Sunday, September 2, 2012

Getting High on thin air- trekking the Markha Valley

After months of planning and preparation, the "Markha Valley Trek" in the tibetan plateau of India's Ladakh finally happened this August. The troupe of 9 trekkers, whom we decided to call Team navagraha (in the fond hope that we would get along better than our namesake :) ) gathered in Delhi on 25th July. The kickoff dinner in the Blueberry Hotel in downtown Karolbagh was so raucous , with the banter taking no prisoners, that GN (the only team member who had not met any of the others apart fro us nomads) started wondering what he had let himself in for! He was prepared for the nomads' noise level (having partied with us extensively in Frankfurt), but did not expect the rest of the gang from Melbourne to be quite so exuberant. Now for the trek .... Arrived in Leh on the 26th morning and were greeted with extremely blue skies and Rajuji of Grand Adventures India ( our fantastic mountain guide :))  along with his Ladakhi partner Namgyal, the former national Ski champion.
The transport organised was two Mahindra Xylo jeeps, and were going to be our wheels for the next three days of acclimatisation. The hotel Leh View was in a beautiful setting and looked comfortable. Raju left us there with some tea and biscuits and a promise to meet us later in the afternoon and warnings of don't try going anywhere as the low oxygen will hit us. We did exactly what we always do, and after a nice lunch, decided to disregard Raju's advice and take a walk to the near by streets. However, all we managed was walk up the drive way of the hotel leading to the street above and panting as if we had just about completed a half marathon. This did manage to convince us to head back to hotel and take it easy. By this time (about 3 or so hours since we landed) most of us were experiencing a slight head aches and a lot of breathlessness. The late afternoon/evening was spent taking a walk through the Leh township with Raju and picking up some last minute supplies from the trekking shops , and dry fruit vendors.
The next two days was spent driving around and visiting a few monasteries. The Dalai Lama decided to visit Leh at around the same time. This meant a lot of unannounced road closures in and around Leh leaving us to walk about a mile to get into our vehicles . Every cloud has a silver lining and this unplanned walk resulted in us catching a glimpse of his holiness presiding over some school kids and the crowd gathered to get his blessings and were quite emotional in their worship of him.
The next 2 days were spent visiting umpteen temples in half a dozen monasteries in and around Leh under the loving and lecturing care our guide Dolma jee. I suspect she wanted to pray( to avoid bad karma) and we were just an (in)convenient excuse :) . Well the acclimatisation went almost as planned  with us getting used to he thin air, and realising the high dependence of paracetamol and vitamin C that we will have during this trip.

Day 1 trek  29/07/12 - Zingchen to Gandala Base Camp

We set out to Zingchen for our day 1 trek on July 29th as per the plan at 8:30 am. The dive out of Leh was beautiful. Just as were doing our oohs and aahs one of our vehicles joined in and we had our first puncture (but thankfully the only one) on our way to Zingshen. The local made short work of fixing the tyre in a few minutes , no worries!
Reached zingchen at about 9am and though Raju had said no water crossing on day 1, there was a stream that warranted taking our boots off, and crossing a stream that was knee high in depth DS loved the start, and all others were quite enthusiastic about it , this was followed by a couple of civilised crossing on bridges, two on logs, that checked out your core, and two where the water proofness of the boot got checked out. 
Start of the trek, Raju told us that the day one, is being extended by an hour and half, as that was a better spot for the horses to rest!!!. Of course this also meant that much lesser walking on the reputedly tougher day 2.
The views in the first half were sensational, with many photo opportunities. Lunch was next to a lovely stream, and was a salad roll of sorts with boiled egg, cheese and a dessert of mango. 

When we reached the tiny village of Rumbak , the   intended camp site, there was a tent shop and we could buy some water. On Rajus advice that it was a max of 2 hrs from there we bought some, however, ran out of the water when we finally reached yurutse high camp to find it empty. Looks like the ghoda wallah decided to make it easy for the horses, rather than worry about us humans :) The result was a totally drained and pretty dehydrated team who had to face another hour or so of walking to the Gandala base camp. Our youngest member DS was totally exhausted and had to stop. Raju  ran ahead and brought us back some warm rasna (sugar loaded warmish drink).
Eventually we all got to the camp totally exhausted and feeling the effect of altitude and dehydration, but nothing that bottles of water and powerade could not fix, and not to miss the mutual help within the group ensuring  we all ate and replenished on our proteins (Okra) as MK and RS insisted on me and others who were really feeling the effects of altitude, and NP, making us laugh to get the bad air out of us ;)

Was quite a bad night for most as the altitude meant not enough sleep, but felt quite good next morning
When we recovered enough and had a look the next morning at the camp site, found it was  actually quite pretty and at 4200 mts. 

Day one hike Stats -  roughly 12 kms and took us 7.5hrs including breaks A altitude gain of about 600mts

Day 2 - 30/07/12 Gandala Base Camp - Gandala - Shingo 
Day two started of with everyone in high spirits and ready to roll. The altitude seems to impact your appetite, and some added wind capturing occurring in our bodies .  Constant headaches meant, Panadol became part of our diet, as did vitamin C as per our very own pharmacologists (RS) advice  Started hiking at 7:30 and it was a climb from the start. This time we were prepared with one water and one Gatorade bottle each. It was slow going and took us just over three hours to reach Gandala pass at 4800mts which took us about 3 hrs The walking style during the climb was a swinging ramble in extreme slow motion as otherwise, your head and heart started throbbing quite a bit. The scenery was a very arid hills, and saw some local fauna, marmots (huge rabbits) blue sheep, and few birds. The views at the top were great. 

Lunch spot today was on the way down on a lovely grassy bit, except there was no shade. 
Lunch was pasta, baked beans, cheese, boiled egg, chocolate and mango. However at the altitude of 4500mts the stomach seemed to get filled more with air rather than the food. 

It was a more of the same down scenery hill to reach a lovely camp site on a grassy patch, next to a rocky stream in Shingo. Managed to wash some clothes and have a wash of sorts with help from each other in pouring the cold water on each other. Needless to say it was noisy :). 

The evening was spent relaxing with some music from the Ipad and wandering around. The shining sun was perfect and not at all hot after a wash until the lovely dinner that the camp staff dished out yet again. 
Day two hike Stats -  roughly 12 kms and took us 6.5hrs including breaks An altitude gain of about 600mts, and a loss of 600 mts as the camp in Shingo was again at  4200 mts

Day 3 - 31/07/12 Shingo to Skyu
Day3 started of with egg in burji form and  toast. We were getting used to the altitude, and I felt the best so far, but a few of our team had runny nose and other such ailments . Walk to skyu  was lovely with shade and sun in equal bits. The clarity of the blue sky the ochres, greens and browns where amazing , with plenty of photo opps. 

It was primarily down hill, and we got to Skyu by about 10:45 the parachute tent shop was  very friendly. Bought 'yoza' some toasted barley and  apricot kernels. barley kind of tasted like improperly popped corn, and the apricot kernels were OK. The woman there  told Raju that the camp he had planned had washed out, so we stopped at 11:15 itself on the camp site which was on the banks of the Markha river. Lunch arrived soon and it was kitchidi , which we enjoyed sitting on some log like things mad of bamboo sticks

Managed to get a ball from the local home and a bat of sorts  for cricket.
The afternoon was spent with games of cricket inter mixed with dip in the silty river near by and a proper stretching routine before tea. There was even a pump with clean ground water, that meant that we could wash of the silt from our bodies and wash some clothes again. Turned out to be a very relaxing day, with a leg stretching hike in the morning followed by a very relaxing afternoon.  

Day three hike Stats -  9.7 kms and took us 3.5 hrs including breaks An altitude loss of 800 mts to reach 3430 mts

Day 4 - 1/08/12 Skyu - Markha 

The day started early at 7:15,with a statement from Raju that the earlier we reach river crossing the better. We had one flu victim (BR), who needed antibiotics, as she had not slept all night. With a bit of juggling made sure she did not have to carry any weight and started off at a decent pace. Raju set a scorching pace of about 4.5 to 5 kms and some of the team kept up with him.  This was a very long day and soon the group started stretching out  and by 10 we were quite spread out. Think some were feeling the pressure of the differential in fitness   when we stopped at a tea shop to refill water etc, some kept going ahead, it took us almost a full hour to catch up with them, luckily the tea shop which was also our lunch stop. Lunch was parrota and unbelievable aloo sabji. After that the walk was not too different, in that, it was a longish trudge with some reasonable views, but very hot and dusty, making it a real hard yakka.  Some of us were feeling it more than the others and a few tempers flared when everyone eventually caught up. The water crossing when we eventually reached it around 3ish reached almost to our thighs  and had quite a current. 

The good part was the fact that it was really warm by then and the water crossing a welcome cool down. Another hour or so of walking finally got us to the camp site. It was a nice camp site again and had  a really cold water pump. Dinner was good as usual with momo, beans, chatni and stuff. After that discussion turned to events of the day and agreed that we will stay together from now on. 

Day four hike Stats -
The day was 20.04 kms in 8 hrs  including 850 mts altitude gain and 440 loss, resulting in a final altitude of 3800

Day 5 - 2/08/12 - Markha to Thachungtse

The walk today was meant to have many river crossings with a deep crossing early on. However the floods of 2010 had changed the course of the river and hence the tracks resulting in a slightly longer walk with some steep climbs early on. This meant the going was slow with another hot and dusty day with no shades, giving some of the gang a chance to perfect DS's preferred word game. 
Lunch stop was another tent shop where we gave away the dri-fit T-shirts that the 'Run Melbourne' crew had given us before we left Melbourne to the 4 kids there. The beaming smile on the faces of the kids (not to mention the mum) was a joy to behold!

Here the only water available was some pre-boiled water and we did buy this before setting off again. Got to camp site by 3pm. most of us seem to be getting better acclimatised to the altitude. Again managed to have a quick wash in freezing cold water stream at the camp site. Dinner as usual was really good. 
Day five hike Stats -
The day was 16.6 kms in 8 hrs  including 870 mts altitude gain and 370 loss, resulting in a final altitude of 4250

Day 6 - 3/08/12 - Tachungtse to Nimaling
Today's start was the usual at 7:20am and had a river crossing early on where the water went to almost bum high  the walking was a steady climb and we reached the junction that had the choice of going to Kang Ya Tse base camp with scenic views, or low route with a steep climb in the end. The group were a bit disappointed with Raju's decision to go the low route, and clearly preferred the more scenic route which also climbing in the morning and not later. Finally Raju said he will take us up a middle path, which worked out for the best. 

The climb was reasonably steep with views of the Kang Ya Tse (6400m) on one side and the brown mountains of the Ladakh ranges in another side. 

We reached 4600mts by 10:00 and decided to take it easy as there was no point in rushing to camp site a. Got to the Nimaling camp site at 12:15 and had lunch at camp. The 4800mts altitude did seem to suddenly hit us and a few needed to rest after lunch.  After a nap to get over the head ache got up with a splitting one, and got really disoriented, unzipping couple of other tents trying to figure out which is ours.

This was clearly diamox time :)  Some of the team went for a wander around the local hills. NP and Raju stayed in and were chatting when I woke up and joined them and still had a bit of a headache. Raju got us a ginger tea with honey that really helped. The evening was spent doing very little and a dinner of aloo mash, baingan bartha, roti, dhal and rice.  Went to sleep by 8:45 and it rained on and off all night 

Day six hike Stats -
The day was 7.6 kms in 5 hrs  including 600 mts altitude gain and negligible loss, resulting in a final altitude of 4850

4/08/12 - Day 7 - Acclimatisation day in Nimaling
Our rest day / night was WET. After an all night showers of rain  where the first to wake up around 6 30 am, and asked for a cuppa. Managed to get a nice cup of tea in the kitchen tent where Raju and his boys were having tea and also managed to get a bowl of warm water to wash up.  By 7:30 all the senior members where up, but the three Gen Y's took the rare opportunity to sleep in.   The weather finally broke a bit around 10:30 and three of us, went for a wander with Raju along the river to about a couple of kms and then up the hill and back. The views were quite nice, but nothing too spectacular and the weather kind of pushed us back to the camp site for a nice hot lunch. Spent the afternoon, in the 'massage tent ', one of the tents had to be converted into our massage tent, as outside was not an option :) 

Day seven hike Stats - Rest day - negligible walking

5/08/12 - Day 8 - Nimaling to Shang Sumdo
This was going to be the last day of actual walking for this trek. Was an early morning start  by 7 am and immediately started the climb to Gongmarula Pass. It was up up and up, with some lovely views along the way. Reached the pass , in 2 and half hours.  The views were truly amazing despite the clouds and it was at 5300 mts. 
Climb every mountain pass :)

Spent almost 50 mins there as Raju was making phone calls ( mobile signal , yes!!) and found out about the floods in Utharkand (his home), and confirmed that the family of our support staff were not affected. NP was thrilled as he got to talk to his wife in Aus after all these days.

 It was an hour of walk down hill before the lunch spot. Lunch was lovely Rajma and paratta. Then it was a long walk down hill with a few very steep parts. Left lunch spot at 12:15 thinking it was another 4 or so hours.  However it was 3:15 by the time we got to a village tent, from which Raju said it as another hour or so.  However, this was one of the best days as far as variety and views were concerned, as we walked up and down following a stream or two. Reached yet another village and Raju said its less than half hour to shang sumdo, and we should see it around the corner :).
 However this corner kept getting further away. The way was a narrow ledge in some places and seemed to go on and on and on.  We reached the final turn around 5:15 one of the longest trek day so far. Debuji must have got worried as he came up the path to meet us.  Reached the camp and it was time for celebration as this was the last night of camping for this trek. Decided to skip the stretching and went to the dining tent, for some nice bujia and beer that was available, thanks to the road that had extended to the village of Shang Sumdo. It was time to toast end of the Markha valley trek, as next day was just a drive back to Leh for a shower and a solid bed. 

Day eight hike Stats -
The day was 11 kms in 7.5 hrs  including 500 mts altitude gain and 1215 loss, resulting in a final altitude of 4100 with highest point being 5300 

6/08/12 - Day 9 - Shang Sumdo to Leh

This morning it was a no walking day. The weather was great so it was brekky outside and and taking a one hour drive to Leh, that took closer to two,It was one of the special pooja's by Dalia
Lama as his visit was coming to an end, and the main road was blocked in many places, and we had to come via many minor roads, seeing the small suburbs/ villages before we finally got to the hotel. 

At the hotel, the rooms were ready and we got a chance to clean our clothes in addition to ourselves. 
After lunch of lovely aloo mutter, corn munchurian of sorts and dhal. Unfortunately, no dahi. After lunch, went for a wander to the Leh market and got some lovely pashmina shawls as presents as well as having some dahi and bring back a chocolate cake. 
Turned out to be a really nice and relaxing day before we headed off to tackle Stok Khangri 
MK has written an excellent blog about that which you can find in 

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