Ladakh’s Markha Valley Trek: the videos

It’s a full three years and more since I last released a series of my trademark shit videos on YouTube. Some of you are doubtless wondering if a yeti got my tongue. Eighteen months have gone by since I trekked in Ladakh, and the hilarious footage that I took has been lying untouched in the recesses of my hard drive. Recently, however, the laptop fairies have been complaining of tripping over it as they scurry around trying to stop me going anywhere near ChatGPT.

Finally, I heard their cries. I acquired a new Linux laptop in January, installed a copy of Kdenlive, my video editor of choice, and reminded myself how to use it.

Back in August and September 2022, Edita and I embarked on our first (and still our only) Himalayan trek since the COVID pandemic to Ladakh in northern India, a desert region of red granite peaks rising above 6,000m and split apart by crashing river valleys. It was Edita’s first visit, and my first since 2007. We chose the Markha Valley as our destination, a popular and accessible 5-day trek not far from Ladakh’s capital Leh, extending the journey to climb some trekking peaks and cross a pair of high passes into more remote valleys.

This series of videos covers the first section of the trek up the Markha Valley to the tented camp of Nimaling. Those of you who are tired of my inane banter will be delighted to know that in these videos, I’ve been completely upstaged by Edita, who has become an expert videographer in the same idiosyncratic mould, but far more entertaining.

The full playlist involves 5 videos and 32 minutes of footage. You can watch the whole thing in one go here . You can also see all my still photos from the trip here, and read the full trip report here.

1 Leh to Sara

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Almost all treks in Ladakh start in its capital Leh. Perched above the Indus Valley at 3,500m in a dry, desert region surrounded by rocky mountains, it feels like a relaxed version of Kathmandu. Streets bedecked with Tibetan prayer flags are lined with souvenir shops, coffee houses and restaurants serving yak sizzlers.

India’s roads are a cut above those in Nepal, however. From Leh, we drove along a smooth tarmacked highway beside the mighty Zanskar River before turning up a dirt track into the heart of the Markha Valley.

The first day of the trek involved a short walk of only three and half hours from Skiu to the next village, Sara. We followed the dirt road for almost the entire way, walking in searing afternoon heat and grateful for the short interludes when the road tickled the poplar groves and their shade provided some respite.

2 Sara to Markha

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One thing that sets the Markha Valley apart from other valleys in this mountainous desert region is the human habitation that has turned it into a fertile oasis among the barren rockiness. Villages all along the valley floor have been planted with willows, poplars and wheat, providing us with some pleasant, shaded campsites. Another species that has been planted widely is the multi-purpose sea-buckthorn, a spiny bush with tiny orange berries. Rather like our own native brambles, its berries provide juice while its tangle of thorny tendrils form a natural barrier that villagers use as fencing.

The second day passed in much the same vein as the first as we continued along the dirt road to the village of Markha, rising only 250m to 3,750m through a landscape reminiscent of the Wild West. Edita made a friend in the owner of a tented teahouse, who showed her how to spin wool on a tiny spindle and knit socks from the thread.

3 Markha to Hankar

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Unlike the rest of India, which is predominantly Hindu, Ladakh is a Buddhist region with more in common with the old Tibet than its mother country. The Markha Valley is full of Buddhist signs, both old and new: giant prayer wheels to spin for good luck, stupas, mani walls and the remains of ancient citadels perched on hillsides.

We passed many as the valley narrowed on the third day of our trek, and the steep cliffs on either side became needle-like pinnacles thrusting extravagantly into the sky. We had our first view of Kang Yatze at the head of the valley, guarding the Markha River’s fork. A snow-capped cone, it was volcanic in appearance from that angle – an easy snow-plod, the like of which I’ve completed many times (appearances were to prove deceiving, however).

4 Hankar to Tachungtse

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This was the day that the trek became more mountainous as we left the main Markha Valley behind and branched up into the steeper Nimaling Valley. We were entering snow leopard country, and had frequent sightings of large herds of blue sheep skittering up and down precarious slopes.

A highlight of the day were some impressive ruins perched on an isolated knoll rising 200m above the trail. Our guide Santosh described them as the remains of the King of Hankar’s palace; they were marked on my app as the Palace of Shey Kingdom. We put down our packs and walked up the knoll on a narrow path which clung precipitously to its side. The ruins were amazing and occupied the whole ridge line at the top of the hill. Little remained of the various outbuildings apart from a few walls, but a tall tower on the needle-like summit of the hill was almost intact.

5 Tachungtse to Nimaling

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The ‘village’ of Nimaling is actually a large tented camp lying in the base of a broad grassy valley at 4,800m, quite unlike the steep rocky gorge we had passed through earlier in the trek. As well as catering for the many trekkers on the Markha Valley trail, the camp is home to goat and yak herders who make a living here in the high mountains, and pikas: tiny mouse-like rodents that hide in burrows among the grassland.

After the sunny days and searing heat that we’d experienced until then, we were surprised to awake the following morning to find our campsite carpeted in snow. Nimaling marks the climax of the Markha Valley trek for the majority of tourists, who cross the 5,200m Konmaru La the following day, over into the Indus Valley, where they can grab a taxi back to Leh. We didn’t return to the Markha Valley either, but we had barely reached the halfway point of our own adventure, which I’ll describe in later videos.

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