Judging from my window at a guesthouse in Leh, a city in the high-desert Ladakh of India, I could sense that the Himalayan mountains would test not just one’s physical strength but also one’s character.
I set out on a seven-day trek in the Himalayas taking on the Markha Valley route even if I knew that it would be difficult, or maybe too much for me. I had done a full day of trekking up to the Triund Hill in Dharamshala last month. And as a result, I was limping the next few days.
Two days after I reached Leh, I found a group departing for Markha Valley with a trekking guide on August 3. The overall cost for the seven days was the cheapest among all the offers of travel agencies along Changspa Road. So I said yes.
On our first day, I met my groupmates- four tall gentlemen from the Netherlands, Israel, France, and Australia. I warned them I would be the slowest, being the only petite Southeast Asian woman and being fully aware of my physical capabilities. And of course, I did not disappoint them. The fastest amongst us was always more than a few miles from me.
But then, trekking in the Himalayas is not a race.
It could be like yoga. “Mind your own practice,” as what every yoga teacher would tell his or her students. So this whole trek in the Himalayas is more spiritual for me.
The first day was gentle, more like a warm-up for the strenuous days ahead. Although we walked under the intense heat of the desert sun, we easily reached our homestay in Rumbak in three hours. For five nights, we stayed with Ladakhi families. We spent our last night in a tent in Nimaling, a vast green pasture land in the valley, enduring the biting cold and the occasional rain.
The toughest days were the second and the last days. Crossing the Ganda La pass seemed easy because the trail gradually rises and falls. But with an altitude of more than 4, 970 meters
, every step was heavy. My heart and lungs were working doubly hard to get oxygen. I had to stop every few steps. “Small steps and deep breaths,” Uri, our Israeli groupmate, advised me. I had to find my rhythm with this thin air.
After crossing the pass, we had to walk for eight more hours to reach Skyu, a village where we can find a homestay. “Nina, have you walked this long in your life?” our Aussie groupmate asked me. We were on our 11th hour in the trek that day. Ireplied
, during our in Mount Apo in 2014. But it was easier because we were mostly in mossy forests and the shades of trees and the cool air were giving us comfort. He told me his longest and toughest walk was in Mt Mayon way back in the 1990s.
Both of my feet were covered with blisters after that long walk. I hadn’t thought about blisters before this trek. Good thing, our Dutch groupmate was prepared for them. He has plastic pack complete of first aid supplies. “It is nice to unload the weight,” he said as he handed me over his first-aid kit. My Dutch groupmate Erick is such an angel, a sunshine in our group. He often slowed down so I would not be alone in the trek. He often cracked jokes to make our mood lighter.
My feet at one point had turned into a monster and I couldn’t walk any faster. I had to walk in my sandals. And it made the condition of my feet worse.
Staying with Ladakhi families was the best way to immerse ourselves into the region’s culture. Sometimes despite the language barrier, the Ladakhis attempt to communicate to us. “Chaang, chaang?” our Ladakhi female host told us offering us a cup of the local wine, which was made of barley. We could not understand her until she showed us some grains of Barley. I took a sip and I felt warmth in my throat. “Good,” I said giving her the thumbs up sign.
The last and highest pass called Gongmaru La, which is 5130 meters above sea level. It was manageable to me compared to the first pass, probably after having acclimatized for six days. But still I had to take it slowly and move according to my pace. I reached the top after three hours. The Germans who arrived there moments before me were shouting. The victorious feeling had reached me. I asked their guide to take me one shot with me raising my hands up before the battery of my phone ran out. But our trekking guide appeared and told me as if reprimanding me. “I have been waiting for you for the last 30 minutes.” I told him sharply to go ahead and that I can do the trek alone.
I wasn’t fortunate to have a good guide on this trek. On our third day, this Ladakhi guide who had claimed he was close to finishing his Masters in Political Science, told me that I don’t have the “energy to acclimatize” and that the Markha Valley trek was too difficult for me. He could be right. But I never had people in the trek who told me right in my face that I cannot do it. In the past, I have been so lucky to be surrounded by energetic people in the Philippines who encouraged me to no end, who would push me and help me along the way.
But of course, his words hadn’t dampened my spirits. I sang Indian mantras while enduring my blisters. I told myself this is the best time to practice equanimity, the virtue which we have been aiming in Vipassana meditation (This one deserves another blogpost).
I lost my cool, however, when I met our guide in the afternoon on our last day. My two other groupmates were resting in a tent, which had been serving as a teashop for trekkers taking some rest.
I haven’t sat for two minutes when our guide told us we should go and that we have been so delayed. He was about to tell me how long he had been waiting for me when I cut him. “You claim to be a Buddhist, but you lack compassion.” For me Buddhism is synonymous to compassion.
My guide could have forgotten that I was supposed to enjoy the trip and that I should move according to the speed that is healthy to me.
I was overwhelmed with tears during the last stretch of the trek. I couldn’t remember a time I was really angry like that. It was also coupled by the feeling of exhaustion and my hurting feet.
Along the river, a Ladakhi woman greeted me “Julley” which in Ladakh means “hello” and “thank you.” I sobbed even harder because she looked like my mother in her youth.
A lot of people here say I look Ladakhi, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian. “Maybe this is really my home,” I had jokingly told the people who mistakenly thought I was a local.
In the Himalayas, I experienced an emotional outburst which I immediately let go. But I should look at this trek in its entirety. From my viewpoint, I saw the goodness of the Ladakhi people, the beauty and wonders of nature which I have not seen in my life, the strength of my own spirit, and the
kindness of fellow travelers I met along the way. These are enough reasons for me to love this place.
- The Markha Valley trek can be done in six to eight days, with or without a guide. We met couples who were only guided by maps, travelers’ footprints, and horse trails. The trail is somehow clearly defined, although I got lost a couple of times.
- The trek includes crossing at least two passes — Gongmaru La (5130 m) and Ganda La (4870m)
- The trail could be extremely cold and hot. It can rain too. Thus, I had a fleece jacket and a rain coat with me in my backpack.
- Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir state of India, is home to many Tibetans as it borders Tibet to the east. It was an important trading route until the Chinese authorities closed the border to Tibet in the 1960s. Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist.
- I have reached Leh after an 18-hour bus ride from Manali in Himachal Pradesh (1900 INR). It was a long but amazing journey as you can see the scenic barren landscape of Ladakh. It can also be reached by private vehicle or by plane from New Delhi.