Ladakh’s Markha Valley trek is India’s equivalent to Nepal’s Annapurna region – wildly beautiful and wildly popular. Yet, as Ed Douglas discovers, with the right guide you can still see the magic.
Children can be so ungrateful. 'You promised, Father,' my daughter Rosa says, driving past yet another army base. 'No more war zones.' I shift a little uncomfortably in the front seat of our taxi. Ladakh – the kingdom in the sky – is no war zone, but I understand her concern. Visits to the recently-bombed have punctuated her childhood, although I should stress more through accident than design. It's not like we track the world's trouble spots for cheap flights. That would be evil.
When we stepped off the plane at Marrakech in 2003 soon after co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Casablanca killed a hundred people, officials from the tourist office handed us flowers as we crossed the tarmac to arrivals. She was much younger then, but still curious enough to ask why. The discussion that followed ended with a phrase that has become a hallmark of our family holidays: 'Don't worry, we'll be fine.'
Now she is in the Indus Valley, driving past a succession of Indian Army bases plonked in the desiccated wastes of Ladakh. This region is India's most popular trekking destination, and its capital Leh is one of those relaxed, easygoing places that punctuate the Himalaya, like Manali or Pokhara, where tourists can largely forget the tensions and complexities of the real world and concentrate on having a good time.
Leh is a seductive place, especially if you stay a little way from the centre down Fort Road or in the hamlet of Changspa, where the noisy streams that thread through town feed stands of green poplars and lush vegetable gardens. It sits on a hillside to the north of the Indus, at the foot of the Khardung La, the first of the passes traders once crossed travelling from the great river to the Karakoram Pass and the markets of Central Asia.
Independence and Partition in 1947 brought an abrupt end to Leh's position as a trading centre. Now its bazaars are full of souvenirs and an increasing number of outdoor equipment shops, like Ambleside but with better weather and a warmer welcome. Travellers graze through the bazaar, or sit drinking coffee. The sun shines three hundred days a year, and even in August, during the monsoon, the weather is generally good.
If you can tear yourself away from the crammed Internet cafés and pizza restaurants, you can quickly untangle the threads of history that make up Leh's present. The crumbling nine-storied Leh Palace, designed to echo Lhasa's Potala Palace, broods over the old town, although a team of workmen is now slowly turning back the tide of dereliction that threatened to destroy it.
That restoration is symbolic of a broader renaissance of Ladakhi culture. Built by Singge Namgyal, the Ladakhi leader who reversed the advance of Islam in the mid-17th century, the palace began its long decline after the Hindu Rajas of Jammu absorbed Ladakh into their kingdom in the mid-19th century.
So it was that in 1947 Ladakh became part of India's most tortured and misbegotten state, Jammu and Kashmir. Having been invaded by both Muslims and Hindus, and sharing a border with China, this vast and essentially Buddhist region is now trapped like a fly in the amber of India's struggle to maintain its borders. Hence all those army bases Rosa noticed.
Ladakh's population is a mere 250,000, split more or less in half between Ladakhi Buddhists and Muslims. The state's official language is Urdu, the language used in school. Ladakhi-speaking children have to learn a second language to get an education.
So even if Leh's trading days are over, it is still a polyglot town. What surprised me is that everywhere I went I heard Nepali. I discovered that Ladakh's tourist trade runs on migrant labour. I'm not sure most trekkers know this, or at least understand the implications.
There are dozens of ropey agencies in Leh touting for business among the backpackers who take the bus up from Manali, and plenty of dodgy agents in Delhi selling treks. Then there are longstanding Ladakhi outfitters who cater for clients brought in by European agents. Like we did, they fly into Leh airport, gasping from hypoxia and the discombobulating final approach. All of them, from the cheapest to the more expensive, rely on migrant workers – often Nepali crews working in their off-season.
This is partly economics; Nepalis work for lower wages. And they're also good at the tourism thing. But few of them speak any Ladakhi, which is a dialect of Tibetan, and so aren't that useful for gaining an insight into Ladakh's vibrant Tibetan Buddhist culture. More and more casual trekkers now rely on Ladakh's developing system of home-stay accommodation. This can be a great way to experience how people live in Ladakh, and not be mutely confined to its astonishing landscape. But during the summer months the men are often away, and the women who serve you dinner often don't speak English and don't feel comfortable engaging with tourists, particularly male ones.
What to do? Trawling through the web, I came across the Ladakhi Women's Travel Company. At the time, my main thought was how useful it would be to have a female guide. I was planning a trek based on home-stays in the popular Markha valley, and knew from past experience how much easier this would make it to understand and connect to the places we stayed. It was only later I realised just how lucky we'd been.
So at the whim of Google, I found myself in a one-room office on Leh's Upper Tukcha Road, handing over a wedge to a nice Scottish lady called Catriona, when our guide Thinlas Chorol appeared. Thinlas started the company three years ago, the first female trekking agency in India, and possibly the first all-female outfit in the Himalaya.
Given all that, you might expect her to be pushy and voluble. She certainly has presence, remarkably for a woman who is barely five feet tall. Yet she is quietly spoken and self-possessed, without that often ersatz congeniality the travel business thrives on. Once in the mountains, where she seemed entirely at home, I came to appreciate that Thinlas was an exceptional woman, proudly Ladakhi, but also determined to live life on her own terms and not conform to the expectations placed on her by others.
She was born in a village of some 60 houses called Takmachik, about 120km west of Leh, a community built around the shared work of herding sheep and goats. Her mother died when she was just a baby. 'During my holidays, I use to go up on the mountain with my father and our herds. I was afraid that something might happen to him if he was alone. I had only my father, whom I cared about deeply.'
Wandering in the mountains with her father was, she says, 'the bliss of my childhood.' Making her way in the wider world hasn't been so easy. After school, she left Takmachik to study at the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. SECMOL was until recently at the forefront of reforming Ladakh's education system, providing a campus at Phey, not far from Leh, for students from remote villages. Thinlas thrived here, and clearly became more politically conscious under the influence of SECMOL's charismatic director Sonam Wangchuk. She also shone at ice hockey, pretty much a national sport in Ladakh.
Most importantly for her future career, Thinlas began trekking with some of the foreign volunteers working at Phey. One woman told her how she had fled after beating off the unwanted sexual advances of her male guide. She now wanted a female guide to show her the mountains. 'I had been born in the mountains and spent my childhood among them. It was natural for me to slip into that role.'
It turned out to be a very different experience from wandering with her father in the hills above her village. Local Ladakhis assumed she was a Japanese tourist, since there was no such thing as a female guide, and spoke to her in English. But the experience was a great success, and at the end her client suggested she guided for a living. And with that encouragement, Thinlas began looking for work.
Local agencies were aghast at the idea. She was offered cultural work taking tourists around the famous monasteries along the Indus Valley, but was told directly that local custom would not accept a woman going into the mountains with a group of foreign trekkers. 'These were bitter experiences,' she said.
Back at SECMOL, Thinlas shared her frustrations with her English teacher, an American volunteer, who offered to pay her fees to take an introductory mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in the Garhwal Himal, and a National Outdoor Leadership School programme in the Kumaon. This finally gave her the leverage to work as a freelance guide but it's clear having her own agency has allowed her to put into practice all the unmet aspirations she had working in a male-dominated business.
Now she is training more female guides, and we hired two of them, Tsetan and Tsering, to carry our two bags – lighter than a usual trekking load at 10kg each. Tsetan is 19 and also from west Ladakh, often laughing or gossiping with Rosa. Tsering was a little older, and from the east, near the border with Tibet with, I was told, a heavy eastern Ladakh accent. Both were along to find out if the guiding life was for them.
Within a couple of days trekking with Thinlas, I began to appreciate how I'd fluked my way into the best option for Ladakh's most popular trek – not just for women but for men too. Home-stays in the Markha region began with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Leh trying to find awayforlocalpeopletoprofitfromthewildnessaround them. Trekkers would pass through their villages, spending nothing and hiring staff from outside Ladakh, and then camping at night to eat food brought from far away. Local mule owners rented out their animals, but the impact extra beasts made on the fragile eco-system was alarming.
The home-stays offered local women an easy way to make money, and by having a common standard of accommodation, there wasn't any destabilising competition. Everybody got the same share. In the decade since the system was established, the home-stays have become hugely successful, and offer casual trekkers a cheap option to explore the hills.
The home-stays are basic, usually offering a clean, dry room with a mattress, a communal meal in the kitchen and a Ladakhi compost toilet, which requires care. Popularity has brought an erosion of the home-stay's original ideals, and some are better than others, but thanks to Thinlas we ended up in the best homes, eating the best food available and sleeping in the most comfortable rooms. Thinlas being able to speak to the woman running the place in her own language made us more welcome, and gave a clearer insight into the lives of the people who live here year round.
Women in Ladakh, she says, lack confidence. The deference towards guests was sometimes too painful to watch, but I was only aware of this because of Thinlas. On our first night in the village of Rumbak, she explained some of the cultural taboos we should avoid. One of these was stepping across the narrow low tables placed in front of the benches we sat at to eat. We should always go around these tables to avoid offence. I soon realised we were almost the only trekkers who knew this, and watched the almost invisible flinch of annoyance from the women we stayed with when well meaning but ignorant trekkers broke the rule.'What do they think when we do that?' I asked Thinlas. 'Bloody tourists. But they don't say anything.'
There are two ways to reach the Markha valley, from Chiling on the Zanskar river, which is reached by jeep or bus from Leh. A new bridge across the Zanskar will mean vehicles will be able to bypass the first day's walk, to reach a point below the pretty village of Skiu on a newly cut road. Less experienced trekkers, or those with less time, prefer this route because it involves just one high pass at the head of the valley.
Our route came from the north, across the Indus at Spitok, with its stunning monastery, and then up the Zingchen river, where the road ends and the walking starts. We spent two nights at Rumbak, which at 3,800m allowed us to acclimatise, spending the day trudging east up the Stok La for a glimpse of the fast route back to the Indus.
The third day was the best of the trek, climbing south up a desolate valley of beautifully coloured rocks, some deep purple, others red or even yellow, towards the Ganda La, where the view opened out to include the distant Zanskar mountains. A Himalayan griffon flapped laboriously away as we approached the carcass of a mule, and the children cooed over the chubby marmots scampering towards their burrows. That evening in the beautiful, crumbling village of Shingo, with its own share of the chortens, which stud the Ladakhi landscape so elegantly, we watched a blacksmith making an exquisite jug for use in a gompa. All this was explained and enriched by Thinlas.
Next day, after another beautiful day's walk south through a spectacular dry gorge we reached Skiu and the Markha valley itself. Suddenly there were more trekkers, and it dawned on me just how unusual our experience was. We noticed that Nepali and Indian guides hired in Leh would keep an eye on which home-stay Thinlas chose at the end of the day, not just because it would be the best, but because they could rely on her language skills too.
The climax of the route is crossing the Kongmaru La, at 5,150m the highest point we reached. The trail swings northeast away from the Markha river to a vast area of pasture at Nimaling and a tented camp below the past at 4,700m. As we climbed, the weather deteriorated, and it was soon snowing. When we reached the parachute tents run by a local herdsman, we took one look at the puddles on the floor and the water dripping through the roof, and panicked.
Thinlas thought for a moment, then broke into her now familiar broad smile and disappeared for ten minutes. When she came back, she'd secured a shepherd's hut nearby. It came complete with resident mouse, smelt of goat and was located next door to a pen of donkeys, which brayed all night. But we were warm and dry, and next day we crossed the pass in sunshine, slowly picking our way down the narrow gorge on the far side until we reached our last home-stay of the trek.
That evening, we sat in the kitchen shelling peas we'd picked in the lush garden, the barren mountain opposite lit up by the evening sun. Ladakh has changed a great deal in the last few decades, and will change again as roads percolate further into its remoter valleys and tourism changesLadakh'sculturalmix. Itcanbeadispiriting process. Thinlas was an antidote to that, a determined woman making her own way – and inspiring others.
Ed Douglas is a well-known journalist and author, based in Sheffield. He's travelled widely throughout the Himalaya and became a BMC Vice President in April 2011.