We are all in constant search of people, places, and experiences that fulfill us. We want to be somewhere special, experience something new, meet someone who can indulge and influence us with their unconditional approach and accept us as we are. We look for places that can diminish the familiar sense of symmetry and teach us something fresh.
This search, this quest for a chance and a true paradise can end at Markha Valley. Markha Valley is a winter wonderland located in Ladakh that can rekindle your childhood and make you believe in magic and fairy tales once again.
About Markha Valley
With its proximity to Leh, Markha Valley is a prominent trek of Ladakh that can offer an unconventional experience to trekkers and nature lovers alike. Although the trail of the Markha Valley falls under the easy to moderate category, what makes it challenging is acclimatizing to the frigid winters and high altitudes one encounters through the entirety of the trek.
The Markha River is a tributary of the main Zanskar River. During the winter season, almost three fourths of the river freezes, and the glistening white sheet extends towards several quaint villages like Chilling, Skiu, Sara, Markha, and Hunkar. During the day, the temperatures read -15 degrees and in the nights, the mercury free-falls to a -25 degrees.
Located inside the grounds of the Hemis national park, this valley is home to some rare birds and exotic wildlife. The paths change rapidly every day alternating between views of barren lands, old bridges, and monasteries, dried up river plains, frozen river patches, and pinnacle peaks. The main attractions here are the views one gets treated to of the mighty peaks of Kang Yatse I and II.
Day 1 : Arrive at Leh
To do the Markha Valley Trek, one first needs to reach Leh. Leh is the center for many popular treks like Stok Kangri, Kang Yatse, Spituk, Chadar, and Markha valley. Once you arrive at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, shared cabs are available outside to reach the Leh market where you can find affordable homestays, hostels, and hotels. The distance from the airport to Leh market is 4km and it costs around INR 100 by cab.
It is important you rest the first day after arrival at Leh. Located at an altitude of 3500 M, the air is thinner here and the temperatures dip low in the winters. During the day, it is around -15 degrees and in the night it drops to as low as -25 degrees. Good sleep, warm layers and hydration are key to acclimatizing to the changes in altitudes and temperatures.
Day 2 : Acclimatization at Leh
We usually recommend spending an extra day at Leh. Today, take the time out to explore the local market and other locations nearby. Ensure you are moving and hydrating at the same time. This will help your body to get familiar with the harsh conditions and function better.
The Leh market has a charm of its own. When you walk through the rustic lanes, you can experience the rich Ladakhi culture from all ends. If you would like to start a conversation with them, then start by saying “Julley”. (Hello)
Leh market area consists of several novel cafes, iconic restaurants, woolen shops, army general stores, and gift shops. The flea markets are the ideal spot to get some souvenirs and fancy Ladakhi merchandise. If you opt for sightseeing, then you can visit the Leh palace and the monastery right next to the market. In terms of food, you can try the butter breakfast (Butter tea with butter roti) in any small cozy chai shop and eat authentic Momos from the local joints.
Some basic information –
- Only Airtel postpaid connection works here.
- For a local sim card, you need both aadhar and license for proof.
- At the army general store, you can get affordable trekking gear.
- Layering is important for the cold. (Upper body – 5 layers, lower body – 2 layers)
- At the local stores, you can get high-quality woolen garments
Day 3: Leh – Chilling – Skiu (3400 M)
Today, we start driving towards Chilling. We will be covering a total of 60 km. It takes around 2 hours.
Driving through the roads of Ladakh is a different experience. A few minutes into the drive, you will be treated to panoramic views of the Stok Kangri Range on your left. As soon as they disappear, we will arrive at our first stop, the Magnetic hill.
The road from the magnetic range goes downhill and joins the beautiful Sangam – the confluence points of the Zanskar River and Indus River. The landscape along this route is dotted by army tents and camps. We will be making our second stop at Sangam. The blue-toned Indus River arriving from the left and the mild green Zanskar arriving from the right joining together to produce a steely blue stream is a sight to be enjoyed.
From Sangam, the road takes a diversion and joins Chilling through a big iron bridge. As soon as we enter Chilling valley, we come into the territories of Hemis national park. After a few steep turns and sharp bends, we will finally arrive at the village of Chilling. This is the actual start point of the trek.
The trail from Chilling to Skiu is quite straight forward without sharp ascents or descents. The distance between Chilling and Skiu is 5km and it takes 2-3 hours to reach the campsite. The campsite is home to some unique flora and fauna like bushoi- the cotton shaped wildflower, Zo- Crossbreed from a yak and a cow and beautiful horses.
Day 4 : Skiu - Sara (3500 M)
Today, we will be trekking a total of 10 KM. It takes around 6 hours to cover this distance. The pathways are well paved because the villagers and yaks often use the same route to traverse between the two villages. The Markha river will accompany you throughout your way.
Keep your eyes peeled for some exotic Himalayan birds like the Eurasian magpie and white cap red star along the trail. When you come across areas with dense shrubbery and vegetation, look for the nimble blue goats. They are experts in climbing steep and inclined surfaces.
5 Km into the trail, an old wooden bridge will take you to the other side of the Markha river stream. The trail from the bridge expands and opens up to a delightful river bed full of colorful pebbles nestled in dried up grey sands. This stretch continues for the next 4 KM all the way up to the village of Sara.
When you enter Sara, notice the rich flora growing around the region. There are wheat plantations and bushoi (a cotton shaped flower which is also a natural pain killer). All the villages of this valley have a Skull of a Yak or a Sheep placed at the entrance. It’s a welcome symbol and a sign of pride to the locals. Once you walk past the houses in the village, you will find an open area with stunning views of the Markha range sprawled out in front of you. This will be our Campsite for the day.
Day 5: Sara – Markha (3700 M)
The trail from Sara to Markha is more or less the same as the previous day. We will be covering 10-11 kilometers in 5-6 hours. The real challenge though lies in tackling the wind, which amplifies the cold.
The landscapes shift engagingly throughout your walk. We will be passing Mane walls, a small spiritual tomb accompanied by stacked up holy stones. Then arrives the quaint little village of Chalak barely populated and marked by a smattering of houses and half-built structures.
As you walk downwards from Chalak, two interesting local ingredients pop up. One is the sour berry which is common in the Himalayan ranges and the other is the wild rose berry which is used to make tea. A little before Markha, the trail takes you in for a fun spin. We get to walk on an expansive stretch of the frozen river before arriving at the Markha Bridge. The bridge is connected to a simple trail that leads to our campsite for the day.
If you reach the campsite early, do visit the Markha monastery nearby. It is the oldest monastery in the entire range. The view from the monastery is also a visual treat to the eyes. From the top, one can see the complete landscape of the Markha village below. From Markha onwards, the temperature starts dropping to -25 or -30 in the nights because of strong downhill winds. Proper layering can help keep you comfortable and safe.
Day 6: Markha – Hunkar (4000 M)
Today, we will be covering around 10 -11 km in 6 hours. The path towards Hunkar is a little rougher, wider, and covered with boulders and stones.
The dry landscape quite resembles the Wild West cinematic set up from Hollywood movies. After crossing two kilometers, the sacred flags of the Tacha monastery come into view. If time permits you can make a quick detour to the monastery and experience the tranquility surrounding it.
The trails from Tacha are a treat to the eyes. Engulfed by the small golden-brown peaks of the Markha range on either side, this is truly a delightful stretch to walk upon. As you progress through the valley, you will be able to catch glimpses of the Kang Yatse I and Kang Yatse II Peaks. Once you cross the 7 KM mark, the valley gets wider and you are in for another crossing of an expansive stretch of frozen lake. As we get closer to Hunkar, small crimson shrubs dot the shores of the Markha river.
A couple of more crossings across the river will bring us to the campsite for the day in lower Hunkar.
Day 7: Lower hunkar - Upper Hunkar – Markha (4050 Mts)
The day begins with an early start. The trail from lower Hunkar to upper Hunkar makes for a short but fascinating hike. This also happens to be the steepest ascent you will be encountering on the trek. On your hike up to the Vantage Point, you will be able to spot some rare Pashmina goats grazing. The locals earn a living by selling their wool.
At Upper Hunkar, the mighty peak of Kang Yatse I and a subtler form of the Kang Yatse II behind it are visible.
Post a successful summit, we will head back directly to Markha Village and settle for the day.
Day 8: Markha – Skiu (20 Kms)
Today, we retrace our path back all the way to Skiu. You will find the descent to be easier than the ascent. Our bodies are better acclimatized which makes covering 20 Km in one day relatively easier.
Expect to reach Skiu by evening from where we will be taking a taxi ride to Leh.