Trek 1 - Markha Valley

Day 1 - Spituk (3214m) to Zhingchan (3396m)

We decided to tackle Day 1 of the Markha Valley trek after two nights acclimatising in Leh, the start of the trek is near Spituk which was a twenty minute taxi ride from our hotel, there's a makeshift checkpoint where you need to register and pay a fee to enter the Heimis national Park (120rupees each {about £1.50} for 6 days). It was very hot when we finally set off for Zhingchan at 9.30am.

Some trekkers skip Day 1 as you can get motor transport all the way to Zhingchan but we couldn't figure out why, the scenery is open but spectacular, there was very little traffic when we were there and its a relatively easy day for further acclimatisation. The route is on the approach to Leh airport and the aircraft fly pretty low as they come in to land. We enjoyed great views of the Indus valley, the green vegetation clinging to each bank is a stark contrast to the desert environment of our surroundings.

The route turns left into a narrower valley, a grand portal marks the entrance to the Heimis National Park. About an hour short of our final destination we came across our first tea tent at a junction of two tracks. An elderly Tibetan man invited us to sit down with enthusiasm so we sat on his rugs in the shade of his tent and sampled Masala Tea, you couldn't help wondering just how many customers he'd had today, we had been walking for about four hours and hadn't seen anyone else on the road, forward or back.

We arrived at Zhingchan about 2pm and decided not to go any further as we weren't sure about camping places further on. The campsite was decent and at 150 rupees a night it was cheap. We had the place to ourselves for a few hours when a trekking party arrived, about ten clients, ten staff and ten horses. We chatted to the guides for a while who were really surprised we were carrying our gear ourselves, they liked our chair kits! It was dark by 7pm so we were in bed pretty early, I didn't sleep too well, it was very hot still.

Day 2 - Zhingchan (3396m) to Camp below Kanda La (4462m)

The early stages of day 2 involved little height gain, we set off around 8.00am and followed the narrowing valley floor for about three hours, passing a small settlement on the way, eventually the valley opens out after a footbridge and the welcome sight of a tea tent came into view. This is Rumbak, its a major trail junction with the Stok circuit continuing left and the Markha Valley trek straight ahead, we stopped for tea and ate some of the lunch we'd brought.

We crossed the wide shallow river and hiked up the right hand side of the valley to a confluence where we rested, we were both feeling hot and tired but had barely started the ascent. Heading off again we entered the side valley on a good trail, the colours of the mountains were astonishing, dark reds and copper greens intertwined in layers, we took a lot of photos while trying to keep a steady pace, we were overtaken by a string of laden horses.

After a couple of hours we approached the farm called Yurutse, a large block building dominated the view and a few cultivated fields were being attended to in front of it, we passed virtually unnoticed and made the final push to the campsite. After a further one and a half hours the camp came into view - a group of tents in the centre of the valley surrounded by mountains. We arrived at 3pm, our intention had been to carry on to the 'upper camp' which was another 40 minutes closer to the pass but we were both finished for the day - I was feeling quite bad, I had an acclimatisation headache and was actually struggling to speak. Things were quite bad, I tried to communicate with Geoff but the words wouldn't come - or I said wrong words that made no sense. We realised this was altitude sickness of a severity neither of us had seen, something beyond the usual thick head and nausea.

I wasn't feeling hungry but forced down a meal during which we discussed what to do. One option was of course to go down, which is the only 'cure' for altitude sickness - but this would also mean the end of the trip. We were only at 4345m, a height which I'd trekked at before without a problem, we decided to stay put and reconsider our position the next morning.

Day 3 - Recovery at Kanda La Camp (4462m)

I had a bad night, I needed water regularly and couldn't move without my head throbbing, after a fit-full night I woke at 6.00am - I still felt terrible, although Geoff was coping better than I was he still felt rough. By staying absolutely still I was OK, I slept on into the morning with the sun beating down on the tent, drinking regularly I eventually got up and made some breakfast.

The next section of the trek would take us another 600m higher and we discussed what we should do - we both agreed that its wasn't feasible to go on today but we could wait it out and see if our health improved. We spent the day sitting, drinking and eating, getting cleaned up and watching the comings and goings at the camp below. We had pitched our tents a distance from the main camp so as not to be disturbed, but we ventured down for tea. By the afternoon I was feeling quite a bit better and by the evening even the dizziness had worn off.

We were both glad when the sun set as this gave us relief from the heat and after a decent meal we settled down for a second night. Apart from the altitude sickness the previous night had been disturbed by the bells around the necks of the pack horses - a great idea if you're looking for your horse, but not so good if you're trying to get some sleep, this night was no different!


Day 4 - Kanda La Camp (4462m) to Shingo (4173m)

We set off for the Kanda La pass at around 8.00am immediately eating into the 600m further altitude we needed to get to the top. The route is straightforward and after 40minutes we passed the upper camp which had been our destination two days earlier, it looked OK but no better than the camp we chose. We carried on to the pass, Geoff was a lot stronger than I was, although I felt OK the altitude was slowing me down considerably, I arrived about twenty minutes behind him.

The views from the Kanda La (4900m) are magnificent, the whole of the Zanskar range is laid out in tiers in the distance, the colours are spectacular and there are innumerable peaks to take in. This was one of the defining moments of the trek, the previous days had been full of doubts about whether we were going to make it, we had both been feeling pretty poor, the scenery so far had been good but hadn't taken our breath away - and then we reached the Kanda La, the view cured us of our melancholy - suddenly it was all worthwhile, suddenly we were on top of the world and feeling good, we had conquered the highest point of the day and were looking forward to a superb descent into Shingo with the view to keep us company. We rested on the Kanda La and ate something, my spirits had been lifted.

The descent to Shingo was a pleasure passing at least one fantastic wild campsite, we reached to outskirts of the village at about 1pm. The first campsite did not look promising, a long thin field with a number of horses in residence, we remembered the bells from the previous nights, after a spot of lunch we headed further down through the village eventually arriving at the second campsite. Our guidebook said the second site was noisy and very busy, but we were at the end of the season and were the only people there, it was perfect, it even had its own tea tent and a purpose built toilet. Although the days target had been Skyu further down the valley we decided to stay at Shingo, it was only 2pm but its hard to walk past a great campsite. We were joined by an Aussie solo trekker later in the day, and Geoff gained a book!

Day 5 - Shingo (4173m) to Sera village (3607m)

We got up at first light, breakfast and packing up was now taking 90minutes so around 7.30am we set off down the valley, which was narrow forcing the path to criss-cross the river continuously. When finally the valley widened we could see Skyu in the distance, there were cultivated fields to the right and chortens dotted either side of the path. Skyu marks the entry point into the Markha valley, you can turn right to link up with other trails but left to continue towards Markha.

Skyu Gompa is impressive, standing on a bluff at the confluence of three valleys, there are houses on the valley floor which include two 'restaurants' where we stopped for tea and noodles. Noodles is essentially the only meal served in any of these 'restaurant - tea tents' and is basically the supermarket 'super-noodle' type of product, nevertheless it was quite welcome. Here we met a honeymoon couple, German man and British woman who we'd get to know over the next day or so.

Leaving Skyu you get long views of the Markha valley, the floor is green and verdant contrasting with the rocky valley sides, there are villages and isolated houses all along the route, many of which offered 'Homestay', which is essentially 'Bed and Breakfast' with the opportunity to stay with local people.

About 1pm we reached Pentse, which is no more than a Tea Tent and a campsite, however our guidebook highly recommended it, we had tea but were less impressed with the campsite than our guidebook, probably it had become seriously overgrown since it was written. The tea tent proprietor was very friendly.

With the disappointment of Pentse we decided to carry on to Sera village and take the Homestay option, we decided we should do this at least once as it contributes to the local economy and gets us more involved with the culture.

We arrived about 3pm and introduced ourselves at the homestay, which was run by a womens with two daughters, one of which had her own little boy. We were shown into a front room with low beds covered in rugs. The house was mud built with a simple kitchen, the room we were given and two other bedrooms, we were served with tea and biscuits but left to our own devices. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon. As our host did not speak English we were unable to communicate and weren't really told what to expect (and what was expected of us) during our stay. One of her daughters was a student and could speak English but seemed reluctant to converse with us.

After a time we were invited to get a wash, our host had heated a large bowl of water and set it in a small cubicle sized room with household stuff stacked against the walls, we took turns to get cleaned up, after which we walked down to a nearby compound which turned out to be a larger homestay where we could get a beer. The honeymoon couple were staying here and we spent a nice few hours chatting about life.

When our meal was ready we returned to the homestay and sat on the floor in the kitchen, we were served large portions of dim-sum, we ate before our hosts who joined us later. Conversation was limited. This is not a criticism but overall I was disappointed with the whole experience, I think the reason is that we had very little engagement with our hosts, with this type of arrangement there will inevitably be a wide range of experience, some good, some not so good.

Our honeymoon friends were using homestays exclusively and they had a mixed experience, including sleeping in a barn with migrant farmworkers without a word of English spoken from their arrival to their departure.

Day 6 - Sera Village (3607m) to Hangkar (3990m)

After a great nights sleep we had breakfast about 7.00am (baked buns and Chapatis with jams etc), and were provided with a substantial packed lunch of eggs, potatoes, sweet bread chocolate and pineapple juice. The Homestay is a government fixed price of 1000rupees or £12.50 each, so it won't break the bank if this is the type of accommodation you are looking for.

We set off from Sera quickly coming to Chalak which is a lovely place, lots of greenery and yellows set against the mountain backdrop. We passed through quickly and presently arrived at Markha which has a ruined monastery on a steep bluff and marks the junction with a side valley. We ate our lunches under a large tree, glad of the shade it offered. We were aiming to reach Hangskar by the end of the day as this made sense for the route tomorrow, but this was a big ask, we would finally arrive at 5pm which represented an eight hour day.

On the way though we stopped at the picturesque Techa Gompa for tea and drinks and further on we passed a really nice homestay with camping and tea tent - I wanted to stay but Geoff wanted to push on - he was right because this would have made a very big day following and we probably wouldn't have made Nyimaling until quite late, if at all.

When we did arrive at Hangskar the camping was a bit of a Hobson's Choice, and with only two hours before dark we needed to get a move on. We ended up camping in the back garden of the homestay, we got ourselves fed washed and watered before darkness fell. The night was clear and the stars spectacular, we had a bottle of beer each and told each other stories.


Day 7 - Hangkar (3990m) to Nyimaling (4848m)

From Hangskar (3990m) the route follows the river for about fifteen minutes to a junction with a zig zagged upward path on the left that climbs the steep valley side and brings you out onto a plateau with a ruined monastery set high on the surrounding peaks, a little further on you walk down to Upper Hangskar village. We trekked through the village and the flat bottomed cultivated valley towards the snow-capped Kang Yaze peak, the valley narrows after a while and the route threads through the mountains climbing all the way.

At a footbridge there's a junction with another path that gives access to another longer route that would add about a week to the journey and ends up on the Leh-Manali road at a place called Pang. We had considered taking this and making one long route but people we had talked to said Nyimaling plateau was well worth seeing. Another option was to go to Nyimaling and access the alternative route from there - there was a path that cut across the shoulder of Kang Yaze joining the other route further on. We decided to reconnoitre this route but in the event there looked to be too much snow on a steep section of Kang Yaze which we didn't feel equipped to handle - the route was also highly strenuous with a steep drop and climb between us and the shoulder.

About half way to Nyimaling the route widens and we entered Thachungtse, a wide pasture with a tea tent and camping places - it was an idylic camping spot but far to early in the day, we pushed on, continuing to climb all the way. About an hour and a half from Nyimaling we reached the small lake called Tsigu at 4690m, this was an ideal place to stop and eat our lunch - there were a lot of trekkers here even out of season.

Wearily we trekked the last section to the Nyimaling plain (4848m), its a beautiful place, as you turn into the plateau the camp becomes clear in the distance, but the best views are behind you. On the plateau we could camp anywhere on the left bank of the river so we chose a spot well away from the main camp. The ground is good but the plateau is very windy - we strategically placed additional guys on our tents which helped them keep their shape. We'd arrived mid-afternoon giving us lots of time to rest and eat.

Day 8 - Nyimaling Day (4848m)

We'd considered splitting from the Markha Valley trek here but it was a difficult decision - there was just enough time to do the alternative route and get back to Leh in time for our flights but that was based on the guidebook daily breakdowns. But the day sections on the new route looked substantially tougher than the ones we had been doing so I had more or less concluded on Day 7 that we were not up to it, however we thought we'd check these conclusions by attempting the first day of the new route and see how we got on.

The first part of the route was to gain a ridge and climb out from the Nyimaling, the guidbook time for this section was 2hours, we took nearly three - the altitude was taking its toll, not only had we taken our time but we were very tired by the time we crested the ridge. Not only this but the route ahead was seriously strenuous and we quickly realised that my earlier assessment had been correct - we would be unlikely to complete the day sections in the time available.

We passed a couple of hours in the sunshine of the ridge admiring Kang Yaze and the surrounding peaks. Eventually we retraced our steps to the Nyimaling plateau and set up camp further East, by late afternoon clouds were gathering and it was very cold, we climbed into bed as soon as darkness fell.

Day 9 - Nyimaling (4848m) to Shang Sumdo (3800m)

Overnight we had snow, it wasn't a bright shiny morning either, it was low cloud, dull, cold, wet and miserable, but after a good breakfast we packed up and set off for the highest point of the trek - the pass at Gongmaru La (5287m). Despite the height gain the walk up to the pass is demanding only because of the altitude - the conditions were poor but not threatening, initially it was sleeting but as we progressed up the path it stopped until we reached the pass. There were no views to be had and we shared the pass with a couple of other groups, after a very short time we headed down the other side, initially down open slopes but then the path entered a narrow valley - the weather was improving and the lower we went the better it was.

We stopped for lunch at a path junction with a stone animal pen after which the valley narrowed further, its steep sides adorned with fluted columns and flows that must have dated back to when the rock was still molten. The path criss-crosses the stream and we shared it with numerous horses, its an amazing valley and we enjoyed the descent very much, eventually it opened up and we could see the tea tents of Chuskyurmo (4089m) ahead. We stopped for lunch and some tea and considered whether we should carry on - it was early in the afternoon and the campsite wasn't too appealing - we reckoned it was about another one and a half hours to Shang Sumdo and the next campsite so we decided to go further on.

The route keeps to the valley floor and mainly follows the riverbed very quickly arriving at Chokdo which is a strung out village along the left hand bank of the river. We asked a local woman about the distance to Shang Sumdo and she answered three hours! We had miscalculated a bit but the walk was pretty good anyway, we eventually arrived at the campsite in Shang Sumdo at 4pm, still plenty of time to enjoy a beer with our food. The campsite was quite busy with guided groups.

Day 10 - Shang Sumdo (3800m) to Heimis (3649m)

We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up and set off down the road to Hemis. Its possible to get a taxi for this section but we were here to hike, so we did. It took a few hours to get to Hemis Gompa (Monastery) which was being set up for a festival, the main road up to it was busy with traffic in both directions, we managed to flag down a taxi that had just dropped people off and asked the fare to Leh - it cost us 100 rupees each, about £1.20 to cover the thirty+ km back to Leh.

The driving was questionable, it took about an hour because we stopped everywhere for anybody - but it was cheap. We arrived back at out hotel in Leh at about 1pm.