This guest post takes us to the mountain peaks, hill stations and Budhist monasteries of the Indian Himalayas with travel writer and blogger, Satu Susanna Rommi at Indian Travel Journey who has spent more than three years travelling in India.
It is hard to describe the Indian Himalayas without using clichés; snow-capped mountain tops, green valleys, clear mountain streams and blue skies. The Himalayas have all of that, and more. The name of the Himalayas means, literally, the “abode of snow”. I had never seen high mountains before visiting the Indian Himalayas, so even the first glimpse of snow-covered mountains in the distance was more than impressive.
As well as snow and mountains there are hill stations with comfy accommodation, activities from mountain biking to river rafting, treks to remote valleys, high mountain passes and some very scenic roads. And then there is Ladakh: India’s northernmost part, an old and remote Buddhist kingdom that was only opened to Western tourists in 1974.
Hill Stations in the Himalayas
When faced with the Indian summer heat, the colonial Brits used to escape to the mountains. Some of the hill stations in the Himalayas that were frequently visited by the Brits are still popular holiday destinations.
Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh at the foothills of the Himalayas, used to be the summer capital of the British colonial administration. Today it is popular with Indian visitors, especially couples on honeymoon. You can travel to Shimla by the “toy train”, a narrow gauge mountain railway that travels slowly through some very picturesque scenery.
Dharamsala and the nearby McLeod Ganj are home to India’s biggest Tibetan refugee community. McLeod Ganj is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. The area is filled with Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, museums and cultural centres and Tibetan restaurants and shops. Dharamsala is very popular with foreigners and has opportunities for volunteer work, for Tibetan Buddhist studies, for trekking and for simply sitting back and admiring the mountain views.
Manali used to be a destination for backpackers and budget travellers, but today it is a busy hill town and popular with Indian and international holidaymakers. Located at the comfortable altitude of 2050 metres, Manali is a good base for exploring the nearby Kullu and Parvati Valleys. These are some of the most beautiful parts of India, with forest-covered hills, mountain streams running through picturesque valleys, and small villages surrounded by meadows and apple orchards.
You can visit holy places (there are several in the area), trek to the mountains, or try activities from river rafting and fishing to mountaineering. Manali is also the starting point for the journey further into the Himalayas and to Ladakh: the northernmost part of India.
Ladakh: Mountains and Monasteries
Ladakh is an old Buddhist kingdom in the middle of high mountains and high altitude desert. You can fly to Ladakh’s capital Leh, but if you do, you’ll miss one of the most scenic and most memorable road trips in the world. The journey from Manali to Leh takes around two to three days by bus, by jeep taxi or by motorbike. It is a scary trip with bad roads and several mountain passes, glacier streams running across the road and the risk of landslides or snowstorms blocking the way even in the summer.
I travelled to Ladakh on the back of my boyfriend’s Royal Enfield motorbike. He did the driving and I did the “being-scared-in the-back” part. We crossed ice-cold mountain streams, navigated potholes and rocks and dust and sand, and there were some seriously scary moments when the bike was stuck between an Indian army truck and a drop into emptiness, but I have never seen anything that can be compared to the barren, moon-like landscapes on the way to Ladakh.
Places to See in Ladakh
Ladakh’s capital Leh stands at the altitude 3505 metres. A stop on the old Silk Road trade route between India and Central Asia, Leh is also a centre for Tibetan Buddhist culture and is surrounded by some magnificent Buddhist monasteries. In the summer it gets busy with tourists from around the world, in the winter it is inaccessible by road because all the roads are covered in deep snow. Leh also has cosy guesthouses and modern hotels, Tibetan refugee markets and Kashmiri souvenir stores, Tibetan restaurants that serve momos (filled dumplings) and thukpa (soup), Western-style restaurants and coffee shops, and other places to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
Around Leh are several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Hemis is known as Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery and is especially famous for its colourful festivals. In the Thiksey monastery, prayer flags and giant prayer wheels decorate the steps that lead to a 15-metre high statue of Maitreya Buddha, the “future Buddha”. You can also visit the Leh Palace in the town itself or explore what is left of the old royal palace in Shey: Leh is full of ancient palaces, temples, monasteries and romantic ruins.
Leh is also good place to arrange trips to the surrounding areas: to the high altitude lake Pangong Tso in East Ladakh near the Chinese-controlled area; or to the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, Khardung La, at 5602 metres altitude. Beyond Khardung La, the Nubra Valley is a unique and beautiful Himalayan valley but you need a permit to visit. A short daytrip from Leh is the small and pretty village of Alchi, where you can see the rare Buddhist murals, the last few surviving pieces of 11th century Kashmiri Buddhist art.
Tips for Travel to the Indian Himalayas
The best time to visit the hill stations Manali, Shimla and Dharamsala is between March and June. Ladakh is only accessible by road between May and October (depending on when snow falls and melts). You can fly to Ladakh around the year but winters are very, very cold.
When travelling to Ladakh, be aware of the very real risk of acute mountain sickness (AMS). It is difficult to describe what AMS feels like, but trust me, you’ll know when you have it. Most people experience mild symptoms until they adjust to the altitude, and for the first few days in Leh, especially if you fly in from Delhi, you’ll probably feel tired and can barely walk a few hundred metres without feeling out of breath. Take some time to get used to the altitude before doing anything active.
My thanks to Satu Susanna Rommi of Indian Travel Journey for her travel inspiration and tips on visiting the Indian Himalayas. Satu is a freelance travel writer and has spent several years travelling around India where she also trained as an Ashtanga Yoga teacher.
Photos by Satu Susanna Rommi & Enzo Coribello