What I Learned About Life from a Tiny Village in the Middle of the Himalayas

On August 17th, Mat and I officially said goodbye to India.  We wrapped up our work, packed our belongings, and made arrangements for our return.  But before we left, we decided to get in one last travel adventure, and Leh, Ladakh, in the Indian state of Kashmir, seemed like the perfect choice.  We booked a flight and, after some extensive research and map scouting, began charting out a 7 day, self-supported trek through the Markha Valley.

When we landed in Leh, we had only a vague idea of what to expect.  The town is nestled the Indian Himalayas at 11,000 feet above sea level, and we were surprised to find that it is largely populated by Tibetan refugees.  Compared to the rest of India, it felt very laid back, much like any mountain town you’d find in the U.S., complete with souvenir shops, locally-owned restaurants and cafes, and plenty of sunny-faced, weather-beaten mountain dwellers.  

After two days of acclimatization in Leh, we embarked on our trek.  It’s worth noting that up to this point, most of the trekking (aka hiking) I’d done in my life had been in the U.S., usually Colorado, which, until now, had seemed to me like rugged, virgin wilderness.  One day in the Himalayas made me realize that all my previous hiking experiences were tame by comparison, including my hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  I remember getting to the bottom of the canyon and marveling that a lodge and dining facility could exist, since, due to the absence of a road, all supplies had to come in and out of the canyon on the backs of donkeys. 

There are about a dozen villages nestled in the Markha valley.  These villages consist of little more than a tea tent (a recycled parachute suspended over a semi-circular stone enclosure) and a few mud-brick buildings, one of which is invariably a homestay.  The homestays in the valley offer modest accommodations for light-traveling trekkers, and affordable camping on the grounds for trekkers with tents and sleeping bags.  Food is also available for all, though Mat and I only availed ourselves of it a couple of times; we brought and cooked most of our own food on a small camp stove. 

The beautiful Markha Valley.

The beautiful Markha Valley.

We went self-supported, carrying all of our gear.

We went self-supported, carrying all of our gear.

If I was amazed by the setup at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was incredulous at the villages in the Markha Valley.  Not only is there no road to provide access to these villages, in some places in the valley there is barely even a discernible trail.  We had to brave several hair-raising river crossings over stepping stones and perilous bridges; there were places where we had to scramble on our hands and knees; and there were sections of the trail that were so narrow and with such a sheer drop on one side that I had to practice some very focused visualization just to get through them.  

A typical mud-brick building, with the prayer flags that marked each village and homestay.

A typical mud-brick building, with the prayer flags that marked each village and homestay.

Yet somehow, whether carried by humans on foot, or on the backs of the intrepid ponies that make their way through the valley every day led by “pony men”, the villages are able to get enough supplies and food to maintain the homestays and feed the hungry trekkers who pass through every day of the trekking season.  It was clear to us that the homestays and tea tents are the sole source of income for these villages, which are otherwise fairly self-sufficient.  They grow their own vegetables in tidy patches on their property, and keep a handful of livestock animals.  

The trekking itself was treacherous and times, and at best it was very physically strenuous.  Yet we knew that all the villagers, and any outside provisions they required, had to travel over the exact same terrain in order to get where they were going.  How could entire (albeit tiny) civilizations exist in a place so remote and so challenging to get to?  Each village seemed to us to be teetering on the brink of survival, but in fact some of the buildings in these villages have been there for over 400 years.  

Moonrise in the Himalayas.

Moonrise in the Himalayas.

The setup in each village is, needless to say, very primitive.  There is no electricity, no plumbing.  The water source is a hand-pump if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s a nearby stream.  There are none of the modern conveniences we are so used to: no mobile phones, no internet, no television.  But what struck me most about these villages was the apparent contentment of their inhabitants.  Do they suffer from their lack of modern trappings?  From their relative isolation from the rest of the world?  On the contrary, I came away inspired by the simplicity of their existence.  There seemed to be a lot I could learn from them and apply to my own stressful, busy life. 

Money is not a guarantee of happiness. 

Our destination on our first day of trekking was the village of Shingo, which was so small that we almost walked right past it without noticing it.  There was a clearing which had what looked to be a fire pit, with some logs placed in a semi-circle around it, so we figured this was the campsite we’d seen on our map.  A narrow path led up a steep pitch to the few buildings that comprised the village, though at first sight, I wouldn’t have called it a village at all.  One of the buildings showed signs of being a homestay, but we didn’t see any people around, even after knocking on some doors.  It almost felt as if we’d done something wrong, that we’d gotten lost and stumbled upon some uninhabited ghost town.  We decided to set up camp at the campsite anyway, and eventually, to our delight, other trekkers started to show up, and they were able to find the home stay and procure food and lodging.  I thought for sure that the subsequent villages on our journey would feel a bit more substantial, but I was wrong. 

A homestay near Hankar in the Markha Valley.

A homestay near Hankar in the Markha Valley.

Skulls and stone cairns punctuated our trek through the valley.

Skulls and stone cairns punctuated our trek through the valley.

On our second day on the trail, we stopped for lunch at the village of Rumbak, at one of the two homestays there.  We were welcomed into the house by a woman, presumably the proprietor, who showed us in to her parlor and offered us tea.  We sat on red cushions while she and her son prepared our lunch on the floor of their kitchen, she chopping vegetables while he crushed herbs with a mortar and pestle.  As we waited for our lunch, we surveyed the room: family photos on the walls, a dresser full of copper crockery on display that the family had clearly been collecting for generations, a poster of the city of Lhasa spread across one wall.  Flowers in vases in the window, bumble bees wandering in through the open door and settling on the blooms.  I was surprised to find myself in such a warm and inviting space. 

A stone cairn with the Kang Yaze peak behind it.

A stone cairn with the Kang Yaze peak behind it.

As we peered through the door of the kitchen at the woman and her son, talking to each other in Ladakhi, laughing, smiling, and playing, I began to wonder: are these people less happy than we are?  Do they feel their relative poverty or their lack of modern conveniences?  Do they feel disconnected with the world?  Or is their world simply comprised of their surroundings - their spouses, in-laws, parents, and children, their Tibetan heritage, the souvenirs and heirlooms lining the walls and cupboards, the family farm, the goats and yaks in the paddock out back, the jagged peaks rising up all around their land, the guests who pass through and provide their livelihood, 100 rupees to sit in the parlor and eat warm vegetables and rice? 

What does happiness really look like?  Since the beginning of my career 8 years ago, I have worked from 9 to 6 in an office every day.  I worked my way up the corporate ladder, got promotions and pay increases, and received accolades for my work.  But there never came a time when I felt I had enough.  No matter how much money I made relative to where I had started, it always seemed that I needed more.  Why?  Had my needs as a human changed so much that I needed such a huge salary in order to feel whole?  Did the money I spent every month really add value to my life or make me happier?  Was I better off for my achievements in corporate America than the woman who lovingly prepared my lunch with her son on her kitchen floor in the middle of the Himalayas?  Our lives couldn’t have been more different, yet I wondered what advantage my modern existence gave me over her primitive one.  In that moment, sitting on a red cushion, drinking milk tea, I admired and envied her life. 

Relationships add value to life, no matter what your circumstance.

A small farm near Leh, in the Himalayas.

A small farm near Leh, in the Himalayas.

The fourth day of our trek was particularly long, hot, and brutal.  We stopped midday at a tea tent a few miles short of our campsite to rest, refill our water, and get a bite to eat while taking shelter in the shade of the parachute.  The gentleman manning the tea tent served us milk tea and noodles, and while we waited, his daughter, who looked about three years old, wandered over to us and watched us with cautious curiosity for a while.  After she had decided we were alright, she retreated into that world of imagination that is unique to children, and we watched her play, sing and talk to herself as if we weren’t even there.  

After her father returned with our refreshments, we watched them engage in a charming display of father-daughter affection, including some make-believe in which he crouched down on all fours and made tiger sounds, while she squealed with delight and ran for cover.  Then we watched him pick her up and throw her over his shoulder while she giggled with glee, as carefree and happy as any child I’d ever seen.  It was a touching reminder that parents love their children everywhere in the world, including in primitive villages in the middle of the Himalayas.  

Was their parent-child bond somehow diminished by their circumstance?  Do poverty or rural life make relationships less significant?  On the contrary, it seemed to me that in the absence of television, toys, or other distractions, this man and his child had more time for play, affection, and imagination. 

The world is full of natural beauty, and we must remove distractions in order to see it.

Think about your day-to-day life for a moment.  You wake up in the morning, and, if you’re like me, you almost immediately look at your phone.  You get out of bed, get ready for work, walk to the subway (bus, car) while scrolling Instagram, get on the train and ride to work with a podcast in your headphones.  You get to work, likely sit in front of a computer all day, including through your lunch hour, when you catch up on personal emails, maybe some news, the latest viral video.  Your evening commute is similar to your morning commute, with some form of digital distraction, and when you arrive home you are so exhausted by your day that you escape into Facebook or Netflix until you fall asleep.  Maybe there’s some exercise in there somewhere, but often that’s done in front of a screen as well.  Have we so given up on the real world that we must experience everything vicariously through our digital devices?  What would happen if we took those devices away?  

Sunset in the valley at Nimaling.

Sunset in the valley at Nimaling.

Baral (Blue Sheep) live in the cliffs of the valley.

Baral (Blue Sheep) live in the cliffs of the valley.

During our week in the mountains, we had no choice but to tune in to our surroundings.  Even if we had been compelled to look at our phones, there would have been no service, no electricity to charge batteries.  Our days in the Himalayas were long and hard; it was easily the most physically challenging week of my life.  We arrived to every campsite with burning legs, aching backs, and sore feet, and yet, partially out of necessity, we still had the energy to set up camp, cook our meals, brush our teeth, and wash our dishes.  Once our chores were done, we had time in the evenings to take in the beauty of the valleys in which we were situated, watching the sun set behind the rough peaks, and the full moon rise like a spotlight in the night sky.  We fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and frogs, and woke to the sounds of birdsong, and to the soft morning light seeping in through the walls of our tent.  

A herd of Kashmiri sheep paid a visit to our tent.

A herd of Kashmiri sheep paid a visit to our tent.

Would I have appreciated the sights and sounds of these valleys if I’d been distracted by my cell phone?  Possibly not.  Granted, this valley was one of the most beautiful places Mat or I had ever been, and it was easy to drink it all in and appreciate the mountains, the rivers, and the wildlife.  But it made me wonder what we might notice and appreciate in our own backyard if we shut out the noise for a little while.  

How might our lives be more beautiful if, instead of grabbing our phones the minute we’re awake, we opened our eyes and appreciated the soft morning light coming in through the windows and the chirping of birds in the trees outside?  How might our energy levels change if, instead of riding the train in a fog every morning, we cycled to work with open eyes and ears, with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces?  Might we sleep better at night if, instead of crashing in front of the TV or computer at the end of a work day, we stepped outside and sat on our stoop and watched the evening light fade, talking and sharing our reflections on the day?  We may not live in the middle of the Himalayas, but there is a lot that is beautiful and worth noticing in our everyday lives too, if only we have the presence of mind to notice it. 

Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass.

Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass.

By the end of our week in the Markha Valley, we were ready to get back to a few modern conveniences, like electricity, plumbing, and hot water.  But the simplicity of those Himalayan villages stayed with me, and I wondered: does the modern stuff that fills our lives really make us happier?  More fulfilled?  

I would argue that to some extent, the answer is no.  I think there’s a lot to learn from societies whose existence is so simple and straightforward, and it’s worth taking a look at our own lives and asking what’s really important.  What really brings happiness and fulfillment?  What can we do less of?  What can we do without altogether?  The things that ultimately bring happiness are, ironically, not the things in which most of us invest ourselves.  Maybe it’s time to reassess how, where, and to whom we devote our precious time and energy.  We might find that by simplifying things a little bit and focusing more on relationships and experiences, we have a greater sense of well-being.