We almost booked a trek in the Himalayas with an expensive trekking outfitter, when someone pointed out the much more affordable option of independently hiring a guide. Raj, our guide and guesthouse operator, is the star of this show.
He is a young, short Nepalese man who was born in India because of a love story. His parents, who came from devout Budhist families, fell in love and escaped to India to avoid arranged marriages. He has 'Maila' tattooed on his right forearm, a name his mother calls him. In Tibetan tradition it means 'second son.' He, however, is the oldest son in his family, but his mother calls him Maila to remember the baby she lost before his birth.
With excellent stories told in impressive English, he has led us and entertained us through the hills of Markah Valley. We've taken advantage of arriving ahead of season in Leh to do this popular trek before the summer rush and also before the Indian government follows through with its promise to build roads to the remote towns tucked into the valley.
We were making good time on our first day and it seemed our cautiously short acclimatization day underestimated our fitness. Even with a late start, we past our destination early in the afternoon and continued to the peaceful Swiss style village of Rumbrak. We walked under the shade of willows with many birds looking on as the path twisted and crossed the winding river many times. We arrived at Rumbak just as the yak herders and shepherds were returning with their flocks.
Rumbak is set back into the cozy base of a snow-capped mountain. Here we found a traditional style homestay made from local materials. The kitchen, the heart of the home, was huge and cozy with small low tables and blanket seating. An ornate wood burning stove also sat close to the floor, generating heat for us and the residents which included a small bundled up baby. We stayed upstairs in a room with a view that looked out to the mountains and down to the animals. There were two baby yaks in the pen right below us. Warm chai, butter salt tea, and roasted barley were served while we waited for our dinner. After our snacks and some lazy yoga we had a meal of timomo, a traditional food of vegetable soup and steamed bread. Licking our lips we crawled into piles of blankets while waiting for the sound of neighing donkeys to be replaced with sleep.
On our second day we discovered that acclimatizing was no joke as we huffed and puffed ourselves little by little over our first mountain pass (4950m). A flurry of snow blew down keeping us cool on the slow grunge up. Stopping for air every 10m, we enjoyed seeing yaks, ibex and marmots scrounging nutrients from harsh arid mountains. At the summit, just as the clouds lifted, we had lunch (packed for us by the homestay) and enjoyed looking back on the valley we conquered and the snow capped Himalyan giants glowing down on us. The views from the pass were predictably breath taking in a most literal way.
With blue skies we made a speedy descent and again progressed right past our destination, after stopping at a parachute tent for chai. At magic hour we arrived in a photogenic river town. Green grass patched with salt follows the river through town. Adorable miniature goats bleat playfully from within their ridiculous thick wool coats. At the farside of town we found another charming homestay where we were greeted with 'Joolays' (the multipurpose Ladhaki greeting and manner word) and with a brilliant rainbow. Inside the hospitality continued with hot Maggi soup and chai.
The next day we waited until after lunch a short day hike. Without packs we eventually got hungry and started seeking chai. We had heard, incorrectly, that there was a town nearby with chai shops. To our dismay, a dull 5 km walk along a new road got us to a town that had no chai and was not nearby at all. There was only one old lady so old she couldn't even make chai. We returned with grumbling stomachs only to discover that our river crossing was blocked. The rickety cable car was jammed on the far side. So we waited. It was another trekker who eventually crossed over and liberated the cart. At this point we were far behind schedule and even with haste we did not make it back until nightfall. Back at the home we ate generous servings and met a British med student and his guide who joined us for the rest of the hike.
Our hiking days continue in this spirit. We make good time with our light packs, relying on the unyielding hospitality of traditional family-owned homestays to take us in and feed us scrumptious warm food. Raj continues to distract us from the toil of our pitiful sea-level lungs and minor blisters with stories of his service to Indian army and insights on Ladakhi Buddhism.
On the topic of Buddhism, I must describe the traditions that colour our walks. Every town, no matter how small, has a set of stupas or chortens (towers standing two to five meters tall). Originally used similar to headstones, they now act as shrines to saints and reminders of the five elements: earth, wind, fire, air and ether. Some are new, but many date back to the 14th century when a Tibetan saint brought a traditional order of Buddhism to Ladakh, following the previous less popular Tantric order.
It is also at this time the Mons (Buddhist missionaries) established many of the villages we are exploring, often with beautiful gompas (monasteries). When peaking into the colorfully adorned gompas we saw snap shots of daily prayers, ritual dance practices, enormous golden statues, and small sculptures made of butter. It is respectful to pass on the left of stupas, just as it is necessary to travel clockwise around gompas.
Also along the trail, crowding rooftops and summits, are the iconic colorful prayer flags that have found their way into giftshops worldwide. Bought in strings of 5 to 50 flags they hang solitarily here and there and in remarkable density at high altitude stupas. The hope is that the wind will carry the prayers, which are written on them, to God. We hung a set for all of you back home.
Following the Mons centuries later, Lieutenant Joseph Cunningham was one of the British sent to explore Ladakh in the 1850s. His descriptions are still published and considered relevant, although a topographical survey that followed made more accurate measures of altitude. Cunningham was only accurate within 60m, as he used the time to boil water to determine the height of passes. Hunters and adventurers followed these surveys, but by 1962 the Indo-China war put the region of Ladakh, including Leh and Markah Valley off limits to travelers until 1974. Since then, not much has changed and many places still require special permits but the promise of new roads is always closer and will likely change much of the culture and trekking routes.