Yaks grazing on green plains at an altitude of 5,000m, white snow-covered peaks higher than 6,000m, extensive valleys surrounded by huge, rocky mountains and a strong Tibetan culture with deep roots: the Markha Valley trek is the perfect hike for those seeking both stunning Himalayan landscapes and experience real Tibetan culture.
Markha Valley is one of the most popular treks in Ladakh, but it’s still a hundred times more authentic than the popular treks offered in Nepal.
Tourism in Ladakh is still emerging and, today, you can walk around Markha for hours and yet not meet any soul apart from Tibetan shepherds.
Keep reading: A travel guide to Ladakh
The Markha trek goes alongside a river called Markha, a tributary of the Zankskar. This river is surrounded by big, rocky mountains which give shape to the valley.
Along the valley, there are numerous Tibetan settlements that have turned into small villages, made of mud-brick houses, and Buddhist gompas.
For centuries, this region was totally isolated from modern society, until it was discovered in the 19th century.
Today, Tibetans from Markha Valley make a living from the few trekkers that pass by during the summer months.
What are you going to find in this guide?
How many days are needed?
How much does the Markha trek cost?
Do you need a guide?
Transportation: How to get there and back?
Markha Valley trek map
Itinerary day by day
Food and water
Length: 96km / 50km
Duration: 4-9 days
When to go: June to September
Highest point: 5,200m
Lowest point: 3,200m
Difficulty: Medium (experienced beginners)
How many days are needed to complete the Markha Valley hike?
You need a minimum of 4 days and a maximum of 9, depending on where you start from:
Spitok – Starting from Spitok involves walking for between 6 and 9 days. During the first 2-3 days (40km), you walk through rocky areas until you cross Ganda La pass, at 4,970m. From there, you start descending until you get into the actual Markha river.
Chilling – This place is located on the Markha river itself, which means that you skip the first 2-3 days needed to get there. From Chilling, trekkers take between 4 and 6 days to complete the trail. That’s the option I chose.
Do you need a guide to complete the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh?
No, you don’t need a guide at all. You can do it independently without any problem. Let me tell you why:
The key is to follow the horse shit – It seems like a joke but, actually, there is plenty of horse shit along the trail, which will tell you the route to follow. Locals use these animals as a way of transportation when moving between villages.
Shepherds and local Tibetans – If animal manure disorientates you, don’t worry because, along the way, you will meet loads of shepherds, with their herd and their horses, who you can ask for directions.
Tibetan villages – Additionally, you will encounter villages every 2-4 hours, where you can also ask whether you are going in the right direction or not.
Markha Valley trek cost: Price with guide vs price by yourself
Price with guide
I asked several trekking agencies in Leh and, as an average, this would be the price for one person. If you were with more people, it would decrease slightly, obviously:
4 days x 4,000INR per day = 16,000INR (240USD)
Round trip transportation
Accommodation in either homestay or tent
3 meals a day
Price without a guide
Transportation from Leh to Chilling – A taxi costs around 2,800INR (43USD). If you don’t have anyone to share it with, I suggest you find a local who can you take there by motorbike. I paid 1,500INR (23USD).
Accommodation and food – Both homestay and tents cost 1,200INR (16.50USD), including dinner, breakfast and a picnic lunch box.
Transportation back to Leh – Taxis from Shang Sumdo (the ending point) to Leh cost 2,500INR (40USD). However, occasionally, early in the morning, you can find local transportation. I paid 500INR (8USD).
Total Cost = 1,500INR + 4 days x 1,200INR + 500 = 6,300INR (87USD)
Transportation: How to get there and back?
From Leh to Chilling
Chilling is located 65km from Leh and it takes around 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach it. Taxis can easily be booked for 2,800INR ($43).
If you can’t find anyone to share it with, unofficially, you can find a motorbike taxi. How? Just ask at the different agencies.
Most of them will tell you that they don’t offer this service but keep asking until you find one. I paid 1,500INR ($23).
From Shang Sumdo to Leh
Shang Sumdo is the ending point of the Markha Valley trek and the first village which vehicles can reach. There are taxis expecting to take you to Leh for 2,500INR ($43).
Once again, if you are just by yourself, you can either wait for other trekkers to come or go back to Leh by public transportation.
Occasionally, there are local taxis leaving at 6am. You just need to be lucky. Ask anybody around for this information.
Markha Valley trek map (Ladakh)
Markha Valley trek itinerary: Day by day route
Please note that the following day by day itinerary starts from Chilling, which is the one I followed.
Day 1: Chilling – Sara
Highest point: 3,710m
Lowest point: 3,200m
On the first day, the tough part is only during the first 5km, where you need to climb until you reach the Markha Valley itself. Afterwards, it becomes completely flat.
You’ll pass some villages, the biggest one being Skyu, where you can get a cooked meal.
The river flows through a valley which becomes greener as you keep going, but the aggressive surrounding mountains are brownish and arid.
Sara is a village comprised of just a few houses where you can find a few homestay options. However, I didn’t sleep there, but in a beautiful campsite located just a few kilometers before. It was set up on a green plain, the perfect spot to spend the night, chill out and meet other trekkers.
Day 2: Sara – Markha
Highest point: 3,850m
Lowest point: 3,710m
This is the shortest, flattest and most relaxing part of the whole hike. The landscape is pretty similar to that of the previous day, but the mountains are sharper.
Honestly, you could easily continue walking to a further village, but Markha is sort of a special place, worth spending half a day in.
It’s the capital of the valley, hence the village with more things to do and see, from a couple of Buddhist gompas, to peasants working in the fields, playing with children or admiring the landscape.
By the way, don’t expect Markha to be a metropolis, as it is composed of no more than 20 houses spread around a big area.
Day 3: Markha – Thachungtse
Highest point: 4,300m
Lowest point: 3,850m
On the third day, things start to become really interesting. Just a few hours after Markha, you can make out Kang Yaze peak, a mountain 6,150m.
If you are lucky, you can also spot some Himalayan deer. You need to keep following the valley until Hankar, situated at the half-way point, and where you can also get a warm meal (or spend the night if you like).
When you leave Hankar behind, you need to get off the valley by turning left at some point. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it.
From there, the trail becomes tougher than ever. You will have to ascend 500m in just a few kilometers before reaching Thachungste.
The views are superb, especially because you are getting closer and closer to Kang Yaze.
Thachungste is a camping site at above 4,300 meters, placed just next to a mighty river and where hundreds of strange, tiny rabbits wander all over the place.
Day 4: Thachungste – Nimaling – Shang Sumdo
Highest point: 5,200m
Lowest point: 3,810m
The toughest part of the whole trek but, at the same time, the most rewarding. Most hikers split this stage into two and spend one night in Nimaling. I decided to do it in one day. It depends on you.
The first stretch from Thachungste to Nimaling is breathtaking.
You ascend from 4,300m to 4,800m in just 9km, passing herds of yaks and hairy Himalayan horses and very authentic Tibetan shepherds.
The landscape has loads of contrasts and, at one point, you can look to your left and see a green field with Kang Yaze in the background and to the right, gray and purple rocky mountains.
Nimaling is located in a huge green plain, full of yaks. There’s quite a big campsite set up. At a normal pace, you might reach Nimaling in 3hr. You can either spend the night here or continue walking.
As soon as you leave the plains of Nimaling, you start directly going up to Gongmaru La pass, located at 5,200m and the highest point of the trek.
The ascent is hard but the views you get both right and left are impressive. When you finally reach the top, recover your breath, rest for an hour and enjoy the views.
After the pass, you just need to go down. The way is extremely steep and you have to descend 1,500m in just 4hr. At the end of the trail, you get to a river which flows through a valley.
Follow it and, after 4hr, you should reach the end point, Shang Sumdo.
The trail is a bit confusing since sometimes, the way is blocked and you need to go over the valley but then go down again.
Once you are in Shang Sumdo, have a rest over a couple of beers. From here, you can go to Leh by car.
Unless you are bringing your own tent, there are two types of accommodation:
Homestays – Most Tibetans have a spare room with 3 to 4 mattresses on the floor for trekkers. They charge you 1,000INR ($15) including dinner, breakfast, a picnic lunch box and all the tea and cookies you want. If you are lucky, the family will invite you to sit with them for dinner. Some of them will make the effort and try to start a conversation, even though their English is not good.
Camping sites – Along the route, Tibetans have set up exclusive campsites for trekkers. The price is also 1,000 rupees per tent, including meals as well. Tents are well-prepared and have a thick mattress and blankets.
Food, water, and showers
Food – As you would expect, food is, definitely, not the highlight of this trek. In homestays, they will always serve you dal (lentils) and rice and chapati (flat Indian bread) with jam and butter for breakfast. The picnic lunch box consists of a slice of bread, some cheese, a potato and one piece of fruit. If you are very lucky, you might get some eggs for breakfast. In the villages, you can get some extra dishes, such as instant noodles or skyu, a traditional Tibetan dish consisting of stew with flour balls.
Water – Bottled water is not sold across Markha Valley, but they drink from the river. The water you buy has previously been boiled and filtered by the locals. It costs 15INR (23¢) per liter. Bring your own bottle.
Shower – There are no showers. If you want to wash, you should go to the river. Furthermore, the few toilets you find are holes on the ground. Personally, I prefer going into the bushes.
Markha Valley trek: Packing List
Travel Insurance – In the mountains, accidents do happen. Remember to always have insurance. I strongly recommend buying World Nomads.
A backpacking tent for high altitude mountains – If you don’t want to pay for accommodation, bringing your own tent, will make things much cheaper. I recommend a Freelite 2, which is the one I bought in 2017.
A warm sleeping bag – At high altitudes, nights can be freezing. I recommend a Kelty Cosmic 20º, which I bought in 2017, as well.
A camping stove – To save yourself from buying non-tasty meals, bring your own cooking equipment and stock up on supplies in Leh. If I was you, I would get a multi-fuel stove, which works with any kind of flammable liquid, such as white gas, pure alcohol, gasoline, and diesel. I recommend you buy the MSR XGK EK multi-fuel stove.
For purifying water – Supposedly, the water sold by the locals is boiled but, if you are not entirely sure about it or you just don’t want to pay for mountain water, you should always bring purifying tablets or a Steripen.
Warm clothes – From proper hiking pants to a warm jacket and thick socks. As I said before, nights can be freezing at above 4,000 meters.
A Kindle – If you don’t have a Kindle, perhaps, it’s time to buy one. At night, you will have nothing to do but read and you know that books are heavy to carry.
Solar protection – As you keep on ascending, you also get closer to the sun, hence its rays become more lethal. Please note that in August, the sun is extremely strong.
A hat or a cap – The sun is extremely harsh, especially in summer.
Diamox – High altitude sickness is very common among travelers who go to Ladakh. Why? Because most of them reach Leh by plane, which is already at 3,500m. The altitude change is too drastic and some hikers don’t have enough time to acclimatize. Before going to Markha Valley, I would spare 3 or 4 days resting in Leh. For the trek, bring Diamox with you, which is a medicine that helps to fight against altitude sickness.
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