Hiking solo in the Sham valley, Ladakh

Hiking the Sham valley

After a guided hike with a porter through the Markha valley and two organised jeep tours, I decided it was time to strike out on my own. The Sham valley sits above the Indus Valley to the west of Leh and is considered an easy trek. That may be so, but there are still several passes of over 3500m to negotiate which isn’t easy when you’re carrying a rucksack, but the biggest adventure was getting there.

Finding your right bus in India is never less than challenging. Especially so when the so called bus station is in reality a huge parking lot of every conceivable type of public transport, buses big and small, minibuses, vans and jeeps. There was, according to the tourist office in Leh, a bus to Likkir at 4pm, so I arrived at 3 to give myself plenty of time. Unfortunately, there is no booking office and nowhere to get information. A few buses seemed to be filling up, but none of them had a destination written at the front, at least not in English. In addition, it’s also impossible to distinguish between passengers and bus company employees and any potential driver.

Harvest time in Likkir

Eventually, by asking around, I tracked down the small minibus I was looking for and hauled my rucksack inside, only to discover that all the seats were either already occupied or reserved by someone who’d left clothes and possessions in a vacant place. I finally spotted a place at the front and staked my claim. In fact, it involved perching on part of the gearbox with no backrest and would only be considered a “seat” in India. 

But incredibly, I was one of the lucky ones. Others had to stand for the two and a half journey, while the really brave (crazy?) ones hung to the doorway, one foot balancing on the steps, most of their body hanging out the side. I arrived as dusk was falling and was concerned that most of the guesthouses were full with volunteers who’d arrived to help with the harvest. As darkness set in, I started to panic, but eventually found a nice homestay which was officially closed for repairs, but the kindly owner took pity on me and opened up especially.

Yangthang

The next morning I set out past Likkir Monastery to the village of Yangthang. There were two passes to cross with magnificent views, but the trail was occasionally hard to find when leaving a village, especially as there was no one around to ask directions since all the villagers were out in the fields preoccupied with the harvest. 

It was a five hour walk to Yangthang and it was a relief to sit in the kitchen, warmed by a wood-burning stove and tuck into some hearty Ladakhi food, usually rice, daal and vegetables. All the homestays along the route offer great value. They are generally quite basic, but clean, and for just less than £10 you get a bed, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. 

High pass to Temisgang

The following day I headed over another pass to the village of Hemis Sukpachen, a surprisingly large village. The atmospheric centre consists of narrow lanes built on hills and steps beneath the gompa (monastery) and a recently erected Buddha statue. Coming round yet another chorten you’re likely to run into a startled cow rather than any other traffic.

The final day involved ascending a steep slightly scary pass to the village of Temisgang. Ponies and horses have no problem, but for anyone with a fear of heights it was pretty nerve-wracking. However, the views from the top were astounding.

Lamayuru monastery

From Temisgang I managed to get a ride in a truck to Lamayuru, where there is a beautiful old monastery perched up high on a hill overlooking the village. The main temple creaks with old age and atmosphere and is stuffed with wall hangings and vividly painted murals. In the early evening I encountered a group of novice monks being drilled in their mantra recitals. It was another perfect end to a great trek.

Lamayuru monastery
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Trekking through the Markha Valley in Ladakh, India

The Markha Valley Trek

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.

Rumbak village
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 Markha river

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. 

Prayer flags and a chorten

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.

Kangyaze seen from across the fields in Hankar

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. 

Hemis Monastery


It was the perfect end to a week long odyssey through stunning Himalayan scenery and an absorbing insight into Ladakhi culture and religion. 

Rio de Janeiro – a new view

Praia de Ipanema 2
Ipanema Beach with the Morro Dois Irmãos in the distance on the left

What makes a city one of the great cities of the world? For me, it’s a place that, no matter how many times you have been, no matter how well you think you know it, each visit provides a surprise, a new insight or a different perspective. Standing on top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers’ Hill) 533 metres above Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve, I was struck yet again by the beauty of this incredible city.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
View from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular natural setting and even the manmade structures seem to blend and harmonise with the surroundings from this height. Higher than Sugar Loaf, the Morro Dois Irmãos  offers a view that’s hard to beat; Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are all visible on a cloudless sunny day.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 9
Me on the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

The hill is situated at the end of Leblon Beach and is also home to Vidigal favela. You need to go with a guide and so I booked with http://trilhadoisirmaos.com.br/site/, a well-established company set up by Ana Lima who was born in Vidigal. For only R$59 (£10) I joined a group of interntional and Brazilian trekkers and we were led by Ana Lima herself and an English-speaking guide.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 1
View of Praia de São Conrado and the Pedra da Gávea

We drove up through Vidigal to the start of the trail. The trek is short (about 1.5 km), but it’s uphill all the way and on a hot day can be tiring. The arrival at the top makes it all worthwhile though and the exhilarating sight in front of you causes you to forget instantly any aching limbs and parched throat.

Vidigal 2
Graffiti in Vidigal

The return journey is also interesting, since at the foot of the trail you are guided back down on foot through the favela itself, which gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals. The views are spectacular, but the signs advising people where to gather in case of flash floods makes you realise that life is not easy here. But the residents we passed were friendly and welcoming and it’s now perfectly safe to walk through if accompanied by a guide.

Vidigal 7
The view from Vidigal

It may seem hard to drag yourself away from the beach on a lovely sunny day, but make an effort and climb this hill. Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are mobbed with tourists, but the Morro Dois Irmãos offers a much less touristy and, in my opinion, better experience.

Vidigal 4
Vidigal stairs

 

 

 

The Jalapão – the secret interior of Brazil

Jalapão landscape
Jalapão landscape

Brazil is not just about beaches. It’s true that many of the major cities are strung out along the coastline, but there is a whole world in the interior of the country waiting to be explored. Much of it is still well off the beaten track. And I am not talking about the Amazon. There are places with vast deserts of scrubland and sand-dunes, along with waterfalls and natural swimming-holes. One such place is the Jalapão which I visited a few years ago on an organised trek.

Me on the jeep
Me on the jeep

It’s an immense savanna-like region, sparsely populated and with little infrastructure. But there are also rivers and waterfalls that break up the desert and meseta plateaus from the top of which there are uninterrupted views across the landscape, best enjoyed at dawn.

Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo
Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo

The only real way in is by 4×4 jeep and then to trek, climb and swim. I am always a little wary of organised tours as they totally depend not only on the efficiency of the agency, but also your fellow travellers. I was really lucky on my trip to book through the excellent Norte Tur (http://www.nortetur.com.br) based in Palmas and also to be in the company of a really great crowd of like-minded adventurers.

Pedra Furada
Pedra Furada

Palmas is north of Brasilia, and, like Brasilia, is a new town. I spent the first night there and it’s a weird place to say the least; huge avenues leading seemingly nowhere and baking under a relentless sun. It feels like a city still waiting to be fully populated.

Chuveirinho - a local desert flower
Chuveirinho – a local desert flower

There were about 10 of us in the group, all Brazilians except me, mainly from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It was great that we all got on since we were going to spend several days together, helping each other abseil down rocks and retain a sense of humour when you have to get up at 3am to climb a plateau and enjoy the sunrise.

Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall
Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall

It’s reminiscent of the outback in Australia or parts of East Africa and it remains one of the highlights of my time in Brazil.

Sunset on the dunes
Sunset on the dunes

2 Favourite Trekking Destinations

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Glacier Perito Moreno

The desire to escape to somewhere remote is never greater than when you’re squashed cheek by jowl in a crowded São Paulo metro carriage.

Guanacos6
Guanacos seen from Route 40, Patagonia

Patagonia is an incredible place where nature overpowers you instead of concrete skyscrapers and milling crowds of people. It’s one of my favourite places to trek and get outdoors, along with the Himalayas. You can trek for hours along glaciers without seeing another soul and the sky opens out above you with almost limitless expanse.

Lago Roca1
Lago Roca, Patagonia

The land of Patagonia forms the lower half of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina, and eventually peters out in the island of Tierra del Fuego and the city of Ushuaia. One of the highlights of the region is the Glacier Perito Moreno and a four hour bus ride north of there takes you to Fitzroy (also known as Cerro Chaltén) where there are some spectacular treks to be done. When I finally made it to the base of the peak after a full day walking, the wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand upright to have my photo taken. A distinguishing feature of Patagonia is the bizarre shape of trees bent almost to the ground by the force of the elements.

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Fitzroy

Last year I walked the Singalila Trek, a six-day route which follows a ridge along the border of India and Nepal north of Darjeeling. I was there in March just a bit before the main season and it was going to be expensive to do an organised trek, so I opted to go it alone. I was told I would need a guide and a porter, but in fact I managed to get away with contracting just a porter who also led the way.

Kanchenjunga or the Sleeping Buddha, the 3rd highest mountain in the world
Kanchenjunga, or the Sleeping Buddha, the 3rd highest mountain in the world

We stayed in small primitive hostels along the way, sometimes pitching in to help the hosts make “momos’ – a Tibetan style dumpling. On day four we arrived in Sandakphu to find the place shrouded in fog and clouds. The following morning it wasn’t easy to get out of bed before dawn in sub-zero temperatures, but a possible sighting of Mt Everest beckoned, so there was really no excuse to delay. As the sun rose and slowly illuminated the highest mountain in the world, it was hard not be awed.

Sunrise over Everest
Sunrise over Everest

It’s moments like that which I try to recall when I’m stuck on the commute to work.

Prayer Flags at a sacred lake
Prayer Flags at a sacred lake

Vale do Matutu

Cabeça do Leão
Cabeça do Leão

Tell most Brazilians you’re going to the Vale do Matutu and you’ll draw a blank. It’s not just off the beaten track, it’s pratically unheard of. It’s the kind of idyllic, unspoilt valley that’s difficult to find these days. There are just a handful of places to stay and one family-run restaurant that serves up fabulous food from its own organic garden.

Pico do Papagaio
Pico do Papagaio

A 7-hour bus ride took me from São Paulo to the small spa town of Caxambu in the state of Minas Gerais. From there I took a local bus to Aiuruoca and was the only passenger still left on board when, after an hour, we pulled into the main square. I asked around for a taxi and struck up a deal with a guy to take me the 18 kilometers to the pousada I had booked.  I was about to get in his car, but he stopped me. “I’ll be back in a minute with another vehicle,” he announced.

Five minutes later he was indeed back – with the most ancient, rusted, battered old VW beetle I have ever seen. He was clearly not going to risk damaging his regular car on the dirt track. There’s virtually no traffic on this road as it snakes its way deeper into the valley. Prominent on the right is the majestic Pico do Papagaio (Parrot’s Peak) which I planned to climb.

From the hammock on my terrace at the Pousada Mandala das Aguas I had a perfect view of two waterfalls tumbling down the side of the Pico. A five minute walk down from the hotel takes you to a fast-flowing river with natural swimming pools. I wanted to tackle the Pico the next day, but couldn’t arrange a guide in time. Things move slowly here. Someone at the hotel has to call someone else who has a brother who knows someone else who can usually be found at the bar on a Friday night etc. You get the picture. After the hectic pace of life in São Paulo, it actually came as a pleasant relief. It’s one of the things travel should make us do – slow down.

Araucária Tree
Araucária Tree

So I decided to climb up the opposite side of the valley with Mirna, a fellow guest from the pousada. It’s called the Cabeça do Leão (The Lion’s Head), but, as is always the case, whenever a rock formation is supposed to look like something, I can never see it. The view from the top, however, was magnificent. As was the climb, passing many araucaria trees along the way. After lunch back down in the valley in the local community and the best lemongrass and lime juice I have ever tasted, we were ready to trek to some waterfalls.

The following day I managed to share the costs of hiring a guide with another visitor, Theresa, and we set off to conquer the Pico. It’s an 8 hour hike there and back with an elevation of 800m which tested me as I hadn’t trekked for about a year. It doesn’t appear to be a frequently used trail, since much of it is overgrown and in parts difficult to pick your way through. Clouds swirled around us as we reached the summit, but then cleared to offer us a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside. I sat and had lunch, while Marcos, our guide, showed off a bit with some impressive yoga positions.

Marcos, our guide
Marcos, our guide

At the end of the day I experienced the wonderful feeling of being physically tired after a day outdoors as opposed to feeling mentally exhausted after a day at work. It was a great place to unwind from the stress of the city and I have a feeling that some day I’ll be back. I shouldn’t shout too loudly about it though, since even the locals prefer to keep it a closely guarded secret. And with good reason.

At the top of the Pico do Papagaio
At the top of the Pico do Papagaio