September just might be the best time to visit Ladakh, a mountainous region in northern India sandwiched between Pakistan, Tibet, and Kashmir. Charles and I enjoyed the crisp mornings and cool nights and each time we returned to the bustling city of Leh, where we stored our luggage between treks, we were amazed at how quiet the streets were becoming.
Leh is at an altitude of 3,500m (11,500 feet) and we decided to fly in to save some time. I almost fainted when we first arrived at our guesthouse and I thought I could run up two flights of stairs while carrying two loaded backpacks. Bad idea – it takes at least a few days to adjust. But after one full day in this dusty, noisy town, we were ready to get out. We caught a taxi to Chilling where we’d begin the Markha Valley trek.
Markha Valley is both the most popular trek in Ladakh and among the easiest. Starting at Chilling makes the walking very gradual and gave us lots of time to acclimatize, yet I still felt like I had legs of lead for the first few days. We brought our own camping gear and a fair bit of food. For some reason, I thought we’d have a bit of a wilderness experience.
It turns out that trekking in Ladakh isn’t so much about the nature or beautiful views (although the scenery certainly is stunning). It’s about the culture and the people. We lucked into our first “homestay”. It was actually a monastery that we learned, through some creative sign language, welcomes guests.
For me, the highlight of trekking in Ladakh is staying with villagers, sharing meals with them in their kitchens and sleeping in cozy little rooms draped every inch in warm, colourful carpets.
Ladakh is a mountainous desert. Its massive alluvial fans and sand dunes reminded me of Death Valley, only on a far, far larger scale. Everything is truly huge here.
Hidden in the folds of all these dry, parched mountains are little oases where fresh water flows and lush green trees and grasses grow. This is where you’ll find the villages.
Of course, life here isn’t easy. Most houses are built from mud, formed into irregularly shaped bricks. Creeks and rivers are diverted into canals that give life to the families who live in these houses, which must be built on the dry slopes safely out of reach of frequent floods.
There’s no electricity or plumbing but we got used to that pretty quickly. The toilets were sometimes a challenge, though, like when they had too much dirt and cow dung built up around them, forcing you to squat at an awkward angle.
Before crossing the pass, Kangmaru La, there is an established camp rather than a village. We were glad we’d brought our own tents. The ones you can rent didn’t look too appealing. I think you’re supposed to pay in any case, but no one seemed to come around asking for money. Perhaps, that’s another advantage of visiting in September.
I really struggled with the altitude getting up to the pass. It felt like everyone else was having an easier time than me. I guess I just adjust to altitude slowly. Charles was great – not just this day but everyday. He waited for me at every switchback, carrying all our food, and handing me a bottle of water as soon as I caught up. I couldn’t ask for a better trekking partner.
While getting up to Kangmaru La was hard on the lungs, going down the other side was killer on the knees. All the elevation we’d gained over the prior five days, we lost in a single afternoon!
After finishing the Markha Valley trek we decided to reward ourselves with some R&R at Pangong Lake. Partly in India but mostly in Tibet, this high altitude basin drains all the water from the surrounding 6,000+m mountains but that’s where it stops. It’s amazing to think that a lake as high as the big peaks in the Alps has no exit. Water just evaporates, leaving behind a layer of salt.
Pangong is a real tourist trap. Apparently, there’s a super popular Bollywood movie called “3 Idiots” that was shot here, and all the Indian tourists were dancing and doing all kinds of silly poses. (It’s actually a pretty good movie – I’ve watched it since coming back home.) The good news is that the tourist trap is confined to the first few miles of this massively long lake. After half an hour of driving, all that tackiness disappeared. We spent two nights at a homestay where the 87-year old grandfather told us his family had been there “just as long as the land”.
We loved the intense and constantly changing colours of Pangong Lake but we came here to trek. We found another route called “Alchi 5 Passes” and decided this was a great choice since we could get to it easily and we could stay with locals every night, only we had to cut out the first pass where camping was the only option. While Markha Valley was gentle and gradual, the Alchi loop is immediately rugged and stunning. As soon as we got on the trail a large group of goats began kicking rocks down at us, some of them large enough to break apart large chunks of the trail, sending dirt and rocks flying over the cliff below. What an exhilarating start to a great trek!
We saw very few tourists on this trek. They all seem to congregate in Markha Valley (and Leh, of course). Why is it that anywhere you go in the world a few spots seem to attract nearly all the tourists, while equally worthy nearby places see so few? Maybe we all just need to scratch a little deeper to see what lies below the surface.
I felt like I started to appreciate the natural beauty of Ladakh much more on our second trek. Maybe it was just that I was getting used to the altitude, so I was enjoying the walking as much as getting to a village at the end of the day and resting. Maybe it was the intense autumn colours that started to appear in all the desert plants.
At the end of our trip we discovered that we had just enough time to do the part of the Markha Valley trek we’d missed by starting at Chilling. Over three days we walked from Zhingchan to Kanda La (a 5,000m pass) and back, enjoying great views and relatively uncrowded trails. I felt great and even continued up beyond the pass for better views, only stopping once I got to a peak at 5,500m (18,000 feet). Note to self for future trips: stay long enough that you get to enjoy the high places after all the struggle of adjusting to the altitude.
Ladahk is a great place to trek, especially if you connect with desert environments, but mostly for the cultural experience. The Ladakhi people are so welcoming and there’s something very special about sharing a meal with someone you’ve just met. If I ever return, that’s what will draw me back.