Day 1: Chilling-Skiu We enter the Markha Valley at a river crossing called Chilling, an hour and a half bus journey from Leh. There’s no bridge across the wide river – only a ‘cable car’ (a wooden box on a hand-pulled rope) which carries locals and their goods one by one and we wait our turn to cross in a large tent by the river where tea is on the go. Inside we meet the only other foreigner there…former manager of 1960s rock band ‘The Grateful Dead’, Danny Rifkin. The unassuming Californian is also trekking through the Markha Valley but is traveling considerably lighter than us. Both John and I are carrying massive backpacks which weigh around 20 kilos, although John’s is a fair bit heavier due to him carrying the tent and cooking stove which his larger backpack can fit (I carry a greater share of the food supplies). The cost of staying in homestays in the Valley is prohibitive so we agree camping and cooking our own food is the best way to do the trek despite the weight slowing us down. By late afternoon we’ve both had enough of the heat and camp for the night at a settlement called Skiu at a little green area beside a stream. There’s a full moon and the light is freakishly bright. After dinner on the stove, we spend the evening taking photos, admiring the stars and spotting satellites, which can be clearly seen moving across the sky at a frequent rate.
Day 2: Skiu-Shalak Through strange rocky valleys we criss-cross the Markha river at regular points and come across fantastic piles of Mani stones amongst prayer flags and stupas. Mani stones are engraved stones with Buddhist prayers…their messages left open to the elements, public art to be displayed to project positive karma from the rooftop of the world. By afternoon I have to stop due to the heat of the sun and sheer exhaustion so we set about finding a suitable place to camp but leave it late and are forced to camp on a stony, wind-swept riverbed.
Day 3: Shalak-Markha Through more rocky valleys and river crossings we spend more time stopping to admire Mani stones. We stop at Markha village by early afternoon for lunch and buy home-baked bread from a local woman. Her husband wants to buy my hat but the certainty of heat-stroke ensures I have to decline the offer. We eat bread with peanut butter on the side of the path and watch passing horsemen and a shepherdess with her livestock. Some stop to have a chat with the couple sitting beside us and have tea and the craic with them. We plan to push on after a quick nap at the pasture around the corner but partially from tiredness and partially due to the beauty of the valley, we decide to set up camp and settle down to another mild-evening of star gazing.
Day 4: Markha-Thachangtse We cross the Markha river in sandels a couple of times in the morning and eventually come to a quiet, spread out village called Hanker. We walk into a building which has a ‘Restaurant’ sign outside, under the foolish impression we can get a meal there. Instead, the man floating around stares blankly at us and it takes a few questions to get some basic information out of him, i.e all there is to eat is half an omelette and four pieces of stale chapatti. We eat this quickly and leave feeling completely bemused at the magnitude of the chap’s ineptitude. We motor on, taking a wrong turn down the rocky riverbed and retrace our steps onto the right path past a cliff-top ruin of a monastery and through another green valley. Tired, we decide to push onto the next valley before sunset and come across a broken bridge. A local woman with two donkeys and their foal is on the other side of the river. We stand and watch as the little foal wades into the fast moving water and then begins to get swept away. The woman, shouting, goes in after it, picks it up and carries it out. With one arm still holding the foal, she then picks up a large rock, hurls it at the adult donkeys and it bounces off one of their heads. We continue to watch her carry the foal as she manages to cross the collapsed bridge and come up to us to cheerfully announce the bridge is broken and we need to take that other path. We thank her and reach another green, picturesque valley by mid-afternoon.
Day 5: Thachungtse-Nimaling It’s raining when we wake in the early morn so we set off later after it dies down a bit. Not long after we leave it starts lashing down again and we ascend up the rolling mountains into the clouds. By early afternoon though the clouds have mostly cleared and we’re treated to spectacular scenery as we look back down the valleys. The landscape has suddenly changed to something more closely resembling the Scottish highlands…not what you’d expect from arid Ladakh. By the time we reach the base camp of the impending big pass, the weather has deteriorated again. Nimaling is a collection of tents set up for the summer months to cater for trekkers. There’s a lot of livestock around including yak. It’s damn cold, damp and muddy so as soon as dinner is served in the main marquis I get into my sleeping bag in a futile attempt to get warm and manage to snatch at phases of sleep throughout the uncomfortable night.
Day 6: Nimaling-ShangSundo When we awake the weather is still overcast but we’re relieved it’s not raining as we prepare to ascend the 5260m pass of Gomara La. After breakfast we head off and a sleet shower begins soon after. It doesn’t last though and the day gradually clears for our climb up the pass.It takes most of the morning to get to the top of the pass – needless to say, the views from the top are worth it. We spend the whole afternoon descending which I find more difficult than going up (the back of my calves are done in by the end of the day). Through narrow rocky gorges along the river we go downhill for hours till we come to our final destination on the trek. Shang-Sundo is on a road connecting it to the outside world and we stay at a home-stay for a night and quickly get used to being indoors again for the first time in a week.
When we arrive back in Leh, the town is a sensory overload. The freaks of ‘civilisation’ are out in force and it takes some time readjusting to being back. There are even more Israelis than before and my mood is pretty dark as it takes a few days to get over the delayed fatigue from the trek. Like most of Ladakh, the way of life in the Markha Valley has remained largely unchanged for centuries; the people lead a tough life but the severe climate and conditions haven’t weathered their positive, welcoming and cheerful nature – they genuinely seem happy to meet travelers and give any assistance on the trek. In comparison Leh feels cosmopolitan in the worst sense, especially after spending some time in the wilderness. John too soon begins to get itchy feet in Leh and after a few days rest we begin to plan another trek.