Frozen in Markha Valley

Markha Valley in Ladakh had been beckoning to me for years and I had to oblige, and HOW! In the harsh winters, serendipity had worked its charm to bring me to the snow leopard territory into the Hemis High Altitude National Park.

This story appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine edition.

I would love to know your views.

The road goes from Leh to Spituk & then to Zingchen, an hour’s drive from Leh, after that its pure wilderness.

The road ends where the snow starts!
The road ends where the snow starts!

I had been warned by the locals that wild dogs had eaten up a woman just a week ago on the same trail. A good hearted samaritan agreed to accompany me till Rumbak which was a three hour trek from Zingchen. Huffing and puffing and marvelling at the incredible landscapes we were jolted when a wild yak was spotted in our path. Manoeuvring our way out of trouble walking through frozen waterfalls we reach the timeless buddhist village of Rumbak (4050m). It was bitterly cold even during the daytime due to the dense cloud cover.

Read : Kids of Markha Valley

Grrrrr... The look in those ferocious eyes had me run for cover... haha
Grrrrr… The look in those ferocious eyes had me run for cover… haha

There are 8-9 houses in Rumbak and all of them are homestays. I was ushered into the first one, straight into the warm confines of the kitchen. All homes have a ‘Bukhari’ in Ladakh, burning wood for warmth and on top of it food and tea is made. Three cute kids peer at me sheepishly as cha-cha (butter tea) is served. They are the children of my homestay owners and are creating a ruckus running and jumping around. The schools are closed due to winter holidays. The women in Ladakh work hard, the men mostly tend to chores outside of home. Handheld prayer wheels are rotated and the sounds of ‘om mane padme hum’ reverberate around the valley.

Say hi to my cool friends from Rumbak!
Say hi to my cool friends from Rumbak!

The per day rates have been fixed at 800 Rupees including all meals and endless cups of cha-cha. I am wearing 8 layers of clothing to combat the -30 degree temperatures that evening brings. The kids take me with them to walk around the village and meet everybody, there is no other outsider to soak in this tranquility. Other kids join us too as it starts snowing, making my heart sing in the process. We rush home as the entire landscape turns white and slippery as icy cold winds blow.

Luxury while it snows profusely outside. This is the life!
Luxury while it snows profusely outside. This is the life!

The Govt. has provided Rumbak with a generator and fuel, so electricity is available from 5 pm to 9 pm. Each family takes turns everyday to ensure the timings are taken care of. I express a desire to go to Yurutse the next day, which is a two hour walk along a frozen river.

We talk about the wildlife while a special Ladakhi dish is being prepared. It’s called ‘Timokh’ which is steamed Ladakhi bread in the shape of a croissant, to be eaten with dall & vegetable. Cha-cha is savoured in copious quantities to keep the body warm. Potatoes and spinach and other vegetables are stored underground in this cold weather. They say the snow leopard comes sometimes in the night and tries to take a goat or sheep away.

The most wonderful homestay, ever...
The most wonderful homestay, ever…

Chota Bheem plays on television as I watch riveted with kids. Dinner is served & is sumptuous, with mutter-paneer for variety. I praise the food wholeheartedly bringing a smile to the mother’s face. She asks me to take the village kids to Yurutse for company. They show me my room and the bukhari is lit-up to make it warm and cozy. I go out to relieve myself and see that the weather has cleared up. The view of the sky is surreal with millions of stars shining so brightly, I can scarcely believe my eyes.

Cattle let out for some sun while my partners play with them
Cattle let out for some sun while my partners play with them

Morning is sunny and the full splendour of the valley is laid out before us. We have breakfast and set off for Yurutse, my companions being Nyima, Tundup, Stanzin & Norbu. Within no time we spot blue sheep on a nearby hillock. Fresh footprints of a wolf and wild fox are identified in the snow. Nyima, the eldest of the three says ‘The snow leopard must be around.’

Read : Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

Snowy landscapes as I experience my first fall on a frozen river :P
Snowy landscapes as I experience my first fall on a frozen river 😛

They regale me with fascinating children’s tales regards the landscape and the various colours of the mountains. We build a snowman, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Yurutse at 4200m is a one home village on the way to 4920m Ganda La, the altitude taking full toll of me as we reach. The family welcomes us by serving lunch and the ubiquitous cha-cha. They refuse to take money when offered. Its a very old house, the prayer flags flutter amid azure blue skies and a pristine barren landscape, with a frozen river completing the pretty picture.

Incredible colours of that mountain, as we make our way to Yurutse
Incredible colours of the mountains that we walk upon, as we make our way to Yurutse
The one home village of Yurutse; you can stay here if they like you! (Not kidding)
The one home village of Yurutse; you can stay here if they like you! (Not kidding)

Yak butter is bought, so are hand-made socks and gloves from the family. They are colourful and delicately woven and cheap. A piece of iron to skate on is found from somewhere as we head back to Rumbak. The kids walk effortlessly and take turns to skate on the frozen river. I fall flat on my face with a thud on my first attempt. Slipping is a part of the game here as everybody laughs at my misery. We reach Rumbak before the night sets in.  What an adventurous day this has turned out to be!

Kids perform various antics while I lag behind
Kids perform various antics while I lag behind

I thank the mother and the kids for everything, and in return they give me a glass of chhang(locally made barley beer). Even the small child of 5 years is drinking it with biscuits; they say it is good for the body. A phone call to my family is made from the one satellite phone in the village.

Prayer flags fluttering as my heart did too in that surreal landscape
Prayer flags fluttering as my heart did too in that surreal landscape
And I have those memories for keeps...
And I have those memories for keeps…

We retire for the night after having dinner while watching Chota Bheem, me having almost become an integral part of the family now. I wander around for a bit gazing at the clear night skies as the generator is switched off and everything becomes pitch dark.

The kids are merrily skating while I tumble down the slopes to be with them
The kids are merrily skating while I tumble down the slopes to be with them

My worries of walking back alone are noticed by the family in the morning. They feed me breakfast and ask me to come back again someday, as I gift them a bottle of ‘seabuckthorn jam’. Nyima & Stanzin come halfway to drop me. I almost run down the rest all by myself and arrive in Zingchen in an hour. Luck is on my side and I get a ride back to Leh for free!

Slip and stutter but don't give up. Its all part of the fun (until you hear a creaking sound)
Slip and stutter but don’t give up. Its all part of the fun (until you hear a creaking sound)
Fresh footprints of 'Shanku' or Tibetan wild wolf
Fresh footprints of ‘Shanku’ or Tibetan wild wolf
A minor scare when Stanzin took away the dslr and ran away to a distant hillock!
A minor scare when Stanzin took away the dslr and ran away to a distant hillock!

I had heard so much about the famed (touristy) Chadar trek. A mixture of circumstances put me on a path prettier than everything else to send me on an epic sojourn that will remain etched forever in my heart. While I am not saying that this can be compared to the Chadar Trek, this region of the Snow Leopard in Markha Valley is for those who prefer the calm.

Read : Khardung La in Winter : Part 1

There’s a little bit of mountain in all of us.

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20 Comments Add yours

  1. sandypics says:

    there’s a little bit of mountain in all of us…so true…just back from the mountains of spiti:)lovely read and a reminder to get to these parts in the winter:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thats nice to know. Would love to know your take on Spiti and see those pictures 🙂

      Like

      1. sandypics says:

        hi shubham…sorry for the delay in this response..been traveling:)my take on spiti is best put in the words of rudyard kipling.
        “At last they entered a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This place is no place for men.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. pc73 says:

    love the way it ends!! and the pictures are just WOW

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pc73 says:

    love the way it ends! and the pictures are WOW

    Like

  4. Fabulous and fabulous and fabulous!

    Like

    1. Yyyayayayayyya, always so happy with such a candid comment 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. arv! says:

    Lovely pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there! Thank you Arv

      Liked by 1 person

  6. nupurpradhan says:

    I missed this when I went to Ladakh. Going to make a point to visit again soon.
    Btw – There’s a little bit of mountain in all of us – Couldn’t have been put better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Nupur. Maybe our paths will cross soon somewhere in the mountains. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sumi says:

    lucky you ! I am sure Its picturesque memories will haunt you for the rest of your life …

    Like

    1. Ahh, or maybe time to make new ones! Heading to Ladakh again in a week or so 🙂 Cheers Sumi

      Like

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