The Himalayas are unlike any other part of India, mountains have always held a special place in my heart despite the fact that I always get pretty sick at altitude. The fascinating Sikh province of Punjab, the mountain top temples of Leh and the war-torn meadows of Kashmir are worlds apart and yet they are all easily accessible if you journey into India’s Himalayan provinces. Be warned; travelling in the Himalayas is uncomfortable, tiring and sometimes dangerous. It is worth getting to grips with your itinerary before you go, planning on the road doesn’t work so well in the Himalayas. Let the adventure begin!
I suggest heading into the Himalayas when the rest of India becomes too hot to handle, I prefer to hang out in the lower Himalayas between May and June. June to August is the best time of year to travel in Ladakh and Kashmir.
Suggested itinerary: Rishikesh – Amritsar – Dharamsala – Manali – Kasol – Leh – Srinigar – Jammu / Delhi (4/5 weeks)
Top Things to See and Do
Rishikesh – Catch a train from Delhi to Haridwar. From here it is just one hour by bus to Rishikesh bus station. You will then need to get a tuk tuk to drop you near Lakshman Jula. You must then cross the bridge and find accommodation. There are lots of cheap options around, I recommend the Rana Guesthouse. You should definitely eat at the awesome ‘Ganga Beach Cafe’. Whilst in Rishikesh hire mopeds for 300RS a day and go exploring. The roads are quite intense and it’s a lot of fun. You should also go White water rafting, check out ‘Red Chilli Adventure’ (near the top of the road leading towards the main road up from Lakshman Jula) they run awesome half days for just 800RS a person. I recommend three or four days in Rishikesh. Rishikesh has been attracting hippies and truth seekers ever since The Beatles first rocked up here in 1966 and there are loads of Yoga and Meditation courses available ranging from a matter of days to entire months. Oh, and “The Beatles Ashram” is now an urban art museum which is well worth taking in. From Haridwar you can catch a train to Amritsar.
Amritsar – The golden temple, the most sacred temple in the Sikh faith, is simply breathtaking. Sikhism welcomes all and you can stay for free in the golden temple dorms. Wander around until someone shows you where to go. Ask the temple guards if unsure. Keeping the spirit of Sikh hospitality, you can also get free food at the temple all day long. You should visit the Atari border ceremony in the evening and have a laugh at the ridiculous flag ceremony performed by soldiers from the Indian and Pakistani armed forces. One full day in Amritsar is enough as it’s very hot. After a night in the temple dorm you can catch an early morning bus to McLeod Ganj.
Dharamsala – Other than the bus from Amritsar, Dharamsala can also be reached by overnight ACbus from Delhi for around 600rps or by local bus from either Risikesh or Manali from 200rps but be warned, the ride is very bumpy. Whilst travellers refer to “Dharamsala” they actually mean the satellite towns of McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu rather than the forgettable city itself so get the bus straight to McLeod Ganj (your bus may even drop you here but if not it’s a short 30rps Tuk-Tuk ride).
McCleod Ganj – The home of the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan’s in Exile, McCleod Ganj (or little Tibet) is a chilled place to spend a couple of days among the Tibetan people and is a great place to pick up souvenirs. There are many interesting day hikes around the area. We stayed in the inexpensive, Tibetan run, ‘Loseling Guesthouse’ – double for 250RS. McCleod is pretty small and a few days here should be more than enough unless you are doing yoga or choose to get involved with a charity. There are several projects for volunteers here working with Tibetan refugees and be sure to check out Tibetan world where you can sign up for language exchanges where every afternoon for 1 hour you simply converse with Tibetan monks; this is definitely worth doing. The Black Tent cafe does a great Tibetan breakfast and for evening drinks check out Carpe Diem.
Bhagsu and Dharankott – Around 1km from McLeod Ganj is Bhagsu where you should spend a few nights. Lower Bhagsu is a mini modern market place and our advice is to keep going up the hill. Bhagsu is a hippy backpackers paradise with hand made crafts, tie-dye clothing and Didgeridoo lessons at every turn. The area is very popular with Israeli’s and there is even a Hebrew book exchange. There are some great hikes you can do from Bhagsu. The most popular is Triund which is very manageable for even the casual trekker and takes around 3 or 4 hours up (if you are fit) and you can rent a tent to sleep at the summit (it gets very cold at night so bring a base layer). In the evenings, head along the stone paths into the hills and follow the music and the scent of ganja, there are many little cafe’s and lodges along the trail where musicians jam into the early hours. Bring a torch as finding you way back after dark could be a challenge on a night with no moon!
Manali and around – Manali really is wonderful. Cheap accommodation is mostly in Old Manali, a thirty minute walk from where you will be dropped by your minibus, at the top of the hill. You can choose to base yourself in either Old Manali, Vashist or New Manali; we recompensed either of the first two as the latter is a bit soulless and to be used purely for transport and ATM purposes. In Old Manali, The ‘Blue Elephant Cafe’ is a great place to catch breakfast. ‘Dylan’s Toasted and Roasted’ does great deserts and has a movie room. The marijuana in Manali is amazing and freely grows everywhere. Arrange a day of canyoning through the French run Himalayan Extreme Centre. Don’t bother with the rafting as the river is unimpressive. You can also arrange zorbing, paragliding, skiing and quadbiking in the area. Consider hiring a Royal Enfield and exploring the Spiti Valley. If you have the time, you could happily spend at least a week in the Manali area and there is loads to do in the surrounding area including a few nights in Vashist which is a 15 minute, 50rps Tuk-Tuk ride away.
Vashist – Vashist is roughly set across the valley from Old Manali and is kind of like its little brother. Vashist is much quieter than Old Manali and therefore a fantastic place to stay if you want some peace and tranquility. There is a hot spring at the top of town and daily religious processions where you can watch devout locals fall into trance states. The Rasta Cafe is a great place to hang out, eat and try the Special Lassis (be warned, they can be very strong). Accommodation can be found from between 200 – 400 rps for a double room if you are willing to go door to door and haggle and you can sometimes even bag a room with a stunning mountain view. An overnight minibus to Leh costs 1900RS a person and takes at least 18 hours. Ours took 36 hours due to landslides. It was hell.Take Diamox for AMS. Don’t fly to Leh, the bus journey is a right of passage and has some truly mesmerizing scenery on the way.
Kasol – The town of Kasol can be reached by 5 -6 hour bus ride from Manali for 200rps. Kasol has soared in popularity in the last few years and is now rivaling Manali as the backpacker hub for Himachal Pradesh. Depending on how long you spent in Manali, it is defintely worth heading here for a few nights if you have the time in your itinerary. Predominantly popular with Israeli travellers, the town is notable for it’s cheap hippy chic, laid back vibe and prevailing whiff of ganja. There is a very popular hike from Kasol up to Keergangh, a natural spring atop a mountain where according to Hindu legend Lord Shiva resides. If you are fit and set off early the spring can be reached in one day. However we recommend spending a night or two halfway up in the tiny, serene village of Tosh where you can enjoy fresh mountain air and take bucket showers. Keergangh itself is a bit lame and a bad example of unchecked development. Accommodation is crowded, dirty, overpriced and the facilities lamentable. It is however worth spending a night just to see the stars as the elevation plus complete lack of light pollution makes for a soul stirring spread. For a full run down of chilled out places to visit in the area have a good look at the Kasol and Around guide by Drifter Planet.
Leh and Ladakh – When you arrive head to Upper Changspa and stay in the ‘Samba Guesthouse’. A huge double with mountain views costs just 300RS. There is a lot to do in Leh, definitely visit the palace for awesome views as well as the prominent stupa visible from all over town. The donkey sanctuary is well worth visiting. It may even have been a highlight of my stay in Leh! There is a lot of trekking opportunities in Ladakh. We caught a taxi for 900RS to Zingchen and had a pleasant six hour walk with multiple exciting river crossings to Rumbak. Here we stayed in a delightful homestay which was easy to arrange as soon as we arrived for 450RS a person including all food. The next day we awoke early, took diamox and assaulted a 4800m pass before walking down to Stok. You don’t need a map but ask for directions on the way. Rumbak to Stok took nine hours including breaks. Some of us were ill from the altitude. Arrive in Stok before 5pm to catch the bus back to Leh. Take some chlorine tabs for purifying water. From Leh you can do a whole load of pleasant day trips by bus, motorbike or hitchhiking. Hitching is easy up here. From Leh you can take a jeep, 1800RS a person, to Srinigar or you can fly. You could also take a local bus and consider breaking up your journey in Kargil. If you book flights early enough and fly on a Wednesday then flights are only around 3000RS, a flight from Leh to Srinigar takes just one hour. I recommend flying. If you don’t fancy planning everything yourself, Leh tour packages are available.
Srinigar – From the airport you can get a prepaid taxi into town from the booth outside. If you come by bus grab a tuk tuk. Tuk tuks and taxis are weirdly expensive in Sringar. Get dropped off at Dal gate and you will be able to see the huge ‘Hotel Akbar’. Directly before and after ‘Hotel Akbar’ is dozens of guesthouses facing the lake. ‘Noor Guesthouse’, before Akbar, rents out bicycles. Many of the guesthouses are down side alleys. The ‘Library Guesthouse’, down an alley after the second small bridge, is definitely worth checking out and is cheap, 300RS for a double. For something with more of a hotel feel look to ‘Hotel Tufkash’, down alley off of the second small bridge. It has nice clean rooms with attached bathrooms and a TV, if you haggle you can get a room for 450RS. It is run by a genuinely nice, non pushy guy – this is rare in Kashmir. Boulevard Road has plenty of mediocre restaurants and too many souvenir shops. Assuming you have the time it makes sense to spend at least your first night in Sringar in a guesthouse before arranging a houseboat. If arranging a houseboat you must make sure that food, water and transfers are included in the final price. You can haggle heavily over the price. Never book a boat without seeing it and always compare a few. The gardens are worth visiting and you must explore the lake by Shikara – two hours is adequate and costs 500RS. Get your driver to show you the canals, they are much more relaxing than the open lake. With the exception of ‘Mughal Dhaba’ – twenty minutes walk from Dal lake – we did not find anywhere serving good food. I have to be honest; I did not like Srinigar and do not recommend visiting. From Srinigar you can either catch a bus to Jammu and continue to explore Kashmir before heading to Amritsar (again) and catching a train to Rajahstan or Delhi. You could also cross into Pakistan from Atari, just outside Amritsar. If you are running out of time catch a flight from Srinigar (only 3000RS if booked in advance through skyscanner) to Delhi.
Sikkim – Sharing borders with Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal Sikkim is quintessietnially Himalayan. Here you can find ancient Buddhist monasteries such as Pemayangtse, Tsomgo Lake as well as India’s highest mountain, Kangchenjunga. Sikkim is one of the Himalaya’s best kept secrets and Sikkim Tour Packages are available, be sure to enquire around to get the best price.