Day five of the Markha Valley trek takes you up to the Kongmaru-La pass at 5,260M or 17,250 feet in the old money. It’s not to be sniffed at and P and I were somewhat apprehensive about our ability to get up there. We did at least have a reasonable night’s sleep, which can’t be taken for granted at these altitudes where every so often your body decides it needs MORE AIR resulting in a deep sucking rasp which wakes you up. We were just settling down for an early night in our tents yesterday when the large group of Israelis who are walking this route decided to have a bit of a party in the dining tent. They have all just finished their military service and are in high spirits. Cue much raucous singing, bongo playing and eukelele strumming. It’s not really what you expect at 4800 meters in the Himalayas but thankfully the limits of solar electricity meant the lights went off at nine and that was that.
More rain splattered on the tent overnight but the morning was fresh and bright – and cold, just a few degrees above freezing. Sonam, brushing his teeth outside the guide’s tent told me the weather should be good for Kongmaru-La.
Where to do basic ablutions was initially a bit of a mystery on this trek. The bathroom facilities at homestays and in this camp are as basic as it gets; a squat toilet in its own elevated shed, and perhaps another room with a drain in the floor where you can take a bucket of hot water to get clean, but where do you brush your teeth in all this? The answer is either by the river, or by the standpipe in the front yard which most houses seem to have. They run with river water all the time which flows off to a veg plot. They’re used for dish cleaning and face washing…and tooth brushing. Standing outside and spitting toothpaste into an irrigation channel does take some getting used to though (um, when you are a pampered Westerner).
Into the mosh pit dining tent for breakfast where 30 people are all seemingly convinced that unless they grab ten flatbreads and all the jams they will get nothing to eat. Also there is some rather good sweet milky porridge.
We pack up, purify some water from the river and set out across the bridge and onto the trail. It starts relatively steeply but after a good night’s sleep at 4800m we actually feel relatively well acclimatised. It seems easier today than yesterday. It’s cloudy and cool – which helps – and soon we are looking down on the bright cluster of tents, with snowy mountains rising behind them.
Some of the Israelis pass us; one has a little speaker blasting pop attached to his backpack. Just, why?
The track flattens out a bit across a broad plain and we can see it snaking more steeply up to the top of the pass; a pale line in the shale. We are all breathless (except Sonam) but recover quickly after a couple of minutes rest.
The higher we climb the bigger the scenery gets. Rows of jagged peaks rise up behind each other and spread out. It’s like looking at the lower jaw of a shark. The mountains are somehow impossible to capture in a photo.
Our horseman Golpay catches us up with his line of reluctant ponies.
He asks if Philippa wants a ride to the top. Not this time! We are in good spirits – all of us know we can get there, even if we do have to stop for breath every fifty meters or so.
Soon there are flapping prayer flags marking the top and we come to the crest of the pass.
We can see all the way across to the snow-capped Karakoram mountains standing in a menacing line across the horizon. It’s a magical moment and what’s more the sun comes out, lighting up all the peaks around us. We shrug off our packs and sit and take it all in.
We are there for half an hour or more and when the sun dips behind a cloud, that’s our cue to leave. The rest of the trek, on average, is downhill and it starts off steep, zigzagging down the scree and losing height rapidly.
It’s good to have a different view, with the jagged Karakorams our new focal point. A herd of Ladakhi Blue Sheep is grazing below us blending invisibly into the landscape. To my eyes they seem strangely long legged, but then again, British sheep don’t need to walk through a lot of deep snow.
When we finally hit the river, the fun begins. Winter brought a lot of snow to Ladakh and this month has been unusually warm which means the river is much higher than usual, churning with red silt. We have to cross it at least ten times and there are no bridges.
We get an idea of what this is going to be like at the first crossing. A clump of trekkers has formed and there are now three guides on the case, reluctant to let us try to wade across this rampaging river. So that means stepping stones of some sort, so we start trying to find appropriate big rocks and place them in the river. It takes a while but it works and we all get across. Sonam hurries us up and looks a little nervous. “The river will get bigger this afternoon” he says “we should keep moving”.
Sometimes the river passes through a deep gorge and we have to take a perilous path up the cliff and around it. These tracks are extremely narrow and very sheer. When we come back down to river level I spot the skeleton of a horse at the bottom of the cliff. The pack horses come this way too and Sonam tells me that occasionally one horse will nudge another and it falls off. He also tells me that a couple of years ago the river was even higher and they had to turn back to an old rock shelter and sleep there.
So, who wants to go first..?
Every time we come to a crossing point it looks impossible but every time we manage to find a way, either wading or making a crossing, or jumping across with help of outstretched hands or hiking poles. It’s hard work, but fun. It does take a long time though.
We stop at a tent for green tea around four and Sonam thinks we still have another four crossings to do. The clump of trekkers has spread out now and we are with a Dutch couple who admitted that but for Sonam they would not have known how to get through this section. We all think of the big Israeli group we left at the top of the pass who had been determined to get another two hours further on from us today but are nowhere in sight.
After a final couple of scratched-head-there’s-no-way crossings we see a couple of stupas marking the outskirts of Chogdo, our final stop – some 1400 meters below our highest point today. It’s a lovely green part of the valley with prosperous looking farmhouses. The Dutch couple dive into the first homestay they see and we wave goodbye. Sonam, rather apologetically, takes us down an irrigation slope, wet underfoot but pungent with the aroma of herbs. It comes out on a track in the lower part of the village where we pass several more homestays. At the entrance to one, our North London friend Olivia appears and we chat for a bit but Sonam is taking us onwards. Ten minutes later we have left the village behind us and a woman walking with a child behind us starts shouting at someone. We assume it’s Sonam, but she’s actually calling to a tiny little farm on a cliff above the other side of the river. A little voice on the other side calls back. This, she confirms, is our homestay.
It’s getting on for ten hours since we set off and the idea of crossing the river again and climbing a cliff in order to spend the night in what looks like a shabby little farm does not appeal but we pick our way down to the river. There’s a ramshackle wooden bridge and beyond, a steep zigzag track up to the farm. We are watched by a line of goats pressed against a fence. A rather miserable yak stares at us and a dog barks unhappily at our presence and we arrive at the back of the house where a smiling woman greets us “welcome welcome” and shows us her two, newly built homestay rooms which are easily the nicest we have seen. We throw our bags in the room and sit outside glowing from the exertion of the day and enjoying the sweeping view of the mountains. It’s been an epic day – really the most thrilling day’s hike we’ve ever had.