogurt and a handful of yos.

We have plenty of free afternoons and rest days to climb some of the craggy peaks in the region, providing a bird's eye view down onto this wonderful part of Ladakh. This region, the Changtang plateau, extends far north into Tibet, and sits along the old Silk Route, once the main highway for the exchange of silk, tea, pearls, wool, salt and other commodities.

Finally, we reach the summer grazing region of Narbus, where we spend our last night with the Tibetan nomads, watching their flocks of pashmina goats arrive back at their yak-hair tents in the evenings, backed by the setting sun ...

Pure heaven!

ladakh nomads

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Detailed itinerary

Although we try to follow the itinerary below but it is only a guideline. 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 the group's acclimatization rate or sickness.

The Himalaya are our passion, and we take trekking seriously. Although everyone is here on vacation, please come with a dollop of patience and compassion added to your sense of adventure ...

Day 1 - Meet in Leh 3500m

Welcome to Leh, the capital of predominantly Buddhist Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, tucked away amidst the Ladakh mountains, part of the great Trans Himalayan range. If you arrive by air you'll feel the big jump in altitude and it will take your body a few days to adjust. If you arrive by road from Manali or Srinagar you'll have had some extra acclimatization en route, but will still need time to adjust to the 3500 meter altitude. Hydrate with plenty of water, stay away from beer for a few days, rest and don't over-exert yourself. Even walking up the stairs of the guest house, let alone the Leh Fort, will make you breathless for the first day or two. Diamox is a good way to help your body acclimatize naturally; Kim will discuss.

We stay at the family-run Shaynam Hotel, more of a family-run guest house with a lovely garden in the center courtyard, located just a few minutes south of the Main Bazaar in old Leh town. Your rooms will be booked for you, you'll just need to advise Kim of your arrival time, whether by air or by road. Once everyone has arrived and checked into rooms, Kim will show you around town: the bakeries, cafes, tandoori restaurants, email cafes, banks and wonderful markets. We'll meet for dinner in the evening at the Ibex or Summer Harvest, a few of our favorite restaurants.

Days 2, 3 - Leh

We've scheduled two free days in Leh to acclimatize and to enjoy the peaceful, willow-lined streets and bustling bazaar life of Singge Namgyal's 17th century capital of Ladakh, once an integral part of Western Tibet and a major trading post along the southern Silk Route. There is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town; the newly-restored ruins of the 17th century Leh Palace, the ancient 16th century Leh Fort and the attached Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, other historic Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the Sunni Muslim mosques, narrow back alleys with steaming Muslim bread, tiny antique shops tucked away amidst the many ancient stupas and architectural remnants, the exotic Main Bazaar (c. 1840s) which once accommodated trade caravans, and even a polo field. Caravans of merchants from far-flung destinations such as Yarkand, Tibet, Kashgar and North India passed through Leh during ancient trade missions, trading salt, wool, Pashmina, tea and semi-precious stones, lending to the city its exotic allure. Pilgrims flocked to the monasteries of Leh and the Indus valley, explorers of old stopped in Leh to re-stock and weather out the harsh Himalayan winter and soldiers en route to plunder and conquer desirous destinations passed through Leh, all leaving their mark on this unique capital.

Kim will take you for a walk up the bustling Fort Road, lined with shops owned by Kashmiri, Tibetan and Kashmiri shop-keepers, to 15th century Leh Fort and the red, MaitreiyaTsemo Gompa, perched high on a craggy and crumbling hilltop overlooking the bazaars of old Leh. You can stop at 16th century nine-story Leh Palace, of a similar architectural design to the Tibetan Potala Palace, on the way down if you have the energy. Visit the museum, a worthwhile endeavor, as well as the nearby gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) - Soma Gompa, Chamba Lakhang and Chensrig Lakhang. There is a great cultural show around sunset at Soma Gompa.

We might wander the willow-lines streets of Changspa to reach the many steps leading to the Japanese-built Shanti Stupa for a view over the green fields and white-washed Ladakhi houses of the villages surrounding Leh. The precariously perched Leh Fort guards the eastern edges of the fertile valley. Sankar Gompa (17th - 18th century), reached through shady lanes to the east of Changspa, lies in the midst of Chubi's groves of poplar and willow and is another wonderful morning or afternoon walk. The back route to Leh Fort starts in Chubi and passes through a desert-like Buddhist cremation ground before climbing to the fortress.

OPTIONAL GOMPA-TRIP: Arrange (through Kim, our Tibetan jeep-driver Wang Chuk or the Shaynam Hotel) a 'jeep safari' through the fertile Indus Valley to visit a few of the living Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the crumbling ruins of ancient fortresses and palaces and the traditional villages that dot the banks of the region, the 'cradle of civilization' of much of the ancient world. Kim can help arrange jeeps and/or a guide for a day's excursion.

To the East: Shey, Thikse, Hemis, Chemde, Thagthok, Stakna, Matho & Stok.

To the West: Spiyok, Phyang, Basgo, Likir, Alchi, Rizdong & Lamayuru.

OPTIONAL RAFTING-TRIP: You can arrange a day rafting trip on the Indus (easier) or the Zanskar River, approximately $25-$30.

Day 4 - Drive Jingchan. Trek Rumbak Sumdo 3875m

After breakfast, we jump into our jeeps and head for the start of the trek, turning off the Leh Srinagar highway just past the ancient, 14th century Spitok Gompa, spectacularly perched on a craggy hillock above the cultivated fields of Spitok village. After crossing the Indus River and following it on a precipitous road for an hour, we intersect the Jingchan Chu (river) and meet our horsemen and team at the hamlet of Jingchan. Time to start trekking ...

With the Jingchan Chu as our guide, we trek up a narrow, green valley, crossing many times on small, wooden bridges or jumping when there is no bridge, stopping for lunch under shady trees. The trail pass through a small canyon, past cairns with prayer flags and Buddhist mani walls, and have our first view of the snow-peaks of the Stok Range to the south and the Ladakh Range to the north. Entering a broad valley, we reach the grassy campsite at Rumbak Sumdo where we set up our first camp of the trek. We'll set you up in your tents, show you around our 'Kamzang' style dining tent and settle in with a mug of chai. Beers are available at a small tea-house nearby, and since we haven't ascended too high, you can chill one in the stream!

The nine houses of Rumbak, surrounded by billowing fields of barley and marked by circular mani stones along the trail, are flanked by the snow-capped Rumbak Kangri range. Rumbak is a lively village; large herd of pashmina goats and sheep are brought back to the village at twilight, and villagers will be threshing their barley at harvest time. There are many green-houses in the village, initiatives that we will see through out the Markha Valley.

There is a large mani wheel in the middle of the lovely village and chukkors (Himalayan partridges) chortle at visitors from the nearby hillsides. Keep walking for another ten minutes past town, heading towards the Stok La pass, to the ancient, white-washed chorten atop the ridge to your right for wonderful, late-afternoon golden views of the peaks ahead and down to Rumbak, the gompa and the campsite.

Day 5 - Trek Ganda La Base Camp 4375m (or Lartsa High Camp 4530m)

Leaving camp, we head left up-valley, following the meandering Jingchan River upstream. At the grove of willows, we cross a small, wooden bridge, and soon afterwards turn right up the dramatically multi-hued valley and head towards Yurutse, a hamlet of one large household situated at 4200 meters, with magnificent views of Stok Kangri. As we ascend through this magical avocado-green and eggplant colored valley, look for chukkors, pikas and marmots amongst the grassy valley floor and rocky slopes surrounding us. We've even seen the rare argali bashing horns in a show of male dominance in this valley and blue sheep are common inhabitants. We'll be treated to more views of the Stok Range as we reach Ganda La Base Camp, an hour's walk from Yurutse. We'll set up camp near the tea-house in a spectacular setting, throw on some warm clothes, enjoy the sunset and get ready for the Ganda La pass tomorrow. There is a ridge to climb next to the campsites for great views of Stok Kangri, and you might spot the Himalayan hares darting from rock to rock as you climb ...

If everyone is doing well with acclimatization, we'll head up another hour, and another 175 meters to the Lartsa High Camp for the night.

Day 6 - Trek Shingo 4050m

Our first pass day, so we're up early with a hot mug of coffee and a good breakfast to get us going, starting off with a steep climb of the hill to the right of camp, along a gully, and then switch backing up to the top of the hill. Behind us, Stok Kangri looms impressively, and we will take some time to catch our breath and take in the views. It will take us about an hour to reach the pass from here; at the Ganda La pass (4985 meters), 360 degree views await us, and we can see as far as the Zanskar Range to the south. After hanging our first multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags, we head steeply down into the Shingo Valley, which we can see below us. The trail becomes more gradual, and a few hours later we arrive at our green campsite of Shingo Village, another small hamlet of two house, marked by chortens and a mani wall. We'll have the afternoon for laundry and washing up in this beautiful spot.

Day 7 - Trek Sara 3525m

Heading down-valley through fields and open woods, and through a colorful canyon of craggy rocks and unusual rock formations, we cross the Shingo stream several times en route. Willows shade us a bit as we continue on, and the seabuckthorne bushes will be sagging under the weight of their tart, orange berries. Passing a tea-house along the trail followed by a line of ancient chortens, we reach the lovely village of Skyu, and have time to explore the thousand year old gompa and have a cup of tea at one of the many tea-houses. Continuing along the Markha River, we pass the cluster of white-washed chortens and mani walls (look at the carvings) that mark the trail out of Skyu, and trek through willow and poplar groves, past small Ladakhi houses, up onto the cliff-side trail if the river-side trail isn't good (it was washed out last year) 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. Here we set up camp for the night; cold beers and cokes are available from the small tea-house, and the local villagers pass through the campsite with their flocks of sheep just before dinner, a great photo op!

Day 8 - Trek Markha 3760m

A beautiful, diverse day as we continue along the Markha River past large chortens and an ornate mani wall, which looks out towards an ancient meditation cave on the plateau across the river. We arrive at a tea-house along a rocky riverbed, and then pass briar patches of seabuckthorn and the ruins of ancient 'dzongs' and monasteries built high up into the cliff sides. Crossing another small bridge, we reach the small tea-house of a local wood-carver and walk along the left bank of the river, with spectacular canyons and spires above us, along the trail marked by old, crumbling Tibetan chortens. After passing a long mani wall and impressive, giant chortens (look back for wonderful views of the Markha Valley behind us), 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 about an hour later, 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 ruins of the Markha fort ahead of us on a hillside before we arrive at the village about half an hour later. 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 Markha Gompa, recently renovated, and take a walk through the lively, colorful and friendly village and its barley fields. Otherwise, we'll do it in the morning before heading off.

Day 9 - Trek Thagutse 4260m

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'll have lunch here, and take some time to climb to the top of the fort, which has unbeatable views from the top, and many ancient mani stones, relics such as mortars and pestles, clues to the past. It's a wonderful afternoon walk up to the grazing area of Thagutse, where the dramatic afternoon high-altitude light make for spectacular photos. Our campsite is another amazing one, so enjoy a late afternoon wash in the gurgling, rocky stream, or take a short hike and look out for blue sheep, plentiful in the region. Lots of bird, too.

Day 10 - Trek Nyimaling 4850m

Another great day of hiking, shorter today, but perhaps even more dramatic than yesterday's walk! The trails snakes up the valley in back of our campsite, and crests several ridges before reaching a small doksa and pond where the reflection of Kang Yatze and the peak itself right in front of us reward us for our climb. In back of us is one of the most dramatic views of the trek, with layers and layers of peaks clothed in subtle hues guarding the skyline. Another hour brings us to the high altitude grazing region of Nyimaling, where Markha villagers herd their flocks of pashmina sheep as they've done for centuries. We set up another incredible campsite, have lunch and explore in the afternoon. Just before sunset the villagers return to their doksa with their sheep, and we'll stop in, perhaps, for a bowl of fresh yogurt.

Day 11 - Trek Zalung Karpo La High Camp 4675m

We'll have an early morning start with the sheep as it's a long day, nearly eight hours, and you'll need your sandals for the tail-end of it. Heading up the deceptively steep ridge in back of camp, right towards Kang Yatze, keep right and low as we contour around the snow-peak to the ridge visible ahead. At the second, cairn-marked ridge, we descend to Kang Yatze Base Camp and ford a small stream, usually jump-able, contouring for another hour towards the Kongka Ngongpo La (5180 meters). It usually takes us three hours to reach the pass. After admiring the broad views, we switch-back right back down, steeply and a bit precipitously, towards the Langthang Chu Valley and our High Camp for the Zalung Karpo La. Our barely-perceptible trail leads us past summer doksas and into more blue sheep territory.

After lunch on a rocky-outcropping, we descend to the river and Mani Chen at 4410 meters, meaning 'place of mani stones', an old stop on the nomadic route. If the rivers are low we'll continue on another hour or so to Zalung Karpo La High Camp, a rocky campsite with late afternoon sun. We'll have a few small river crossings en route, and if its hot you might even want to jump into one of the inviting

*** Some years the rivers are very high because of the sunny days, and the rivers impassable in the afternoon. If this is the case, we'll camp at Mani Chen.

Day 12 - Tsokra (over Zalung Karpo La) 4330m

We'll have 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 (although last year we camped a bit before our normal campsite, which was washed out by the floods the previous year, so couldn't see the fort from there).

Day 13 - 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, and then recently used nomadic settlements with their livestock paddocks and stone loom bases. The fort, called 'Khar Ruins' on the map, is perched impressively above us, an ancient guard of the many valleys. 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 of Tantse Sumdo, we head further into Kharnak and the pasturelands of Dat. Another 2 1/2 hours later, after trekking through a hot (and often buggy) valley of willows and cliffs, following 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. Beautifully carved mani stones are piled along extensive platforms, yak skulls carved with Om Mani Padme Hum are stacked in the main altar, bowls smelling of old butter await next year's puja and multi-colored prayer flags flutter in the wind. An impressive entrance to Dat!

Continuing on through a lush valley of meandering streams and springs, we pass shrines to the mountain gods that live on the surrounding peaks. Yaks graze and cool themselves in the streams, and a cloud of dust could be a nomad on horseback. 1 1/2 hot hours later, after cresting two arid plateaus with long mani walls indicating an old trade route, we reach Dat.

Our campsite for the next two nights is a wonderful high altitude pastureland next to the now-deserted village of Dat; marmots share the campsite with us, and kiang might check us out from the valley behind Dat. Sunsets and sunrises are glorious from camp, so it's worth a visit to the small teahouse to pick up a beer for 'sundowner' ...

Day 14 - 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 and sleeping. 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 Dat Gompa. There is also a (slightly difficult) hike up the plateau and peak above 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 15 - 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 start of the pass (or at top), and then head up towards the pass, a relatively easy climb of just over 1 hour from lunch following the winter snow wall. 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 16 - 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 to the right of the trail, we descend through a fantastic canyon of sculpted rocks to the plateau of Sangtha village, and its sparse settlement which locals inhabit in the autumn. This village marks the end of Ladakhi nomadic region and the start of Tibetan one. After crossing the Zara Chu (bring your sandals), which eventually leads 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' peaks, the dwelling of the five mountain goddesses that live in the distinctly shaped range.

Day 17 - 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; two years ago we had a meeting of a the women from each tent, and distributed evenly much needed school supplies and extras, and last year we bargained for yak and sheep-hair blankets and nomadic knives with binoculars, a Leatherman and some cash.

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 18 - Drive Leh

Sadly, the trek is finished, and we'll relax in our jeeps and enjoy the spectacular five hour 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 dinner not far away.

Day 19 - Leh

We've scheduled one last day in Leh, our favorite Central Asian capital, in case of delays during the trek. We'll also have time to do some more shopping and exploring, and to wind down after our journey through the high, nomadic regions of 'old Tibet'. More cold beers will surely be in order at the Ibex ...

Day 20 - Trip Ends

Our wonderful Himalayan journey ends today, sadly. You have several options after the trip: a flight back to Delhi, an epic 'jeep safari' back to Manali or elsewhere in the Indian Himalaya, or spending more time in Leh. We're happy to assist on all fronts, but no flights are included in our India treks anymore.