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. 

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A day at the doctor’s in Delhi and relaxing in Ladakh

Leh

Taking an auto rickshaw through the wild congested streets of Delhi is not for the faint-hearted. You need nerves of steel and clenched buttocks. The white lines painted on the tarmac seem for decoration only. Four lanes invariably expand to six, with rickshaw drivers being particularly adept at squeezing into frighteningly narrow spaces between lorries and buses. Cows, dogs and pedestrians have to take their chances as best they can. It’s even more bewildering when you’ve just got off a long flight and you’re also suffering intense back and stomach pain. Being ill on my first day in Delhi was not what I’d expected.

I went to a local hospital and, sidestepping the baboon on the grass outside, ventured inside to be confronted with a pretty grim picture. I didn’t stay long, but eventually found online the name of a doctor operating in the Main Bazaar in Paharganj where I was staying. He operated out of a dingy, hole-in-the-wall shop in a congested street, but was extremely helpful and friendly. He sent me off for some X-rays and a CT scan and so I was once more weaving my way in a rickshaw through what was now rush hour traffic. And, by the way, it’s monsoon season here, so the heat and humidity are quite oppressive. 

By the end of the day and £200 pounds poorer, I had a diagnosis – a kidney stone. In years of travelling I’ve been really lucky in avoiding any major problems except the odd sprained ankle, so this was a bit of a shock for me. As I was flying to Leh the next day with plans to go trekking in some remote Himalayan regions, I was quite concerned, but the doctor said that nothing could be done right now and that I shouldn’t cancel or change my plans.

Prayer flags near Tsemo Fort

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a great place to spend a few days recuperating. After noisy Delhi it’s a haven of peace. Situated way up north near the borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan, it has a strong Buddhist influence and feels very different from other parts of India. It stands at 3520m above sea level and in more prosperous times was a centre of trade coming down off the Silk Route. Tibetans, Hindus, Moslems and now tourists from all over the world mingle freely. 

Woman selling fruit in the Main Bazaar

The Main Bazaar is spacious and wide, clearly designed for traders to pass along with pack animals and horses. Women still sit at the sides selling fruit, vegetables and spices. Prayer wheels and stupas are dotted around the town, while an impressive Sunni mosque presides over the old town. Lanes radiate out from the centre, many of them lined with guesthouses and restaurants. Many of them have their own gardens and the wonderful smell of fresh mint hangs in the air.

There are several gompas, Buddhist temples, dotted around and I walked up to the Sankar Gompa to find it empty and serene. A young monk opened the door of the main shrine for me and inside I marvelled at the statues and brightly coloured wall paintings.
Ladakhi man

Above the town sits the old Royal Palace and, even further up on the ridge, is the old Tsemo Fort. After exploring the crumbling old rooms of the palace, I sat in a cafe overlooking the town eating a bowl of thukpa, a delicious Tibetan soup. Down below at the Jama Masjid, the muezzin started a haunting call to midday prayers and, for a moment, I forgot my medical worries and just lived in the moment, which, after all, is what travel is all about.

Travelling in time

Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia
Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia

Some of the best journeys are not just through geographical space, but back in time itself. We often read in guidebooks of places which are unspoilt and timeless. Many people dream of escaping today’s busy world and fleeing to faraway places that are not only remote, but give us an insight into ancient cultures and more traditional ways of life.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

We might wander around gazing in awe at the Pyramids in Giza or the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, magnificent buildings that were built to impress, but were also creatively designed. Or stand astonished on the Great Wall of China. Or we might stroll through still habitable places like Lamu Island in Kenya which has barely changed in centuries. Or marvel at the ingenuity of Inca farmers who adapted the land for irrigation or at how people in Indonesia and India still use ploughs and oxen to till the land today.

Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia
Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia

Travelling the world helps put so much into context that dry history lessons never managed to do. You can see what different civilisations were achieving, often at the same time, but separated by thousands of miles. People learned to control the land, constructing astonishing agricultural terraces from Peru to Papua. They built magnificent temples, palaces, churches and mansions which have lasted for centuries.

City Palace, Udaipur, India
City Palace, Udaipur, India

But, as so often happens with travelling, it only goes to highlight what is wrong or unsatisfactory with things back home. In the case with time travel, it makes you think about what we are achieving in the modern world. Islamic State is intent on destroying their culture and history. Chinese dam projects are destroying villages all along the Mekong. Today we are not just controlling our environment to survive, we are destroying it through greed.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

In London, New York and São Paulo gentrification marches on apace, seemingly oblivious to the wishes of local people and the need to preserve our history for future generations. It’s not enough to keep building higher and higher. We need originality, creativity and vision. Where are the buildings of today that tourists 500 years from now are going to stop and wonder at? What cultural legacy are we leaving for those future generations of travellers?

Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil
Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil

I think the biggest question we should be asking ourselves now is, what do we want people of the future to think of us? What will be written about us in the guidebooks of the 25th century? In the meantime, though, let’s just be grateful that so many countries are doing wonderful work in preserving and maintaining their heritage. Just pop into your time machine and take a trip ….

Lamu Island, Kenya
Lamu Island, Kenya

Some Favourite Boat Trips

River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo
River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote, “The journey not the arrival matters.” He’d obviously never been on a long-haul flight with Iberia or TAP. Or had to deal with security at JFK. But when it comes to boats, I couldn’t agree with him more. Like trekking, it’s a great way of leaving road traffic behind and travelling much more lesiurely. It also gives you an insight into the life of local people who often depend on the waterways for their very livelihood.

Shooting the raids in Borneo
Shooting the raids in Borneo
Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River

I’ve been down the Amazon and the Nile, the Mekong and the Ganges, the Rhine and the Thames, but last year I finally got to ride down the great rivers of Malaysian Borneo. I stayed at a lodge on the River Kinabatangan where several boat rides were included each day, at dawn and dusk. It’s the longest river in the state of Sabah, but, sadly, much of the jungle is being destroyed and replanted with palm trees, endangering a lot of the wildlife. However, I was lucky enough to see not only pygmy elephants, but also some orang-utans in the wild.

Pygmy Elephants
Pygmy Elephants
Wild Orang-utans
Wild Orang-utans

I also went on a fabulous if pricey eco-tourist project called Orou Sapulot whose owners work closely with local people to make them see that tourism can be a much better and longer-lasting way of making money than selling their land to timber and palm oil companies. We went on a thrilling journey complete with unexpected rapids-shooting right to the border with Indonesia. There was not much wildlife to see, but the verdant jungle, which rises up from the chocolate-brown river, was pristine.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

On the same trip I also visited the small town of Sengkang in Sulawesi, Indonesia. There’s nothing much to do there except take a boat trip on the Danau Tempe, a beautiful lake with fishermen’s floating reed houses and surrounded by wetlands. There are no organised trips, you just have to find a boatman and haggle a price. I was the only tourist that evening and I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

Staying on a house-boat in Kerala is a popular activity for many, but, if you’re on a budget, you can also just hire a local guy to show you round the Backwaters. It’s not as peaceful as you might expect (this is India!), but the glimpses you get into local life are fascinating. For example, you can see the Chinese fishing nets that have been used for centuries.

The Backwaters
The Backwaters
Chinese Fishing Nets
Chinese Fishing Nets

In the north of Uganda lie Murchison Falls, While not the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, the sight of the Nile River squeezing through a narrow gorge is superb and the boat trip there takes you past plenty of wildlife, from African eagles to hippopotamuses. It was also used as a location for “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

Hippopotamus
Hippopotamus

Sadly, a lot of classic boat trips are becoming a thing of the past like many great train journeys. Transportation needs to be quicker in today’s demand for speed and Chinese dam projects are threatening the sustainability and lives of villages along the Mekong for example. But boat trips are something I always seek out. It’s an essential part of “slow travel”.

Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Falls1
Murchison Falls

Faces of India

Local women in the market at Orchha
Local women in the market at Orchha

No matter how much you read about India, nothing can prepare you for your actual arrival. You’ll experience all the usual clichés – the chaos, the colours, the friendliness, the aromas, the food, the landscapes, as well as the hassle, the filth, the poverty and the begging. But stay a while and it’s the kind of place that really gets under your skin.

Enjoying the Republic Day festivities in Jaisalmer
Enjoying the Republic Day festivities in Jaisalmer
Guard at Mehrangar Fort, Jodhpur
Guard at Mehrangar Fort, Jodhpur

My first trip was at the beginning of 2009 to Rajasthan for just a few weeks and I was so enamoured of the place that I was back by September that year on a 3 month tour from Varanasi in the north to Kanyakumari, at the very southernmost tip of the continent. Although in many ways it was an amazing trip, in the end I was exhausted, having experienced everything from bedbugs and filthy bathrooms to chronic food poisoning which laid me up for 5 days in Varkala. I vowed never to return.

Boy making rotis in Orchha
Boy making rotis in Orchha
Schoolkids seem more interested in me than their tour of the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram
Schoolkids seem more interested in me than their tour of the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram

I was back last year for a five-week journey up the east coast from Chennai to Darjeeling and this proved to be one of the best trips ever. India exerts a strange pull over some travellers, me included. It’s certainly not an easy place to visit, but for me the good points outweigh the difficulties.

Waiting for a train in Darjeeling
Waiting for a train in Darjeeling

I love the food, so every day is an adventure as I seek out a different dish. The climate is great, although I have yet to experience the monsoon season. The countryside is astonishingly beautiful and varied, but the thing I hate most is the litter which lies everywhere uncollected. It’s a real eyesore.

Coconut seller, Kerala
Coconut seller, Kerala
Morning rituals in Varanasi
Morning rituals in Varanasi

Above all, though, it’s the people you meet and see along the way who really make your visit memorable. That’s why I have concentrated on photos of people for this post.There’s an openness and genuine curiosity and wherever you go, you’ll be approached by people eager to make conversation and have their photo taken. I can’t wait to go back and I am already planning my next trip for next year. It’s impossible to stay away.

Local women in Satjelia, the Sunderbans, West Bengal
Local women in Satjelia, the Sunderbans, West Bengal

Why I travel

Singalila Trek, Indian Himalayas
Singalila Trek, Indian Himalayas

I’ve never really felt settled in one place. I lived in London for more than 20 years, but rarely stayed in the same job for more than a couple of years. And I always took off for long breaks between contracts. From my first 5 week trip to Central America to my 7 month round-the-world jaunt, I’ve often heard other travellers refer to the travel bug. Like something you catch and never get rid of completely. Recently there’s even been talk of a wanderlust gene which may or may not pre-determine some people to be restless. Now if people jokingly accuse me of being work-shy and irresponsible, I can simply say it’s genetic. I have no choice in the matter. Every now and again I need to pack my rucksack and hit the road. Whatever the reasons, travel is addictive and I have been addicted for the last 25 years.

Trekking in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Trekking in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

I have visited 62 countries across all continents and enjoy every aspect of travel, from trekking to snorkelling, from exploring cities to relaxing in a jungle hammock, from trying new cuisine to meeting new people.  I love the fact that every day is different when you travel. Some people are horrified at the idea of not knowing where they’ll be sleeping from one day to the next, but for me this is all part of the adventure.

Nightmarket in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo
Nightmarket in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

Sometimes things go wrong, you have a bad day or you just don’t like a place. But that’s okay. It’s all part of the experience.  It’s easy to get depressed by current world events, but travelling helps put things into perspective. It helps you to see that the natural world is an astonishing place, and that mankind has also made some thrilling contributions: from ancient temples to rice terraces.

During my travels I came to Brazil frequently and have spent most of the past 5 years in São Paulo. However, living and working in a country is very different from travelling in it. I’ll be using this blog to report on trips in Brazil as well as comment on daily life here and even pass on a few tips. I love photography and so I’ll also post some reports and photos of past adventures.

At the top of the Pico do Papagaio, Minas Gerais, Brazil
At the top of the Pico do Papagaio, Minas Gerais, Brazil