I stood on top of Kongmaru La which, at 5,100 metres, is the last pass on the Markha Valley trek. Below me was the long trail I had just ascended &mdash I could spot the rest of my team making their way to the top. Long lines of prayer flags danced crazily in the breeze while, to the southeast, the bulk of the Kang Yatse peak (6,400 metres) dominated the horizon. To the northwest was a long line of snowy mountains &mdash the Karakoram Could K2 be among them The silence at the pass was soon shattered by the shrill neighing of ponies and the cries of men guiding them across its divide and down to the valley.
Six days ago, our team of six trekkers had started out from Leh, accompanied by the indomitable Tenzing, our guide, cook and Man Friday, and his crew. The Markha Valley, wedged between the Stok Kangri range to the north and the Zanskar peaks to the south, offers one of the most popular treks in Ladakh.
We left Leh on a sunny September morning with a hint of autumn in the air. The drive along the Indus and then along the Zanskar to Chilling took around two hours. The crossing of the river at Chilling is an experience in itself as there is no bridge We found a large number of locals waiting to make the crossing with their loads. There is a trolley which holds three people at the most and it&rsquos run by a winch that drags it across the foaming Zanskar.
Once across the river, our ponies were loaded up and, with Tenzing in the lead, we set off along the trail. The walking to Skiu was mostly on level ground and, in about three hours, we arrived at a spectacular campsite on the banks of the Markha river. The hot sun had been beating down on us for most of the afternoon so we plunged into the icy water without much ado for a well-deserved bath.
The next day&rsquos walk from Skiu to Markha was the longest &mdash we passed a small lodge at Pendse, which sells tea and interesting handicrafts made by the Women&rsquos Alliance of Ladakh. Just before Markha, we crested a small pass with a fantastic array of yak horns and prayer stones.
Of Night Skies and Checker-Board Fields
At Markha, I discovered that nightfall is one of the most wondrous times in this valley. I set up my camera on a tripod outside my tent and waited for the stars. The last light of the setting sun faded from the sky and then the shadows of the night took over. To the east, I spotted Orion, while high up overhead was the Great Bear. In this star-studded arena, the Milky Way could be clearly seen as well.
Fifteen minutes from the Markha campsite lay the Markha gompa. The next morning, around 8am, we started for Hankar and made a detour to the monastery, which was particularly rewarding.
The view revealed a series of terraced fields in neat checker-board patterns with the Markha river flowing below. The villagers are able to grow one crop in summer and we saw ripened barley ready to be harvested.
The walk to Hankar on the following morning took us past the impossibly high Tacha monastery, clinging to a cliff more like a mountaineering challenge than a walk &mdash we decided not to attempt it
Tenzing proposed that we could camp near a lake rather than continue to Nimaling. The lake camp below the peak of the Kang Yatse is the Markha valley&rsquos best kept secret. Our tents were pitched by the shores of the lake, which is rich in birdlife. Dipan, the birder amongst us, spent the whole afternoon photographing sandpipers, wagtails, redstarts, accentors and many other species. The Kang Yatse stands sentinel over this pristine spot. The evening ended with a superlative dinner of soup, pasta and vegetables cooked by Tenzing this was probably the most perfect campsite on the trail.
The next morning, we started our walk to Nimaling. We passed marmots and Ladakh pika scurrying in and out of their burrows along the way. Giant lammergeiers were soaring with the thermals and we tried in vain to spot bharal perched high up on seemingly inaccessible crags. A sharp breeze blew across the pastureland and at this altitude of about 4,570 m, we felt that we were finally above the clouds. Ridge after ridge of Ladakh&rsquos ranges were behind us now, the gnarled rocks lit up in extraordinary colours of russet and ochre.
A steady two-hour climb from Nimaling brought our group to the top of the pass the next morning. This was followed by a knee-cracking descent of more than a thousand metres all the way to the campsite of Chukirmo.
The last day&rsquos walk through a canyon followed the valley past small villages, a school and, finally, cultivated fields to the roadhead at Shang Sumdo. A welcome tea tent served us a meal and chilled juice while we waited for our transport. Sculpted canyons, fantastic rock formations, ancient villages, Buddhist gompas and, above all, the snowy Himalaya &mdash the Markha valley has it all.
Day 1 Leh to Chilling by road and then walk to Skiu (3,400 metres 3-4 hours)
The drive from Leh to Chilling (46km) takes about two hours. There is a trolley bridge across the Zanskar river at Chilling and there&rsquos often a queue so it takes time to cross with all the equipment. If you are using the services of a trekking agency, ponies will be waiting on the other side of the bridge. The trail initially climbs about 50 metres to a ridge and then levels out to Kaya village, which can serve as a lunch stop. From Kaya to Skiu is about one hour of level walking.
Day 2 Skiu to Markha (3,700 metres 7-8 hours)
It would take the whole day to complete this part of the trek. The trail is mostly flat and follows the Markha river. It takes about two hours to stop for a tea break at the Pendse tea house. The trail then traverses some steep slopes and crosses a bridge before entering the hamlet of Humarge. A short distance away is the Sera village, which is a good lunch stop and has a tea tent. The valley now opens up and eventually reaches a small pass with chortens and prayer flags marking the entrance to Markha &mdash the campsites are still about an hour away.
Day 3 Markha to Hankar (3,900 metres 4 hours)
This is a relatively short day. Cross the river and then climb up to Markha gompa on the left. From the gompa, cross the river again and then after several river crossings reach the tea tent at Umlung. Soon after Umlung, the trail crosses a series of mani walls leading to a ridge. Meander up the river valley and reach the Hankar campsite by lunchtime. In case you feel fit enough, you could carry on to Tahungtse on the same day.
Day 4 Hankar to lake camp below Nimaling (4,450 metres 5 hours)
From Hankar, the trail makes a short but steep climb to the gompa and old village, and then there&rsquos a series of climbs to reach the walled pastures of Tahungtse, where there is a tea tent in season. The trail then makes a steady ascent through pastures on the left followed by a short push to the ridge top, which is a good lunch stop. There is a great view of the Kang Yatse peak from here. The trail then climbs past a series of mani walls and you reach a small campsite near a heavenly lake. A fit trekking party could make it to Nimaling in one long, tiring day.
Day 5 Lake camp to Nimaling (4,720 metres 2 hours)
The trail meanders through broad pastures past a number of chortens and mani walls, climbing gently. This is a good location to see both marmots and the Ladakh pika (mice hare). Nimaling is a broad valley where yaks, sheep and goats are grazed by the villagers of Markha. There is a tea tent in season here.
Day 6 Nimaling to Kongmaru La (5,100 metres 2 hours), then to Chukirmo (4,050 metres 5 hours)
The trail climbs gently to the Kongmaru La, from where there are good views over the Zanskar mountains and the Kang Yatse peak. The top of the pass has a good mobile phone signal so make your calls from here From the pass, the trail drops steeply over a rubble track for about 1,000 metres, to the settlement of Chukirmo, which is the night stop near the river.
Day 7 Chukirmo to Shang Sumdo (3,700m 4 hours), then drive to Leh in 2 hours
Leaving Chukirmo, the trail enters the Chokdo village, where there are a number of homestays. It then meanders down the valley becoming wider and, in about four hours, reaches the roadhead of Shang Sumdo. Transport from Shang Sumdo to Leh is infrequent so it would be better to arrange a pickup from Leh.
Jet Airways, Air India and GoAir have daily flights from Delhi to Leh. Round-trip fares range from Rs 10,000 to Rs 16,000, depending on the season, and on advance booking. The more intrepid can travel by the Srinagar-Leh road or the Manali-Leh road both journeys take two days.
June to September is the best season for this trek. We trekked in the second week of September and were rewarded with vacant trails and beautiful autumn weather. Bottled mineral water is not readily available at all campsites, so please carry iodine/chlorine water purification tablets. It&rsquos useful to carry a trekking pole or a stick as the downhill sections of this trek are made difficult by loose rocks and rubble. It can get very warm in the day so a goodsunscreen is essential. Acclimatise in Leh for two days before starting the trek.
The Markha Valley trek can be done in two ways
We followed the second, shorter, route.
Where to Stay
The Markha Valley trek can be done using the services of a trekking agency providing full camping support with tents, ponies and guide. The cost of a full service trek would be around Rs 5,000 per person per day. Alternatively, it is also possible to use homestays during the season, that is, July to mid-September. Homestays provide beds and blankets but a sleeping bag is useful. They charge about Rs 600-800 per person with meals.
A number of maps of the region are available we used Leomann Indian Himalaya Map 3 Jammu & Kashmir (Nubra Valley, Leh, Markha) it&rsquos available at mapsworldwide.com.
This article is from our Story Bank. It was published in May 2014.