Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Markha Valley Trek


The monsoon regained strength in the first week of August. Heavy sustained rain braced the City of Joy. My day of departure for Delhi neared but the rain didn’t show the sign of subsidence. Preparatory shopping became painful.

On eleventh, I left office early afternoon. The sky was overcast but fortunately it didn’t rain. I rushed to my apartment, picked up the packed rucksack and set out for the airport. The Taxi driver overcharged me, as they normally do for airport or railway station drops. But I reached quite ahead of time. The SpiceJet flight was one and half-hours late.

The NSCB airport at Kolkata is in very bad shape. There’s hardly any shopping area or food plaza. The washrooms are dirty. I spotted a cat scurrying under the chairs of the first floor lounge for leftover foods. Two sparrows raced overhead at violent speed. The new terminal being built should give it a much-needed facelift.

Soon Rajesh arrived. We two were to go from Kolkata. The flight left at seven and we reached Delhi around nine in the evening. Rajesh stayed back in the airport. He was to meet his brother coming from Mumbai. I came out and took a taxi to a nearby place.

Day -2

It was raining cats and dogs the next morning. The rain I fled from in Kolkata caught me up in Delhi. Our flight to Leh was at eight forty five. I reached Terminal 3 slightly drenched. Terminal 3, built by GMR, is as good as any other state-of-the-art international airport. I haven’t seen drinking water fountains or vending machines in India before. Rajesh and I had burger and tea in McDonalds. As we walked towards gate number forty-eight, others arrived - eighteen in total. They reached Delhi from respective locations (Hyderabad, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai) at different times the previous night. Twenty-two associates registered for the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh organized by Adventurizant, the adventure club of Cognizant Technology Solutions. Four people backed out.

As we finished introductions and group photo session, boarding announcement was made for the Kingfisher flight to Leh. It takes about an hour to reach Leh from Delhi. As we flew for around forty minutes, snow capped, cloud kissed mountains started appearing beneath. Those sitting at the window seats (yours truly included) started capturing the magnificent view. Soon the beautiful Leh and the small airstrip appeared below. We landed swiftly. It was a comfortable sunny day. Temperature was 24 degree Centigrade.

Hotel Kanika was on Tukcha Road in very silent surroundings. We were to stay there for two days – Friday and Saturday – to acclimatize. Leh is at a height of 3500 meter (11480 ft.). We occupied the rooms and soon left for the market to have lunch. We checked out a few restaurants and finally settled into couple of them. We had some Ladakhi dishes as well as traditional ones (aka fried rice, roti, alu-gobi etc.). The apple juice, which costs sixty rupees and comes in 650ml hard-drink-lookalike bottles were very refreshing and strong in taste.

We spent the afternoon and the evening in the market. The market has lot of boutique shops set up by Tibetan refugees. I visited a bookshop, walked into a monastery and withdrew money from a crowded SBI ATM.  The bookshop had a wide variety of collections ranging from religious books, travel guides, classic novels to books by modern day authors.

Day -1

We woke up to be welcomed by a cloudy day with accompanying drizzle. Aunty made us special Ladakhi bread. The breads were smaller but thicker than traditional rotis. For me, one piece was more than enough.

As the weather improved a bit later in the day, we set out for the Leh palace and the castle at Tsemo. Leh Palace is a nine-storied structure on the Tsemo hill. The construction was initiated by Tsewang Namgyal, the founder of the Namgyal Dynasty (A.D. 1533 - 1834) in A.D. 1553 and completed by Tsewang’s nephew, Senge Namgyal, the most illustrious king of Ladakh. The materials used in construction of the palace are stone, mud bricks, poplar wood, mud mortar and wooden rafters.

The castle was further high up the hill. It houses a giant Buddha statue.  The view of the city of Leh from the Palace and the castle was beautiful.  We spent some time at the castle, took photographs and climbed down.

Later in the day, Pranay and Rajesh hired motorbikes and drove to places in the outskirts of Leh. In the afternoon few people went to visit Shanti Stupa, which houses a golden Buddha. I went to the market, bought an Adidas jacket and a North Face tracksuit from a Bihari shop owner, whom Rajesh befriended the previous day. I returned to the hotel and took rest for the rest of the day. Our trek to Markha Valley was to start the next day (Sunday).

Day 0

We hired an agency named Adventure Travel House for the trek. They were to take care of everything – setting up tents, carrying our rucksacks and cooking. It was a sunny morning. We got up and had a lengthy bath with the knowledge that we won’t be bathing for the next seven days. We hopped onto a Maruti EECO and reached Spituk, from where our trek was to begin. As the support staffs loaded the stock on ponies, Rajesh and me crossed the bridge on Indus River and ventured into the adjoining village. We met two little girls. A brief and shy conversation revealed that the cousin sisters were UKG students in the army school. Their fathers work in the government office and mothers stay at home. We went back and brought couple of chocolates for them. But when we came back the girls were gone. We searched for them for a while but could not spot them. We felt sad!

And then we started; eighteen of us. I suggested that we form three groups of six each. That’s what we did during my last trek last year with Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) in Uttarkashi. But others thought that groups would be formed naturally as people would huddle together. We were to walk for around 5 hours and reach Jingchan camping site, which was at 3400 meter (11152 ft). The dusty road was relatively flat, probably justifying Ladakh’s another name  - the roof of the world. It was easy walk, except that the sun was blazing overhead. The Indus River flowed on our right for some time. We spotted a few red rafting boats on the river. I encountered pre-landing maneuvers of couple of flights and photographed them against the backdrop of the mountains. We walked past a stone-crushing factory. Another small rivulet became our companion instead of the Indus. Very few Indians come for this trek (I encountered only one Indian group except us). Instead, we found many European trekkers.

We walked on, taking intermittent breaks, filling water bottles and munching on dry fruits, nuts and biscuits. An elderly foreigner couple walked past us. So did our ponies and support staffs. We reached Jingchan in late afternoon. The camping site was just beside the rivulet. Many people camped there. It also had a small eatery (run from a tent), where we had Maggie noodles on arrival. Soon, the tents were set up and we occupied them – two in one tent. In the evening we gathered in the dining tent. Tomato soup and teas were served. Everyone introduced himself or herself, talked about their hobbies and interests while others feast on funny anecdotes. The candles were lit and the dinner followed – rice, dal, roti, sabzi.

Day 1

The night was not that cold. Sleeping bags felt hot. It drizzled during the night and when we got up next morning, the sky was slightly overcast. We had breakfast and packed our lunch. Just as we were leaving I spotted two Chukar Partridge.

It was 15th August – the Independence Day and the second day of our trek. We were to reach Kanda-la Base camp at 4380 meter (14366 ft). It was 7 hours trek and we were to ascend almost 1000 meters. We entered the Hemis National park, crossed the river a few times from either side. In some places there were wooden bridges on the river, while in other places we had to jump from half submerged rocks to rocks to reach the other side. Some of us lost balance and wet our shoes.

As we walked on, a freak accident happened to Pranay. He cut his finger with his Swiss knife in an attempt to make a stick out of a dry unruly tree brunch. Soon, black cloud engulfed the sky and it started drizzling. When we reached Rumbak and had tea and Maggie, it started raining. The restaurant cum shopping tent at Rumback had a lot of local woolen garments – socks, caps, and gloves! Four Londoners arrived at the tent as we were having tea.

We had no option but to take the road in a raincoat. It was very difficult and dangerous to walk on the narrow muddy path on the side of the mountains. My backpack got wet. I tried to protect my DSLR camera by putting it inside a plastic wrapper, but still few raindrops reached the lens. 

After couple of hours’ trek through the rain we reached a homestay (sort of hotel) shivering. We had unpacked the lunch box and had whatever our cook packed us in the morning. We had tea, which made us a bit warm. We met with lot of foreigners there. Many of them do not set-up tents; instead they spend the night at homestays. Rajesh found a German group of three more appealing than ours. For the rest of the trek he would be walking with this group and only show up at our tent at night! The rain didn’t show any sign of abating. So, once again we ventured into the rain.

As I climbed up, the raindrops changed into tiny soap bubbles and then into small snowflakes. It took me a while to understand the gravity of the situation. It was snowing. The small bushes around me were turning white. The track became more slippery and muddy. It was extremely cold. Rain sipped inside the raincoat and I could feel the wet T-Shirt. And then I surrendered. I submitted to the enormity of the nature. I didn’t try to protect myself from the rain and the snow and the cold. I let myself loose. I forgot that my backpack is wet. I forgot that my camera might get damaged. I extended my hand and walked with whatever energy left within. I took in the cold beauty of nature with all my senses. I trudged on and finally reached the Kanda-la base camp. It was almost evening.

The support staffs had already set-up the tents. The tents were covered with snow. Our rucksacks lay under inches of snow as well. Most of our clothes got wet, even though they were wrapped in polythene packets. The sleeping mattresses were wet. The sleeping bags were wet too. I skipped dinner that night; only had tomato soup, took the daily dose of a Diamox and went to sleep. But the wet bed only made me shiver. I, and most of us hardly slept that night.

Day 2

The rain and snow stopped the next morning, but the sky remained overcast. News came in that the Markha River was flooded and it might not be possible to trek to Markha valley. All of us, including our guide, Lotus, were in a dilemma. Some opined that we should stay put in Kanda-la Base for the day but that would have changed our trek plan. Finally, Mahendra, with the help of the trek route map convinced us that we should at least trek to Skiu. There we can decide whether to trek to Markha Valley or backtrack based on the water level of Markha River.  So we quickly packed up and set out for Skiu, which is at 3400 meters (11152 ft). But to reach Skiu we were to climb up the Kanda-la pass, situated at 4850 meters (15908 ft) and then climb down.

For the last two days we were carrying only the daypacks while the ponies carried our rucksacks. But I decided to carry my 18.7 Kg rucksack myself from then onwards. It was a difficult decision. The reasons behind were two fold – first, during my trek with TSAF we were to carry our rucksacks ourselves; so I was of the impression that if I did not carry my own rucksack it’s not true trekking. Second, I was angry that the support staffs didn’t sufficiently cover my bag the previous day and it got wet.

The ascent was tough, specifically with the heavy rucksack on my back. But I climbed up without much trouble. On the way, we saw many cat sized yellow Himalayan rats. At the top it was very windy and cold with patches of snow everywhere. So we quickly left the place and started our 5 hours descent.

The track through Shingo village was beautiful with vegetation on both sides. But in some places there were chances of loose rocks landing on us, though nothing of that sort happened. We crossed the small rivulets a number of times and finally reached Skiu just before seven in the evening.
The campsite at Skiu was small, though the surrounding was beautiful with a monastery nearby. That night the group of eighteen divided. Eight people wanted to go back to Leh via Chilling, which was two hours trek from Skiu due to different reasons. Phani, Raj, Amit (and his wife), Anup and Vikas were not either feeling well or had hurt their legs. Ramesh thought he had had enough of ascent and descent; now he wanted to go Leh, have good food, comfortable stay and visit Pangong Lake.

Day 3

Eight of us left for Chilling, while the rest ten (yours truly included) left for Markha. The trek to Markha was an easy but long walk (7 hours). Markha valley is at 3670 meters (12038 ft). The main concern we had that day was crossing Markha River. We were not sure of the water level. Some said the water might be chest high.

I was carrying my rucksack that day as well. But after four-five hours’ trek in the hot sun it became unbearable. My pace slowed and I could not keep up with the rest of the group. Lotus suggested that I should load the bag on the ponies that were yet to cross us. Everyday we started an hour or so earlier than the ponies and the support staffs. But they overtook us on the way and reached the destination a few hours before we reached. So we had the tents and the tea ready on arrival.

I trudged on frequently looking back for the ponies. A local guide of another group offered me help. He asked me to carry his lighter bag and he would carry my heavier one instead for some time. I thanked him but politely declined the offer. All other members of my group had moved ahead quite some distance. I decided to sit on a rock under the cool shadow of a mountain and wait for the ponies. The ponies finally came. I loaded my rucksack on one of the horses’ back.

Devoid of the heavy load on my back and shoulder, suddenly I felt very lighter. I almost ran and soon rewarded with a fall on a slippery rock. I didn’t hurt myself; rather I felt better! I made up the distance and I was again with the group.

A light drizzle started and ended quickly. We soon arrived at the place where we had to cross Markha River bare feet. We were happy that the water level was just knee-high. But it was extremely cold. We put off our shoes, rolled up the tracksuits and crossed the river. Soon we reached the camping site of the beautiful Markha valley. The sun was setting behind the hills.

This place had a Satellite phone in the homestay.  I called up my parents after waiting for quite some time in the queue. This was the call after three days. Our mobile phones lost touch with the base stations as soon as we left Spituk.

I shaved and had a crow-bath that evening in the difficult-to-pump tube well in the campsite. We had Fried Rice as dinner (though it didn’t tasted quite so) and had a good night’s sleep.

Day 4

We woke up to a sunny morning. Few of us were using the biodegradable toilets while rest defecated in the open. I was in the later group. What I discovered that day while responding to the nature’s call was pathetic. Huge garbage generated by the camping public was being dumped into the Markha River. It does not only pollute the Markha River but also affect the fragile eco-system of the mountains! Hope the authority (which is the Hemis monastery) will take a note.

Our destination that day was Thachungtse at 3600 meters (11808 ft). It was also an easy but long trek. The track was very scenic. We went through vast wheat fields of Hankar, Yokma and Umlung villages. We needed to cross the river couple of times. At Hankar, we had lunch. We met with a bunch of Government primary school kids playing during the recess. Most of the teashops in Markha have safe drinking water containers for the trekkers to fill-up their water bottles for fifteen rupees. This is an initiative by Exodus Travel UK and Niyamdu-dro France to involve local people in purifying water using micro UV lamp. This helps the local economy as well as reduces usage of plastic bottles.

We reached Thachungtse a little before four in the afternoon. The camping site at Thachungtse is very large and lot of people camped there. The river flowed nearby. We had tea and pakoras and the dinner followed soon. It was very windy. We shut ourselves in the dining tent and had a candle light dinner of rice, roti and paneer.

Day 5

We woke up to a sunny morning. Our destination that day was Nimaling at 4700 meter  (15416 ft). It meant climbing up 1100 meter. We started early and walked quite rapidly and so reached Nimaling early, just after twelve. This was the day we reached before the ponies and the support staffs!

As we reached Nimaling so early, Mahendra, Sapnil and Praful wanted to reach Leh that day itself and visit Pangong Lake (which was not in the itinerary) next day. We were to reach Leh the next day through Gongmaru-la pass. Nimaling to Chokdoh (from where there is motor road to Leh) is about 8 hours trek. We as well as the support staffs tried to resist the trio as we were concerned about their safety and it would have been too much stretch (13-14 hours of trek a day) for them. But they were determined to reach Leh that day itself. When none of the support staffs agreed to go with them, the trio set out alone. Our worried guide, Lotus (and another person), concerned about their safety and the responsibility the agency had decided to go after them an hour later and left. It was a very poignant situation indeed. The seven of us who stayed back in Nimaling felt bad. The support staffs were angry as well. They said they would never accompany an Indian group, as we Indians create lot of problems!

Ice covered Kangyatse Peak (21000 ft) was on the right of the Nimaling campsite. As we had plenty of time that day, five of us decided to climb to the Kangyatse base camp (which would be at around 5000 meter or 16400 ft) and come back by evening. So Sajith, Anand, Amishi, Amit (Shah) and me set out for the base camp. On the way up we came across interesting green mosses resembling boulders. After a certain point Amit (Shah) and Amishi didn’t feel like going further up. So I followed Sajith and Anand. After about 3 hours trek we reached the base of Kangyatse. It was a wonderful sight. The three of us took lots of photos. We climbed down fast and reached our camp at Nimaling by six.
It was the last night of our trek, hence the special one. We lit up a campfire. The support staffs and we seven sat around the fire and exchanged stories and anecdotes. It was a very cold night. We bought couple beer bottles from the shopping tent. The support staffs provided us with Shank, a local ‘chemical free’ Ladakhi drink made from wheat. We chatted long into the night. The sky was full of innumerable stars. Even for an avid sky-watcher like me, it was difficult to identify constellations, as there were too many stars! Soon the half moon rose from behind the hills and the dark terrain was flooded with silver moonlight. The snow capped Nangyatse looked awesome in the moonlight.

The dinner was elaborate – rice, roti, dal, paneer, mushroom. When we went to sleep it was well past eleven. But it was too cold to have a good sleep. My legs became numb even within the sleeping bag, which is made to work till -20 degree centigrade!

Day 6

This was the last day of the trek. But it was the longest walk – almost 10 hours and we reached the highest altitude at 5150 meter (16982 ft). We started around eight thirty, passed a herd of sheep and headed for the Gongmaru-la pass. It was little difficult climb. Finally we reached the summit. Pranay, on behalf of Adventurizant gave all of us chocolates for achieving the feat. At this point we got mobile signals. Everybody made calls. But my mobile refused to be switched on (as the battery was completely drained out). After taking a good number of individual and group photos, we started the descent. The descent was difficult. It was steep, dusty and rocky. My knees pained. But we continued walking slowly. A good number of river crossings lay ahead. I tried a little bit of rock climbing to avoid couple of river crossings. At one place, we saw a perplexing scene – a herd of deer grazing in an almost vertical mountain!

We reached the place from where we were to take the Tata Sumo to Leh at around seven in the evening. It was too late for the Hemis monastery to remain open. So we went straight to Leh.

It felt good and bad to return to the urban civilization. I became accustomed to the tent life – staying every night in different places. But the prospect of hot bath at the hotel after seven days was irresistible.  So I etched the experiences of the last few days in memory and expectantly looked forward to going to the hotel. That night I did bathe in hot water and had a good sleep under the warm quilt.

Day 7

We were to return to our respective locations that day. We had a common flight from Leh to Delhi. But there was a concern for Rajesh and me. The Kingfisher flight from Leh was to arrive at Terminal 3 while the SpiceJet flight to Kolkata was to depart from Terminal 1 and we had only 2 hours in-between the flights. Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 are about 8 kilometers apart and it takes 15-20 minutes to reach. It became a bit rushed, but ultimately we managed to catch the flight to Kolkata quite comfortably. We reached home around five thirty.

Note: Juley in Ladakhi means Hello, Namaste etc.


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