Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Markha Valley Trek - Part I

Ashesh Ambasta trekked with South Col Expeditions through the Markha Valley in Ladakh in September 2013. In this three part essay, Ashesh recounts his journey through this wild and desolate landscape. A very enjoyable account which gives an insight into the daily travails on a South Col trek!

Chronicles of the Markhian Voyagers (MV)
Crew: Ashesh Ambasta, Dipan Bhattacharya, Hanif Barma, Kanika Pal, Kankana Das, Sujoy Das, Tenzing (guide cum cook), Pema (Assistant to Tenzing), Ongchuk ( Helper) and Jigmet (ponyman and his six ponies)

Day 1 (4th September 2013) - Leh

The view of the Indus just before landing at Leh
Dipan takes the early morning flight to Leh to catch the sunrise over the mountains as he’s flying in. Lands and catches up on sleep thereafter.
Hanif, Kanika and Ashesh land by 10 am and are received by Sujoy and driven to the hotel where they are joined by Dipan looking refreshed and ready-to-go. So, the whole team, bar one, is together for the first time (Kankana is somewhere in the vastness of Ladakh, having smartly given herself extra crucial days to acclimatize to the high altitude). Nice; no awkwardness or discomfort amongst us from the word go. We sip tea and exchange notes with a group which had been sent back by the army half way from Nubra because of heavy snowfall. Snow on their vehicle bore testimony to their tale.
Thereafter, Hanif and Kanika retire to their respective rooms for a snooze (Hanif’s first of many, as we were to realise later!).
Sujoy leaves for the market to make arrangements for our trip. Ashesh buttonholes Dipan to give him a crash course on photography, which lasts until lunch time - appreciate his forbearance, which was in evidence throughout the trip.  Hanif and Kanika still lost to the world, deep in their dreams.
Sujoy, Dipan and Ashesh trot off for lunch at Tibetan Kitchen, an eating place frequented by the locals.  Quaint place with atmosphere and great food – the mutton momos and the talumein soup were outstanding.  Highly recommended restaurant. 
Leisurely evening tea on the terrace in the hotel. Climbed up on the half-finished roof for shoots. Dipan was after birds, magpies I think (who, according to the cognoscenti amongst us, were always to be found in pairs; I always found them alone). Ashesh valiantly trying to practice the photography lessons of the morning but evidently with little success! Hanif finally surfaced and has toast and tea for lunch. Sujoy finally returned from the errand connected to our trip. 
Dinner by the MVs at Dreamland. The sixth member of the group, Kankana, continued to remain outside communication range. Captain mulls if a search party is warranted yet. Great food here too.
Back to the hotel for the first night in Leh. Sleep for all; not for Hanif, poor man – Auditory Assaults of the Worst Kind was the title of his nightmare. 

Day 2 (5th September 2013) - Leh
All up and about quite early, mindful of the instruction to be ready for breakfast by 7.15 am. Looked forward to having breakfast at the celebrated, and the original, German Bakery (Gesmo). Menu showed potential but the victuals did not live up to their promise. Perhaps an “English breakfast” was not the smartest thing to order?
Sujoy finished and left early to arrange for transport. We pile into the vehicle to start the day.  Yahya proved to be a very amiable driver and a knowledgeable one too, for he showed us the school which featured in 3 Idiots.  Instead of Thiksey, however, the first halt was at a petrol station to refuel.  Yahya was obviously not the only one with this brainwave because the petrol station had all the vehicles of Leh lined up in front of the petrol/diesel dispensers. And more kept coming. And they drove into the petrol station from every which way! Utter despair and gloom - would we ever extricate ourselves from this muddle? Yes we did – the great Indian jugaad trick and our capacity to “adjust” did it!
Finally reached Thiksey gompa, but found it closed. Pity because it is obviously very well looked after – swept clean, fresh paint and unbelievably clean loos! It is, apparently, one of the richest monasteries in Ladakh.  The monastery was closed because today was the penultimate day of the annual Drukpa conference. And the village was empty (not a single living soul did we encounter) because everyone had gone for the archery competition.  But  the monastery was beautiful and we had it to ourselves.

The interior of Stakna monastery
 A splendid, panoramic view of the Indus from the ramparts. An enticing (but firmly locked) door into the main chapel. What more could (even aspiring) photographers ask for.  A steep descent to the road through the village, down narrow, twisting alleys and stairs cut into stone. The monastery walls from the road looked majestic and aloof against the azure sky. The chortens at the bottom of the hill, the Mani walls with the carved stones and the monastery walls on the horizon soon had our ace shutterbugs clicking away feverishly.

Reached Stakna by crossing a narrow, single lane, suspension bridge across the Indus. Once again, a beautifully maintained monastery with a captivating library.  On the roof were tormas, kept out to dry. Great views of the Indus from here too. Walked down to the bridge; walked across it and while waiting for the vehicle, caused a minor traffic jam since Dipan was looking for “Plumbeous Redstarts”

 Drove to Shey next, a fort and a summer palace.  Was allowed to enter the main prayer hall with a huge Buddha.  Restoration work in progress so could not see much, except for another greasy prayer hall. Dipan attempted to climb up to the broken walls of the old fort but was thwarted by a path that turned out to be too dicey to traverse.

Drove back to Leh for lunch at Summer Harvest. Was told that it was a ‘dry’ day – no non-veg and no alcohol and horrid vegetable noodles. Place to be avoided. Kankana still incommunicado. Sujoy disappears again to make arrangements. The lads wait patiently while Kanika shops for bags and a necklace. She takes her time even though Hanif enters the shop to give her meaningful looks.

Ambled through the city centre to the by lanes leading to the Ancient Leh palace. Decided to take the short cut up – Kanika not amused.  Hanif too un-amused because the entry ticket to the palace ten times more than for natives. But Dipan contended that it was worth a visit. Great views of the city from the top floors of the palace and a fascinating exhibition of old photographs of the palace and other locations of historical interest. 

Walked down to the city, this time taking the proper road! First stop at Dipak Hair Stylist where Hanif gets a “sheave” while the rest crack one liners. Then samosa and tea, followed by astonishing quantities of lemon-honey-ginger tea, croissants and dough nuts at German bakery - better, redeemed its reputation somewhat.  

Walked to the hotel.  Finally, the fellowship of the six is complete, with Kankana deciding, after all, to join the trek tomorrow. Ashesh finds a fellow smoker - doesn’t need to skulk around corners furtively now! (Later in the trek, two more emerged from the closet; for post prandial puffs!) Had we enough booze, asked the lady. Sheepish shuffling of feet. Never mind, I have a bottle, said the wonder women.  Had tea with her other two friends and retired for the night.
All ready for the big day tomorrow.

Day 3 (6th September 2013) - Leh – Chilling - Skiu
Had planned to make an early start at 7.15 am. All of us were ready and packed, including breakfast, by 6.45 am. Sujoy left for Dreamland Trek and Tours to have the vehicles loaded with our gear and rations and pick us up at the appointed time. But came back only by 8 am –Tenzing, our general factotum, was found to be in deep slumber, though he denied stoutly that he had been out on the tiles the previous evening. Loaded our stuff, went back to Dreamland where the other vehicle was being stacked and were finally on our way. Or so we thought. Because once again the first halt was at the petrol station, and the scene was no less chaotic than yesterday’s.

Finally, set off for Chilling (46 kms) on NH 1D (Leh-Srinagar Highway), smooth ride through remarkable countryside; the snow covered peak of Stok Kangri visible throughout.  Obviously it had snowed at night because the higher slopes of most of the hills had a thin powdery layer.  First stop at Nimu to take pictures of the confluence of Zanskar and the Indus. Down below was the landing station for white water rafting.  Diversion off the main road to the left for a steep descent to the river on unmetalled roads. Thereafter the road hugged the left bank of the Zanskar until we reached Chilling by about 10.30 am.
Dipan, Kanika and Ashesh cross the Zanskar river on the trolley
The drive was through deep gorges most of the time with the Stok Kangri massif occasionally visible in the south-west. The views throughout the ride were stunning, imposing cliffs and rock formations with their ‘coats of many colours’. Led to the first of many “main or meri tanhai” moments. The general cragginess of the landscape broken once in a while with the most inviting sandy alcoves, inducing dreams of sun-bathing on one’s own private beach.

A suspension bridge is being constructed across the Zanskar at Chilling.  In the meantime a cable has been strung across the river with a small box cart on a pulley to take people, animals and things to the other side.  Realised with dismay that our crossing would take time – lots of families, traders, trekkers and piles of freight (lots of cases of beer, assorted cold drinks, carved/ornamental wooden header beams, etc). Hunkered down for a long wait; made longer by Tenzing’s antics which immobilised the cart midway across the river – what was he up to! Met a large group of students from Mumbai who were on their way back. Our ponies had arrived across the river, in the meantime.

Finally got our chance – sent our gear first so that the ponies could be loaded. The humans crossed over at noon in batches of 3 and started walking soon after (at about 12.15 pm). A sharp incline almost immediately involving an ascent of about 50 m before the track levelled out.  Thereafter the trail joined the Markha River on its west bank. Crossed Kaya village and stopped for lunch between Kaya and the Skiu gompa. Our ponies crossed us while we were eating.

Reached the campsite, a kilometre ahead of Skiu, at about 3 pm.  Put up the tents, had tea, followed by a good scrub in the river flowing right next to the campsite. A few evaluated the Ladakhi eco toilet, a feature at all camp sites.

A tot of rum, followed by dinner of rice, dal, cauliflower, capsicum and carrots. Almost everyone overate (wonder why?) and turned in for the night to the pleasant murmur of the flowing river and the comfortable tinkling of pony bells.
Distance walked: 12 km
Time taken:  4  hrs 

For the second part please visit


  1. Heavenly place.. Wonderful pics..Must be a great experience :-)

  2. That is an interesting start. Looking forward to reading the entire trek.

  3. Thanks for provides great informatic and Nice Blog, this blog is very informative & valuable for me. I will wait for your kindly new information about
    Buddhist Prayer Wheel in ladakh



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