Trek report: Markha Valley

Known as one of the most popular and beautiful treks in Ladakh, I decided to hike the Markha Valley during my time in Leh.

Popular because it’s easily accessible, the trail is not difficult to navigate and it’s one of the few multiday treks in the region that can be done entirely with homestays, rather than the need to carry camping equipment. All of these things appealed to me, plus it had been a couple of months since I’d done a trek so I felt as though it was long overdue.

The trek is quite spectacular and gives you a closer view of the incredible landscapes that are found in Ladakh. The colours of the rock changed every kilometre on the trail and the villages appeared almost like oases along the valley floor. It was also a beautiful way to get a glimpse of the traditional culture and lifestyle and the ever-friendly locals were very welcoming and always yelled out, “Julley!” (hello) as you passed them by.

Markha Valley

Getting there

I didn’t leave Leh until around lunchtime as I had things to do in the morning and the first day is generally short. I took a taxi with an Israeli couple I had been travelling with since Jammu and we got dropped just past the village of Chilling, at a newly built bridge. The drive took two hours. There is heavy construction going on as it is a road they plan to continue on through to Zanskar, a dream that might not be realised for a long time to come. So it’s best to get dropped the extra kilometres at the bridge rather than in Chilling itself as it would not be a pleasant walk along the construction zone for now.

The taxis in Leh have a booklet with all the official prices inside and so generally, if you’re a tourist there is not much room to bargain. The whole taxi cost 3150 rupees (AUD$65) to the bridge/trekking point and we split it between the three of us.

Day one: Chilling to Skyu

From the bridge, we walked along the dirt road, that is actually motorable until just after Skyu. It took us 2 hours of relatively easy going to arrive in the village and it was already 5.30pm when we arrived. A lady came running over from the field and she said, “We have rotation system of homestay here, and it’s my turn tonight, come.”

We were taken to her home where there were already two older European men staying and we got a basic room to share with mattresses on the floor. The homestay system in the valley, we found out, is relatively organised by the local villagers and each year they set a rotation system and price, so there is no competition, no confusion and no bargaining. A night in one of the homestays is 1200 rupees per person or AUD$24, which includes a bed, dinner and breakfast and a packed lunch for the following day. A bit expensive, but considering the trekking season is a short two months each year they need to make the money.

Distance: 7km Time: 2 hours Ascended: 180m

Day Two: Skyu to Markha

Unfortunately, one of my Israeli friends fell sick overnight and I waited with them until 11am, when they decided to take a taxi back to Leh. So I made the difficult decision to keep going on my own and I knew I had a big day ahead if I wanted to get to Markha.

The way was not too difficult, it was a long undulating trail through the valley floor, along the river. There were chortens/stupas along the way at small passes in the trail and the colour of the rock of the mountains was insanely beautiful. It almost looked similar to something you would see in the outback of Australia, just the rock is not as red.

With no shelter or cover from the sun, it was very hot. I was sweating a lot and only having a 650ml life straw bottle meant I ran out of water often and had to refill. I passed a few large trekking groups with donkeys and guides and all the fancy gear, so I was far from alone.

Coming into Markha at 5pm, I was extremely tired and dehydrated. All I wanted to do was stop and rest but I pushed on to the village to find a homestay. It took me some time but someone finally tracked down the lady whose turn it was for the night. By this point I was feeling exhausted and I knew I needed more water and some sort of sugars in my body. There was another couple also looking for a homestay and they got the only bedroom in the house, so I slept on the floor in the kitchen/dining room with the lady. I chewed on lollies and downed more water for the evening before dinner but I still slept like a baby until 5.30am, when I heard the lady get up to make breakfast.

Distance: 21km Time: 6 hours Ascended: 420m

Day three: Markha to lower Hankar

I left at 8am and inconveniently at the same time as all the mule trains and trekking groups, so I quickly quickened my pace for a while to get past them and keep the distance between us. It reminded me of my constant battle with the yak caravans in Nepal.

I met up with one of the European guys who’d stayed in the same place as us in Skyu and we had to cross a freezing river up to our knees to continue on. I passed through the tiny village of Umlang where I had a ginger tea, but I wasn’t feeling 100%. I didn’t feel like eating but at the same time I was feeling very weak and a bit weird. Possibly, still recovering from the dehydration from the day before.

I arrived in a place called Lower Hankar, just 1km before the main village and a lady stopped me and said it was their turn to host trekkers. I’d contemplated pushing on further but considering I wasn’t feeling the best and the elevation was getting close to 4000m, I decided that stopping was the best thing for me. The German guy caught up and also stayed, as well as some other European girls with their guides.

The homestay had a tent set up outside where I lay for the rest of the afternoon reading and recovering.

Distance: 10km Time: 3 hours Ascended: 210m

Hankar village
Hankar Palace ruins

Day four: Hankar to Nimaling camp

I woke up knowing I had a big day ahead of me, but I felt very positive about the day and sometimes that can make all the difference. I left at 8am and followed the undulating trail up to a campsite where a lot of the big trekking groups stay. From there, the trail was steep and so began the 800m ascent up to Nimaling.

The weather was not very good and clouds obscured the beautiful view as rain threatened to come all morning. I took a steady pace and surprised myself as to how little I had to stop to catch my breath.

The trail climbed up to the top of a ridge where I passed many of the groups who had stayed just in the camp below. They couldn’t believe that I’d come from Hankar that day already. Just as the rain started to fall, the trail finally made it’s last push up before plateauing for the last 2km to camp.

I was feeling good, too good in fact. I wasn’t sure where the energy and ability was coming from considering my previous two days, but I made it to Nimaling in 4 hours, a time that even the camp managers didn’t quite believe.

The camp was at 4800m (I think the second highest I’ve ever slept at), and the ‘homestay’ available was actually a cluster of tents that some locals manage and rent out. I got myself my own tent and then sat in the dining tent for the rest of the evening talking to people as they arrived. The rain was relentless and turned to hail and snow as the entire landscape became a blanket of white.

There was no heater in the dining tent and it was absolutely freezing once the sun set. I was okay in my down jacket that had served me well in Nepal, but many people shivered through the night. The camp was practically full, with all sorts of trekking groups and individuals, all with guides, except for me and the two European men I’d been hiking with since the start.

Distance: 12km Time: 4 hours Ascended: 860m

Day five: Nimaling to Kongmaru La to Shang Sumdo

I woke up and anxiously peered outside the tent to see what the weather had decided to do. Luckily I could see blue skies with some cloud around, a lot better than the day before. I headed off for the pass after 8am and, like the day before, I felt very strong and was moving up the steep climb at a decent pace.

For the short 3km, it’s estimated to take around 2 hours, but I made it in just over an hour, with me and a Frenchman the first two to make the pass for the day. The view was cloudy, but still magnificent with mountains stretched out in every direction that I looked. At 5250m, I couldn’t believe how well my body was coping compared to the previous two times in my life that I’d been over 5000m. Although, staying in Leh at 3500m for a couple of weeks before had definitely helped.

I waited for my friend, the German man, who at 71 years old surprised and inspired me every day. He had climbed peaks over 6000m, worked in various countries across the world, rode a horse across Afghanistan and travelled around Iran, Iraq and Syria in the 70s. And he was beating most people up to the top of the pass, with a steady pace and no problems at all. If I can be even half as adventurous as he is at his age then I’d be doing pretty well.

Distance: 3km Time: 1 hour 15mins Ascended: 430m

On the way up to Kongmaru La

I started down from the pass as soon as the snow started to fall and it was a very steep decline all the way back down to the bottom of the valley. I was going at a very quick pace, and finally decided to make myself stop for a lunch break after such a big morning. A big Israeli group caught up to me and then ended up following the wrong trail more than once. Although for me, it seemed obvious to follow the donkey poo which basically leaves a perfectly marked trail all the way back, as many locals use the trail back and forth, and I never got lost. It pays to use some common sense sometimes when you don’t have a guide.

Distance: 14km Time: 4 hours Descended: 1580m

Getting back

I made it to Chogdo very early and there was a tea tent at the beginning of the motorable road that goes back to Leh. There were a few taxis waiting but they were all pre-booked for the groups. There was one who wasn’t booked and he was willing to drive me back but I wanted to wait for more people to fill the car. I waited two hours and then gave up, and decided to continue walking the extra 5km down to Shang Sumdo, the village at the official end of the trek and closer to the sealed main road.

I arrived and there was one tea house where a lovely old couple were sitting. The lady instantly poured me a cup of chai and I asked whether it was possible to get back to Leh. There is a bus that leaves every Monday, but it was Saturday and I didn’t feel like waiting another whole day in the village so I somehow managed to secure a local taxi. I refused to pay the “official” rates and we settled on 2000 rupees (AUD$40). It took around 90 minutes to drive back to Leh.

Accommodation

The homestays were generally good, although it’s far from luxury. It’s often a mattress on the floor in a shared room with other trekkers and maybe even your host.

The price was the same 1200 rupees for each night including food. Except the Nimaling Camp charged 1400, which we all thought was very steep, but you have no choice there as to where to stay.

Food

The food was very good, or at least the dinners were. Home cooked food with locally grown produce, usually rice, dahl and vegetables although they also cooked local food like stew and tingmo.

Breakfast was only tea and some chapatti and so I never ate breakfast but had plenty of snacks with me. The packed lunches were all the same; a sandwich (which I always gave away to someone), a boiled egg, a boiled potato or two, a juice box and a chocolate bar.

Trail navigation

The trail was very obvious and it would be difficult to get lost all the way through to the pass. There were plenty of people on the trail too, so there’s never a shortage of anyone to ask. After the pass, there was a few random trails darting here and there on the way down, and even some trails that I could see must have been old and recently destroyed by landslides. So, its best to follow the one that has very obvious footprints and animal droppings as this will be the one that the locals use and they know best.

The trails are also marked on Maps.Me but I would actually say to follow the footprints/poo as it’s likely to be more accurate as trails can de destroyed year to year from landslides.

Cost

Transport to/from: 3050 rupees (AUD$61)

Homestays & food: 5000 rupees (AUD$100)

Snacks purchased before leaving Leh: 1000 rupees (AUD$20)

There are no permits required although as I was leaving the valley I was made to pay a park fee which was 20 rupees (AUD40c) per day.

Total: AUD$183 for five days

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