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Trekking in Ladakh

Trekking in Ladakh

Planning your trek

Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trek | Sample route guide - Markha Valley trek | Minimum impact trekking


'Just as a white summer-cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth, freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon, following the breath of the atmosphere - in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that wells up from the depth of his being and leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.'
Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way Of The White Clouds

Trekking is the most natural way to travel through a mountain land - on foot and at human speed. As with all travel, it is at its best when it becomes a sort of pilgrimage, a challenging game played to enrich you physically, emotionally and occasionally spiritually. Of course, this kind of game can be played at home. Yet there are some places that lend a hand to the 'pilgrim'; places where it is easier to live simply and at a slower pace, where the landscape creates awe and demands respect, and where the way of life challenges your preconceptions and offers refreshing alternatives.

Travelling on foot with few luxuries but with all your basic needs is a liberating experience. This may be hard to appreciate on the first few days of a trek as you struggle with the physical pain of exercise, the discomfort of few possessions, and the mental torment of veering from intense happiness one moment to the depths of despair the next. Then suddenly you break through the barrier. Rising with the sun, walking all day and sleeping under the stars feels the most natural thing in the world. Your body thrives on its new-found energy while your mind, lulled by the rhythm of walking, is freed from its habits and rush. This is the intoxication of being truly alive.

Trekking offers wonderful opportunities for direct interaction with unique cultures and the natural world, while also providing precious moments to explore your own values and capabilities. If you walk through the Himalaya with an open mind, as well as awareness and sensitivity, you will have done everything to ensure a fascinating and rewarding trip. That fit, tanned figure may not last but the experiences gleaned from along the trail can change your whole life.

With a group or on your own?
Foreign travellers have been following Ladakh's mountain trails for centuries. For over a thousand years long rambling caravans of heavily-loaded pack animals accompanied the exotic traders from Central Asia, the Middle East and Tibet, as they made their way through the arid mountains before crossing over the Great Himalayan Range or the mighty Karakoram.

The first Westerner in this region was a Portuguese traveller, Diogo d'Almeida, who crossed the high passes in 1600. He was followed by a slow trickle of missionaries, merchants, explorers and adventurers ranging from an impoverished Transylvanian in the 1820s, Csoma de Koros, the self-styled pioneer of Tibetan studies, who wandered the remote trails dressed as a tramp, to the mildly eccentric Robert and Katherine Barrett, alias Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba, who trekked for a year in 1923-24 with a luxurious entourage of 'twenty or more ponies...eight menservants, a lot of coolies carrying loads from one village to the next, and always a village headman or two.' (The Himalayan Letters of Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba).

The trails fell quiet for a little over 25 years until 1974, when the previously imposed ban on foreign visitors was lifted. The popularity of trekking holidays has developed rapidly in the intervening decades but the basic approaches remain the same as those developed by the early pioneers. Today's trekker has several choices. You can experience the splendour of the mountains with the minimum of discomfort by joining a fully organised trek, complete with crew and a caravan of ponies; you can adopt a lightweight, sensitive and less costly approach (as advocated by the great explorer mountaineers, Eric Shipton and HW Tilman) by employing a local pony-man with a few pack animals; or you can trek completely independently, carrying everything you need on your back.


From the point of view of organising a trek, backpacking is simplest. This is the usual and preferred form of trekking in the West and one that is also common in Nepal, where the popular routes have a well-established system of inns, or tea houses in which you can sleep and eat. However, it doesn't adapt quite so easily to the mountains of Ladakh.

First, the villages in Ladakh are often far apart and it's rare to be able to find food or somewhere to sleep along the trail. On most treks, therefore, you need to be self-sufficient as regards food and shelter. Secondly, there's the problem of route finding. Trails are frequently hard to follow, and there are few locals from whom to ask the way. Thirdly, the mountains are larger than anything in the West. Not only will you be walking uphill for several days on end, but you'll be doing so at altitudes in excess of 3500m/11,480ft - hard enough without a 15kg pack on your back.

There are, however, one or two shorter and lower level treks that can quite easily be backpacked but for the majority of routes this is an unnecessarily punishing way to walk. Despite this, there will be a few people for whom reading these sentences will only serve to whet their appetite for adventure. For those with a high level of fitness and experience, backpacking can be a very exciting way to explore the mountains. However, you should consider that for little extra cost and effort you could employ a pony-man who would enrich your experience even more and by giving him work you'd be helping the local economy.

Pack animals and pony-men
Keeping to the principles of low weight, low cost and low impact does not mean you have to forgo all comfort. Ladakh is ideally suited to independent individuals or small groups making their own arrangements with a pony-man on arrival. Ladakhis are caravan traders, not porters, so this is a traditional means of carrying your gear into the mountains. The pony-man will not only provide the ponies or donkeys to carry your luggage (�3-8/US$5-14 per animal per day) but will also act as your guide for no extra charge and possibly your cook as well. This is an excellent way to travel particularly if you keep the size of the group small.

A party of up to about four people, along with the pony-man and two or three ponies can walk together at the same speed, pitch camp in the smallest of spaces, alter the itinerary with ease and, perhaps more importantly, will be welcomed into villages and houses along the way. A friendship between you and your guide will develop as you practise your Ladakhi and he practises his English, which will certainly be better than your attempts at his language, while both of you learn more about each other's cultures. Understanding and appreciation of what you are seeing will be greatly increased, while a huge weight is taken off your back.

Organising such a minimal outfit is simple (see p162) and need take no more than two or three days. Leh is the best place to buy food and hire any camping equipment that you need, while pony-men can be organised either there or at the village at the start of your trek.


There is a certain amount of overlap between the approach mentioned above and guided trekking groups: the distinction is really in how much organisation you are prepared to do yourself.

Local trekking agencies
As the size of a group increases, or the level of service you require grows, it begins to make sense to employ the help of a local trekking agency in Leh. While you may well use an agency just to help you find a pony-man, their real skill lies in organising a complete trek from start to finish. For those for whom cost is not of major importance, or those who would rather let someone else worry about where and how to pitch the tent, how far to walk each day and what to have for dinner, a fully organised and guided trek is the answer.

Almost anything can be arranged from a simple but efficient trek with tents, food, ponies, guide and cook for as little as �17/US$25 per person per day, up to a luxury trek with excellent food, separate toilet, dining and kitchen tents plus a slick crew costing anything up to �80/$140 per person per day. The price becomes slightly lower per person the more people you have in the group.

This kind of organised group trek can easily be arranged when you arrive in Leh. It will take the agency between three and seven days to get everything together (the higher the level of service and the more complicated the itinerary, the longer everything takes), which gives you ample time to acclimatise and explore the local area.

If you are very short of time, require a very high level of service, or there are six or more of you (not to be recommended), it might be wiser to make preliminary arrangements before you reach India by contacting a Ladakhi trekking agency from home (for addresses, see p13).

Foreign trekking agencies
The growth of adventure travel companies in the West over the last decade has been phenomenal. All the companies listed on pp14-16 offer treks in Ladakh, many choosing the most popular routes, while others make a point of taking you off the beaten track, or even up a mountain or two.

What you get for your money
A complete pre-planned trekking package is laid on so that there is almost nothing left for you to organise: international flights, high quality hotels, most meals, guided tours, transfers and transportation are all included. On the trek itself everything is provided, all you have to do is keep placing one foot in front of the other. The success of the trip depends on the quality of the leader and the local ground-handling agents. Most companies employ Western leaders to accompany the group for the whole of the trip, while leaving the day to day logistics of the trek in the hands of an experienced local guide. A few companies use local representatives throughout.

Pros and cons
Booking a trip with a trekking agency in your home country is a sensible choice for those who want to cram as much as possible into a limited amount of time and who enjoy being looked after. No time is wasted finding hotels, booking transport or getting a trekking crew together; someone else is being paid to worry about all that. Another benefit is that if you don't fancy the idea of travelling on your own, group treks are an excellent way to meet like-minded people.

However, not everyone finds it easy to travel with total strangers and rifts in the group are not uncommon. There can also be problems with sticking to such a fixed itinerary and always being with the group. There's little time to go off exploring on your own, to interact independently with the locals, to meet fellow trekkers or to take a rest day when you feel like it. Things can get more serious at high altitude, when in the interest of saving time, the group is forced to ascend rather more quickly than may be appropriate, causing unnecessary discomfort. This is without a doubt one of the most expensive ways to trek. While this style suits some, there are others who book with a commercial group because they don't realise that arranging a trekking holiday to Ladakh themselves is really very easy.

What to ask before making a booking
If you do decide to trek with a commercial company, there are a few questions you should ask before parting with your money. Some companies attract a certain type of clientele so it's worth finding out who your fellow trekkers will be and whether you think you'll get along with them. The top companies now give audiovisual shows so that you can meet other people interested in going on trips and get an idea of what trekking with that company is like.

Try to find out who will be leading your trip and what experience he or she has of leading groups, travelling in India and Ladakh, and of walking that particular route. A knowledgeable leader can teach you so much about a region. Ask for a detailed itinerary of your trek, how difficult it is and how big the group will be. Good indicators of the level of comfort that you can expect are the sort of food you will be eating and the standard of equipment that you will be using.

Perhaps most importantly, you should enquire about how comprehensive their medical kit is, whether the trek will be accompanied by anyone with medical training and what the policy is if someone falls ill, especially with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, commonly known as altitude sickness, see p273). Have they worked out emergency descent routes and will it be possible for someone to escort the AMS sufferer back to lower altitude if it's necessary?

Trekking in Ladakh