The air in Delhi hits you like a ton of bricks. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the weight of air so much – it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s polluted – which was in stark contrast to air I felt in the Markha Valley at 5100m above sea level, where the air was cool, crisp, clean and of course, lacking in oxygen. This trip, which is full of such contrasts, came about in a pretty random way (which has become the tendency of many of my trips): I had been wanting to go to, at the very least, Delhi and Agra for a weekend (primarily to see the Taj Mahal but also to eat all the food). Scrolling through Facebook one day, I came across a post of a fairly casual acquaintance (ie. we had hung out only one night on a pub crawl in Amsterdam while I was living in The Hague last year) who mentioned she was going on Yacht Week this summer and that there was another spot on her boat. I sent her a message, asking when she was going, as I hadn’t figured out what I was doing after my contract ended here in Nepal (that’s still a mystery). She replied, telling me that she was going the last week of June/first week of July… but, she was travelling to India beforehand, and had wanted to trek the Markha Valley in Ladakh.
I’m constantly looking for people to travel with – I travel alone quite often, which started with my cross-country Canada trips at 19 and then a three week trip to Mexico when I was 20 or so, much to the delight of my parents. I actually enjoy travelling alone, but I think certain experiences are just better shared, and trekking is one of them, mostly because you can share the highs and lows, and all the struggles, with someone else.
The trip started on a pretty solid note too. I checked in at the airport to find out I had somehow, through a discount airline website, booked an executive class ticket. And when I arrived at our hotel in Delhi, booked on Trish’s reward points, it was literally one of the happiest moments of my life. Anyone who has listened to my struggles re: running water in my apartment in Kathmandu will understand.
I actually arrived in Delhi about twelve hours earlier than Trish that day, so I spent most of the day hitting some of the main tourist attractions in Delhi.
I mentioned the heat of the air earlier: it’s literally like just standing in your own sweat. I love hot weather, but this was too much, and I was more than happy to spend most of my evening just sitting in an air conditioned environment, drinking iced coffee and watching TV (hello Sex and the City marathon!).
As a quick aside, I can tell I’ve been living in Nepal for a while now, because my first two reactions upon arriving in India (other than noticing the weight of the air) were, “Wow, India has really nice roads,” and, “Why is everything so expensive in India? I can get this for half the price in Nepal!” Which, I’m sure, are the two last things most Western tourists would think upon arriving in India.
Touring Delhi felt a bit weird, too – I’m much more of a wander around, do my own thing person (I love me some walking), and it’s just so hot in Delhi that the way people sightsee is by hiring a driver and going from place to place. India is a bit of a strange place to visit when you’re in my socioeconomic group – ie. I’m totally over being a broke backpacker but I’m too poor to really do nice things. There’s very little in the way of middleground.
So, I spent a solid afternoon in a hotel, and then Trish and I flew out to Leh, Ladakh the following morning (again, I was in executive class, and man, do I ever not want to fly with the peons again). Ladakh is a region within the Jammu and Kashmir state of Northwestern India, close to the borders of Pakistan and China. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been under a certain degree of conflict since the 80s due to separatist sentiments, with an insurgency movement originating in the state with assistance from Pakistan (the beginning of the end of Pakistan’s support for the insurgency was in 2004, partly due to assassination attempts against the then-President of Pakistan carried out by terrorist groups within the state). The Ladakh region itself is safe (don’t worry Mom and Dad, Canadian and British Government websites specifically state that it is safe to travel to this region), but nevertheless, I was struck by the amount of military presence and propaganda surrounding the city of Leh.
Leh is already at an elevation of 3500m, which is a 2000m jump from Kathmandu, so we took the acclimatization pretty seriously and waited until the following afternoon to head off on our trek through the Markha Valley.
The trek itself was beautiful. I wasn’t crazy about the overall itinerary of it – you start in Leh (3500m), spend the first two days trekking to Skiu (3370m) and Markha (3590m), which is good for acclimatization, but on a 6 day trek with a 5100m mountain pass, spending three days barely gaining any altitude made me a bit nervous of what was to come. The third day, we jumped up to 4000m, but were done trekking by 12.30 or so, which is a really short day, and leaves a lot of time to kill. The following day was a 900m ascent, and then the day after that was the Kongmaru La Pass (which I still am not entirely sure of the altitude; the most consistent response from the locals was 5100m, which is just 280m shy of Everest Base Camp).
But, on the way to Everest Base Camp, you don’t get to ride a trolley across the river.
As much fun as the trolley was, I felt like the makeup of the days wasn’t exactly balanced – you had one day where you walked for 8 hours, and others where you walked for 3 or 4 hours; I’m more of a 6 or 7 hour day every day trekker, mostly because there’s not all that much to do once you finish walking. But, this is the way the villages are set up in the Markha Valley – if you ever do this trek and are comfortable with it, I’d advise camping due to the greater flexibility you have regarding where you stay.
Despite my misgivings about the general day to day, I really enjoyed this trek overall – the landscapes were so different than the Khumbu region (Ladakh is a high altitude desert), and they changed drastically throughout the trek.
And it wasn’t just the changing landscape that made this trek incredible – we actually got to see some wildlife! Which was really exciting for me: other than that time in January when a leopard broke into someone’s house in Kathmandu (casual), I really haven’t been near any real wildlife (I really wasn’t that close to the leopard’s new pad either).
I realized in doing this trek that not everyone knows what a mountain pass is versus a peak (I also took way too many amazing photos but feel like I should throw some more text in here and educate you while I’m at it). So a peak is the highest point of a mountain, or, its summit. Summit and peak can be used synonymously. A summit will generally refer to a point with topographical prominence or isolation (for example, being the highest point en route to another peak, or being such a difference away from the next highest peak). Some mountains have subpeaks, meaning that they appear to be a peak, but don’t have enough prominence or isolation to be considered their own mountain. The simplest definition though, is that a summit is higher in elevation than everything else immediately around it.
A mountain pass is not a peak at all. Going over a mountain is already a challenging task – mountain passes are the parts you look for to make your life easier, and they’re the routes that will take you over ranges. That doesn’t mean all mountain passes are easy: you’re still going over a mountain, which means you’re still going up to pretty high elevations, and bad weather can come out of nowhere. Think about it: in the Fellowship of the Ring, while trying to go over the Redhorn Pass, the weather became so bad that the Fellowship was forced to go under the mountains in to the mines of Moria, leading to (what should be an unnecessary spoiler alert) Gandalf’s death by the Balrog.
Think of a pass as being in the same shape as a saddle, or an hourglass turned on its side – there are two high points on either end, and the pass is the low point in the middle. Passes have always been really important – not only are they an easier way of travelling between two valleys than going all the way over a peak, they also connect two peaks, requiring less of a descent between when travelling between the two. They less you descend, the less you have to re-ascend – and until I get to the last day of my trek, I never want to descend, because re-ascending is the worst. They aren’t important just for trekkers: their topography makes them strategic points for military, transit/road development, borders… the list goes on.
As a slight a matter of pride for me – I felt fantastic throughout this entire trek. I’ve never had any seriously negative experiences with altitude (and hopefully never will), but I felt better than I ever thought I would – I even slept normally at 4900m, which was where I’ve had issues before. I felt like I totally crushed the mountain pass, overtaking several people who started almost an hour before we did, which is an awesome feeling – my fitness in Kathmandu has been really different than what I normally do: I’ve been a lot more focused on yoga, rock climbing, and cycling, whereas I usually do a lot of running, plyometrics, and interval training. I miss my old kinds of exercise, and the clean air to do them in, but climbing especially is something I want to make sure I’m doing more of, wherever I end up next. It was a really great feeling to have several people comment on how fast and well I trek (I realize how lame it is to be proud of your walking abilities…) and handle the altitudes, and to feel like my body is really functional right now. I realize that it’s not a competition at all… but if it were, I would have won.
And speaking of winners… this was Trish’s first time doing any significant overnight trekking, and she totally crushed it, especially since she’s living in a city with a roughly 20m elevation. It’s so impressive to see people push themselves so far outside their comfort zone and handle it so well (minus those beetles, but you can’t win em all). We had such a fun time, and I’m so grateful she introduced me to the Markha Valley!
It’s honestly one of the really cool things about the age we live in – I get that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, social media generally, can all lead to some serious oversharing and cause people to ask what has happened to society and to people around my age or younger, but as someone who travels as often as I do, I really appreciate getting the chance to make connections with people, and keep those connections, regardless of where I am and how short of a connection it was. If I’m being honest, the life I’ve made can be lonely sometimes – it’s hard leaving behind the friendships you’ve developed and starting somewhere new, and realizing that you have somewhere between six months and a year to spend with the new people you meet, and then you’ll be doing it all over again. So, to be able to meet a girl at a bar, talk about feminism, not talk again for a year, randomly decide to go on a week long vacation together, and obsess over Taylor Swift’s love life (Tom Hiddleston > Calvin Harris)…
…it all makes me feel a lot less lonely, and reminds me that I don’t need to settle down to have meaningful relationships – I know very cool and inspiring people, and have amazing friends all over this world. And even those that I only speak with every few months, or years – they’ve all been huge parts of my life, and those important ones, I can count on them to be there.
This trek reminded me of how happy I am that this is my life – that I’ve opened myself up to explore the world and all the awesome (and sometimes, not so awesome) people out there.
But here’s to an awesome person, for bringing me on this trek with her, and to all the cool people we met on the way! Keep on following your feet, friends.
And stay tuned for another post coming up this week (hopefully, work is busy!) of the second part of my India trip, to Agra – which, for the most part, is a ridiculously huge contrast, particularly when you look at how I lived in Delhi vs. my journey to the Taj.