The ancient footpaths that crisscross Ladakh and Zanskar provide some of the most inspiring trekking in the Himalayas. Threading together remote Buddhist villages and monasteries, cut off in winter behind high passes whose rocky tops bristle with prayer flags, nearly all are long, hard and high – but never dull. Whether you make all the necessary preparations yourself, or pay an agency to do it for you, Leh is the best place to plan a trek; the best time is from June to September.
Trekking independently is straightforward if you don’t mind haggling and are happy to organize the logistics yourself. To find ponies and guides, head for the Tibetan refugee camp at Choglamsar, 3km south of Leh. Count on paying around ₹600 per horse and ₹500 per donkey each, plus around ₹600 per day for a guide; two people trekking through the Markha Valley, for example, would pay around US$60 each for the entire week. By contrast, a package trek sold by a trekking agent in Leh will cost at least US$60 per day, and more if your group is less than four people.
You can rent equipment, including high-quality tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and duck-down jackets, either through your chosen agency or at somewhere like Spiritual Trek, Changspa Lane. Independent trekkers might consider buying Indian equipment in the bazaar, and then later selling it on.
Minimize your impact in culturally and ecologically sensitive areas by being as self-reliant as possible, especially with food and fuel. Buying provisions along the way puts an unnecessary burden on the villages’ subsistence-oriented economies, and encourages strings of unsightly “tea shops” (often run by outsiders) to sprout along the trails. Always burn kerosene, never wood – a scarce and valuable resource. Refuse should be packed up, not disposed of along the route, no matter how far from the nearest town you are, and plastics retained for recycling at the Ecology Centre in Leh. Always bury your faeces and burn your toilet paper afterwards. Finally, do not defecate in the dry-stone huts along the trails; local shepherds use them for shelter during snowstorms.
For information about trekking to Zanskar from the south, see Trekking in Lahaul and Spiti.
The Markha Valley
The beautiful Markha Valley runs parallel with the Indus on the far southern side of the snowy Stok-Kangri massif, visible from Leh. Passing through cultivated valley floors, undulating high-altitude grassland and snow-prone passes, the winding trail along it enables trekkers to experience life in a roadless region without having to hike for weeks into the wilderness – as a result, it has become the most frequented route in Ladakh. Do not attempt this trek without adequate wet- and cold-weather gear: snow flurries sweep across the higher reaches of the Markha Valley even in August.
The circuit takes six to eight days to complete, and is usually followed anticlockwise, starting from the village of Spitok, 10km south of Leh. A more dramatic approach via Stok affords matchless views over the Indus Valley to the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, but involves a sharp ascent of Stok La (4848m) on only the second day; don’t try it unless you are already well acclimatized to the altitude.
Likkir to Temisgang
A driveable road along the old caravan route through the hills between Likkir and Temisgang makes a leisurely two-day hike, which takes in three major monasteries (Likkir, Rhizong and Temisgang) and a string of idyllic villages. It’s a great introduction to trekking in Ladakh, the perfect acclimatizer if you plan to attempt any longer and more demanding routes. Ponies and guides for the trip may be arranged on spec at either Likkir or Temisgang villages, both of which have small guesthouses and are connected by daily buses to Leh.
Lamayuru to Alchi
The five-day trek from Lamayuru, on the Srinagar–Leh highway, to Alchi is one of the toughest in the region, winding across high passes and a tangle of isolated valleys past a couple of ancient gompas, and offering superb panoramic views of the wilderness south of the Indus Valley. It’s very hard to follow in places, so don’t attempt it without an experienced guide, ponies and enough provisions to tide you over if you lose your way.
Padum to Lamayuru
The trek across the rugged Zanskar Range from Padum to Lamayuru usually completed in ten to twelve days, is a hugely popular but very demanding long-distance route, not to be attempted as a first-time trek nor without adequate preparation, ponies and a guide.
Visible from most of Leh, Stok-Kangri (6120m) is reputed to be the easiest peak above 6000m in the world. Several agents in Leh advertise five-day climbing expeditions via the village of Stok with a non-technical final climb. It’s straightforward to walk up it independently, though you’ll need to carry enough food for three or four days.