8 Day Markha Valley trek with the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company

The mother of the house brings mint tea from the gas stove to us, sitting on a slightly elevated floor covered with an old rug, a place to eat behind short red benches for cups and plates, with pillows to lean on and rest our aching shoulders— from carrying our own bags and lunch in round tin containers labelled with cheap whiteout that came off on our new sweaters and used jackets, hands, bags, and the shirts we wouldn’t take off for eight days— against a window with views of low desert hills and mountains behind. She pours the tea from a small red plastic thermos with floral designs, she groans as she bends over to pour the tea and twists the lid back on when our cups are full. She sits on a chair on the right side of the room with her cup in both hands facing a long display of gold plated and brass serving containers, ladles, cups and other ware. A militant portrait of her husband hangs above us and nearby a picture of the same man, smiling, wearing a red plaid shirt and a trucker hat, holding a small baby girl.

The group has been split up into six homes out of the nine in the small village, Rumback, two or three enjoying the company of a family, having tea, dinner and breakfast. At monastery overlooking the village in the late afternoon, we compare who had the best tea (mint, milk, both) and cookies.After a two hour nap the group is in good spirits again, following a very solemn final mild uphill to the village. We quickly discovered the ill feelings that can come with the scenic rewards of high altitude trekking while ascending through Jingchen Valley: the sun is strong, the air is cold and breaths with less oxygen and without moisture don’t satisfy the body as they should. OG India has learned that traveling often means beings without a good coffee, hot water, steak, paved roads, safe ice, trusting directions, English speakers, fresh vegetables—but air? A round black bird with a long orange beak sits above the temple doors in a nest, cardboard placed underneath to catch the droppings. From this vantage, Thinlas, our main guide and owner of Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, points out the one primary school in the village, now closed as all the kids have gone to Leh for a better education, benefiting individual families but with serious consequences for the village as it takes a lifetime to learn how to farm the impossible terrain. A few participants have already had their first encounter with a drop toilet, a pit where afterwards a pile of dirt is shoveled into the hole to make immediate compost, fertile soil, one of the ways Ladakhi’s have learned to conserve desert water and preserve the land.

Liat and Tammy ask to help their seventy year-old homestay father with dinner. There’s a wedding tonight so the three of them make vegetable momo dumplings. The best ones are brought to the wedding and they eat the rest with chai tea made with milk from the cow that morning.

The full moon rises over the mountain and lights the pits of cows, donkeys, yaks, goats, cuts into the dry mountains and reflects from the ones with snow higher up.

The hardest day of the trek is a slow ascent to 4900m, following the river up to the Ganda La pass. Each step requires deep breath, our heavy bags felt in the bottoms of our feet. We take long breaks every ten minutes, sit where nothing exists but snow and rock and large yaks with thick black coats and white tails that seem like pebbles as we go higher. Everyone moves at their own speed, quietly, dead sound only broken by the wind rattling through the lip of our bottles and by the stream where we refill our water, using purifying tablets or drinking it straight as the only thing between us and the glacier it comes from is a few minutes walking. We get our coats out and distribute weight to each other depending on how each person deals with altitude. Everyone feels light headed, weak, one step a time, except for the guides. The top is seen by the Tibetan prayer flags sticking out from the snow. The last few steps are easily made with a boost of adrenaline. We stare at the mountains we just passed and the valley we’re about to descend into, Markha Valley, rows of white Himalayas and brown, black, purple mountains. Some said the climb was the most challenging thing they’ve ever done in their lives.

At night Tomi shows us Croatian dance moves and Bootsy learns to Ladakhi dance with Thinlas. She tells us that as villagers send their children to Leh, neighbour rivalries motivate families to send their children farther still, to Jammu or Delhi. The younger ones will forget the Ladakhi language and its culture.

Ishey is the other guide with us. As she leads us through the valley I follow her partridge patterned socks, white and black plaid, fat wings, a bright yellow belly, birds that don’t fly but blend into the bland mountains as they hop around, like the blue sheep, a large family knock rocks down towards the trail. We slowly ascend for three or so hours and past the juniper berry patches we reach Skiu village in the afternoon. A dark man with food in his grey whiskers holds his maroon cloak in his arm to avoid brushing it against the dirt as he bends over with a black flat iron pan to clear small rocks away from his yard entrance. Half his home was washed away in the big 2010 flood but the wall is patched well and he seems to live alone. He tells Thinlas the monastery is from the 11th century. We strain our thighs climbing the fat concrete stairs. In the back is a large Buddha statue surrounded by paintings only touched up by rain drops and sun in the past eight hundred years, the images of Buddha faded or chipped away. The path of the water is evident in the ridges in the wall above like the mountains we look at all day.
After a long flat day through Markha Valley, another bland dinner at altitude cooked with whatever affordable ingredients arrive from Leh by donkey, The group talks about the growing military presence in Ladakh. The narrow mountain passes on the Srinigar road are being widened to bring more tanks. Ladakh is partially occupied by Pakistan, India’s old enemy, and partially by China, through Tibet. Nomadic villagers and farmers in the East have claimed that China has advanced onto their land but the reports are publicly declined on both ends. There are rumours of the Chinese swimming across a freezing high altitude lake at night to gather information. While an eye is kept in the direction of Pakistan, the conflict there is dormant. China and India have both established themselves as two of the strongest military forces and world economic powers. They’re two of the biggest countries and the only with populations over a billion. They also happen to be located against each other. War is inevitable but the trigger is unforeseeable.

In the morning we take turns entering Kumtak’s room, a recently announced Rimpotchay, while he prays. Born into a Muslim family, as a toddler his visions of being a reincarnate of a significant Tibetan Buddhist lama were ignored. At school in Leh his visions continued while the Tibetan religious community wondered when a reincarnate would appear, as all are believed to be reborn. Thirty years later Kumtak was identified as he, the lama’s past life alcoholism the cause of his rebirth as a Muslim. One by one we kneel down and he places a palm on our heads.

We continue our hike through Markha Valley. Slightly ascending, we walk clockwise around stupa’s and stones written in Pali as old as the 11th century, make barefoot river crossings and pass villages with one sided houses like the background of a play, most of the house collapsing at an old age in the snow, the front door opens onto rock. We walk up hard black mud and rocks, acres of barley fields flooded over three years ago. Kangyatse peak consumes the end of the valley, the incoming clouds lay shadows on the thick piles of snow and the clouds come in fast, the tops of the mountains disappear, fat hail piercing our ears, neck, and we run the short rest of the way to one of our two homestays for the night.

We sit for tea alongside two monks, here for the day praying for the family, chanting through their pothis, occasionally one hits cymbals and the other rings a bell and with a curved padded stick bangs a round drum attached to a wooden pole sitting upright in an old large metal oil can. The older monk keeps the chanting constant, his old fat hands occasionally cross together and twist around from the wrists, snapping, throwing dry barley in the air but with control not to make a mess of the house he’s been invited to, the mother, a short woman with hands blackened with dirt in a village not accustomed to washing their hands or showering with only glacier water available. She comes in and out of the kitchen, brings them pink Tibetan tea, then hot water, warm milk and cookies, always returning quickly back to the kitchen with straw covering her knit sweater. The younger monk occasionally loses the words. They continue chanting, only taking short rests for the drop toilet, to dip their cookies.

I sit in the kitchen and watch an old woman stir the wet rice in the pressure cooker with a piece of wood carved into a spoon. After the rice four of us go to another homestay across the village. Hail comes in again from over the mountain. We run the last part of the way.

Ishey makes my house crispy pancakes for breakfast. She’s worked for Thinlas since the first year, when Thinlas was tired of being told that women weren’t allowed to be trekking guides so she started her own business, only hired women, and is now the most popular trekking company in Leh.

We gradually ascend from the Hanker village in the morning. The afternoon is much steeper. Some, like Tomi and Sarah, seem to have no difficulty at altitude. Myself and a few others on the other end adjust with a lot of resistance. Ishey stays with me as I fall well behind of the group. I’m dizzy, nauseous and yet my body feels numb, my blinks slow, all typical symptoms over 4600m. I know myself and take as many breaks as I need. Ishey stays with me. The last stretch is a flat valley with a permanent tented camp at the end. Kangyatse peak to one side and Namaling on the other. The short valley is green and wet, hopping river rocks and pressing gently into muddy ground.
A large round green tent is setup for us with a cooking tent beside. Mats and blankets are laid down for us. We unravel our sleeping bags from their pouches. Tea is brought for us that tastes like the cow dung it was boiled over. In towns and villages above the tree line, cow manure is a commonly used source of heat around the world. The smell is near that of fast tires and it kills families prematurely but without gas or wood it’s the only way to cook food and stay warm. The temperature is nearly zero Celsius when dinner is brought for us. Most go to sleep right after, fatigued from a long day of hiking, a long week of hiking, the altitude, the day to come.

Snow starts.

Before midnight the green valley is white, the half-moon nearly blocked out by the storm. Inches collect on the ground. The tent starts to sag. Everyone wakes up to whack snow down, piles collecting at the bottom, shrinking the perimeter of the tent. We cuddle to stay warm and try to sleep, drink water to avoid altitude problems, chunks of ice forming in our plastic bottles. A dog barks through the night, left outside of the shepherd’s stone shack nearby.
As the sun peaks over the mountain the snow on the tent starts to drip through and we move our shoes and whatever else is in the way. Thinlas pokes through with a large pot of porridge and says we go up but it’s going to harder.

The group slows as we reach 5000m. The sun is hot. The white everywhere is disorienting. My toes are numb in the snow and my forehead leaves a pool of sweat in my hands. I hike wearing a t-shirt, using my jacket to rest and keep enough of the snow off my pants. Our walking sticks are useless, unable to find solid earth through a foot of snow. The last thirty minutes to Nimaling pass are spent taking twenty steps and the resting with my head against the grip of my pole. Black clouds come from where we started. By the pass at 5200m I’m too exhausted and dizzy to enjoy it. Michelle spreads peanut butter on my fried bread, packed lunch.

Into Karakoram valley the storm catches up and the temperature drops. The way down weaves one way and the other, snow falls in our faces. As we descend the snow softens and we’re all falling against the mountain, shifting our weight, careful not to go the way of the steep fall. Mist covers the mountains all around us. We lower still and the path turns into a mud stream with small rocks. Breaths become fuller. As we lower and lower the stream turns into a heavy river. Water drips from the rocks around us. Pillars of black rock hang over our head. We walk along thin paths quickly, Thinlas telling us that avalanches or mudslides are always possible. Down further the only way through the thin valley is across the rapid river. We give up on dry feet, taking the safer routes. Our shoes fill of water. The guides hold our hands on some of the crossings for safety. The pink mud river is up to our calves. In the thicker parts of the river we climb up and over thin paths beside. Green plants sprout up more and more as our legs soften, relying more on our walking sticks. A green field is seen near a stupa. We make another wind through the valley and a village appears and find our last homestay of the week. We try to dry our shoes and lay our socks around a water bucket. We roll up our pants, drink tea and eat cookies and talk about things that aren’t the hike.