Markha Valley Trek
The Markha Valley Trek is five days of jaw-dropping mountainous beauty in the most northern part of India: Ladakh. Every day will bring you completely new scenery, an incredibly hospitable family to stay at and general awe at the beauty this world has to offer. Easily comparable to the more famous treks around Mt. Everest, this has the added benefit of being less touristy and easy to self cater. Accessible from Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, it's a Himalayan adventure we wish everyone will have some day in their lives.
Practical Trekking Details Overview
The duration of the trek depends on whether you start in Chilling or Spitok. Some people also like to stay a day or so longer in particular villages. Basically, when you start in Chilling, which lies directly on the Markha River, the trek takes 4-6 days. If you start in Spitok, you take 2-3 days extra to get to Chilling through rocky mountains and across Ganda La pass, at 4,970m. As it was our first time trekking ever, we decided to start at Chilling and cross only one pass. If you are physically fit and have the time, we would recommend adding the second pass to your itinerary as we heard the views are stunning.
Can you do the trek independently?
Yes, you definitely can. Whenever possible, we always prefer to do things independently for two reasons; it is cheaper and you can decide your own pace. Going independently allows you to enjoy the beautiful mountains in solitude. Plus, we assure you that you will meet people on the way. Some other independent tourists, aged women speeding you by, carrying baskets uphill, and men with donkeys or horses. In the Lonely Planet we read that the key to finding your way during the Markha Trek independently is by following the donkey dung. At first, we thought it was a joke, however, it is actually true and has been a life safer for us. Additionally, you’ll pass villages with locals every few hours. Smile and name the village you want to spend the night and they will point you towards the right direction. We have not been lost for one second.
Getting there and getting away
When you do the trek independently, you have to arrange your own transport to Chilling and from Shang Sumdo.
Leh – Chilling
As we were on a tight budget, we took our time figuring out what the cheapest option of getting to Chilling was. There is no public bus, so you have to arrange private transport. Taxis cost around 3000 INR (= €38), which was too expensive for us at that time. The cheapest option is to try and join a ride with people going on an organized tour/trek into that area. We made a good deal with a rafting agency. They were going to Chilling at 6am in the morning to raft down the Markha Valley river, so we made a deal to drive with them a for just 750 INR (€8,50) each.
Shang Sumdo – Leh
The trek ends in Shang Sumdo. From there it is fairly easy to get back to Leh, as taxis come by every now and then. There is also a shop where you can grab something to eat or you could have a drink or even spend the night at one of the hotels. We chose to go back to Leh immediately and were lucky that there was an empty taxi just when we arrived in Shang Sumdo. The taxi costs around 3800 INR (= €38), which is quite expensive. Luckily we found another couple to join our ride back to Leh so then the price became doable. If you want to make sure that you will get a ride back to Leh on the same day of your descent it's best to arrange something with a tour company in Leh.
Another piece of advice we would like to give you is to arrange with the hostel/hotel you are staying to leave most of your belongings there during your trek. So you won't need to worry about all your luggage and are able to take a smaller bag with you.
Food, Sleeping & Prices
What is so great about the Markha Valley trek is that you don’t need fancy gear, you don’t need a tent or sleeping bag, and you don’t need to bring food. At every village there are some very authentic homestays where you can spend the night in a simple room for just 1000 INR (about €13) per person. It could be that prices have gone up a bit over the last couple of years. This price includes three meals (dinner for when you arrive, breakfast in the morning, and lunch on the go) and unlimited purified water. This made the whole trek very accessible and easy going, as we did not need to worry about accommodation, food or water.
It won't be the best food you'll ever have, but believe us, after walking for 15-20km it doesn't matter and all you need is a home cooked meal. Breakfast usually consists of chapatti with butter and jam and some other condiments, lunch is takeaway and consists of chapatti, a boiled potato and a boiled egg, some chocolate, a fruit drink and some salt and dinner is dahl with rice and some vegetables. If there is anything else you need, bring it, as there are no shops.
Also don't expect luxury, there is no wifi and usually no connection for you phone, rooms are basic but private, warm and clean. You don't need to make reservations in advance as there is always someone to welcome you and point you toward the correct homestay. All villages work on a rotation system so you cannot choose where to stay, but will simply be assigned a family to stay with. Every single on of those families is super friendly though!
As regards to gear there are a couple of important things: shoes that are really comfortable to walk on for days on end; some kind of shoe or sandal for crossing rivers; a comfortable and warm outfit to wear after walking for a day; and a bag that is comfortable to carry along with you and that fits at least 1.5 litres of water and the rest of your stuff.
To be honest, we felt a bit out of place sometimes with the things we were wearing. No fancy backpacks, or shoes, no fast drying pants nor professional walking sticks or pills against altitude sickness. When it comes down to gear, it really doesn't matter that much, as long as the outfits you are wearing are comfortable. With regards to anti climate sickness medication: it would be smart to bring some, or some ibuprofen. But if you don't there will most likely be fellow trekkers that have some for you.
The Markha Valley Trek
1. Chilling – Sara (20 km, 8/9 hours, ascend 3,200m -> 3,710m)
When you arrive in Chilling, first you have to cross a river in a cart attached to a rope. As we are quite big Dutchies, we were shocked to see the size of the thing and were scared to make the crossing. However, it turned out to be perfectly safe and we arrived dry on the right side of the river. A great start of an incredible adventure.
The first part is probably one of the toughest, as you ascend most of the meters in the first hours. After climbing and walking past beautiful rusty coloured rocks, you arrive in a lush green valley surrounded by mountains: the Markha Valley. From here on the first day is quite easy: you just follow the Markha river. You will walk past some villages where you can (sometimes) buy some snacks and fill up your water bottle. In every village you cross there are multiple options to sleep, from campsites to homestays. We opted for a homestay just outside Sara.
2. Sara – Markha (10 km, 6 hours, ascend 3,500 m -> 3,700m)
The second day is fairly relaxed and you get acclimatized as you go. The ascend is little and the paths are well-trodden. You do have to cross two to three rivers, depending on the rainfall and the state of the bridges. Sometime flash floods will destroy paths, making it harder to get to the other side of the river. After a couple of hours, you will arrive in beautiful Markha; a small village dotted with age old temples in a lush green valley filled with yellow mustard flowers. This was one of our favourite spots as it was truly scenic. There are a couple of homestays, again divided on a weekly rotation, we stayed at the one owned by a very nice family, located all the way to the left, past the temples, all the way to the end. Absolutely gorgeous.
3. Markha – Hangkar (11 km, 6-7 hours ascend: 3,700m -> 4000m)
On the third day you continue the trek on your way to the last village of the Markha Valley: Hangkar. The walk is again beautiful, the path intersects the river a few times, but the ascend is not too much. We stayed at Hangkar Pharka Pa homestay, which was after the homestay in Markha our favourite stay of the trek. There is a great outside area to chill with fellow trekkers with great views of the mountains and a beautiful monastery. We enjoyed the sunset here the most. It's also very fun to be welcomed to every village by a wooden archway with prayer flags along them and giant stacks of stones with buddhist signs edged into them. Pro tip: find a nice walking stick and cut some nice patterns in them, because you'll really start to feel your legs and feet by now and it'll give you just a bit more stability and comfort.
4. Hangkar – Nimaling (9 km, 3-4 hours, 4000m -> 4700m)
The fourth day is one of the toughest, but also one of the most beautiful days of the trek. Leaving Hangkar, you will pass beautiful valleys filled with flowers and small fresh water streams flowing and dripping wherever you look. Following the path, you climb some mountains after which you enter another valley, where the last snack/water refill stop is located before the final climb to Nimaling. And let us tell you, this final climb is quite tough due to its steepness. If not the climb, the views of the second highest peak in the world – Mt. Kang Yatse – the double lakes and eagles flying above will definitely take your breath away.
After climbing for about an hour and a half you will reach the plateau on which Nimaling is located, a tent camp and the final resting place before climbing the final pass: Kongmaru La (5200m). This plateau is inhabited by a very cute particular rodent species, who were very shy but if you walked quietly you will spot many. Soon after you will see Nimaling, surrounded by horses, donkeys and yaks where you can have a comforting meal. We have to warn you though, as this camp lies at 4700m it can become really cold at night and there is a chance you'll suffer from altitude sickness. The best way to prepare for this is by taking it easy and spending at least a week or so in Ladakh before attempting this trek. Also you can take up to 600 mg of ibuprofen or a pill against altitude sickness a couple of hours before the final stretch. Just be prepared and take altitude sickness serious as it can be lethal. We really don't want to scare you away because if you ever get the chance to go on this trek you should definitely do it, but we don't want people to have a bad experience or go there unprepared.
5. Nimaling – Kongmaru La – Chokdo/Shang Sumdo (18 km, 9 hours, 4700m -> 5200m -> 3700m)
The final day might be the most intense of the whole trek. This is the day you will cross the Kongmaru La (5200m) pass and take the steep and rocky descend to Shang Sumdo. Covered with prayer flags, the summit of Kongmaru La is beautiful. Also, the views of Mt Kang Yatse and the plains of Nimaling was stunning. We did not stay too long though, as Iris was having some issues with the altitude. So, we made our descend to Shang Sumdo quickly.
The descend was beautiful, however a little longer than we expected. Tip: leave Nimaling as early as possible! We passed some villages, crossed a few rivers and trotted the rocky paths. As we started to realise how epic this adventure was, we were already saying goodbye to the mountains, the unique culture, and the crisp mountain air. Unfortunately both our camera's and phones died so we weren't able to take any pictures. But just like every other day, the descent had its own unique scenery to it.
Finally, you arrive in Chokdo or Shang Sumdo where you can spend another night or try to catch a taxi back to Leh. We opted for the latter option as we were exhausted and were lucky to run into another couple looking for a taxi. In the taxi we looked at each other, high from the combination of fresh mountain air and endorphin rushing through our brains, and turned to look outside the windows cherishing the memories of ancient and beautiful Markha Valley. If you ever get the chance to go on an adventure like this, just do it! It will be well worth the blisters, sore legs and tired feet.
And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact us!