Spituk bridge. The beginning (if you don’t take a taxi).
Part 1 – Intro & route variations
Part 2 – When to trek & difficulty
Part 3 – Homestays & water
Part 4 – Budgeting & guidebooks
Part 5 – Exploring Leh
Part 6 – Final preparations & kitlist
Part 7 – Route description
Optional Day 0 – Spituk bridge (3,214m) to Zingchan (3,396m) – 16km – 5hrs 30mins
It all starts at a prayer flag over-loaded bridge. The day is spent walking along a road – remote enough that only a few vehicles will pass you by – through a rocky desert, eventually becoming a gorge as the road joins the river.
You’ll know when you reach Zingchan as there’s a sign directing you off the road to the Zingchan campsite. It’s spectacular, but hard work as the sun beats down on you with zero shade. I walked this day, and although I enjoyed the scenery, overall I feel like you’re better off saving your energy and taking a taxi to start the trek directly from Zingchan instead.
Accommodation: Zingchan has a campsite with a few dilapidated buildings (even by Ladakhi standards) where a couple of shepherd families live. It’s possible to home-stay here, though prepare yourself for a super rustic experience.
Water: There are no water stops for the first three hours. After that the road goes down by the river, so it’s possible to fill up from there. In Zingchan there is a stream at the campsite.
The dusty road to Zingchan, cut into the mountainside.
Day 1 – Zingchan (3,396m) to Rumbak (3,847m) – 5.5km – 3hrs
NB: From Zingchan, it takes 2-3 days to ascend the Kanda La – the first 5,000m pass. If you’re already acclimatised, you can easily merge day 1 and 2 together for a two day ascent. If on the other hand, you’ve flown in and only spent a couple of days in Leh, it’s best to break the ascent of the Kanda La into three days to minimise altitude sickness.
This is a short day taking you deeper into the mountains, almost all uphill but never too steep. The road used to end at Zingchan, but as of 2017 it’s been extended further following the river upstream. Eventually, you say goodbye to the road as it becomes a gravel path still climbing up the valley along the river. When your valley meets another valley on your left, walk up the new valley past a campsite and yak pastures till you find the village of Rumbak.
Accommodation: Rumbak has several home-stays as it’s on route to the popular 6,000m peak of Stok Kangri. In fact, Rumbak had the nicest home-stay of the whole route with – gasp – an indoor shower. The lady of the house also cooked us an extremely tasty dhal (that unfortunately my friend and I were too altitude sick to properly enjoy).
Water: You follow the river for the whole of the day, so can refill at any point.
Day 2 – Rumbak (3,847m) to Yurutse (4,150m) – 2 hrs
Yes, this is the actual colour of the path on the way to Yurutse.
Another short day climbing gently up the colourful valley. Leaving Rumbak, you initially backtrack down the valley until you reach the river then continue upstream. We had a bit of trouble finding the path at first which seems to have disintegrated in the river, but tramp upstream and you’ll find it again on the left bank. Once you’ve found it, it’s quite easy to follow all the way to Yurutse.
Accommodation: Yurutse is a single, large house offering home-stay with plenty of rooms for trekkers, occupied permanently by a couple of women. If you carry on past the house for 30 minutes you’ll find a campsite with a tent shop.
Water: The path runs above the river for most of the route, but best just take enough when you set off to last you the whole of this short day.
Day 3 – Yurutse (4,150m) over Kanda La Pass (4,973m) to Shingo (4,173m) – 8.5km – 6hrs
At the top of the Kanda La pass and the path leading down to distant Shingo.
This is one of those epic and majestic days in the mountains where all the toil suddenly transcends to feel like you’re close to stumbling on the meaning of life. Follow the clear path as it winds it’s way up the valley between mountain peaks and finally, finally up and over the pass. Then fly like the wind down the wide, dusty valley on the other side till you reach Shingo, holding off exhaustion just long enough to drink some tea before collapsing into sleep only waking at dinner time. The stuff that alpinist dreams are made of.
Accommodation: Shingo is a picturesque farming village with a couple of home-stays next to a stream.
Water: There are springs at the campsites that you pass early in the day. After that you need to carry enough water until you reach Shingo.
Day 4 – Shingo (4,173m) to Sera (3,607m) – 8hrs – 21km
The mini-monastery in Skiu.
This is another spectacular, if very long day where you finally enter the famed Markha valley. It starts with a 3 hour descent criss-crossing the river in a gorge that at times resembles the Grand Canyon. You then reach the village of Skyu on the bank of the Markha river, complete with Buddhist monastery and coca-cola serving eco-cafe. To visit the monastery, ask the lady at the eco-cafe who has the key. It’s custom to give a small donation – we gave 100Rs, which was welcome. Skyu is also famous for it’s home-stay with a shower (follow the path leading to the right of the eco-cafe to find it).
Continue on your way taking the path leading to the left of the eco-cafe following the Markha river upstream through picturesque farmlands. Be careful with your route finding though, and if in doubt hug the left side of the gorge to find the path. We ended up unnecessarily fording the river twice before finding the path again. Rule of thumb: if you’re getting your feet wet, you’ve gone wrong! Two hours from Skyu and you’ll reach the Pentse campsite, which features a wooden sit down toilet (the luxuries you find in the Markha valley!). If you have a tent this is the perfect night stop, otherwise you have to trudge on another two hours through the increasingly desolate scenery until you arrive in Sera.
Accommodation: There are home-stays available in both Skyu and Sera. Skyu is rather large relative to other villages, while Sera is just a few houses.
Water: As the path follows rivers the whole way, you have plenty of opportunities to refill your bottles. The eco cafe in Skyu sells fizzy drinks, but doesn’t stock bottled water. It sells filtered water, however I wouldn’t trust it as I suspect this is the water that poisoned me!
Alternate day 4 to end trek – Shingo (4,173m) to Chilling (3,200m) – 6hrs
To end the trek after the first 5,000m pass, descend to Skyu, following the standard route, but then turn right at the eco-cafe to follow the river down stream. The path is a wide, clear and gravelly as it zig zags down the valley to eventually come to a collapsed steel bridge. There is a rope contraption in it’s place that you can use to cross the river – yes, that’s right you have to put your trust in a make-shift rope contraption. It’s either that or a several days walk over another 5,000m pass – make your choice! Once you’ve made it to the other side, you’ll rejoin the road, which will take you to the village of Chilling.
Daring escape from the mountains.
The only inconvenience of ending your trek in Chilling is that there’s only one bus that passes through the village per week. So, either you have to plan what day you arrive in Chilling to fit the bus schedule, or book a taxi to pick you up. There isn’t a taxi stand in Chilling, so either you have to pre-arrange a taxi or talk to the villagers in Chilling who should be able to help you out. The taxi costs 3,000Rs and takes 2 hours to reach Leh.
Conversely, you can skip the first mountain pass and begin your trek at Chilling, heading up to Skyu to join the main route. The ascent on this first day would be brutal, but more gentle than the Kanda La at least.
Water: The last place to fill up water is Skyu. After that you’re too far from the river to re-fill.
Accommodation: There is a cafe in Chilling, but it was closed when we arrived. I didn’t get too much chance to explore, but it didn’t seem like there was much there. Probably, someone would offer home-stay if you needed it.
Day 5 – Sera (3,607m) to Markha (3,755m) – 4hrs – 10km
Approaching Markha village and monastery.
This would have been a very pleasant day, except that I was food poisoned and had to be sick on route. Sick or not, the valley and farmlands are very beautiful, and you follow a clear path all the way. This day of the trek used to be infamous as it required you to ford the Markha river, but thankfully there is now a solid bridge instead.
Accommodation: There are several home-stays on the outskirts of the Markha village. There’s also a dramatic, ruined monastery in the village that my friend had fun exploring while I was busy spending time with my head in a bucket.
Water: A few springs and moments when the path comes close to the river provide opportunities to refill.
Unfortunately, following my food poisoning my friend and I made the sensible decision to turn back, rather than attempt the second 5,000m pass. This means that the following three days are outlined as I would have walked them, but I don’t have first hand experience to share. Please do write in if you can add some details on what to expect!
Day 6 – Markha (3,755m) to Hangkar (3,990m) – 4hrs – 10.5km
Seemingly one of the most gentle days on the whole trek.
Day 7 – Hangkar (3,990m) to Nyimaling (4,848m)
Followed by maybe the most challenging day of the trek. Hopefully, after Kanda La, you should be almost fully acclimatised to spend a night at 4,800m without too bad a headache. This is the one night that you don’t have the luxury of a home-stay, but during the summer there is a tent dormitory with a tent shop to hire camping stuff and some local food products. This is the infamous freezer camp, so get out those layers.
Day 8 – Nyimaling (4,848m) via Gongmaru La pass (5,287m) to Shang Sumdo (3,678m) – 8hrs 30mins – 20km
This seems like it would be another exhausting, but spectacular day over the second high pass. In Shang Sumdo there are home-stays, a monastery to visit and a daily bus connection back to Leh.
Optional day 9 – Shang Sumdo (3,678m) to Hemis (3,649m) – 10km – 3hrs 30mins
This was the original last day of the trek, but there is now a road connecting Shang Sumdo and Hemis together. Hemis holds one of the most famous monasteries of the region, so it would be a worthy end to your Buddhist pseudo-pilgramage. From Hemis, there are two daily bus connections back to Leh.
The 6,000m peak of Stok Kangri – waiting for your next adventure.