After our moment of rejoice, the first leg of our journey was over. It was time to prepare for the descent. A rather long decline would easily take about 2 hours to reach Shingo. While we were sauntering downward, we came across lots and lots of marmots (Phia in Ladakhi) as well as the Royle’s Pika. A Chorten which is basically a Buddhist Monk’s shrine stood as a silent sentinel by the rocks. Carvings of Buddhist (Sutra) scriptures on shale or stone tableaus are commissioned by people as offerings near the Chortens.
There are homestay options to be found in Shingo village. The country side is filled with occasional green pastures and sheep. From there on, Skiu is about a 3-4 hour walk ahead. The trail now follows the Shingo Nallah till Skiu. After what seemed like ages, we made it to the Skiu monastery.
Picture Courtesy: Dave Scott
We reached the camp site, around 2 km away from the village. There we see a confluence of rivers flowing from Shingo and Markha valley. The tents were set and we were ready to meet the nightcap. The bells from the mules threatened to keep us awake like the previous night, lekin hum bhi ghode bech ke so gaye!
The next morning, we commenced on our trek from Skiu to Markha, which is a good 21kms long. Though most of it was on a rocky ground, it was also on a well defined, steady path, and the walk remained quite pleasant. But then, the fiery sun decided to unleash its fury upon us, the only consolation being the magnificent Markha River. We stumbled upon another Poplar log bridge whereupon we spotted quite a few trout in the river, but decided to carry on with the walk, stifling our temptation as the Ladakhis consider all living things sacred.
As we passed through the green fields packed with grazing sheep, the lines from Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ came to mind-
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
We make our way from Sara village to Chalak village taking in the natural beauty of this land untouched by modernization. The river has withered the mountains forming ridges along the way. Houses and shacks put together with stones, thorny barricades protecting the pastures, hoards of rams and yaks, their horns presented at offerings near the Chortens, filled in the idyllic canvas. From Chalak, we embarked on the much-awaited trail in the Markha Valley. Luckily for us, the river wasn’t too aggressive and our trail turned out to be pretty smooth.
About an hour later we reached the Markha Village. With a day’s worth of hike behind us, the campsite felt so welcoming. While you are on a trek and living out of a tent, you get to discover innovative uses of the limited stock of things you have, did you know that beer bottles made for a great Belan to roll your rotis?
The next day we went on for a bit of excursion around Markha. You would find one of the best Homestays in Markha here. They have a government sponsored BSNL telephone (with satellite dish); such phones can also be found in Skiu and Hankar. There is a school set up by the government with is in dire need of volunteers who can help and support the education and welfare of the village children. Up on a hilltop, you would find Shamunatha monastery.
The trail continued to ascend from this point on, and it would lead us right up to Kongmaru La. Chortens and carvings on the slates dotted our trail every few minutes. The carvings of Buddha and the ancient script brought out a sense of timelessness within us. On our way to the Hankar village, we saw a solar cooker and water powered grinding mill, stuff we thought would only appear in science textbooks. On reaching Hankar village we stopped at a local house where we were treated with some warm Ladakhi hospitality.
We had arrived on the route to cross the Stok range once more. The reduced water flow and the semi-frozen state of Markha River meant we were in for a very cold night. We stuffed ourselves with some food before we could start on the long climb ahead. Post Markha, one usually camps at Thujungtse, but we needed to save the day as the weather had begun to get to us. The stone cairns balanced on the rocks marked the number of times the trekkers had been there, each having a story of its own.
Pejakha Campsite at 4500m was our next stop, it so very cold, the hot water froze in a matter of minutes. The subsequent morning, we decided to cross the range via Yok La instead of the Kongmaru La, as it was unsafe for the mules. Looking back after reaching a certain height brought us some truly astonishing views; the plains of Nimaling down below and the snow capped Kangyatse Peak looking tall and alpine made all the huffing and puffing worth it.
We tied the first prayer flag at Yok La which is at the height of 5200m, marking it as the first successful group of the season to scale that route. The downward descent looked rather intimidating at this point. And indeed, it was. It started with a slope which to our dismay was mostly just loose wet mud mixed with gravel. Chuskyurmo waited for us to cross this sharp and treacherous path. Thankfully we caught a stream where we had a little breather before we followed it all the way down. We reached a point where the Yok La and the Kongmaru La merged. The terrain became perilous again with large chunks of the pathways by the river having disappeared.
The frozen river feels like a Persian carpet under your feet after the wretched muddy slope. At Chuskyurmo, we found a little brook which spews out carbonated water, which the locals believe helps with joint pains and such. Shang Sumdo was still 3kms away, the end was now palpable. With a great sense of anticipation to finish, we almost sprinted towards Shang Sumdo and made it at last!
As a certain Mr. Hemingway had put it, it was good to have an end to journey toward, but it was the journey that mattered in the end.