Being one of the most organised trekking trails in the country, Markha Valley has been attempted by a large number of solo trekkers. In this post, Vipin Yadav takes you along with him on the barren, yet beautiful trails of Ladakh, into tea-house tents and home-stays, and across the Markha River. Although solo trekking is something Westerners do, Vipin shows us that India has trails that are apt to take up a solo trek.
He speaks to Vaibhav Chauhan of Indiahikes about the dos and don’ts on a solo trek. If you are planning to do a solo trek anytime, Vipin’s experienced words and vivid recollections could be of help to you.
Why this trek?
Markha valley is one of the few “Teahouse treks” in India. One does not need high-end camping equipment to embark on such a trek. With considerable fitness and will power, this trek can be done solo. The food and accommodation is also reasonably priced.
The charge is Rs 800 per day, which includes light snacks, three meals (including packed lunch), basic bed and blankets and unlimited supply of tea. This rate is fixed for all the home stays throughout the Markha Valley trail.
In fact, if you go solo, the better you experience the authentic Ladakhi culture and hospitality. It is also done in the season where the lower Himalayas are plagued with monsoon. That is July- September. While I did this solo, beginners to high altitude trekking must hire a guide.
Markha Valley falls inside the Hemis National Park. There are multiple entry points to Hemis National Park: one from Chilling (where the Chadar trek also starts), Martselang, Zingchen, and Shang Sumdo. Vipin chose the route from Chilling. This is an unusual choice since most Markha valley trekkers start from Zingchen.
You chose the shorter route from Chilling. Why?
I had limited time (only 10 days). And I had an ambitious plan to do two treks in that time -frame; first, Markha Valley and then, Stok Kangri. So, I had no choice but to finish Markha within five or six days and then attempt Stok Kangri (which is a different story). I had reservations about my own ability, but I am glad I took my chances and ended up finishing both treks in a span of nine days.
What are the travel options from Leh to Chilling?
Ok, here’s a secret that was passed on to me from a local person in Leh. If you book a taxi from Leh to Chilling, the cost would be around Rs 2,500-3,000. If you want to save money, look for rafting agencies (Off beat adventures, Luna adventures etc). They have daily departures for rafting groups and the starting point is Chilling. They will drop you at Chilling for Rs 500 only. However, you need to walk almost 2 km from your drop-off point to the bridge, from where the trek starts to Skiu village.
At Chilling, there are a few nice home-stays and also a restaurant/café/bar.
The first day on the trail from Chilling to Skiu is said to be a nice acclimatisation walk. Your thoughts?
Since it was the first day, I was a little anxious. I did not see any activity on the trail in the beginning. It was extremely hot. There were multiple trails crossing each other, which looked daunting. It was only after around 50 minutes that I saw a group of trekkers in distance and made sure I used all my energy to catch up with them. After that, it was an easy day.
There is a bridge under construction over the Zanskar River, which would connect Chilling to Skiu. It’s not ready yet, but one can still cross over it to get to the other side. I’ve heard it will be fully functional by the end of 2015.
Did you try crossing Zanskar River using a box and cable bridge?
No. You can cross over the half-constructed bridge easily to get to the other side.
Could you elaborate on your trek from Chilling to Skiu?
On Day 1, after I got dropped off at the rafting point, I had to walk for around 30 minutes on road, before I got a lift from a pick-up truck, which dropped me near the bridge. I crossed the bridge over Zanskar River and was greeted by a few porters coming from Skiu; they confirmed I was on the right track. There’s also a parachute tent, from where you could refill water or buy eatables. I had to hurry, as I was told by the lady at this shop that a Spanish group had started trekking towards Skiu almost 30-40 minutes ago. Since it was my first time trekking solo, I had to make sure I had someone in sight, to ensure I wasn’t lost.
Almost 20-25 minutes into the trail, I did not see anyone and I began to worry. It was hot and I was trying to trek as fast as I could. I lost a lot of energy and had to take a water break. It was then that I heard a few bells and saw couple of ponies coming down from the ridge. My god, that was the most comforting sound! I carried on for another 30 minutes and saw a group ahead of me. I finally caught up with the Spanish group and found them taking pictures. They were very friendly and within no time we were discussing football, politics and Decathlon products. We finally reached Skiu, trekking along the Markha River. The Spanish group moved on towards the camping site as they had hired guides, porters and tents from Ladakh. I decided to have tea before hunting for a home-stay.
It was then I saw three figures emerging from the valley in front of me. Little did I know that they were going to become my companions for the next five days.
Simon (Australian), Daito (Japanese) and Sonam (Ladakhi guide) entered the tea shop. We had a casual conversation and I learned that they were also on the Markha trail, having started their trek from the Spituk side. We had tea together and got along pretty well. Sonam invited me to join them in the home-stay hunt. We found a place and had some fun by the Markha River. We spotted several shooting stars at night and had a sumptuous Ladakhi meal and called it a day.
How was the weather in Skiu?
It was bright and sunny throughout. It got a little cloudy around dusk and cold at around night time.
There is a longer route for doing Markha – from Spituk (which leads to Zingchen gate of Hemis National Park) to Skiu. If time is not a constraint, would you advise taking that route?
Yes, definitely. There aren’t many trails where one gets to cross two 5,000 meter passes in one trek. If I had time, I would have picked the longer route.
The trek from Markha to Skiu is known for crossing multiple rivulets and passing by ancient monasteries. Is that true?
Following the Markha River, we hiked through a valley full of barley fields on a fairly level path. The trail crosses the river at various points but one doesn’t have to wade through the river more than two times (where the water isn’t too high). There are several temporary wooden bridges built for the smooth movement of ponies and porters. On the trail, there were several Lhatos (religious shrines for local deities) and Mani walls (stones inscribed with Buddhist prayers).
There also couple of teahouse tents on the way for refreshments. After crossing river one last time, we arrived at Markha Village. It’s the largest village in valley with around 20-25 houses, including seven to eight home-stays and a beautiful camping site. There is an old monastery and a ruined fort as well.
Tell us about Markha Village and what can one expect at this place for sightseeing?
Markha Village is a rare sight – a definite treat for your eyes and soul. I never imagined a valley so lush, so green, in middle of a barren, high-altitude desert. The irrigation system developed by villagers is highly effective and it’s an engineering marvel on its own. The campsite is a flat ground, with a lush cover. We went for a small hike to the top of monastery to get glimpse of other side of Markha during sunset; the view was surreal. You know, there are moments when you wish you could stop the time? This was one of them. Also, the food at the home-stay was delicious. Basic, but full of nutrients – all home-grown and organic.
Is the water in the stream drinkable? Any need for carrying water filters along?
Few of the streams have drinkable water, but you could always fill water at home-stays before you start the trek. Water filters are certainly not required.
On Day 3, you chose to camp at Hankar, and not Thochungtse. Why?
I was told there aren’t any permanent settlements at Thochungtse. It is an exposed valley 1.5 hours ahead for Hankar. I could have saved some time for next day, considering the relatively easy trek on Day 3 from Markha to Hankar. But the raw and isolated beauty of Hankar held us back and we decided to stay back. I had a nice, cold, afternoon bath in Markha River, received great hospitality and food. I also had enough time to explore Hankar and relax in the evening.
We hear you get a great view of the famous Kang Yatse Peak. Is that true?
Yes! One of the most magical moments from Day 3 is the first view of Kang Yatse. After leaving the village of Umlung, we got our first view of Kang Yatse, and what a sight it was! After that, the mountain kept a close eye on us until we crossed Kongmarula pass. In a way, Kang Yatse had become our silent partner through the trek.
Tell us about your trek to Nimaling on Day 4.
This was supposed to be most grueling day of Markha trek. I started early, at 7 am, crossed this narrow canyon-like valley, which is quite an uphill trail. As soon as you cross this, you see a vast valley with the mighty Kang Yatse peak in backdrop. The landscape is filled with green pastures of barley fields, some ruins of an old fortress, a Mani wall and a couple of Chortens. A brisk hike at this stage feels like a tough task because of altitude. It took around 1.5 hours to reach Thochungtse, which is a lovely green field with a couple of teahouse tents. I only had water here and carried on with the tough climb to get to the Kang Yatse Lake. Here, I took a much needed break, ate my packed lunch with the beauty of the valley to admire. I could also spot wildlife around, including marmots and micehare (Ladakhi pika). After this point, it’s a gradual but long and tiring descent towards Nimaling Plateau.
Nimaling campsite is said to be very windy and cold. Is that true?
At 4,700 metres, Nimaling is the highest campsite on Markha trek. It’s a wide, windy, and exposed valley. It is also a summer pasture and for animals of Markha and Hankar. After I reached the campsite, I was suffering with high altitude sickness. After drinking a litre of water and three cups of black tea, I felt better. It was windy throughout, but as the evening progressed, it started getting very cold. There is only one temporary settlement – a large teahouse tent with about 15-18 small tarpaulin tents (for trekkers). These tents are very basic, with no sleeping bags. Although there were enough blankets, the night was one of the coldest in my life. Four of us shared one tent and somehow got through the night. Surprisingly, I slept quite well. The next morning, all around me, I heard people complain about how they couldn’t sleep.
Take us through your trek, climbing to the top of Kongmaru La?
We hit the trail at around 8 am and almost 1/3rd of trekkers had already started for the day. As I crossed the river, a sharp ascent started to the top of ridge. The terrain was a mix of stones, rocks and dirt. Thirty minutes into trail, I could see almost everyone around heaving for breath, including myself. The climb wasn’t that hard, but the altitude was playing tricks on everyone. After about an hour into the climb, I could see the trail clearly, leading a line of trekkers to the top of Kongmaru la. It was a slow and treacherous climb to the top. It took me around two hours to get to the top of the pass, which is marked by prayer flags. This is the only place in trek where you can get mobile signal and only BSNL works here.
What would you advice a trekker to keep in mind while crossing the pass?
Do not rush. At this altitude, the air is thin and the climb is steep. You should take your time to adjust to the conditions. Stay hydrated. Take small steps. Also, keep your body warm, as it can get very cold and windy very suddenly.
How was the view from the top of Kongmaru La?
It was stunning. It was a clear, sunny day and we got great views. The moment you are on top of the pass, you get the first view of the grand valley and mountains on the other side. You turn around and Kang Yatse is still there, watching over you. It’s a beautiful sight!
The descent to Shang-Sumdo from the pass is said to be brutal and long. Your thoughts?
Yes, it’s a sharp and steep descent from Kongmaru la and stays the same way for around 600-700 meters. After that, you follow the stream that passes through a narrow gorge. You feel as if you are passing through a canyon. We had to cross the stream a few times over rocks but it was fairly simple. From Sukarmo to Sumdo, it’s a flat walk on the river bed. We decided to stay at a small village called Chokdo, almost 1.5 hours before Sumdo. We were in no hurry to get to Leh and also, there was a phone at Chokdo, which we could use to book a taxi the next day. It proved to be a good decision, considering many trekkers went to Shang-Sumdo but had difficulty getting taxis. They had to wait for hours to get a drop back to Leh.
In a nutshell
What are the transport options from Sumdo to Leh?
If you are lucky, you might find a taxi or truck going to Leh. Most trekkers book taxis in advance. If you are travelling solo, you can always share transport with someone. Otherwise, you could call Leh and wait for a couple of hours for a taxi.
How would you sum up your experience of Markha Valley Trek?
It’s not very easy to come across a trek that offers you a complete Ladakhi experience. Be it in terms of culture, landscapes, food, adventure and thrills. One must try trekking in Ladakh to simply get a feel of the raw and untouched beauty. I always fall short of words when trying to describe it. This is why it is important to take that leap and venture into the unknown.
Here are the five best things about this trek:
- Landscape: Even though it is the typical Ladakhi landscape, you will be surprised when every time, you cross a bend and suddenly everything is green and full of life. River crossings, barley fields, barren valleys with vast green fields in middle, along with the Markha River. The first view of Mt. Kang Yatse peak, high altitude glacial lakes, Markha Village, Nimaling , Kongmarula top, canyons and gorges, et cetera. It’s so full of raw beauty!
- Home-stays and Ladakhi culture: Warm and friendly people of valley, Fresh organic food, unlimited supply of tea, bed and blankets, packed lunches. Home-stays are definitely a life-line for solo trekkers. You get a glimpse of the Ladakhi culture. You also realise the daily hardships they have to go through to get on with life.
- Interact with travellers from different part of world : Trekking solo also provides you an opportunity to connect with other trekkers,“you might be trekking solo but you’ll never be alone”.
- Wildlife :Lot of birds, blue sheeps, marmots, and Himalayan Pikas.
- Adventure and Thrill : Be it river crossings, walking through canyons, crossing high altitude passes or just trekking along Gompa’s and Mani-walls. This trek is full of surprises, thrill and adventure.
What are the tips you would like to mention for those planning Markha Valley trek solo?
Do work out and keep fit before arriving at Leh. Acclimatise well (at least 2 days in Leh). Drink plenty of water. Pack light (Only pack what you can carry). Protect yourself from winds and sun. Do not rush. Markha is not a trek to be taken lightly; acclimatisation, positive attitude and mental fitness is the key.
This seems to be one of your most adventurous solo treks. What are the biggest lessons you learnt?
A lot of people are always looking for company when trekking, but if you can’t enjoy your own company, you’ll always be bored. Few things I learnt from this solo trek are:
- Discipline – There’s no one to wake you up on time with a hot cup of tea. Be more disciplined and pro-active.
- Staying positive – When the chips are down, you’ve got to stay focused and keep positive.
- Challenge – Push yourself to hike faster, farther, for longer hours than you’re used to. Build up to more difficult trails, uncomfortable weather, and rough environments.
- Meet your fears – Many of us have fears that have little basis. Whether you’re afraid of wild animals, heights, darkness, storms, or being alone, a solo hike can help you overcome those fears.
- Responsibility – As a solo hiker, I can proudly say, “I did it myself” when finished. Along the way, responsibility for minimising impact, caring for the trail, not littering, staying safe, and being self- sufficient also lies on my own shoulders. Responsibility for the success of the adventure is completely mine. As is the pride upon completion.
Thanks to my solo adventure, I was able to explore myself, the world and my place in the world.
Vipin Yadav works with an IT Company in Delhi. He likes to travel and meet new people. Trekking in the mountains is special to him. Vipin did this trek in August 2014, taking the shorter and more popular route inside Markha Valley in Ladakh.