The Markha Valley trek, India

The Markha Valley trek may be one of Ladakh’s most popular, but don’t let that put you off. Far from a hiking super highway, you’re more likely to encounter Tibetan shepherds than other tourists along the way. This is a trek for travelers who simply want to ‘be’ in the wilderness, to feel the power of the world’s highest mountain range without the commercialisation and crowds of the Himalayas’ more popular routes.

Or so says Kashka Lantis, Ladakh expert at our walking specialists Exodus Travels. “This is a classic Himalayan trek and so it is popular” she enthuses “well, popular for Ladakh that is. It offers an amazing feeling of just being out there in the wilderness. That’s generally the whole experience with Ladakh, it’s the lesser-known, and you just won’t see other trekkers like you do on the more popular trails in Nepal.”

The arid, dramatic and desolately beautiful high mountain terrain here is also home to some of the Indian Himalayas’ most traditional communities, a succession of very traditional, tiny mud-brick villages each hiding monasteries and temples so numerous this region has earned the moniker ‘Little Tibet’. And it is these communities whose livelihoods rely heavily on the short summer trekking season alongside subsistence agriculture. Responsible tourism can boost the income these isolated communities receive – and ensure it lasts through the harsh winter. In return you earn a unique opportunity to gain a glimpse into the realities of life in these remote mountains, meet local women, buy handicrafts and taste homemade Ladakhi food.

What does the Markha Valley trek entail?

The practicalities

Treks in the Markha Valley are usually fully supported – that means you’ll have a local guide leading the way alongside a team of porters. Not for your bags, those get carried by mules and horses, but to assist you and to set up your campsite each night. All you’ll carry with you is a small day pack with essentials – a waterproof, water and, of course, your camera. And unlike some other treks your porters are a lot more present, as Kashka Lantis explains “What’s lovely about having the porters is that while they will go on ahead to set up camp etc, there is still time to interact and get to know about their lives, their families and culture.”

With a relatively mild climate in the summer, camping in the Markha Valley is surprisingly comfortable. “You can sit outside and enjoy the scenery,” says Kashka Lantis, “the weather is not as harsh as in Nepal – you’re camping and you can just ‘be’ in that scenery without needing to run back inside a teahouse to escape the cold”. Expect a warm welcome to your tent – and a hot cup of tea – each afternoon, and to be surprised at the quality of food (and even cake) your camp cook can create on a portable stove. Kashka adds “You’ll enjoy a hot meal for lunch and dinner too – usually vegetarian as it’s not ideal carrying meat for several days on the journey, but still hearty. You’ll be eating curried vegetables, dhal, generally we find people are amazed at the quality and variety of food that can be produced by your expedition cooks.”

Supporting the Markha Valley’s remote communities

“The main issue that people face living here is that it’s a summer destination” says Kashka Lantis, “so in July and August people arrive to hike but in winter the local people are completely cut off from the world. It’s a harsh, and often very poor life.” Tourism plays a huge role in the local economy but there is a very short window for local people to benefit from it. It becomes vital that responsible tourism can maximise the income and opportunities local people receive. Our trekking specialists, Exodus Travels, have a unique solution:

“We helped set up and support two eco-cafes in the Markha Valley, one in Skiu and one in Hankar” explains Kashka Lantis. “The cafes give people another livelihood and they are a place to share a common love of our planet and ideas on how to protect its fragile environments”. Trekkers are encouraged to fill up reusable water bottles using the filtered water available instead of buying plastic bottles – while the local people running the cafes focus on how they can limit the amount of plastic being used.

But the project goes beyond simply serving traditional Ladakhi food – from produce sourced from local villages – to passing hikers and a focus on reducing plastic waste. “Workshops on felting are held in the cafes and this enables local people to create handicrafts during the winter to then sell to trekkers when they return in the summer. Porters in Ladakh are still primarily men so the cafes and workshops are enabling women to train in creative and business skills and contribute to the income of their families”.

And for trekkers the cafes offer an insight into traditional Ladakhi culture they might otherwise bypass along the way. Kashka adds “For tourists the cafes offer a really nice way to interact with local people as well as taste authentic Ladakhi food. The cafes really bring the community together and there’s a lot of local pride.”

How fit do I need to be?

“This is a strenuous trek” says Kashka Lantis, “comparable to Everest Base Camp, so you need to be confident in your physical condition. You’ll be walking four to six hours per day point to point so there’s no option to turn back. There’s a couple of river crossings on the trek as well so you really do need to be confident on rocks and uneven terrain.”

As with most Himalayan treks, the biggest challenge posed by the Markha Valley is its altitude. You’ll be crossing two breathtakingly high passes on the hike – Ganda La at 4,970m and Gongmaru La at 5,286m – both of which will sap the energy of even the fittest trekkers, and most people will feel some effects (including headaches, nausea and breathlessness) at this altitude. Acclimatisation is key, which is why you’ll spend a couple of days prior to the trek enjoying day walks around Leh, as well as a couple of shorter days on the trek to help you adjust to the conditions.

Preparation before you travel is essential, so up your weekly exercise regime, add in an extra session or two at the gym, an extra mile onto your usual run and plan some long days walking in hill country before you fly out to India. Remember, strengthening knees and legs for steep, rocky descents is as important as your aerobic fitness for the climbs. And as Kashka Lantis explains, previous experience of high-altitude trekking is also important if you want to tackle the Markha Valley. “You need to have an idea as to how your body might cope and what reaction you might have to altitude. It’s more important here than in some of the other more touristy trekking areas as it is a lot more remote. Obviously we have all the support and back up in place, but there isn’t a lot of tourism infrastructure.”
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The Markha Valley trek, day to day

“You will experience remote villages, colourful Buddhist monasteries, cross wild mountain passes and trek through spectacular gorges”
- Kashka Lantis, Ladakh expert at our walking specialists, Exodus Travels
If you’ve already trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal then be prepared for a very different experience in Ladakh. Not only is the Markha Valley route much quieter, it’s also much more arid and very remote. The trek itself takes around seven days, but expect to spend a few days before and afterwards enjoying some short acclimatisation walks around Leh, the colourful monastery at Hemis, as well as time to explore the street food and bazaars of frenetic Delhi before you head home.
Day 1 – A short drive from Leh to Jinchen, where you’ll meet your porters and mules. Once loaded expect a straightforward day ascending the Jinchen Gorge below the snow-capped Stok Mountains. An abundance of prayer flags fluttering around wide pastures marks your arrival at your campsite below tiny, remote Rumbak village.

Day 2 – A gradual ascent takes you further up the valley towards the Ganda La Pass. Today is all about acclimatisation, so expect to arrive at your stream-side campsite early, with a short walk in the surrounding hills planned for the afternoon.

Day 3 – The first of the Markha Valley’s big challenges looms over your campsite. The Ganda La Pass zig zags to almost 5,000m, with spectacular views over the Zanskar Range and Stok Mountains, before a long descent through a dramatic colourful gorge to your campsite in the village of Skiu.

Day 4 – An easier, but still long day today sees you follow the river through barren, yet beautifully colourful mountains to the village of Markha. Explore its small monastery and be prepared for a few river crossings along the way.
Day 5 – Explore the Chacham Valley and keep your eyes peeled for elusive blue sheep – a type of mountain goat. You’ll have a chance to visit one of the most important monasteries in the valley today too, set high up on a cliff face with spectacular views.

Day 6 – Today is short but tough, taking you up to your campsite at 4,845m. Take an optional afternoon hike towards Kang Yangtze (at 6,400m it’s the highest peak in the valley) and perhaps sample some yoghurt or local cheese bought directly from the shepherds who spend the summers in shelters on the high-altitude pastures.

Day 7 – Today you’ll tackle the highest pass on the trek, a long, steep zig zagging ascent of Gongmaru La. Topping out at a breathtaking 5,286m you’ll enjoy panoramic views towards Kang Yangtze, the Stok Range and the Indus Valley. The climb is followed by a steep, challenging descent that becomes more gradual as you move lower into the valley – with plenty of river crossings all the way to the tiny village of Chokodo, the end of your trek.

Best time to trek in the Markha Valley

The harsh, bitterly cold and snow-filled winters mean the trails through the Markha Valley are all but off-limits from October to March. For the best trekking conditions travel in July and August, when temperatures are mild enough (reaching the mid 20s°C during the day and around 10°C at night) for comfortable nights under canvas.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ksuryawanshi] [Intro: jonathanverner] [The practicalities: SlartibErtfass der bertige] [How fit do I need to be?: Jørn Eriksson] [Day to day intro: Bernard Gagnon] [Markha village: jonathanverner]