The Markha Valley Trek is one of the most popular treks in Ladakh, and for good reason too. There are incredible sights and surreal rock formations, timeless villages, snowy mountains and delightful Buddhist gompas. The Markha Valley trek is by no means an easy one, there are two passes of 4900 m or higher to negotiate, coupled with a possibility of snowfall in the higher reaches, even when the passes are trekkable.
The beautiful Markha Valley runs parallel with the Indus on the far southern side of the snowy Stok Kangri massif. The trek passes through cultivated valley floors, undulating high-altitude grasslands and snow-prone passes; it is a trekkers delight for it affords a glimpse into the Ladakhi past with most of it at altitudes of less than 4000 m.A complete guide to the Markha Valley TrekPhoto courtesy: Shubham Mansingka
The Markha Valley is wedged between the Stok Kangri range to the north and the Zanskar peaks to the south. It is also known for being a 'tea house trek' where one can expect accommodation in parachute tents or homestays at most of the villages enroute. It is possible for a reasonably fit solo trekker to complete the trek without a porter and a guide, and usually there is little need to carry food or cooking utensils.June to September is considered to be a good period for the Markha Valley trek although July and August are widely known to be the best months.
A complete guide to the Markha Valley TrekPhoto courtesy: Shubham Mansingka
Leh to Zingchen
After having acclimatised in Leh, it is time to begin the trek. The Markha Valley trek traditionally started at Spituk, but these days a motorable road has made it possible to begin at Zingchen (Jingchan).The Spituk Gompa enroute is one of the most prominent monasteries of the Gelug-pa (the Yellow Hat sect) in Ladakh. Climbing the stairs and moving around the monastery is a good way to start the physical activity and get the limbs moving; it also aids in acclimatisation.
After crossing Spituk, the valley flattens out and clouds float leisurely, ensuring epic unparalleled landscapes sometimes as far as the Phyang Village with the 15th century Phyang Monastery clinging to a hillock. The views along the Indus river are glorious while driving from Spituk to Zingchen, as the river makes its way through a narrow gorge.
There are some 3-4 homes in Zingchen that can be used as a homestay; and there is also a camping site after crossing the stream on a rickety old wooden bridge. There are lots of apricot trees around the campsite, which is in shade among the tall poplars. At approx 3500 m, Zingchen lies just at the base of a climb and is a good way to get used to the wilderness of the trek that will become even more remote as the days pass. Zingchen's proximity to Leh also gives the opportunity to scamper and buy any necessities that might have been forgotten earlier.
Zingchen to Yurutse – 10 km
After crossing the bridge and arriving at the vehicle drop off point of Zingchen, the gentle climb on trail starts on the left side of the gorge and zigzags its way to the small confluence of the Zinchen Chu (Chu refers to river in Ladakhi) and another stream flowing in from the east. There is a huge flat ground for storing poplar trees at around the halfway point to Rumbak.
The trail shifts to the right crossing a bridge over the river and reaches a sacred shrine with Buddhist prayer flags near a waterfall. For the first time on the trail, we have a glimpse of snowy mountains of the Stok Range. After approximately three hours of walking from Zingchen, we sight a parachute cafe from where Rumbak lies to our left.
Rumbak village (4000m), hardly 1 km ahead, with 9 or 10 houses (all of them homestays too) lies in the Hemis National Park and is a favourite with wildlife enthusiasts hoping for a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. Rumbak is a pretty village with whitewashed homes set amidst barley and mustard fields and has solar electricity and a common generator for the village. We continue on our right to head to the one home village of Yurutse (4200 m). Herds of bharal can be spotted on the opposite side of the valley with some abandoned structures. The trail climbs higher and into a beautiful purple colour mountain while passing through lovely windswept structures on the left.
There are ample rooms for a homestay in the various annexes of the house and also enough space for camping.
Yurutse to Shingo via Ganda La – 20 km
An arduous climb begins the day, as a very steep trail ascends from 4200 m to first pass the lower and then the higher base camp of Ganda La (also: Kanda La). This might be the toughest day of the trek and it is very important to be well-acclimatised and stomach full with a hearty breakfast. Gorgeous views of Stok Kangri (6121 m) on the opposite side are in store from the lower base camp, making the climb bearable as you stop and admire the peak. There are meadows lined with wildflowers of various colours just after passing the high base camp.
The trail keeps going higher and higher and it takes around 4.5 hours to reach the top of Ganda La (4950 m) from Yurutse. Atop the Ganda La, there are impeccable panoramic views of the Ladakh range and also the Zanskar range with a full array of snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Fill your water bottles at the fresh water streams before Ganda La as there is no water source between Ganda La and Shingo village.
The descent from Ganda La is sharp in the beginning and passes through marmot country on our way down. Three hours of a steady downward walk yields us to the pretty village of Shingo (4150 m) with a parachute cafe and a handful of houses. Staying at one of the homestays is possible in the pretty mud houses of Shingo Village, parachute tents or at the campsite that is a kilometre ahead of the village. Next day, you can exit Stok Valley and enter Markha Valley.
Shingo to Chalak Village via Skiu – 20 km
The trail starts with a beautiful welcome through rose bushes under willow, crisscrossing the stream among narrow gorges. There are chances of sighting wild animals like argali or bharal on barren ridges. The trail till Skiu is well-marked and is mostly a steady descent from 4150 m to 3450 m and takes around three hours.
Reaching Skiu also marks the entrance of Markha Valley, with numerous old-looking chortens. The gompa at Skiu is old but seems to have been renovated recently. There are some homes and also a parachute cafe on opposite sides of the Markha river. An hour of uphill climb after passing Skiu, there is a dhaba at the base of a gorge before you cross the Markha river.
After roughly two hours from Skiu, the trail crosses the village of Narding that has a parachute cafe and fresh water spring. Further ahead, the small village of Chalak (3600 m) set amidst barley fields and streams is reached after crossing a bridge on the Markha river. There is a campsite nearby and it makes for an excellent alternative as opposed to crossing the Markha river in the afternoon and reaching Markha Village. The entire trek from Skiu to Chalak village takes around five hours.
Chalak to Hankar via Markha – 17 km
After Chalak, the path slowly ascends to a high point that is lined with chortens and mani walls (Buddhist stone carvings on rocks) and a mound of bharal horns—it serves as a good marker for not losing the trail. Markha Village is only 4-5 km away from Chalak and may involve crossing the river with about thigh-high water, depending on the time of the day. At 3770 m, Markha is the biggest village in Markha Valley and boasts of a ruined fort from the 1830s and also has a small gompa beneath the campsite. There are many parachute cafes and campsites here.
After exploring Markha Village, the trail climbs immediately and enters the upper Markha Valley. It is a gradual ascent while crisscrossing the Markha river; sometimes over a bridge and then in knee-deep water. After almost 2.5 hours of trekking from Markha, you will reach the tiny village of Umlung.
The trail goes high above the river to spot the summit of Kang Yatze (6400 m). A couple of stream crossings bring you to the sight of the impossibly-located Tacha Monastery. It takes about 2 hours from Tacha to the prettily-located village of Hankar (4000 m). There are parachute tents and campsites for the weary travellers in Hankar before the arduous climb to Nimaling the next day.
Hankar to Nimaling via Thochuntse – 12 km
The day begins and a kilometre after passing Hankar, the trail forks out to another route leading to Rupshu and Zanskar region; keep going straight to the left and you would soon pass a stone bridge that acts as a marker. The campsite in the middle of walled pastures at Thochuntse (4150 m) ideally takes around 1.5 hours from Hankar. At times, you will also find a parachute tent with basic supplies. This can be a tricky stretch because of the alternate trails that fork out, just ask the locals beforehand. As it is one of the easiest days of the trek, you can enjoy the views and take it slow.
The trail hereafter is straightforward and gently ascends amidst grasslands along intermittent mane walls. There are many streams at this altitude, making the proceedings seem like a fairytale. A small, heavenly lake passes the trail while you can gaze at the unstoppable views of Kang Yatze. There are many campsites at Nimaling (4720 m) near the flowing stream, and some stone structures used by the shepherds that can be noticed. There are yaks, sheep and goat grazing in the pastures at Nimaling, quite a pretty sight. At this altitude, weather can change quickly and sometimes even result in snowfall in July or August. Confirm beforehand about the availability of beds at the parachute tent if you are not carrying your own supplies.
Nimaling to Shang Sumdo via Kongmaru La – 18 km
The well-defined trail then gently climbs to Kongmaru La (5150 m). Grand views of Kang Yatze and the Zanskar mountains await you here. Reaching the top of the pass usually takes around two hours from the campsite at Nimaling. Say your prayers while huffing and puffing between lines of colourful prayer flags at Kongmaru La, like the Buddhists do. Surprisingly, there is a good mobile signal at the top of the pass and phone calls can be made.
Sometimes, wildflowers can be spotted near the pass giving much joy at this unforeseen altitude. The trail continues to descend sharply and enters a narrow gorge before emerging a wider land and then reaches the small village of Chukirmo with parachute tents. The descent is much gentler while reaching the beautiful village at Chokdo. There are many homestays in Chokdo, some of them impressively cosy.
The trail continues to meander while widening out consistently. The village of Shang Sumdo is a further 4 km downhill from Chokdo and takes 1.5 hours to reach the campsite. There are many homestays and parachute tents in Shang Sumdo, and it is also a road head to reach Leh that is 8 km away.
Shang Sumdo – Hemis – Leh 7 km
You can afford to take it slow after the rigours of the last week. The Shang Monastery lies a kilometre away from the campsite at Shang Sumdo and can be visited. The most important monastery in entire Ladakh, Hemis is only a 2 hour trek away from Shang Sumdo. A trail goes down the Sumdo gorge to the outskirts of the small village of Martselang (3450 m). A surreal scene of substantial chortens and mani walls greets trekkers as the path meanders down to Hemis Village (3650 m).
Although the road joins the trail at Hemis Village, it is time to savour the trek and enjoy the leisurely walk to the Hemis Gompa (monastery).
The Hemis Gompa was established in the 17th century under the patronage of the famousLadakhi ruler Sengge Namgyal; since then, this monastery has enjoyed financial support of successive royal families. The annual Hemis Festival attracts local visitors and tourists from far and beyond. Held during the full moon in June/July, it is attended by villagers, who travel from across Ladakh and Zanskar. Every 11 years, a huge thangka, one of the largest in the world, is displayed on the walls of the Hemis' courtyard.
Responsible trekking tips
Minimize your impact in culturally and ecologically sensitive areas by being as self-sufficient as possible, especially with food and fuel. Buying provisions along the way puts unnecessary burden on the villages' subsistence-oriented economies. It also encourages hordes of temporary 'tea shops' (usually run by outsiders), to sprout along the trails.
Always burn kerosene, and avoid burning wood because it is scarce and trees don't grow easily in Ladakh. Refuse should be packed up, not disposed of along the route, no matter how far from the nearest roadbed you are. Plastics should be retained for recycling at the Ecology Centre in Leh. Do not defecate in the stone huts along the trails; local shepherds use them for shelter during snow storms.
Helping the local economy
There are many trekking companies in Leh that organise the Markha Valley trek, they sell packages with fixed departures that include everything. Trekking with a company that employs a local guide and porter is recommended as it strengthens the local economy rather than outside.