Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.
Last year’s trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.
Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh overland from jumping off points like Srinagar, Kashmir. You won’t be sorry.
Choosing a trek in Ladakh
There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you’d like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two.
There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks.
Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:
- Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
- Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (9-10 days): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
- Nubra Valley (5-6 days): This can either be done without much trekking for 2-3 days, or it can be a fuller trekking experience with camping, camel rides and more. We’ve heard the area is quite beautiful.
- Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
- Rumtse to Tsomoriri (8-9 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.
Note: No matter which trek you choose, please remember that Ladakh is a high desert with a fragile environment. As visitors, we need to respect this reality and try to reduce our impact.
To trek independently or with a guide?
Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let’s examine these.
Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains). As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!
Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we’d met along the way.
So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.
Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?
Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you’ll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.
Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping.
What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:
- Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
- Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
- Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don’t, um, accidentally slip and fall.
- Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.
Book a tour in advance or on the ground?
We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatising in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we travelled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.
If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.
Choosing a trekking agency in Leh
You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule.
We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.
We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and know the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.
We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years (21 at the time of our trek) and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes.
Choosing a guide
Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.
1) Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.
This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you’ll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.
2) Ask for a Ladakhi guide.
During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you’ll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn’t know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.
3) Explain any special needs to the guide.
This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.
Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek (2013 Trekking Season)
Our total costs for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek was 13,000 rupees ($220) per person in 2013 (have heard that this has gone up to 17,000/person in 2014 with inflation and higher homestay prices). This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.)
This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies who had a standard fee of 2,000 rupees ($34) per person per day. A few places offered bare bone prices at 1,600 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.
Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek:
If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community). During the 2013 trekking season, the standard homestay rate was 500 rupees ($9) per night per person. This included dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. Update: The 2014 homestay rate is 800 rupees per night and 1,200 rupees for the tent at Nimiling.
When to Trek in Ladakh?
The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.
Our trek was mid-June and there was hardly anyone (6 people) along our entire Markha Valley route. This meant that the homestays were not crowded and there were no traffic jams on the paths. We experienced a surprise snowstorm on our second morning at the first pass, but that just added to the excitement and meant that all the mountains around us sported a beautiful covering of snow.
Acclimatization in Leh before Trekking
No matter which trek you choose, be sure to spend at least two days acclimatizing in Leh (or wherever the setting off point of your Ladakh trek happens to be). Take a walk through the old town up to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. This helps get the blood pumping and the legs moving. It also gives you some experience climbing hills at altitude. Search for a
Good acclimatization walk in Leh = climbing up to Namgyan Tsemo Gompa on the right.
If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider taking even more time to acclimatize in Leh. Your hike will be more enjoyable and successful for it.
Food recommendations in Leh:
Summer Harvest: Best momos in town. We feel confident in this statement as we sampled momos in four different restaurants and kitchens in town. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot sauce. We never ventured beyond momos (they were that good), but other dishes emerging from the kitchen looked tasty as well.
German bakeries: Don’t ask me why, but Leh is bursting with German bakeries. They don’t all have their own ovens, so it seems like they get their baked goods from a central German bakery source. If you’re craving a cinnamon roll or some quasi European pastries, stop by one of these and enjoy with a chai. Quality is mixed, but when you consider how remote you are, you’ll be grateful.
Lassi guy: In the alleyway just to the right of the mosque on Leh Bazaar is a tiny place with this friendly guy making and selling yogurt and paneer (Indian cheese). For a few rupees he’ll create a fresh sweet or salty lassi for you and invite you in to enjoy a seat while he explains how he makes it all. Highly recommended.
Unless you have your own set of wheels (or wings) there are three main routes to get to and from Ladakh.
By Bus to Leh:
Srinigar to Leh: You have the option to take a two-day “Super Deluxe” bus (overnight in Kargil) or a 12-hour shared ride in a private jeep (with 6 other passengers). Both leave from the same area in Srinagar. Please note that the roads are only open for a short period each year, usually from May – September.
We flew from Mumbai to Srinagar and then took the bus up to Leh and a shared jeep for the return leg to Srinagar. If you have more time, consider taking the train from wherever you are in India to Jammu and pepper in a few strategic visits and stops along the way to Srinagar.
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to the bus and jeep. While the bus ride from Srinagar to Leh is long and not particularly comfortable, you are able to take a lot of photos out the window, as the pace is glacial, snail-like for much of the way. It’s also an experience to travel with locals (e.g., Buddhist monks hopping on and off) and fellow adventurous travelers. Suggestion: try not to focus on the missing guardrails along the way. A dose of fatalism may also help.
Cost (2014): Bus tickets = 1,050 R/person. Jeep price depends on your negotiation skills, but usually costs between 1,500-1,800Rs/person.
Manali to Leh: This route from the south also features the option of a 2-day bus trip vs. 16-20 hours in a shared jeep. We didn’t take this route so can’t speak to it firsthand, but we met several people who did. The roads seem to be in worse shape than the Srinagar route, but you go over four large mountain passes which are supposed to be stunning. If you’re coming from Delhi, this is the more direct route. The roads are usually open for a few months of the year, again from June – September.
By Plane to Ladakh
Flying into Leh is certainly more expedient, but you’ll miss the beauty and adventure of the roads. The views from the skies in the mountains are supposed to pretty spectacular, however. Be sure to leave buffer days in your travel schedule if you fly as flights are frequently cancelled due to bad weather.
Most planes fly from either Delhi, Srinagar and Mumbai (new in 2016). Try to book your tickets early as prices go up very quickly.
by Audrey Scott (uncornered market)