Sky High Treks and Tours
The Markha Valley
By Jodi Yeats   
The small aeroplane circled the wide valley, banking steeply between bare mountains with snow-dusted peaks. Leh seemed to be a lahar of mudbrick buildings splaying down a mountainside into the dun river valley. Brown is not my favourite colour. Just below, ruled lines of soldiers marching in a parched field were an unwelcome reminder of the volatile border dispute with Pakistan, just up the road. Again, I questioned my choice of Ladakh - a Himalayan desert in northern India, as a trekking venue. At least fighting since partition had never actually reached Leh. And there were some trees down by the Indus River. I recognised Tsering Norboo from his friendly expectant face outside the iron shed that acted as an airport. A New Zealand friend had put me in contact with Norboo. In emails Norboo promised to "make a good trek with good food" and take care of everything, signing off "Your friend in Leh." He gave me a two-handed handshake and a hug, then flung my heavy pack into the back of a jeep. The young driver bolted off, honking continuously as we roared up Leh's narrow dirt streets, clearing away cows, small ponies and the few people who were up that early.

We pulled up at Saser Hotel, a traditional Ladakhi whitewashed stone building, decked with streamers of colourful Buddhist prayer flags. Saser became my haven in the next few days as altitude headaches forced me to rest in my airy room or chasing shade in the garden among sunflowers and cottage flowers. Saser Hotel looked up to a craggy peak behind Leh that was crowned by a sixteenth century stone fort and a tenth century temple, both built by early Ladakhi kings and strewn with prayer flags.

While I adjusted to life at 3,500 metres and explored the handcraft markets of Leh, Norboo prepared my trek with quot;best most senior guide". Our mutual friend had told Norboo to look after me well - an instruction he had evidently taken to heart. He dropped round each day to take me on an acclimatisation walk and update me on preparations.

We agreed on the Markha Valley, largely because it was near Leh which made it cheaper for one person and it fitted my itinerary at 8 days. I wondered about advertising for trekking companions, but there wasn't much time and I was reassured by Matthew, an eccentric Englishman and veteran trekker who I shared a cafe table with in Leh, who said that I would meet people on the trek and make "friends for life".

Early on the appointed day, Norboo, my guide, Namgyal, and the young driver came by and we drove to nearby Spituk for the start of the trek. The small ponies and a tiny donkey were grazing quietly among scrubby trees beside a bridge. Norboo and Namgyal helped the ponyman, Nawang, haul heavy tin chests, several large sacks of vegetables and rice, an army tent, and my gear onto them. I wondered whether I would be the first trekker ever to gain weight.

Namgyal and I set off quietly along a rough jeep track. Occasionally he would point to a village across the valley and say the name. At the first low pass, marked with cairns and prayer flags, I met a German couple, Stephan and Lulu. They had both been to New Zealand and were very enthusiastic about it. Our ponymen instantly merged into one large caravan, but we took a more western approach, chatting only a little at Daisy campsite that night.

The next day we climbed gradually through bare foothills. The rock was lit with subtle colours - pink and ochre - not brown at all. I wondered whether the Indus River had silted the wide main valley over the millenia. Stephan, Lulu and I walked the last part together for moral support. It was a steep ascent to our first base camp. As we toiled up mountain paths, we stopped to admire shafts of turquoise in the pink rock faces and purple scree slopes with yaks grazing nearby.

When I arrived, Nawang, the ponyman, put a horse blanket on a rock for me to collapse onto and Namgyal brought me a tray of cardamom tea and biscuits. While I sipped tea and appreciated sweeping views and snowy peaks all around, they found and pitched my tent. These small quiet men were utterly benign and I reflected on my pre-trip fears, feeling foolish.

Ground was bare at this altitude and the hungry ponies and defiant donkeys made raids on pots and food sacks and were shooed away, before the evening nosebag of barley calmed them down. Namgyal prepared an elaborate feast of several curry dishes for me served them on a tin trunk with a candle on it, announcing, "Candlelight dinner," with a flourish. I was starting to enjoy this endurance test.

A wake-up pot of tea arrived at 6.30am and it was snowing when I looked outside. After porridge, I packed up quickly and left with Stephan, Lulu plodding slowly up toward to the pass and dreaming of oxygen. That afternoon, we walked down a steep, pink sandstone canyon into blazing sunlight and cloudless skies. I half expected a posse of Indians to emerge from the rocky peaks beside us. I had a delicious wash in the Markha Valley river that evening.

I walked mainly with the ponymen the next day along the steep Markha Valley, listening to their shouts and whistles. Sometimes the other guide, Rigzen played his tinny walkman out loud. There was one Ladakhi song they all knew words to. They sang heartily along to the walkman and sang it often when they were walking. Soon Stephan, Lulu and I knew the song too.

Mani stones near Nimaling
Mani stones near Nimaling
We did numerous river crossings the following morning, heading back into the mountains. I noticed a man in the crimson robes of a monk hitch-hiking on one of our ponies. After a couple of hours Stephan, Lulu and I passed a mani wall with its Buddhist texts carved in stone. Nearby were two weathered stone stupa (or chorten) - domed structures that represent the universe and also focus the mind on the Buddha's teachings. We heard a whistle and looking up saw the monk halfway up a steep path that zig-zagged steeply up to a small monastery (gompa) on the peak. He beckoned us to follow.

By the time we had toiled up to the gompa, he was inside a small temple chanting and banging a drum. He beckoned us in without drawing breath and carried on, also clashing cymbals and blowing a horn at intervals. We sat down and enjoyed the unexpected concert and gazing up at a large photograph of the dalai lama for some time before the monk stopped abruptly, clapped his prayer book shut and enquired, "Cup of tea?" We followed him to a simple room with an astonishing view right along the river valley far below us and sat on a hard mattress while he made delicious chai with condensed milk.

Afterwards we ambled slowly along the river chatting about our impressions of Ladakh. We found our guides waiting for us at a tea tent made from an old army parachute. After lunch, we all walked along a narrower track above a deep river.
Blue sheep
Blue sheep
As we turned a corner, the mountainside shimmered and the guides waved us to a stop, stage-whispering, "blue sheep". We watched the grey goat-like animals drink at the river then skitter away. Afterwards, when we asked about the unlikely moniker, our guides insisted, "Sometimes when they are far on the mountainside - backs are blue." We turned up another smaller river valley the next day, starting towards Nimaling - base camp for the next 5,100m pass. As the track rose above the river and we admired the elliptical barley fields below - like uneven jewels. Ladakhis have mastered the art of irrigation over the hundreds of years and can water entire valleys from the most unpromising creeks.

As we climbed the air was remarkably clear, almost radiant, yet the Zanskar mountains stretched behind us in hazy layers. To our left, a mountainside had eroded into pillars of red sandstone, many topped by one huge boulder. Just to our right the snowy peak of Kang Yatse (6,400m) soared above us. At one point we stopped at a pool and broke the mountain's perfect reflection, skipping stones across the smooth surface.

The trail from Nimiling to Gong Maru La
The trail from Nimiling to Gong Maru La
The next freezing morning, the wake-up cuppa came at 6am instead of 6.30am and we breakfasted quickly in the, now communal, food tent and packed quickly with painfully cold hands. We set off up nearby Gong Maru La - a 5100m pass that turned out to be a social centre with two parties coming the other way - some friends of Stephan and Lulu's from Belgium and Matthew the Englishman I had met in Leh - who could see for himself how prophetic his words were.

That night was our last and the Ladakhis agreed to eat with us. We all crowded into one of the tents and shared big bottles of Godfather beer as well as huge plates of steaming vegetable momos - Ladakhi dumplings. After dinner Rigzen put his tinny walkman on the tin chest table blasting out a Ladakhi song and the youngest ponyman performed an exotic hip-swinging dance. The 68-year-old ponyman followed with a long Tibetan song. Stephan and Lulu romped through a short but vigorous German song. Then we all sang the ponymen's theme tune together.

The following day we strolled along a jeep track in a light drizzle and I was pleased when Norboo swung around the corner in a jeep to take me back to Leh. Then came the Ladakhi two-handed handshakes and hugs as we all said farewell to our new "friends for life".