Wide valleys with colourful, rugged mountains and rushing rivers made for incredible views on Ladakh’s Markha Valley trek. Ladakh is a region in the far north of India in the state of Jammu-Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas. The area borders on Tibet so the people, culture and landscape very similar to Tibet and in fact many Tibetan refugees now call Ladakh home. Being so close to the Tibetan plateau, it is very arid, with barren, high mountains arising from deep valleys.
During the trek we stayed almost every night in home-stays rather than the usual guest houses. Families usually reserved one or two rooms in their compressed-mud homes for trekkers. Our beds were Ladakhi-style with a thin mattress on the floor covered with a rug. Dining was either in the kitchen or a combined dining/sleeping room. We ate at tables that were the height of coffee-tables and sat on the sleeping mats on the floor. Most homes still have a wood burning stove for heat in the winter but now cook on gas burners. The roofs are made of long poplar logs covered only in mud. These roofs tend to leak when it rains and caused us problems a couple of times in the coming 8 days.
Before we started the trek, we visited the Spitok Gompa. Similar to other Tibetan style gompas, it’s a group of white-washed mud buildings set on a small hill along the Indus River. The trek began a little lack luster with a long trek on a paved road following the brown, rushing Indus river. We had hoped to catch a ride, but there were very few cars passing, and those that did were already full.
The next two days we trekked up large Jinchen River Valley with brown arid mountains on either side. We left the standard trail for a side trip to Stok La (Pass 4865m), staying in the small hamlet of Rumbak. The trek to the pass is up a wide brown valley, but the pass offers views of snowy, Stok mountain (6121m) and the spiky peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Back on the regular trail we continued up the valley. There were a few patches of green where barley or buckwheat was growing. The people in this area are Buddhist and we began to see a few signs of this with white chortens and mani walls.
Our views changed dramatically on the 4th day. We trekked to the top of Ganda La (Pass, 4950m) where we had good views of the valleys below. The descent down from the pass was on a large valley with rose bushes and shrubs where we saw plenty of sheep and goats with their shepherds. After the village of Shingo, we entered an amazing gorge. Shingo gorge is a narrow river valley bordered by incredibly rugged mountains formed by years of erosion. These rock features are also in the spectacular colours of copper, maroon and teal. The trail goes along the bottom of the gorge, so we were immersed in the beauty of this area.
The first few villages we passed on this trek consisted of a few compressed-mud homes with a few Buddhist monuments. The Shingo gorge, however, leads to the perfectly typical Tibetan Buddhist town of Skiu, with interesting chortens, mani walls and a monastery. Set at the t-intersection of 3 valleys, Skiu is surrounded by the same high, rugged peaks of the Shingo gorge. It is one of the cutest villages on this trek.
From Skiu, we followed the Markha Valley alongside the fast-moving, chocolate brown Markha River. The valley is wide with colourful, rugged mountains on either side. Contrasting these arid mountains is the lush vegetation along the river including trees, bushes, rice and buckwheat fields. The Tibetan influence is seen here with colourful chortens along the way.
Just before we reached the village of Markha, it started to rain. Very quickly it became a torrential down pour with flash flooding. What used to be trails and dry land became rushing rivers, with water gushing down every mountain gully. We reached a newly formed rushing river that was impassable and had to go back 5 minutes to a dodgy-looking home-stay. As with many of the homes, the roofs leak with even a small rainfall. At this home-stay we struggled to find a mattress that hadn’t been soaked, but eventually we did and so we stayed the night. The next morning, what had been raging rivers were again dry gullies.
Above the town of Markha is a castle ruin and a renovated gompa surrounded by chortens. Further up the valley we saw the small Tacha Gompa precariously perched on a cliff high above.
We had a few river crossings that day over the fast-moving Markha River, one of these was especially tricky on a collapsed bridge.
The hamlet of Hankar has interesting scenery. There’s a ruin of a fort on a hill above town surrounded with jagged mountains. This rugged scenery contrasts to the brilliant greens of the barley and buckwheat fields.
The trail continues up the Markha Valley until it ascends to a large green plateau where we saw several pikas, marmots and blue sheep. There are no homes in this area, but we were able to stay in a tent for the night. The next day we climbed to the highest pass on the trek, Kongmaru La at 5150m where we could see many of the snowy peaks in the area.
The narrow valley on the other side of Kongmaru La is incredibly colourful with red and green stripped mountains and a narrow river running between. There were so many spots in this valley where the views were breathtaking. The difficult part was the 35 or more rock-hopping river crossings we had but, finally, we made it to the village of Sham Sumdo where we hired a taxi to take us to the near-by important Hemis Gompa.
Hemis Gompa is the most important monastery in Ladakh. The many white-washed buildings of the gompa are is set along the side of a hill with the town of Hemis further along the same hill. It’s a large monastery with a home-stay and restaurant on-site for tourists.
Coming up next: Leh and surrounding villages
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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