The Markha Valley trek has actually been relatively gentle with us so far, even though it hasn’t always felt like that. Day two was long but didn’t ascend too much and day three was fairly short even though it ended above the four thousand meter mark. But today we had to climb for real. Around eight hundred meters of ascent topping out at about 4800M. So we needed some breakfast. As well as the usual flatbreads and honey Philippa pulled the boiled egg from her lunch pack and I had a go with barley porridge which is a staple here and tastes a bit like Ready Brek. All washed down with gallons of mint tea.
I was hoping we would see the granny who appeared silently last night and sat at the end of the line of low tables wearing a jacket that looked like it had been made from one of the colourful synthetic rugs placed at the foot of the homestay mattresses. She had the most striking, noble face; dark skinned with a long western nose and thick black ringlets. She could have been a prematurely aged fifty or a well preserved seventy and was quite a bit taller than the other women in the family who treated her with quiet respect. I felt she had been a Ladakhi noble in another life and wished I could have spoken to her but apart from “Julley” we didn’t have enough language in common. She wasn’t there for breakfast.
We were out in the sunshine by eight, passing women and boys in the fields along with animals called “dzho” (sounds like “dzong”) which are a cross between a cow and a yak and have big heads, big horns and thick black coats. We took the same steep path Tom and I took to the fort last night, which just about did for me then too.
Soon we were in Upper Hankar village walking through immaculately planted farmland.
It was utterly tranquil with a sweeping view down emerald green fields to snowy peaks.
This was the kind of walking we’d been used to on previous days – a gentle gradient by the river – but the altitude was beginning to tell. Tom seemed completely unaffected but P and I were walking slowly and taking frequent stops for a breather. At one such break Sonam spotted an eagle gliding parallel with the high cliffs above us, and then another appeared, dark wingtips almost brushing the sunlit rock.
After another hour or so a tea-tent was a welcome sight
It was doing good business with a lively crowd of young Israelis and a small group of British lads (from North London inevitably). P was fairly flaked and her back is still giving her trouble so we stayed there for a little while before setting out on the steep section of today’s trek. It’s not particularly vertical but at this altitude any moderately serious slope feels relentless.
There was a lot of stopping and drinking water and shuffling forwards and stopping again but two hours later we came to the lip of a plateau where two glacier-fed lakes marked our lunch stop.
One had a statue of a Buddha in it and there was an awkward moment when one of the young Israeli women decide she would like to swim in it wearing a tiny bikini. Sonam didn’t say anything but it was clear that the Ladakhi guides thought this deeply disrespectful.
It was a nice place to linger so we did, under a fickle sky that threw cold handfuls of rain at us one minutes before baking us under searing sunshine the next. Tom and I filled the water bottles from the glacial stream at the top of the lake. We are drinking as much as we can but it’s still not really enough.
Ok, time to go.
The steepest slopes may have been behind us but there was still some climbing to do on this broad plateau and it was hard work. P and I were soon lagging behind Sonam and Tom and we were catching our breath when a procession of horses appeared carrying luggage – including ours. The horseman riding a horse at the rear looked at a Philippa and said “Tired?”. Yes she was. “Ride?” She didn’t need to be asked twice and jumped into the saddle with a smile. Off they trotted.
I caught up Tom and Sonam and got a second wind. We romped over the plain almost keeping pace with the horses ahead of us, and exhilarated by the fact that we were so high but with no real ill effects. Sonam is remarkable. He will have an orange crush at a tea tent and a juice box with his lunch but otherwise he doesn’t drink anything for hours. He doesn’t carry any water with him and never accepts ours. He naturally walks very swiftly, barely swinging his arms which makes his speed look effortless. The altitude doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
Ahead of us in this broad green plateau was Nimaling camp; a corral filled with tents, and surrounded by rounded mountain tops, some still covered with snow.
We arrived to find a grinning Philippa and two tents for the night. We filled tin cups with ginger tea and sat with a few of the people we’d met earlier in the walk. It was nice to sit and chat, looking out over the mountains. Tom bolted off to climb up to some snow, which made Sonam slightly anxious but I got out the binoculars and we tracked him up to a ridge near the snow line. He is a mountain goat, but even he said he’d been a bit breathless climbing up.
Nimaling is above 4800M (15,750 feet) and we are at the mercy of the weather up here. The storms we’ve seen over the high peaks are quite likely to hit us too. At about four it got suddenly cold and we scuttled off to our tents to find some warm clothing and rest (and write this).
A rain shower pattered down on the tent for a while, but then the sun come back out and filled it with warmth. The campsite was buzzing with excited voices, all thrilled to be here in this remote and special place. As the sun began to set we had a walk outside our tent corral.
This is a high pasture where the herdsmen in the surrounding villages bring their animals in the summer. All around were yaks and dzho, horses and donkeys leading a fairly easy sort of life with plenty to eat and a river to drink from. In the early evening light the animals began coming down from the grassy slopes and heading over to a big stone corral on the other side of the river from us. The sun slipped below the clouds, just above the mountains and painted everything in a golden light. Let’s hope the weather gives us a view from our high pass tomorrow.