Ladakh (land of the high passes) in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India is an excellent trekking destination. With so many trails to choose from and treks from beginner to expedition, you simply can’t go wrong.
If you travel on a budget like us and don’t like to do everything on a guided tour, you can easily trek this valley on your own! Here’s how to trek Markha Valley with no guide and what it costs…
Why do it independently?
To save money, why else
The cheapest offer we found from a travel company was 13,000 rs per person for 5 days, with other offers closer to 18,000 rs. These prices didn’t include all the gear you’ll need to buy for the trek if you don’t come prepared (we didn’t). It was beginning to look like we were going to pay up to $800 with the gear and a guide. Not exactly budget-friendly.
Navigation is straightforward
You’re in a valley, so you literally just follow the river. A guide is not required. Be sure to buy a map in Leh before your trip and download the app maps.me. Additionally, make sure you download the Jammu Kashmir map (to use offline), and you’re golden. The places we mention in this post are all on that app, google maps isn’t sufficient for this journey. It’s a popular trek, so you’re sure to run into other trekkers, guides, and villagers who can also point you in the right direction if you have trouble. We actually still felt like we had a guide for the trek because we befriended a few along the way.
When we were researching which trek to do in Ladakh we wanted something that was harder than the baby trek but also wasn’t going to kill us. You don’t have to be in great shape or train ahead of time to do the Markha Valley trek, it’s easy enough but it still offers some challenges.
There are several itineraries for the Markha Valley trek, lasting from 4-8 days depending on how many days you have and how many passes you’d like to do. Here’s what we did…
Chilling – Sara – Markha – Hankar – Nymaling – Chokdo – Shang Sumdo
We took a private taxi from Leh to Chilling for 2500 rs to begin the trek. You can find drivers at the old bus stand or ask your accommodation if they know anyone. Alternatively, there is a cheap bus that goes twice weekly on Sundays and Wednesdays. Ask around in Leh for the current prices and schedules.
Day 1: Chilling – Sara
16 km/10 miles (7-10 hours)
We were told that there was a bridge built in Chilling recently, but it only lasted a year after floods ravaged the area and tore it down. Now the only way to cross the river is in this basket. Lucky you! Hold it steady, jump in, and slowly pull yourself across. It takes some arm strength, but you’ll make it over eventually.
Follow the dirt road until you reach the first village, Kaya. It’s a small farming community with several families, a few donkeys, and some funny kids.
Kaya – Skyu
After Kaya you’ll continue onto Skyu, where there is an ancient 1,000 year old hand-carved Buddha statue inside a monastery. Ask around for the key if it’s locked.
While eating a snack in Skyu we heard some bells ringing in the distance, what could it be!? Then we saw two bales of hay moving in the valley, with a man yelling at them. We laughed when we realized there were two donkeys underneath the hay…
We decided to walk beyond Skyu to Sara village while our legs were still fresh, but you can stay in Skyu if you want to take it easy. The first day was a long day of walking (about 10 miles), but the scenery was beautiful and most of it was relatively flat and easy.
We met a very welcoming woman in her front yard shortly after entering Sara. A warm, smiling face was just what we needed to see as the sun started to set and our legs began to feel wobbly. She invited us inside and was so kind that we decided to stay with her!
We absolutely adored staying with Dolma. She’s about as accommodating as they come, bringing us fruit, cookies, crackers, and hot tea as soon as we set our bags down. The accommodation was basic but sufficient for us. Whatever it lacks in comfort, it makes up for in genuine Ladakhi hospitality.
We rested up a bit, and it wasn’t long before we were summoned to the kitchen for dinner. Large servings of hot homemade dal, chapati, and subji were all waiting for us. It’s amazing what a warm meal and good company can do to soothe both your body and soul!
After a quiet night of sleep and a delicious breakfast, we grabbed our things and the lunch she packed up for us. We were on our way!
Day 2: Sara – Markha
8 km/5 miles (3-5 hours)
Definitely an easier day because it’s much shorter. Keep your eyes out for blue sheep (they look like antelope) climbing the hillside. Soak in the silence as you wander past old Tibetan chortens, a Tibetan stupa or Buddhist monument, and mani walls, stone tablets inscribed with Buddhist mantras. There is a reason monks have come to this valley for centuries to hone their meditation skills.
We continued on, walking through bright orange seabuckberry bushes until we came upon our first few glimpses of snowy Kang Yatze mountain (6400 m/20,997 ft), the largest peak you encounter throughout the trek!
When we arrived in Markha we noticed that the best campsites were in the lower valley. People were tying up their pack horses near the river, but we continued a bit further in search of another friendly homestay.
We continued walking across the river and up a hill towards the monastery and an old crumbling fort. Below these buildings in the next valley, we saw a few women working away in the field. We waved and with a rising tone of voice politely asked “homestaaay?” Luckily one woman smiled and led us to her home.
Success! If you want to stay here, just ask around. The woman’s name was Zingchen and she makes really delicious chutagi (a Ladakhi dumpling resembling gnocchi).
Read next: Visiting the Magical Monasteries of Ladakh
Day 3: Markha – Hankar
9.6 km/6 miles (3-5 hours)
This day has more river crossings. If you have sensitive feet, bring water shoes! You’ll have even more amazing views of Kang Yatze as it gets bigger and bigger the closer you get.
You can stay in lower or upper Hankar. We recommend Tangmar Pa homestay in upper Hankar where you’ll get an amazing sunset and even better company. They also make delicious momos and offer chang (local barley wine) for those willing to try it.
Day 4: Hankar – Nymaling
9.6 km/6 miles (4-6 hours)
Leaving Hankar you’ll pass through a fence and continue until the trail hooks left into a canyon. Do NOT take the first bridge to the right. Apparently several people have and they end up lost.
Into the canyon is an easy walk to Tsachungtse, where you can find a tea tent and campsite. They offer hot maggi soup, drinks, and simple snacks. After this tea house came, for us, the most difficult part of the trek. There is an elevation gain of 700 meters up to Nymaling.
Coming up through the valley you will see the hoodoos high on the left side. You can go one of two ways, up the steep hill or through the valley, either way, you’re going up. Follow the cairns through the rocky terrain until you reach the top where you’ll be greeted with what feels like hundreds of cairns.
From there you’ll keep heading up until you reach Lake Tsigu. This is a great lunch break spot with a spectacular view. You’re almost to Nymaling!
From the lake it’s about another 45 minutes until you reach the valley, where you’ll see the Nymaling camp in the distance. Your home for the night!
The night we spent here was the coldest night of our lives. There was frost inside of our tent! Sleeping fully clothed with 5-6 thick blankets still didn’t seem to be enough.
Try not to drink too much of anything before you go to bed, you don’t wanna get up to pee in the middle of the night! It’s a long cold walk to the toilets.
If you’re up for it, you can hike up the hill in front of Kang Yatze. At the top you can get a view of the Kang Yatze base camp. A word of warning, make sure you leave with enough daylight, it’s farther than you think!
There was an older Italian gentleman that died up there a few weeks before we arrived, he went alone and never came back. Please be careful!
Day 5: Nymaling – Chokdo
12 km/7.5 miles (4-7 hours)
It’s about a two hour trek up from your camp at Nymaling to the top of the pass Kongmaru La (5130m). You get stunning views across the valley to Kang Yatze on the way up. Once you reach the top take a load off and enjoy those 360 degree views!
It’s a long, steep, and tedious descent down into the red gorge below. It can be tough on your knees, so take it easy and watch your footing. You’ll cross the stream several times as you work your way along the rocky trail.
Some people go all the way to Shang Sumdo, requiring another hour or so, but we decided to stay in Chokdo. We weren’t in any rush! We stayed at the first homestay, shortly after the tea tent. You’ll see it on the left when you come out of the gorge.
It’s run by a friendly elderly couple who own several black bulls and a cute dog. Only trouble with the dog is that he barks a lot, another guide said he probably senses the snow leopards lurking.
Chokdo – Shang Sumdo
2 km/1 mile (maybe 15 mins)
From Chokdo you take a short walk to Shang Sumdo. From there you can either continue onto Hemis or return back to Leh. We linked up with our new Swiss friend Markus who had a local guide and a ride prearranged.
Matt and I pitched in a few hundred rupees each and we agreed to stop at Hemis monastery on our way back to Leh. An added bonus that we hadn’t initially planned on, but were happy we did!
Total distance: 55 km/34.5 miles (Celebrate with some well deserved beers!)
Getting back to Leh
From Shang Sumdo there are several transportation options:
- (Easiest) Prearrange a driver to pick you up near Chokdo or Shang Sumdo the day you finish, or buddy up with somebody else who has one and pay your way. This is what we ended up doing.
- (Most difficult) Walk another 12 km (7.5 mls) to Hemis monastery, mostly along the road, and then hitchhike along the Leh – Manali highway back to Leh afterwards.
- Catch public transport back to Leh from Shang Sumdo. If you’re doing this trek outside of the high season (June-September), don’t count on this option. We went during the first week of October and there was no public transport back to Leh.
- Make sure you’re properly acclimatized before doing this trek! Don’t start the trek immediately after arrival to Leh. You can buy altitude sickness pills (Diamox) over the counter in Leh. They’re good to have even if you think you don’t need them.
- The most crowded time is July and August. The high season can be really hot and dusty. We went in October and it was perfect, nice weather and less people. Regardless of when you do decide to go make sure you bring a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Oh and snacks too!
- Don’t miss the homestays! As awesome as it would be to camp the whole way, we feel like you’d be truly missing out on a really unique cultural experience by not staying with the locals. Yes it will cost more, in the end it’s up to you, but for us the homestays really made the trek!
- Toilets are either nonexistent or simple holes in the ground. Bring your own toilet paper!
- Don’t forget to download maps.me and the Jammu Kashmir map for use offline out on the trek!
- Have fun! This trek is epic! Truly one of the best things we’ve ever done.
(prices included a bed, dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch)
1,000 rs/night/person @ village homestays = 8,000 rs for 4 nights
1,2oo rs/night/person @ Nymaling campsite = 2,400 rs for 1 night
Total = 10,400 rs – $162.50
Windproof sets (jacket & pants): 3000 rs each
Headlight: 600 rs
Hats: 350 + 445 rs
Flannels: 450 rs
Underlayer: 280 rs
Socks: 200 rs
Windbreaker: 800 rs
Gloves: 650 rs
Socks: 200 rs
New thermals (shirt & pants): 300/200 rs
New gloves: 250 rs
Used men’s hiking boots: 1000 rs
New women’s hiking boots: 2500 rs
Total = 14,225 rs – $222.00
*We bought most of our gear at the Tibetan Refugee Market. You can also check out the old bus stand and other second-hand stores around Leh. We only needed to use our jacket and pants while at Nymaling and hiking to Kongmaru La, otherwise it was quite warm.
Additional food/snacks: 3,500 rs – $55.00
TOTAL TREK COST = 28,125 rs – $439.50
In conclusion, we only spent about half of what we would’ve doing it with a tour company and we got an extra night!
Have you ever been trekking? Where was your favorite trek?