Ladakh – the little kingdom in the very north of India – is the perfect place to get a first taste of trekking on the top of the world. Especially if you start off light with what locals teasingly call the “Baby Trek” because it’s so short and easy. You might laugh with them at first. You won’t anymore when you try to make your way up to that top of the pass at a gruesome altitude of 5260 meters.
“Julee” you hear from far away, the call cutting through the silence in these mountains. Suddenly some ponies, mules and a donkey appear from around the bend in the trail, all packed with luggage and provisions. A man walks with the animals and makes sure they stay on the trail and don’t run off. He smiles when he sees us hikers. “Julee, Julee”, he calls out again, while his animals already disappear on the narrow trail along the river. Hello, Welcome, Thankyou, Goodbye, Nice to meet you – Julee ist a word with many meanings. It is the first and the last word of greeting in any conversation and even if language barriers prohibit any kind of exchange, there is always room for “Julee” and a smile here in this little kingdom on the rooftop of the world, in Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.
“If a valley can only be reached by a very high mountain pass, the only ones that come here are either very good friends or very big enemies”, an old saying goes in Ladakh. And when you travel to Ladakh today, no matter if by road or by airway, you immediatly find this to be true. From Delhi we took the plane to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. And despite enjoying the birds perspective, you feel incredibly small when flying to the very north of India. The peaks of the Himalayan mountains greet you, high above the clouds and majestically, wild and unbreachable. The mountains are a fortress around a country and a people, that settled in their green valleys.
Even though Ladakh belongs politically to India today, its culture remains distinct. It has strong cultural and spiritual connections to Tibet still. The majoritiy of Ladakhi are buddhists and the Dalai Lama ist their religious leader. Ladakh is a haven for Tibetean refugees and has a blooming religious culture. Around the capital Leh there are several big monasteries, most of them many centuries old, with an active monk community. And today still a lot of novices are accepted each year.
Ladakh has only been accessible for tourists since 1974. Before that the area, that shares a much disputed border with China and also borders with the unstable Kashmir-region, has been closed to visitors. Even today in the Ladakh valley some 30 000 Indian soldiers are stationed. And there are still some regions along the border, that can only be visited with a special permit. The military is a vice and a virtue for the Ladakhi locals. There are always incidents of assaults on Ladakhi women by Indian soldiers. But at the same time the military provides the region with the most jobs, even more than tourism.
Still, tourism is the main economic factor in Ladakh. Before that most people worked in agriculture. But now Ladakh is ready for tourists. As soon as you emerge from the airplane, a little lightheaded from the sudden exposore to 3500 m of altitude, a flock of taxi drivers surrounds you. “Taxi, miss, taxi” they call and they follow you as you make your way out of the airport and onto the street and they won’t give up until one of them finally gets to drive you on the narrow dusty street towards Leh, the hub where all trekking activity will start, the place where you will spend some time to acclimatize to the altitude and to get familiar with the people and infrastructure.
Leh in summer is a beehive. Cars, cycles, cows, dogs, merchants and tourists alike share the dusty roads. There are hotels in every price range and of every quality. There are restaurants with Indian, Western and Tibetean dishes, internetcafés, souvenir stores and countless travel agencies, that try to sell you day trips and mountain treks. A young merchant industriously shows me his selection of pashmina scarfs – “And very good price only for you miss”. He tries to make big money in Leh during the summer months. He like many others here is not a local, but originally comes from the neighbouring Kashmir. In fall before the snow on the passes closes all roads into Ladakh he will leave the valley and try to sell his goods in Goa, in southern India.
In the short summer season, Ladakh has in the past few years become a bit of a trekking mecca. Its trails are not quite as crowded yet as the ones in Nepal, and though the peaks might not be quite as high there is still your fair share of 6000-ers to take your pick from. And for the trekking-novice there are plenty of routes to choose from too.
We decided to give the Markha-valley-trek a go, or as it is known by the locals the “Baby-Trek”, since it is fairly short and doesn’t include any high peaks. A rather adventurous ride on very unsafe looking cable way got us over a river, and water bottles all filled up and with loads of warm clothing in our packs we set off on our four-day-trek.
For the most part the trek follows the river up the Markha Valley. There are some steep ascents but all in all it is a moderate affair with a steady climb towards the pass. There are green meadows along the river, every now and then a tree provides some shade. The most gnarly part of the hike were two river crossings, that should best be undertaken early in the morning, because the water level rises during the day (Make sure to ask some local guides when and where are the best spots to cross). Apart from that you wander through a barren wasteland of rock and dust and gravel, the blue sky seems endless, the 30-degree heat suffocating. We hiked slowly, making sure we did stop and drink a lot and we always welcomed the tea tents along the way that provided us not only with a bit of shade, but also with supersweet masala tea, maybe some noodle soup and always a kind smile.
The landscape is littered with religious relicts: Mani-walls, little walls of stones that are inscribed with mandalas and verses are scattered on the trek always in the middle of the way. They are part of the old shamanistic believes that blend with Buddhism in many places in Ladakh. On a hill you will see an old abandoned monastery. And everywhere there are prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
The trek passes through many small settlements, whose inhabitants will provide you with a warm meal or a room to sleep in. And most houses have flat roofs, so you are always welcome to just sleep up there for extra star gazing opportunities. Or if you are more adventurous – or simply fail to plan your trek rightly like we did and end up caught on a river bank between two river crossings too daunting to undertake late in the afternoon – there is always the option to simply put down your mattress on the ground out in the wild. There is no such feeling as falling asleep all cuddled up in your sleeping bag (temperatures easily drop to zero degrees at night, despite the summer heat during the day, so pack accordingly!) with that amazing night sky and the knowledge that you are amongst the highest peaks of the world.
The highlight of the trek is the Konmaru La, a pass on 5260 meters of altitude. We spent the night before making it up there at an altitude of 4800, at a sort-of basecamp that included tents that could be rented, very basic toilet facilities and a large kitchen/dining-hall-tent where everyone was welcome to a huge helping of tasty curry and rice. The night was medium relaxed, the altitude-gain of the last three days made some of us just slightly uncomfortable and some of us really sick. Yet apparently a broth of garlic, ginger and pepper provided by the locals did help with the nausea and my unfortunate friend was able to get at least a little rest still. Rather quiet we ate our cereal in the morning, already exausted and not quite sure what to expect of the day. 500 meters of altitude gain doesn’t seem like much, 500 meters starting off from 4800 is a different matter.
The western trekkers did try their best to cope with the thin air, walking slowly, breathing steadily, the altitude taking its toll on everyone. You walk two steps and your heart starts pacing. You walk another two steps and you feel like you are about to have a heart attack and you pause again and wait for your body to calm down and then you take another step and another and a mere ten meters seem to take forever. Meanwhile the local guides and porters jog up and down the pass, they chat and relaxe and drink their whiskey and smoke and laugh and seem to have a jolly good time and even though we don’t understand a word they are saying the meaning is rather clear: They seem to have the time of their lives watching the crazy westerners struggling up these last hundred, fifty, twenty meters towards the pass height, for no apparent reason at all.
And then, finally we made it to the top. There is silence, serenity, grandeur. Everyone quiets down once they arrive on the top, everyone relaxes, enjoying the sense the accomplishement. A cool breeze moves the giant stack of prayer flags. We attach some flags of our own and marvel at the stunning view of those snowcovered peaks rising in every direction. And everytime another trekker made his way to tohe top you hear the Ladakhi greeting, encouraging and heartfelt: “Julee, julee!”