Known as one of the most popular and beautiful treks in Ladakh, I decided to hike the Markha Valley trek during my time in North India. The trail follows the Markha River through a beautiful valley south of Leh town.
The trail has become relatively popular in India for a number of reasons. It’s easily accessible, it’s not difficult to navigate and it’s one of the few multi-day treks in the region that can be done independently by staying in homestays.
The Markha Valley trek is quite spectacular and gives you a closer view of the incredible landscapes that are found around Ladakh. The colours of the rock change every kilometre on the trail and the villages appear almost like oases along the valley floor. It was also a beautiful way to get a glimpse of the traditional culture and lifestyle of the people who call the region home.
This guide will help any independent traveller organise and hike the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh.
About the Markha Valley trek
- Distance: 68km
- Time: 4-5 days
- Difficulty: Medium-Hard
- Highest point: Kongmaru Pass at 5250m
- Accommodation: Homestays and camping available
The Markha Valley trek follows the Markha Valley River from Chilling up to the Kongmaru Pass and down towards the Hemis Monastery. It passes through a beautiful arid valley that provides stark contrasts between the dry dusty slopes, snow capped peaks and green fertile villages along the river.
Throughout the valley there are small Tibetan villages living a very traditional lifestyle. The region has a long history which is evident along the way as you pass old gompas and ruins of fortresses on hilltops.
While the locals live off the land as best they can, the arrival of trekkers has brought a whole new source of income and access to supplies by mules and porters. Many of the mud-brick homes have been turned into homestays for trekkers, with each village managing the homestay program themselves. Generally speaking, each night a different households has their turn to accommodate any trekkers passing through.
This also means that the price is very consistent and each village sets a price for accommodation and food per trekker. It’s a nice change in India to know that there’s no bargaining or cheating, and you know how much you have to pay.
Read next: 18 Best Things to Do in Ladakh
When to hike the Markha Valley trek
It’s best to tackle the Markha trek during the high season in Ladakh, between June and September. This is when the weather is at its best with clear skies, dry weather and relatively warm days. Outside of these months, you’ll likely find too much snow and some of the roads impassable.
Do you need a guide?
You don’t need a guide to hike the Markha Valley trek. The trail is perfectly fine for independent hikers to follow and it’s quite common for budget travellers to complete this trek without a guide. I ended up doing most of the Markha Valley trek solo, as my two hiking buddies turned around after the first day.
However, a guide can make the experience more enjoyable if you’re not a confident hiker or you want to learn a lot more about the local culture and history.
You can organise a guide in Leh at one of the many hiking and travel agencies in town. Prices start from around 4000 INR per day for an organised trek with a guide. Make sure you’re clear about what’s included and not included in the price, as some companies don’t include meals etc.
Any agency in Leh can also help arrange transport and porters, if you want. However, as my Markha Valley trek itinerary described below proves, you can really just head off from Leh and organise everything yourself.
Getting to the trailhead
With constant road construction the trailhead has moved over time. Chilling, a village on the Markha River has been traditionally considered the start of the trek. However, the dirt road now extends just past the village to a newly built bridge across the river.
When I completed the hike, I was dropped at this bridge instead of Chilling village, as it saves a couple of kilometres along a dusty, dirt road. The drive from Leh to Chilling took two hours.
The taxis in Leh have a booklet with all the official prices inside and so generally, if you’re a tourist there is not much room to bargain. The whole taxi cost 3150 rupees (AUD$65) from Leh to the bridge/trailhead and I was able to split it with a couple of other trekkers.
Alternative start point
There is another option which is to start at Spitok, which is just a short drive south of Leh. From Spitok, you can follow the trail up to Ganda La pass at 4950m and then down to Skiu where it meets up with the Markhka Valley trek. This option adds around 2-3 days onto your hike and should only be done by those who’ve spent at least a couple of days acclimatising in Leh.
Day 1: Chilling to Skiu
As we didn’t leave until midday from Leh, we decided to only hike to Skiu village (or also written, Skyu) on the first day. From the bridge where we were dropped, we followed the dirt road, which is actually now motorable until just after Skyu. It took us 2 hours of relatively easy walking to arrive in the village and it was already 5.30pm when we arrived. A lady came running over from the field and said, “We have rotation system of homestay here, and it’s my turn tonight, come.”
We were taken to her home where there were already two trekkers staying and we got a basic room to share with mattresses on the floor.
Distance: 7km Time: 2 hours Ascended: 180m
Day 2: Skyu to Markha village
Unfortunately, my two friends decided to turn back as one of them had been sick overnight. Skyu is the last point you can call a taxi to reach you so it was the safest decision. I then decided to keep going alone and left at 11am for the long hike to Markha village.
It was a long undulating trail through the valley floor following the river. There were chortens and stupas along the way at small passes in the trail and the colour of the mountains was insanely beautiful.
With no shelter or cover from the sun, it did get quite hot. I was sweating a lot and I ran out of water often, but I could refill at teahouses and villages along the way. I passed a few large trekking groups with donkeys, porters and guides, so I was far from alone.
I arrived in Markha at 5pm, extremely tired and dehydrated. All I wanted to do was stop and rest but I pushed on to the village to find a homestay. It took me some time but someone finally tracked down the lady who was on the roster for the night.
There was another couple also looking for a homestay and they got the only bedroom in the house, so I slept on the floor in the kitchen/dining room with the lady. We enjoyed dinner together and then I slept like a baby until 5.30am, when I heard our host get up to make breakfast.
Distance: 21km Time: 6 hours Ascended: 420m
Day 3: Markha to Lower Hankar
I left the homestay at 8am and quickly overtook all the mule trains and trekking groups. The trail eventually wound it’s way through the valley until it came to the edge of the Markha River. There was no other choice but to wade through the freezing water which reached up to my knees.
I passed through the tiny village of Umlang where I had a ginger tea and a rest from walking at one of the teahouses.
I finally arrived in a place called Lower Hankar, which is just 1km before the main village of Hankar. A lady stopped me and said it was their turn to host trekkers. I contemplated pushing on further but wasn’t feeling the best as the elevation was getting closer to 4000m. So, I stayed the night in the large home with a few other trekkers as they rolled on through in the afternoon.
The homestay had a tent set up outside where you could enjoy the view and chat with other trekkers for the rest of the day until dinner.
Distance: 10km Time: 3 hours Ascended: 210m
Day 4: Hankar to Nimaling Camp
I woke up knowing I had a big day ahead of me, but I felt very positive and, sometimes that can make all the difference. I left at 8am and followed the undulating trail up to a campsite where a lot of the organised trekking groups had stayed the night before. From there, the trail was steep and so began the 800m ascent up to Nimaling.
The weather was not very good and clouds obscured the beautiful view as rain threatened to come all morning. I took a steady pace and surprised myself as to how little I had to stop to catch my breath.
The trail climbed up to the top of a ridge where I passed many of the trekking groups. Just as the rain started to fall, I finally made the last push up before the trail plateaued out for the last 2km to camp.
I was feeling pretty good, despite the day before and I made it to Nimaling in 4 hours, a time that not even the camp managers could quite believe.
The camp was at 4800m (the second highest I’d ever slept at), and the ‘homestay’ available is actually a cluster of tents that some locals manage and rent out for the season. At that altitude there are no permanent villages and only nomadic farmers who bring their stock up to fertile grounds for the summer.
I got myself my own tent and then sat in the dining room for the rest of the evening talking to people as they arrived. The rain was relentless and turned to hail and snow as the entire landscape became a blanket of white.
There was no heater in the dining tent and it was absolutely freezing once the sun set. I was okay in my down jacket that had served me well in Nepal, but many people shivered through the night. The camp was practically full, with all sorts of trekking groups and individuals. Many had guides, with just a few of us independent hikers.
Distance: 12km Time: 4 hours Ascended: 860m
Day 5: Nimaling to Kongmaru La to Shang Sumdo
I woke up and anxiously peered outside the tent to see what the weather had decided to do. Luckily I could see blue skies with some cloud around, a lot better than the day before. I headed off for the pass after 8am and, like the day before, I felt very strong and was moving up the steep climb at a decent pace.
For the short 3km to Kongmaru La, it’s estimated to take around 2 hours. I made it in just over an hour, with me and a Frenchman the first two to cross the pass for the day. The view was cloudy, but still magnificent with mountains stretched out in every direction.
At 5250m, I couldn’t believe how well my body was coping. Although, staying in Leh at 3500m for a couple of weeks before had definitely helped!
Distance: 3km Time: 1 hour 15mins Ascended: 430m
I started down from the pass as soon as the snow started to fall and it was a very steep decline all the way back down to the bottom of the valley. I was going at a very quick pace, but had to make myself stop for a lunch break after such a big morning. There aren’t any teahouses along the way so it’s important to carry enough food.
As you head down through the valley, the trail can be difficult to follow. At times there seems to be numerous trails, some of which are old and have been destroyed in landslides or washed away by the raging river below.
At the time, it seemed obvious to me to simply follow the donkey poo which basically leaves a perfectly marked trail all the way back as many locals use the trail. This served me well and I never got lost. It pays to use some common sense sometimes when you don’t have a guide.
The trail does go up and down along a sheer valley and crosses the river a couple of times too. You have to be vigilant in this last part of the Markha Valley trek, as you don’t have any other way out.
Distance: 14km Time: 4 hours Descended: 1580m
Finishing the Markha Valley trek and getting back to Leh
I made it to a small village called Chogdo which is the beginning of the motorable road that goes back to Leh. There were a few taxis waiting at a tea house there, but they were all pre-booked for the trekking groups. There was one who wasn’t booked and he was willing to drive me back but I wanted to wait for more people to fill the car. I waited for two hours and then gave up, and decided to continue walking the extra 5km down to Shang Sumdo, the village at the official end of the trek and closer to the sealed main road.
I arrived and there was one tea house where a lovely old couple were sitting. The lady instantly poured me a cup of chai and I asked whether it was possible to get back to Leh. There is a bus that leaves every Monday, but it was Saturday and I didn’t feel like waiting another whole day in the village so she called a taxi. I refused to pay the “official” rate and we settled on 2000 rupees (AUD$40) for the return trek. It took around 90 minutes to drive back to Leh.
Accommodation on the Markha Valley trek
The homestays were generally good, although it’s far from luxury. It’s often a mattress on the floor in a shared room with other trekkers and maybe even your host, so don’t expect too much.
You can also carry tent and camp along the way, but the homestay experience is very much a memorable part of the trek.
The price for the accommodation was the same 1200 INR each night including food. Except the Nimaling Camp charged 1400 INR, but you have no other choice up there of any other teahouse.
The food was very good, or at least the dinners were. Home cooked food with locally grown produce, usually rice, dahl and vegetables although they also cooked local food like stew and tingmo too.
Breakfast was only tea and some chapatti and so I never ate breakfast but had plenty of snacks with me. The homestays organise packed lunches for hikers, which were always the same; a sandwich, a boiled egg, a boiled potato or two, a juice box and a chocolate bar.
The Markha Valley trek is mostly quite obvious and it would be difficult to get lost all the way through to the Kongmaru pass. There were plenty of people on the trail too, so there’s never a shortage of anyone to ask.
After the pass, however, there was a few random trails darting here and there on the way down, and even some trails that I could see must have been old and recently destroyed. So, its best to follow the one that has very obvious footprints and animal droppings as this will be the one that the locals use and they know best.
The trails are also marked on Maps.Me but I would actually say to follow the footprints/poo as it’s likely to be more accurate. Trails can de destroyed year to year from landslides and water.
Markha Valley trek cost
Transport to and from: 3050 rupees (AUD$61)
Homestays & food: 5000 rupees (AUD$100)
Snacks purchased before leaving Leh: 1000 rupees (AUD$20)
There are no permits required although as I was leaving the valley I was made to pay a park fee, which was 20 rupees (AUD40c) per day.
Total: AUD$183 for five days