With almost my last breath to spare, I hauled myself up the last few metres to stand at the top of the Komgmaru La, the highest pass on the trek at 5150m. Strings of Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the fierce wind, but the snow flakes of earlier had given way to sunshine and we were treated to an awe-inspiring view of the Ladakh Range below. It was the culmination of a 7 day trek through the Markha Valley and, although the exertion at that altitude had left me exhausted, the privileged view made it all worthwhile.
The Markha valley is a step back in time to remote villages, often no more than a few houses clustered around the occasional oasis of barley fields and poplar trees. A road promised to bring progress, but it has currently been abandoned and the only way to get here is to walk. I spent the night in homestays, in traditional Ladakhi houses. It’s about as basic as you can imagine, but totally charming. You need to get used to drop pit toilets and a diet of rice, daal and vegetables, but the interaction with the locals more than compensates. The only evidence of modem technology is the use of solar panels which, in fact, you find all over Ladakh.
There are variations on the basic route. One option is to start in Chilling. From Leh there’s currently one bus a week. The other option, which I took, was to start in Zinchen, which is closer to Leh, but it means you have to negotiate a high pass to get into the valley and you’ll need two extra days.
On my first day I met my guide Aditya and we took a taxi to Zinchen. From there we had an easy walk up to Rumbak, a classic Ladakhi village. I was struck by the horse shoes above the doors and the horns of blue sheep stuck on gates. Cow pats lay drying in the sun – they use these as fuel. There’s little in the way of furniture: you sleep on a mattress on the floor and sit on mats in the communal kitchen. Gas stoves are becoming common, but you can still find wood-burning ovens as these heat up the kitchen better in the winter.
While a woman prepared dinner, her husband was knitting a slingshot to use against wild animals. This is also snow leopard country and the man said they often come into the village. Sadly, they are very rare, but we did see a family of mountain goats racing around at the top of the mountain as we set off the next day. It was a hard climb up to the Gonda La, a high pass at 4950m. Along the way we had great views of Stok Kangri, one of the highest peaks around, and, from the top of the pass, the distant Zanskar range. We descended from the pass to Shingo after 8 hours walking and, with every limb aching, I fell soundly asleep.
The next day was another 7 hour walk, but thankfully with no ascents. We began by continuing down to Skiu, a quaint little village which sits at the confluence of the Markha River and Shingo Gorge. During a tea break at a parachute cafe, Aditya, who’s from Darjeeling, told me about his Nepalese heritage and his attempt to join the Gurkhas like several of his friends. However, there is a stiff joining fee which was prohibitive for him and so he became a guide and comes to Ladakh for the short summer season.
We were now in the Markha valley proper and we headed east, through an incredible canyon. Chortens, Buddhist shrines, stand at strategic points, as do mani walls. These are stone walls covered with many pieces of chiselled slate, which people bring as offerings and function similarly to prayer flags. It is the custom to circumnavigate chortens and mani walls clockwise, and Aditya scrupulously observed this ritual. Although a Hindu, he also believed in much of what Buddhism has to to offer and, to confuse things further, he also went to a Catholic school and still goes to church.
We spent the night in Sara, where I finally managed to get a wash in the river. Bathrooms and showers are pretty non-existent in the valley. The following day was an easy 2 and a half hours to Markha. The way often ran along the riverbed which involved boulder-hopping or climbed high above the river on vertigo-inducing narrow paths. Day five provided some adventures. The route to the village of Hankar involves a knee-deep crossing of the freezing river. The cliff path after that had crumbled away and it was quite scary for a moment as I couldn’t get a grip anywhere, and the path was literally disintegrating as I touched it.
Finally, we managed to get back down safely and followed the river to upper Hankar, the other side of a ruined fort, where I had great views of Kangyaze mountain. The next morning we climbed up to Nimaling, the base camp for the ascent to the Kongmaru La. There are no buildings here so you have to overnight in tents. At 4730m high, it was pretty cold and it snowed during the night. Horses, ponies, yaks and zho (a cross between a yak and a cow) grazed on the vast grassy plains below Kangyaze.
The other side of the pass involved a very long descent to Shang Sumdo through a beautiful narrow canyon. It’s possible to get a taxi from there back to Leh, but I decided to go instead to Hemis and spend the night there.
The following morning I visited the famous monastery for early morning prayers. The vividly painted walls provided a visual backdrop to the hypnotic chanting of the mantras by the monks. There were also many novice monks, dressed in red and yellow robes, some of them very young,and yet they behaved like children the world over; they looked bored, they giggled and whispered to each other. One of them spilt his mug of tea.
It was the perfect end to a week long odyssey through stunning Himalayan scenery and an absorbing insight into Ladakhi culture and religion.